Sunday, July 20, 2014

strangers in the strange land

This week I've been paying more attention to current events in Israel than I have to studying the events of two thousand years ago, which is what I'd rather be doing. I don't know if there is anything in Matthew's gospel that could illuminate the present state of affairs, but there is much that can obscure it even more.

I was raised on the Bible. My grandfather was an evangelist who believed that the end of the world was at hand. He died fifty eight years ago, when I was two. My father was a minister who also believed and taught that signs of the Last Judgment and Christ's return were evident, and the most important of these signs was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 at a time when it seemed humanity had demonstrated the power to annihilate itself and the insanity to do it. The belief -- or maybe it is the fear? or hope? -- that history has a plot that is about to reach its climactic resolution is at the heart of evangelical experience. One of my aims is to look at the source of that teaching in the New Testament, specifically in Matthew. Another aim is to understand the teaching on righteousness, in terms of both a personal ethic and social justice.

Although I was constantly exposed to the Bible at home and at church, and did OK in "Bible drills"(kids competing to look up a verse), and pretty much internalized the doctrine my family believed and lived by, it wasn't until I was twenty that I had the disconcerting sense that the text was speaking directly to me when I read, "Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee." I was reading the prophet Ezekiel because I was interested in his vision of a "wheel within a wheel," popularly characterized as a UFO, more obscurely seen as an example of a mandala. I had read Memories, Dreams, and Reflections by that minister's son Carl Jung. Jung suggested that UFO sitings were visions of mandalas. Ezekiel's visions are bizarre and hallucinatory, but what impressed me was the direct call from God to speak on God's behalf to Israel. Like all the prophets of the Bible, the message was often so hard it could seem to be "anti-Israel." Some of his messages were delivered in a kind of street theater that reminded me of the performances of Joseph Beuys, whose "I Like America and America Likes Me" performance I read about in art magazines, as well as the guerrilla theater protests of the time. The destruction of the First Temple during the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and the exile of many Jews to Babylon, occurred during Ezekiel's time and are events that form the context of Ezekiel's prophetic criticism. I was impressed by the prophet's poetry and theater of protest and criticism and saw how it inspired the civil rights and anti-imperialism movements in the USA.

In every generation, most likely, there are Christians who try to return to the faith of the first followers of "the Way." The first followers were Jews who thought Jesus was the Messiah, but what did they think that meant? What was this Kingdom of Heaven that both John and Jesus said was at hand? And, like the prophets before them, John and Jesus said things that some regarded as "anti-Israel." The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE happened after Jesus' death, but had been foretold by him, according to the gospels. The crucifiction of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple were events linked somehow in the minds of the first Christians. My understanding is that the region of Galilee, where Jesus' ministry began and mostly took place, was somewhat multicultural and that there was a significant amount of intermarriage among Jews and non-Jews, as well as interest among the  Gentiles in Jewish messianic movements. Leaders of messianic movements in the first century include Judas of Galilee, Menahem ben Judah. Theudas, John of Gischala. At least one of Jesus' disciples was a Zealot, a movement that violently opposed Roman rule and were active in the failed Jewish revolt that ended with the Roman destruction of the Temple.

For Christians the Sacrifice of the Messiah/Destruction of the Temple ended or fulfilled the Law of Moses. Certain requirements, especially the rite of circumcision, were dropped to accommodate Gentile converts and Christianity became a universal religion, separate from Judaism. Judaism also underwent a transformation through which the scriptures were continued to be held holy and Jewish identity was maintained by observance of the Law during the Diaspora.

The word "diaspora" is Greek and comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It means "scattering" or "dispersion" or "sowing" and has come to refer to the dispersion of any people from their homeland, both or either in the sense of exile and dispersing to spread the culture through colonization. The first instance of its use in scripture is in Deuteronomy -- "thou shalt be a dispersion to all kingdoms of  the earth." The second use is in Psalms -- "The Lord doth build up Jerusalem: he gathereth together the outcasts (diasporas) of Israel."

Jewish history has gone through several diasporas, or perpetual diaspora in stages. which are critical events in the Bible. And note the cycle of diaspora. Dispersal in Deuteronomy, homecoming in the Psalms. The major dispersions were in 740-722 BCE after the Assyrian invasion, 587 BCE after the Babylonian invasion, and finally after the revolt against the Romans. Many were exiled from Israel, but they had their scriptures and the promise or hope of return from exile. Diaspora can also mean a scattering of seeds or ideas, culture, to other lands, new homes.

As we have seen in the gospel of Matthew, passages from scripture can be copied and pasted, and be used to frame the narrative of Jesus' ministry, because Israel was facing another crisis that would lead to a more total diaspora. And people copied and pasted prophecy in every generation since. What is lost in the eagerness (or paranoia) to find signs of an apocalypse is the prophets' teaching on social justice, especially toward the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, and other strangers in the strange land one calls home.

Monday, July 14, 2014

houses of the holes

Sunday, July 13, 2014

miracle stories

"When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

Matthew, Chapters 8-9:8

What bothers me about the miracle stories is that they seem to teach us nothing helpful about how to endure illness, suffering and death. Only if God Himself made a house call could things be set right. Buddhism seems to offer an alternative way to be free of suffering,  except miracle stories surround Buddha as well, including walking on water. "The crowds"  want miracles. Now we put our hope in medicine, but we're all going to die, and we're all going to suffer catastrophes over which we have no control. If you are caught in a boat in a storm there is nothing to do but ride it out and not panic and keep everyone calm.
The miracle stories show Jesus interacting with people of all kinds, including  a synagogue leader, a Roman centurion, a leper, some demoniacs, and a mother-in-law. The laws regarding "leprosy" are in Levitcus 13. The person with the skin ailment wanted to return to society and needed ritual purification, as well as healing of his skin condition. The centurion's faith in the power and authority of Jesus'  voice was greater than that of any son of Abraham Jesus had encountered and Jesus utters the prophecy that many Jews will be excluded from the heavenly country club, if you will, where the patriarchs have their banquet. The disciples witness his power to command the storm and even the entities who possess the Gadarene Demoniacs (great name for a Christian goth band) recognize Jesus. "What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" This is a very strange story, but the phrase "before the time" is interesting. Is that the time of the banquet with the fathers? And why did the whole town want Jesus to leave? When he heals the paralytic he also claims to have the authority to forgive sins, but the crowds are in awe to see that God "had given such authority to human beings."

Let's assume that "Matthew" (or "the Matthew community") believed the miracle stories and that they contribute to the overall story Matthew is telling by  dramatizing certain teachings. In the gospels miracle stories, or even ordinary non-miraculous stories, are meaningful because they "fulfill" scriptures. and Matthew says the miracles fulfill Isaiah's words, "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases,'" but Matthew doesn't tell us the rest of Isaiah's statement, which suggests that the price for all this healing, and the punishment for the sins, would be paid by the healer himself,

"Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all."

Isisah 53:4-6

Sunday, July 06, 2014

utopia is yours

 Sermon on the Mountcontinued.

An important apocalyptic Jewish movement in first century Palestine were the Essenes. Josephus describes them as "Contemptuous of wealth, they are communists to perfection, and none of them will be found to be better off than the rest: their rule is that novices admitted to the sect must surrender their property to the order, so that among them all each man's possessions go into the pool and as with brothers their entire property belongs to them all."

I believe that the followers of John and Jesus were also "communists to perfection" and that their way of life is the ethos of the Sermon on the Mount.

In Luke's gospel, when the crowds asked John, "What should we then do?" John answers, 

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 

In the book of Acts Luke describes the followers of Jesus:
"All who believed were together and had all things in common;  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having the goodwill of all the people."
John announced the coming of the kingdom of heaven and Jesus called it into being. The beatitudes tell us what sort of people came to hear him speak, or what they thought of themselves, a rainbow of concerns: Those who mourn, who are depressed, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who seek to resolve conflicts, who are persecuted for their good works. To all of these he promised the world to come. Utopia is yours, comfort is yours, the earth is yours, right will win, your helpfulness will be reciprocated, you will see God, you are a child of God, yours is the community of heaven, the earth is your inheritance -- utopia is yours. 
Jesus was speaking to Jews, to people who took the Law and the Prophets seriously, and who hoped that the God who delivered the Israelites from Egypt would remember His contract with His people and liberate them again. Jesus' perspective on the law goes beyond written laws to call for a change of mind and a renewal of the social contract based on the golden rule. Your debts will be forgiven, you will no longer fear being brought to trial, you will be delivered from evil, because the Creator has a master plan.
More next week.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Bless you

Jesus in Galilee Matthew 4:12-5:12

"the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light"

Herod has John the Baptizer arrested.
Jesus hears about this and splits for Galilee.
He settles in a lakeside town and teaches his message, which was John the Baptizer's message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand," and begins to organize.
He approaches two men casting nets and two other men mending nets and says come I'll make you networkers for the gospel.
Jesus went around Galilee, teaching about the community (as some prefer to call it) of heaven and healing people. Crowds gathered to be cured of demon possession, epilepsy, and paralysis, and his reputation as a healer spread beyond Galilee to "the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judaea and Transjordania" and people came from those places to be healed.

Matthew's gospel is a documentary composed of documents from various sources which were edited in a particular form to present to the community that grew out of this movement Jesus started by the Sea of Galilee. It is instructive to read Mark's narrative to see where Matthew makes his cuts, and where he pastes discourses attributed to Jesus. Since Matthew and Luke used the same sayings of Jesus, scholars write of a hypothetical document that consisted entirely of Jesus' oral doctrine and anything they remembered him saying.

Mark's storytelling more dramatically shows the appearance of an opposition among certain powerful groups and portays the Pharisees as collaborators with Herod against Jesus, but at this point in Matthew the Pharisees have not yet started to troll Jesus. John is in prison and Jesus is a superstar. Matthew cuts to Jesus performing on a hilltop, speaking to the disciples gathered around him.

What is he saying? 
Blessed are the poor in spirit? What if someone led a movement today and his message was, Blessed are the schizophrenics who live on the streets of the cities? Blessed are the elderly who are waiting to die in rehab centers, blessed are those who are so sick we can't stand to look at them? Blessed are those locked in prisons and forgotten? Blessed are the collateral damage to surgical military strikes? Blessed are the peacemakers who show up to every anti-war protest for every war and know its all hopeless, but will somehow feel guilty if they don't don't march and chant and circulate petitions? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice and know that the ruling class will never let it happen?

What is this "blessing"?

“Obamacare’s ‘good news’ applies only to the poor," some conservative columnist recently wrote. Jesus' good news was also aimed at the poor because they would benefit from the change that was coming. For me, "the Pharisees" represented the conservative religious type who insisted on a doctrinal purity based on a literal reading of ancient texts, who taught that poverty and illness were punishment for sin, and who prevented rational universal healthcare from coming about, and who sold out to the gods of the military industrial complex. As a young christian leftist I considered the Moral Majority televangelists to be the new Pharisees. Not a perfect analogy, but not a bad metaphor. In the gospels, the Pharisees are ultra-conservative scholars of the law who are so intransigent they condemn miraculous healing as demonic, or a violation of the Sabbath. 
If we translate "community or kingdom of heaven" to mean a possible world, a just society, an approximate utopia, and imagine how this could look, we don't want to design a healthcare system based on faith healing. Whatever Jesus was doing that inspired stories of miraculous healing, how does that help us now? 
I also want to know if the gospel writers were being fair to the Pharisees. 

within a budding grove

ink on canvas board 10' X 5'

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday School 6/22

                                    River baptism performed by my father in Florida in 1980.

Today's reading from Matthew:
Baptism and temptation of Jesus

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all quote Isaiah and identify John the Baptist as the voice crying in the wilderness, but Mark's quote begins with a phrase from the prophet Malachi: "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way." The other writers "correct" Mark's quote and leave that out, but all four canonical gospels introduce John the baptizer with Isaiah's "voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" This is where Mark begins his gospel.  Mark and Luke also say John preached repentance, but only Matthew reports JtB as saying "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." They all quote John saying he is unworthy to carry or untie the sandals of the one who is coming after him. John wore clothes made of camel hair and a leather belt like Elijah and ate locusts and honey and baptized people in the Jordan River. Like Malachi, he may have been directing his prophetic criticism primarily against the corrupt priests, particularly the Sadducees, calling for their purification and change of mind, a transformation symbolized in the ritual of baptism. The one who comes after him will baptize with the Spirit (in Mark) or with the Spirit and fire (in Luke and Matthew). Baptism in the Spirit means a change of consciousness, and a new way of thinking, not just a change of behavior, but fire implies God's judgment on his people, or on the ruling class: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" - this is in both Matthew and Luke. I think this is an interpretation added by the second generation of the Jesus movement, an attempt to find meaning in the destruction of the Temple and the Temple-centered religion. Matthew and Luke both say that it is useless to claim privilege in being descended from Abraham, because God can make sons of Abraham out of rocks. 
It is not enough to copy out different stories about Jesus and what he said and what happened to him. Matthew and Luke used Mark's gospel and some other accounts that they regarded as credible plus a written or oral record of what he said. The gospel writers are collecting  the teachings of the first generation of the Jesus cult. A couple centuries later, church elders get together and determine which Christian writings are credible - but what does that mean? 
I know little about the early christians. This is what I think - Jesus had a teaching and a worldview and a set of practices and performances, a constant, improvised street theater as well as his routine of parables and paradoxes which he taught his disciples.   Jesus appeared at a time of revolutionary upheaval against the occupying superpower and its puppet dictator and corrupt ruling class. There are rival groups, including a ruling class of priests plus Jews who work for the state plus revolutionaries who carry on the prophetic tradition and even the oriental intelligentsia are expecting a new king, anointed by the Creator to liberate his people. 
Matthew's stories ( like the massacre of the innocents) are understood to have biblical significance. Just like when Moses was born, a massacre occurs to stop the birth of the new liberator. Elijah, or someone dressed like him, appears in the wilderness and crowds of people come to him to be initiated into the movement that will prepare the way for the kingdom of heaven, the revolutionary utopia conceived by an unmarried girl who was accepted by a the boy who married her, because of what an angel told him in a dream, and their son grows up and goes to be baptized by this revolutionary who is calling for a purification of the cultic practices and demanding social justice (Luke has JtB tell his followers to become communists). Only Matthew has JtB direct his accusations at the Pharisees and Sadducees. This might reflect conflicts among second generation Jewish christians in the last third of the century. The ex-Pharisee Josephus wrote respectfully of John the Baptist, who, he says, Herod considered to be a threat. He describes the Sadducees as a ruling elite who ran the Temple as well as everything else. They disappeared after the destruction of the Temple, but the Pharisees, built the base of what we now call Judaism, I guess.
Jesus is baptized and all four gospels say the sky opened and the Spirit of God descends like a dove and a voice says, This is my beloved son, etc., only John's gospel tells this as something JtB experienced, his personal revelation of Jesus as son of God. Jesus submitted to the ritual of initiation into the movement led by John and John believed Jesus was the next stage, the one he was preparing the Way for by calling for the purification of the ruling priestly class who serve the empire and exploit their own people. Whatever "the kingdom of heaven is," it is neither the kingdom of Herod or Caesar.'
Emulating Moses, Jesus fasts for forty days in the wilderness. Moses wrote down the ten commandments when he did that. Mark says very little about Jesus' vision quest following his baptism: "And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan: and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him." To that spare account Matthew and Luke add the story of the three temptations. The scriptures Jesus/Yeshua uses to battle Satan all come from Deuteronomy and the context is Moses calling on Israel to obey God's laws and remember their deliverance from Egypt, and  recalling the forty years in the wilderness before Israel was led across the Jordan River by a leader named Joshua/Yehoshua/Yeshua. Maybe the significance of John's baptism practice was in the symbolism of its location, as if he is calling Israel to reinvent itself by returning to the wilderness, re-crossing the Jordan,  and retaking the Promised Land?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sunday School 6/15

Magi, Massacre, and Escape to Egypt
Matthew 2 in the New Revised Standard Version

No manger scene in Matthew. Luke has that story.
Enter the wise men from the East. Arabs? Persians? Zoroastrians? Whoever this Oriental intelligentsia represented their diplomatic skills were questionable, as they tell the sitting King of the Jews that they have come to pay homage to the new King of the Jews, whose star they are following. The star (Jupiter?) has signaled the time of the new king's birth, and Jewish prophecies tell the place, according to the priests and scribes Herod consults. The story of the magi shows that the world outside of Palestine is interested in the news of the new king, but also implies that the knowledge possessed by the magi has some authority or value (the incense trade moved through Judea, bringing cultural influences along with the myrrh and frankincense). Messianic expectation extended beyond Palestine, apparently.
The story of the massacre of the children, ordered by Herod, only appears in Matthew's book. Josephus didn't mention it in his histories, but he has other stories of the king murdering family members and rabbis. Herod's brutality and paranoia were well-known and Matthew's audience would have found it believable that he would order such an atrocity. Herod was the King of the Jews, but he was backed up by the Roman Empire, and he ultimately was Rome's servant. He was known for his remarkable building projects, financed by high taxes, including the Temple in Jerusalem, for which he appointed a High Priest. He had forty six leaders from the rabbinical council killed. He had a Roman eagle installed at the entrance, a symbol of oppression and sacrilege to the Jewish people that was smashed by students of the Torah, who Herod had arrested and burned alive. The priests and scribes Herod consulted about the new king the magi sought, were required to be loyal, or they would be killed.
Matthew's audience (the people who were listening to the story being read out loud) hated and feared the existing government, and understood that this power structure considered the new king to be a threat.

Here is a helpful account of Herod the Great and his significance in Jewish history:

Typically, Matthew quotes scriptures to show that prophecy was "fulfilled" by these events, but dreams also have something to tell us. The magi are warned in a dream about Herod, Joseph is warned in a dream to escape to Egypt, and then Joseph is told in a dream to return to Israel, and the family settles in Nazareth. I suggest that the reader consult his/her own dreams relating to this story, for more insight.

Two men with a mission: