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SCRIPTURE: When we pray as Jesus taught us, do we know what we are asking for?

Matthew 6:9-15

For most Christians, it is the most familiar passage of scripture, the one part that nearly all of us have memorized – Matthew 6:9-15, commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father,” or “The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us.” Despite our familiarity, despite the fact that this prayer is said in Churches every Sunday, despite the fact that it is prayer in small groups, prayer meetings, in the morning when we rise and at night as we lay down to go to sleep – despite all this, I would hazard to guess that the vast majority don’t realize what we are really saying. Taking this prayer apart line by line, paying close attention to Jesus’ words here, reveals just how deep this revolution is that Jesus is stirring up.

We start at the very beginning, “Our Father.” The first emphasis is on the “our,” the plural possessive. The first word in the prayer reveals first of all the communal nature of the prayer, that we come to God as a people, in a group, with others. This is no individual, between “me” and God prayer. Jesus’ “our” places us alongside everyone else in our relationship to God, making our faith about “us,” not about “me.”

And the title Jesus chooses here for God is literally “Abba,” closer in many ways to “Dad” or “Daddy” then “Father.” What it denotes is a level of intimacy and closeness to God, but it is an intimacy that is still rooted in authority—the relationship is child to parent, not sister to sister or brother or brother. Such a relationship implies God’s claim on us, and our accountability to God, albeit a God who is intimately involved in and aware of his/her responsibility to us as well.

Moreover, perhaps the most important thing about the emphasis on “Our Father” is not the relationship it defines between us and God, but rather the relationship it defines between us and other people, between me and all of these other human beings I come into contact with everyday. Approaching God as “Our Father” implies that all of us, every human being, that we are brothers and sister to one another, family; and therefore, each human being also has a claim on us and we a claim on them. Despite the forces of society and culture and creed that endeavor to separate and divide us, we are, under this Parent God, brothers and sisters to one another, responsible for each other, a reconstituted family. This is especially true for those of us who claim discipleship to Jesus, membership in the Church, but also to all people everywhere, by virtue of God’s “parenting” of them too. The implications that such an insight—that we are truly brothers and sisters, one family—in terms of our lifestyles, our political participation, our economic decision-making, and more are astounding. If we are truly brothers and sisters, then imagine how much we must change in how we see those whom our country is killing in wars or those who are in economic distress because of our nation’s policies? The implications of being “one family under God” are far-reaching and incredibly critical of the status quo.

In verse 10, we read: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In many ways, the notion of “kingdom” is anachronistic in our world. The time of nations ruled by monarchies is pretty much over. So we need to get behind the reality of what the word kingdom is all about. Kingdom refers to a political reality in the world; a kingdom is a people or place over which another has authority or reign. In praying this prayer, after acknowledging God’s intimacy to us as “Father” and our relationship to one another as family, we then acknowledge our hope and longing for God’s authority over this world, this reality here and now, as God rules in that other reality we call “heaven.” But if we are calling for God’s rule here on earth now, then we are also tacitly acknowledging the illegitimacy of any other “kingdom” or rule on earth. At the very least, we are implying that the kingdoms of this world (the authorities, the political system, the governments) are NOT equivalent to God’s kingdom and that we long for them to be replaced by God’s kingdom. Again, the implications for us and for our way of being in the world—not just as individuals or as the church but as states and nations—are revolutionary. Our prayer pledges us to God’s kingdom, not whatever nation we live in or have citizenship in. We are saying, in fact, that we are citizens of the kingdom of God FIRST, not of the United States, or England, or Brazil, or China—that our first loyalty is to God’s kingdom, indeed to God, not to our political leaders or systems or nation. And most poignantly, we are praying that God’s will be done—not the will of our country or elected officials, not our national interest or self-interest be done. Praying that God’s will be done implies that we already are aware how little of God’s will is done, and so we must pray for it, invite it, yearn for it and be about the business of making it happen here, now, for the benefit of our entire, reconstituted family, the human family.

Then we pray that God gives us “our daily bread.” This verse conjures up for us the story of the Exodus, of the Israelites recently freed from Egypt finding the manna in the wilderness. We remember the prescriptions about the manna: Take only what you and your family need for TODAY. And those who took more than they needed for one day found it turned wormy and rotten. This is again a radical understanding of what type of security we ask God for. We do not pray for perceived needs or needs that we may have a week from now or a year from now or for that time after we retire in 20, 30, 40 years. Our security is in our God who takes care of us for today. And if we take only what we need for today, we find, like the early Israelites wandering in the desert, that there is ENOUGH for everybody; No one is hungry, no one dies of starvation, everyone gets what they need when each of us only take what we need for today. This is a radically contrary ethic, one that believes there is enough as long as some of us don’t take too much; and that the reason we find that there isn’t enough is because some in our world are taking more than they could ever need. In essence, when we take more than we need for today, we are stealing from others and contributing to a system where some have way too much and others die because they cannot even get what they need for today. Praying for daily bread is an indictment of an entire system predicated on manufacturing “needs” and encouraging us to get as much as we can as quick as we can before someone else takes it from us. An ethic based on God’s provision of daily bread where there is enough for everyone would be a drastic change in the way our society works now.

This section, which is at the center and the heart of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (both thematically and structurally), ends with two reminders about forgiveness—first in verse 12 and then again in 14 and 15. Jesus seems to be telling us just how central forgiveness should be to humanity. This emphasis on forgiveness should give us pause, especially because Jesus intimates that our own forgiveness is dependent on our willingness to practice forgiveness toward others. This is no simple “please forgive me God” and we find ourselves forgiven. It is, in fact, a quid pro quo: God will forgive us ONLY if we forgive others. And again the reality of what we are praying should strike us to the heart. Whether as individuals or churches or communities or nations, we can only be assured that our own mistakes are forgiven if we forgive the mistakes of another. It is an ethic of reconciliation based on reciprocity, rooted in the basic reality that our relationships to other human beings are reflective of our relationship to God.

So when we pray this prayer, do we really have any understanding of what it is that we are praying? And if we do, do our lives give testimony to what it is that we are really praying here? If the millions of Christians who prayed the “Our Father” every day really did understand and believe this prayer, our world and our relationship would look radically different I think.

-John

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SCRIPTURE: Almsgiving as a Social Corrective

Matthew 6:1-4 

The sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel opens with Jesus addressing what have become the three hallmarks of Lenten observance in the Roman Catholic and other Christian traditions: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Interestingly, the first of these that Jesus addresses is almsgiving.  

The first thing that strikes me about the passage is the assumption Jesus makes that performing “righteous deeds” is part of one’s life of faith. There is no “If you are going to perform righteous deeds, then. . .” Jesus asserts simply that any disciple of his WILL perform righteous deeds; it was part and parcel of sincere Judaism during Jesus’ day and it can be assumed that for those who follow Jesus today, righteous deeds are a regular practice of sincere discipleship. 

But it begs a further question: In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, who was almsgiving aimed at? The Hebrew Scriptures suggest that almsgiving was a practice focused on a particular class of people usually referred to as “the widow, the orphan and the stranger,” three archetypes of people within ancient Hebrew society which would find themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position. Widows, orphans and strangers (i.e. foreigners within Israel) were particularly vulnerable to financial and physical threat because they had no one to speak for them, or to defend them. They were outside the stabilizing and protective circle of “family” or “tribe” or later, “nation/state.” So it is important for us to recall the context for almsgiving during Jesus’ time, and to ask ourselves whether our “righteous deeds” today are performed for the uplift of those who are most vulnerable among us and least protected by our circle of family, community, society or nation.  

Those words—“alms” and “almsgiving”—are not words we use much anymore. Many would substitute today the word “charity.” But the first verse employs a Greek word—Dikaiosynē—which translates to “righteousness/righteous deeds” or “justice/just works” which connotes that what happens in this practice is not simply “charity” in the way we have come to understand the word today. Rather, there is also a note of “justice,” of redressing the wrongs that play themselves out in our political, economic and religious systems. Acts of charity today are often done with an implicit quid pro quo—sure we do something nice, but we also get something back for it. Sometimes it is a tax break; others it is the admiration or acknowledgement of friends and community. But in Jesus’ sermon, the “rightness” of the act is sufficient in and of itself as far as things go here on earth; any reward here too easily leads to a corruption of the goodness of the act apparently.  

The thrust of the passage – that doing good in order to be praised or rewarded for it— is a warning to those who are listening to Jesus. It is a “false pride” that ensnares us when we receive adulation for our good work. Such adulation and the false pride it engenders takes away from the importance of “doing justice” in and of itself. The issue is that we have directly or indirectly benefited at the expense of others in our society who go without enough food, or care, or love, or security; and our “almsgiving” is not to be praised, but rather the simple practice of healing our societal brokenness, correcting inequities among us, redressing wrongs. This isn’t something to be praised; it is simply something that good people—including those who would follow Jesus—should do. 

The final point in this opening passage of this section is that Jesus also puts on the listener the responsibility for performing such acts. The act of doing justice, giving alms is not left to one’s church or one’s government or some other institution. It is a personal responsibility of each and every person who walks this way with Jesus. It cannot be passed on to another level but must be practiced oneself. Such practice, if it becomes second nature to us, fulfills the meaning of verse three: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Our practice is rooted in our integrity, it becomes natural to us, without thought eventually, simply part of who we are and what we do.

– John  

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moral Jujitsu – A Strategy for Winning

Matthew 5:33-42 In these passages from Matthew, Jesus continues to speak of the “higher righteousness,” alluded to in 5:20, which is the crux of the new/old teaching he proclaims.

The fourth passage in this series begins with verse 33. It is an interesting passage that not only teaches, but is a demonstration of the teaching itself. The language of oaths and vows may not resonate with us now the way it did for Jesus’ original listeners; nevertheless, the focus of the passage may be even more poignant for us now. 

 We start with the question: Why does one take an oath? What makes an oath necessary? The answer, of course, is that one’s word is somehow lacking integrity, that there is some doubt as to whether you will do what you say you will do. So to give it more oomph – to emphasize one’s integrity and trustworthiness to another who is doubtful – we “swear” on a variety of things—our mother’s grave, “the Holy Bible”, to God, etc. But the greater issue here is the assumption that a person’s word is no longer good enough, and that integrity is in short supply. Today, it is an accepted fact that we live in a culture of lies, misrepresentations, deception and dishonesty—in everything from politics to marketing to our personal relationships. We have become a culture that lacks integrity and, because of that – when something is really important – we have to rely on various oaths, vows and other expressions to impress on others that yes, we really mean what we say . . .at least this time. 

 Jesus discerns this lack of integrity in his own time.  In a culture of duplicity, Jesus proposes simplicity: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (verse 37). No oath or vow can substitute for our consistent, faithful practice of integrity. Jesus’ own directness of speech in this passage demonstrates just such integrity: there is no hedging, no obscuring, no duplicity. The message on integrity takes on the characteristics of integrity—Jesus is simple, straightforward and direct. 

 The next passage is one that many of us at the scripture study last Tuesday confessed to having wrestled with regularly. Many have come away from this passage (5:38-42) believing that Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to be doormats, to suffer evil without any resistance. But scripture scholars with good social and historical analysis of the Palestine of Jesus’ time have done incredible work with this passage over the past twenty years. The passage starts out by quoting what was a common understanding of justice in Jesus’ time and, indeed, still holds sway with the vast majority of humanity today: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (v. 38). We understand such a mentality today as being primarily about punishment, about seeking “justice” for the perpetrator. For some of us, it even offends our more “developed” sensibilities about a justice that has vengeance at its core. But for the early Israelites, such a law (lex talionis) was actually instituted for its limiting effect. An eye for an eye was instituted to limit revenge, to keep violence from escalating, and to actually break the cycle of vengeance that such actions often invited. Such cycles and escalations rooted primarily in revenge could quickly get out of hand and cease to be about any sort of justice at all. An eye for an eye functioned to limit that tendency. 

What Jesus proposes instead of an eye for an eye unsettles some of us though. Is Jesus promoting passivity to evil when he tells us to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus telling us to unquestioningly accept suffering with no thought for our safety or dignity? A quick lesson in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ time is helpful in understanding what it is that Jesus actually counsels.

 The culture of Jesus’ time, not unlike Middle Eastern cultures today, was built on the axis of honor-shame. One’s honor was considered of the utmost importance – and not incurring shame was essential. Note then the language of the last part of v. 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies that you would strike them with the back of you right hand. Such an act was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Those subservient to you—slaves to masters, wives to husbands, children to fathers, peasants to soldiers, and so on—could be put in their place with a well-placed backhand to the cheek. Additionally, to strike one in this way did not go against Jewish law. So what happens when we “turn the other cheek?” The act, far from being a sign of willingness to accept evil treatment, is actually an assertion of dignity by the oppressed party that put the oppressor in a difficult and shameful position. For the oppressor to strike his inferior on the left cheek, the oppressor is forced to strike with his open hand. To strike with one’s open hand, as opposed to backhand someone, is to acknowledge that the one you are striking is equal to you. Furthermore, to strike with an open hand is prohibited in Jewish law, so turning the other cheek and inviting your opponent to strike you with their open hand is to put the opponent in the unenviable position of acknowledging your equality to them, and then having to either back down in front of others and incur the shame associated with that OR break the law and incur the penalties and shame in that action. So what we have here is not Jesus inviting us to a beat-down by our opponents. Rather what we have is Jesus inviting us to a strategy for confronting and resisting an opponent who is in a position of power over us. It is actually a strategy for winning.

 The same application follows in the next two examples. In v. 40, the issue of giving one’s cloak to one to whom you are indebted who has taken your tunic is directly related again to Jewish law. Jewish law states that the one item that a good Jew could not deny to another Jew, regardless of how in debt the other was to him, was his cloak. A cloak functioned in a variety of capacities for the poorest of the poor: clothing, shelter from the elements, and economic opportunity (beggars used to spread out their cloaks in front of them at the gates to the city, asking for alms to be placed in them). A cloak must therefore be returned before sunset to one’s rightful owner. To offer someone your cloak when they are taking your tunic again puts them in an awkward and untenable position regarding Jewish law and the potential for incurring shame in front of one’s peers and others.  

In v. 41, Jesus is referencing the common practice of Roman soldiers to press into service civilian help in carrying their various military items. Any Roman soldier could require of any peasant the performance of this task—but the law stated that it could be for only one mile. So to offer to go two miles again turns the table on the opponent, forcing them into a position of breaking the law should they accept. 

 Great activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi understood Jesus’ words here as a strategy for winning in a situation when the vast amount of power was on the side of one’s opponent. To fight with weapons would be a strategy sure to fail since the opponent has all the power – and better weapons. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Jesus invites us to think creatively and nonviolently. What he offers us is a strategy for winning—both in terms of asserting our dignity but also in appealing to the best sensibilities of our opponent and especially to the many who may not have chosen sides but are watching closely the interaction between us and our opponents. Calling attention to the deep injustice of our situation through creative resistance, as Jesus suggests, is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of all those watching from the sidelines. What we have here is Jesus inviting us to moral jujitsu—using our opponent’s energy against him to make our point and win the encounter.

-John

SCRIPTURE STUDY: In the Circle with All the Other Killers and Adulterers

Matthew 5:17-48, part one 

“Inside-outside” is a game we all play. It seems to be taught to us from the beginning of life. Some folks are inside the circle (good); others are outside the circle (bad). This past week we started looking at a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seeks to obliterate those circles we draw, boundaries between ourselves and our friends and the dreaded “others” who are somehow not like us. 

This section of Matthew, 5:17-48 is made up of 6 antitheses introduced with the common, “You have heard…But I say to you…” The antitheses are responses to (more or less) Torah-based pronouncements on killing, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and attitudes and behaviors toward one’s enemies. [Note: When Jesus states, “You have heard…” the following predicate is not necessarily a quote from Jewish law, but it probably was what passed for conventional wisdom and practice at the time.] 

The section begins with a short passage (17-20) which situates the antitheses that are to follow. Lest anyone get the idea that Jesus is proposing a radically new teaching, he makes the case that what he is about to address is consistent with the best of the Mosaic and prophetic tradition in Judaism. The “Do not think…” that opens verse 17 points to what is probably a common reaction his teaching has already raised among his disciples and others: that his teachings are a challenge to or even a repudiation of the Torah. But while his teachings may question the what is passing as legitimate interpretation of Torah and certainly the authority of the teachers and interpreters of Torah in his day (Pharisees, scribes, others), his teachings should not be understood as inconsistent with or counter to the highest expressions of justice and morality already revealed in the tradition.  

Another concern Jesus seems to have is that the misunderstanding of his teachings will lead not to a more rigorous practice and higher level of integrity among those who hear him, but rather some might be thinking his teaching allows for greater relaxation in matters of justice and morality. His acknowledgement of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (v. 20) points to a more challenging discipline and a greater integrity to be the rule for his disciples. Making these things clear, Jesus turns to several examples of this “higher righteousness” in the following passages.  

In verse 21, Jesus begins with the injunction against killing (Ex 20:13 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures). The truth of the matter is that the injunction against killing really only encompasses a very small number of us. Few of us will actually kill another human being (at least directly, but that is for another time…) during our lives. The injunction thus draws a small circle, encircling and setting apart a small group for whom the rest of us suppose the injunction is intended. But Jesus decides to draw the circle larger. He pushes the boundary out, including inside the circle all those who experience anger toward another, who ridicule others with taunts like “Raqa” (imbecile or “blockhead”) or “fool”. He connects that impulse—the impulse toward an anger directed at other humans, an anger that “dehumanizes” another human being through ridicule or disdain—with the most extreme of actions which flow from that impulse, namely, killing.  

Killing happens because we have learned to dehumanize the other—to no longer see the other as human. This happens all the time in war. To get a soldier to kill, the soldier must devalue the enemy’s humanity, to see them as less than human. But killing is only the most extreme expression of the impulse. Jesus pushes that circle out until we are all inside of it, cognizant that each day all of us move along this same spectrum of dehumanization (of which killing is at the far end) in our actions and behaviors. And so the injunction against killing becomes not an indictment of a few who are somehow set apart from the rest of us, but rather an indictment of all of us and a warning to take seriously our own attitude and actions in our daily interactions. 

The interesting second part of this passage is the prescription of reconciliation as an antidote to the anger that leads to dehumanization and severs our relationships to other human beings. In verses 23-24, Jesus recognizes that we all will fall into the very type of anger he cautions us about, so he offers a practice to heal the rift that dehumanizing anger causes: the practice of reconciliation. But the rub here is that he connects right worship with right relationship, and asserts then the converse: there is no true worship where there is division caused by anger within the worshipping community. As the prophets before him said again and again, the neglect of mercy, justice and reconciliation individually and communally nullifies our worship of God. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Those who dehumanize their opponents, worship falsely.  

The same widening of the circle of indictment takes place in the next two passages (verses 27-30, 31-32) as well, this time regarding the injunctions against adultery and the process of divorce (tied together by their common reference to adultery). Again, the adulterers among us may be relatively small in number compared to the number of us that have looked on others as simply objects for us to use to satisfy our desires. The lust referred to here has the same end as the anger referred to above: dehumanization. Objectification of another human being is dehumanization; their value is reduced to how they can be used. If adultery is the result at the far end of the spectrum, the motivation for adultery—to see others for their value to us and not their value in and of themselves—broadens the circle until we all find ourselves within its boundaries. The injunction takes on new life and is directed at all of us, not simply those few who commit only the most extreme act of what lies in all of our hearts. 

Additionally, adultery, especially in Jesus’ time but in our own as well, cannot be simply understood in the sense of “unchastity” but also incorporates an element of justice, or right relationship, as well. Adultery in Jesus’ time placed women in particular in a state of jeopardy—one simply thinks of the situation of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel, surrounded by a crowd intent on stoning her. A patriarchal society run by and for men elevated a man’s value and denigrated a woman’s value. And so women often bear, unfairly, the greater punishment or consequences of adultery. The indictment of the interior process of dehumanization over the act of adultery itself leaves all of us, like the crowd in John’s story, examining our own precarious sense of being “sinless” rather than focusing on the sin of another. 

Perhaps most importantly, in examining the first three of these antitheses, we notice that Jesus’ widening of the circle changes the focus of our attention as well. If the injunction is simply aimed at killers and adulterers, then our eyes focus outward on and toward the others encompassed by those injunctions. But Jesus’ turns our eyes away from others and squarely back on ourselves. While we were intent on the sins of others, Jesus erased and moved the line so that we suddenly find ourselves in the circle too. Now we ask why it is that we are here in the circle too. We stop considering others sinfulness and we start considering our own. Such consideration is perhaps the first steps to learning how to live more fully this higher righteousness that Jesus called us to back in verse 20.

-John

UPDATE: Being Salt, College Students Take Over the Roundtable, Youth Group Takes Over the Cafe, New Living Local Blog

locavore.jpg

Hi Folks, 
 

Busy week at the House, please check out the schedule HERE, and join us if you can. 
Highlights include an invigorating scripture study, Lenten Morning Prayer, a Roundtable featuring some of our most active college students, and a Cafe run by high school youth group members. 

Also, we started a spin-off “blog” for any of you who mght be interested in learning along with us to live more locally here in Gainesville: What We Need is Here: Learning to Be Local.  As many of you know, a primary goal of the GCW has been to support local farms and businesses with what we do at the house.  We’ve learned some things and have a lot more to learn in how to live more deeply here in Gainesville, using and appreciating the resources available to us and being more conscientious about how our decisions affect others.  We would love to hear your insights and ideas as well, so jump in and add a comment.  
 

And we are still waiting to get the new listserv set up.  Hopefully you’ll get an email soon asking if you want to remain on it. 
 Have a good week.  Hope to see you!  

Gainesville Catholic Worker
218 NW 2nd Avenue
Gainesville, Florida 32601
352.271.6941
www.gainesvillecw.org
 

SCRIPTURE STUDY: The Beatitudes, part II

christ-healing-leper-640x480.jpg

Lost to us, who encounter these passages 2000 years after they were first spoken, is the incredibly subversive nature of what Jesus is espousing in the Beatitudes. Jesus’ society, like ours today, took certain things for granted. People consider themselves “blessed” if they have wealth, status, and power. How often have we heard, or said ourselves, “God has really blessed me,” in some reference to our good fortune, good luck, good health, success, etc? And by extension, those who have experienced misfortune, tragedy, hardship, and suffering, many of us privately pass judgment on—thinking that perhaps it is their fault, or they deserve it, or they’re just not good enough, smart enough, strong enough to make it. We even go so far as to chalk it up to God’s punishment or karmic justice. In Jesus’ time, we know that those who were broken, physically deformed, mentally unstable, and sick or those who suffered loss and tragedy were literally considered to be cursed, as in the story of Job. It is a vicious circle and blatant attempt to justify by God the success of a few at the expense of the many. Those who succeed must be blessed by God; and those who don’t…well you can put two and two together. 

Think, for a minute, just how twisted Jesus’ words are: The meek or the lowly ones didn’t inherit land; those who hunger and thirst after righteousness experience disappointment, not satisfaction; those who mourned dead fathers and sons, the loss of their ancestral lands and other manifestations of the oppression of the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee did not find comfort, no matter where they looked, including to their own corrupt religious and political leaders; what did it matter to have a “clean heart” to the leper whose physical “uncleanness” marked him as a sinner and put him outside of the bonds of community; and to extol an ethic of mercy when justice, better understood as vengeance, was foremost in people’s hearts toward those who had wronged them? 

The Beatitudes undermine the dominant cultural and even religious values of Jesus’ time and our own. They subvert our warped theologies that serve to justify economic, political and religious systems that elevate some of us while placing the blame for other’s lack of success on their sinfulness, their moral weakness, their laziness, or their obviously inherent unworthiness.  

In verse 7 of the Beatitudes, Jesus promises that those who show mercy will be shown mercy. It is an ethic of reciprocity that Jesus will come to again and again in the Sermon on the Mount (most pointedly in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors;” and the Golden Rule). The practice of mercy is not nearly as common as we might think. Mercy involves entering into a situation, a relationship really with someone, going past the rules and the easy, stock answers which protect us from taking responsibility for the harsh pain such decisions cause. We are more concerned about what is fair, what is just even, rather than showing mercy. And yet, the second part of verse 6 implies that we all shall need mercy someday, and that those who practice mercy, will be shown mercy when their time comes. 

As we have already alluded to above, Jesus asserting that those with a “clean heart” will see God subverts every law and disposition which judges people based on outer appearances. Jesus lived in a society of purity codes, where someone’s purity or cleanness was based on physical manifestations of sinfulness—sickness, rashes, deformities, disabilities. This brings up a good question for us, one which we wrestled with on several occasions during our two week study of the Beatitudes—namely, who is Jesus talking to? Who is the audience for the Beatitudes? Is it aimed at the poor and broken and downtrodden? Thedisciples? Those curious folks somewhat invested in the status quo but still intrigued by Jesus enough to come out to hear him speak? The Pharisees? And so on. And maybe the ears Jesus speaks to change from Beatitude to Beatitude… Anyway, in the case of verse 8, imagine being one of the lepers, lunatics, paralytics, diseased ones who have not the standing or money to be made clean again through the proper channels (priests of the Temple system reserved the right to name someone clean or unclean and the ability to make payment to the priest thru sacrificial offerings often played a part in the transaction). Imagine being told that it is the interior, what is inside of a person, that determines whether one may see God? How liberating for the leper! And how threatening to the priest whose livelihood is based on the people’s willingness to cede control to him! 

Someone at the study also pointed out the connection between the Beatitude in verse 3 and verse 10. Both the poor in spirit and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness are promised the same thing: the kingdom of heaven. And the tense is different than the verses between these two—no “they will be satisfied,” et al; but rather “theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Right now, right here. And in trying to define that fuzzy term “poor in spirit,” we have a little insight into who those might be—perhaps they are also the ones who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the sake of justice? A friend of mine, a longtime priest in Mexico, once told me that persecution is the sign of the true church; the church that is really being faithful to Christ and the proclamation of the kingdom of God is bound to be persecuted by the powers invested in the status quo, the way things are. 

In the final Beatitude, verses 11-12, Jesus changes the object of the Beatitude from the third person to the second person, aiming what he now says directly at the disciples, those who followed him up the mountain and whom he began to teach. The Beatitude states, “Blessed are you WHEN they insult you and persecute you…” No “ifs,” but a resounding “when.” The implication is not to be missed: If you follow this Jesus, if you choose to align yourself with him, “they” will insult you, persecute, slander you, etc. “They” is defined by the next statement: “Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Jesus places those who will follow him in the line of the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah. And the “they” who persecuted those prophets were the political and religious powers of their time. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet is set up against either the king or the priest, as well as the systems they represent. This is to be the task of Jesus’ disciples, of the church. To stand with those who are named “blessed” in the Beatitudes, to prophetically speak the truth of Jesus to those in power, and to suffer the persecution that flows from such actions.

-John

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Step One Toward Liberation – Things are Going to Get Worse

Chapter 5 in Exodus lays out the basic structure of the Egyptian economic enterprise and the nature of the relationships within that structure. One modern-day parallel we noted in our study a few weeks ago was the similarity between the Israelites and today’s migrant farmworkers, as well as that of the Pharaoh with his circle of advisors and the CEO and various levels of management of a major agribusiness corporation. Moses and Aaron play the part of labor organizers. 

As chapter 5 opens, Moses and Aaron have won the support of the elders of Israel and, by extension, the Hebrew people for the carrying out of God’s plan to secure their liberation. Their initial encounter with Pharaoh, however, ends predictably badly. The only power that Pharaoh is aware of and recognizes is his own. His immediate perception of the situation fits all the known factors: He has power; the Hebrew slaves do not. Why would he acquiesce to their demands?  Why would he believe this talk about “the God of Israel?” The idea that some other deity (remember that Pharaoh’s cultural and perhaps self-conception is that he is a “god-man”) would choose to align with a bunch of slaves must, in Pharaoh’s mind, speak to the weakness of such a god, if there was one. Pharaoh has subjugated these people for generations. Where was their “God” then? Why should Pharaoh believe this “God” has any power now if it has not exercised that power before? 

Pharaoh’s response to the request to allow the Hebrews to go out into the desert to celebrate a festival to God is to press down even harder in his oppression of the Hebrews. His reasoning is that if these Hebrews have time enough to entertain thoughts of a “vacation in the desert,” then they must not be working hard enough. In essence, Pharaoh sets out to destroy whatever impulses toward recognizing their dignity and rights which Moses and Aaron have stirred up in his Hebrew slaves. If they think that these two agitators are giving them good advice, well then, Pharaoh will show them just what will come if they decide to continue listening to the words of Moses and Aaron. 

So Pharaoh increases their workload, even to the point of making it impossible. He ratchets up the work so that every level feels the strain: the workers have to find their own straw now to make the bricks and they have to still make as many bricks per hour as they were making before; the foremen over the workers (fellow Israelites) need to make sure that production does not ease up on bit despite the added labor; taskmasters (Egyptians) over the foremen, have to make sure the foremen keep the pressure on and they have to report to Pharaoh and his advisors the status of the work. The Hebrew workers can’t keep up, the taskmasters drive them harder, but the foremen set over the workers can’t make the prescribed amount of bricks and so they are beaten. They complain to Pharaoh about the impossibility of the situation. Pharaoh throws back at them the request of Moses and Aaron to let the Hebrews go off into the desert and offer a sacrifice to their God, insinuating that the workers must be lazy since they have time to sit around and listen to Moses and Aaron and entertain thoughts about how they deserve a three-day break. Very adeptly, Pharaoh undermines their trust in Moses and Aaron and lays the blame for the brutal work situation of the Hebrews on the two of them. 

So the Israelite foremen leave Pharaoh angry with Moses and Aaron, and they confront the two agitators who stirred things up in the first place with their talk of this God who had heard their cries and was going to lead them out of Egypt. Moses and Aaron have only made the lives of this oppressed people worse. Their campaign has experienced the first “push-back” from the powers-that-be, and Moses and Aaron have experienced the first round of backlash as Pharaoh attempts to crush their little movement before it can ever really get started.  

Such a scenario is typical even in our world today. At first glance, all the power seems to reside on one side. People who have been disempowered and subjugated all their lives enter into confrontation with what appears to be an irresistible force and those little voices in the back of their minds that say that there is no chance of winning here, no chance of making anything better are seemingly confirmed when those in power exercise that power against them, making their lives harder just for the fact that they have dared to challenge or even question the ways things are. This is the way it starts. Power, especially illegitimate power, does not simply fold in the face of challenge. Rather, it puffs itself up even more and marshals its resources to crush that challenge. It will do anything to maintain its privilege, anything to maintain the status quo from which it benefits.  

Chapter 5 ends with Moses, the one who received the mission and promise directly from God, even questioning the situation – not wanting things to get any worse, wondering how it is that this already brutally terrorized people must suffer more, and why his part in it has so far brought them only more pain.

– John

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Is Resistance Futile?

When God invites Moses to undertake the mission to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt in chapters 3 and 4 in Exodus, four times Moses raises objections to the plan. First, he argues “Who am I that I should go …?” (3:11). Next, he objects that “they will not believe me” (4:1). And in the passage we looked at this week, 4:10-17, he first offers that he is not a good speaker (4:10), then, dropping any pretense or attempt at obfuscation, Moses states: “Lord, send someone else!” (4:13). And so we have arrived at the heart of the matter: Moses does not want to go. All of the arguing with God and offering up of excuses, which God has answered one by one, are really just justifications for the simple truth that Moses does not want to go. 

But why is it that Moses does not want to go? During our study last night, folks suggested a variety of reasons, all with the same motivation: fear. Moses is afraid of returning to a country where there is a price on his head because of his past criminal acts (killing the Egyptian). He is afraid of being rejected by the Israelites, his family of origin, because of his upbringing as a favored grandson of the king who has brutally oppressed them. Maybe he is afraid of his own inadequacy to the task at hand—reinforced by his earlier confusion over the events that transpired between him and his fellow Israelites after his killing of the Egyptian overseer. Remember too that Moses has settled down to a comfortable life in Midian—married with children, part of the family business. Leaving this life of relative stability, comfort and security could have also inspired fear in Moses.  

It would be easy at this point to make a bit of a caricature of Moses, to laugh at his fear or to disparage his reluctance at accepting God’s invitation. This is after all, God, all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing. But to do so would only reveal our own limited understanding of just what Moses is being asked to face and just how little he really knows about this God who is doing the asking. 

The crux of it is this: God is asking Moses to confront an Empire, an Empire which seems unassailable, invincible, eternal. An Empire which simply rolls over anyone who dares to question its power, anyone who dares to question its right to pursue its national interest in whatever way it sees fit. God is asking Moses to face down a powerful king—a king considered more a god than a human being—equipped with armies, state of the art weaponry, unmatched military power. And, at this point in the story, God asks Moses to do this armed only with some words, a few magic tricks, and God’s promise that it will all work out.

And this God does not ask Moses to raise an army from among Egypt’s enemies. Moses’ only initial co-conspirator is to be his brother Aaron, a Levite, one of the beaten-down slaves from among the Israelites, whose only real asset is that he is more eloquent than Moses. These two brothers—one a criminal in exile, and the other an apparent runaway slave—are tasked with leading a revolution against the most powerful and enduring empire of the time. 

In this light, Moses’ fear might now strike us as both justified and sensible. And even the promise of a God speaking from a burning bush—a God, remember, who has apparently been absent during the Israelites’ oppression these many long years—would not hold nearly the same motivating force as would the real, demonstrable and experienced power of Pharaoh and his empire.  

To walk into Egypt and confront Pharaoh to his face can only seem like folly to Moses. What God is inviting him to must surely seem like suicide. What is the power of one man, or two—even with the support of a whole nation of slaves—against Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire in all its glory and might and ruthlessness? This is what Moses must have been contemplating.  

And so maybe recognizing some of that same fear and reluctance in ourselves in our own day, we have to agree that Moses’ fear is real, that he would be risking everything to take up this mission, and that it is likely to all end in suffering, disaster, and death. The great powers of every era throughout history nearly always control good men and women through creating and fostering just such a perspective—that it is futile to think things could be any other way, that it is futile to challenge them.

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moses Goes from the Sideline to the Frontline

Last week, we started to look at a long section (2:23-4:17) of the story commonly referred to as “the call of Moses.” In 2:23-3:10, there are several things we want to note which give context to the overall passage. The first is that a long time has passed following Moses’ murder of the Egyptian, subsequent flight from Egypt and his “settling down” in the land of Midian. He has gotten married, had a child, and become part of the family business (“tending the flock” in verse 3:1). In short, what the story tells us is that Moses is long past the distress of seeing his “kinsfolk” oppressed by the Egyptians which led to his killing the Egyptian and the confusion over witnessing the behavior of his fellow Hebrews, both to each other and toward him. He has forgotten, or suppressed, or chosen to leave behind that situation and that part of his history.  

We are also told that, back in Egypt, the Pharaoh, under whom Moses’ presumably lived and who sought Moses’ death, has died and been replaced by another Pharaoh. But despite the change in administrations, the basic reality in Egypt has not changed for the Hebrews. Their slavery and oppression continues. 

Finally, we have this remarkable encounter around a bush, which, “though on fire, was not consumed.” From the burning bush, Moses is addressed by God, who says that “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers” and proposes to send Moses to Pharaoh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.” 

In 3:11, we hear Moses’ reply to this mission from God, and the reply is evidence of both Moses’ reluctance to accept God’s invitation and also his concern about his acceptance by the Israelites. The question for us is: Why is Moses reluctant? What has changed that has made him less than enthused to be part of the liberation of “his kinsfolk,” as he named them back in 2:11? The roots of Moses’ reluctance lie in his earlier killing of the Egyptian then witnessing his own people’s brutality toward one another and their distrust, or at least suspicion, of him. The consequence of those events was an identity crisis for Moses. Born a Hebrew but raised in the palace of Pharaoh as part of his family, Moses found that despite his self-identification as “Hebrew,” he shared little in common with those of his people who had lived under the jackboot of Egyptian authority. Indeed, it could even be said that Moses’ own lifestyle up to this point had been built on the oppression of the Hebrews for the benefit of the Egyptian royal family. And despite his attempt to provide some remedy or relief from Egyptian brutality (i.e. killing the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew), he is aghast when he comes the next day and witnesses the brutality of one oppressed Hebrew against another oppressed Hebrew, and is confused by his “fellow” Hebrew’s questions of him and accusation that Moses might be thinking of killing him “as you killed the Egyptian.” The overall result of this encounter is that even though Moses has destroyed the protection he enjoyed as part of the Egyptian royal family, he has also recognized the distance between himself and the other Hebrews, a distance which he chooses not to try and overcome. Overwhelmed by his actions, by what he has learned about the society in which he lives, by the threat to his life, and by a crisis of identity, Moses chose to flee the situation, to leave it in the dust. So, God’s invitation to enter back into that situation must not strike Moses as particularly appealing, especially since he has now set up and built for himself a fairly good life here in Midian.  

But what becomes clear in the conversation between Moses and God throughout this section is that there is one major difference between then and now. The major shift is that Moses will go to the Israelites not on his own behalf, but rather on the behalf of God. What hasn’t changed is the oppression of the Israelites; that continues in all its brutality and inhumanity. And while Moses’ first attempt to do something about that failed, this next attempt will not be rooted in Moses’ partial understanding of the situation, the fleeting passion of witnessing the brutality first-hand, nor the ideals of Moses’ youth; rather this attempt is rooted in God’s enduring love for and mercy toward those who suffer oppression. 

Furthermore, Moses’ crisis of identity will be resolved as well. In this section, we see Moses no longer referring to the Israelites as “my kinsmen,” “my kinsfolk,” etc. Rather, we hear the distance he has cultivated between himself and them. Now he speaks of them as “the Israelites.” But God asserts Moses’ identity as an Israelite. God commissions Moses to go to them, to tell them what God has stated. But to assure that Moses is heard, God gives him what amounts to good advice that many an adept organizer would recognize. Yes, God send Moses to the Israelites, but in verse 3:16 God specifies that Moses is to “assemble the elders of the Israelites” and share with them God’s concern. By convincing the leaders of this oppressed people—those who others respect and look to for advice and guidance—Moses will have greater legitimacy in the eyes of the people. And again, God states that it will be Moses AND the elders of Israel who will go before the Pharaoh to negotiate, not Moses alone. The people who were reluctant to claim or recognize him as one of them before, he will now lead. A struggle he had fled from because of his own limited understanding and abilities, he will now embrace—indeed, lead. God is calling Moses out of his comfortable, but inauthentic, life on the sideline to an uncomfortable, but deeply authentic and necessary life, on the frontline.

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moses Whacks Egyptian, Solves Nothing

The Exodus story so far has unfolded against the backdrop of the oppression of the Israelites by Egyptian state power (under the direction of the Egyptian “god-king,” Pharaoh), as well as the resistance of both Hebrew and Egyptian women (the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister; Pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaids) to the official policies of the repressive regime. In this week’s passage, Exodus 2:11-15a, the story moves forward with the introduction of the person who will become the major character in the story, Moses. (While Moses appeared in a passive role as a baby in our earlier passage, it is here that he first asserts himself by becoming an agent of action and speech.)

The opening verse, verse 11, serves several purposes. The first is that it reveals for us who it is that Moses understands himself to be. The repetition of the phrase “his kinsmen/kin/kinsfolk” both at the beginning and at the end of the verse helps us to see that Moses considers himself to be a Hebrew. This might seem obvious to us because of our familiarity with the rest of the story, but we need to remember that the previous verses have Moses being “adopted” into the royal family of Pharaoh where Moses must have been at least somewhat shielded, if not completely oblivious, to the plight of his kinsfolk, the Hebrews, who have been treated as slaves. We can imagine that Moses has probably enjoyed a comfortable, even luxurious, lifestyle under the protection of Pharaoh or Pharaoh’s daughter despite his Hebrew identity. Second, the statement that Moses sees the Hebrews’ “forced labor” and “an Egyptian striking a Hebrew” reasserts for us the power dynamic of the time: the brutal oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians for the benefit of the Egyptian social and economic system.

Moses’ reaction to what he witnesses—the unjust treatment of and the use of violence against those he considers his people—is both passionate and calculated. The text reads, “Looking about and seeing no one, he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Moses doesn’t simply fly into a rage, but rather discerns what he could do to rectify the injustice he has just witnessed without having to face retribution for his actions. He kills the Egyptian, the person he identifies as the perpetrator of the violence and injustice, and he gets rid of the evidence.

The next verse has Moses repeating the action of verse 11, i.e. “he went out again,” but this time the scene is somewhat different—or at least the players are. This time the violence is between two Hebrews. Moses asks the first great question of the passage, “Why?!” “Why?” he asks the one “in the wrong” or “the culprit.” “Why are you striking your fellow Hebrew?” There is something here he doesn’t understand. Based on yesterday’s experience, maybe he thought he understood the situation. Maybe he thought he had “rectified” the situation, solved the problem—the problem being the individual actions of a particularly corrupt or abusive Egyptian overseer toward his Hebrew workers. But why, Moses wonders, would two people who share the same ethnic identity, his kinsmen who share the same general situation in life, act with such violence toward one another? Moses thought he understood the situation, but his simplistic analysis and attempt at solving the problem have not changed the overall situation of the Hebrew people. Perhaps the situation is more complex than Moses has understood. Perhaps there is a “systemic” problem here, one in which even some of the Hebrew people have internalized, and his simple recourse to violence has not changed anything except to give him some momentary satisfaction for his deep abhorrence of the injustice and violence he witnessed first-hand yesterday?

The response that Moses gets is equally unsettling. Perhaps he had thought his action in killing the Egyptian the day before had won him some good will among his kinsfolk, or proven his identity as one of them. But in verse 14, the Hebrew worker puts forward the second great question of the passage: “Who?” “Who has appointed you ruler and judge over us?” He goes on to query whether Moses plans on killing him, intimating that he understands Moses to possess the opportunity, wherewithal and power to kill him and get away with it, just as he killed the Egyptian. The question, “Who?” reverberates over this passage just as the question “Why?” did from the verse prior. For, as one of our folks in the study last night quickly pointed out, Moses’ identity is a central motif of this passage. Or in other words, Moses is having an identity crisis. Who does he see himself to be? Who do his fellow Hebrews, aware of his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household, understand him to be? Is the question about being appointed ruler and judge rhetorical on the lips of the Hebrew who knows where and among whom Moses was raised? Moses considers himself to be Hebrew, but what is it to truly be a Hebrew in Egypt at this moment in history? Does Moses really have any understanding of this? Has he lived as a Hebrew—oppressed, forced into slave labor, worrying over the safety of his newborn baby boy, etc? Who is he?

With these two great questions—“Who am I?” and “Why is it like this?”—Moses, realizing that he has lost the protection of Pharaoh by killing an Egyptian, and that no amount of pleading or justifying to any Egyptian institution will ever make it okay that a Hebrew killed an Egyptian, decides to flee. But he does not flee or seek refuge among his kinsfolk, his Hebrew family, with whom he so strongly identified at the beginning of the passage. Maybe the precariousness and systemic brutality of their life under Egyptian oppression is suddenly dawning on him. Where does he flee? To Midian, away from Pharaoh, and away from “his kinsfolk”—no longer with answers, now only questions.

– John