I’m happy to announce the appearance of my new book, How Can Anyone Read the Bible? It’s intended for all sorts of people who want to read the Bible and are perhaps daunted by its size and complexity. It should be helpful, too, to people who have read or heard a fair amount of the Bible already, but want to acquire a better grasp of how the bits they know fit together in such a varied and complex collection of writings. Whether your interest arises from religious faith or intellectual curiosity or some combination of the two, you’ll find some assistance here.
The book is part of a new series from Church Publishing—”Little Books of Guidance”—that offer brief and basic introductions to all sorts of theological and ethical questions. I’m delighted to be part of this new project. The book is dedicated to to all those who have been part of the lively series of monthly scripture studies I have been leading for the past few years at Good Shepherd, Berkeley. They have helped me envisage the larger audience for which I’ve written this book.
The Bible stands as a great classic of religious faith, spiritual teaching, and world literature. But the fact that it was created over a period of about a thousand years and includes many different types of writing and perspectives can make it difficult for readers to orient themselves. This little book aims particularly to help in that process. It has sections on getting started and on the kinds of writings you can expect to find. I also suggests a variety of paths you can follow while getting acquainted with the Bible.
I hope it will prove useful both to individuals and to study groups. And it is on sale at a very good price just now at Cokesbury.
After our detour to look at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we turn back to pick up the narrative in chapter 3 with the ministry of John the Baptist and the story of his baptizing of Jesus.
Who was this John and what is he doing here?
John was a common name in the first century, which makes it worth noting here that John the Baptizer is not the same person as the John who was one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples nor the author (or authors) of the Gospel, Letters, and Revelation of John in the New Testament. He was a religious reformer in his own right, whom early Christians later regarded Jesus’ “Forerunner” (the title they subsequently gave him).
Wasn’t he Jesus’ cousin?
So Luke tells us. If Matthew knew that, he never mentions it. Even though comparing the gospels with each other can be very enlightening, it’s generally a good idea, as we read each one separately, not to supplement one gospel directly out of another. If we let each writer choose what he wants us to hear, we may get a better sense of the message he’s trying to impart.
For Matthew, the important thing seems to be that John fulfilled an ancient prophecy—”the voice of one crying in the wilderness”—and that his message focused on the approaching “Kingdom of Heaven.” He is poised, in other words, between the venerable tradition of Israel’s past and something new that is taking place.
Why the strange dress and food?
It shows that he had made a sharp break with the existing society. He lived off the land and dressed in cheap clothing and stayed on the fringes of civilization. He was an ascetic, who deliberately rejected the usual comforts of home and family. He also separated himself from the social structures of his world by living alone in the relatively deserted countryside along the Jordan River.
But people took notice. What kind of inner, spiritual strength did it take to walk away from all these things that other people treasured? And his message proved very attractive to people who felt themselves trapped in a world that they could neither escape nor find meaning in.
Why the baptizing?
Many religions use physical washing or purifying as a sacramental way of seeking spiritual renewal and nearness to God. In the religion of ancient Israel, it was a duty to cleanse oneself from physical impurities that might render you unworthy of coming close to God. John took that practice and made something new of it. His baptism wasn’t just a washing away of particular forms of impurity, such as menstruation for women or sexual ejaculation for men. It was a way, we could say, of starting one’s relationship with God all over again. People confessed their sins, received the washing, and were on a new footing with God.
John’s choice of the Jordan River for his ministry may have come partly just from its being a relatively deserted area. But it also reminds us that the people of Israel had long ago come into the Promised Land by crossing through the Jordan. John invited people to the Jordan to experience another, equally important personal crossing-over.
He seems to have welcomed most sorts of people. Why does he lash out at the Pharisees and Sadducees?
These two groups were the most influential religious leaders of their time and place and were locked in a struggle as to whose opinions would prove to be of greater weight. (By the time Matthew was writing, after the Jewish War and destruction of Jerusalem, the Sadducees had largely disappeared and only the Pharisees survived.)
John attacks these people savagely, perhaps more savagely than they deserved as individuals. We know of some Pharisees, like the great Rabbi Hillel, who were great saints and wise teachers. It is their role, rather, as figures of religious authority and people of high sacred standing that concerns Matthew, because he sees this as a source of corruption. This is not a narrowly Jewish issue for Matthew; as we’ll come to see, he is concerned that it will affect the Christian community as well as the Jewish one.
But why, then, would John have objected to baptizing Jesus?
Matthew tells us that John saw Jesus as belonging to the new reality that his mission was just bringing into existence. John’s mission was to help people enter the transition from the existing religious status quo to this new reality. And he says to Jesus, in effect, “You belong to the future, not the past. You are outside my commission.” Still, Jesus insists that all righteousness is to be fulfilled. Even as this great newness comes into being, Matthew emphasizes its continuity with all that came before.
Early Christians understood that some people considered John the truly significant figure and may have though of Jesus as a kind of renegade follower. This raises a large question: At what point does the new, even if is it is in continuity with the old, become a violation of the old? This is a problem that can never be answered fully in advance. It must always be an object of prayerful discernment, and will often be a source of controversy, as we find again and again in later Christian history.
Part of what Matthew is telling us about Christian faith here is that there is always a certain edge of uncertainty as we move through time. Jesus affirms his identification with the existing religion. But it will not prove to be enough. Jesus’ new work is confirmed to him by a vision of the heavens opened and the Spirit descending; Matthew doesn’t suggest that any one else saw it. A voice from the sky tells whoever is listening that this is God’s son. But we don’t know who was listening or how they responded—just as we do not always know clearly what we ourselves have heard or how to respond. Weaving old and new together is never an easy or obvious proposition.
Next up: THREE TEMPTATIONS AND THREE MOVES
Sneaking a look! Really!? Isn’t that taboo for serious readers?
If you’re reading a whodunit, it will certainly spoil the surprise. But, face it, in all likelihood you already know the basic story of Matthew’s Gospel and how it ends. So there’s no need for a spoiler alert here. And taking a peek at the end can be useful, especially when we’re reading a book that, for so many of us, is almost too familiar. This way, we can focus not just on the broad outline of the story, but on some details of what Matthew is particularly interested in. So turn to Matthew 28, which starts at dawn on the first Easter Sunday with two women going to the tomb.
Back to the women, eh?
Yes, they were featured in the opening genealogy, and here they are again. This time, two women named Mary: Mary Magdalene who is mentioned in all four of the New Testament gospels as having gone to the tomb and “the other Mary.” It’s impossible to know who Matthew has in mind here. Mark mentions “James’s Mary” as being at the resurrection scene (16:1). Luke mentions “Clopas’s Mary” (24:10). It could be either of them or someone else, since it was a common name.
Matthew may give us a hint, though. At the death of Jesus on the cross, Mary Magdalene is accompanied by “Mary the mother of James and Joseph”—the names of two of Jesus’ brothers (27:56). After the closing of the tomb, it is Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” who sit by it, keeping watch (27:61). The easiest identification here is that she is the same Mary named a few sentences before. And the same person is probably the “other Mary” of the final chapter, too.
But it seems important to him that there are women here, echoing the women who play such an important role at the beginning of Matthew. If Mary Magdalene is mentioned first that is because she was acknowledged by all early Christians as the discoverer of the empty tomb. The “other” Mary is not made the primary witness, perhaps precisely because she was Jesus’ mother and might have been thought less credible. In any case, an angel appears to them just as happened to Joseph and the Magi earlier on—but this time in broad daylight, not in a dream.
The seal of proof is placed on the angel’s message by the appearance of Jesus himself (28:9-10). And not a man in sight in that overwhelmingly patriarchal world except for Jesus himself! In his opening chapter Matthew was questioning the overwhelmingly male orientation of his culture. Here, the greatest treasure of the gospel is imparted to two women. The male disciples will hear of it only secondarily through them.
Wouldn’t this make the whole resurrection story less credible in that culture?
Undoubtedly. He and his readers lived in a world organized in terms of a kind of moral separation of duties between the sexes. Men carried the public face of the family, women guarded the private world. Men could testify in court, women couldn’t. But Matthew, as we’ll see again and again, has no interest in making things easy. He may or may not have been able to imagine radical change in the culture he knew. We are all bound by cultural norms in ways of which we’re often unaware, and perhaps he would find our modern world as hard to understand as we find his ancient one. But he did insist that women were as much a part of God’s work in the world as men.
Isn’t all this sounding awfully modern?
I understand the concern, and I don’t want to “modernize” Matthew’s Gospel. But keep this thought in mind anyway. The test of it will be to see whether it helps us understand more in Matthew’s Gospel than we could otherwise.
But in the meantime, there’s another part of the story here (28:11-15) that’s understandable in both ancient and modern contexts—the self-protective efforts of the authorities to suppress the truth. After the Resurrection, the authorities in charge of both civil and religious affairs paid the guards at the tomb to lie about what had happened. We will find Matthew attacking this kind of thing often: religion is a good and valuable thing, but the authorities, including the religious authorities, are not always to be trusted. When religion gets entangled with status, it betrays itself.
Christians have a long history of taking this passage and others like it attacks on Judaism. Some modern scholars also read them that way. I think this is a mistake. Matthew attacks the authorities not for their doctrines but for their failure to live up to them. It is a problem equally threatening, in Matthew’s thinking, to the emerging Christian leadership.
But doesn’t he go on to have Jesus commission an authoritative Christian leadership?
The closing passage of the Gospel (28:16-20) is often referred to as the “Great Commission.” Some read it as Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles to be the first bishops of the church. Others take it as Jesus’ authorization of world missions. All very upbeat, right?
Not exactly, the key verse here is, as often, the difficult one that gets ignored: “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” The women believed the angel even before they saw Jesus; some of the male disciples don’t altogether trust the risen Christ himself. There are two problems with religious leaders, it seems: one is that they will sacrifice principle to expedience, the other that they don’t really quite trust God at all.
Right up to the end, Matthew is still throwing his wrench into the works. What are we to do if we can’t trust the authorities of religion, whether Jewish or Christian? He does give us at least a hint here. The disciples are told to teach people to follow everything Jesus commanded them. It’s Jesus’ teaching that can save us from falling into either the self-interest of the priests and elders or the doubts of the disciples. In the meantime, we are to remember that, while both groups are pre-eminently religious, neither is perfect. Need I say that every religious person is potentially included in this indictment?
And, as to our continued reading of Matthew, it should be clear from this peek at the ending that Matthew’s tendency in chapter 1 to set tradition against tradition is not merely his starting point. We should be looking for how it may show up elsewhere.
Next up: EVENTS TURN A CORNER WITH JOHN THE BAPTIST
Why does Matthew have only bits and pieces of the familiar Christmas story?
The story as we tell it each Christmas is a blend of elements from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. It’s possible that each writer had a rather different tradition and simply retold what he knew. But, as we’ve already seen, Matthew has some points to make about the nature of tradition and of God’s work in the world. It’s likely that, in chapter 2, he’s not only repeating what he’s heard, but using these stories to communicate with us about how God accomplishes things in our world.
Who were these “wise men from the East”? And what are they doing in the story?
The people our English translations call “wise men” Matthew calls Magoi. These were not generalized sages, but priests of the Persian religious tradition we call “Zoroastrian.” This religion has taken on a variety of forms, and we can’t be sure precisely what the theology of the Magi was. But since Matthew tells us that they discovered Jesus’ birth by reading the stars. we can assume that they were astronomers and astrologers. The two disciplines were not distinct from each other at the time, and the idea that the heavenly bodies influence events on earth was widely accepted. And Matthew seems quite comfortable here with the possibility that a “science” could bring people to an encounter with Jesus.
The fact that Joseph could claim descent from King David didn’t mean that he was wealthy or prominent; in fact, he and Mary seem to have been people of modest means. There would have been no news reports headed “Heir Born to Davidic Royal Line.” But the Magi saw things in the heavens that, according to their theories, meant a significant change of authority in the Jewish nation. Since most Magi lived in the Persian Empire, their trip meant crossing a heavily fortified border between two mutually hostile powers and poking their noses into the politics of a nation within the rival Roman Empire. They were thus complete strangers—neither Jewish nor Roman—when they came to honor the new child; and they would have been objects of curiosity and probably of some suspicion. But when they reached Judea, they recognized that their astrological knowledge was not sufficient to the task. They had to find out what the local Israelite tradition (yes, tradition again!) said about this new king, and they went to Jerusalem to consult the authorities. But, of course, the existing Jewish king, Herod, had a vested interest in making sure that no new claimant rose to claim his throne. And their visit, as a side-effect, set off a disastrous chain of events leading to the massacre of a large number of young children and forcing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to become refugees.
Ah, there’s another question. What is a grim story like that doing here?
Well, modern Christians don’t like to dwell on it. Our forebears, however, honored the child victims on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), also known as Childermass. And perhaps that feast day is newly relevant in an age when so many children are dying of war and hunger. The same applies to the plight of the Holy Family as refugees, fleeing to—or all places—Egypt. The country where there ancestors had been slaves was willing to be the place that saved their lives.
Both raise the question of how God can tolerate, much less work in the context of such evil. Matthew doesn’t try to answer that question. Maybe he even makes it seem worse when he says that Jeremiah foresaw the horror at Bethlehem (2:17-18); this, too, was in the tradition. And he argues that the prophets predicted that the family would Have to live for a time in Egypt (2:15) and then resettle at Nazareth (2:23). Sufferings is a known part of the tradition. The angels who keep stepping in and out of the picture to encourage, warn, or direct make it clear that God is still at work, even in the midst of all this horror. God doesn’t cause human evils, but God refuses to be excluded from human history by them. God can even create something out of human wrongs, if no better way is to b found.
And are the Magi in the tradition?
No, they’re another kind of problem because they’re not in the tradition. No one predicted them. We’re told nothing of their having any divine or angelic inspiration, except at the end of the story where they’re warned in a dream to sneak out of the country without Herod’s knowing. The point seems to be that they are simply and purely the wrong people to have here as principal celebrants of Jesus’ birth. Their only qualification for being present at this holy occasion (aside from their ability to scrutinize the stars) was their complete lack of qualifications. They’re the wrong ethnicity, the wrong religion, the wrong visitors. But, then, we’ve already seen that Jesus’ genealogy included some people who seemed equally out of place. Matthew is making a point here. The tradition can admit people most of us usually think should be quite firmly excluded from it.
The people who, according to the tradition, should have been celebrating are all missing from this occasion. The Jerusalem sages aren’t interested enough to accompany the Magi to Bethlehem. And Herod actually tries to kill the child. The Magi, by contrast, are drawn to Jesus without any advance qualifications.
The wonderful thing about the story is that, whether you see yourself more as an outsider like them or more as a religious insider, Matthew is saying there is room for you. But in some cases, it may be easier for outsiders to grasp the value and importance of Jesus than for insiders. Perhaps we who are insiders have to rediscover our outsiderness in order to be present at the wonder of Jesus’ birth.
Next up: SNEAKING A LOOK AT THE END OF THE STORY
Matthew doesn’t mean to be simple or completely clear. He prefers to show us puzzles and tie together things we wouldn’t have thought belonged together. He starts off sounding like a traditionalist—and he is. But of a very unusual sort. He knows the tradition itself is messy. Hre are some problems he raises—and some thoughts about what they point us toward:
Why does Matthew begin with something as boring as a genealogy? The first thing Matthew does here is to anchor his narrative securely in the Scriptures that he and his first readers knew and revered (what Christians now call the “Old Testament”). He wants us to understand that his is not a new or independent story, but continues a very old one. And so he starts out with a traditional sort of Israelite genealogy (1:1-17) like the ones you can find in Genesis. The point of such a genealogy is to tell you something about the person whose name concludes it: Who is he? Who are his family? Why is he significant to us?
Okay. We see Abraham, David and a few other famous names. But why the whole list? And why does he divide it into three equal parts?
He wants every link securely in place, But, yes, he also makes a big point of identifying three eras of equal length, covering the ups and downs of ancient Israel’s history. The first era (1:2-6a) runs from the earliest beginnings of the people of Israel through slavery in Egypt and the Exodus to the time that they emerged into the world as a significant regional power. The second era (1:6b-11) begins with the triumphant reign of King David and traces the ups and (more often) downs of his descendants as kings. The third era (1:12-16) begins with the fall of the kingdom and covers the exile in Babylon and the long era of imperial subjection down to Jesus’ birth. Three ages: rise, glory, after-the-fall. Jesus is connected to them all. And being a descendant of Abraham and of David, he is identified as the continuation of their story.
But why are the exact numbers of generations important to him?
Fourteen may not seem meaningful to us. But think of three fourteens as equalling six sevens and you’ll see that Matthew is playing on the six days of creation in Genesis and the six workdays of the Israelite week while seven recalls God’s rest after creating the world and the Sabbath rest that follows the work week. With Jesus, we enter the seventh seven, an era of sabbath. This gives us a hint that Matthew, for all his deep respect for the tradition and his insistence on continuity, also sees change arriving in the figure of Jesus.
And why do these particular women crop up here? More famous women like Sarah and Rebecca get left out.
Yes, this is quite odd. Genealogies were basically father-to-son lists because this is what the ancient Israelite idea of descent focused on. But Matthew has searched out precisely those women in the family history that are most problematic for the whole business of genealogies.
Matthew’s contemporaries were very concerned about purity of Israelite descent, and one strand of thought, which eventually won out, held that only the child of an Israelite mother could be considered an Israelite. Yet, Matthew points out the presence of two Canaanite women in Jesus’ ancestry—Tamar (1:3; cf. Gen. 38) and Rahab (1:5; cf. Josh. 2 and 6:22-25), one Moabite woman—Ruth (1:5; cf. the Book of Ruth), and one woman whose ancestry is unknown but who had been married to a Hittite—Bathsheba (1:1:6; cf. 2 Sam. 11). What’s more, these women were not only non-Israelites, but each had at least some shadow of sexual impropriety attached to her story. Tamar seduced her father-in-law in a way that led to her being accused of prostitution, though she vindicated herself of that charge. Rahab is said to have had a house of prostitution. Ruth actively initiated sexual relations with Boaz in the field. And Bathsheba was forced into adultery by David himself.
Then, when we look at vs. 16, we see that Matthew doesn’t close the crucial final link of the genealogy. Where tradition expects him to say that Joseph was the father of Jesus, he only says that Joseph was “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” (This is quite deliberate, as we’ll see further on in Matthew 1.)
But why would Matthew construct a traditional genealogy only to underline the problems in it?
Matthew’s traditionalism, it seems, is of a different sort from what we usually mean by the term. We tend to mean a perspective that conceives the tradition as clear, perfect, faultless, and essentially closed. Every thing that’s important is already there in the tradition, and no one is to to question it.. Matthew, however, doesn’t work this way. He doesn’t owe allegiance to a single, organized, sanitized version of the scriptural story. He brings the whole story with all its messiness into play. Traditionalism was becoming a smooth-running machine of religion and life in his time, and he throws a monkey wrench into the works. But his monkey wrench is also traditional—forged out of the most traditional of materials. In Matthew we have a traditionalist who, to use modern terms, is both conservative and liberal: conservative in that he believes the tradition is necessary to knowing who we are, liberal in that he knows the tradition is actually very diverse and has always been open to question and interpretation and even development.
So we can’t expect Matthew to write a comfortable sort of story, one that we can cling to without having to question our presuppositions. Whether you think of yourself as liberal or conservative, there will be things you won’t like. If you insist on things being one way or the other, Matthew will say to you, “No, you’re going to have take both together. You can’t find your way in the presence of God without taking account of the experience and insights of your forebears. But you’ll be just as certain to go astray if you think a pre-packaged tradition will settle all your questions and problems.”
So, is Mary following in the steps of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba?
It seems like a shocking notion, especially given later Christians’ veneration of Mary as a more or less perfect person. But, yes, she is indeed in their company. Nor is it bad company in the genealogical sense. They were all ancestors of greatness. Judah himself had to admit that Tamar was more righteous than he. Rahab saved Israelite lives. Ruth is a supreme model of love and faithfulness. Bathsheba, for all her misfortunes, was the mother of the wise Solomon.
Matthew, remember, doesn’t make Joseph Jesus’ father, and he tells an interesting story about that (1:18-25). Joseph realizes Mary is already pregnant and thinks he should break off their engagement. It goes against his grain, since he’s a kindly person, but the tradition expects it. It takes a special revelation to persuade him that God’s work has never fit securely inside narrow definitions of tradition. The angel that appears to him in a dream knows what’s bothering him and doesn’t so much relieve his anxiety as point him toward a broader perspective on God’s work in the world. Mary’s pregnancy is a gift of the Holy Spirit for the redemption of Israel and a fulfillment of prophecy. However unsettling it is, it, too, is part of the tradition, foretold long before by Isaiah. Joseph obeys the angel. And just to make his non-paternity completely clear, Matthew assures us that he didn’t have intercourse with Mary until she had delivered the child that was not his own biological offspring but was nonetheless being entrusted to him as his son.
Wait a minute! Wasn’t Mary a virgin? Luke’s Gospel says that she was. Matthew says nothing directly on the topic, though we can see it as an implication of the angel’s message. But Matthew’s main point seems to be that we have a genealogy here with a number of irregularities, Jesus’ own birth being the climactic instance.
So what is the spiritual point of all this? Or is Matthew just playing games?
From the perspective of Christian faith and life, Matthew’s message thus far is both liberating and alarming. He takes a fairly tidy version of tradition and breaks it open by insisting that we look at the untidy side of that same tradition. God’s work goes forward not in some ideal world, but in the one we actually inhabit.
Happily, what comes next is in the more accessible mode of narrative. Next up: FAMILY WITH NEW BABY VISITED BY PAGAN PRIESTS, HAS TO FLEE.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
As we have listened to the readings from the Sermon on the Mount over the last few Sundays, we’ve kind of gotten used to hearing Jesus make one extraordinary demand on us after another. It’s not enough any more to we refrain from murder; you have to refrain from anger and insult, too. It’s not enough just to refrain from adultery; you have to refrain from feeling sexual desire. And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us to treat people who harm us kindly, to give without stint, and to love our enemies.
Then comes something even worse: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Oh sure! No problem!
Of all the difficult demands Jesus makes on us, this has to be the worst. We sometimes try to soften it a bit. We note that the Greek word teleios doesn’t mean “perfect” in the sense of “every hair in place.” It means “perfect” in the sense of “complete, fully grown, mature.”
It doesn’t help all that much, does it? No, this is just really difficult. We so much want the Scriptures to give us simple straightforward directives that we might actually have some hope of fulfilling. And then Jesus comes up with this. What’s going on?
Maybe the first thing to say about the deep mysteries of human life—which are also the deep truths about human life—is that they’re never entirely simple. Even talking about them means getting involved in what sound like contradictions. Things like: “You have to stand on your own two feet” vs. “You never outgrow your need of others.” Either one of those maxims, if carried too far, can get you into deep trouble; but they’re both necessary. We live in the midst of these contradictions, one foot on each side of the fault line, and this always feels like an uneasy spot to be in. Jesus does a very good job in the Sermon on the Mount of trying to prevent us from stepping exclusively to one side of the fault line or the other. And he doesn’t do it by making things easy.
We have a tendency to think of growth in virtue—growth in our humanity, to put it another way—in quantitative terms: This week I have done a large handful of good things and a small handful of bad things. My score is probably about 60 percent. I hope. But next week I’ll try to do better. I’ll aim for 62 or 63 percent. I’ll do two good deeds a day instead of just one—or five a week any way. For starters, I won’t express the anger I feel toward my colleague at work and will try to remember his good qualities as well as his bad.
Okay, I’m making fun of this. But it’s almost inevitable, isn’t it? How can I take stock of what sort of human being I’ve been turning into lately without summoning the details into my consciousness? We’re concrete beings, living in space and time. What we do is important. If we could do more good and less harm, that would be a net gain for the world.
But then, along comes Jesus and says to us, “Sorry, 60% isn’t a passing grade any more. Everyone needs to be doing A+ work—plus a little something extra.”
Or not. What Jesus sys about God in this passage today—the God whose perfection we’re supposed to imitate—basically breaks the whole method of accounting. The God he talks about isn’t a meticulous being who does everything exactly right; this God’s perfectionism definitely isn’t of the every-hair-in-place variety. This God is a kind of wild prodigal, scattering gifts everywhere, on the deserving and on the undeserving. What kind of model is that?
And just to make things still more perplexing and uncomfortable, let me throw in another saying from the Sermon on the Mount—one we heard two weeks ago: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Now, the scribes and the Pharisees have gotten a bad press among Christians for the last two thousand years. So you might think, at first, “Well, that should be easy.” No. In Jesus’ time, they were the very people who put the most thought, attention, and energy into leading good disciplined lives. And here’s Jesus telling us that we have to do better than them or we’re not even in the running, as it were.
So what’s going on here? Jesus was trying to get something across to us that can’t be neatly summed up in a few words. There are two sides to it and we have to grasp both of them, even if they don’t seem to agree. One side is that we need the rules that allow us to do our moral accounting and prompt us to acknowledge our failings (and our occasional successes, too, of course). The other side is that it won’t really work. And we know that from experience.
We know that the most seriously, determinedly righteous people can develop strange blindspots and do things that may be deeply harmful. It’s a truism in church life that faithful people can become narrow, exclusive, and punishing. There are whole categories of Christians who have that reputation, even when it’s not in fact always deserved. Think of all those horror stories about harsh nuns wielding their rulers on students in parochial schools in the 1950s. But we also hear stories of gratitude for nuns who taught well and nurtured their students, and you recognize that something significant is going on. Nuns are very good people, but that isn’t always enough. But serious righteousness has an uncanny capacity to slide over into its own opposite. We can easily assemble a good list of examples: the New England Puritans, the Iranian ayatollahs, the Religious Right in the US in our own time. . . .
It’s the same thing with these scribes and Pharisees. They were good people. They had the respect of the public. They were serious about doing the right thing. Yet, they wound up playing a part in the quasi-judicial murder of an innocent man. Yes, the Romans killed Jesus. But it was serious, religious people who set it up.
So what about being perfect as God is perfect? What does Jesus want us to grasp here? It’s much the same as what he says a few lines earlier: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
The righteousness Jesus is pushing us toward isn’t just the quantitative, additive kind. It’s a righteousness that changes our whole perspective on life. It’s a righteousness that has caught a glimpse of God’s love and wants, more than anything else, to start sharing in that love and offering it to others. This isn’t additive righteousness. This is a righteousness that takes hold of us and transforms us.
Is it any easier? No, it’s probably more difficult. No wonder Jesus told us our righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—not by exceeding it in quantity, in the number of things done according to rule, but by looking beyond my current moral excellence quotient toward the goal of it all, toward a world in which God’s love is shared freely among human beings.
Loving our enemies is never easy. Even praying for those who persecute us doesn’t work very well if we try doing it as a duty. But there are centuries of women and men who have loved and prayed for those least worthy of that love and been transformed by it into beacons of light for the world around them. They are the true saints, the true Christians, the ones who caught what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount.
There are some at Mother Emmanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. They know that forgiving the young man who killed so many of their families and fellow congregants is an awkward, messy, uncomfortable process that may not even do him any good. But they have caught a vision of God’s prodigal, messy righteousness and they’re trying to share in it.
Maybe we can make a start—give it a try in our own, somewhat less daunting situation. We might start with Mr. Trump, so much disliked and feared by people in our congregation—and not without reason. I’m not saying that we should turn all “sweetness and light” and lie about his wrong doings and his falsehoods. And I’m not saying that we quit resisting or trying to make the world a better place. That’s not what those people in Charleston are doing. They’re not surrendering to the evil. In fact, it’s more like they’re refusing to be co-opted by it. They’re refusing to let someone else’s hatred take over their own heart and minds.
Now, you know, forgiveness really starts as an act of prayer. And you don’t want to lie to God in prayer. It just creates a bad connection: God can still hear you (and knows you’re putting on a performance), but you can’t hear God very well.
But I think we could get a helpful start—some guidance in how to do this, from the Book of Common Prayer. I’m thinking of two prayers from the Great Litany.
One runs like this:
That it may please thee so to rule the hearts of thy servants, the President of the United Stats and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
And the other, perhaps even more to the point just now, is this:
That it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
Amen, we say. And Amen.
Sermon preached by Bill Countryman at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley
February 19, 2017
Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
The Bible came into existence only in about the 14th century AD. “Wait,” you’re thinking, “some of the materials in the Bible are more than three thousand years old. The youngest of them are almost two thousand years old. What is this business of the 14th century?” And I reply, “What image comes to mind when you hear the word Bible?” The image of a book, a single authoritative volume that you can hold in your hand. The image is so reliable that we now have “bibles” for every conceivable subject—barbecuing, for example—always with the implication that this one volume is all you need. It will tell you everything you need to know.
Such a book never existed in the Christian world before about the 14th century for the simple reason that it was technologically impossible. Earlier copies of the scriptures were written on papyrus or parchment, and neither material will serve to produce a single volume big enough to contain everything in the Christian Bible—at least not one that you could lift single-handedly. Papyrus is too rigid and brittle to be folded over and over or to allow for the constant turning of pages without breaking along the fold. Parchment, made of animal skins, is stronger, but comparatively heavy. Only when the East Asian invention of paper-making eventually percolated westward to Europe did scribes have a writing surface that made the inclusion of so much material in a single, hand-held volume practicable.
I have seen one of these early Bibles, held it in my hand, turned the pages. It was created for a Medieval scholar and contains the whole of the Christian scriptures, as then acknowledged, in small, hand-written gothic letters on rag paper—paper that has lasted very well for six hundred years. It was a marvel of technology in its day: a scholar could actually hold in one hand the whole of the sacred writings, could carry it while traveling, could consult it in the study, could read from it in the lecture room. All because of the miracle of paper.
Written copies of the scriptures existed long before that, of course. But never in the single, compact form that we know so well today. And this is not just a bit of antiquarian trivia. The transition made in the late Middle Ages (further reinforced by Gutenberg’s introduction of printing with movable type) was a technological revolution. It has shaped Christians’ notion of what the scriptures are in ways of which we are mostly unconscious. It means that we conceive them as a unified whole, a single book, a concrete object. Our Christian forebears of a thousand years ago and more had no such notion. For them, the Holy Scriptures were an extended array of documents, inter-related but hardly uniform, scattered among many different volumes—a Psalter here, an Euangelion (Gospel-book) there, a book of Prophets (or maybe just an Isaiah, depending on how good your local church’s library was), an Apostolikon (New Testament letters). For reading in public services many clergy relied simply on lectionaries, books with the readings for each Sunday in succession.
The multiplicity of their physical embodiment ensured that people thought of the Scriptures as existing in the plural. We still use that plural name for them, but the singularity of the paper-based Bible has effectively canceled its implications. The Bible has superseded the Scriptures. It is a book, singular, unified, under one set of covers. And from Gutenberg’s time onward it was increasingly affordable for a wide reading audience.
No one who has paid attention to the ways in which electronic media have changed how we read today—the physical embodiment of what we read, the kind of attention with which we read, the scope of what we read, our expectations of what we read, the credulity many of us bring to what we see online—should doubt the far-reaching implications of the printing-on-paper revolution that came about in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe.
It meant that the audience for the scriptures changed. It meant that the ways people interpreted the scriptures changed—quite drastically in some respects. And it ushered in the radically new ways of using the scriptures that characterized the Protestant Reformation and are still the inheritance of its modern heirs—very much a part of modern culture.
For almost fifteen hundred years before this technological revolution, Christians read their scriptures in ways quite different from those that became dominant in Protestantism. Is the Bible as taken for granted in the post-Gutenberg world still the best way of viewing and understanding the Christian Scriptures in our own changing world?’=
More on this topic to follow . . . .
artwork from the collection of the British Museum
WHAT SORT OF BIRTHDAY GREETING IS THS!?
Sermon preached by Bill Countryman for the 138th Anniversary of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley
13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016
Proper 15c: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Today, we at Good Shepherd are celebrating the 138th anniversary of this congregation. Here in California, it seems like a quite an advanced age for a church, though some of our fellow Christians in Asia, Africa, and Europe—or even on the East Coast—might still place us in the category of youngsters.
Of course, as is the way with living communities, we are both old and young. Some of us go back four decades and more and many of us have been a part of this congregation for less than ten years. So it’s worthwhile to retell a bit of the story,
138 years ago, the city of Berkeley was just coming into being. The older settlement of Ocean View (now known as West Berkeley) was being combined with a newer one, near the College of California (now the university) plus a lot of empty land between the two. People over here wanted an Episcopal Church, perhaps partly to help consolidate their local identity. The women of the congregation had spent several years raising money for this building with bake sales and ice cream socials (back in a day when there were few commercial entertainments available), and they persuaded a San Francisco architect to donate the plans for this beautiful space.
Since then, an ever-changing array of faithful people persevered here through thick and thin (some of it very thin) and major demographic changes, often pioneering new ways of serving the local community. More recently, this building, as you know, was badly damaged by fire and the congregation rallied to rebuild it. We crowded our life together into our already busy and somewhat decrepit parish hall, and still found the energy to expand our ministries in the neighborhood, feeding the hungry and opposing gun violence.
It’s a story worth celebrating—a story of faithful people who have given much, over almost fourteen decades, to sustain our life together here. It’s also a story about the love of God, who has supplied people here with trust and hope and love when we didn’t have much left in our own reserves. This is a time for thanksgiving and for taking stock, a time for renewing our hopes for the future and our commitment to God and to one another.
Now, I don’t want to take anything away from all this celebratory spirit. But I do sort of have to ask, “Those readings from scripture today—what sort of birthday greeting was that?” Now, of course, they weren’t chosen for this occasion. They’re just the readings assigned for this Sunday in the lectionary. But, at first hearing anyway, they all sounded like real downers.
We have Jesus saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Now, we can’t take that to mean that Jesus wanted division. He said too much about love and forgiveness for us to read the passage as a command to pick quarrels with one another.
But as prophecy, these words have been right on target. Jesus was saying that his teaching—the teaching about God’s love—would touch an unwelcome nerve in our humanity, would wind up provoking people to division and even violence. He was proven right in the early years of Christianity when outsiders came to hate Christians enough to kill them. In fact, some of that has come back to the world in our own day. But we have to admit, too, that the same effect shows up even among us, even in churches. Christianity, in our day, is full of division—we seem at times to delight in divisiveness. There is even a history, still alive today, of Christians persecuting one another as well as outsiders we dislike.
And I can’t think of all this on this occasion without being reminded, of how, some years ago, an interim vicar took a serious look at our history at Good Shepherd—right back to the beginnings—and said to us, “You know, you have a history of internal conflict in this congregation.” It’s only one part of our history. But, as with pretty much every human community, it’s there and we do well to remember that and watch out for it.
But, you know, leave it to Jesus to tell the truth. He would do that. I think it’s partly because he didn’t want it to take us by surprise. He wanted to let us know, right off the bat, that we aren’t delivered from human weakness and sinfulness—our own or anybody else’s—just by being faithful church-goers. He wants us to know that we are a community of love in the making, not yet in complete fulfillment. We have further to go, more to understand, more growing to do.
What’s more, we need one another, even in our disagreements, if we want to learn and grow in love. We had two readings this morning that centered on the image of The Vine, of Israel as God’s vine or vineyard. Christians have always applied that image to the church, too. I don’t know how obvious it was, as they zipped past, but they’re basically saying opposite things about that image. Isaiah says, “God planted you and is sick and tired of your producing nothing but sour grapes. He’s out of here. You’re toast.” The Psalm takes the other side, saying to God, “Hey, wait a minute. We’ve done nothing all that bad, but you’ve left us wide open to the deer and the wild boar and every passerby. If you expect a harvest, we need some help here!” It’s the age-old argument between the gardener and the garden, each blaming the other for the current mess. Is the gardener right or the garden? The only possible answer is “Yes.” Both need each other in order for the garden to bear fruit.
We sometimes forget that the Bible contains such fierce internal arguments. But that’s what it’s for. It contains our internal tensions, the ones that will keep coming back to us again and again. It doesn’t paper them over. It supplies all the different voices and invites us into the conversation—the only way to begin understanding what God is doing in and with and for us.
All of this gives us some hint of our future at Good Shepherd, for us and for our successors who may one day celebrate its 237th birthday. It tells us there will be divisions. It tells us that our life together will make sense only as we are challenging and being challenged by God and by one another. The conversation will be life-giving if we let it.
And the passage we heard from Hebrews adds another part of the picture—the power that sustains faithful people through difficult times. There is a long celebration of faith in Hebrews; we read the first half last week and this week we concluded it, hearing the message that God’s people have always faced challenges and difficulties and even disasters. But they have come through it all by virtue of faith.
Or, to choose a better term, trust. “Faith” can be a problematic word in English: it too easily evokes connotations of creeds and confessions or maybe “faith”-healing. Sometimes it sounds like denial: “Everything will be fine!” Sometimes it sounds like abdication: “Well, God will have to take care of it.” We think of faith in terms of “faith that“: faith that God will do things the way we want.
But, as Susan Mills pointed out in her sermon last week, Abram didn’t have any very clear notion of what, exactly, he was expecting from God. Rather, he trusted God, trusted God’s ongoing commitment to him and to their friendship. It was trust that sustained these other saints listed in Hebrews through all their troubles. What will sustain us, too, through all our times, through division and peace alike, is trust in God’s , whose good purpose toward us never fails.
We come here week after week for a variety of reasons. Of course. That’s how human beings work. We come perhaps to spend time with friends, perhaps for the chance to sing, perhaps sometimes out of habit, perhaps looking for a way to minister to the world around us, perhaps hoping to find some solace and strength in distress. All this is good, all of it is welcome. But the central reason we come—what pulls all the rest of it together—is the opportunity to be in the presence of God, to worship, to give thanks, to share with God our sense of need, to receive whatever grace from God we are capable of handling at this moment in our lives.
We come, in other words, for the chance to renew our trust in God. We know that life isn’t going to become instantly easy. We know we won’t always agree with one another. But together, we are learning trust in God’s good purpose.
And we are aided in all this by this beautiful church, created 178 years ago and recreated by the efforts of the faithful here today. We are aided by the liturgy with its beautiful order and words. By the word of scripture, even perhaps when it is a bit off-putting as this morning. By the music. By the sacrament we are about to celebrate, this tangible and yet utterly mysterious sign of God’s love.
And for all this we give thanks: to God, to our forebears in this place, to one another.
Happy Birthday to us!