Category Archives: Gospels

Always coming Home.

In the middle of an argument Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have said, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” In classical Greek, the word for bowels was ‘splagchnon’ and it appears in the New Testament only in the plural form. It had four levels of meaning:

  • The inward parts, especially the heart, lungs, liver and other bits we can eat;
  • A sacrificial feast (a logical progression from the first level)
  • Any inward bits of the body – the bowels, the womb for example;
  • The seat of the emotions, our inward nature.

Today we might ask, ‘what’s your gut feeling about this?’ Then it gets more interesting. Apparently you could say we have three brains! The one in our head has 85 billion neurons. The heart and the gut also have ‘brains’; much smaller ones but 40 million neurons for the heart and 100 million for the gut are significant brain-like systems. Oliver Cromwell didn’t know that but he certainly understood the importance of ‘gut feeling’.

In modern English translations of the Gospels the word is not guts but compassion. It occurs quite often in Matthew, only four times in Mark, three in Luke and, oddly, not once in John.

So, engaging our three brains, we turn to Luke’s story of the two sons (often misleadingly called the parable of the prodigal son). Let’s start in the middle of the story. The prodigal son is on his way home:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion….”.

The New English Bible has, “…his heart went out to him…” and that gets closer to the heart of the matter, if you see what I mean!

The heart of the matter (still thinking of those neurons) lies in the use of two little words (possessive pronouns according to those interested in grammar): ‘yours’ and ‘mine’.

“….this son of mine…”

says the father in verse 24.

“Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf”

says the slave to the elder brother (verse 27).

“But when this son of yours…”

says the elder brother who cannot bring himself to say ‘my brother’ to his father (verse 30).

“… this brother of yours…”

replies his father (verse 32).

There’s a second thread running through the story: slavery. The prodigal thinks he will only be acceptable back home if he becomes a slave.

“I am no longer worthy to be called your son: treat me like one of your hired hands.”         (verse 19)

But a slave is exactly what the elder son thinks he is:

“Listen!” he says angrily to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you….” (verse 29)

He has been at home all the time without realizing that the place is full of ‘home comforts’.

Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”

says his father bringing us back to the ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ thread.

One of the pitfalls of thinking of God like a father is that the divine compassion gets limited to our experience of frail human fatherhood. That can lead to the difficulty of seeing compassion even when it stares us in the face.

Let’s beware of separating out the two brothers in this story. I am both men. I know how deeply the elder brother’s sense of being a slave can infect me. I feel there are so many things I must do and be before I am accepted fully. ‘Look at my regular prayer life! Look at how I go to church regularly; give money to charity; sacrifice myself for the sake of others! And there’s that good-for-nothing so-and-so ……’ Off I go into that far country of the brain that so easily gets my guts stirred up with resentment so that my brain starts using ‘yours’ rather than ‘mine’ or ‘ours’. Both brothers ended up in that distant country. For one of them the living looked easy and pleasant, for the other it was drudgery. For both of them it was a long way from home. Only one of them found the way back.

This  is my last post to this blog that has been my attempt to locate our homeland and the way back to it according to the three synoptic Gospels. May we all find the way and keep returning to the place where infinite compassion, mercy and truth are ours; not theirs, or yours but mine, ours, everyones. To adapt some words from Nan C Merrill’s ‘Psalms For Praying’:

May you know abiding love, gentle joy, deep peace and wisdom.

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Don’t send me, send him.

Luke chapter 14 verses 7 to 14 and chapter 16 verses 19 to 31

It’s time to wrap up this blog with just two more posts. Already I keep repeating myself too often. That’s because I am not attempting a general commentary on the synoptic gospels. I am trying to recover the message of Jesus the wisdom teacher from Nazareth and it is really a very simple message. The gospel writers use lots of stories to get it across, many of them can be traced back to Jesus himself and they all keep pointing us to the same truth: about ourselves, about the universe and about how to see and hear this truth wherever it pops up.

Poor old Luke is getting a raw deal in this blog. It’s because I have taken the synoptic gospels in the order in which they were written. By the time I get to Luke I have covered all the major themes of Wisdom teaching. In spite of confining myself to passages that appear only in Luke I still find exactly the same message coming up again and again, albeit with Luke’s special concern for women and the poor. Take Luke chapter 14 verses 7 to 14. Jesus is invited to a meal and he notices how the guests jostle for the best seats. Students of the Bible note the way this story reflects the advice in Proverbs chapter 25 verses 6 & 7:

“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’, than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Revisit the post headed ‘No ego. No problem’ (on Mark chapter 9 verses 33 to 37) and there you have my take on the problem of the ego that Luke and the book of Proverbs are alerting us to.

I want to end this whole blog with the story of the prodigal son and his brother in chapter 15 but first I want to jump ahead to chapter 16, verses 19 to 31: the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus – another example of a blind ego. Please – this is not a story about some dreadful thing that might happen to us when we die. It’s about being blind to the truth about who we truly are. The clues are in verses 24 and 27:

Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.

Then father I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them.

The rich man is trapped in the mindset of being able to give orders to those less fortunate, less powerful, than he is – ‘send Lazarus’. Even when he spares a thought for someone else it is still only to those of his own privileged status (his brothers) and it is still, ‘send Lazarus’. He just doesn’t get it, doesn’t see the truth.

Especially, Luke wants us to understand, he doesn’t get the truth of the Resurrection. It is a truth so beautifully put in the story of the Prodigal Son and his brother. I’ll talk about that in my final post for this blog.

Breath-taking

Luke chapter 12 verses 13-26

Some people seek moral guidance from gurus. Here, it’s not so much guidance that someone wants from Jesus, it’s judgement:

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (12: 13)

This is someone who really has not understood what Jesus is about. Only Luke among the three synoptic Gospel authors records this conversation and the parable that follows it. (12: 16 – 20, though it also appears in the Gospel of Thomas at 63: 1-3)

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do for I have no place to store my crops?”

He decides to increase his storage space and says to himself:

“Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat drink and be merry.”

Elsewhere in the Gospel accounts Jesus says it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. So where does that leave all us Christians in the developed world? By comparison with the desperate migrants risking death to cross from Libya to Europe we are all rich. It behoves us to be very sensitive to the possibility that our moral judgement is compromised by our wealth. The sting of the parable is surely in that well known phrase: ‘relax, eat, drink and be merry.’ I assume that Bill and Melinda Gates have not succumbed to that temptation. Their Foundation channels their wealth into lots of admirable schemes designed to redress the balance between richer and poorer nations of the world.

The crucial thing for us in rich developed countries is to remember who we truly are. Material wealth can make us blind to the spiritual wealth that is ours: the wealth we cannot store up any more than we can store up life-giving breath that can only be taken moment by moment. And for all of us there will come a moment when the breath-taking ceases and we begin the transition to dust.

I need a neighbour with skin on

There’s a thunder storm. A little girl lies in bed, frightened. “Mummy, mummy!” she calls. Mummy comes and says, “There’s no need to be frightened, darling. Remember, God is always with you.” “I know”, wails the little girl, “but I want someone here with skin on.”

Twitter, Facebook and all the other digital media are not real substitutes for someone around with skin on. The Samaritan saw the wounded man lying there and went to help. I step out of my flat here in the middle of London and find myself presented with lots of chances to be a good neighbour. It’s important to grasp this fundamental reality of being human. Everything we do is time bound by our skin, our bodies. Lose sight of this reality and we can soon feel swamped by the relentless pressure of texting, Instagramming and updating Facebook status; not to mention daily horror stories about the impact of immigrants on our health service, or the desperate refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Of course digital media are a huge benefit but they can blind us to the simple fact that we exist only in the present moment. We breathe in and out moment by moment. We can’t store up breath for the future. Jesus insisted that the kingdom, the realm of true Being can only be entered in the here and now. Of course we face political challenges and politicians seeking re-election can play on our fears, especially fears about ‘neighbours’ without skin on. Unless we can stay in touch with the fundamental fact that to be human is to exist in a time-bound body we will fail to make good decisions about general principles of good neighbourliness. Every time we hear or read something designed to ignite our fears about ‘neighbours’ without skin on the trick is to return to our breathing, to focus in on our bodies, before deciding how we should react. After helping the mugged traveller maybe the good Samaritan would have used Facebook if it had been available, to gather support for an anti-racism campaign.

 

Who is my neighbour?

The contemplative/mystical experience does not vary from age to age nor from culture to culture. What changes is the language and imagery people in widely differing cultures use to try and describe something that is essentially beyond words. Jesus himself was a man of his time and therefore used the language of his time and culture to point to the reality that silence reveals. Even more so were his disciples, the emerging Christian movement and the gospel writers. That makes reading the New Testament a challenging task. The closer we can get to Jesus of Nazareth the less time and culture bound the message is likely to be.

So far, my journey through Mark and Matthew has, I hope, yielded the essence of what Jesus was pointing to. Each Gospel writer puts his own ‘spin’ on the teaching and it is time to move on from Matthew to Luke. Matthew has given us the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. What Luke adds to the mix are several well known parables not found in Mark or Matthew. There’s the Good Samaritan, for example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus; and then there’s Luke’s affinity for the place of women in the story.

Mark, Matthew and Luke all record a discussion between Jesus and a Scribe about the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbour. Only Luke follows this exchange with two famous passages: the parable of the Good Samaritan (chapter 10 verses 30 – 35) and the conversation between Jesus, Martha and Mary (10: 38 – 42). The first is about loving my neighbour, the second about loving God.

A Scribe asks Jesus, who is my neighbour? Jesus doesn’t respond with a direct answer. Like all good teachers he tells a story and invites his questioner to make up his own mind. It’s a story designed to challenge our prejudices about strangers. Jews and Samaritans couldn’t stand one another. Who are ‘Samaritans’ for me? Who is my neighbour? Who presses my buttons? People who don’t give up their seat on the bus or train to those in greater need? Immigrants from eastern Europe? And who can I expect help from? Sometimes the most unlikely people offer their seats on the bus to me and my wife – both of us now obviously elderly. They are only ‘unlikely’ in my mind because of my prejudices about the kind of people I think they are. Sometimes I am the wounded traveller, sometimes I am challenged to be the good Samaritan.

A common misunderstanding of the contemplative/mystical life is that one becomes too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps Luke should have placed the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha before the parable the Good Samaritan. For most of us the answer to the question, who is my neighbour, only becomes clear when we have become more like Mary than Martha. There are numerous examples of people who, Mary-like, have developed a mature and disciplined practice of contemplative prayer. Leaving their hidden place of prayer they go about their ordinary everyday lives with a deep sense of being connected with everyone they meet however fleeting each encounter may be. Thomas Merton, a contemplative monk, described this in an essay, ‘A Member of the Human Race’:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of a pure self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.”

This awareness stayed with him for the rest of his life. It was the fulfillment of the second commandment, to “love your neighbour as yourself.” I am never more essentially, more deeply myself, than when I have discovered a Mary-like stillness in the Presence of the divine. And in that stillness I know the answer to the question, who is my neighbour?

Three ‘Martyrs’

Stephen was the first Christian martyr: right? Well it depends what you mean by martyr. Stephen’s death is described in the Acts of the Apostles. In verse 58 of chapter 7 it says:

“….and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of  a young man named Saul.”

So according to this account it’s those who watched the stoning of Stephen who were the martyrs. The Greek word means simply ‘witness’. Gradually the word came to be applied only to those whose witness to their faith caused their death. As us Christians move towards Easter in our liturgical calendar we enter a fortnight known as Passiontide. So let me introduce you to three ‘martyrs’ – two Dutch women (one a Jew) and a German man. Two were killed for their commitment to the truth as they understood it. One survived into old age.

Etty Hillesum (1914 – September 1943) was what you might call a secular Jew. Together with many Jews she died in Auschwitz on September 30th 1943. (At least that’s when the Red Cross reported her death). She kept a diary and here’s an extract from it:

“I know the mounting suffering. I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all. And yet, at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her arms around me are so gentle and so protective and my own heart-beat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop. That is also my attitude to life, and I believe that neither war nor any senseless human atrocity will ever be able to change it.”
‘But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

“…..if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matt 26:39)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 1906 – April 9th 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler and imprisoned by the Nazis. On the day the failure of that plot was revealed he wrote the following letter from prison to a friend:

“During the last year or so I have come to appreciate the ‘worldliness’ of Christianity as never before. The Christian is not a homo religiosus but a man pure and simple, just as Jesus was a man, compared withJohn the Baptist anyhow. I don’t mean the shallow this-worldliness of the enlightened, of the busy, the comfortable or the lascivious. It’s something much more profound than that, something in which the knowledge of death and resurrection is ever present………Later I discovered and am still discovering up to this very moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe. One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman (the priestly type so-called) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. This is what I mean by worldliness – taking life in one’s stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and that is what makes a man and a Christian (cf Jeremiah 45). How can success make us arrogant or failure lead us astray when we participate in the sufferings of God by living in this world?” July 21st 1944

“…..unless a grain of wheat falls and dies it remains a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Corrie Ten Boom (1892 – 1983) survived Ravensbruck concentration camp. She and her family had been betrayed by Dutch informers for sheltering many Jews in a specially constructed attic in their house. The rest of her family were executed. Corrie was released. She afterwards discovered that her release had been a clerical error. After the war Corrie visited Cologne Cathedral. As she approached the door she was horrified to see, standing there greeting worshippers with outstretched hand and smiling face, one of the concentration camp staff. In her heart she said, “Jesus, I cannot forgive this man. You must do it for me.” She felt a relaxing warmth spreading through her body that set her free to grasp the other’s outstretched hand
“…..he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven;….” (John 20:22/23)

Spotting the clues

Matthew chapter 16

An advertisement on London Underground trains aimed at fare dodgers asks, ‘How would you recognize a ticket inspector?’ Answer, ‘he/she looks just like you’! Jesus, of course, looked just like any other human being because that’s what he was. But clearly, he was a very charismatic human being with commanding presence and a challenging message.

Religious authorities felt threatened by Jesus and challenged his credentials. Locked into a narrow understanding of their scriptures they wanted to fit Jesus in to their way of seeing things. And they weren’t the only ones who were confused. So were the disciples. The miracle is that the Gospel authors did not try to gloss over the disciples’ confusion. Perhaps it was because the emerging Christian communities were themselves still trying to sort out what they thought about Jesus and his message. The disciples were confused and Peter got it wrong. The sequence in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel is about recognizing the truth about Jesus. Once again, after two thousand years, there’s confusion about it. What are we to make of his teaching? Was he claiming to be the Jewish Messiah? If so how did he understand what that meant?

Here’s my summary of the sequence in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel:

  • Verses 1-4 Give us a sign. OK look at the story of Jonah.
  • Verses 5-12 The yeast of the Pharisees? What’s he talking about? The disciples are confused.
  • Verses 13-20 Does Peter get it right? Maybe, but then….
  • Verses 21-23. Peter gets it seriously wrong.
  • Verses 24-26. Now here’s the truth but then….
  • Verses 27-end. Now here’s the church probably getting it wrong.

Jesus did not come to start a church, so what we have here is a conversation amongst the first Christians about what he was really up to. Fortunately it’s laced with references to things Jesus probably did say. Does that conversation really matter to us 21st century Christians? Surely it does matter but only as a warning about the dangers of trying to fit Jesus into our preconceived ideas and systems. We do not need to see Jesus’s credentials (Messiah, Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity) before we follow him. How do we know which passages of the Gospels most represent the path Jesus points out to us? I suggest three clues:

  1.  Read the Gospels in the way this blog tries to show and draw your own conclusions.
  2. Ask yourself, does what I am reading now fit with the sermon on the mount?
  3. See everything in the light of the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to Christians at Corinth. Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.

When to break the rules

Matthew, chapters 14 and 15

“His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.” (chapter 14 verse 12)

Was it a headless body they reverently gathered up and buried? The head, you recall, had been presented on a gruesome platter to the daughter of Herodias.

Clearly John and Jesus had been close. John’s baptism had been a decisive moment for Jesus. After it, he withdrew to the desert to discern the direction he should take.

Both men upset the Jewish religious authorities. They both challenged the way things were done. They both based their challenge on a fresh understanding of the Hebrew scriptures. In chapter 15 of his gospel, Matthew shows us why the Pharisees and Sadducees got upset. For them outward observance had become more important than inner truth. Making sure you’ve got clean hands is less important, much less important, than having a clean heart, says Jesus (chapter 15 verses 17 to 20).

Then, as if to show that a Gentile understands this truth better than some Pharisees and Sadducees, Matthew gives us a story about a Canaanite woman (chapter 15 verses 21 to 28). Apparently Jesus had to be persuaded to respond to her. “Send her away,” say his disciples, “for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus appears to agree with them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Even more startling, Matthew has Jesus add, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Can Jesus really have said that? Remember, until Paul was converted the earliest Jesus Movement was a purely Jewish affair based around Peter and the original disciples. But Jesus had been willing to sit and eat with social outcasts: hardly the action of someone sticking to religious rules! No, I think we have here echoes of the controversy, stirred up by Paul’s ministry to Gentiles, about the future of the Jesus Movement. Was it to be a purely Jewish affair or did the teaching of Jesus contain the seeds of a universal truth crossing boundaries and freeing us to acknowledge the presence of God in every human being, whatever their beliefs and regulations? There’s nothing wrong with regulations, provided they don’t dominate the heart. There’s nothing wrong with the way in which every major religion expresses the truth. We all need signposts. The trouble starts when we mistake the signpost for the inwardly experienced reality.

Abundance

Matthew 14: 13 – 21 Feeding five thousand people.

The recent death of Marcus Borg brings to an end the creative partnership of two wonderful Biblical scholars. With John Dominic Crossan, he wrote several books including ‘The Last Week’, about the final fateful week of Jesus’ life. I mention this to acknowledge my debt to them as I comment on Matthew’s account of the feeding of five thousand people.

Borg and Crossan point out that Jesus was often criticized for eating meals with the wrong sort of people and that food supplies and debt were frequent problems for many in those days. Faced with the problem of feeding a big crowd, the disciples want Jesus to send them away to fend for themselves but, no, he insists, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The feeding stories are not about a miraculous multiplication of a few loaves and fish. Rather, they show how cooperation and fair distribution can bring abundance and harmony. There is enough for everyone if nobody grabs what they can without a thought for their neighbours. Jesus took the meager supply available and blessed, broke and distributed them. These three actions are at the heart of our Holy Communions, Masses, Eucharists – whatever we call them. The sad fact, reflected in these different titles, is that our attempts to follow the example and teaching of Jesus have resulted in division, disharmony and self-protective hoarding. The ego, the false self that Jesus tells us must be put to death, is always concerned about scarcity, always therefore seeks to hoard, is afraid of the generosity of God, assumes that more is necessary before anything can be achieved. When I discover the underlying truth about who I really am the abundance of the present moment opens up. There is no need to wait until one condition or another is fulfilled. If, in trust, I use what is available to me at this moment then I am blessing, breaking and giving.

A Thorny Problem

My aim throughout this blog is to try and recover the message of Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing comes closer to his authentic voice than the parables. Here, at the beginning of chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel, is the well known parable of the sower.   Thorns are one of the reasons why the seeds don’t grow and I have to admit that, for me, there are several large thorns in the rest of the chapter. Look at the sequence of chapter 13.

  • Verses 1 – 9 the parable of the sower.
  • Verses 10 – 23. The disciples don’t get it so the parable is explained, but would Jesus himself have told parables deliberately to keep people out of the kingdom of God?
  • What’s more, in verses 24 to 30, the parable suggests that those who don’t get it are in for some gruesome punishment.
  • Verses 31 – 33 give us two simple parables, the mustard seed and the yeast, suggesting the way the kingdom of God opens up for us.
  • But then in verses 34 to 43 we’re back with explanations of the parables and more gruesome punishment for those who don’t get it.

It’s true, those early Christians had severe problems. They were confronted by their fellow Jews who not only didn’t get the message of new life offered by Jesus but actually persecuted those ‘heretical deserters’ from the ancient ways of Judaism. I can’t help feeling, though, that Matthew is putting words into the mouth of Jesus that he would not have spoken. In fact he tells us as much in verse 34: “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.” The contrast between the beatitudes of the sermon on the mount and these dire predictions of eternal punishment is too great for me. Fortunately, hidden in this chapter among these thorns, we catch glimpses of the open invitation to enter the kingdom offered by Jesus: the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price. R S Thomas expresses the truth of these parables in his poem The Bright Field:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

 

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.