Tag Archives: Jesus

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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:

Forgiveness

Matthew’s gospel chapter 9.

Chapter 9 begins with two stories about forgiveness. It’s obvious in the first one about the healing of a paralysed man. Jesus says to him:

“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

But what about the story that follows in verse 9 when Jesus calls Matthew to be one of his disciples? What’s this one got to do with forgiveness? Matthew was one of a hated group of people: tax collectors. Two thousand years later their reputation hasn’t improved much has it? Maybe it was some of Matthew’s professional friends who sat down with him and Jesus for dinner (verses 10 to 13). I wonder if Jesus was using some gentle sarcasm when he responded to the Pharisees who criticised him for daring to eat with such pariahs? He says:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

I don’t think Jesus is saying, ‘I have come only to help those who have problems or are desperate’. Surely he is saying, ‘I have good news for those who want to grow.’

The virtuous are self-satisfied. They do not hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus is not interested here in the moral question of tax collecting. He is light years away from the Pharisees’ obsession with ritual and ethical purity. He is focussed on the power of forgiveness but even here he upsets our somewhat mean, narrow understanding of it. For Jesus, forgiveness has almost nothing to do with the past. Forgiveness is all about new life. ‘Today is the first day of the rest of my life’, as the saying goes. When the future looks like a promised land to be taken by storm, forgiveness is at work. And we are talking here about the sense of release that comes when it dawns on us that we are forgiven; all those past failures, including our failure to forgive others who have wronged us. Brother Roger, founder and Prior of the Taize Community in France, wrote:

“In order to live for Christ in the midst of others, one of the greatest risks is forgiveness. Forgiving again and again is what wipes away the past and plunges us in the present moment. To forgive: this is as far as love goes. Human beings are sometimes harsh. God for his part comes to clothe us in compassion. God is never, never at all a tormentor of the human conscience. God buries our past in the heart of Christ and has already taken care of our future. The assurance of forgiveness is the most unheard of, the most unbelievable, the most generous of God’s realities. It makes us free, incomparably free.”

Matthew’s gospel chapter 8.
So moving on from Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’, we come to chapter 8 which begins with:

“When Jesus had come down from the mountain….”

My aim in this blog is to re-discover Jesus the wisdom teacher. I am not trying to write a general commentary on the gospels so the three healing stories that Matthew tells here (chapter 8 verses 1 – 17) are, for me, an interlude. I wonder if Matthew had Moses in mind when he composed these verses. When Moses came down from the mountain on which he had received the ten commandments he was confronted with problems which had developed amongst the Israelites while he was up there for forty days (see Exodus chapter 31:18 and chapter 32). Perhaps Matthew saw the ‘sermon on the mount’ as the new commandment of love and now here’s Jesus as the new Moses responding to the crises he encounters.

Anyway, sticking to my overall plan, I can skip to verses 18 – 22 which include these startling words in response to a scribe who says he wants to follow Jesus:

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

And to someone described as a disciple who says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus replies:

Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.

Is Jesus being hard hearted here? I think not. I think this is the good news, the gospel, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. If the bereaved son or daughter thinks that following Jesus involves dropping all responsibility they have misunderstood the message. The time to follow Jesus is always now. Get that right and all one’s responsibilities take on an entirely new dimension. Elsewhere (Matthew chapter 22) Jesus tells us the parable of guests invited to a banquet who all begin to offer excuses. The crucial message is: I do not necessarily have to change what I am doing. It’s the way I am doing it that is profoundly changed when I have discovered how to follow Jesus. The banquet the guests are refusing to attend (the kingdom of God as it is called in the gospels) is always here and now. If I refuse the invitation I am saying, this is not the way I want to live my life. I am deaf to the message of Jesus, blind to the possibilities that his way of living opens up. No thanks, I’m too busy. I’m more concerned with my future, too burdened with responsibilities to follow you at this moment.

Now, why does the storm on the lake story follow on from the verses I have just been looking at and what about the story after that: the Gadarene demoniacs? I cannot possibly know what the author of Matthew’s gospel was thinking but I assume that he (she?) had reasons for arranging the stories in this particular order. For me personally the sequence makes sense. Jesus tells the grieving disciple to get the funeral arrangements in the right perspective. When the storm swamps the boat he tells his followers to have faith. When the mentally deranged Gadarenes come charging up to him yelling at him, the healing Presence of Jesus brings stillness and calm to them. People who have discovered the ‘Power of Now’, who practice the contemplative way of life, are not exempt from life’s trials and suffering but they are not swamped by them. What goes on in my head can be scary. What goes on around me in the world can sometimes threaten to swamp me. The good news is that the more I practice the way of Jesus the more these events and situations do not disturb the depths of the lake that is me. The surface may be very rough. The deeps are always still.

Know-it-all

Matthew chapter 7 verses 24 to 27:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock…….”

This morning as I sit to write this post it feels as if the rain is falling, the floods are rising and the wind is blowing. I won’t bore you with the personal details; just to say that I am thinking, who am I to be writing stuff about spirituality when I am feeling like this? The other temptation when I am feeling like this is to look around for help. Maybe, I should re-read that book, visit that church to pray, talk to that person ……?

The uncomfortable truth is that I am a ‘know-it-all’ – a phrase normally used in a critical way about bores who think they know everything. But in the spiritual life there does come a point at which being a ‘know-it-all’ is good. Finding yet another inspirational book, or speaker, or retreat centre can become an escape, a failure to act on what I know. What I need to know, or rather to remember, is that my house is built on rock; that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’; that there is ‘nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God’. This is what I forget too often and, of course, inspirational books and people do help me to remember. However, eventually I have to recognise that getting more knowledge won’t help. I am talking about  head knowledge. What I know in my head has to become stuff that I experience at a gut level, almost literally in my body. I re-member it, re-embody it and that is a process that can only happen from moment to moment. Perhaps this re-membering, this re-embodying, is the narrow gate through which Jesus says we must pass into the kingdom.

When J. S. Bach wrote his cantata ‘Ich habe genug (I have enough) he had in mind the old man Simeon who according to Luke’s Gospel, took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, in effect, ‘now I’m happy to die because I’ve seen all I need to see.’ (Luke 2: 29) You can hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the cantata at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSTDibqXuGo

So, at the end of this series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount you could say, “That’s it. That’s all I need. I have enough.” I could make this my last post for this blog but I think I’ll continue in the hope that I’ll find different ways of saying the same thing which, come to think about it, is probably what Jesus was doing. Words point to the reality but they are not that reality itself. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, ‘Don’t go babbling on’ and why he warned that not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’  enters the kingdom.

Perhaps this from Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Island’ is a good way to finish a series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount

“….people ought to take their religion warm from the cow, if you see what I mean. Not skimmed or pasteurized or homogenized. Above all not canned in any kind of theological or liturgical container.”

It’s open. Come in!

Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!                                   Matthew chapter 7 verses 7 – 11

William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, said, “When I pray coincidences happen.” My personal experience verifies the truth of this. Yet it was precisely this experience of ‘answers’ to prayer that undermined my traditional belief in a personal God ‘out there’ somewhere managing the affairs of this world (caricatured as the bearded old man above the skies). Why did this ‘God’ apparently ignore so many requests? There have been times when I wonder if my prayers have an almost geographical range. Blunderbuss requests for peace in Iraq or the poor in Africa have no (immediate) discernable effect, whereas sniper rifle shots at a specific, limited target seem to fall within the Archbishop’s truth. Please note that I speak here very tentatively. In my last post I referred to my unease when this mysterious process becomes the primary focus of religious events from Lourdes pilgrimages to Pentecostal healing services. Most of them are concerned with healing of one sort or another and of course I deeply desire healing: for people I love, for people I hear about in the media. The suffering of the world moves me.

The Archbishop’s point about coincidences can include physical and mental healing. Again, I can verify the truth of this from my own experience but still I find myself in the presence of mystery. Trying to explain it gets us into real trouble, especially the temptation to think that we can manipulate the process for our own selfish ends. (There are warnings about this kind of temptation a few verses after today’s passage and I’ll explore them in my next post.)

This morning in bed I was flooded by a sense of profound peace. What more could I want? There was no point in asking for anything. To do so would have been to superimpose my puny desire on this ineffable mystery. What I personally want seems pointless in the midst of such reality. So, still speaking very tentatively, I read “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find……” in the context of the rest of chapters 5 to 7. Apart from physical healing the question arises, how desperate am I to find the narrow gate; to enter the realm of the rule of love; to begin the rehabilitation process for my addiction to anxiety, resentment and all the rest of the mental junk that afflicts us? The good news, the Gospel, is that the door I am knocking at is open. The truth I am looking for, the peace I desire, is already present. As many saints and sages have testified, the God I am looking for has already found me: is and always was present in every fibre of my being. I am simply one beggar telling any other beggar who might be interested, where I have found bread.