The Real Thing

The Harvest, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany |  Luke 6:17-26

Reading Luke’s beatitudes, we want to make them about spiritual things. Is that so wrong, to read a Sermon on the Mount passage, and to want it to be about spiritual things? Maybe. It’s wrong, if we pretend Jesus was not addressing practical things, because that lets us ignore what he said.

Blessed are you who are poor, we find in Luke’s Gospel. We prefer the other wording — blessed are the poor in spirit — but that is Matthew’s version, not Luke’s.

Sermon on the Mount. Print by Sadao Watanabe, 1968.
Sermon on the Mount. Print by Sadao Watanabe, 1968.

It’s our version, too, if we’re honest. Over the centuries, the church tends to quote Matthew for this material, not Luke, just as we tend to use the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew, not the shorter, more terse, prayer from Luke. In Matthew, all of this sounds better, and all of this sounds less practical, more other-worldly, more to do with heaven than with earth.

Blessed are you who are hungry, we read in Luke, but we want it to be a spiritual thing — by which we mean not a physical, human thing. Not real hunger. Not like a child who hasn’t eaten, not like those people fleeing the beaches of Africa in leaking boats, not like homeless people sleeping under garbage bags on the sidewalks of the richest nation on earth. 

Blessed are those who weep, this gospel says, and we want the tears to be somewhere inside, unseen. Something spiritual that we can gloss over with words. Nothing that requires a tissue or a handkerchief, nothing that would let our tears wet our fingers. Nothing that would cause us to ask what was the matter and have to help make it right.

If you are truly poor, maybe reading this on a screen in a distant place, then I want to say thank you. Past that word of thanks, I am not sure I have anything else for you in my words. If there are blessings in hunger and in poverty and in being hated, you already know them. I am really addressing myself and people like me — we who have so much more than most of the world. Homes. Steady income. Plenty of food on hand. Clean clothes, air conditioning. Medical care.

In Matthew, when Jesus teaches the people to pray, he includes the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven.” Luke doesn’t.

Van Gogh's The Sower at Sunset. Kröller-Müller Museum. June, 1888.
Van Gogh’s The Sower at Sunset. Kröller-Müller Museum. June, 1888.

Maybe Matthew is thinking more of the spiritual life, or maybe the intent is to point out the gap between the here and now and the then and there. Maybe both gospels intend to point to the discrepancy between what we say and how we live, between the spiritual and the physical life, the widening chasm between heaven and earth. Maybe the idea is to close the gap that we ourselves have created. Luke knows that the reality of life is nothing like we imagine heaven to be. Not for the hungry, or the weeping, or the poor, the hated, the excluded.

We also like Matthew’s spiritual beatitudes because there are no woes listed, no negative pronouncements. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the woes of Luke do not apply to us.

Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you when all speak well of you.

I have to admit that all three of those things apply to me. And I want to turn back to the kinder Matthean vision, a gospel where I can fool myself into believing that we are spiritually poor, spiritually hungry. Ironically, I am, but not in any sense that is going to let me escape those woes. I don’t get off cheaply — there is no cheap grace here. There is no cheap grace anywhere, not if it is real.

Of course, there is no line, no division between the physical and the spiritual, not really. Not if we are to be human. Many Christians complain that there is not enough attention paid to spiritual matters, spiritual truths. Usually, they mean rules of behavior and methods of controlling other people — one’s family, one’s friends, one’s society. Not surprisingly, if we followed the very practical advice of the New Testament letter of James — feed the hungry, find clothes for the poor, see to their very physical needs — we would be astonished to find that the spiritual lives of everyone involved were enriched. Healthier. More alive. And life on earth would be that much closer to the ideals of heaven.

On A Different Mountain

First Sunday in Lent  |  Matthew 4:1-11

Last Sunday the lectionary marked Transfiguration Sunday, a remembrance of the story of a mountaintop experience in which Jesus transformed into a glorious figure. Moses and Elijah made a striking appearance as well.

Valley thru Trees 003For the first Sunday in Lent, we remember a different story of visiting a mountain. This time Jesus has the devil for company.

We know the story of the temptation of Christ, though we may wonder who told the details to Matthew. Jesus has purposefully fasted for forty days and nights. Along comes the devil with three temptations: turn stones into bread for your hunger, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship the devil to gain the whole world.

We get that last temptation, because it is reasonably clear to most of us that worshipping anything less than God is wrong, even in order to get everything in the world. The other two, well, it is a little more difficult to find anything wrong with the ideas.

Throwing oneself down from the pinnacle of the temple is not unreasonable, given that one was up there anyway and angels are really going to catch you. No harm done, and it would be amazing. The idea seems to be that one should not put God to the test, just for the sake of doing it. God doesn’t perform circus tricks on demand.

That first temptation, though, is the hardest one of all to understand. What is wrong with having a little bread? Provided one has the power to do it, and nobody in the story seems to question whether Jesus actually could turn stones into bread, why not?

On one level, it seems to be about observing human limitations. Human beings cannot, generally speaking, turn stones into bread. On the other hand, human beings cannot, generally speaking, heal the sick, raise the dead, feed thousands of people with a child’s lunch, or pull tax money out of the mouth of a fish. Yet, in Gospel stories Jesus did all of these things.

Maybe it was also a question of doubt. The devil does not propose the bread simply as food: “If you are the Son of God…” Such a miracle would prove, presumably to Jesus himself or to the devil since no one else is present, that he is indeed God incarnate. Still, self-doubt doesn’t seem to be a problem. The gospels do not record an instance of Jesus wondering about his own identity, except in the eyes of others.

The real problem of these temptations is that they would alter the true nature of Jesus. He was an authentic human, complete, what our species aspires to become. Acts of self-doubt, or self-acclamation, would have torn the fabric of Jesus’ being, would have made him less than he was.

Perhaps that is how we can measure temptations that come our way. Regardless of the hunger that might be filled, or the apparent lack of harm, or the ends that we might achieve, we measure our choices by the injury done to our humanity, to our souls. There are worse things than hunger,  obscurity, and the lack of wealth.

Matthew tell us that Jesus went up on another mountain, and this time he was followed by crowds of people. Maybe when he sat down to speak, he remembered his own temptations.

“Blessed are the poor,” he said. “Blessed are the meek…blessed are the hungry….”

The Kingdom of Ought and the World of Is

Ash Wednesday  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Eggs on GravelWe live in the world that is. One might think that is obvious, but it isn’t.

People all over the world, all of their lives, keep expecting the world to function as it ought to do, but it doesn’t happen. The world is as it is, not as it ought to be. Realizing that fact can be disheartening, but it makes one a better adjusted citizen of this world.

It is also an opportunity.

People of faith lay claim to a different kingdom, a kingdom that does function as it ought. The pursuit of what ought to be makes the world a livable place.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus keeps using two phrases to describe two groups of people: “Truly, I tell you, they have their reward” and “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The first group of people appear to be what they ought to be, but they aren’t. The second group are what they ought to be, though they may not look it. Both groups may fool us, one into thinking them better people than they are, the other into believing they are only what they appear to be.

God, we are told, knows the difference, and so ought we.

Jesus’ words are not really concerned with rewards and recognition, whether from God or from the world. It is simpler, and harder, than that: despite what the world is, be as you ought.

Don’t seem. Be.

We live in the World of Is, but we are bringing to pass the Kingdom of Ought.

Limits of Grace

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:38-48

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that was the law. Simple enough, you might say.

Candle In DarknessWhen we hear it, we hear a legal prescription—if they harm you, you harm them the same way. Do unto them as they did unto you. The ancient world heard a prohibition, a limit, changing revenge to justice—this far you may go, and no farther. If they steal your goat, you may not kill their families, burn their tents, and take their herds. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a goat for a goat. The law was a limit to vengeance and, strangely, a provision of grace. It took modern people, with all our advances, to listen to that law and hear words inciting violence.

Jesus goes beyond the limits—give them another eye for an eye, give them another tooth for a tooth. Another cheek, another garment, a second mile. Undermine violence with peace. Love your enemies.

Be perfect.

Then there is the way we hear that last word: τέλειός. Teleios. Perfect is the word used in most translations, and most of us hear a word meaning to be without imperfections, without error. To be fair, the word could have meant that, twenty centuries ago. More importantly, and with more use for us, it also meant mature, complete, fulfilled, or pertaining to the end.

Try the whole last verse again: Be mature, complete, fulfilled, therefore, as your father in heaven is mature, complete and fulfilled.

Does that sound different? We’re not aiming at modern perfection anymore, with all of those impossible expectations. We’re walking toward maturity, completeness, fulfillment, our end goal as a human being, something as ancient as life itself.

When the ones who are incomplete, immature, or unfulfilled come to beg, to demand, to inflict harm in the vain attempt to allay their own needs, Jesus is saying find the means to bring them along the path. Show them the way.

Go beyond the limits. Go to the very good end.

A Word to the Ancient Ones

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:21-37

They stood on that mountain, sat there, lay there, a great crowd, and all of them so quiet that you could have closed your eyes and thought yourself alone. The only sound beyond the wind on the rocks was the voice of the man speaking.

Mountains with Blowing RockHe reminded them of what they knew, what had been told to the ancient ones, a people gathered centuries earlier at the base of another mountain covered in smoke and clouds. Moses had brought them words from God the Almighty, words to drag them out of their dark bondage and to lift them slowly to become a new people.

Thou shalt not. That was what Moses had told the ancient ones. Thou shalt not.

They forgot, of course. They forgot the rules, forgot the telling of them, sometimes one rule or two, and sometimes they forgot them all in a rush to satiate their needs, their lusts, their anger, their rights. And that had been when the rules were new and simple and fresh upon their minds.

The rules weren’t new to the crowd on the mountain with Jesus. They had heard the rules all of their lives, knew all the ramifications, all the ways one could fail. The law had become a ponderous thing since the days of the ancients, as though it were alive, growing, full of snares and loopholes. Surely, they must have thought, this man can give us some relief, some easier way to live.

No. He seems to want to make their path more narrow. It is no longer their choices that are wrong, it is their thoughts.

Pluck out your eyes, he says. Cut off your hands, if it will save you. And keep your bothersome wives. Surely he goes too far, says crazy things? “But I say to you,” he says. He thinks he has more authority than Moses. Who is he to tell us these things?

But they are quiet on the mountain, and they are still listening.

Later, they know by the silence that he has finished. They gather themselves and walk back down the mountain. Some of them whisper to one another, others mumble like the ancient ones themselves did so long ago. All of them look back to get one more glimpse of Jesus, but he is already walking away, hard to see through the band of followers.

A boy climbs onto a rock for a look, and his father waits for him.

“Does he mean it?” he asks. “Is it better to cut off our hands?” He looks down at his own hands, rubs one with the fingers of the other.

“No,” his father says. “He only told us that to make us think.”