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.

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