Showing posts with label Sermon on the Mount. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sermon on the Mount. Show all posts

Friday, 2 May 2014

Loving the Lovely and Unlovely

It has become commonplace, at least among young idealists, to talk about "always finding the good in someone." No matter what the person is like, they always have something good in them, they say, and we should love them because of it. Whether it is true that all people have something good in them, I do not know - probably, but perhaps not. In either case, this is not a Christian approach to loving people. Christians love as required by Jesus, who says to us:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt. 5:43-48)

I have written on that before, now I want to bring out a crucial point here: nowhere does it talk about finding something good in the person to love. It just asks you to love them regardless. In fact, loving the good in others, like loving those who love you back, is easy and it comes naturally. Christian love is special love because it is predicated on the assumption that we should not love people because they are good, but simply because they are people, and it is hence supernatural rather than natural, because it is modelled on the love of God.

I have found over the months a quote from Martin Luther to be insightful into this point, from the Heidelberg disputation, thesis 28:

"The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

It is all very well and good to love the good in people, and the good in people certainly makes it easier to do. Nonetheless, that is no sufficient. We must love the most horrible of people, not because they are horrible, in fact, quite independently of this. For whether a person is good or bad is not a direct matter of concern when the Christian asks whether or not to love them - the Christian does so, without asking that question.

So the Christian is called to love the person. Very well. This does not at all render whether someone is good or bad irrelevant in general. In fact, as Luther pointed out, the love of God does not come into being because it finds something pleasing to it, it comes into being because God is love, and yet it creates the good in the other person. This is important, it means that Christian love does not seek that the person remain as they are, it requires change.

It can be hard to make this point clear because we are so used to the "love of man" which Luther refers to, and that adores that which is pleasing to it already. If some attribute is already pleasing, and our love comes into being because of it, then it stands to reason that this should not change, that changing it might well make it less loveable, or that changing it implies that we did not really love to begin with. However, if our love comes into being simply because the object of that love is a person, as is the case with divine love, then love might well entail the transformation of that person into that which is good.

I think this is, at least to some extent, intuitive - it is just really hard, by the same token. For instance, we might love the alcoholic, despite them being a rotten drunkard and not so nice a person when sober, and yet we try to transform them, not despite our love but because of it. Or take the greedy person who is thrifty with giving but generous when it comes to gifting themselves - we can love the person, but not because they are greedy, quite in spite of this fact. We can love them, and so desire to transform them. In short, when we love people, we want their transformation, because people are imperfect, and love seeks the perfection of the other.

We cannot love some people for what they are (personality wise), because what some people are is often not very lovable naturally. But we can love them simply because they are, simply because they exist. They have human dignity, whether or not they have human goodness. For us who take the divine example to love all, this is what we must do. We must dissuade ourselves from "love" being "liking a lot" - we may not like whatever it is we love, because, once again, we must not simply love what who we like, but also who we do not like. I hardly imagine Jesus expected us to find something very likeable in our enemies, and then love them.

So next time someone says to me "everyone has something good in them", I might say "sure, but who cares?" Or perhaps "excellent, that will make it easier to love them." What I should not say, or think, or assimilate unconsciously is "Oh, that means I should (or could) love them." I admit, I mostly fall in to ruts of loving only those that are easy to love, and for that matter, when they are easy to love. This is just not good enough.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Do not be Anxious! (Matthew 6:25-34)

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:25-34)


Jesus' sermon so far has focussed on the importance of a new focus, one which displays a certain holy contempt for earthly things: no longer are riches the foundation of prosperity, in fact, blessed are the poor in spirit! But far from less, far from promising less than riches, he has offered more: "for theirs is the kingdom of God." (Mt. 5:3) The antitheses, in their own way, are also rejections of purely earthly things: no longer, for instance, is the one who wins a fight the true victor - no, now Jesus says "I say to you, do not resist an evildoer, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also..." (Mt. 5:39) Our reward for our actions is also not to be considered an earthly one - if we seek the glory given by humans, then "you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Mt. 6:1) In fact, we cannot serve two masters: Christ puts before us the earthly and the heavenly, and we must choose. (cf. Mt. 6:24)

Who will we serve? The answer for the Christian is clear: "is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" Or in other words, is there not more to life than the earthly? Yet the consequence is also clear: "Therefore, do not worry about your life", for our earthly life to which he refers truly is more than the acquisition of wealth, the securing of food and shelter, the clothing of the body. Is this not so in common experience? When we merely seek after earthly things, we grow weary, because we must simply repeat the process again and again: we are like tedious cleaners in a messy room, each day cleaning, each day our work is undone, a never ending cycle of repetition.

All those who have launched themselves into the vowed life have understood it: life is more than the earthly. They have lowered themselves to be like the birds of the air, who also depend on God's providence. In observing how God cares for the birds and even the grass with matchless providence, we too must set aside purely earthly concerns. One might return "this is not realistic, I must work for my bread!" - yet this would be to misunderstand. Consider more closely the birds: much of their life is spent in pursuit of food. To eschew anxiousness is not to wallow in laziness, as if the providence of God precludes work. It does not! Jesus nonetheless tells us "do not be anxious!" We are to avoid worrying about what the morrow may bring. Now is the present, today is our gift, let us not be overly concerned about what may not even come.

We are to avoid anxiousness about earthly things, and even more than the other animals, for we have been given the grace of a more intimate communion with God. For the human, made in the image of God, the earthly cannot suffice. The mystics in particular have understood this - in the words of St Teresa of Àvila's famous prayer:

"Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing; 
God alone suffices."

Since God alone will quench the spark of divine thirst in us, does it make sense to always look out for worldly things? No - this world is good, but passing. We are not entirely unlike the grass of the field, who grow and blossom, then decay until death. Yet the promise of Christ is for more, more than this world in its transience, we are to seek the kingdom of God. Lest we think we are missing out in this life, all the good of this world is retained, indeed, Jesus says: "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

Sunday, 30 June 2013

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.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away

Two days ago I wrote some "fairly unorthodox" (among Christians) views on the Bible - I used it as it can undeniably be taken; a historical document. Unfortunately, although some early Christians (sometimes called Marcionites, after Marcion, who had this goal) tried to get rid of the Old Testament as distinctly human, if we are to grant Jesus authority, then we must grapple with how he uses the Old Testament. It cannot be ignored easily.

The most common argument however, is not from Jesus' use, but from St Paul's letter to Timothy. In it is the famous verse (2 Timothy 3:16-17): "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." It would perhaps be nice to say this includes the New Testament, but given the context of the preceding verses, it is clear Paul speaks of the Old Testament (the only sacred texts he would have been able to study in his childhood). We see that Paul and Jesus, as well as many others, have a high regard for the Hebrew Bible - but what use do they make of it? This is the crux of the matter. How should Christians today understand and apply these Jewish texts?

Although Jesus' regard for Scripture is often cited as evidence by literalists and inerrantists, Jesus does not seem to take the Hebrew Bible literally in the sense that it is used today. The people that are meant to be inspired by God to write the Biblical documents use it in an odd way. I shall cite some uses from the gospel according to St Matthew, because it is the most Jewish. They are not exhaustive, and I recognize that often the Old Testament is used as we would expect it to be.
  • Matthew 1:23. This is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14, and unless one looks up the source, it may seem convincing. But upon opening the book of Isaiah at chapter 7, we see that this does not appear, in context, to be about the coming of the Messiah. The Messianic prophecy does not come until later in that book. The writer of this gospel has taken clear poetic license to quote this verse.
  • Matthew 2:15. This is from Hosea 11:1, but in context, this again is a reference to something different. In Hosea, God personifies Ephraim (Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel) as his son. It does not seem to be the case that Hosea spoke of Jesus. The author has taken a liberty here.
  • Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus takes it upon himself to deepen the severity of the Law, and in one section (5:38-48), he even overrides and changes it! The first case is with the so-called law of talion: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" - Jesus then says no! Do not resist an evil person (which is the same as saying, do not take his eye for yours, or his tooth for yours). If he strikes you on the cheek, do not strike back, but instead, offer the other! This change of the law may seem to be more moral or noble, but there is (almost) no denying it is a change.

    However, the next bit of law he changes is even more startling, because it appears far more clearly to be a contradiction: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Now, the spirit of the idea of staying well away and uninvolved with enemies is clear from the surrounding passages of Leviticus 19, but "hate your enemy" is not stated verbatim there, whereas "love your neighbour" is.
  • Matthew 19. This passage on divorce uses Genesis, where the supposed "first couple" appear. It is used at times to prove Jesus took Genesis 1 as a literal account of history and science, as well as to verify the historicity of the figure of Adam. But Jesus does not, in fact, do any such thing. Jesus gives as the reason for not divorcing that "in the beginning they were made male and female" (which is a fact, as far as anyone can tell, since Homo Sapiens have always been divided by sex) and then continues "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" (which is the quotation). Here note that this cannot be about Adam and Eve as a literalistic reading of the passage would give us. Adam and Eve had no parents, and they were one flesh quite literally, in that one was made from the other - they cannot, therefore, "become" one flesh. They already are.
I hope it is clear now that very often the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is used in ways we do not expect. Yes, Jesus has the authority to add his own - but see how this is understood best as the finality of revelation in Jesus. The authors of the New Testament use the Old in ways that are unexpected - so above all, we must take humility in how we interpret it.