“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 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 your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
It was the present Dalai Lama who said““Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” I also came across this Zen maxim, “First you learn the rules. Then you keep the rules. Then you break the rules. Then you are wise.”
This seems to be the gist of Jesus’ comments about the law in the gospel for this week. Those who have walked the path of Christ following for some time will know that the religion of the heart is not so much about the rules as it is about the relationship which the rules are intended to enhance anyway.
The problem with human nature though is we tend to swap the priorities around then that is where the hypocrisy begins.
We have all met people who prefer to be right and keep the rules, than be in relationship. They are usually shining saints, brightly burning but usually without a flicker of compassion.
If I read Jesus correctly, he is saying relationships are more important than rules.
Rules will lead you into and hell of minutiae and detail, but they will not deepen your humanity or your heart.
Rules will make you righteous, but relationships will make you real.
There’s no doubt that Jesus lived this truth.
Perhaps we could too?
13“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. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For 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. 19Therefore, 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. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Okay so I checked.
It is scientifically impossible for salt not to be salty. Sodium Chloride (NaCl) Salt is a very stable compound that cannot lose its taste except by dilution in water.
Light also cannot be anything other than light. You can hide the light or block the light but the light continues to be the light.
Jesus’ jump from affirming the nature of salt and light to be what they elementally are, to a discussion on the inviolability and permanence of the law, seems at first not to make any sense nor logical connection.
So I wonder if the master isn’t once again smiling as he speaks another irony?
If I consider my legalism and bigotry. When I examine the laws that I use as part of my religious practice, I realise that I am often trying to go against nature.
If salt is salt and light is always light, there is absolutely no reason to legislate to keep it so.
If people are made in the image of God, and are thus sparks of the divine nature, there is no religio-legalistic imperative to try to control them to be what they already are.
However, if you think salt is in danger of dilution, or that light can be totally blanked out and smothered, then you will have to arm yourself with jots and tittles full of laws to keep that from happening.
It all boils to what you believe about intrinsic goodness, the providence of God, or the depravity of humanity, and by inference our creator.
Light and Salt cannot be legislated into being better salt and light.
As for being more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, well that’s an impossible benighted competition if ever I saw one.
You can take that with a pinch of salt!
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
It takes a gifted mind to see differently from others.
Most of us simply see what we are taught to see.
We are told that a particular frequency of light is red and it is so.
We write between the lines, we colour within the lines and we think like a train on parallel tracks.
Yet every thousand years or so, someone comes along who sees differently. They question why red is red, why writing needs lines and generally they derail our thinking is disturbing ways.
Jesus was one of those people.
He noticed that the established order was not only questionable, it was perverse.
That is why he turned it on its head. He declared losers to be winners, the poor to be blessed and God to be concerned with those who are least deserving of attention.
For the most part we cannot deal with thinkers like Jesus, for who would we be without or wall, our lines and our clickety clack tracks?
First we tried to silence him, then we ignored him, but in the end we had to kill him. It was the final solution.
With him gone, privilege, power, prestige, precedent, and protocol were back on track.
The lines were drawn and we were back on track. Clickety Clack, Clickety Clack.
I wonder when next he will tear up the tracks?
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
There is a poster in popular use to advertise retreats. The picture is usually of a single person in a solitary place, and the caption reads, “Sometimes you have to withdraw from the world to find your place in it.”
If we read Matthew chapter 4 carefully we will see that it is a chapter of two withdrawals. The first is Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. The second is a withdrawal anachoreo to Capernaum by Jesus when he hears that John the Baptiser has been arrested.
Anachoreo is an interesting word. It is the root of the word “anchorite” which describes hermits in general and later came to to specifically describe a form of religious life during the early and high middle ages. At this time men (anchorites) and women (anchoresses) withdrew from society and were cloistered away in cells (anchorholds) usually attached to churches.
In Britain the most famous Anchoress is undoubtedly Dame Julian of Norwich, whose record of the mystical “shewings” given her are recorded in her book “Revelations of Divine Love” which is still in print.
The anchorite was often walled into the anchorhold by the Bishop who at that time would conduct their funeral liturgy as they became dead to the world. The rest of their life would be spent walled in with one window, called a hagioscope or squint, open to the high altar of the church so that they could watch the mass. Another window opened to the street through which food and presumably excrement could be passed and also through which people could seek the counsel of the holy soul inside.
Life for Jesus, as for us, took some interesting turns, didn’t it? Driven by fear of persecution by Herod, in the wake of John’s arrest, Jesus anchorites it to Capernaum, possibly to live a life of solitude and prayer? But that is not to be. One day on a quiet stroll along the shoreline of lake Galilee, Jesus in introverted mode, happens upon some fishermen casting their nets.
I would like to think that there was something in the archetypal symbolism of those fish gathering nets that jarred Jesus out of his introverted seclusion into an extroverted invitation to those early followers to come and “fish for the lost people of the house of Israel and indeed the whole world”
Its as if the anchorite nest was converted that day into missionary nets.
In times of dread and threat, nothing seems more inviting than to wall ourselves off from life threatening humanity.
It is then that we have to balance the hermit and the helper, the monk and the missionary.
Jesus found his largest appeal in a desert country he ran to while trying to avoid his mission.
We will probably experience the same.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Jesus the Jew goes to Jerusalem for a major religious festival. If you read the gospels regularly you will know that the editor of John’s gospel has put this report in a different place from the three synoptics which have it in the final fateful week of Jesus’ life.
It is an editors privilege to do so. As a newspaper columnist I know that editors place columns in strategic places for effect. If current editorial principles applied to the compilation of John’s gospel, it suggests that moving the story of the cleaning of the temple from a finale story to a initial story in the Jesus record gives it more importance. It is as if the editor is saying , “If you want to understand the story of Jesus you have to see him in the context of this temple confrontation” .
In a recently published book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”, inter-faith author Reza Aslan suggests that the Jesus of history was first and foremost a Jew, speaking to Jews, and attempting to reform and revolutionize oppressed Jewish political and religious reality in first century Palestine. Alsan argues that although we know precious little about Jesus, the fact that we do know that he was crucified tells us that he was executed for crimes against the Roman Empire. The Romans who learnt crucifixion from the Greeks who learnt it, via Alexander the Great, from the Persians; reserved it solely for punishing political enemies.
It is this Jesus, one messiah amongst many contemporary claimants at the time, who Aslan succeeds in re-introducing to his readers. A zealot whose zeal for the temple consumed him.
It is with this as background that I read the gospel narrative for this Sunday (in the Lutheran Narrative Lectionary)
Through this lens there are three aspects I would like to comment on as I bolded them in the text above:
- “The Passover of the Jews was near…he found people selling…” Right there we have the confrontation of Jesus the devout Jew with the populist religion that his dear faith had become. It was then and still is now, prohibited for Orthodox Jews to trade during the Passover. The feast has as its deepest intention a memorial to the emancipation of Hapiru (slaves) from the tyranny of superpower Egypt. Yet here they were, centuries later, enslaved once more to superpower Rome, who used the temple rituals as part of their occupation strategy.
- “Making a whip (phragellion) of cords, … He also poured out (ekcheo) the coins” Jesus the scourger with a whip, ends his life in the very temple he comes to cleanse and then in Pilate’s precinct, he is the one who is scourged. The action with the coins is even more interesting to me. The word ekcheo is used most in the New Testament in the book of Revelation where seven of the nine instances refer to the pouring out of the vials of judgement and wrath in the angels’ hands. Other usages in the New Testament refer to the spilling of blood or most graphically in Acts 1:18 to the gushing out of the ruptured bowels of Judas. There is something visceral here in the passion of Jesus for cleansing the temple. Again as with the flagellation, how ironic is it that his is the blood that is spilt? Blood money and sweating blood for money are the strange alchemical mixtures that curse our age and every age before us.
- “But he was speaking of the temple of his body”… It was Richard Rohr, who made me aware that a core contribution of Jesus’ teaching to the religious understanding of the planet is that Jesus taught that the sanctuary for divine/human encounter lies, not in external structures, sacrifices or symbolic acts, but rather Jesus understood and taught that the temple was an inner space. The kicker being that if the temple is within, then says Rohr, the only sacrifice that remains is my false self to the True Self. Jesus models this truth in his own life and body temple.
How may we continue to pour ourselves out zealously from the inner sanctuaries of our hearts to those who suffer in the structures of systemic oppression?
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
This passage is remarkable for a whole raft of reasons.
Some that demand my attention are firstly, the psychic nature of John the Baptiser’s “seeing” of the Spirit descending on Jesus. (Of course it doesn’t help that I am reading Stephen King’s , “Doctor Sleep” his sequel to “The Shining”)
Nonetheless, there is a sense that not everyone saw what John saw, which begs the question as to what the pre-requisites for such sight, inner sight or insight are?
If I were to have a guess, it would be John’s complete and utter willingness (as opposed to usual human willfulness)to be used by God.
Notice how once he has seen that Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit he is quite happy to stop his path finding and road levelling ministry and even to hand over his disciples to Jesus.
Which is the second impressive thing about John.
Not only is he willing and obedient He also seems completely devoid of egotistical ambition, selfishness and that clinging to success that begrudges anyone else a chance to do better.
So the point to ponder should you want to see the moments when the Spirit descends on people, places and contexts is to cultivate the non-attachment that doesn’t want the Spirit for oneself.
Another remarkable part of the narrative is the descriptor that John uses for Jesus.
Alright, I know that this story is layered with first century church reflection on the Eucharist and there is significant reading back, but the words still get my contemplative attention.
“Look, the lamb of God who bears the failures of the whole, out of sync, creation.”
(My justification for this translation is that the word kosmos only appears in the New Testament and not the Greek Old Testament It is used as a reference to the created order, implying an ordered, logical world. Sin (hamartia) is thus the condition of disorderedness which is what Jesus has, under the Spirit’s anointing, come to bear towards restoration)
Small wonder then that the two disciples of John say to Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” (annointed one).
Keep noticing though that their acknowledgement of Jesus seems to rest, not on their own insight but simply on the recognition and endorsement of their teacher John the willing and ego-less baptiser.
After thirty years of preaching round about 1500 sermons, I can’t help envying John that depth of spirituality and inner-light that invited such profound trust from those he taught. When he said that he had seen the Spirit descend on Jesus and that he was the Lamb of God to be followed, they believed him because his life to that point was so believable.
May your hearers see the same in you this Sunday O proclaimers of the Lamb of God.
After almost a year of silence, and profound changes in my professional and personal life, I am once again able to reflect on the Scriptures that mould and mystify me.