Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jesus takes Jerusalem

Matthew 21

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is reported in all four gospels, with some
chronological variation and other differences. His riding on a colt or
a foal or a donkey through the gate, coming from Mount of Olives, is
taken a sign, as if this street theater was using well-known symbols
of the Messiah as victorious warrior king returning from battle and/or
wealthy bridegroom coming to delight in his bride (Some chapters back,
Jesus refered to himself as the bridegroom). Anyway, the gospel
versions of what in itself seems a non-event, carries an
overdetermined load of literary reference. That is to say, the arrival
of Jesus in Jerusalem became a poem about the Messiah. Check out
Zechariah 9:9 (and all of chapter 9) and Isaiah 62 and Psalm 118 to
begin scratching the surface of this text.
The guerrilla theater climaxes with the cleansing of the Temple,
another complex, loaded, bit of poetry. For many this scene is about
protesting the corruption of established religion by the marketplace,
or the corruption of a culture by capitalist ideology, and it easily
becomes that as we tell the story, but it becomes more, the more we
dig at that surface. The moneychangers were there to convert Roman
money, which bore the image of Caesar and was therefore banned from
the sanctuary, with Temple money. You might recall that Peter was told
by Jesus to retrieve a shekel from the mouth of a fish (another sign
of Jonah?) which would be used to pay the half shekel temple tax for
both of them. Jesus is questioned about aother tax controversey later.
I feel that much of the context of these events is lost. In general,
Jesus is performing as a prophet, rebuking the priests and telling
them that their obsession with religious symbols has blinded them to
the needs of the people, which are the real concerns of the Father. I
don't understand why Jesus had a lot of tax collectors following him.
The tax collectors collected for the Romans, as I understand it, and
Matthew or Levi, who tradition has it was the author of this gospel,
was a tax collector who apparently left it behind to become a
disciple. So the tax collectors are noteworthy for having changed
course in their lives, as the prostitutes who followed Jesus changed
course in theirs. I am intrigued by the children shouting in the
temple and I have been wondering if these "children," who I wrote
about last week, were more like adolescents, and if there was a strong
youth movement behind Jesus.

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

notes for equinox

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Matthew 18 - 20

Matthew chapters 18-20. The movement has become a community, a congregation, a family. Jesus had given Peter a certain amount of authority as a  leader in this community because of his faith that Jesus was the messiah, although he instructed his disciples not to tell people he was the messiah. When Peter objected to Jesus' prediction that he would be executed by the authorities in Jerusalem, Jesus called him a stumbling block, an obstacle, rather than a foundation stone, because he was thinking like men think, rather than how God thinks. Matthew is the only gospel where the word for "church" - congregation or community - is used. Matthew's gospel is directed to the needs of the community of followers in the generation or generations after the original Jesus generation, so we have Jesus touching the children and accepting them into the community of brothers, commanding these brothers to not be a stumbling block to the weakest, most dependent members of the community. 
Who were these children following Jesus? Homeless orphans? It is clear he speaks of actual children, but sometimes he calls his followers children of the father in heaven. So, he tells his followers to become like children, become homeless orphans dependent on the father. He doesn't mean for them to become stupid and gullible about church doctrine, he means they must be in an abject and dependent state so their commitment to the community will be total. 
Jesus had made Peter a leader, but his disciples were also leaders and teachers, I guess, or organizers in this community of brothers and sisters that was growing around Jesus, and he insisted that these leaders be servants to the community. He also is shown insisting  that those who want to join give up all their possessions. 
The parable of the unforgiving servant whose own debt to the master was enormous, but who would not forgive the much smaller debt of the much poorer servant. What debt does one bring? What burden too much to bear? 
Jesus speaks to them about resolving conflicts among themselves, forgiving each other and reaching agreement, and tells them that he is present when the brothers and sisters of the community are in agreement. This is Matthew's message to the community of the generations after the original Jesus movement.

I believe that Jesus performed his stories and that parables such as the story of the unforgiving servant were routines and this was part of his appeal to the crowds, especially the children. I don't think you will ever see a preacher, especially in a baptist church, simply read a parable to the congregation. They will perform it, and even act out parts in different voices, and embellish it with details that connect it with the everyday lives of the listeners. So, in this stand up routine Jesus delivers the message to forgive one's brothers and sisters in the community, because your own debt, which has been forgiven, was so great. The condition of one's being forgiven, is that one forgives one's brothers and sisters in the community.

Living with the terms of marriage, as originally intended by the creator, may not be acceptable to everybody, because of personal weaknesses, but Jesus says that those who can accept the commitment should.

It is virtually impossible for the wealthy man to win eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus insists on the impossible. Giving up possessions and sharing them was a condition for joining the community. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard carries the message of equality among community members. The least will be the greatest and the last will be first. 

What about us? Peter wants to know. You will all sit in judgment of the tribes of Israel, after all things are made new, Jesus promises. What was that all about? And did it mean the same thing for the first century Jewish sect that it meant for the fourth century Gentile church?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

mémoire involontaire

Sunday, September 14, 2014

the sign of Jonah

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, three of the first disciples he'd
called to follow him, on a vision quest on a high mountain and they
see their teacher transfigured and his face illuminated like Moses',
and then they see him with Moses and Elijah. How did they know who
they were? Why did Peter offer to build shelters for each of them?
Then comes the revelation that came at Jesus' baptism, the voice from
the sky proclaiming him the beloved son.
This week's reading develops Peter's story of his evolving faith,
small like a mustard seed, but having the potential to develop, so the
disciples could become as powerful as Jesus.
Jesus' declaration that some of his listeners will still be alive when
he comes in his glory -- were all of these listeners dead by the time
Matthew was written?
The sign of Jonah was already interpreted by Matthew back in chapter
12: 38-42 as a metaphor for Jesus' death and resurrection, although
the story of Jonah seems more like a parable of redemption,
specifically, the redemption of Gentile nations. Did Nineveh convert
to Judaic Law? Maybe Jonah stands in for xenophobic Jews. When Nineveh
unexpectedly (to Jonah) repented and sought righteousness Jonah has a
crisis of faith. Jesus' death was a consequence of his obedience to
his father's will, but Jonah's symbolic descent into Sheol was the
result of his attempt to run away from God.
The strange story of the shady bush that God provides after Jonah
builds a shelter (like "Simon bar Jonah" offered to build for Jesus,
Moses, and Elijah?) and then destroys, angering Jonah yet again -- is
that also part of "the sign of Jonah"? Although the Law of Moses and
the anti-Beelzebul mission of Elijah focuses on the exclusiveness of
the Jews, Israel also is called to be a sign for the Gentiles, and the
possibility of Gentile redemption and righteousness shouldn't create a
crisis of identity for righteous Jews, as Nineveh's repentance was for
Matthew and the other gospels might be saying that the "leaven of the
Pharisees," that is, certain rabbinical traditions that are markers of
Jewish cultural identity, are inappropriate for non-Jewish cultures
seeking God. In the gospels Jesus was interpreting interpreting Jewish
law for Gentile consumption. The Law was God's gift to the Jews, but
also for everyone. How can Gentiles become righteous? Do they have to
convert and conform to rabbinical tradition, which, since the
destruction of the temple, became the authorized form of
The maji fro the east, the Syro-Phoenician "dogs", the centurion who
had great faith, all had hopes or myths of a messiah, and of a
fundamental transformation, and they were looking for an ultimate
reality and cultural revolution like that of a Moses or Elijah.
What is the essential prophetic message that can be understood and
adopted by the Gentiles? What teaching can be given to them and taken
into their own cultures? What did the Jewish scriptures have for
non-Jews, and are those new Gentile converts, those dogs, with their
unorthodox forms of worship a threat to Jewish identity in the
Centuries after this gospel was written the new orthodoxy established
by the council of Nicea excluded both Jews and many Gentiles who
embraced the teachings of Jesus, but didn't agree with everything in
the Creed.

Three Maniacs

Natalie Merchant, Michael Stipe, and Lori Ellison, last night, backstage at the Beacon Theater.
Lori was an early fan of 10,000 Maniacs and wrote about them back in the day, before they became stars. Natalie became an early fan of Lori Ellison, when she was doing poetic figurative work. Natalie gave us tickets for her show at Beacon Theater and backstage passes. I didn't even realize that was Michael Stipe standing there until Lori mentioned him later, which is why I was unconcerned about getting him in the picture with Natalie's daughter Lucia. I knew Rob Buck, the Maniacs' late lead guitarist when we were kids, but never contacted him when he became famous, to my regret. My family was from Jamestown, NY, the Maniacs' hometown and knew Rob's family very well, so we talked about that last night, but that Stipe guy was in the way.
Lori had also been an early fan and supporter of REM and had met Stipe, back in the day, but he never bought her art or sent us tickets, so screw him. Just kidding, MS. Love you, mean it, bye.

I plagiarized my own Facebook update for this blog post.

Monday, September 08, 2014

dog day pages

Sunday, September 07, 2014

beyond the fringe

Baptism of a Pharoah from first century Egypt. Thoth baptizes a Roman emperor, Claudius or Nero. (Image stolen from the web, I happened upon the actual object in the Met last week)

This verse from Matthew 14 distracted me:
"After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word
throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged
him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who
touched it were healed."

I read somewhere that the "fringe of his cloak" is the kind mentioned
in Numbers15:
"The Lord said to Moses:

"Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners
of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord
on the fringe at each corner.You have the fringe so that, when you see
it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them,
and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.So you
shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to
your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of
Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God."

Is it significant that crowds were touching the fringe of his robe, as
if they were touching the Law itself?

All four of the canonical gospels pull quotes from Hebrew scripture to
show, I had always been told, that Jesus was the messiah whose mission
was foreseen by the prophets, and is the Reality signified by ritual
law. Certain religious fundamentalists among the Pharisees of his time
lived in especially strict observance of the Torah and the rabbinical
tradition that interpreted it, but Jesus' criticism seems to go
beyond their orthodoxy to charge them with diverting funds from where
they are most needed:

"But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to
help their father or mother is 'devoted to God,' they are not to
'honor their father or mother' with it. Thus you nullify the word of
God for the sake of your tradition. "

Apparently Jesus was also observant (and even wore the fringe,
(Matthew 14:36). The Pharisees had popularity, while the Sadducees
were of the Jerusalem ruling class and ran the Temple under the
authority of Herod, King of the Jews, whose authority over the Jews
was granted by the Roman Emperor, whose authority superseded all
others, because he was a god. The Jews gave the Romans more trouble
than other conquered people because of their refusal to allow images
of the state religion in the Temple, or even in Jerusalem.
John may have been critical of the Pharisees of his time, but his
righteousness or observance of the Law was well known, according to
Josephus. His baptism was a symbolic purification and cleansing, and
Jesus also submitted to it "for righteousness' sake." What exactly was
the teaching of the Pharisees that Jesus was warning his disciples
about? And why does it come with the stories of the feeding of
multitudes? To emphasize the message of the feeding of the multitude,
Jesus did it again. But what is the message?
The message we always seem to find in the feeding of the multitudes is
something like "Give everything to Jesus and he will provide us with
more than enough." Or, "Hey man, its cool - I'm on it. Jesus is Top
Cat." It might be, "Give God her/his portion and God will give us what
we really need."
But let's not try to fix one meaning to it. Look at the image of Jesus
distributing the food as prefiguring the Eucharist, and the creation
of a messianic community in which everything was held in common, and
there was no private property. Christians later taught that Jesus
"fulfilled the Law," but Jesus was teaching that the Law is fulfilled
by the realization of the messianic kingdom of heaven. The sabbath
looks forward to this day of the Lord where there will be enough for
everybody and nobody will be exploited.
Jesus ( or the writers of the gospels) accuses the religious leaders
of using an obscure "tradition" to divert resources from caring for the
elderly and poor. Some of the gospel attacks on the Pharisees  might be a message to Jesus' later  followers to, for instance, let male Gentile converts forego circumcision, and other "observances"
that were especially burdensome or painful, and an obstacle to growing
the movement among non-Jews, or "dogs," as Jesus calls the Syro-Phoenician woman.

Jewish "atheism," the even suicidal refusal to recognize the state as
a god, spread to the other people under Roman rule. The empire
demanded submission of regional gods to the emperor. After Jerusalem
and the Temple were destroyed, the Jewish diaspora was scattering
Jewish ideas among pagans who could no longer worship the empire. The
main idea was the messianic idea which many pagans tended to think of
as a new god, or god of gods, or son of Zeus.
Jesus' followers identified with their leader to the point of
sacrificing themselves for a kingdom they believed would be realized
in their generation. This suicidal resistance movement, a mass
defiance of the empire and its god was underway at a time when the
Roman empire was in turmoil (Spoiler alert: 666 was Nero).
That this Jewish resistance movement evolved over the centuries into a
new state religion for a new empire and a new orthodoxy which excluded
Jews is a central problem in the study of the writings held canonical
by the new paganism called "Christianity."

The context of the passage in Isaiah quoted by Jesus is Jerusalem
under siege, which is also the analogical historical context of the
Jesus movement:

"Yet I will besiege Ariel;
she will mourn and lament,
she will be to me like an altar hearth
I will encamp against you on all sides;
I will encircle you with towers
and set up my siege works against you.
Brought low, you will speak from the ground;
your speech will mumble out of the dust.
Your voice will come ghostlike from the earth;
out of the dust your speech will whisper."