Sunday, July 27, 2014

good meds and gospel gonzo

Matthew, Chapter 10

The Lost Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

When Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the good news they were saying that a change is coming and the social order will be turned upside down, right side up, made righteous.
The new standard of righteousness will require a change in perspective and in thoughts and feelings, a transformation as radical as the change in the social order, a cultural revolution and a change of consciousness.

The new righteousness does not look "religious". Those who genuinely seek "religious experience," are looking for ultimate reality within and without. Jesus taught his disciples to not give theatrical public prayers like the hypocrites, but to pray to the Father in Heaven in private, set apart from the world, speaking the truth to yourself, open to existential truth breaking through the veils of self deception and resistance and confronting both the facts of your situation and the transcendent reality that grounds you.

Jesus taught that the Father in Heaven is concerned and in contact with us because we are his children. Yes, I would like to hear about a divine mother as well, but I am not going to correct the patriarchal metaphor. The family metaphors in the New Testament can get strange when extended. Jesus experienced, apparently, encounters with the universe, the creative ground of being, the godhead, in which he found his direction and his goal. Prayer as an altered state and vision quest. But he said to bring our contingent needs to the Father in secret, even though the Father already knows  what our needs really are, because we will find our real needs taken care of, our need for courage, wisdom, friendship, and so on, or that is what I take "treasures in heaven" to mean.

What worries you now? How are you going to provide for your needs and not be in debt and at risk of  trouble with the authorities and how are you going to be safe from bad fortune in general? 
I will face all the contingencies that are out of my control, secure that I am doing what I can, in hope that the new order of the transcendent community, in which everyone's real needs will be provided, will become reality.

Is the future safe? What's it all about?

It bothers me when I read that some will be rewarded for their faith and others will suffer for their unfaith, locked outside, gnashing their teeth, like the towns that drove out Jesus and his disciples and rejected their message. He said these towns will have it worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. 

Can you blame those communities? What would you have done?
The leader of a cult comes to town with his entourage and crowds come and pack the civic auditorium and he preaches his message. 

Picture a contemporary Jesus as the hero of yet another science fiction update of the gospel. Imagine him as guest speaker at megachurches and on televangelic networks and on CNNMSNBCFOXNPR and Colbert and Stewart --

"The End is coming! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! You will either be rewarded or punished!"

And all the sick people came forward with all kinds of disabilities, physical and mental disorders, hopeless cases whose suffering is increased by their alienation from society, and he heals them, and everyone sees it, it is verified empirically.
Sensational stuff.
Here is a medicine man with good meds and he gives it away!
He is giving free healthcare even to people with sexually transmitted diseases and who are not married and are estranged from their families, and even the child born out of wedlock is recognized as a child of the cosmic parent and the responsibility of the community, and for a while at least, the suffering know what it is like to be whole (like Captain Pike on Star Trek?) and to be part of a community.
This cult leader becomes more powerful as his fame increases, drawing followers from a wide base represented by groups that didn't before seem to have much in common, like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and public employees who wanted to reform the bureaucracy and corporate whistleblowers, and the unemployed and homeless, and veterans and students and workers. And the movement's message is that another world is possible, is becoming real, in which the poor become rich and the wealthy lose everything, and prisoners are set free, and debts are forgiven. 

People get ready, there's a train a-comin.'
Naturally, the authorities are concerned.

When did Christianity lose Christ?

Jesus shows me a way to read scripture. Don't change anything in the text, but freely take parts of it to make a point about the present situation, and look beyond the literal and the legal to the higher standards of social equality and compassion. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, etc. More than obedience to the letter of scripture is required. My relationships with others and my attitudes towards them indicate whether I am righteous or not.
When did "church fathers" insist that a literal interpretation of an infallible rule book from a despotic Deity containing everything from reliable scientific information about the origins of the physical cosmos to a strict timetable for events leading to the end of the world and a FAITH that it was all literally true and factually correct were necessary conditions for one to escape eternal torture?
When did they give in to that paranoid terrorist doctrine? What kind of father treats his children that way -- threatening to physically abuse the child that doesn't obey every arbitrary rule and/or psychologically torture the child with guilt? The religious fundamentalist is not faith-driven, but delusional.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to follow his example he didn't tell them to flog unbelievers or bring them to trial.
Jesus was not leading a crusade, or an inquisition. He was not creating an empire with guns, bombs, and enhanced interrogation. But the movement wouldn't bring peace either, but civil disturbance and families torn apart. The footnote in the Jerusalem Bible says that verses 17 through 39 "are those of a later time than this first mission of the Twelve." How much later? The civil disturbance suggested by the prophecies of destroyed towns and the persecution of disciples may describe events during the Jewish revolt that were recent events for Matthew's community.

The Jesus movement was going to social outcasts, the outsiders, and giving them care, and they were going to government employees and revolutionaries, homeless, unemployed, anybody that connected with the message of the Kingdom of Heaven and wanted to be part of it. 

The miracle stories that circulated indicate that expectations regarding Jesus' power went through the roof, but that his outstanding characteristic was his compassion, and a charisma that came from a profound courage and focus on his calling. 

He kept his eye on the prize. Even though he understood from the beginning that he had to be willing to lose his life, he took up the cross, so to speak, and led a march to the center of politcal power, representing all the powerless and poor and sick, and if the people in power responded as he always knew they were likely to, he was not afraid because he was delivering the message he was born to deliver.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


9" X 6" ink on canvas board

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.