Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dogs and Pigs – SOTM # 20

Jesus has a reputation in some circles for being “meek and mild.” Meek, at least, is one appropriate descriptor of Jesus. But “mild” he was not always.

Jesus was always a presence, wherever he was. And his pronouncements regularly challenged those to whom he spoke. He uncovered hypocrisy by identifying the motives of his hearers; showing that their righteousness consisted of a legalistic observance of the external aspects of the Law while, at the same time, avoiding its essential requirements. He frequently used strong language in describing those whose religion had become an empty shell, calling them whitewashed graves housing the remains of dead men.

Some heads must have turned when he said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.” Who are these dogs he speaks of? Who are the pigs? Jews of Jesus time were despised by their Roman overlords and they returned the hatred in kind, referring to the Romans as Gentile dogs. Pigs were an unclean animal to Jews as well, providing a ready epithet applied, as well to Gentiles. Were the Romans, and other Gentiles living among the Jews, those of whom Jesus spoke?

And what are the “pearls” that should not be cast before swine; what are the sacred things that should not be given to dogs? Were the Jews in the habit of distributing prayer shawls to Roman soldiers? Did they regularly operate vacation bible schools aimed at converting Gentile children? Was Jesus opposed to friendly interaction between Romans and Jews?

These are not easy questions to answer. Certainly the language Jesus chose to use would have turned the thoughts of many of his hearers immediately to Gentiles and to the Romans in particular. But there are enough examples given in the Gospels to let us know that Jesus himself did not exclude either Gentiles (the Syro-Phonecian woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit) or the Romans (the Centurion whose servant was dying). One might argue that the few times we see Jesus interacting with Gentiles are merely exceptions and that in general he opposed fraternizing with Gentiles. That argument is hard to maintain, though, in the face of the events that followed the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The church of the first century A.D. quickly embraced Gentile believers and, in a few decades was more Gentile than Jewish. So Jesus must have had some group, other than Gentiles, in mind when he spoke of “dogs” and “pigs.”

I believe he was using the stereotypical image of dogs and pigs as creatures, more concerned with consumption of that which filled their bellies than with an appreciation of culture or sacred things, to indicate the kind of humans whose god is their belly, who as readily bite the hand giving them food as eat the food itself. Certainly Romans, and other Gentiles, fit that description, but so did many Jews, not the least, the ever-present Pharisees. Likely, a large part of the crowd listening to his sermon fit that description. They would prove his words true a few months later when they turned on him and cried out for his crucifixion.

It was because Jesus knew the hearts of men that so much of his preaching consisted of parables that those, truly hungry for spiritual food, could comprehend, but which the dogs and pigs would merely sniff at and turned away in disgust. He came, by his own testimony, “so the world, through him, might be saved.” But even the Son of God could not make disciples of dogs and pigs, so those of us who bear his message to the world should not assume that we can.

Time is precious; it should not be wasted on futile causes. We are called at all times to be witnesses of the Gospel, living our lives in ways that show us to be citizen of the kingdom of heaven. On many occasions we will be called, additionally, to give witness, declaring that the kingdom of heaven has come. But there are also times to withhold our sacred testimony; to not cast our pearls before pigs and dogs, because the dogs and pigs are too blind to comprehend their value.

Then, in those times, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth (in the hearts and minds of dogs and pigs), as it is in heaven.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

To Judge or Not to Judge: That Is The Question – SOTM #19

Don’t you just hate it when someone speaks out of both sides of his or her mouth; seeking, it seems, to be on all sides of an issue? One moment you are shouting, “Amen!” to their first position. The next moment you are bewildered, wondering if you should be affirming their equally fervently stated, but apparently opposite, opinion on the same issue.

Possibly, those listening to the Sermon on the Mount found themselves scratching their heads when Jesus seemed to be saying opposite things about judging others, first admonishing against judging others, then urging his hearers to judge the fruit of false prophets. A little careful reading, and some reflection will help us get around the seeming contradiction.

First we need to realize that living is judging. Consciously or unconsciously living creatures never cease, at least in their waking moments, to make judgments about the environment in which they exist and, to the best of their ability, adjust to it for their safety, comfort, and long-term viability. That process seems to go on from the simplest amoeba or sapling to the complex organism we call “man”. So, judging is a natural and necessary process.

The judging that Jesus speaks of, which Matthew records for us in chapter 7, verses 1 – 5, is of a different character than that natural and necessary process spoken of above. Jesus is speaking of a tendency of humans – perhaps humans uniquely among all creatures – to judge others for purposes unrelated to improving one’s own condition or assuring one’s survival. He really had the Pharisees and other self-righteous leaders of his day in mind. They were quick to see the “speck” in their neighbor’s eye and point it out while ignoring the “plank” in their own. Jesus calls such judging, hypocritical, and promises that those who engage in it will, themselves, be harshly judged.

It may not be so much the “seeing the speck” in the brother’s eye that Jesus condemns, as the inability to “see the plank” in one’s own eye. After all, it is sometimes a favor to a “brother or sister” to point out the piece of lettuce wedged between their teeth. But one needs to then ask, “How do I look, brother? Can you help me improve?”

Mostly, though, Jesus is concerned about the underlying motive of the one judging. In the case of the Pharisees, the purpose was to diminish the status of the one they criticized in the hope of making themselves appear more righteous. That kind of judging Jesus firmly condemns:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the same measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Later in the sermon, Jesus returns to the subject of judging. Matthew records his words in chapter 7, verses 15 – 23. Jesus begins his remarks by saying:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.

These are strong and fearful words. In this case Jesus lays upon his disciples the responsibility of judging others who make a profession of being his followers. It is a fearful responsibility because it entails a judgment that affects the “safety, comfort, and long-term viability” of the one doing the judging. Equally awe-full is the realization that such judgment may have negative consequences for – may damage the reputation of – the one being judged. We dare not be wrong in labeling others “false prophets.” And, since we live in community with other believers our judgments may well affect the few or many who attend to our opinions.

But still, we are admonished, by Jesus, no less, to be on the watch for those who say, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do marvelous things in your name?” but of whom he will ultimately say, “I never knew you.” The final judgment of false prophets will be the Lord’s to declare, but we have a responsibility to guard against them for the sake of our own souls and the souls of those we love.

We have not been left without a measure by which to judge them. “By their fruits, you shall know them.” Some simple questions can help us. Who benefits – financially, and in any other way – from their “ministry”? Who receives the glory for their lives and the things they do? Do they look like, sound like, live like Jesus? Does my spirit, instructed by the Word, and guided by the Holy Spirit, say “amen” to what I see them doing, hear them saying, and know them to be.

Most of the time we can judge quietly and make decisions – to “endorse” or not “endorse” – that are privately held. But there are times to speak openly; times when, not to do so, allows those for whom we have responsibility to be drawn into error.

In summary, to paraphrase Jesus’ teaching on judging, “Don’t be picky about your brother’s or sister’s faults; you ain’t perfect yourself. But don’t be fooled by wolves in sheep’s clothing, either. Not everyone who says, “Bah! Bah!” is a sheep.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Do Not Worry About Tomorrow – SOTM #18

What hiker, setting out to walk the Appalachian Trail, would fill his or her pack with the supplies needed for the entire trip. None, of course. A reasonable person would take what he or she needed to get to the next supply stop on the trail and no more. Anything beyond the necessities would, at best slow progress and, at worst, result in failure to complete the course.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concluded his admonition to his listeners concerning worry about the necessities of life by saying:

Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

It is hard not to imagine a smile on Jesus’ face as he said those things. He is playing, wonderfully, with words. He tells his listeners that they do not need to worry because the day itself will worry for them. Of course days don’t worry; they only provide the context in which humans worry. Then he goes further and suggests that it is possible to reach ahead into a coming day and transfer its worries to the present one. How foolish, when we can’t know how many of the concerns of the present day are worthy of worry, to assume that we can select future concerns that need our attention now.

Jesus had been preaching about the evils of what we might call materialism. But more than that, a materialism mixed with faithlessness. At one point he stops to exclaim, “Oh you of little faith.” It is important to pay attention when Jesus uses that phrase. Some have assumed that faith has degrees ranging from a little bit to a great deal. Although Jesus speaks of “little faith” and “great faith” it becomes obvious that “little faith” is inadequate to accomplish anything. Only “great faith” moves mountains. And only “great faith” believes God to supply one’s needs each day. “Little faith” says, if I can build great barns and fill them I’ll be able to rest easy for the rest of my days. “Great faith” says, “Give us, this day, our daily bread.”

Jesus does not suggest that the lilies of the field, or the sparrows, are provided for because of their faith. He cites them as examples of God’s care for the least of his creatures. Observing such care, we should have no doubt that he will care for us.

The pagans – who, by the way, live in the kingdom of this world – concern themselves with the amassing of food and drink, and clothing because they do not know what the children of the kingdom of God know. Children of the kingdom of God know that He has all their needs covered; that he even has the hairs on their head numbered. They are free to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness” knowing that all those things the pagans run after, will be given to them.

So, fellow hikers, as you fill your backpacks for the next day’s journey, pack just enough to get to the next way-station. There will be a new supply waiting there. And if there are unexpected needs along the way, trust that the one who planned the excursion can provide all that is needed to get you to your destination safe and sound.

There is a special bonus for those who pack lightly and trust greatly. They have more energy to expend exploring the wonders of the trail, seeking first the good things, knowing there will be enough of the necessities to keep them going.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Eye Is The Light of the Body – SOTM # 17

Jesus healed many blind persons in his three years of ministry on earth. Those miracles of healing undoubtedly served various purposes: defeating the work of Satan, bearing testimony to Jesus Messiahship, extending mercy to the suffering. But they also were an indication of his desire to open the spiritual eyes of those blinded by the lies of Satan and the deadening influences of the kingdom of this world.

Jesus was not a scientist. The pre-existent Son of God gave up his omniscience and came into human history as the son of man, required to learn and know what other men of his time learned and knew. The world he saw through human eyes was the same as that which his disciples saw. What he learned, beyond the knowledge and wisdom of his contemporaries, came as a result of his attention to the world around him, his mastery of Scripture, and his keen ear attuned to his heavenly Father. He availed himself of spiritual insights, available to, but seldom accessed by, other men and women of his time.

The illustrations and analogies he used to drive home his teaching were those that were the currency of that time. When he spoke of the eye as the source of light for the body he was drawing upon a common assumption about the way eyes function. We have a different understanding today, knowing what biological and anatomical studies have shown us. But the analogy of the eye as a source of light for our body still works today. Jesus said:

The eye is the light of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Jesus surely knew that the eyes were not the only source of “light” for the body. He knew, as well, that the “body” of which he spoke represented man’s consciousness. All the senses contribute information that enlightens the mind, and the mind, in turn, instructs the senses, training them to seek, and apprehend, and value certain inputs and reject others. It is the mind (sometimes called the heart, by Jesus,) that determines if the “eye” is good or bad; whether it serves to bringing light or darkness into person’s life..

All of our senses can be damaged, plunging us into a “darkness” that deprives us of the sights, sounds, touches, tastes, and odors available to us. But Jesus was not talking about physical impairment, though the incidence of blindness in that day was great enough that his audience would immediately connect with his illustration. It was a dulling of all the spiritual senses that Jesus was speaking about. Inordinate desire for sensual gratification of any kind can eventually deaden our sensitivity to, and hunger for the good things of God’s creation.

The eyes and ears, more than the other physical senses, are most informative about the world in which we live. Much of what we take in through those sources comes pre-loaded with meaning, requiring little processing before it affects our thoughts and actions.

Jesus chose to describe the eye as the source of light for the body, allowing it to stand in for all the senses that inform us, physical or spiritual. If the eye – a.k.a. the senses – is trained to admit good things for our consideration, our whole being will benefit and, to use Jesus’ words, be filled with light. But if the eye is corrupted; if it reinforces the darkness that is latent in all humankind – pride, lust, greed, selfishness – the darkness in us will only deepen, making it less and less likely that we will ever be drawn to the kingdom of light to which God calls us.

All of our senses require training, and there are two tutors standing ready to offer us their services. The most popular tutor requires the least up-front investment, in fact advertizes that his services cost nothing, but his record is abysmal; all of his clients, without exception, have ended blind. Only with the services of the second tutor have any of them managed to reclaim their sight. Sadly, few of those blinded, seek restoration. The majority, believing they are not blind at all, but rather filled with light, continue to take in the darkness they have come to depend upon.

The second tutor requires a payment, up-front, of all that you have, and all that you are. But he will tune your “eyes” – if you let him – so finely that you will be able to sense and participate in every legitimate joy available to man, here on this earth, and through all eternity. Jesus is his name. He is the one who said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Model Prayer: Teach Us How To Pray – SOTM #16

The prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer” is recorded by both Luke and Matthew. Matthew, in chapter 6, places it in the context of Jesus description of the showy prayers of the Pharisees. Luke frames it in a different context. In chapter 11, after observing Jesus praying, his disciples request that he teach them how to pray. Like most public speakers Jesus appears to have repeated his teachings and his illustrations in various contexts, but we get essentially the same teaching in all instances.

The lessons we take away from this “example” prayer is the same whether we are considering it from Matthew’s account or Luke’s. It is important, though, to keep the context of Matthew’s account in mind as we deal with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His immediate audience was a large group of “disciples” who had come from miles around to hear him teach. But also present were the Pharisees, if not in person – though they very likely were there in person – at least they were in the thoughts of Jesus and his hearers. The Pharisees were champions at prayer, and at every other display of “righteousness.”

Jesus’ model prayer was nestled in the midst of his critique of the prayers of the Jewish religious leaders. His model prayer is meant to contrast with their prayers, which were public, and showy, and consisted of long repetitive recitations thought to make them more meaningful through sheer force of their verbosity.

Jesus model prayer, by contrast, and with the fewest words, focuses on five things: 1) recognition of God, the Father, and worship of Him, 2) a wish that the kingdom of heaven would come and that it would be as effective on earth as it is in heaven, 3) a prayer for daily needs (bread), 4) a request for forgiveness of sin and a reminder that we must forgive those who have harmed us, and 5) a prayer that God will protect us from the evil in the world.

Bear in mind that this is a model prayer, not intended, by Jesus, to become a liturgical piece, repeated until its meaning was lost as thoroughly as was any of the meaning that might have once existed in the prayers of the Pharisees. “This, then is how you should pray,” Jesus said. Not what you should pray but how you should pray. Even the categories of concern listed in the previous paragraph are merely illustrative of what might go into a prayer.

Undoubtedly the aspect of Jesus’ prayers that caused his disciples to ask him to teach them to pray was the sense they gained, watching and listening to him, that he was really talking to someone who, in turn, was really listening. The example Jesus gave them models a conversation in which the one praying makes contact with another One whom he trusts and respects; One he believes will do the simple, practical things he asks. The requests are framed to consider the will of the One being petitioned. They address the concerns of daily living as citizens of a kingdom within a kingdom: i.e. the barest needs of the supplicant, a concern for reconciliation with others, and a desire to escape the contamination of this world’s evil.

Those foci will not always represent the content of the believer’s prayers, but they catch the spirit of genuine prayer. Prayer, as represented by Jesus, is unpretentious, practical, God conscious, trusting, otherward, and sincere. It will look and sound different on different tongues. Its content and character will be shaped by its context, sometimes quiet, sometime urgent, sometimes shaking the place in which it is prayed. There will be those who seem to be “better at it” than others – the fervent prayers of righteous men and women will seem to avail more than the prayers of others. But it should never be Pharisaic, pointing to, and elevating, the one praying.

We all should be “better at it.” The fact that Jesus accepted the offer to teach his disciples to pray seems to say that it can be learned, and if learned, then learned to a greater or lesser degree.

Lord, teach us to pray, to pray well and often, and to glorify You in all that we pray for, and pray about.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Worship Indeed, But Make it Real – SOTM #15

In the first third of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus: (1)laid out the characteristics of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven (in the Beatitudes), (2) described the role his disciples would play in the kingdom of the world (acting as salt and light), (3) explained his relationship to the Law (he came to fulfill it, not destroy it), and (4) refuted the rigid but shallow understanding of the law that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were enforcing.

In Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel the sermon takes up issues of the heart, beginning with sincerity of worship. Jesus contrasts appropriate worship with the showy and hypocritical worship of that day. The picture Jesus draws of prayers offered on street corners, of trumpets blaring as offerings are brought to the temple, seem exaggerated. Is Jesus creating a caricature of their worship for purposes of making a point? It is tempting to believe he is. The religious icons of that day set themselves up for such treatment. But what ordinary person would dare make light of the sacred men and their time-honored practices?

Religious expression in our day has become, if anything, more public, and more showy, than it was in Jesus day. Street preachers do not fare well in our secular society; they are often ignored or ridiculed in western culture. However, the equivalent of the proud and public Pharisee can be seen today on the Television and in large auditoriums and stadiums around the world. Many ordinary Christians, looking on in bewilderment, wonder if they have the right to question the piety, the sincerity, the spiritual legitimacy of these champions of worship, prayer, preaching, faith, health, and prosperity.

Righteousness, as portrayed by the Pharisees, in Jesus day, or by the paragons of performance of our day, is beyond the reach of ordinary people, not because it is a righteousness, more lofty, more difficult to achieve. To the contrary, it lacks, in practice, what ordinary people believe real righteousness should have, solid sincerity. The righteousness of exhibitionism requires one to stoop to behaviors they would not employ in the ordinary pursuits of their life. Onstage, among fellow religious revelers, it looks good, sounds good, has a reputation of being good. Often it even evokes, in observers, admiration and a desire to emulate it, but when one tries it on, it just doesn’t fit. It is a flashy suit hiding a hollow man or woman inside.

The crowds that heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount were glad to hear someone strip away the hypocrisy of such “righteousness” and reveal a way that everyman could worship their God.

Charity (support for the poor), prayer, and fasting were, Jesus taught, a matter between the individual and God. The left hand had no need to know what the right hand was giving. That was between the right hand and God. The neighbors did not need to know that one was praying, it was a conversation between the supplicant and God. Nothing was added to the value of a fast by making it known through a gaunt, disheveled appearance. It was a time set aside to better know God.

It is the tendency of religious institutions and professional religious leaders to systematize the behaviors of piety that are required of the “righteous.” And it is the tendency of some to specialize in those behaviors, elaborating them, magnifying them, institutionalizing them, popularizing them, and eventually, profiting from them. They become the hallmarks of righteousness. Along the way the kingdom of heaven begins to look, and sound, and feel, not much different than the kingdom of this world.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount showed the ordinary citizen of the kingdom of heaven a way around all that clutter, to a “closet” of real intimacy with God. In a few short phrases he captured the spirit of rightness that embodies all of our dealings with God and man. We’ll look at that next time.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Was Jesus a Rebel? SOTM #14

It was a law in Ancient Israel. You washed your hands before you ate. There were signs above the lavatory in every Israeli restroom reminding all good Jews to do so. Well, there would have been if they had lavatories. And yet Jesus allowed his disciples to eat the grain from the fields they walked through without washing their hands. No wonder his detractors called him a Law-breaker. No wonder he was required to defend himself and his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

In fact Jesus declared in the Sermon on the Mount that his disciples righteousness had to exceed that of the champion hand-washers, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Further he declared that not the least accent mark within the Law would pass away until it had been fulfilled. To break the least of the laws and to teach others to do so made one “least” in the kingdom of heaven.

On the surface it might appear to a casual reader that, in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus often contradicted his claim. Over and over he would say, “You have heard it said . . .” and then go on to proclaim a need for his followers to do something different than that which they had been taught the law required.

Murder, adultery, divorce, oath-breaking, retribution, treatment of enemies are the things they had heard should be avoided as good Law-abiding Jews. In each case, though, the standard of righteousness Jesus insists upon “exceeded” that which they had heard from the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.

At first it may seem a relief to hear murder equated to hatred, adultery compared to simple “lustful looking,” retribution replaced with non-resistance. But eventually it dawns on one that the “kinder, gentler” standard not only is no easier to achieve, but failure to live up to it has immediate and eternal consequences as serious as failure to keep the Pharisaic code.

So, why is this “good news?” Why did these people hear Jesus gladly? Why did they travel many days journey to hear his Sermon on the Mount? Hope, undoubtedly. Desperation. Curiosity. Diversion. All the reasons that draw crowds to hear charismatic speakers today.

Was this really good news? In a sense, no. Jesus was not offering an easier way than the kingdom of this world. Almost all of those who followed him early in his ministry faded away by the time he reached the cross. It was too steep a grade for their feeble feet. The standard Jesus offered as the pattern for living in his kingdom was more impossible than the one the Pharisees imposed upon the people.

The good news was that Jesus did not expect them to achieve this righteousness in their own sin-diminished strength. He came to offer something more than a plan for moral living. He came to give himself to break the grip of sin upon the human heart. He told those who came to him, and believed on him, that they would have, flowing from them, “rivers of living water.” The Holy Spirit would be in them, and alongside them, teaching them, and prompting them to live like citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was no rebel. He was no Law-breaker. He was the faithful Son, revealing the true meaning of the Law and fulfilling the promise of the Prophets. True, he did not insist that his disciples wash their hands before eating grain plucked from the stem; he insisted, instead, that their whole being be cleansed by the blood of his sacrifice. He knew that kingdom living came not from dogged determination to master a set of rules but rather from a heart cleansed of sin and in love with the One who cleansed it.

The “rules” of the kingdom would mark the behavior of those who chose to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, but they would be the product of a life yielded to, and directed by, the Spirit of God.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Is This Kingdom of Heaven For Anyway? SOTM # 13

The Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount make frequent reference to “the kingdom of heaven.” It is not an easy concept to isolate and examine. As described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, it represents the world the way God intended it to be. But it is more than a “spiritual” earthly kingdom, existing in the midst of a material one; it is a kingdom that encompasses all of creation. It has always existed, everywhere, and will exist to the farther reaches of eternity.

But the problem Jesus is addressing in the Sermon on the Mount is that another kingdom has intruded itself into the kingdom of heaven, or at least that portion of it that encompasses our earth. Think of it this way. God established his sovereignty over all that he is and has made, but in one tiny part of that kingdom a revolt occurred; a counter-kingdom was established: the kingdom of this world – Satan’s kingdom. God could simply destroy the rebel kingdom or he could try to redeem it. He has chosen to do the latter. The best way to redeem it is to reclaim it from within. So he has established a kingdom within the rebel kingdom for the purpose of saving that which he created and loves.

The Sermon on the Mount presents Jesus’ plan for reclaiming that which is his by right of creation. Those who believe in him and put their trust in him will become representatives of his kingdom. He uses the analogy of salt and light to explain how this counter-revolution will work. “You are the salt of the earth,” he tells his disciples. “You are the light of the world.”

Jesus himself came into the world to be exactly what he tells his disciples they will be, salt and light. His life and ministry illustrate the manner in which his disciples will work to reclaim this world for God. “As the Father has sent me, so send I you,” he told his disciples.

The two analogies that Jesus chose to describe the work of the kingdom of God are perfect pictures of the way his disciples would function in the world. Salt is passive. It can do its work of preserving and flavoring only in the place where it is. It has no motive force to carry it to another place. If it moves it is because the elements in which it exists are moving. If it is transferred from one element in its environment to another it is because those elements came in contact with each other. Wherever it is, or wherever it goes, it is always salt. Light, on the other hand, is active, moving out from its source into the darkness around it, illuminating everything it falls upon. Unless it is shielded or covered it will seek out something to reveal, something to shine on. As long as it is reinforced by new waves from its source, it will reveal the good and evil in its world.

Before we came to these words of Jesus regarding salt and light, we had just heard him rather thoroughly describe the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They are poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peace-loving. Despite these positive characteristics – or perhaps because of them – they are often persecuted. The persecution comes because they do not keep to themselves. They are not of the world, but they are in it, as salt and light.

Salt stings when rubbed into raw open wounds. Light infuriates when it reveals that which mankind wants to keep hidden. It would be so much more pleasant if God did not make his people salt and light; if they could simply be like the world they are in. But that misses the whole point of His plan to redeem the rebel kingdom. By making all who believe in him and trust in him subversive salt, and revealing light, God is retaking that which is His by right of love, by right of creation.

One by one, the salt heals those whose wounds have made them ready to be healed. One by one, the light finds those tired of the darkness. And so the kingdom of God grows. Will we see the kingdom of this world destroyed? Perhaps not in our lifetime. But the day is coming, we are told, when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. Until then we serve as salt and shine as light. And we pray, as we have been instructed, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Blessed Are They Who Are Persecuted – SOMT #12

Some debate whether verses 10 – 12 of Matthew, chapter 5, should be treated as a single beatitude dealing with persecution in general or if they contain two beatitudes, one dealing with physical persecution and bearing the promise, for those thus persecuted, that they are a part of the kingdom of God, and a second one dealing with verbal abuse, bearing the promise of great reward in heaven. I will be treating them as a single beatitude, elaborated more fully than the others in Sermon on the Mount.

All of the beatitudes, and indeed all of the Sermon on the Mount, contain ideas that are counterintuitive, even contradictory, to the secular mind. They are, after all, kingdom ideas, descriptive of the values and ways of the kingdom of heaven. But none is more so than the teaching in Matthew 5:10-12 in which Jesus is quoted as saying:

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you.

It is important to note that Jesus did not promise the kingdom of heaven to all who are persecuted; only to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Some would even argue that persecution for righteousness’ sake is not, in itself, an indication that the persecuted one is in the kingdom of heaven. God will have to sort out those finer theological points. It is agreed here that being “hounded” – which, after all, is the sense of the word used in Matthew’s Gospel for “persecuted” – is no sign of the rightness of one’s cause. Even strong belief that one’s cause is righteous is not enough. The kingdom of this world is rife with persecution of all kinds of people, especially any whose thoughts or conduct are a threat to those in power.

Here Jesus is speaking, not of a persecution that puts one into the kingdom of heaven, but rather of a persecution that stems from being part of a kingdom, not of this world; being hounded because one is seen as an alien in the kingdom of this world.

All of us have a natural desire to fit in, to be accepted in the kingdom of this world, but there is no “blessing” in that. There is no privileged “circle” in the kingdom of this world that will “bless” its members with contentment, happiness, or security. Only the kingdom of heaven offers those benefits to its inhabitants.

Persecution for the sake of righteousness does not confer the kingdom of heaven upon one, it confirms that one is a member of it, and that confirmation is the blessing – God’s spirit bearing witness with the believer’s spirit that he or she is a child of God.

Jesus went on to expand his description of the persecution that members of the kingdom of heaven will endure while living in a kingdom within a kingdom. It will involve verbal abuse, misrepresentation, name calling, and rejection. Again, the refuge from such treatment is an extreme joy that comes from knowing one is a part of the kingdom of heaven.
But there is a promise of an even greater, more eternal reward to come in heaven. Residents of God’s kingdom within a kingdom have the hope and the promise that beyond this life the kingdom of God goes on. They will be a part of it, enjoying great rewards for all that they have endured for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. Like all those persecuted for righteousness in the centuries before – the prophets of Yahweh – they will enter into an eternal kingdom, the characteristics of which have not been fully revealed. One thing is for certain though; it will be a kingdom of righteousness, and those in that kingdom will be blessed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Blessed Are The Peacemakers – SOTM #11

There was a time when it was considered both appropriate and admirable for a son to follow his father in his life work. Not so much anymore, at least in the individualistic cultures of the West. If anything, it is hoped that the son or daughter will “better themselves” by aspiring to a more prestigious or more lucrative vocation. It is hard to argue with that aspiration, especially when the child is lifting himself or herself out of poverty or escaping a dangerous or corrosive family atmosphere.  But there is still something admirable when a son or daughter sees value in the work their parent has done and decides to devote their life to continuing that work.

Jesus declared himself to be the image of his father. “If you have seen me,” he declared, “you have seen the Father.” So close was their will and purpose that he declared, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Jesus followed in his Father’s footsteps: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” Theirs was a perfect union of purpose and work: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

Thus Jesus modeled what it means to be a son or daughter of God. It means to know the will of God and to make it one’s own will. It means to sense when God is working, and how, and to what purpose, and then to devote oneself to being instrumental in all that God is doing.

So, what is God doing that His sons and daughter should be engaged in with Him. Many things, actually, and He does not require all His children to be engaged in all of them. But in one enterprise in which God is engaged, he desires all His children to join him. That is the enterprise of reconciliation.

First and foremost He is desirous that all humanity be reconciled unto himself. The apostle Paul declares that all of God’s children are to be engaged in that enterprise; to act as God’s ambassadors, calling on men and women to be “reconciled to God.” But further, He desires that men and women within His kingdom live at peace, and in harmony with one another. And finally He instructs us through scripture to live, to the degree that it is in our power, “at peace with all men.”

Reconciliation has been the work of our Father since the day that sin separated man from God. It is God’s will that all His children follow Him in His chosen work. It is hard work, and often the peacemaker does not get to see the result he or she would like to see. But God has not called us to be successful in all that we do. He has called us to be instruments through which He can reach out to those that are alienated by sin. Through His Holy Spirit He will make our peacemaking efforts as fruitful as they can be. We may be surprised someday to find that those cases we thought least successful have borne fruit we could not have imagined.

In no other way do we more resemble our Father than when we are peacemakers. In no other way do we bring more joy to the heart of God than by doing the work of reconciliation. There is rejoicing in heaven, Jesus tells us, when a single soul is reconciled to God.

Dare I say that it makes God proud when He sees us doing that work? Could it be that God smiles upon us when we are being peacemakers and declares, “There is My son; there is My daughter?”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Blessed Are The Pure In Heart – SOTM #10

It is estimated that about three-fourths of our medical terminology has its origins (roots) in the ancient Greek language. The Romans, whose civilization followed, and to a large degree was Hellenized by Greek language and culture, simply carried the Greek terms over into their medical vocabulary, Latinizing the spellings where there was no Latin equivalent for a Greek character.

Of course, Greek terms slip into our language in other areas than medicine, but with nothing like the influence they lend to our medical dictionary. This all works to great advantage for the scholar of New Testament Biblical texts in that a great many words encountered in the Bible have already become quasi-familiar from other contexts. Often, those with no understanding of Koine Greek can hear the connection with modern usage when they encounter the Greek term, either spoken or in a concordance.

Such is the case with the beatitude we study here, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” In this short beatitude there are three Greek terms familiar to modern medicine, katharos (pure), kardia (heart), and optanomai (see). A cathartic is a medicine or a process to purge and purify some organ(s) of the body. Cardio is a prefix which, combined with other terms, describes aspects of the heart. Ophthalmology, of course, is the science of the eye and, consequently, of sight.

Jesus was not thinking medically when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” - he was simply using the vocabulary of his day – but the juxtaposition of the words for “purity,” “heart,” and “sight” give us an opportunity to think of them in terms of their present usage. In purely medical terms the catheterizing (cleansing) of one’s heart would not have any obvious or direct effect upon their ability to see, or what they were able to see. So, in a literal sense, Jesus’ words are nonsense.

In our day, though, just as in Jesus’ day, the heart stands in for the mind and the emotions. Who knows where the mind and emotions really reside? Scientists are probing the brain, hoping to find the answer to that question, suggesting that human emotions, human motivations, and even human morality, may be nothing more that electro-chemical reactions in the brain. And what if they are right? Would it negate what we believe about humanity’s special place in creation as the one creature made in the image of God? I think not. We’ve always knows that the “heart” determines behavior. Jesus said that, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” A corrupt heart devises and speaks corruption. A pure heart devises and speaks good. The contents of the heart (its electro-chemical makeup, perhaps) is malleable. Jesus was appealing, in the Sermon on the Mount – not just with this beatitude, but through the whole sermon – for a change of heart, from one that chose to live by the rules of this world to one that is subject to the rules of the kingdom of heaven. And as an encouragement to seek that kind of heart purity, he promises that it will allow the one with a pure heart to see what those whose hearts are impure can never see, God Himself.

And how does a pure heart improve our sight? Jesus promised it would. He said, “They shall see God.” It works in two ways: 1) by bringing the pure hearted into the kingdom of God where God is ever visible, ever on display in the lives of God-seekers, and 2) by the cathartic cleansing of the mind and emotions allowing the pure hearted to see the beauty of righteousness where before only self-interest was on display.

A clean heart sees God. There is, though, a part for us to play in this; we must want to see God. If that is our desire – our hunger and thirst – God’s Spirit will teach us the ways of the kingdom, purifying the desires of our heart, allowing us to see God.

Keep reading in the Sermon on the Mount. You will find things there you wish you had, attitudes and behaviors you wish were yours. Hunger and thirst after them and you will be filled, and, being filled, you will see God. You will find there things you abhor in your heart and mind. Allow the Spirit of God to remove them and you will see, in their place, the hand, and mind, and will, and face of God.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Blessed Are The Merciful – SOTM #9

Are the beatitudes merely a series of truisms? Consider, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Isn’t Jesus simply stating the obvious, those who treat others well will be treated well themselves? In a perfect world that would be the case. But then, in a perfect world all would treat each other well; there would be no consideration of doing evil to anyone; there would be no need to extend mercy to anyone. Evil would not exit.

But we live in the kingdom of this world. Evil does exit. It is a world so flawed that one might even be treated ill for having treated someone well. In fact it has often been so. Those who champion the rights of the underprivileged and persecuted often find themselves imprisoned or murdered for their good works.

In this fallen world, mercy is often the only thing that saves the race from annihilation. South Africa, Argentina, and other places in our world could only find their way out of a spiral of recrimination and retaliation through a policy of forgiveness and mercy administered through councils of truth and reconciliation. Those efforts, especially in South Africa, were led by the church. How that must have pleased the heart of God.

Jesus hoped (and still hopes) to plant a kingdom within a kingdom, to seed this unsuspecting and un-God-conscious world with a healing salt that would staunch its bleeding wounds while it awaits the complete healing that will accompany His eventual return. One important characteristic of that kingdom sent from heaven is its love of mercy.

We haven’t said much in our earlier discussions of the beatitudes about the “Blessed-ness” of those who live by the rules of the kingdom from heaven. Many translations use “Happy” instead of “Blessed.” I’m not enough of a Greek scholar to know which word best captures the meaning Jesus intended. Is it possible that both are required to fully describe the beneficial effect of right living? Blessings are generally thought to be benefits gained or bestowed upon one; happiness is the pleasure of receiving and enjoying those benefits.

There must be some twisted pleasure in achieving an eye for an eye; we amass enormous armies and expend millions of lives to extract the eyes of our enemies. But Jesus said there was pleasure and benefit to be had by showing mercy. Can we imagine what those might be? Perhaps the peace of mind from knowing we have not wreaked harm on innocents in our quest to make the guilty pay. Perhaps that we will not need to spill our blood or the blood of our loved ones simply to perpetuate a cycle of eye gouging. Perhaps the ability sleep at night without fear that someone is prowling in the dark, seeking to do to us as we have done to them. Perhaps the joy of having for a friend, one who most certainly would have been an enemy if we had not shown mercy. Perhaps knowing that by showing mercy we will be shown mercy, if not by our enemies, in the kingdom of this world, then for sure when we stand, naked, or in our tattered rags of imperfect righteousness, before the judge of all men.

It isn’t always easy to know when we are living by the rules of the kingdom of this world or by the rules of the kingdom from heaven. The rules of this world are not all bad, and conversely those of the kingdom from heaven are not always unmixed with this-worldly contaminants. But one of the surest evidence that we are citizens of the kingdom from heaven must be our willingness to show mercy.

In one of his dying acts upon this earth Jesus demonstrated mercy. A young man, dying on a cross near his, at first, it seems, taunted him along with another man dying on a third cross, challenging him to show his Messianic powers by saving them all from death. But somehow that one man experienced an epiphany. Amazingly, he saw Jesus, no longer as a common criminal on a cross, but as a future king. He said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus, forgetting the abuse of the previous hours, seeing only the faith of the man, mercifully said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Our words of mercy can be, as those of Jesus were, an invitation to enter the kingdom from heaven, to enjoy the only paradise we can know on this earth.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger And Thirst After Righteousness – SOTM #8

Almost everything we long for is beyond our individual reach. Not always unattainable, but almost always attainable only with the assistance of someone else. We want to be loved but there must be someone to love us. We want prosperity but in our economy our prosperity depends upon the generosity of someone else, or our ability to exploit the prosperity of others. We want health but if we don’t have it we can only hope for its return or seek those who can heal us. We want pleasure but, if it is not to become narcissistic, pleasure depends upon being shared with others. It is difficult to think of anything the human heart desires that it can obtain, unassisted, for itself.

Except righteousness. Jesus said, in the Sermon on the mount, that those who hungered for, and thirsted for righteousness would be filled. I suppose an argument can be made that Jesus was referring to the righteousness that is obtained only through faith in Christ but I don’t think, in this instance, he had that in mind. The Sermon on the Mount is a practical statement about life in the kingdom in which his disciples live, the kingdom of heaven. It is most certainly true that all our righteousness is incapable of making us worthy to stand in the presence of a holy God. For that standing, we depend upon the righteousness of Christ. But Jesus was talking about everyday right living; standing before our fellow beings, having a right attitude, speaking right words, desiring right things, standing for right causes, being “as we should be.” And that righteousness, Jesus declares, is obtainable to those who want it intensely.

And who would not want righteousness? Well, honestly, most of us. It is one of those things we would like all others around us to have – to be. But we gladly and generously make exceptions for ourselves. Agonizing over the unrighteousness of our world is not the same thing as hungering and thirsting to BE righteous. Jesus has already told us that those who mourn over the unrighteousness of the world will be comforted. Here, in this beatitude, he is telling us that citizens of the kingdom of heaven value righteousness enough to desire it for themselves.

When is the last time we heard anyone say, “Oh, more than anything else, I want to be fair, kind, generous, truthful, non-judgmental; I want it so badly that I can taste it!” We can be any or all of them simply by not being unfair, unkind, ungenerous, untruthful, or judgmental. It takes action by no one other than ourselves. In fact the actions of others – either persuasive or coercive – are impotent to make us be “as we should be” if we choose not to be so. We become righteous (as we should be) by ceasing to be unrighteous (as we should not be). But, human nature being what it is, we do not naturally, or easily come by the desire to be “as we should be.”

God has graciously taken care of our inability to be, even at our best, righteous in God’s sight. Through faith in Christ we can stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ. But it is God’s desire that we live, in this life – in the kingdom of heaven – “as we should.” How intensely do you desire to do that? Those who “hunger and thirst” to be “as they should be” can learn to “love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly before God.”

So let it be, Lord. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Blessed Are The Meek – SOTM #7

When the prodigal son returned home his father welcomed him with an embrace, a new set of clothes, a feast, and a ring for his finger. All of those are symbols denoting his full acceptance back into the family he had deserted. Presumably he was made heir to his father’s wealth though he had asked for, and been given, and squandered, his share already. But his father sensed that he was a changed person now, humbled and imbued with a different heart.

Jesus was the inventor of that story. He was painting a picture of the Heavenly Father as much – or more – than a picture of the wayward, but then repentant, son. There is another son in the story too, a haughty and self-righteous man who resented any forgiveness shown to his wastrel brother. But the rejoicing in the household was for the restoration of the wastrel son, now transformed by remorse and forgiveness, and made an heir again of his father and joint heir with his brother.

The third beatitude emphasizes the attribute of meekness; Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. The apostle Peter, writing in 1 Peter 3:4, reminds Christian women that God highly prizes “the ornament of a quiet and meek spirit.” Matthew speaks of “the king of Zion” coming, “meek, and riding on a donkey.” Moses, the great leader of Israel, and giver of the Law, is portrayed as the meekest of men.

Again, we must remind ourselves that, when Jesus promises the earth to the meek, he is speaking of the kingdom of heaven. “Want to be greatest,” he will say. “Then be servant of all.” That is absolutely contrary to the attitude and expectation of the world in which we live. A quiet and meek spirit is seen as a sign of weakness; an invitation to be trodden on. But God “highly prizes” just those things that the world despises. Every prodigal who comes to him, meek and repentant, he will cloth in a robe, and authenticate with a ring, declaring him to be an heir of the kingdom of heaven.

Poor in spirit, mourning, meek! With such God populates his “kingdom of heaven” on earth. Are these characteristics we can cultivate, making ourselves “fit” for the kingdom of heaven? I think not. I believe they are the default characteristics of God’s children. Perhaps someday, somewhere, they will be second nature – no, first nature – to us again. Our problem now is that we have adopted the characteristics of the kingdom of this world and are thus unfit to live in God’s kingdom. We literally “do not fit” into God’s kingdom. The message of John the Baptist, and later of Jesus himself, and still later, his disciples, was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent of what? Of the attitudes of this present world, of course.

Those who truly repent of the attitudes of this world and seek to forsake them, will find that the Holy Spirit will quickly step along side them, willing to teach them those principles of the kingdom that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn – SOTM #6

Joy is the object, the goal, but we settle for happiness, if we can get it. C.S. Lewis was right; joy cannot be gained by seeking it, only by being receptive to it, and perceiving it when it comes. Happiness, too, is difficult to come by. We lure it by stimulating our senses with sounds, and smells, and tastes, and sights, and touches, but find that it flees when the senses grow accustomed to it, or even sometimes weary of it. And so we spend most of our time “perusing happiness,” and only fleeting moments, enjoying it. Which is to say that much of our life, bereft of joy and happiness, is spent in mourning their absence.

It is difficult to know for sure, just what was the nature of the mourning that Jesus spoke of in the second beatitude. He said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” We get little help from the context of Jesus’ statement but fortunately the same Greek word occurs in other contexts in the New Testament and they give us some clue as to how the word might have been understood by those listening that day.

The Greek word that Matthew uses for mourn is pentheo. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5, chastises the Corinthian church because it did not mourn (pentheo) over the sinful behavior of a man living in incestuous adultery. Again in the second epistle to the Corinthians he urges them to remove all sin from their midst so he will not mourn (pentheo) when he visits them.

These examples of the use of the word would indicate that it was understood to mean, deep sorrow for some happening (a death), or for the sinfulness of the society one is living in, or for one’s own sinfulness.

Unfortunate happenings trigger sorrow in nearly every person, more so if they are personally touched by them. Thus there are millions of mourners in the world at any given moment.

Sorrow for the sinfulness of one’s society, or culture, or business, or family, is less common, often only expressed when it affects someone or something we value.

And sorrow for personal sin is arguably least common of all, unless one has been embarrassed by disclosure of their sin.

Jesus did not admonish his hearers simply to mourn; he pronounced them blessed if they did, and promised that they would be comforted. We must remember that he is presenting the perspective of the kingdom of heaven, not that of this world. According to this world’s perspective the way past sorrow is a renewed “pursuit of happiness.” Mourning is seen as an interruption of happiness. Don black for a month, lower the flag to half-mast for month, change your ways until society is no longer looking; then get on with living as you wish.

In the kingdom of heaven mourning is the way to joy. Who feels more joy than one wrapped in comfort? And it is comfort that Jesus promises to those who mourn. To mourn a tragedy and see it as a violation of God’s intent for this world, to mourn the sinfulness of our culture and see the destruction it brings to those God longs to save, to mourn for one’s own sinfulness, recognizing how it separates us from our God, is to act according to the principles of the kingdom of heaven.

Someday the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord, but for now the kingdom of heaven exists in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. Jesus presumably could have taken his disciples with him when he left this world, but he intended them to remain as salt and light in this dark kingdom. Regarding his apostles, he prayed to the Father, not that he would take them out of the world but that he would keep them from the evil. He told them they would be in the world, but not of it; surrounded by the evil but not overcome by it, observers of the evil but not rejoicing in it. On the contrary, they were to be mourning it.

Can mourning and joy co-exist? I believe they do. True mourning puts one on the side of God, living by kingdom principles. True mourners receive the comfort of God, assuring them that their broken heart is a reflection – even an expression – of God's own heart. What greater joy could a subject in any kingdom have than to know that they are perfectly in tune with the heart of their sovereign?

Blessed are those that mourn. Their reward is comfort.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit – SOM Part 5

The beatitudes are the best known part of the Sermon on the Mount, each beginning with a “blessing” for those who meet the qualification that is paired with the “blessing.” Since many people have no trouble identifying themselves as “poor in spirit” or “meek” or a “peacemaker”, or even perhaps “persecuted”, it is natural to think of this part of the Sermon on the Mount as a wonderfully positive expression of God’s benevolence. A perfect fit for one's own righteousness. That is a false comfort as some of our further studies will show. But even if one gets through all the beatitudes feeling unscathed, that which follows – and that which makes up the greatest part of the sermon – is anything but comforting if one takes seriously the words of Jesus.

Those listening to Jesus that day came believing that, if only Jesus, or some other Messiah, would shake them free from the shackles of Rome, they would be living in the idyllic kingdom which God promised to David and his descendents in perpetuity. However, that day they heard Jesus use a term that meant something very different. He would speak of a kingdom of (from) heaven. In other words, a kingdom among men in which the will of the Father would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Over and over the phrase filled the sermon, emphasizing that the manner of living he was describing was the order of the day in the kingdom he proclaimed. Jesus would spend the next three years describing the character of that kingdom using one parable after another. They must repent of living in the old ways; the kingdom of heaven was at hand (in their midst) and they must learn how to live in that kingdom, with its new expectations.

It was a kingdom for the “poor in spirit.” All the kingdoms of this world are for the haughty in spirit. The winners in the kingdoms of this world are those with the largest egos, the greatest ambitions, the most self-confidence, the least concern for others. They are also those with the greatest sense of pique when their talents go unrewarded. Anyone foolish enough to defer to another’s interest, another’s wellbeing, to recognize another’s rights, will go nowhere in the kingdoms of this world. If anyone, poor in spirit, is elevated it is only to serve as a pawn in the game of the haughty in spirit.

But Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdoms of this world will come and go, and some day they will go forever. But the kingdom of heaven is an eternal kingdom. The haughty in spirit have no place in that kingdom, nor do they want any place in it. The poor in spirit are comfortable there, thrive in it, and have the assurance that their investments in that kingdom are being stored as treasures that will not rust or fade or be taken away.

I believe Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount with this beatitude because it presents the essential character of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven. None of what follows in the Sermon on the Mount can be realized by one who does not possess – or is not possessed by – a poverty of spirit, a willingness to be last in all things, servant of all. Jesus says, here and elsewhere, that such a person will be first in the kingdom of heaven, not because they hope to be, or strive to be, or believe they have a right to be, but because God wills that they be.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Where are the Porta-Potties? – SOTM: Part 4

Before I can begin examining the Sermon on the Mount I need to know some important information. Like where are the Porta-Potties located. There are none! This is going to require another miracle. Several thousand people gathered in a remote place, women and children among them, and no running water, no portable toilets available. What is this, a third-world event? Yes, it appears that it is.

I’ve been involved in the planning of large, community-wide, religious services and I’m astounded that Jesus would attempt to pull off something as big as the Sermon on the Mount without an advance team to line up support from area synagogues and get all of the logistics in place. I know it was a different time, and folks were more resilient and resourceful, but still . . .!

I assure you there will be trouble if any kid gets hurt falling down the mountain. And that many people tramping across the countryside will leave a trail of debris that will give the Jesus Ministry a bad name for years to come. I hope enough foresight was exercised to get the necessary permits for a public meeting of this kind. The Romans are ticklish enough about large gatherings without stirring them up unnecessarily.

It was indeed a different time and place where Jesus’ ministry began and ended in three short years. He had no time or resourses for “advance planning.” His Father in heaven had done all the necessary “advance planning.” If things got bad enough he would ask the Father and He would meet whatever needs arose. Bread or fish or wine could be available at his touch, not primarily to meet the short-term needs of a crowd, but that too if necessary. More importantly they confirmed to the poor in spirit, the meek, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the peacemakers and the mourners that they had come to the right place. No modern stadium, no modern event, no modern advance team was better prepared to meet the needs of the crowds that came to him than Jesus was.

And oh, about the porta-potties; there are plenty of them here too. There is one just around that yonder rock. Be sure to rub your hands in the sand real good before you come back. Oh, and ask Sarah over there by the Porta-rock if she has a spare loaf of bread that she could send back with you. Hurry now, the sermon is about to begin.

Monday, June 13, 2011

About Those Disciples – SOTM: Part 3

There is a lot of sloppy usage of the term disciple as it applies to those associated with Jesus. One can become confused by the way the term is used today. A disciple is simply a learner, a pupil, a follower. At times Jesus had hundreds, perhaps thousands of disciples. On one occasion he miraculously fed a crowded of them, numbering over five thousand, not counting the women and children present, on five loaves of bread and three fish.

Today, however, when we hear the term, Disciple, we are apt to think of the twelve men whom Jesus selected to be very close to him in life and, after his death, to carry on the work he came to do. Those, we are told very specifically, he designated as apostles.

It is important to know who constituted those disciples who followed Jesus and who were the target of his “Sermon on the Mount” and many of his other teachings.

In the case of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew and Luke both describe large crowds coming to the region of Galilee from as far south as Jerusalem, from the north as far away as Tyre and Sidon, from the Decapolis west of the Jordon, and from all of Syria. No doubt most of those coming were Jews but much of the territory from which they came was inhabited by Greek speaking Gentiles and it is not beyond imagining that some were either non-Jews or, at the least, proselytes to the Jewish religion. The distances covered are astounding, considering that most traveled by foot, some coming from as far away as seventy-five or eighty miles.

The motives of those disciples were mixed. Luke and Matthew emphasize the healings and deliverances experienced at the hand of Jesus. Thousands, it seems, came to receive those blessings or to bring some loved one who needed the touch of Jesus.

We know that Messianic fever ran high in Israel at that time and undoubtedly a part of the crowd was hopeful that they had discovered, at last, the One who would free Israel from Rome’s tyranny. There were Zealots even among the Twelve whom Jesus designated apostles.

But Jesus words, and the crowd’s reaction to his words, indicate that many came, simply to hear him preach. No one in their time preached as he did, with such authority.

And, mixed among the crowds were those who were not disciples, infiltrators sent from the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem or from the local synagogues to discover who he was and assess the threat he posed to their leadership.

It was such a crowd that gathered into a flat place, a topos, on the mountainside to hear what has come be the most famous sermon ever delivered. For an ordinary preacher it would have been a heady experience, seeing a crowd like that assembled from distances such as they had come. It would be an occasion to videotape and broadcast to the world in succeeding weeks and months. The sheer numbers themselves would suggest the power and influence he could hope to wield on behalf of important causes around the world. It would be an event to replicate, time and again, on other mountainsides or other venues.

But this preacher knew himself and knew his crowd. He was not sent to build earthly kingdoms. His apostles would never quite understand that, even to the bitter end. (Some modern day disciples still have not grasped it either.) But Jesus could not forget it. He knew as well that the crowd of disciples who relished the loaves and the fishes, and drank in his thinly veiled condemnation of Pharisaic religion would evaporate when he began to talk of “drinking his blood” and “eating his flesh.” So he never gave himself to the crowds.

But it was still early in Jesus brief, three-year, earthly ministry. The crowds were large and fervent, and mostly friendly. Jesus had a kingdom he wanted to tell them of. Some would grasp it and they would be blessed. He did not dream of future, larger gatherings. He saw those few who would grasp his teaching as a mustard seed that would grow into a large tree upon which the birds of the air would someday come and rest.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Sermon on a Flat Place On the Side of the Mount – SOTM: Part 2

Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? Silly question. Almost as silly, but not quite, as, “Where was the Sermon on the Mount preached?” Matthew’s gospel clearly says that Jesus went up into the mountain where he spoke to his disciples; Luke’s gospel describes him coming down to a “plain” where he preached to them. Who is right, and does it matter?

In some ways it doesn’t matter. Matthew and Luke are presenting their inspired versions of the same event. Matthew was likely present at the event so he should be expected to know a mountain when he is on one. However his preceding description of Jesus’ activities (in chapter 4) is very generalized, apparently not intended to focus on much beside Jesus’ general itinerary, leading up to the sermon itself. At that point Matthew’s account becomes much more specific and voluble in his description of the sermon than Luke’s does. Luke apparently built his gospel from the remembrances of others. There is no evidence that he was an eye-witness to any of the events he describes in his Gospel. However, he introduces the sermon with a more detailed description of the “ordaining” of the twelve than Matthew does. Each man was inspired to draw from his own resources, according to his own interests and perceived purpose, the details he would used to tell his story.

“But,” some object, “didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire both Matthew and Luke?” Yes, I believe he did. “Then,” the argument goes, “they cannot be contradictory.” They may, in fact, not be contradictory; I believe they are not. But even if they were it would not negate the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. Two persons can be inspired to write a description of an event – even have it published in a Christian journal – but they may not necessarily describe it the same way. They could even have opposing views of what happened. Inspiration doesn’t guarantee accuracy. If it did there would be no need for four Gospels. One authentic, perfectly dictated record would do. While God inspired the writers of Scripture he obviously did not, except in some rare instances, dictate to them the things they wrote.

A careful reading of both Gospels shows them presenting essentially the same story. Jesus had just recently begun his ministry and large crowds were pressing around him seeking healing and deliverance from satanic powers. Jesus had attracted many, perhaps hundreds, of disciples. He seems to have sensed that it was time to single out those disciples who would be most close to him; whom he could instruct and empower to be the leaders of his church when he was no longer among them. To prepare for the selection of those who would be known as apostles, Jesus went into the mountain and prayed all night. (It is interesting that Jesus, who would choose his apostles by inspiration, knew that he needed the mind of his Father so that he would make the right choices.) In the morning he selected the twelve whom he would call apostles.

After the designation of the apostles, Matthew describes him going (back?) up into the mountain to speak to his disciples. Luke says he went down to a plain to address them. The Greek word Luke uses is topos, a place, not necessarily a vast prairie. If one is to address a large group of people one needs a flat topos where the people can stand or sit and where the speaker can be seen and heard. Both Matthew and Luke are describing Jesus’ search for such a place.

I don’t personally think Matthew and Luke should have to reconcile their differing perspectives, but I can foresee a scenario where both are right. Jesus, perhaps, went into the mountain to pray all night. In the morning he came down and selected apostles. He then led all of his disciples up the mountain seeking a place where they could assemble to hear him preach. Looking back down the mountain he spied a large enough topos for his purposes and he led them down to it. So it was there that he preached the “Sermon on a Flat Place on the Mount.”

Still, knowing what he said there is infinitely more important than knowing the details of the place where he said it. We’ll get to that soon.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Best Loved, Least Observed Sermon Ever Preached – SOTM: Part 1

In my many years of Bible teaching I’ve had no other portion of Scripture resisted as defensively as the “Sermon on the Mount.”  Those who came to class remembering those marvelous beatitudes – well, the early ones at least, before Jesus got to talking about persecution – found the sermon less to their liking for the remainder of chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. The common response to Jesus’ blunt statements was, “I don’t think he meant for us to take that literally.” Or some might say, “You can’t live like that in our world or people would walk all over you.” Like they didn’t walk all over Jesus? Like he didn’t promise that they would walk all over those who follow him?

We Evangelicals typically hold that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, not through works done in the flesh. I believe that. Still we have these moral teachings of Jesus that seem to imply that there is some obligation upon those who wish to be approved by God to live righteously. He even went so far as to tell his audience that, unless their righteousness was greater than that of the champions of righteousness, the Pharisees, they would not enter the kingdom of heaven. The good Evangelical response to that is, “Ah, and Jesus was referring to his righteousness, which they must obtain through faith in him.” I don’t believe that. It is evident that his sermon was, in part, an expose of the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, but it was preached to his “disciples” and he admonishes them at every step to do better than the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees. Even the apostle Paul, to whom we Evangelicals like to run for grace when Jesus’ sermons get too hot, lists a number of behaviors and activities which, if practiced, will, he says, keep one from inheriting the kingdom of God.

So what are we to do with this Sermon on the Mount? Is it, or is it not instructive of how one must live one’s life in Christ if they hope to inherit eternal life? I want, in the next several postings, to explore Matthew 5, 6, and 7 and hope to be able to show that the righteousness Jesus declares to be essential is practical, day to day right living; to ignore it and live beneath the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees is to court disaster in your spiritual life.

But I will give this much of a hint about my answer to the questions posed in the previous paragraph. I believe there is a difference between the requirements to get into the kingdom of God and those required to stay in it. In other words, you can’t get in by good works. You won’t stay in without them. But if you leave to live unrighteously, you won’t get back in by simply ceasing to live unrighteously. Is that confusing? Stay around and see where this takes us.

Join me as often as you can over the next several days. Comment if you like. It is my policy to post all comments that are serious and respectfully written. I don’t respond, on the blog, to comments. It is not my purpose to get into disputes. But I welcome the ideas others may have and I’ll grant them space in the comment section to express them, even if they are not in agreement with my positions.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What Are We To Believe?

There is no shortage of those willing to tell you what you must believe. So, I venture to add my voice. Hopefully, what I tell you will change nothing of importance in your belief system. Perhaps, though, it could reduce the number and urgency of requirements.

When I say that my opinion (recommendation) will change nothing in your belief system I’m saying that you already, hopefully, believe all that you need to. You may, indeed, believe too much, and it is there that the potential for damage to your faith system lies. Let us consider a scenario.

You have told your friends that your acceptance of them is based solely upon their belief in, and acceptance of you. You understand that acceptance and belief in a person is a complex matter involving changes of behavior that reflect that belief and acceptance. But, simply put, that is all you require of those you call your friend.

Soon, however, some who claim to be in the inner circle of your friends, begin to devise additional qualifications that they insist are necessary in order for one to be your friend. For example, those wishing to be your friend must accept the opinions of you espoused by others who call themselves your friend.

They insist further that those wishing to be your friend must believe everything you are reputed to believe. For example you once quoted Mickey Mouse to make a particular point in a conversation. Your old friends now insist that, because you quoted Mickey Mouse, you must believe that he was a real person and therefore all who wish to be your friend must also believe that Mickey Mouse was a real person.

Over time your friends have produced a large volume of lore associated with who you are and what you have done, and what you believe. They now insist that all who wish to be your friend must not just believe in, and accept you; they must believe in, and accept all that has been written about you.

At last you have a large and growing community of friends. A few who know you personally, believe in you, and accept you just because of who you are. Sadly the majority of those who call themselves your friend don’t really know you but they believe the things you are reputed to believe, and they believe the things said about you, because they desperately want to be considered your friend.

Occasionally some non-friend of yours points out that Mickey Mouse was a fictional character. “Oh no,” your old friends shout. “Our friend quoted Mickey Mouse; he is a real historical figure. If you don’t believe in Mickey Mouse you can’t believe in our friend.” Now all your friends must make a choice to accept the assertion that Mickey Mouse was a real person because you quoted him, or deny their friendship with you and accept the obvious fact that Mickey Mouse never lived. Quite a number cease to be your friend because honesty requires them to admit that Mickey Mouse is a fictional person.

Over time many of the assertions your old friends have made about you come under fire from non-friends and again your family of friends is torn as to whether they can be your friend if they don’t accept all that has been written and said about you. Still more of your friends turn away, some with great sorrow and reluctance, but they did not seek to become a friend of “all that is written and said about someone.” They were seeking to be that someone’s friend.

What awful turmoil among friends. How it must disturb you. You only asked that your friends believe in, and accept you. Now some who call you friend have built barriers that hold at bay – or drive away – many who wish to be your friend, telling them their belief in you is inadequate if it doesn’t extend to all the things said about you and all the things you are reputed to have believed.

This scenario suggested itself to me as I read an editorial in Christianity Today, “No Adam and Eve, No Gospel.” The discussion centers around the suggestion that mankind may have arisen, through an evolutionary process, from multiple sources. In other words, Adam and Eve, might not have been real persons. The argument is not new, nor is the fundamentalist reaction to it, i.e. that Jesus accepted the historical reality of Adam and Eve and to suggest that they might never have existed as individuals is tantamount to calling Jesus a lair. It would leave the Gospel in shambles.

The Christianity Today editors take a less hysterical approach, concluding:

At this juncture, we counsel patience. We don't need another fundamentalist reaction against science. We need instead a positive interdisciplinary engagement that recognizes the good will of all involved and that creative thinking takes time. In the long run, it may be the humility of our scholars as much as their technical expertise that will bring us to deeper knowledge of the truth.

That is wise advice. Galileo and Copernicus could have been spared a lot of pain had the church, in earlier years, followed that course. And many martyrs, burned as heretics, could have lived to see their grandchildren graduate from college . . . or something.

Meanwhile, friends of my Friend, just know that all our Friend requires of you is that you accept Him and believe Him to be who He says He is, God’s Messiah, your savior and friend.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Uses of Scripture: Part 10 in a series on 2 Sam. 11 & 12

I once knew a teacher who prided herself on her brutal honesty. She was fortunate to work among professionals who respected her for her skills and dedication to her job. Students either hated her, and attempted to avoid her classes, or tolerated her for the benefit they could gain from her expertise and demanding standards. None that I know of were deeply attached to her. If they, or her colleagues, had chosen to associate with her for her warmth and humanity they would have been sorely disappointed. In fact, as one might guess, she had few close friends.

We tend to like brutal honesty when it is revealing the truth about someone other than ourselves. That may partly explain why so much of the Bible is off-putting. On the surface it appears to be talking about the “other guy” but we sense that it is not – it is, in fact, being brutally honest about “me.”

The Book is a treasury of story, poetry, history, theology, and psychology, all of it brutally honest. I won’t contend that every word in the Bible is historically or scientifically or even theologically accurate. They are, after all, the words of men and women of “like passions” to ours. But I do hold that those who penned its pages were brutally honest in portraying what they believed they saw or believed was true. We are told that they were “carried along” by the Spirit and made to say, perhaps without full knowledge of what they were saying, what the Spirit desired to have said. Men and women, speaking their mind were, at the same time, speaking the mind of God. We don’t have every word that Jeremiah or other Bible authors spoke, but those we do have, the Holy Spirit preserved, and brought together as an honest and instructive record of mankind’s rebellion against God and God’s gracious plan to redeem his fallen creation.

To those who have become comfortable with the Bible’s “brutal honesty” either by choosing to discount those aspects of it that could indict their own character or behavior, or by accepting the fact that it is a true picture of themselves and, David like, seeking the righteousness that comes through faith, it can be a joy in their life. Secular Jewish and Christian scholars find, in the Bible, a beauty and power of expression equal to or greater than that of any other comparable ancient writings. These men and women often bring to light, useful and truthful information about the Bible, its language, its culture, its structure, and the role it played in the context of its own era. Believing Jews and believing Christians often share their secular contemporaries’ appreciation of the Bible as literature, but add to that pleasure a willingness to see in its pages evidence of God’s redemptive work. Christians particularly see the old, prefiguring the new, and the new, confirming the old. They find elaborate parallels between the Old Testament stories and the events in the Gospels, the book of Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament.

In 1946 R.G. Collingwood’s posthumous publication of The Idea of History posed important questions about the philosophy of history and spawned additional works by other authors exploring “the uses of history,” i.e. the different purposes to which history has been put across the years since the “art” was invented by Herodotus.

Likewise a series of studies have appeared on the “uses of Scripture.” It is not hard to find evidence in the New Testament about the uses to which Jesus, the Apostles, the Gospel writers, as well as the Jewish leaders of the time, put the Old Testament Scriptures. Further we hear that in the early Christian worship psalms were used along with hymns, and spiritual songs, the first of which most certain was a use of Scripture. The other two were no doubt heavily dependent upon it. Paul the Apostle argues that the Law, by which he likely meant all of the Old Testament Scriptures, was used by God as “a school master” to bring mankind to faith in Christ. In another place Paul says of Scripture:

All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

It is obvious that the Bible has been given to us for use. And if it is to be of any fruitful use it must be brutally honest. I’ve spent several days considering the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba. The story told in 2 Samuel 11 & 12 is brutally honest. The Bible could have been written without it, and without the other stories of David’s failures. Since, as Christians believe, his life is something of a “type” of Christ, and his royal lineage was intended to lead to the Messiah, it would be more convenient if nothing were known of his failings. The same could be said of almost every “hero of the faith” from the Old Testament. But what would that say to me, to you? That God uses only perfect men and women? The fact is that he uses only weak, flawed, and insignificant men and women. That is the only kind available to Him. So, no one can say, “I saved myself by my own righteousness.”

David seems to have reached the end of his life still believing that the blessings promised to his “house” stemmed from his righteousness. But the story of his life, told with brutal honesty, warns us not to make that assumption. It is said that a lawyer who represents himself at court has a fool for a lawyer. It could likewise be said that one who leans upon one’s own righteousness for salvation, leans upon a tissue of lies.