Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Those who are blessed seem to fall into two categories: both those who choose the difficult or holy option, like the pure in heart, and those who are forced into it through no choice of their own, those who are reviled and persecuted. Some fall into both categories. Those who mourn might be those whose circumstances lead to tears, but it is also likely to refer to those who weep over an alienated culture, the apparent absence of the kingdom, or the failure of God’s children to behave like sons. Those poor in spirit may include those who choose to live with the humility and simple lifestyle of the poor as well as those who have poverty forced upon them. Throughout, there is the sense of rewards for those who want to see a reversal in the status quo: those who strive for peace, those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail. Those disciples who made it to the top of the mountain were to be the agents of the kingdom both by being part of the community, like salt, and separated from it like light. For salt is useless unless thoroughly incorporated in the mixture, where it becomes invisibly part of the texture. Light, on the other hand, is useless unless it is placed on a lamp-stand. The kingdom comes when disciples are both fully totally mixed with the world in which they live, and distinct and separate from it by their lifestyle. In a sense it is easy to be either light or salt: to be holy by living in monastic isolation, or to be invisible by being totally incorporated in worldly living. Jesus was notable for being both salt and light. He mixed with the sick and sinful: with the rich and poor; with the educated and the simple and seems to have blended well with all of them. The group with which he clashed most often was the pharisees who deliberately kept themselves separated from society. Yet at the same time he lived uniquely and powerfully. His true light was seen supremely when three disciples saw him transfigured before them : but what they saw that day merely confirmed what they had already acknowledged on the road near Caesarea Philippi . His disciples were called to be one with the poor and humble. Yet they would stand out so that they would be reviled and persecuted. They were not to be downcast and intimidated, but were to yearn with all their being for a better world; sometimes they would be marked out by their compassion, their tears, and their desire for justice and peace. Always they should be marked out for the purity of their life-style. Without their presence the world would perish. Darkness can never overcome light. The deeper the darkness the brighter the light shines. Light destroys darkness. The suggestion here is that disciples will always be a minority. But better a pinch of salt than a sack of dust, better a small light well displayed, than a multitude of lamps burning themselves out under a meal tub. Those called to be disciples need to be true to their calling . Thus disciples’ righteousness needs to exceed that of the pharisees. They were certainly like cities set on hills: they prayed on street corners , they carried the longeurs of their fasting in the length of their faces and they gave to the poor in a way that everyone knew about it. The disciples were to be just as rigorous in lifestyle yet without letting that rigour separate them from those among whom they lived. Yet they also had to be distinctive. Not by being out of touch or ‘holier than thou’, but by being known as those who love enemies, live lightly with possessions, go beyond the call of duty in being generous to those in need, pray with integrity and intensity, making sure that such treasure that is stored up is of eternal significance. What is needed is a whole new framework of values: righteousness is not just an issue of lifestyle. It is a matter of attitude: or as Paul put it ‘mind-set’ . Righteousness is not just a minimalist keeping of commandments, but neither is it a broad-brush adhering to the spirit of them: it is an inter-penetration with the mind of God who framed them . For example, it is not just a matter of good discipline for a disciple to refrain from murder and adultery: that kind of behaviour should be totally alien to his whole way of living. So a life of righteousness flows naturally from a person totally immersed in the life of God. And so - quite literally - the disciples were to be authentically Christian in the way that Jesus himself was. He was both immersed in God and world, so he acted like salt and light. To be immersed in God is to be God-breathed: to become God-breathed is to pray oneself into God’s life. Prayer and living are not to be compartmentalised. Prayer is the means by which the mind-set is framed. Prayer is the process of inter-penetration. So prayer becomes the source of righteousness. When Jesus talks about ethics he ends up talking about prayer. A prayer is that which you desire with all your being. It should not be just a shopping list of virtues let alone a desire for material prosperity, or a means of twisting the arm of God. It is yearning for his kingdom to come and his will to be done in one’s own life and in the world. So at the core of this teaching about righteousness Matthew places Jesus’s example prayer. Not surprisingly this prayer has many affinities with traditional Jewish prayers, in particular the kaddish which followed the sermon in synagogue liturgy, and the eighteen benedictions. Though it is not entirely certain that either of these prayers was being used at the time of Jesus, they are at least likely to have been based on forms of prayer with which Jesus was familiar. Indeed a Jewish scholar has blended the Lord’s prayer with traditional Jewish prayers to come up with this amplified version: Our Father, who art in Heaven. Hallowed be Thine exalted Name in the world Thou didst create according to Thy will. May Thy Kingdom and Thy lordship come speedily, and be acknowledged by all the world, that Thy Name may be praised in all eternity. May Thy will be done in Heaven, and also on earth give tranquillity of spirit to those that fear Thee, yet in all things do what seemeth good to Thee. Let us enjoy the bread daily apportioned to us. Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned; forgive also all who have done us injury; even as we also forgive all. And lead us not into temptation, but keep us far from evil. For thine is the greatness and the power and the dominion, the victory and the majesty, yea all in Heaven and on earth. Thine is the Kingdom, and thou art Lord of all beings for ever. Amen. However, despite the similarities, the places where Jesus’s prayer differs from the traditional Jewish models that have survived are even more significant. The intimacy of the opening address was most unusual . The close relationship which Jesus experienced with God was not to be totally unique: it was a relationship that could be claimed by his disciples also. Prayer is not some grovelling appeasement of a remote, capricious and potentially hostile, divine potentate, but a close, intimate intercourse with one who carries all the concern and responsibility for his children of a loving father. And in recognising God as ‘our’ father they also would be recognising their family relationship with each other. The word father also denoted his role of creator: the ‘father’ was the origin of life. The phrase, ‘who art in heaven’, draws attention to this. It is not suggesting that God is remote or inaccessible, but rather that he is powerful and creative. Indeed where God is honoured, earth potentially becomes heaven - a major theme of the prayer through his transforming presence. The petition ‘hallowed be thy name’ takes this one stage further. This expresses the deep desire that the presence of God be acknowledged with awe in the world at large. The hallowing of a name is indeed the recognising of the authority and holiness of the person. So this first petition draws us straight into the kingdom focus of the prayer. The gospel song which repeats this phrase after every petition of the Lord’s prayer is close to the spirit of the way it is to be prayed. In all aspects of life, through every culture, and in all circumstances the profoundest desire of every disciple is to see the glory of God revealed, his presence acknowledged and his name revered. It is clear that Jesus saw his mission in terms of ‘bringing in the kingdom of God’ (or in Matthew’s version, heaven). The desire for the coming of that kingdom, therefore, forms the core of his prayer. The nature of that kingdom was explicitly set out by Jesus when he was visited by disciples of John the Baptist asking him: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’ It was believed that prayer could speed up God’s processes. So grounded right in the core of Christian prayer has always been a yearning for the coming of the kingdom which the church came to see as synonymous with the coming of the king: ‘Maranatha, O come quickly, Lord.’ The implication of the prayer, of course, was also personal. If the kingdom was to come quickly it had to come within the lives of the disciples themselves. The kingdom of God would only come when his will was done, and those who love him must surely be those who do his will: ‘the will of God is done whenever a human being takes upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of God to do it.’ John’s gospel reports Jesus as saying, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work’. So to ask for one’s daily bread could even be seen as taking on the responsibility for doing God’s will. In any event it seems likely that this is not simply a prayer for material provision. There is probably a link with the provision of manna in the wilderness, and possibly with the bread of last supper. Indeed the choice of such an unusual Greek word within the prayer might even have been to point up the eternal significance of the daily provision of God’s grace. We might paraphrase it in this sort of way: ‘Give today not only our bread for today but that bread which is for every day (namely eternity).’ As Jeremias put it: ‘For Jesus there was no opposition between earthly bread and the bread of life, for in the realm of the kingdom all earthly things are hallowed. The bread that Jesus broke when he invited publicans and sinners to his table, the bread he gave to his disciples at the last supper, was earthly bread and yet at the same time the bread of life. For the disciples of Jesus every meal and not only the last one had deep eschatological significance . Every meal with Jesus was a salvation meal, an anticipation of the final feast. At each meal he was the host as he would be at the consummation.’ If feeding on the bread God gives is to do his will, then to do his will is to forgive. The bread which we break is a sign of the body of Christ which is given for us, and our forgiveness. Since his nature is to be merciful, so if we are to live his will we also are to be merciful. Indeed his kingdom is hardly likely to come, his will is scarcely going to be done if we do not forgive those who are indebted to us. Prayer must never be seen as a vast buck-passing exercise to the Almighty. Instead Jesus teaches us that when we engage in prayer we take on mighty responsibility. At the end of John’s gospel Jesus says "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." The suggestion is that if there are people who languish in the hell of guilt then it will be because the disciples have not communicated the forgiving grace of God. Matthew’s placing of Jesus’s saying about forgiveness immediately at the close of the prayer shows his notion of the importance of this part of the prayer. Finally Jesus pleads with God not to bring him to a point of testing so severe that he is likely to fail. The time was to come in the place called Gethsemane when Jesus feared that that was precisely what was happening. But the central prayer, ‘your will be done’ overruled the prayer not to be put to the test. By the time that Matthew’s gospel was written this prayer would have been prayed by many who had faced the sternest test of all - martyrdom. Martyrdom is never to be desired: the appalling picture of the Christian faith promulgated by Nietzsche namely that it is a sick courting of suffering to subdue the human spirit, is a travesty far from the life embracing, health-desiring word of Jesus. But the desire not to be tested is to be balanced by a refusal to give in to the evil powers of the day. At all costs we must never sell our souls to forces opposed to the will of God. This battle with evil will sometimes result in the test being severe: but disciples never court suffering. Nor does God will it upon us. It is now becoming apparent that the prayer is closely linked with the beatitudes which opened the teaching. Prayer emerges as a response to God’s word: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; do not bring us to the test, but rescue us from the evil one. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness: give us this day our daily bread. For they shall be filled. Blessed are those who are merciful: forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. For they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart. Hallowed by thy name. For they shall see God. To pray the kingdom is to live it. And if the heart of the message of the kingdom is forgiveness then a life of forgiveness must be lived. Christians begin in the psychologically important freedom of being those who have been forgiven much. Those who do not know what it means to be forgiven will always tend to have difficulty in forgiving anyone else. So when you go to make your sacrifice of repentance the mere sight of the altar will remind you of the enormity of your debt to God in the face of which that grievance which you hold against your brother will cry against you. You will drop the sacrifice, return to your brother make peace and then be at peace with God . In the life of the kingdom there is no place for grudges let alone revenge. To be a city set on a hill means that your life has to be above reproach. Purity does not simply mean not doing that which is wrong - but more radically not wanting to do it either. People who do not commit adultery may quite simply be those who would very much wish to but have no opportunity, or even those who lack the courage. Jesus lays down a far more radical definition: the voyeur who degrades women by treating them as a turn on but who is not prepared to take the responsibility of forming a loving relationship with them is not free from sin . At the very least such a severe definition of adultery should prevent most men from casting the first stone. The language Jesus uses is ferocious and led one great Biblical scholar to self mutilation . Of course Jesus was aware that voyeurism is not the fault of the eye, nor theft the action of an unwilling hand: it is quite clearly the case that it is neither the eye nor the hand that is to be punished. Surely there is a sense of ironic humour here. He has already told us that immorality is the fault of the ‘heart’, and by that he does not mean the organ either but rather the seat of the will. If you pluck out your right eye then it is likely that your left eye will continue to wander. If you cut off your right hand, your left will soon adapt. What is needed is wholesale repentance, which is a radical change of heart.

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