Sunday, 30 June 2013

Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)

The story of Cain and Abel goes something like this: Adam and Eve have two children, Cain and Abel, who become a farmer of the land and a shepherd respectively. One day, Cain brought some of his harvest to God, and Abel took the firstborn of his flock as well as some of their fat. God was pleased with Abel, but showed no regard for Cain. He got angry and:
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (vv. 6-7)

Cain goes out into the field with Abel and kills him. Then:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9)

God gives Cain a curse for killing his brother which involves exile from the land where Abel was killed, hardship in labouring the land, and being a fugitive wandering the earth. Cain says the punishment is too great, that whoever sees him will kill him, and then God says that whoever kills Cain will suffer sevenfold, giving him a mark for such protection. Cain left then and settled in the land of Nod, where he had intercourse with his wife and conceived Enoch in whose name city was built. A string of generations later and Lamech comes along, this time with two gives, who each gave him children. Lamech says:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
    you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say:
I have slain a man for wounding me,
    a young man for striking me. 
 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (vv. 23-24)

Finally, Adam and Eve have another child, Seth, and the chapter ends saying that around this time "people began to call upon the name of the LORD." (v. 26)


Narrative is interesting but difficult to exegete, and stories such as this one are clear examples of the difficulties encountered. Stories do not necessarily have a point to make with everything that happens, their teachings are not explicit and what exactly the major thesis of the story is can be difficult to determine. Allow me, then to comment on the portions I have quoted above in particular.

Cain did a grievous wrong to Abel, that much is clear. This story is not so much about condemning a particular sinful act so much as it is about illustrating the effects of the sinfulness of humankind. God asks Cain a very simple question - Cain is angry, and in the context of the offering given God asks "will you not be accepted if you do the right thing?" This is obviously a rhetorical question to make the point that God is pleased when people do the right thing. Quite simple really. Is that easy to do?

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it. (v. 7)

Sin is always waiting to claim souls. It desires to claim the person, but we are called to master it. Who can truly master sin? Only Jesus, who on the cross conquered it. Yet regardless, Cain is told that he must master it. Is it possible to not sin? In each case one may avoid sin, yes, but I think that ultimately, if sin so crouches at one's door, it will finally get in, and it will finally conquer. It is absolutely crucial to recognize, however, that one struggles with sin on a case by case basis, and that sin is never truly inevitable. One may never complain "God, it was only possible that I sin!" because it is always possible not to sin.

Some mathematics might illustrate this point well: the probability of resisting some temptation is fairly good. How about two temptations? Still alright. But as the number of temptations faced add up, the probability of avoiding all sin becomes smaller and smaller, such that ultimately, it is practically impossible to never have sinned. That, at least, is the idea behind mastering sin. In practice, we are not even very good at resisting a single temptation, even though nonetheless it is strictly speaking possible. St Paul makes this point in the first letter to the Corinthians:

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." (1 Cor. 10:13b)

Therefore, no sin is inevitable.


He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9b)

I wish to make a comment on this, because Cain seems to think that the answer is no, hence the rhetorical question. In reality, the answer is yes, we are our brothers' keepers. We must therefore take due consideration to care for our brother - obviously not murder him - and look out for him. This is all very well and good, but how does this apply to us? Very simply - one must care for the sin of another. If one's brother indulges the flesh sinfully, why might ask, am I my brother's keeper? Well, yes. So the sin of another is one's own concern.

If Cain is avenged sevenfold,    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold. (v. 24)

This is pride of a rather interesting sort. First, why is it pride? It is such because Lamech thinks of himself important enough to have eleven times as much "protective vengeance" than Cain, indeed, he boasts to his wives of his superior protection. Second, why is it interesting? The original protection was because Cain practically pleaded with God saying that he was not able to bear his punishment. Now Lamech is saying "if Cain got it, then I get it even more!" without pleading with God at all.

Lamech's logic seems to be that Cain killed his brother out of envy, but he killed out of self-defence (see v. 23). Therefore, he is more worthy of God's protection than Cain. Sadly, I think prides of this type are rampant and often subtle; "I deserve it" and "I'm not as bad as X" both come from this same root of pride. 


"At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD." (v. 26)

Here is my closing remark: amidst the murder of Abel and the murders committed by Lamech, his pride as well as the wrongdoings that inevitably must have occurred, there is some hope from the line of Seth. He will be our focus when we see that his descendent, Noah, will find favour with God.

Concerning Retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." (vv. 38-41)

Once again, Jesus deepens the national law of Israel, the Mosaic law, to be the fullness of the moral law. What is the most reasonable way of setting up punishments for actions? Well, the punishment should fit the crime, for one. This principle of punishment, known as the law of talion, can seem harsh today, and Gandhi is often invoked as saying "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

I think this misses the cultural context of the law of talion (sometimes referred to as lex talionis due probably to the large tradition of Latin in Christianity), which was actually asserting the equality of persons in justice. Surrounding legal codes had different punishments for different people of different classes, and the biblical text now says "no, all people have equal intrinsic worth regardless of class, gender, race, we must punish them all equally for their transgressions."

Still think it is not reflective of the highest standard of morality? Good, because it is not. It is simply the manner in which Israel would administer justice. Jesus gives the definitive moral way to act in situations where the law of talion might apply: "do not resist one who is evil." The context makes clear that it does not mean "tolerate evil" - but that one should not seek revenge for evil done to oneself. Indeed, if the wrongdoing is done to oneself alone, then meekness and compliance is the right response. What an utterly stupefying message! Still, is this not the basis for forgiveness? When we forgive, we do not simply accept the wrong we have received, but we relinquish the right to retaliate. In some sense, we take upon ourselves the punishment that the other deserves.

There is more to this than simply "forgive", as the last bit indicates:

"Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you." (v. 42) 

The other part of the principle that Jesus is expressing here seems to be that we should give what we have when it is demanded of us: when we are hit, we give the opportunity to hit more. When we have our coat stolen, we give also our cape. When we are demanded to walk a mile, we walk two. And now finally, when we are asked to give money, we give.

It is clear that no legal system can be founded on such principles of radical forgiveness and self-giving, since the world would dissolve into chaos. Nonetheless, we who would be followers of Jesus must abide not by the law of the land, but by the law of morality. Therefore, we are asked to forgive and to give whenever it concerns us.

Concerning Oaths (Matthew 5:33-37)

“Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil." (vv. 33-37)

Here, Jesus is condemning a practice that had become rampant and problematic: people would not swear by God's name and take it lightly, but they would swear by something else (the heavens, the earth, Jerusalem, their own head, and various others) and then consider it appropriate to take such an oath with breeze. His condemnation has one main point other than the obvious one of not swearing oaths lightly:  swearing an oath by something seems to indicate that one has control over and own, and this is false. If one did not have some control or ownership over it, what difference does it make to swear by it or by nothing at all? I would say the answer is no difference. So swearing by something to make it sound more powerful is a mirage of honesty. Swearing by things instead of God such as his created bodies also does not bypass the problem that taking the things of God in vain is wrong.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Concerning Adultery and Divorce (Matthew 5:27-32)

 The traditionally labelled second and third antitheses are closely related because they both deepen the Law such that certain behaviours are now considered adultery or precursors to adultery. The section begins:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (vv. 27-28)

Just as anger was in some sense equivalent to murder in the heart, so too lust is equivalent to adultery in the heart. There is a definite logic behind this idea: adultery is sex outside the marital bonds, and lust is desire for sex outside marital bonds.[1] Or to express it another way, adultery is an inordinate act of sex, and lust is the inordinate desire for sex.

Adultery, as I have said before, is necessarily a breaking of the marital bonds with sex outside of them, and lust-as-adultery-of-the-heart is therefore also in the context of marriage. Nonetheless, lust outside marriage is also sinful, but it becomes lust-as-fornication-in-the-heart, not adultery of the heart. That means that lust even after one's future wife is sinful.

How does one cope with something that seems as innate as a desire? Jesus continues:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (vv. 29-30)

 I think this is clearly hyperbole to make a point, but it is a forceful point nonetheless. Jesus' advice appeals to priorities: the eternal matters more than the temporal. It is worth gorging out an eye if it causes you to sin, because sin kills and condemns eternally, whereas it is only temporarily that one would be without an eye. If the problem were really solved by taking out the eye, then it would be worth it.

Now, a quick word on hell. It is interesting that people complain about God in the Old Testament scriptures being a good of anger and judgement, and Jesus the revelation of God as loving, kind and nice, because this is far from the case. One has to cherry-pick from the Old Testament to find God as solely angry, but one also has to cherry-pick from the New Testament to find God as solely nice. The fact is, Jesus speaks about hell more than the whole Old Testament, as far as I can tell. This is not surprising, since Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," is keenly aware of the consequences involved with sin. Nonetheless, the use of the imagery of fire is not exactly literal, not exactly metaphorical - fires of hell refers to, in the Greek, the Valley of Gehenna, a place south of Jerusalem which served as a large dumb, where rubbish was burned continuously. It is a real place that Jesus refers to, but what we call hell is not literally that place south of Jerusalem, particularly because such a place no longer exists. Perhaps we should take this as indication that hell no longer exists! More seriously, this talk of hell is borrowing imagery to make a point, not speaking of a real pit of fire.

How does one apply this? One is meant to see how intensely important it is to avoid hell. If going to the bar with one's friends might cause drunkenness, then it is better to cut off those friendships (gathering in that particular context) than go to hell. If walking down certain streets makes on burn with lust, but it is the only way to get to work on time and avoid being fired, then it is better to lose one's job than one's soul.

Is that not too radical? Well, it depends on whether one thinks damnation is a big problem or something of relatively small dimension. Jesus' argument rests on this point: that no cost is too great for avoiding hell.

This little section is actually quite amusing, Jesus is not actually illustrating how to deal with lust and adultery as much as he is setting up the principle that things must be removed if they cause sin. The implication seems to be that, if one is tempted to commit adultery, one should cut off the parts involved in adultery. This is a crowd which is made up of mostly men, I suspect, so the idea is "cut off even your testes and penis before you would commit adultery." See how Jesus can also be funny, in his own dark way?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (vv. 31-32)

 Here, I remind that the Law was a national law, which means that at times the morality was made more lax for the sake of the people's ability to function.[2] Now Jesus is revealing, or making explicit, the fullness of the moral law, where divorce is not permitted (except on the grounds of unchastity). There is actually some debate about whether the Greek is correctly understood as "unchastity," but I will have to trust the translators since I am not able to judge for myself.

From this section alone, Jesus explains the moral law as saying that no longer may it be deemed fine to divorce except under very particular circumstances. The companion passage on divorce in St Matthew's writings is Matthew 19, but let me not confuse teachings, and centre primarily on this text here.

Jesus' rationale is interesting, because it is not immediately obvious why divorce makes the wife an adulteress. Is it because she will be forced to re-marry, since at that time being a single woman was practically impossible? I think this is the most likely explanation. Why is it unchastity? Very simple: divorce does not really exist. Issuing a certificate of divorce cannot separate the man and woman united in marriage, because no such thing can annul a covenant. So when one attempts to remarry and begins marital relations, what happens? One is having sex outside true wedlock, and is therefore committing adultery. That is why whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery - she is the wife of another person.

The interesting consequence of this is that marrying a woman who was divorced, but whose husband has now died, is no longer adultery under that logic. The ending of the covenant of marriage at death was the idea that St Paul appeals to in Romans 7 - although with Jesus conquering death, it is not entirely obvious that now marriage can endure and conquer death too.   

How should this play out in the Church and in the world? Well, it is my opinion that the defenders of marriage as it has universally been understood (between members of opposite sex), throughout most cultures and times, lost their battle when they allowed divorce. What demeans the institution more, hitherto unheard of unions or complete freedom to break off at whim? It is my contention that secular legalization of divorce is a far greater evil, has and will continue to produce far more broken families, children without both parents, than same-sex marriage will. Does that mean same-sex marriage is just fine, since marriage is already broken? It does not follow in the slightest. Still, one's platform is backwards if one is pro-divorce but against same-sex marriage.

Amidst all the wordliness that has crept into Christendom, it is reassuring that the Church has stuck by her commitment to the truth, even though all of England went Anglican because she would not compromise and let a randy monarch have a divorce, and even though many hate her for it.

[1] If this is the correct analogy being made, then it follows that desire for sexuality after one's own husband or wife is not lust, and not sinful.
[2] Jesus will later say that divorce was permitted because of the hardness of heart of the Israelites - permitted in Deuteronomy, though, which is the second law.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Baptismal Testimony to Grace

Whilst considering how to write "The Road from Unbelief", I trawled through some of my older discussions of the topic, and I found this, which I thought I should make public once again:

Only one person here knew me before I came to Christ, and even then, not very well. It may surprise you, then, that I can count my Christian time in months, not years. I don’t have very long now to tell of how I came to where I am today, but it is important nonetheless that I testify as to how God’s Gospel has worked in me.
The death of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a trivial matter, but I never heard about it. So what, I would ask, if a man died on a cross two millennia ago? Many people did. Growing up in Spain, and as far as I was concerned, Christianity was useful for two things; the free periods the non-religious got at school and the frequent holidays in veneration of all the saints. Church was the building down the road with a bell-tower to chime on the hour and tell me what time it was. I was allegedly surrounded by 99.8% Christians, but funnily enough I only ever met one, and he complained about getting forced to go to mass on Sundays.
A few things happened, which I will later recount, that completely changed my world-view. There have been many times these past few months when the significance of grace has hit me – a power that reduced me to gasps and wowing. The universe is a rather large place, and I am rather small. So to have the same person who made all that existence has to offer care about me, was a laughable proposition. That the almighty God who powers the stars, upholds the world by His Word and keeps ever atom in place would care to know me? How silly!
Unless it’s true. I have a very hard time grappling with what it means to be forgiven by God sometimes. God actually knows me, and I thought that would be enough to put any sane person off! But instead of removing me, instead of deleting me from existence, that He would care so much for us that He would confine Himself to flesh, give us the everlasting truth and humble Himself further to hang helplessly and painfully on a cross? There are no words for that.
Well, that’s peachy. I think I’m great, and God thinks highly of me, too, right? By no means! Until I grasped that grace was required I am not worthy, I was not God’s own. And it has made all the difference. Grace sets the tone for everything I do. Grace properly understood, lights my day with the Lord, frees me from my transgressions, uncovers my wrongdoings and alleviates my worries. God’s gift in the death of Christ affects my life like no other event in history, because the death of God’s Son is not trivial.
And that would be enough. That would be more than enough. But it’s not all. Forgiveness bestowed upon me despite the blackness of my heart frees me from resentment against others too, for how could I hold their sin accountable if God does not consider mine? Brothers and sisters, if we would punish for a penny, why should God not punish us for the whole pound? I am forgiven, so I cannot help but forgive. I am loved, so I am to love. That is the Gospel in me.

The Road From Unbelief

In the British TV show Blackadder Goes Forth, Baldrick asks:

"The way I see it, these days there is a war on, and ages ago there wasn't a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment where there not being a war on went away, right? And there being a war on came along. So what I want to know is, how did we get from one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?"

 That is a very long way of asking how the war started, but in some ways, it's making a more accurate question: because "how did we change states of affairs?" sounds like a process. And a question about the process is exactly the right question for how WWI began.

Similarly, I cannot conceive of my becoming a Christian as anything other than a process. "When and how did you become a Christian?" is a misleading question, since no precise time or methodology can be named, whereas "what process led to your conversion?" is much more answerable.

I was raised atheist in England and Spain, mainly, in a lower middle class household to a Chilean dad and English-Australian mother. The only times religious things that were brought up in my family were a couple of comments made by my dad about some Jehovah Witnesses
[1] that he coached tennis for, some other comments made by him around Christmas time about how Christmas should not be about presents, bringing up how Jesus was humble and not materialistic (which led to going to a midnight church service a couple of times, but I do not remember anything from there), a storybook of David and Goliath[2], and probably a few other times that have slipped my memory. The point is, it was not a religious, or anti-religious, upbringing. It was a caring, secular environment.

Having never been taught or told anything religious, I nonetheless developed into quite the atheist. Particularly in Spain, my friends were all atheists with two exceptions (perhaps three, but the third was an atheist in terms of daily life and attitudes), even though many of them had been through confirmation and first communion, and all except for one had been baptized. I knew there were religious people around, I just didn't have any contact with them. I thought religion was a childish thing that humankind had inherited from its history. In my diary from when I was fifteen I wrote (this is dated 13-XI-2009 (Friday) at 8:52 AM in my Lengua or Language and Literature class):

"God. The idea of god is as old as mankind. Since the beginning, God or Gods have been used to explain things without explanation.

For example, the Ancient Greek and Roman Gods. Zeus was the god of lightening and thunder. Storms of this kind were chalked up to divine intervention.

Monotheism is far newer. Most religions practiced in modern times have only one God, although by different names:
In Islam, it's Allah.

In Christianity, it's just "God."
In Judaism, it's God, or Yahweh, the Hebrew word.

All these religions have a lot more in common than commonly thought.

The Holy book of the Jews, the Torah, and other scriptures (they have 5 books) makes up the old Testament of the Bible, which is the Christian Holy Book. What does that mean? It means that Jews abide by the same rules as Christians do.

In fact, Christianity proceeds from Judaism. It was formed by a break-away from Jewish beleifs, and Christ himself, prophet of Christianity, was a Jew.

So how did Christianity develop to almost "rival" Judaism, when All The Bible comes from the Jews.

Well, I think it's for the same reason the Church of England, and the Protestant ways, broke from the Roman-Catholic Church.

It brings power and individuality to a religion. If you follow a certain idea, you are bound by it. However, if you create your own ideals, based on another, you are free to develop it, and that means power.


I went on in that entry in my diary to articulate some of the differences in ideology between Christianity and Islam, and how it reflects in the judicial practice of the culture. There are factual errors (the Torah has 5 books, but the Old Testament has more), theologically dubious claims (that Jews and Christians have the same rules) and errors in spelling, but this was my understanding of religion: that God was originally an explanation for phenomena and the newer monotheism was more sophisticated (though still nonsense) where people believed some particular book was holy. I also thought it was weird that people fought so much when they mostly believed the same thing. In general, by the time I turned sixteen, I was decidedly anti-religion.

So how I became a theist, and then a Christian, seems like a very important question to me. What led to my conversion?

The reasons why I suddenly became more critical of my beliefs - which I assumed to be the rational ones, as so many still believe unquestioningly (see here for more on that) - and think about reality, as well as my place in it, is unclear. The usual story I tell has to do with how I enjoyed physics so much that I couldn't explain it, and found my love for it unreasonable, leading me to question whether there was any value in studying physics, but I think that's just an illustration of various things that were bubbling under the surface. The reality is, I'm not quite sure why I decided to think more. But I did.

To avoid being accused of falling into the cultural religion, I explored Islam first. Though some of the ideas seemed reasonable, I did not find the system of belief compelling, the manner in which it arose to be endearing or the treatment of aspects of reality as illuminating, that is, that it seemed more like man-made theological philosophy with a holy book than the divine revelation to man. At some point during this time, however, I began to find it reasonably tenable that God should exist. A prime-mover God, but God nonetheless. I still find the first-cause argument compelling, and the ontological (modal) argument to be a very interesting one for agnostics, though I am unsure whether I should believe in modality or not, and the first premise has the potential for a fallacy of equivocation between two ideas of possibility (known sometimes as epistemic possibility and broadly logical possibility).

It may never cease to amuse me how I got on to the Christian faith. I was told that to completely disprove the biggest religion in the world, and be able to ridicule all the adherents I had ever known and would meet, I just had to look into history and show that the resurrection never happened. Christianity hinges on this one fact, so my first thought was "brilliant, that will be quick, people do not come back from the dead." Which is mostly true, but as I trawled scholarship and the evidence, I became convinced that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.

Now, may I point out something important: it is not proven historically that Jesus rose from the dead. Ancient historical studies do not work in terms of proof - only mathematics and logic do that. Newly found belief in God meant that I did not think such an occurrence was impossible, though indeed, to assume it is impossible for someone to be raised from the dead would be to beg the question on the matter of the historicity of the resurrection. I find the resurrection to be the most rationally compelling explanation for the facts, and I have not got philosophical barriers to considering it an option.

To end, there are notable but rare examples of people who believe in the resurrection but are not Christians, but for the most part, to believe in the resurrection is to be Christian of some sort. Essentially, this was the beginning of my being Christian: believing in the resurrection from the dead, heeding therefore what I thought Jesus would have said (which meant applying historical criticism to the gospel accounts), and finally ending up believing that the Scriptures were a reasonably solid thing, at least the New Testament, which I had then read. It can be said that I at least believed the first part of the Apostle's creed (the part in bold):

"I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty. He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting."

The second part of this four part series can be found here.

[1] Perhaps because of this, my dad does not quite believe me when I say that virtually all Christians believe Jesus is fully God.
[2] In my memory of this book, it was a completely secular story about how underdogs can win - but since we still own it, I checked and it does in fact reflect the faith of David coming against the Philistine Goliath.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Concerning Anger (Matthew 5:21-26)

The Mathean antitheses form the backbone of Jesus as New Moses in the sermon on the mount. The original Moses on Mt Sinai gave the Law which was to essentially be the legislation of the nation of Israel. It dealt a great deal with outward righteousness because Israel was meant to be an example to all the nations.

Now, Jesus says that our righteousness must surpass that if we are ever to enter the kingdom of heaven. What will that involve? It is very simple really: what previously applied to actions, now applies also to the heart. Without more delay, the words of Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (vv. 21-22)

Jesus reiterates that killing is unlawful, but that's not enough. The new righteousness goes beyond that to say that whoever is angry with his brother sins also ("shall be liable to judgement"). Let me side track for a moment to give a very important comment: "brother" corresponds always in the gospel according to St Matthew, as far as I can tell, to fellow members of the Church, fellow Christians. This is perhaps unfortunate for those who want to use the very strong words of Jesus in chapter 25 to be about general social justice, and I count myself among them (though this is hardly the only text that makes this point), but it does lead to an interesting issue: if this is the case, then St Matthew is portraying Jesus as somewhat anachronistic, saying things that do not yet make sense. Very well, since Jesus is aware of what will happen after his resurrection, and knows that he will found the Church, it is not in the slightest unreasonable to suggest that Jesus can speak beforehand what will soon be in effect. The interesting part is that the idea that "all this stuff is essentially pre-cross and corresponds to the Old Testament" also has to be denied, because that is an appeal to the timing of his words, and yet we have just granted that Jesus speaks of post-cross events in talking of the Church. Even chapter 25 itself will make this point, whether you think brother is Christian or not, but I think it should be outlined first here.

Back to the passage, Jesus speaks about degree of consequences: liability to judgement of some sort for anger at a brother, liability to a council for insulting him, and liability to the fires of hell for saying, "You fool!" What does this hierarchy imply if not that some sins are worse than others, and hence carry larger consequences than others? We should therefore treat the hierarchy properly.

It is interesting to note that hell and council judgement have a very similar antecedent: I have heard that saying "you fool" was far worse then than it is now, and that seems to fit this, so due to lack of knowledge, I will have to defer to others.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  (vv. 23-25)

There's an issue that Jesus addresses here in the first antithesis, and that is, what if we do anger or insult our brother? What then? The Mosaic Law had very specific guidelines for what to do in cases of each sin. He does not propose another sacrifice of a lamb or turtle dove - the sacrifice he requires is much greater. We are to swallow any pride and go reconcile ourselves to our brother, and then come and give our offering. The offering we give nowadays could be understood sort of symbolically as the living sacrifice that we offer to God, as seen in Romans 12, but more concretely it refers to the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Eucharist we offer up Christ, and I think Jesus instructs us to reconcile ourselves to our brethren before thence. Beyond that though, in partaking directly of the Eucharist, we participate most prominently in the offering, and in doing so in such a state (more generally and commonly known as "state of mortal sin") we run the risk of what Jesus says next:
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. (v. 25)

So what consequences could come? In a word, judgement. That judgement will be just, for Jesus says that ever last penny shall be paid - there is no longer any leeway once the matter is taken to the judge and the guard. Far better then to settle the matter quickly with one's brother before things escalate out of proportion.

I mentioned the liturgy once, let me do it once again, because it is one of the most beautifully rich things the Church offers. Here Jesus calls for reconciliation before the offering, and this is what is represented in the liturgy with the penitential rite, the offering of the sign of peace and the Our Father. First, we confess our sins to God "and to you my brothers and sisters." This is the first step in reconciliation. Later, we offer each other the sign of peace, which is both a real desire for peace with the other, but also a sort of peace treaty, in that we extend the invitation for reconciliation. Later still we pray the Our Father, which I will comment on soon, but it suffices to remind that one of the lines is "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" - either we are asking to be set as the standard for forgiveness, or we are actually acknowledging the fact of the matter which is that we have already forgiven those who sin against us. Then comes the Eucharist.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Not to Abolish, but to Fulfil (Matthew 5:17-20)

St Matthew has presented Jesus as going up the mount, giving the beatitudes and informing the Church of her function as salt of the earth and light of the world. I wrote a bit about what that meant, and it involved what one might mundanely call "doing good works," or more poetically express this as "reflecting the light and glory of Christ" or "presenting Jesus Christ in word and deed." All these point to the same underlying truth, that the Church is called to the very highest standard of morality - indeed the next section of the sermon, known as the "antitheses" ends with Jesus commanding:

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
(v. 48)

This conclusion to the antitheses is the interpretive key to the whole of the sermon on the mount, particularly the moral teaching. What is Jesus doing? Isn't he just contradicting six sections of the Mosaic Law? No, he is not. Yet nor is he strictly speaking just interpreting the spirit of the law.

"‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." (vv. 17-18)

Jesus is very clear that he is not here to get rid of the Law (capitalized to show that I refer to the Mosaic Law - though I may be inconsistent) or the prophets. This "law and prophets" is used to refer to the Old Testament, which is the only collection of Sacred Scripture that existed at the time, and so denotes the totality of what is nowadays the Old Testament. Is the wisdom literature Scripture? Absolutely. But that got canonized after the Law (Pentateuch - five books of Moses) and prophets did, so I suspect the idiom just stuck. So he is not here to get rid of the teachings of the Old Testament. [1] He is saying this, however, because it might seem like it when he starts giving people his teaching.

Having been warned, we should expect that Jesus' words sound like contradiction when they are in fact not. What does it mean to not abolish but fulfil? Well, abolishing something means getting rid of it. Fulfilling something can either mean bringing to completion or bringing it fullness (fulfilling comes from filling to full). It is not clear from the word fulfil itself whether completion implies finish and end, but the next line leaves no doubt: "until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not the stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished." The law is here to stay for some time yet. So what is the change? It is not simply a new interpretation, for fulfilling means more than "showing true meaning."

Jesus adds, and does not take away. His commands go deeper than the Law without removing anything. His formulaic statement is "You have heard it said that...but I say to you..."  which may as well be "You have heard it said that...and I say to you that even..." For example, adultery is immoral described as immoral in the Mosaic Law, and it is still immoral now - but even lusting after a married woman, or when married, is adultery of the heart.[2]

Why deepen the Law when it was already hard enough? Jesus continues:
"Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (vv. 19-20)

There is something rather interesting about this part, because whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments is not necessarily condemned - he will simply be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Are the least in the kingdom of heaven actually in hell? Well, it is not clear, specially since Jesus talks directly afterwards about people who will never enter the kingdom of heaven. I suspect the answer is that breaking one of the least of the commandments of the law will not cause one to go to hell, but it surely will not make one great there. That seems to be what the text is saying.

Here is why it is important to deepen the Law: observance of the Law is not enough. One has to be even more righteous than the greatest observers of the Law, that is, the scribes and Pharisees. Unless one is more righteous than even these most pious of the Jews, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

So the antitheses are going to fulfil the Law in the sense that they will go all the way, express the Law to the fullest. Observance of these will imply perfection, "as your heavenly Father is perfect." When we get to them, we will be forced to ask, as the disciples did  a little later, "who then can enter the kingdom of God?" Is it really possible to observe such penetrating commands?

[1] Insofar as Old Testament refers to the old covenant, it reaches its end in the Paschal ministry of Jesus on the cross, when he ushers in the New Testament - the new covenant. Here I mean the set of teachings found in the books referred to as Old Testament.
[2] Adultery is necessarily a marital sin, one that occurs within the context of the covenant of marriage - yet lest we think that lust when unmarried is fine, remember that an analogous statement could be made for lust and fornication. Still sin, just under a different name, with different immediate effects.

Salt and Light of the World (Matthew 5:13-16)

"‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:13-16)

Right after the beatitudes, but before he gives his antitheses ("you have heard it said...but I say" statements) there is this interesting passage here. What is its role structurally? I think the answer is, after giving the blessings, Jesus is trying to explain to them the context of what he is about to give them. The explanation for their calling to holiness that they're going to receive (cf. Mt 5:48) is one both of function and of identity. This is a pure metaphor that Jesus uses, in that he says that the people listening are the salt of the earth and the light of the world; it is their identity. They are identified primarily by their function - the functions that light and salt have.

Before I get to the very important question of what those functions are, one must first ask "who are the people that are listening?" In verses 1-2 of chapter 5 we read that:

"Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:"
(Matthew 5:1-2)

It is clear that his sermon is in response to the crowds, but the disciples are the closest ones nonetheless. I contend that the sermon on the mount in general, but this statement of vocation in particular, is directed at the Church. Although the foundation of the Church in St Matthew's gospel is not going to be until chapter 16, I think that this sermon is directed towards this proto-church in a literary sense, even though anything in the New Testament is written in actual fact after the establishment of the Church.

Why do I think this is directed at the Church? Because these are the crowds that are following Jesus and want to listen to what he has to say. Though it is true that to be a part of the Church, one then has to believe what he says, nonetheless this essential feature of the Church is present in this multitude: they want to hear Jesus.

Hence, being salt and light are functions of the Church. So what do they do? Salt nowadays is used to make things taste better, but back then the primary function was one of preservation. Salt preserved food from spoiling, and so we too are called to stop the world from spoiling. Is it not already spoiled by sin, though? Yes, to some degree. We are to keep it from spoiling further insofar as we are salt.

So the problem with being the salt of the earth comes when it does not make a difference, when having salt on or not is irrelevant - that is, it tastes the same either way. It has lost its taste. The Church stops being the salt of the earth whenever she decides that it is fine to be worldly, to assimilate into culture, to be just another institution, perhaps a bit older and wiser than the others, but relatively similar. She becomes not a force for preservation, but at most a reminder that at some point people thought it necessary to fight to preserve what was good. The Church, when it becomes an NGO, stops being the hands and feet of her Lord, and to put it how Jesus does, "it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."

The Church must be different to everyone else, by the simple fact that her essence is not of this world. She holds the treasure of Christ in earthen vessels - but the outward appearance should never diminish the value of the endless riches stored within. To assimilate into worldliness means she has lost the treasure of Christ, for the world does not have Christ, only substitutes. [1] 

Not only salt, but also the light of the world. On a slight tangent, those Bible scholars that are of the opinion that the gospel according to St John has another, non-historical Jesus, have this issue to contend with. In that gospel account, Jesus declares himself to be the light of the world whilst he is in it, and here, he endows that position to the Church, his body. There is a clear continuity even if certainly differences in style and sources.

Light has a very obvious function: it illuminates, allows us to see. The Church is the light by which the world can see. This is not a new task - Israel has been entrusted with this task already (cf. Isaiah 42:6). So we can infer that the Church must illuminate not any truth, but particularly the truths of God. Even more, the Church is to proclaim the radiance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, now a message entrusted with her until the age to come.

Given that she is light, what must the Church do? Show it. Jesus points out that when one has a light, it is never hidden - for why would one put a lamp under a basket? That is not what lights are for. They ought to be put atop a hill, or on a lampstand, so the whole house can receive illumination. The Church is now that city on the hill which must not and cannot be hidden - and again, this is not a new task. Anyone at the time would have known that Jerusalem was the city on the hill, Mt Zion. The Church is the New Jerusalem.

 Being the light to the nations in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah, meant speaking the word of God, and being the example for all others to follow. This has not now changed, and it is with our own lives that we must preach the word. Our light is Christ, and Christ is made manifest in our lives - always with the purpose of those works being seen to give glory to God, not to receive it ourselves. Entrusted as we are with a message, we cannot allow the Church to become just a do-good institution - yet we cannot in the same measure simply be tellers of Jesus' words and not also doers. Both are crucial to the Church.

[1] Interestingly, whether or not the Vatican recognizes a church organization depends on whether they have the Eucharist. So having Christ's very flesh is part of the Church in its very essence.