Monthly Archives: September 2014

The sound eye

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6 verses 22 & 23

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

Open your eyes and light enters your body. That’s what people once believed, apparently in a simple, literal way. But here Jesus is pointing to something deeper and the 1611 King James Version gets nearer to what I think Jesus intended. It says, “…if therefore thine eye be single…” and “But if thine be evil….”.

An old lady spots a group of hoodies ahead so she crosses the road, being afraid of them. She falls and is momentarily concussed. When she comes round she finds herself surrounded by the hoodies anxiously caring for her. One of them has phoned for an ambulance.

We make lightning quick judgements on the basis of what we see. Often we are wrong. Our eyes give us information only about this instant. They don’t recall the past and they cannot foresee the future. The brain does that.

On several occasions Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” He is asking people to stop making judgements on the basis of what they have seen in the past so that they can actually see this person in front of them here and now. Seeing in this way is actually a form of repentance. Take a look at my second post in this blog: The Heart of the Matter, to see what I mean.

Wordsworth got it right in his poem, Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power
of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
we see into the life of things.”

Jesus gently pulls our legs about this truth in the story at the beginning of chapter 7: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We might say the logs are not in our eyes, they are in our brains. They are the judgements we so quickly make, like the old lady and the hoodies.

Since writing that last sentence, two days ago, I have become the victim of a telephone scam aimed particularly at older people. The caller pretended to be a policeman. He invited me to disconnect and dial 999 to verify this. Apparently, because the caller didn’t also disconnect, my 999 call went straight back to his telephone and I was therefore ‘hooked’. Would the hoaxer have succeeded if I had been in eye contact with him? I very much doubt it. Like the old lady and the hoodies we are all making judgements all the time but here, without eye contact I got it seriously wrong. I shall explore this in a later blog post when I get to chapter 7: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

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Who needs religion?

Only in chapter 6 does Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount get round to religion. Almsgiving, prayer, fasting: apparently we should do these things secretly –

  • verse 3: “But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
  • verse 6: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”
  • verse 18: “….so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret….”

So why do we make prayer such a public activity? Lots of people find it difficult to get a rhythm of private spiritual practice going. They do most of their praying when they go to a church service. If we look at Luke’s account of Jesus teaching his followers to pray we might think he had to be persuaded to do it. Luke chapter 11 has one of the disciples saying, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples”. Luke seems to suggest that they had watched Jesus at prayer and wanted to know how to do it. If John could teach his disciples, why couldn’t Jesus do the same?

What the sermon on the mount seems to suggest, what Jesus seems to suggest, is that there is something more important than simply going to church. Religious practice, going to church (challenging and uplifting as it often is), may not deal with the junk in our personal cellars (see my last two blog posts). Indeed this junk, often labelled ‘the ego’, gets in the way so much that our religious practice may actually encourage it. Think of Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer in the temple (Luke chapter 18 verses 9 – 14). This is why the basic stance of prayer is confession, by which I mean, no deception (of myself or anyone else). Confession is nothing to do with grovelling guilt. It is the simple, honest, acknowledgement that this is me, warts and all, at this moment. No ifs, no buts, just me with all this junk in the cellar.

Now, here’s the miracle, the good news. We discover that this basic stance turns out to be not just confession but confession/forgiveness: a dynamic, perpetual process. Look at verse 14 and compare it with Mark chapter11 verse 25 and John chapter 20 verse 22/3. Clearly, for the Gospel writers, forgiveness is central to whatever we mean by prayer, indeed for the whole Christian way of life. As the American novelist Saul Bellow wrote, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required”. Amen to that.

More junk in the cellar

Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5 verses 27 to the end.

This time the junk is to do with sexual desire, intemperate language and retaliation. There’s nothing I can add to my previous blog post on the basic principles of dealing with the mental junk that gets in the way of loving other people and ourselves. (See ‘What Lurks in the Cellar’ posted August 28th)

If you really want to go more deeply into the issues of intemperate language and retaliation I recommend two books:

  • Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg
  • Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink

Both writers are dealing with challenging issues of our violent times. Walter Wink believes that the Christian tradition of nonviolence is urgently needed as an alternative to the “dominant and death-dealing powers of our consumerist culture and fractured world”. He has fascinating insights into some of the social norms of Jesus’ time that shed light on turning the other cheek and going the second mile.

The blurb for Marshall Rosenberg’s book says that it will help me:

  • to put my primary focus on connection through empathetic listening rather than being right or getting what I want;
  • to transform conflict into mutually satisfying outcomes;
  • to defuse anger and frustration peacefully;
  • to break patterns that lead to arguments or depression;
  • and to move beyond power struggles to cooperation and trust.

There’s also a Center For Nonviolent Communication. Go to www.CNVC.org

Adapting some words of Nan Merrill’s rendition of Psalm 61, May you know abiding love, gently joy, deep peace and wisdom.