Monday, August 18, 2014
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Matthew 12:46 - 13:58
"My people, hear my teaching;
These parables of the kingdom are bookended by two stories involving Jesus' family. Do they reflect some distancing between the gospel writer's community and those in the Jesus movement loyal to Jesus' "brethren," particularly James, who were more conservative in regard to traditions and also more nationalistic? I have no idea. Jesus says his real mother and sisters brothers are the community of faith who will make the potential kingdom a reality. He is so obviously speaking figuratively here it feels stupid to point out that he doesn't mean his followers undergo a change of DNA or undergo a metaphysical transformation from son of a human dad to son of God. Why is it hard to see that the same poetic license is involved in calling Jesus the Son? Or is he saying that the community of faithful constitute a mother deity?
Jesus' disciples didn't all fast and weren't particularly observant to the traditions but they do his Father's will because they believe Jesus' revelation is true, or can be true, if they believe. If it has the potential to be true? I'm asking.
The parable of the sower, speaking of "potens" - seed planting, and the potentials realized and unrealized. What kind of sower sows this way? What kind of Darwinist reading of this rather random diaspora could be done? (Thoreau's notes on the dispersion of seeds) Birds are natural sowers of seeds. Is Jesus the sower? He's broadcasting the news but only a few will understand it and will commit to acting on what they understand, but they will be fruitful. God's covenant to Abraham and promise to multiply his seed and give them possession of that still-disputed real estate comes to mind, and also John's warning that God can make sons of Abraham out of the rocks, and the Diaspora following the war with Rome.
The parable of the darnel (weeds) mixed in with the wheat, that will be separated out, bundled and burnt at "the end of the age."
The parable of the mustard seeds potential.
He uses the idea of a seed, or of cultivation as a metaphor in different ways to describe the creation of a new culture (leavening?) that realizes the prophetic message of a potential kingdom, the messianic age.
In the first century of what might as well be called the Christian Era, after the destruction of the second temple, some Jews joined a new cult that declared a new age of faith prepared by the early phase and based on the ministry and/or sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, a man whose thoughts and actions we only know through writings collected by his followers.
I don't believe this man had a plan for establishing the State of Israel and destroying the Dome of the Rock to re-establish the Jewish Temple where he will sit and be King of the Universe. Many people do believe something like this, including people I know and love. I have no desire to ridicule this belief in my blog, but I do want to explore what these writings collected by a specific community could have meant for that group. Did they believe Jesus' essential mission was to offer himself as a sacrifice, did they believe he came back to life and ascended to heaven and that he would return in their lifetime? Did Jesus teach this?
I don't want to get hung-up on the historical Jesus myth. The story of Jesus, even stripped of the supernatural, and revised like Jefferson and Tolstoy and other post-Enlightenment readers, or given a modern misreading by post-Existentialist readers, or adapting to left or right political propaganda. like using old wineskins to carry new wine, created a culture out of scraps of an old culture destroyed in the insurrections of first century Palestine.
Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, but his stepfather and his mother called him a child of God. By the time he was thirty he had to decide to find out for himself if he was son of God or just some bastard, so he went to meet the prophet many thought was Ezekiel, because who else would know? John identified Jesus as "Son of God" -- as the potential new king who could establish utopia.
This new Ezekiel put Jesus through an ordeal that began with being baptized in the Jordan and followed with a vision quest that was a forty day period of fasting "in the wilderness" that was a ritual reenactment of Israel's forty years in the wilderness in which the initiate is faced with the same temptations the nation faced in its history myth, temptations that questioned the national identity and the collective vision and faithfulness. The history myth tells the story of the Law and of the future kingdom that has no human king and the law is internalized. The prophets were the poet activists who described this future and criticized the nation for failing to be true to its potential and for injustice and bad ideology.
This gospel reading quotes Psalm 78, " I will open my mouth with a parable." This psalm was sung in the temple and tells the story of Israel's history myth and God's great deeds of liberation and providence, and reminds the listeners of God's punishment of Israel when it was faithless. The prophet is warning them as he reminds them of the promise.
"Prophets are not without honor," The carpenter's son said wryly.
Monday, August 11, 2014
Matthew, chapters 11 and 12
"On that day the deaf will hear when a book is read, and the eyes of the blind will see out of impenetrable darkness. The lowly will once again rejoice in the Lord, and the poor exult in the Holy One of Israel."
Isn't Isaiah obviously speaking figuratively? Yet Jesus gives the reports of the blind and deaf being healed, lepers cleansed, the lame walking, the dead raised, as evidence that he is the Messiah. Isaiah went on to promise that those who "by falsehood deny justice to the innocent -- all these will be cut down." This is the unspoken part of Jesus' message to John.
John was still in prison and possibly having doubts about Jesus, based on what he had been hearing from his own disciples. Earlier, John's followers had asked why Jesus and his disciples didn't fast like John did, and Jesus responded that fasting was inappropriate when "the bridegroom," the Messiah, was present, they would mourn when he is taken away from them.
The prophet Malachi said Elijah would return before the terrible day of judgment. There is no historical evidence of destruction coming to the Galilean cities Jesus cursed, but he compared them to Tyre and Sidon, which Ezekiel condemned for not distributing their great wealth among the poor, and one of the signs that Jesus gave that he was the Messiah (or Christ) was that the good news was being brought to the poor.
Isaiah's prophecy envisions a collective enlightenment accompanying social transformation, a new ethos and spirituality, like the new wine that cannot be contained by old wineskins. Malachi had said that Elijah would return before this Messianic age and there was widespread belief that John was Elijah, because he was hairy and had a wide leather belt, but probably also because of the prophetic authority of his criticism of the priests who were appointed by Herod. John was known for his righteousness, respected by "the Jews" for his observance of Law, his fasting, his abstinence from alcohol. Jesus was being criticized for his laxity in regard to the Sabbath, and for drinking wine with tax collectors and non-observant Jews (sinners).
The gospels show the conflict between Jesus and ultra-orthodox Pharisees and scribes by accusing them of taking offense with the miraculous healing, Jesus' signs of power. Not that they doubted that such miracles occurred, but that they attributed his power to Beelzebul. Jesus had said that his disciples would also be accused of being in league with Beelzebul. In 2 Kings Elijah had shown that Beelzebul did not have the power and authority Yahweh has, in whose name Elijah could call fire down from heaven to wipe out an army. By accusing Jesus of being Elijah's nemesis, the Pharisees were driving a wedge between him and the new Elijah. Was John the new Elijah? Not literally but he is, if you believe, Jesus said. John was the one who prepared the way for the terrible day of the Lord, and now that time was here and the ritual fasting and abstinence practiced by John were out of date.
What did Jesus mean when he said, "Since the time of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are taking it by force?" I don't know. This is often taken to mean that those who are faithful are forcefully claiming the promised kingdom, but it is also interpreted as a reference to the violence of those resisting the kingdom, such as Herod throwing John in prison, or Pharisees plotting against Jesus. The latter interpretation, which I prefer, is consistent with "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God" and "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake," while the former recalls "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," which he said before warning his followers that families will be divided by his message. At the end of today's reading he says "'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And pointing to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'"
Are Jesus' curses upon cities who reject his message terrorist threats of retaliation, or warnings of the natural consequences of injustice? I don't know.
Isaiah's prophecy that Israel is Yahweh's servant, proclaiming justice to the Gentile nations, is claimed by the Matthew community as referring to Jesus the Messiah, in whom "the nations shall put their hope." The kingdom of heaven is all about peace and justice, but the kingdom of heaven is in a state of siege.
Isaiah 42: 1-4
"I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud,nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope."
Matthew 11: 28-30
"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will hve you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke s easy, and my burden is light."
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Saturday, July 26, 2014
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.