Tag Archives: non-violence

Sunday, July 26th

NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. Grant that we may know your Son to be the true bread of heaven and share this bread with all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

John’s account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand differs from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke in several respects. Perhaps the most significant detail we learn from John is that the people Jesus fed in such a remarkable way responded by trying to seize him by force and make him king. And why not? Jesus would likely make a great king, wouldn’t he?

Yes and no. Jesus understood only too well the nature and pitfalls of empire. He was well aware of the criticism leveled by the prophet Jeremiah against the kings of Judah reflected in our lesson for this Sunday. But he was not about to identify with the “righteous Branch” from the line of David for which Jeremiah longed. Jesus understood that the flaw lay not merely in the character of Judah’s kings, but in the monarchical system itself. A king’s integrity cannot transform the imperial machinery of injustice into the gentle reign of God. A government that rules through coercion backed by violence cannot bring forth justice and peace-even in the hands of a good ruler. That is why Jesus would not be king, would not permit his disciples to raise the sword in his defense, would not invoke angelic power to deliver him from arrest and execution. In so doing, he would only have become another tyrant. Under the reign of Jesus, we might have seen, relatively speaking, a “kinder, gentler” empire. But it would nevertheless still have been the same oppressive and dehumanizing governmental machinery that runs on war, exploitation and blood.

Yet in the proper sense, Jesus is a king. When Jesus informed Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world,” he did not mean to say that his was a kingdom of the afterlife or of inward spiritual perfection. He said rather that his kingdom does not operate under the same violent ideology of empire that props up the nations of the world. If it were such a kingdom, then of course, Jesus’ disciples would be expected to take up the sword in his defense. Pilate simply cannot comprehend how Jesus can be so indifferent to his power. “Don’t you know,” he fumes, “that I have power to release you, and to crucify you?” John 19:10. The threat of violence is the only weapon in Pilate’s quiver. When it fails to intimidate Jesus, Pilate suddenly finds himself powerless and he knows it. Rome is face to face with the ruler of a kingdom it cannot defeat. The empire crumbles when nobody takes its threats seriously anymore.

It is hardly the case that Jesus is indifferent to actual, physical hunger. He recognizes, however, that the machinery of empire cannot finally redress injustice, oppression and violence that cause hunger among the greater part of humanity. The systemically evil empire cannot be reformed. Nor will it do to sweep it away with violence, thereby sowing seeds for the rise of a similar imperial regime. The allure of empire can only be dismantled by the creation of a new regime in its midst unmasking it with truthful speech and refuting its claim to allegiance by its existence as a peaceful and just community allied solely with God’s just reign. Empire is undone when the church begins to live as though Jesus really did rise from death and that his resurrection makes a difference.

This story, as John tells it, has radical implications for a consumer culture with an economy driven by greed, where economic growth is measured in terms of corporate profitability while the availability of good jobs with benefits evaporates, wages decline and working hours increase. “Food insecurity,” which is a euphemism for malnutrition and hunger, is increasingly prevalent in our country even as the market indicators reach historically high levels. Stimulating this perverse economy will do nothing to bring about bread for all. It is time we all stop pretending that it will and recognize that a radical reversal must take place in order for all to eat. The Bible has a term for such a reversal: repentance.

Repentance is, to be sure, a change of heart. But a genuine change of heart cannot help but have societal ramifications. The call here is for a church that identifies with the hungry, not merely to solicit their votes in a campaign to reform the empire, but to enlist them as partners in dismantling the machinery of oppression. While it is hard to imagine a church such as mine, that is so far removed from the realities of hunger, engaging the hungry in such a way, imagination is precisely what we need. Faithful, prophetic imagination is to the church what the sword is to the empire-the weapon of choice.

2 Kings 4:42-44

This short story is one of many about Elisha and his miraculous works found in Chapter 4 of the Second Book of Kings. Elisha, you may recall, was the prophetic successor to Elijah who was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire. He was a member and perhaps the leader of an obscure group identified in Second Kings only as “the sons of the prophets.” According to Professor Gerhard Von Rad, these groups constituted separate communities within the framework of Israelite society closely associated with local sanctuaries. Von Rad, Gerhard, Old Testament Theology, Vol. II, (c. 1960 by Oliver & Boyd) p. 26. Members of these groups were likely drawn from a very low economic and social stratum in the population lacking both power and status. Ibid. They seem to have lived together in communities. Von Rad further states that “[w]e are probably right in thinking that these bands of prophets were almost the last representatives of pure Jahwism and its divine law” in a society increasingly dominated by Canaanite religion and culture. Ibid 26-27. They were married, had children and apparently held property and so should not be understood as a monastic order of any kind. Over time, as kings in Israel and Judah favoring the traditional faith of Israel came to power, the sons of the prophets evolved into a professional guild of persons with the unique ability to speak on God’s behalf. By the time of the prophet Amos, the guild appears to have become little more than the mouthpiece of the monarchy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Hence, Amos specifically denies being the son of a prophet. See Amos 7:14-15.

Based on what proceeds in II Kings 4:38, we know that this story takes place during a famine. A man comes to Elisha with a “first fruits offering.” Exodus 23:14-19. We do not know precisely why this offering was made under these circumstances. There is no statutory requirement in the Pentateuch for first fruits offerings to be presented to prophetic communities.  As the sons of the prophets were frequently associated with shrines, however, it would not be unusual for them to take on priestly duties as well. Elisha orders his servant to share the offering (twenty loaves of bread and a sack of grain) with the rest of the sons of the prophets numbering about one hundred. The servant, quite understandably, balks at the notion. After all, the offering is not large enough to feed the whole community. It is better that the community’s leader, Elisha, be spared than that he perish from starvation along with the entire community. Elisha is confident, however, that there will be enough for the community and to spare. This confidence is based on a word he has received from the Lord to that effect. Vs. 43. Like Jesus, Elisha focuses not on the magnitude of the hunger or the scarcity of his resources, but on the promise of the Lord to provide. Once again, this story challenges us to join the psalmist’s affirmation that God can indeed be trusted to provide for every living thing.

Psalm 145:10-18

This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 25. Each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:

Awesome is our God and Creator.

Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.

Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.

And so on down to letter Z. This kind of composition assists in memorization which, in a pre-literate society, is the primary means of passing down music and literature.

The psalm as a whole extols the character of God as both compassionate and mighty. It is both an expression of praise to God as well as a confessional statement made to the people of God declaring God’s goodness to all of Creation. Prayer is fluid in the Psalms. Often the same psalm will address God, the worshiping community, the whole of creation and the psalmist himself/herself within the same prayer. Note that although the people of the covenant are in the best position to recognize and witness to this God, they are not the only beneficiaries of God’s compassion. God is receptive to all who call upon him. vs. 18. The entire earth is God’s concern.

We can see in vs 15 an echo of the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day or daily bread.”  “The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145: 15-16. It is just because sustenance comes from the hand of God that we can be content with this day’s bread without worrying about tomorrow. The assurance and confidence in God’s willingness and promise to meet our needs ties in very nicely with the feeding of the five thousand and the discourse that follows throughout John Chapter 6.

Ephesians 3:14-21

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Vss. 14-15. There is a play on words here that gets lost in the translation. The Greek word for “father,” “pater” is the root for “patria” which means “country” or “father land.” The significance of this claim would not have been lost to folks living under the yoke of Rome which claimed to be the father of all peoples. This is a question of “Who’s your daddy?” aimed directly at Caesar. Disciples of Jesus owe their ultimate allegiance only to their Master. Nationalistic loyalties cannot be permitted to fracture the unity of Christ’s Body in which there are no national, racial, tribal or cultural divisions.

When Paul speaks here of “power,” it is always the power of the Spirit that is grounded in love. Urging his listeners to “put on the whole armor of God,” Paul turns this militaristic image on its head by identifying the church’s weaponry as truth, righteousness, peace, faith and prayer. Ephesians 6:10-20. He prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Vs. 17. It is through being “in Christ,” that one becomes grounded in love; for Christ Jesus is God’s concrete expression of love.

Perhaps more than any of the other Pauline letters, Ephesians pictures the church as a counter-cultural community whose worship and practices place it on a collision course with the priorities of the Roman Empire. Though it takes different forms, empire is very much alive and well today. Multi-national corporate interests that manipulate governments with their vast resources, educational institutions that promote a violent sports culture, the glamour industry that denigrates the bodies of young girls and the banking industry that holds our economy hostage to its interests are all examples of imperial power. Because we owe our jobs, financial security and education to these entities, we find it hard to resist having our lifestyles dictated by them. Nonetheless, as I have previously noted, there are a growing number of intentional communities seeking to give expression to such radical discipleship. See my post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.

John 6:1-21

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles always trigger questions/dialogue/confrontation spinning out lengthy discourses by Jesus. This story about Jesus’ feeding of five thousand people serves as an opener for a lengthy discourse he is about to have with his disciples, the crowds and his opponents. The dialogue is rich with sacramental imagery. Just as Jesus drew a distinction in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman between regular water and living water (John 4:7-15), so in the chapters to come Jesus will distinguish between bread that is merely “food which perishes” and “food that endures to eternal life.” John 6:27. Jesus finally discloses to his conversation partners that he himself is “the bread which came down from heaven” and that whoever “eats of this bread…will live forever.” John 6:51. At the end of this discourse, many of Jesus’ disciples desert him.

Unique to John’s telling of the story is an unnamed youth. He appears on the scene just as the disciples are facing what they view as a crisis. Five thousand people have been with Jesus for a long time out in the wilderness. They are hungry and we all know that hungry masses can easily turn violent. Buying food for all these people is not an option. Even if the disciples could have scared up two hundred denaii and there had been a deli nearby, the likelihood that it would have food on hand to serve five thousand is slim.

At this point, Andrew brings the young boy’s tendered lunch to the attention of Jesus. We don’t actually know whether the boy offered his lunch or whether Andrew commandeered it. The lesson does not tell us one way or the other, but it would be just like a kid to do something like putting up his lunch under these circumstances. A kid doesn’t understand that what little he has in his lunch box cannot possibly make a dent in the hunger of five thousand people. When he becomes a man, he will understand that there is only so much to go around; that if people are hungry it’s their problem, not his; that the best chance you have of survival is to hang on to what you have got and defend it with all means necessary. But at this point, he is just a kid. He doesn’t understand “the real world.” The only thing he does understand is that Jesus wants to feed this hungry crowd. He believes Jesus can do it and that he has something to offer that Jesus can use. Small wonder, then, that Jesus tells us “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3. The first step to becoming a disciple of Jesus is unlearning all the lessons of adulthood.

After feeding the five thousand, Jesus must beat a hasty retreat to avoid being taken by force and made king. Vs. 15. At the end of the chapter, Jesus will be deserted not only by this crowd who would have made him king, but also by most of his own disciples. This discourse is therefore a microcosm of the gospel narrative set forth at the outset: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God…” John 1:11-12.

For reasons that are not clear from the text, the disciples got into their boat and embarked without Jesus. Was this because they had become separated from Jesus in the hubbub ensuing as the crowd tried to acclaim him king? Or, sensing the danger that might result from the crowd’s coronation of Jesus, did the disciples simply flee and abandon him? In either case, they were relieved to discover that the approaching figure was none other than Jesus. On their own, the disciples appear to have been struggling against the sea. But on taking Jesus into the boat, they discover that they have arrived at their destination. This is, I believe, one of the many instances in which John wishes to make clear that “apart from me [Jesus], you can do nothing.” John 15:5. As I have often pointed out before, John’s gospel ends not with Jesus ascending to the right had of the Father or with Jesus sending the disciples out, but with Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. John 21:15-23. John cannot imagine the church without the presence of Jesus in its midst leading it forward.

 

Sunday, February 23rd

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18
Psalm 119:33–40
1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23
Matthew 5:38–48

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Back in the 80s Kenny Rogers produced a song in the country western genre entitled “Coward of the County.” It tells the story of young man named Tommy whose father died in prison, making his then ten year old son promise “not to do what I have done; to walk away from trouble if you can/ It won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek/ I hope you’re not too young to understand/ Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.” Tommy takes dad’s advice, walks away from trouble when he can and acquires a reputation as “the coward of the country.” He marries a young woman named Becky and finds a degree of happiness. Then one day while Tommy is away at work, “the Gatlin boys come calling.” They gang rape Becky and Tommy comes home to find her beaten and ravaged. This is more than Tommy can handle. He walks straight to the bar to confront the Gatlin brothers who at first laugh him to scorn. But their laughter is short lived. Tommy promptly “lets them have it all” and when he is through, “not a Gatlin boy was standing.” The song ends with Tommy saying to his dead father’s picture, “Papa, I should hope you understand/sometimes you have to fight when you’re a man.” If you are interested in hearing the song or reading the full lyrics, check out this link.

You can’t think about this song too much without running into several imponderables. Most of us manage to get through our adult lives without ever having to fight, but we aren’t labeled cowards. We just develop a knack for getting along that comes with maturity. So what was Tommy’s problem? How did he manage repeatedly to get into confrontations from which he had to back down? I can only imagine that he must have had some anger issues going if this scenario of confrontation/retreat happened with such frequency that he got a reputation for cowardice. You also have to wonder about the character of a man who would leave his wife broken and bleeding without comfort or medical attention in order to settle up with the Gatlin boys. I wonder, too, how a kid who had never been in a fight throughout his whole life managed to deck all three Gatlins. If Tommy was packing, you have to wonder where he got the gun, given his father’s admonitions against violence.

Imponderables aside, the point to be made is that the song’s message is a clear frontal attack against Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. According to Kenny Rogers, Jesus was wrong. You can’t just turn the other cheek. Sometimes you have to fight when you’re a man. So who do you believe? Jesus or Kenny? This ought to be a no brainer for disciples of Jesus. Could Jesus’ teaching in Sunday’s gospel be any clearer? Yet since the time of Constantine, the greater part of the church has agreed with Kenny. We bless our respective nations’ wars with our prayers; support believers’ participation in the armed forces through chaplaincies; and glorify war through our participation in civil ceremonies. We have bought into the notion that fighting is a necessity, albeit a tragic one. Now the only remaining question is one of degree: under what circumstances must we fight? What limits, if any, are placed on how we fight?

St. Augustine first developed the “just war” doctrine to which mainline Christianity still subscribes for the most part, though the doctrine has been modified, amplified and expounded upon for centuries. The remarkable thing about this doctrine is how far removed it is from the reality of war and the reasons for and the methods by which wars are fought. That should not surprise us. Architects of just war theory, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther were not soldiers. For them, war was a theological dilemma. How does one reconcile Jesus’ teaching with the needs of the empire for which the church had become the official religion? They attempted to resolve this conflict between the gospel imperatives and imperial geopolitical interests with an abstract doctrine requiring nations to weigh the justice of their cause, the potential for success and the degree of bloodshed likely to occur should war be declared. The problem is that national defense policy seldom has much to do with justice. It is typically determined by national interests that might require propping up tyrannical regimes, exercising pre-emptive strikes and toleration for “collateral damage” otherwise known as non-combatant deaths. All of this is entirely contrary to just war theory. As near as I can tell, there has never been anything like a just war, nor is there ever likely to be such. For these and many other reasons, the just war theory has come under much scrutiny and criticism over the last century.

Perhaps the problem is not so much in the theory as in the assumption that gives rise to the theory, namely, that “sometimes you have to fight.” If it was Kenny Roger’s purpose to prove that point, he picked a poor story. Fighting didn’t accomplish much for Becky who would probably have benefited more from the comfort of her husband and prompt medical treatment than the trouncing of her tormentors. If there had been a time when fighting could have been of any advantage, it would have been when the Gatlin boys came calling-not afterwards. Now in addition to overcoming a horrific trauma, Becky has a boat load of legal problems created by her husband’s belated defense of his manhood. As satisfying as payback might have been for Tommy in the short run, it only created more long term difficulties for him and Becky. This couple would have fared much better if Tommy had heeded his father’s advice, stayed home and cared for his wife and then reported the matter to the police. You don’t have to be stupid to be a man.

It seems to me that the good news Jesus has for us is that we don’t have to fight-to prove our manhood or for any other reason. What Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson this morning is nothing less than what he ultimately does. Jesus confronts the murderous hatred of his enemies with love and forgiveness. He will not call down twelve legions of angels to defend himself from his enemies, nor will he allow his disciples to raise the sword in his defense. He is free to leave his life and the issue of retributive justice in the hands of a God he knows to be his heavenly Father. He invites his disciples to share in that same radical freedom. If fighting cannot be justified to save the only begotten Son of God from a cruel and unjust death, when will fighting ever be justified?

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18

Leviticus is probably the least popular book of the Bible for us Christian folk. For the millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to read the Bible cover to cover, the Book of Leviticus is likely the point at which most of them threw in the towel. Like the second half of Exodus and the first ten chapters of Numbers, Leviticus consists of instructions for sacrificial worship, ritual cleansing from contact with unclean animals, lepers, menstruating women and corpses. It spells out in excruciating detail the animals which may and may not be eaten and sets forth numerous ethical injunctions. Many of these laws appear altogether senseless to modern readers. Why is eating lobster an abomination? What is immoral about wearing two different kinds of fabric? What could be objectionable in ordering a hamburger with a milkshake?

Some literary/historical background is warranted here: Modern Hebrew scriptural scholars are in general agreement that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) constitute a compilation of four originally independent written sources. These sources were brought together over a five century period of time (950 to 500 B.C.E.) into what we now know as the “Pentateuch,” which translated means “Five Books.” The sources are known as the Jahwist source or simply “J,” the Elohist source or “E”, the Deuteronomist source or “D” and the Priestly source known as “P.” For a very thorough discussion of this theory of interpretation, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis. For our purposes, it will suffice to note that virtually all of the book of Leviticus comes to us from the P source, the latest contributor(s) to the Pentateuch and likely its final editor(s).

It is helpful also to know that P was compiled during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile beginning at 587 B.C.E. Though much of the material this source contains is very ancient, it was edited and arranged in such a way as to speak to the then present needs of the exiled Jews living in a foreign land. As a minority community, the exiles were naturally under pressure to conform and even meld into the pagan culture of Babylon. The books of Daniel and Esther reflect the difficulties faced by Jews attempting to make their living under foreign domination while remaining faithful to their God and their unique identity.

This week’s reading is part of the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26) which most scholars regard as a distinct unit consisting of an earlier text edited and imbedded within P. Many of its laws are expressed in brief, closely packed clusters. Its style and vocabulary distinguishes the code from the main body of Leviticus. The Priestly source’s frequent reminder that “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” must be understood in the exile context. V. 2. The term “holy” does not mean “morally pure” as we have become accustomed to understand that term. To be “holy” in the biblical sense is to “be set aside for a special purpose.” Consequently, the unique worship practices and ritual behaviors that were part of Israel’s daily life in Palestine took on a new urgency in the land of exile. These practices defined Israel over against the dominant culture and preserved her identity.

In the larger canonical narrative, the P source spells out the shape faithfulness must take for Israel in the land of Canaan to which Moses is leading her. Israel is not to become another imperial Egypt, oppressing her poor and enslaving the sojourners in her land. The people are instructed not to “reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” Vss. 9-10. The lectionary people have excluded vss. 3-8 which, in addition to reiterating the commandment to honor parents, gives explicit instructions on how to consume meat offered as a peace offering. This omission is unfortunate as these verses illustrate that Israel did not make distinctions between ethical and ritual requirements. Worship, economics, politics and social intercourse were intended to be all of one piece in Israel. As the prophets frequently point out, worship divorced from the imperative to love the neighbor is an abomination in God’s sight. See, e.g., Amos 5:21-24.

Though it does not make for exciting reading, I believe that the Priestly author(s) contribution to the Hebrew Scriptures has a peculiar relevance for the church today. But we should not be focusing on the particular demands of these rules and statutes, the rationale and meaning of which is lost to us in many instances. Instead, we should look to their function and how they created opportunities for the faith community in exile to define itself against the dominant culture and remind itself of its own unique identity. In my own Lutheran protestant tradition there is very little that distinguishes our daily lives from those of our neighbors. In a supposedly “Christian culture,” you would not expect any such difference. And given that our particular tradition was born into the heart of Christendom and grew out of the state church tradition, it is not surprising that most of us are OK with that. In a Christian nation, why would one expect there to be any difference between faithful discipleship and good citizenship? How could the two ever conflict?

Whether or not you agree with me that the notion of “Christendom” was misbegotten from the get go, you can hardly deny that the society that was Christendom is now all but dead. The towering church buildings still dominating the Americana landscape testify more to a bygone era of socio-political influence than to any present significance. Gone are the days when everyone (or a substantial majority) assumed that church going was an essential part of life. The upcoming generation needs to be convinced that worship in general and Christ in particular merit even a cursory look. You can be a decent person and a good citizen these days without belonging to any faith community. So why belong?

I must confess that when I drive through a Jewish neighborhood on a Friday night and witness families walking together to synagogue, I feel a bit envious. Here is a community whose life is shaped by the biblical narrative. This peculiar people will not be conformed to our cultural norms. Their Sabbath will not be invaded by soccer leagues, karate lessons and after school programs. This is clearly a “holy” people, a people dedicated to its God. Their faith is not just another piece of a well-rounded American life on a par with school, sports and patriotism. Their faith is their life and everything else must find its place in subjection to that faith. I could wish that disciples of Jesus were as diligent in observance of the Lord’s Day; that prayer, fasting and almsgiving were as deeply imbedded in our lives as Sabbath observance is for my Jewish neighbors. I believe that the church needs very much to hear the Priestly writers’ call “to be holy.”

Psalm 119:33–40

For my observations on Psalm 119 generally, see my post for February 16th. Just as last week’s reading consisting of the first section of this psalm began with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph,” so each line of these eight verses making up the fifth section of the psalm begin with the fifth Hebrew letter, “He.”

This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.

1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23

Paul has been contrasting the “mind of Christ” that binds the church together as one Body to the divisiveness of the Corinthian congregation that threatens to tear it apart. Now Paul uses the image of a building to emphasize how the apostolic ministry, and his own ministry in particular, is for the purpose of building up. The church is God’s building. Though Paul’s evangelization laid the foundation and the work of Cephas and Apollos built upon that foundation, the foundation itself is Christ Jesus.

Once again, I marvel at the gall of the “lexicutioners” whose exegetical meat cleavers exercise no restraint. Verses 12-15 are critical to understanding Paul’s argument. For having pointed out how the apostles have each worked in concert to erect the building which is God’s church, Paul notes that the project is still under construction. The Corinthian disciples are also called to the task of this ministry of building up the church. Clearly, their divisiveness illustrates that they are failing in this important calling. Hence, Paul warns the members of the Corinthian congregation to exercise care in their building ministry. For their work will be tested on the last day when the church is delivered to Christ. What does not build up the church will be destroyed. Yet it is significant that Paul adds that the builder himself will be saved. The wrath of God is directed not against the negligent builder, but at his shoddy work.

That being said, it is easier to understand Paul’s warning that “you are God’s Temple.” Vs. 16. Creating divisions within the church amounts to destroying God’s temple. As the church is the means through which Christ’s salvation is present, destroying the church is self-destruction as well. Vs. 17. You can see where Paul is going with all of this. How absurd it is for the building so carefully constructed by the work of the apostles to assert its loyalty to these same apostles as a pretext for its own self demolition! If the members of the Corinthian church truly wish to honor the apostles, they should build upon the foundation the apostles have laid rather than destabilize it.

Matthew 5:38–48

The dictum “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is cited at Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though some commentators on this text argue that this principle was intended to limit retaliation to a proportionate punishment, there is nothing to support this view in the context of Hebrew Scripture. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 256. The concern was that the guilty party bear the consequence of sin such that justice is maintained within the community. See, e.g., Leviticus 24:13-23 (discussion of punishment/compensation commensurate with injury in the context of punishment for blasphemy). Such texts are addressed to the community and its leadership structures, not to the victim or the victim’s family. Nevertheless, over the course of time they came to be used in support of personal claims for compensation. In 1st Century Palestine monetary damages had largely replaced retributive vengeance, though some rabbinical authorities questioned the propriety of this. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 129.

Jesus renders these disputes moot, however, in forbidding retaliation of any sort. Lest there be any doubt about the absolute nature of this command, Jesus goes on to say that “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Vs. 39. In his fine book, Walter Wink argues that a blow to the right cheek would come as a back handed slap. Turning the left cheek would make another blow awkward and perhaps ineffective for a right handed opponent. Thus, Jesus is not really speaking of non-resistance to evil, but rather of non-violent resistance. Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, (c. 1988 Augsburg Fortress) p. 101-102.  As much as I respect Professor Wink, I think he is trying too hard to read Gandhi into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not see non-violence as a strategy to achieve a larger goal or to “make a statement.” He is simply calling upon his disciples to respond to hatred and violence the way he will soon confront it himself-by loving his enemies and leaving defense of his life and retributive justice in the hands of his heavenly Father. I also do not place much significance on the fact that a blow to the face with one’s fist (if that is all Jesus is talking about) is less serious than the permanent damage contemplated by the Hebrew Scriptural sayings. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t tell us that he is referring merely to a slap in the face with the back hand. Moreover, I have visited enough ERs to know that a blow to the face with one’s fist can do some serious damage to eyes and teeth. Jesus would have us know that refusing to resist evil can result in our getting pretty banged up, perhaps even nailed to a cross. But whether it is effective, ineffective or counter-productive, non-violence is always the way of Jesus and his disciples. Violence is never an arrow in their quiver. Indeed, Jesus’ teachings about lawsuits, forced conscription and response to beggars demonstrate that coercive force of all kinds is off limits. This is not to say that non-violence is incapable of bringing about substantial social and political changes for the better. The lives of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrate that it sometimes does. Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus do not practice peace for the sake of beneficial change. They practice peace because that is the way of Jesus, period.

In verse 43 Matthew cites Leviticus 19:18 which states in part, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While the verse does not sanction hatred against enemies, it is clear that the term “neighbor” applies to “the sons of your own people” which would exclude gentiles as well as these “cut off” from among the people of Israel. Jesus clearly means to extend the command to love one’s neighbor to the enemy. To be clear, the enemy is not simply an unpleasant relative or a bothersome neighbor. The enemy is the one who violently attacks you and takes your property. To be sure, there were plenty of figures in antiquity who urged kindness toward enemies as a stratagem for neutralizing their malevolent intent. But Jesus does not command his disciples to love their enemies for any strategic reason. They are to love because they are, like their Master, children of their heavenly Father who loves all people, good and bad, wildly, freely and indiscriminately. This intense love that cannot be blunted by hatred and rejection is the perfection of God that soon will be manifest in the destiny of Jesus. Perfect love exercised in an imperfect world takes the shape of the cross. It winds up dead, but it doesn’t stay that way.

In sum, The Sermon on the Mount makes no rational sense apart from Jesus Christ. It does not fit into any ethical system; it does not support any coherent platform for social change; it does not fit within the confines of any ideological framework. Without Jesus, the Sermon is nothing more than a smorgasbord of disjointed sayings from which one may pick and choose, providing whatever context will give it the desired meaning. Interpreted through the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross, however, it illuminates the new life to which Jesus invites us. See I Corinthians 1:20-25.

Perhaps John Howard Yoder says it best of all: “This conception of participation in the character of God’s struggle with a rebellious world, which early Quakerism referred to as ‘the war of the lamb,’ has the peculiar disadvantage-or advantage, depending upon one’s point of view-of being meaningful only if Christ be he who Christians claim him to be, the Master. Almost every other kind of ethical approach espoused by Christians, pacifist or otherwise, will continue to make sense to the non-Christian as well. Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same. For their true foundation is in some reading of the human situation or some ethical insight which is claimed to be generally accessible to men of good will. The same is not true for this vision of “completing in our bodies that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ.” If Jesus was not who historic Christianity confesses he was, the revelation in man of the character of God himself, then this one argument for pacifism collapses. Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus (c. 1994, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 244.