Monthly Archives: January 2015

How long, O Lord, how long?

Matthew’s gospel chapter 11.

Jesus and John the Baptist – how well did they get on together? We’ll never know for certain because we’ve only got Matthew and the other gospel writers to go on and they weren’t interested in biography. But look at what pops up in this passage at the beginning of chapter 11 of Matthew’s gospel:

“….no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence [or, ‘has been coming violently’] and the violent take it by force.” (verses 11-15)

Isn’t that intriguing? What can it mean? No serious student of the Bible is sure but this fool of a contemplative Christian is going to rush in with an idea. I wonder if there’s a clue in some verses at the end of this chapter?

“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (verse 25)

“Come to me all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (verses 28-30)

John the Baptist was an ascetic. He lived in the desert, wore rough clothes and had a restricted diet of locusts and honey: a pretty severe character I would have thought. Jesus was different: enjoying himself, eating and drinking with a bunch of social misfits. There’s a long history of people being severe on themselves in their persistent (sometimes desperate) search for the truth. The Buddha, for example, spent many austere years before he was enlightened. Christian saints have fasted, flagellated and forced themselves into what they hoped was an acceptable state of being before God. Might this be what is meant here by violent people taking the kingdom of God by force? Perhaps Jesus could see what John the Baptist was getting at but thought there was a gentle, more direct route to take.

George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, clearly wasn’t happy with traditional spirituality. In his book, Only One Way Left, he painted a picture of a series of individual souls, laboriously climbing ladders to heaven where “a perpetual concert was in progress.” He pointed out that there were two routes from his front door to his front garden gate. He could leave by the back door and circumnavigate the globe, or……. you’ve guessed it. He could take the direct route. Maybe it was no coincidence that George MacLeod, like Jesus, began his ministry among misfits and outcasts – in the 1940s slums of Glasgow. There would have been no point in telling people like that to restrict their diet and wear rough clothes if they wanted to enter the kingdom of God. They didn’t have much choice about things like that.

Slowly, over the last hundred years more and more people have been discovering the direct route. I should say ‘re-discovering’ the route. It’s been available ever since Jesus pointed it out. We lost sight of it pretty quickly, because people expected the return of Jesus in glory to change the world: the kingdom of God postponed. Fortunately, over the centuries there has always been someone saying, ‘look, look, can’t you see? It’s here, now!’ God, whatever we might mean by that word, isn’t over there somewhere. God is here, now, within. The momentum of this re-discovering is increasing, and it’s not a route that we are finding. There isn’t anywhere to go. That way of thinking dumps us back in the old ways of the postponed kingdom. In a recent lecture Fr. Vincent MacNamara said, “The beatitudes don’t have to be imported into our lives.” Nothing has to be imported. Everything is waiting to be discovered as we allow ourselves to become aware of the sacred beauty in the depths of each one of us. To be sure, that process is usually a long and often painful one but the yoke that Jesus spoke of gives rest to our weary souls as we lay down the burden of being harsh on ourselves and others.

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A cup of cold (?) water.

A recent newspaper article referred to something called ‘slamming’. Apparently the aim is to keep walking in a straight line on a busy pavement. If that involves bumping into someone who doesn’t get out of the way quickly enough, so be it.

In my youth I enjoyed ballroom dancing. In those far off days the man was responsible for leading his partner and, on a crowded dance floor, it required some deft manoeuvering to avoid collisions with other couples. Without a skillfully responsive, trusting partner the task was much more difficult. Together, weaving our way through the crowd while enjoying our mutually supportive skill, was an exhilarating experience. Today, in a crowded city, the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ in me comes into play. I need both will and grace if I am to treat anyone who enters ‘my space’ as a guest to be honoured (and of course avoided unless we actually wish to meet!!). We no longer practice the first century middle eastern customs of hospitality underlying today’s passage in Matthew’s gospel chapter 10 verses 4- -42

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…….and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

In our busy lives most of our encounters are not slow, stately expressions of hospitality. As followers of the Way of Jesus, however, our aim is to avoid bumping into people, to be open always to the possibility of meeting them and to give them the cup of human recognition however quickly they pass us by.

Families and how to survive them

So, as I was saying in yesterday’s post…..

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10: 37 – 39)

Later in this gospel (chapter 12 verses 46 to 50) there’s the story of Jesus’ mother and his brothers wanting to speak to him. When someone tells him they are waiting outside Jesus replies: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Pointing to the crowd he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”

Some of us never properly grow up. We remain attached to our parents’ apron strings. On the other hand some of us older parents find it difficult to let our adult children go. Often it’s not obvious to us. The attachment lies at a deep level so we are not aware of it.

The question is, what do we expect of family life? Trying to make it carry all our emotional and spiritual needs is asking too much of our parents, our siblings and our children. As always, for Jesus, the primary source of strength and satisfaction is in what he called the Kingdom of God. Entering the kingdom can mean a painful process of breaking or healing those immature emotional bonds. Perhaps that is why Matthew couples Jesus’ words about family relationships with the familiar advice to take up the cross and lose one’s life. Forgiveness is almost always involved. I mean forgiving our parents, our siblings, our adult children for their failings. ‘Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing’. I certainly mean forgiving ourselves for our own failings in our family network.

My wife and I used to help run weekend conferences for couples. Called Marriage Enrichment (those were the days before unmarried partnerships were common) they weren’t meant to be therapy for troubled relationships. A highlight of each conference was an exercise in which we asked each couple to tell one another ‘the story of my marriage’. Almost always, as we introduced the exercise, people would ask, “Don’t you mean the story of our marriage?” We would explain that each partner was to take turns to tell the other the story of the partnership from their own personal point of view. The rule was that the listening partner was not allowed to interrupt and say, “but that’s not how it happened!”, or “I can’t believe that’s how you see it!”. They were simply to listen. Almost without exception people found this to be an illuminating and often healing experience.

Few writers have expressed the true nature of family relationships better than the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran:

But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.

Then and Now

To understand a passage in the Bible it is helpful to take two steps. First I should ask, what did this passage mean for the person who wrote it and his readers then? Secondly I can then ask, if that is what it meant for them in the first century AD what might it mean for me now in the 21st century? Sometimes the gap between the two is so great it is best to move on gently and quietly like a cow that comes across a thistle while grazing the lush green grass. For example some references to Jews in Matthew’s gospel reflect the tension between those upstart Jews who had become Christians and their fellow citizens who had not. Centuries of anti-semitism have flowed from the failure to follow the two step rule when reading those passages. It is also clear that the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth confidently expected his triumphant return in their lifetime in devastating glory to bring an end to life on earth as they then knew it. It didn’t happen and Paul, in one of his letters, had to deal with their disappointment.

The return of Jesus Christ in glory (the Parousia as it is sometimes called) has continued to cause confusion. Some Christians see events in Israel/Palestine as evidence of what they call ‘the end time’. Others have confidently predicted the date of the Parousia with rather sad, sometimes even amusing consequences. There’s a story about John Wesley that I haven’t been able to verify. Asked what he would do when Jesus returned he replied that he would continue whatever he was doing at that moment.

This blog is called The Now Testament because the simple fact is that we can only live in this present moment. What we do now is influenced by our past and by our expectations about the future. Human beings are gifted with this capacity to remember and to make plans. Our curse is our tendency is to allow these gifts to obscure the reality of each present moment. Regular readers of this blog will know that, in my opinion, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God can only be entered now, not at some point in the future. Living the Way of Jesus requires a constant oscillation between the underlying present reality of the Kingdom and our capacity for memory and anticipation. Let’s now apply this principle to the puzzling passage in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel verses 37 – 39

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

In the last two hundred years of Biblical study we have discovered a lot about how a passage like this took its present form. You can find it in slightly different form in all three synoptic gospels and in a stark form in the Gospel of Thomas:

Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me. (Thomas 55:1)

So somewhere in the background are some words that Jesus probably uttered but the problem is to find out exactly what he did say. Even if we could find that out we would still have to face the question, if that’s what he meant then what might it mean for us now? Some take the words much more literally than others. Many Christians feel called to follow a path with which their relatives profoundly disagree. In some Muslim countries becoming a Christian is a dangerous and divisive act. And let’s not forget that the same applies to Muslims who decide to join jihadists in Syria against their families’ wishes.

This blog post has already gone on long enough so I’m going to leave it till tomorrow before suggesting another, 21st century way of approaching this passage.

Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite.

Just occasionally my systematic journey in this blog synchronises with a newsworthy event. In this case the advice in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel is about living according to the Way of Jesus of Nazareth in a world that has startling similarities with the slaughter in Paris last week and the gruesome mayhem perpetrated by jihadists in several other countries. Before going any further I remind myself that more Muslims are killed by jihadists than Christians. I wish to write in solidarity (fraternity, the French might say) with my brothers and sisters of other faiths, these fellow human beings of mine.

I confess my ignorance of the Quran but I believe it speaks of Jesus as a prophet rather than the Saviour of the world. I can live with that! I have spoken elsewhere in this blog of the human tendency to turn a prophet who points us to the truth into The Truth itself. In my (I hope humble) opinion the truth is not a person, it is a Way of being and living. I try to practice the contemplative path and, if asked, I refer to myself not as a Christian contemplative but as a contemplative in the Christian tradition. There are times when I feel I have more in common with a Jewish, a Buddhist, or a Sufi practitioner than with some of my fellow Christians.

Matthew invites us all in chapter 10 of his gospel:

  • to live in this troubled world like sheep among wolves, being wise as serpents and innocent as doves (verse 16)
  • to love our enemies, even if they persecute us (verses 16 – 25)
  • to love the truth more than our human families (verse 37) always provided that we understand truth as a way of living not a set of beliefs or doctrines.
  • to let go of all we think we know about ourselves, especially the thoughts we cling to in the mistaken belief that without them we could not exist (verses 38 and 39)
  • to live with compassion for all human beings because, like us, they are made in the image of God (verses 40 – 42). The virtue of fraternity, enshrined in the French constitution, comes close to that of compassion. It underlies the expression of both liberty and equality as Paul of Tarsus understood when writing to Christians in Corinth. Some of them were offended by fellow believers who felt free to eat meat that had been offered to idols and then sold on the market. Of course their freedom was compatible with the gospel, Paul agreed, but perhaps they should restrict their freedom out of loving sensitivity to the consciences of those who were offended. (1 Corinthians chapter 8)

Amid all the human sin and tragedy a new consciousness is arising on the planet and it is not restricted to any one of the great religions. To be sure, each in its own way has managed to encode the truth, whatever difficulties we in the 21st century might experience in decoding it.

Finally I recommend an article in the Guardian newspaper about Sufism:

Compassion

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.    (Matthew’s gospel, chapter 9 verse 36)

You find lots of harassed people on Oxford Street in central London; talking on their smart phones as they weave through the crowds, crossing the busy road (still on their smart phones) anxiously getting to the next shop in search of a bargain. How to be a compassionate presence amidst all that while trying to do my own shopping – that’s the challenge!

If you seek to follow the Way of Jesus of Nazareth you are part of ‘the Jesus Event’. (See the second post in this blog back in 2013). Jesus himself is the source of this river and each of us is a tiny eddy in its onward flow.

Matthew has given us a glimpse of the headwaters of that river in chapters 5 – 7: the sermon on the mount. Now (picking up where I left off before Christmas) in chapter 9 verse 35 through to chapter 11 verse 1 we see the compassionate energy of the river flowing through the disciples from that one simple, humble, vulnerable presence. Here we find some clearly post-Easter instructions and warnings for the fledgling Christian community. There’s no need to take some of them literally – “take no gold,or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics…..” (10:9) Shopping on Oxford Street like that would be a bit of a problem! But I am part of the ‘Jesus Event’ among these crowds. Like those remote spiritual ancestors of mine that Matthew was addressing I am called to be a simple, vulnerable, compassionate presence as I do my shopping, carrying as little baggage as modern life will allow.

Well, there are times when I’m not very good at it – just like them, actually. Already we can see Matthew and his readers making assumptions – “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.” And for those who won’t receive the message: “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement.” Hmm! Don’t think that’s the Jesus I’m getting to know in this exploration!

But then there are Christians today for whom verses 16 to 23 do ring horribly true: in Syria and Iraq for example, like the experiences of those earliest followers of the Way.

Christmas distractions

This morning at my daily practice of Centering Prayer I was besieged by distractions. They included creative thoughts about writing this post. I was tempted to go and note them down in case I forgot them. I tried to let go of the temptation. Then I was besieged by worries about dementia. If you practice this form of prayer you will recognize what I am describing! The Silence within us is often drowned out by noisy thoughts, even good creative ones. We so easily lose touch with that Presence we call God.

Here is the idea I had while praying. (See, I didn’t forget it!) My purpose in this blog is to recover more of Jesus the wisdom teacher. I began it back in 2013 with this quote:

“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)

Sometimes the conversations of the followers of Jesus are in danger of drowning out his distinctive, original voice. They can even do so with beautiful, creative parables like the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew. For example, the author of Matthew’s gospel has Jewish Christians in mind and his aim is to relate Jesus to Jewish history and tradition. He does it in ways that are sometimes obscure to us. He presents Jesus as a second (better?) Moses. He is very fond of relating his Jesus story to passages in what we Christians call the Old Testament.

Now I have to confess that the idea of Jesus as a second Moses and the details of Jesus birth and childhood are a bit like those distractions I experience in prayer. They can drown out that distinctive voice whose message resonates with 21st century people for whom traditional religion is off-putting. I am pretty familiar with the Bible and it is helpful to see how Jesus uses scriptures he was familiar with. But is not essential for me. I find much more help and inspiration in modern writers and speakers, for example Eckhart Tolle, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and many, many more who point out to me the Way I should follow. We are in the midst of a profound shift in religious and spiritual consciousness. The miracle is that the teaching of Jesus still has the power to enable that shift to continue. The miracle was that the Gospel writers had collections of the sayings of Jesus to work with and modern scholarship is a great help in discerning when they are using those sources. My purpose in this blog is cautiously to sift out the teaching of Jesus from the ways in which those earliest Christians encoded it. Ultimately (and paradoxically) what can be drowned out is the sound of silence. Within that silence is the Silence of true Being. I believe Jesus was continually pointing to that silent Presence, inviting us to enter into it, there to discover who we truly are.

I’ll continue my sifting of Matthew’s gospel in my next post. Happy New Year.