May 26, 2015

Matthew 5.29 - 30

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body is thrown into Hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into Hell.


Okay, it's clearly neither your physical hand or eye (or foot, in Mark's version of this) that's causing you to sin. Your way of seeing, your favorite means of getting results, your methods of getting from one place (figurative or literal) to another might need to go.

And what is it to 'sin'?

Our guy is speaking to a Jewish crowd who live in The Promised Land, but haven't found it the land of freedom and blessings their ancestors had been promised.

What they want is to live in the Kingdom of God, that land as it's meant to be when God reigns over it, as Jesus has been saying is starting to manifest. 'Sin' has been their accepted explanation for why conditions around them have always been unsatisfactory and literally unacceptable. 'Sins' are the obstacles to living under God's explicit jurisdiction, blameless and blessed.

May 22, 2015

Matthew 5:27 & 28

You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


This is another challenging one, because -- If God is going to getcha for this, then I, and every other straight man I know will be going straight to Hell. I really don't believe that's on the program, but then what is this doing in here?

Neither Mark nor Luke mention this saying. The story called 'The Woman Taken In Adultery' could be a later interpretation of it, because -- aside from being thoroughly in character, that story doesn't seem to have been part of any of the known Gospels; while it provides the only place in the tradition where Jesus is said to write anything whatsoever.

The absence of a saying in other Gospels could mean anything or nothing. This particular saying looks like it could be 'Matthew's' elaboration of Jesus' emphasis on inner righteousness above mere observance of external rules.

All the Gospel authors would have participated in groups where what people remembered of the tradition would have frequently been recited; and the material in those recitations would have been 'the same' in general while also being 'different': depending on local conditions and on who wanted to emphasize what on any particular occasion. No particular rendition was the original, 'real' gospel. There would have been overall agreement on what belonged to it but -- until it was eventually written in some form -- room for elaboration within that agreement.

Whether or not this saying goes back to The Guy --  What should it mean?

Everyone likes to see other people, to look at other people, whether or not those people appeal to us sexually: young women, young men, old people, children. God didn't make people good-looking just so we could turn that pleasure into something dumb & ugly.

People whose presence pleasantly twangs our sexual feelings, well -- That's even better! -- except. Except that, (for any of a long list of reasons) following through physically on those feelings would in most cases be a really bad idea.

I think (and prefer to think!) that Jesus is saying, as in the 'Woman Taken' story, that we've got no business condemning anyone for responding to such feelings foolishly, because any of us might have done that (and are lucky if we didn't!)

At the risk of potential inconsistency with the following passage, I'm going to say that we aren't being told to go around with opaque bags over our heads, not being told to suppress sexual feelings for anyone but our spice... It doesn't do to cling to such feelings, to seek them out or dwell on them, but that is another matter.

Given that God can give us anything we ask for... Isn't it a bad idea to nurse desires that would really screw things up if they materialized?

May 19, 2015

Matthew 5:21 -- 26

You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, "You shall not kill," that whoever kills is liable to judgement. But I say to you, that everyone angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council; and whoever says, "You fool!" shall be liable to a fiery Hell. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you -- Leave your gift at the altar. Go! -- First be reconciled to your brother; and then come and offer your gift.

Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard; and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.


Anger is hell. Acting on it makes things worse; and the suffering becomes entrenched when one can't stop defending his anger.

Feelings of anger are no doubt unavoidable; but as one student of the subject concluded -- Anger is more than merely the emotion we recognize as 'being angry': "It's an emotion plus a judgement."

If you didn't feel that someone had harmed you, if you didn't feel he was at fault in the matter; you'd have no reason to be angry at him. Only God could do you serious harm; yet you become angry at this human being who, regardless of his intentions or his carelessness, has merely delivered your karma. There is no one worth fearing -- or being angry at -- except God.

If it's really God you should blame, what are the chances that you're missing something about what really happened and why it was necessary?

Clearly that's a figurative 'prison' in the last paragraph; and the debt is not a literal one. Still, if something inside is accusing you of being in the wrong, that's part of you. You don't have to agree with it; you do need to face what it's talking about and consider whether or not that's something you'd better recognize. If so, it's done you a valuable service. [But do keep in mind something that Jesus says elsewhere: "The Devil always was a liar."]

If you want to live in a world where the Spirit rules, and prayers have power to influence what happens -- then you need to clean up your act. God won't do evil; but wishing He would could only weaken your faith.

May 18, 2015

Matthew 5:17 -- 20

Don't think I've come to  release people from the Torah or the prophets. I haven't come to loosen  them but to fulfill them.

Indeed, until Heaven and Earth pass away, not one dot will be taken from the law until its purpose is completed. So whoever releases one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least under God's reign; but anyone who does them and teaches them will be considered great.

Until your righteousness transcends that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not be living under God's rule.


This is problematic for a number of reasons.

The Torah as known to most of Jesus' hearers was not a manuscript they could read but a shared oral tradition. [Richard Horsley is very good on this point, but online I'm finding only ads for his books, and a review that summarizes his conclusions: ]

It was not a scroll on the shelves in the Temple in Jerusalem (although this is the kind of source in which modern people encounter it) but a body of common knowledge that people knew and discussed fairly often -- but which wasn't entirely uniform between Judea, Samaria and Galilee (an area which had had 'the laws of the Judeans' forcibly imposed on it around 100 years previously, and probably still followed local Isrealite custom to a great degree.) The Pharisees, of course, were agreed on the version of Judea, which probably put more stress on centralized worship in the Temple, less on customs that kept peasant families intact & in secure possession of their ancestral land.

The Pharisees of Jesus' time were dominated by the rigid and ethnocentric interpretations of Shammai ( ), and from that standpoint would certainly have accused Jesus of relaxing the law. Jesus' interpretations are usually close to those of Shammai's rival Hillel, whose rulings had fallen out of acceptance -- except in one practice highly significant to Jesus' audience: the Proszul.  (

This innovation, although well intended (to make loans available for subsistence farmers) had eventually led to a plague of foreclosures, resulting in widespread destitution, malnuitrition, the sheer multitude of diseases & unhealed injuries Jesus is called to address. This would certainly be an example of 'releasing one of God's commandments, and teaching men so', in that Hillel had been one of the Pharisees' two most prominent teachers.

In Luke, the closest thing to this passage is probably Luke 16:17,  "It is easier for Heaven and Earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void." There, however, it immediately follows Luke 16:16, "The Law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of God's reign is preached; and everyone is pushing to get there." That implies a considerably different view of when and how the Torah applies to people.

One reading of the Bible overall is that God produced and 'chose' the people called 'Israel' to help overcome the state of divine/human estrangement produced by 'The Knowledge of Good and Evil.' If that was the function of this people, it suggests that this is the purpose their laws were intended to serve.

Jesus' practice seems to treat these laws as guidelines. That is, one would not want to ignore a generally helpful set of guidelines, but it wouldn't be a crime to make occasional exceptions for good reason. [The rabbis who wrote the Talmud spent considerable effort arguing about one law, that which demanded that an incorrigibly insubordinate son should be taken out & stoned -- a law which they eventually concluded had no possible application and no reason to exist except "so we could have this argument."

May 13, 2015

Matthew 5.13-16

You are the salt of the Earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its salt be restored? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trodden under foot.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.

Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand; and thus it gives light to all in the house.


Again, Jesus is addressing Israel, 'the people that wrestles with God', explaining what it means to be 'Israel' and live in a realm under God's jurisdiction. [This would likewise apply to any group who hopes to take that role and serve that function, various Christian denominations for example.]

Salt wasn't just a spice in his society; it came in little cakes that were essential for baking bread in dung-fuelled ovens, in a place where 'firewood' would have been a luxury. They worked as a catalyst to make the flame burn clean and not pollute the bread. They did in fact lose their salt over time, and what was left wouldn't make good seasoning either.

A people like Israel [or like the Quakers?] isn't set aside just to taste good to ourselves; there's a function we're meant to serve.

That city on the hill was Jerusalem. The Pharisees, who since then came to follow Hillel's humane and enlightened interpretations of Israelite law, were at the time dominated by their narrow and legalistic nationalist faction; there had been a theological discussion with clubs and spears in which many of Hillel's school had been massacred and his school purged from the leadership.
( ) Many of Jesus' subsequent disputes against 'the Pharisees' were with that group, and this passage points to a significant divergence: he believes that Israel is to be 'a light to the nations', and not by merely being pious among themselves.

So far as Israel, and with it the rest of humanity, are becoming ready to live under God's jurisdiction, this can't really be done in hiding. No in-group can keep the Kingdom for themselves; it stretches out to include everyone, whether or not they think they belong. 

May 12, 2015

Matthew 5:1 ->12

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain; and when he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward from Heaven is great; so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

For such a popular passage, I've always found this difficult. "Blessed are the poor in spirit?" That's redundant, with "Blessed are the meek." Luke has this as "Blessed are the poor," which adds something significant, and is likely the original quote -- except that I haven't observed poor people in general to be anything but wretched & harassed.

First off, Jesus is talking about how things are to be within God's kingdom, that is, for those enjoying the active participation of God in the world around them. Most people, no matter how good, have not been able to experience this, but remain solidly planted in that other guy's realm. So far as we want to be good, we are in fact responding to God's influence; but so far as people haven't been generally willing to let God actually rule their lives, the results have been uneven.

There is, of course, the traditional image of a 'king' as the man who sits on a throne and orders people about. He is supposed to take requests from his subjects; but which requests are granted will be based on his personal decision. Abraham breaks that mold; so does Moses. These paradigms of good relationships with God -- frequently dicker with Him like oriental merchants.

Rather than seeing God as our King -- we can better see the relationship as one of students to their teacher, or as Jesus had it, as children to their parent. But the power disparity is absolute; and so is the gap in wisdom between us; hence God will call the shots, and it makes a lot of sense for us to welcome that. We simply don't. God has too much power for our comfort; God's wisdom goes deeper than ours and is likely to surprise us with difficult learning-situations. People compulsively insist on telling God how to rule; and it shouldn't surprise us that this hasn't worked.

God's realm is called 'a kingdom', I would say, because God was considered Israel's King from the time this people were freed from slavery until they demanded a human monarch. When a popular leader like Gideon was invited to be king, he would say: "I will not rule over you; and my sons will not rule over you; but the Lord will rule over you." Leaders who departed from that pattern soon made themselves intensely, deservedly unpopular; and when Saul, then David, became kings, they also misbehaved and suffered no end of revolts.

This is what the 'Kingdom of God' would mean to Israel in ancient times, and to Jesus' followers -- not another human king to take the crops and enslave one's children, but the active rule which God had exercised in freeing their ancestors, as their national story insisted.

Those who could benefit most from accepting God's jurisdiction would be the poor, those who were suffering or timid, people who wanted to promote and receive justice and mercy, those who insisted on truth rather than popular falsehoods.

May 11, 2015

Matthew 4:17 ->

From that time, Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

As he walked by the  Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called 'Peter' and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. He said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men."

Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.

So his fame spread throughout all Syria; and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics; and he healed them. Great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.

I've skipped some interesting and important material -- which does imply certain things about what this Kingdom of Heaven means -- because this is the first place here it's mentioned explicitly. Jesus has resisted the Devil's suggestions that he command miracles and put himself in charge of that Kingdom, whether by spectacular shows of divine favor or by any of the ways that secular rulers acquire power. This is to be 'The Kingdom of God,', not 'The Kingdom of Jesus.' His colleague John has been arrested by Herod Antipas, and everyone knows how that will most likely turn out -- but Jesus takes up John's mission and raises the ante: "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!"

Clearly Jesus is an impressive man; but it isn't his personal power he's relying on when he chooses certain people to drop everything and follow him; and they do it. He doesn't invite Zebedee, who is sitting in the boat with his sons; and is probably a good, competent man. It isn't his personal power that cures all these ailing people.

If the Kingdom of God is taking form, then God is beginning to actively reign. And that means miracles happen. We don't need to explain this by modern psychosomatic medicine or diagnoses of 'why can he cure that ailment?' We do need to drop our modern assumption that The Laws of Nature Must Be Enforced!

Both John and Jesus have been calling on people to 'repent'. That's an interesting word, which didn't mean merely cleaning up their act. I'm told it meant literally to change direction and orientation, or (for the Greek word) to 'go beyond the mind that you have.' God is resuming visible rule of this world; and if you don't change your outlook you aren't going to like it.

May 10, 2015

Resuming Bible Study

For a very long time now I have not been able to see any very good reason to study the Bible. Yes, it's a collection of writings one needs to come to terms with, to account for, to find some meaning in -- but once you have, why read further?

After wrestling with this question for some time -- perhaps, "after lying there waiting for it to be done with me"? -- I've reached a perspective in which such study, particularly of the Gospels, could well help me with an urgent question.

The long explanation is at:

A shorter version: As we all know, Jesus starts his public career proclaiming that the 'Kingdom of God' is here, is arriving, is available... While for us, looking at the chaos of the secular world, it can be very difficult to find what those words could possibly be pointing to.

NT Wright describes the phrase's meaning to 1st Century Jews as: ~'Our exile from the Promised Land is over.'

But of course it wasn't just the land itself they yearned for; it was that land as it was supposed to be under the Covenant, with their people freed from oppressive rulers and enjoying the prosperity and security of a land ruled by God. Nothing of the sort existed there in Jesus' time or at any time since. The essential point, though -- is that God 'comes back' from Hsr presumed absence, 'remembers' this people again, as when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt.

God goes from letting people imagine Hmr as an Absentee Diety -- to manifesting as a present and active ruler, intervening wherever such intervention is welcomed, no longer completely masked by people's ignorance.

But to be able to live with an active God, to even find God's presence endurable -- People needed to change their outlook and their ways. [That, I would say, is the basic answer to a previous question: Why 'Elijah' was supposed to appear first, to reconcile parents and parents so that an outbreak of spiritual power would not have to manifest as 'a curse'.]

That, I would say, is the perspective in which Jesus' many parables and sayings need to be understood, in terms of the very truth he is announcing all along. He is explaining how to live within God's sphere of action rather than living in slavery to a world of disease, oppression, and death; he is explaining how things work within that sphere. I would not say that anybody is actually outside that sphere -- Jesus' own words imply that God continues to help everyone regardless of their condition -- but there are ways one needs to see and be, or that sphere will necessarily not be visible.

And so I'm returning to this blog, and hoping some suitable companions will see fit to accompany the venture: to continue on into Matthew from that perspective and see how it fits.