Friday, October 27, 2017

Greatest Commandment

And one of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him, "What is the greatest commandment?"  --Matthew 22:35

The writer of Matthew has chosen to use this section of his gospel encompassing chapter 22, to provide Jesus-teachings on the hot religious topics circulating in their day.  Matthew utilizes the literary method of test and response to accomplish two basic tasks: to establish Jesus' authority and identity as arbiter of disputes, while also subtly portraying the main opposition groups as chronic quibblers of minutiae who don't grasp the full width and depth of the Jesus agenda.

What is the greatest commandment?  Judaism had accreted rulings, opinions, and laws from the time of the Ten Commandments such that there were over 500 commandments at a Jewish lawyer's disposal.  These could be used either for accusing or defending persons who might have run afoul of the religious powers. Perhaps, only in a lawyer's mind could the question of which was the greatest commandment keep him awake pondering at night.  His obsession with legal details could easily blind him to the simpler more obvious answer.

Jesus shows no hesitation in answering. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself."  The first part was a central piece of the Shema, one of two prescribed Jewish daily prayers that they were to say frequently as they went about their day.  The love your neighbor half is more rooted in Jesus' own desired life purpose for humanity, which he may have pulled from Leviticus 19:18.

So, let's flip to today.  Let's hear the lawyer's question directed at us moderns.  What would we say is our greatest commandment today?  We are probably faced with even more choices than Jesus.  The law books of our land fill entire libraries, and thousands of courts are operating full-speed to adjudicate these laws daily.  So, pick the most important.  Putting our laws against Jesus' answer, it is difficult to argue for a better one, but how readily do we live out Jesus' answer?  Do we even know how?

Loving God with our whole being is a challenge in a cultural context that injects so many daily distractions and idols: materialism, consumerism, success, fame, fortune, self-fulfillment, family, sports, politics...  The list is endless. 

Perhaps one place that most poignantly provides an evaluative glimpse into our loves is our priority in how we spend our disposable income.  How easily does some new shiny "need" drain away our incomes?  Does that susceptibility to impulse spending reflect love of God?  Ouch.  That is probably not where we want to go, but it is still a legitimate reflection.  Our finances reflect the most glaringly on our life priorities.  So, where does God fit in our financial picture?  How might altering our financial budget to integrate with our love of God/neighbor also alter our whole personal ethos and rule of life? 

Something to think about. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Resist Not Evil

But I say unto you do not resist evil.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. -- Matthew 5:39

If we were to take a vote among Christians today on whether we should resist evil, the vast majority would undoubtedly vote in favor of doing all in their power to resist evil and write this verse off as the ramblings of an out-of-touch peacenik.  (Though they would likely not admit out loud to the latter part of that)  Add to it Matthew 5:45 of loving your enemies and I suspect the majority of American Christians privately roll their eyes and think, "What a fruit loop.  Easy for him to say, but he didn't live with ISIS and terrorists."  No, Jesus lived under Roman rule, where crucifixions were handed out with impunity and innocents were thrown into the arena.  Most historians would also characterize most Roman Emperors as a pretty bad, inhumane, and even evil lot.

As I've watched the current American political agenda take a hard right turn and veer sharply into the realm of breaking up families, removing healthcare, deporting immigrants, refusing refugees, planning nuclear war, and castigating the free press and all who dissent, I found myself pondering this "do not resist evil" verse. What should the Christian's view be of evil? Few of us could argue, at minimum, that terrorism is evil.  The primordial blood lust inclination of the lizard brain linked with loyal tribalism has us all hooked into accepting the doctrine of "might makes right."  National policy, supported by the majority, seems to be dictating that violence be met with greater violence.  What does turning the other cheek mean when the unthinkable possibility of nuclear first strike has been publicly put on the table as a way of coping with "evil?"

To not resist evil flies counter to what our government is pressing.  I suspect that for those Christians who actually wrestle with making their faith congruous with their lives, many might go to that brain place of disconnecting their conscience from their government's actions - the internal version of separating church and state -- and turn off the news.  Jesus, might have more to say on that strategy.

Perhaps what Jesus could see about the nature of evil is that the more it is resisted, the stronger evil becomes.  It is the nature of evil that the more one engages with it, the more likely you are to get sucked into doing to the other likewise.  For instance, can anyone really make the claim that responding to the evil of the 9/11 attacks by going to war, which has caused an untold number of innocent civilian casualties, is a different act?

To break through the evil fallout, one has to be willing to put down the primordial urge for revenge and listen to the pent up grievances that have caused evil to take hold of hearts that can't take the injustice, hurt, and loss any more.  I think Jesus argues pretty explicitly that the response to evil should be compassion and love.  Just hypothetically, what if our governmental perspective were to shift in the opposite direction?  What if, instead of maintaining a budget of billions of dollars aimed at making enemies pay a heavy life toll, we were putting that into food production, medicine, education, and diplomacy to aid overthrows of repressive dictatorships?  In judo, the most effective defensive move is to flow with the force the opponent is using against you.  Perhaps that is the understanding Jesus had of opposing evil?

There is no political party in the United States that embraces a "Jesus ethic"  The Christian Church has largely been absorbed into a silence of despair and/or encouraged by the majority evil to hold the same small spirited, violent, self-protective, and unimaginative approaches we've been pursuing.  The result has been declining memberships and irrelevancy of the Church in most people's minds, and even overt hostility toward our hypocrisy.  The greatest reformation that the Church might undergo would be a coming together to actually advocate en masse for instilling a true Love ethic into secular government like it has never been done at any time in Church history?