Search This Blog

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Sermon on the Mount: the Reign of God, right here, right now

I've been thinking since January that I ought to try to write something as comprehensive as I can about the Sermon on the Mount. It's so important in the Gospel of Matthew, and I think it's set up as the first follow-up to Jesus's proclamation that "the reign of God is at hand," that his listeners should "repent." We heard all that the week previous to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, heard on the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time. If we hear that initial proclamation together with this first of the five discourses in Matthew, I think what we're getting is the first gospel's laying out of what it means to "repent," i.e. experience and surrender to metanoia, an inner change that becomes a new path in a different direction, and begin to experience the reign of God here and now. Matthew uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven" to mean the "reign of God," using Hebraic circumlocution to avoid saying the name of God. We're not to hear "heaven" (solely) as a place that is distant or coming after death, because Jesus is clear that this condition of the kingdom of heaven is "at hand." It's very, very close. We're to hear it as the sphere of God's active influence now, in this world and all the other ones. But for us, it's this one that matters. What Jesus begins by doing in the Sermon on the Mount is spelling out what that looks like at the beginning of a public life when he will further make it visible by living it out with a community of disciples.

A few sections from the discourse are omitted from the five Sunday proclamation that we hear in Year A. Notably, one large section is used on Ash Wednesday, the section about praying with integrity, and fasting and giving alms with the right disposition. In all, half a dozen of the forty or so gospels during the weekdays of Lent are from the Sermon on the Mount, further highlighting its importance in the Christian life. As I have pointed out before and in my book Change Our Hearts, the Lenten lectionary is a "crash course" or primer in Christian living, a handbook for catechumens in their final days before baptism. Among those gospels are the Our Father, the golden rule, and enemy love. Only the last is an echo of the proclamation on these Sundays.

So I'd like to start by positing that the Beatitudes aren't a blueprint for living or a manifesto. They are Jesus's declaration of how things are right now. Jesus is telling poor, ordinary people in an occupied country that God is present in their poverty, their longing for justice, their merciful and peacemaking actions, their apparent insignificance, their pain and sadness, and their desire for God. That is what "blessed" means, translating the Greek makarios, which has also been translated "happy" or "lucky." Makarios has a sense of "being enlarged" by the grace of God's presence that is already with them. He is telling them, by contrast, that what people of influence think of as a blessing is not necessarily a blessing at all. The lowly are in the enviable (another meaning of makarios) position of already having God at their side. There is no need to desire what it appears the powerful possess, because the living God is already present, with the fullness of divine favor, in their need. As Matthew strings together other sayings of Jesus in his discourse, he lays out just what that means because of what kind of a God his Abba is. Things are just starting to get interesting.


Light and Salt
So after declaring the blessedness, the enviable much-ness of Abba's presence in his children, Matthew's gospel lays in the sayings about them being "light of the world," "salt of the earth," and a "city set upon a hill." He could not say this unless the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, were already present and available to them. In a cold, dark world of violent greed and escalating retribution that they know only too well from beneath, Jesus challenges the children of Abba to shine their inner beacon outward, and be the catalyst for the fire that will burn the old world away and make something new.

The Our Father 
Rabbis teach their disciples to pray. By putting this story into the collection of sayings that make up the Sermon on the Mount, the author of the first gospel helps us understand just what the God in like in whom Jesus believes, whom Jesus trusts with his life, from whom Jesus draws his strength, and, we come to understand, who reveals Jesus as his unique Son by the way he lives his life. I've written about this prayer at length in two posts, "Grokking the 'our' in the Our Father" and "Revisiting the Lord's Prayer," so no need to go into detail here. What's important in the overall placing of the Lord's Prayer in this part of the gospel, in the shadow of the proclamation to "repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand," is its underlying faith in a provident God who wants to be known as a father to his children. There are many gods available to Jesus's hearers, then and now, notably the god of the Roman empire, Tiberius Caesar. They are only too well aware of the kind of god Tiberius is, a god who brings peace through victory in war, keeps peace by the presence of violent legions and bestial governors, and whose justice benefits the victors alone, and oppresses the empire's subjects.

Jesus's God, on the other hand, they already know from their communal story, and whom their gentile sympathizers know to be a liberator and friend of the weak. But Jesus is even more intimate in his prayer to Abba, reminding them about how they treat their own children, and saying "if you love your children, how much more does abba love his?" Furthermore, the very naming of God as abba invites those who pray into a relationship to one another, a relationship that will be further explored in the Sermon. It is the relationship of a family of sisters and brothers who care for one another, who love each other with the same love with which they love themselves. Even more startlingly, it is a family relationship that includes all of God's children. It's not limited to those whom we consider family: it extends to all of God's beloved children, including the enemy.

The Hypertheses: love as the fullness of the law
There are five sayings in the Sermon on the Mount that teach us how Jesus reads the bible. They are called the hypertheses, and can be identified by the formula, "You have heard it said...but I say to you." On one level, Matthew has been setting Jesus up, even by placing this discourse on a mountain, as a new Moses, and wants to show his Jewish audience, and others who may want to idolize the law of Moses, that law is something that should not restrict good while it protects the weak. Things like these hypertheses, the prophecies fulfilled in the infancy narrative, and the number of discourses in Matthew come in fives because Moses was revered as the author of the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, called the Torah, or the Pentateuch.

I came to see this section in a new light after my encounters with James Alison's Jesus: The Forgiving Victim, as well as a couple of other books dealing with the question of violence in the bible, especially Derek Flood's wonderful book Disarming Scripture. For the sake of the people of God, Jesus is critical of the religious rulers who have turned religious law and worship into strictures of law and summary obedience that is not in their best interest and does not reflect the nature of Abba whom he knows to be relational and not just "a god like the other gods." "The prophetic spirit however is one that lovingly critiques religion from the inside, not as a way to destroy it, but as a way to make it good and whole," writes Flood. "This was the focus of Jesus, and is characteristic of how he read and applied Scripture in the context of confronting the fundamentalism of his day." Jesus makes clear that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The law of love, with Abba showing the way and being the greatest lover of all, doesn't forget to dot an i or cross a t of the law.

Alison helps us understand that every reading of scripture is an interpretation. There has never been one way to interpret any text, and, in fact, when stories had to be told or written texts interpreted, the question was always "through whose eyes do you read the scripture?"
…(F)or ancient readers, even more than the question “What does the text say?” the question was: “How do you read it?” or “What is your interpretation of it?” And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?”
Alison poses that one answer to that question that can be found in Jewish scriptures, arising out of a story during the Exodus (Numbers 12). There is a row between Miriam, Aaron, and Moses about who ought to be able to speak for God. God answers the question in story by saying it is Moses the "humble, more than anyone else on earth" who speaks on his behalf. So one rabbinic way of interpreting the scripture would be through the eyes of "Moses the meek," giving the gentlest, most expansive interpretation possible. Alison goes on, though, to give a later option, from the dawn of the Christian era:
The other main answer to the question “Through whose eyes do you read the texts of Scripture?” is the answer given not by rabbinical Judaism, but by its slightly older contemporary, Universalizing, or New Testament Judaism, what we now call Christianity, which had begun to try to answer this question in the years between Jesus’ death and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. That answer was “We read the Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus our Rabbi.” And those who gave this answer were well aware that they were answering a quite specific, and complex, question of interpretation. Their claim was that Jesus was a dead and living Rabbi. In other words, that a living interpretative principle was available to them to open their eyes to read their texts.
All of this is a way of seeing how Jesus reads the scripture in a way that says, "I know that's what your Bible says, but that's not the issue. The issue is that Abba wants a family, wants sisters and brothers who treat one another as equals, with love that is unrestricted by any claims of law or duty. The question was never 'How little can I do and still be a good person?', but rather, 'How can I live as a child of a loving abba in such a way as to reflect and give the love I have received from abba toward everyone else in God's family?" 

Enemy love, desire, and the golden rule
Once again, my purpose here is to look at the sayings of Jesus that Matthew has strung into the Sermon on the Mount and see in them an introductory sermon on the kernel of his preaching, "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." In these few words, Jesus is trying to say that nothing is going to change if we keep doing business as usual. "Repent" means, literally, turn your life around. "Kingdom of heaven" means, the gentle presence of my abba-God. Don't keep using the methods of the world around you. Violence begets violence. The escalating demands of desire for wealth and power put you at odds with one another with terrible consequences. There is another way. There is another God. Don't keep up the old behaviors and expect a different outcome. Turn around—this is really good news. Follow me.

The last of the hypertheses, and at the very heart of this entire sermon, is the saying about enemy love, and the stunning request Jesus makes of us to "be perfect, as (in the way that) your heavenly abba is perfect." What does that mean? We spend our lives judging others, their actions and their motivations, deciding who is worthy of our respect and care and who isn't. Jesus says something different.
You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
To use Girardian language, it is the spiral of mimetic desire and the structures supporting a violent scapegoat mechanism that fuels the carnage of Caesar's world, or just "the world" in the language of the bible. We identify an enemy, internal or external to our group. We define our "in" group over and against the enemy, someone who wants what we have. It doesn't matter what it is. This pattern of blame and demonization leads to violence, and the murder or marginalization of the enemy puts the angst of society relax for a while until the next crisis arises. But the need for more security, more goods, more resources, more room, more jobs, more entitlements inevitably leads to escalating pressure within the "in" group, and the cycle continues. How do we break this cycle that is apparently foundational to civilization itself?

Jesus's answer is, "Be perfect like abba is perfect." Stop judging. Stop defining who you are by defining yourself against others. See how God does it: everything that has been made is for everyone. No judgment, just all that life pouring out of the heavens. If you do that, love your neighbor as yourself, if you act like children of abba and family to each other, you can change the world.

What we will be doing is letting the Spirit of God, who is within us, do what the Spirit wants to do: make us one. We have been given the Spirit, all of us, but to us Christians, explicitly and with our ultimate consent, in our baptism. But the Spirit given to us is pure gift, that is, it is the spirit of love, the spirit of self-given-for-others, and so longs to be lavished upon others. To the extent that we act like God, we are divinized. We let our sun shine and rain fall on the good and bad alike. We love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. What people see in this is God working, and so Jesus can say, "your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father."

It's crazy and seems impossible, but it's the only way out of hell, the hell of violence and suspicion that is "the world" without God.

Do not worry
The Sermon on the Mount encompasses all of chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew, but the final installment that we hear in these gospels of Ordinary Time is the end of chapter 6. (Actually, the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which, along with Sundays 10 and 11 isn't celebrated this year due to the way the liturgical calendar is constructed, contains verses 21-27 from chapter 7. You'll have to read that part on your own!)

In the last section that we hear this year, Jesus says that we won't be disappointed when we seek God's reign and its "righteousness" first.  He means that we were made for it, that it will fit us like a glove, and the reason that we're unhappy in the kingdom of Caesar is that we're trying to force ourselves into a world for which we were never intended. What made those people go out to hear Jesus that day, and John the Baptist before him? What made those fishermen leave their livelihood and go itinerant with the rabbi when he invited them? Don't you think that they knew there was something wrong, and they heard something right, an echo of their purest, most ancient identity, in his words? I think this is what Matthew means when, at the end of chapter 7 and the conclusion of Jesus's discourse, he says,
When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
At the end of chapter six, Jesus tells them that they're in good hands when they entrust their lives to Abba and to one another as sisters and brothers. That's what is meant by the "kingdom of heaven." Jesus means that when we switch our allegiance, our trust, our hope, from the "kingdoms of this world" to the world of "our Father," we will find the real security, justice, and peace for ourselves and for everyone else, the only real possibility for security and peace and justice, because when everyone has enough, the cycle of mimetic desire and escalating violence is broken. When what we see in others is self-gift, when "doing unto others what you would have do unto you" is practiced by everyone, our human talent for imitation and "desiring according to the desire of the other" is finally turned away from competition and toward mutuality.

So "do not worry," because when you care about one another's good, your neighbor's got your back. Do not worry, because that is the way you were made to live in the beginning.

I need to hear this again this year. I think we all need to hear it, because the voice of Tiberius is still telling us to be afraid of enemies on the frontiers, while arming the borders against enemies imagined and, to a lesser extent, real. The choice for us, nominal Christians, liturgical Christians, continues to be "business as usual" and complicity with the almost unspeakable violence of which other gods are capable, or to just turn around and start cooperating with the Spirit of God which has been planted in our heart, and which calls out to others to listen to the voice of Jesus gently pleading with us to live another way. We keep coming back to hear that message, Sunday after Sunday. We know something is wrong. We insist, most of the time, on hedging our bets and throwing in with the guys with the guns. But there he is again, in his gospel being read when we get together, astonishing us with his teaching, a word utterly unlike the tweets and executive orders and threats we hear from the other gods who say they swear to protect us. We know something's wrong, and these words two millennia old sound like they were written just for us today: "Be light. Be a fire. Be reconciled. Do not resist the violent. Love your enemies. Do good to haters. Be perfect. Don't worry. And pray like this: Our Father. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth." Our Father. Amen.

My posts on the individual Sundays for the Sermon on the Mount:

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (the Beatitudes)
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (salt and light)
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (reading the Bible like Jesus)
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, part 1 (beyond talion, resisting violence)
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, part 2 (love your enemies, be perfect)
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, (lilies, birds, two masters)


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Triduum stories

I thought that, like I did with posts on the scrutinies, I'd gather the various posts on aspects of the Triduum (and Palm Sunday for good measure) on one page where they're easy to spot. Another way is to use the "Labels" to the right ---> and just click "Triduum," which makes them all pop up on one page. But for them as likes a list....







PALM SUNDAY

Who comes in the name of the Lord?
That whole "obedient unto death thing"

HOLY THURSDAY

Anniversary: My half-life as a music director
Real presence
"Gave himself as food and drink"

GOOD FRIDAY

It's not a funeral for Jesus
Nine months until Christmas (Annunciation)
Thy kingdom (not of this world) come
I AM (I am not)

HOLY SATURDAY/EASTER VIGIL

Toward a family-friendly Easter Vigil
Horse and chariot: where the rubber hits the Way
"My creations are drowning, and you are singing before me?"

GENERAL TRIDUUM

Triduum music for 2014
Word of the day: Triduum
Who's in charge here?

EASTER

Christos anesti