This blog is the fourth in a series which sets out behaviours that were displeasing to Jesus.

Jesus’ prohibition of standing in judgement on others comes astonishingly in the midst of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ commandments, in which he passes wise judgements on human behaviour! Obviously the commandment against judging cannot mean any vagueness about morality, since Jesus was so shrewd about the actions and motives of people.

Luke, who used the same material as Matthew, adds the word ‘condemn’ as an explanation of what Jesus was getting at. Both authors, however, present Jesus condemning religious leaders for their hypocrisy. So is Jesus saying that it’s OK for him to judge, but wrong for anyone else? We should be able to see the difference between a strict code of conduct, which can be used to criticise behaviour including one’s own, and the kind of moral arrogance which condemns another person as wicked or beyond the pale. This sort of judging permits the judge to take pleasure in his superiority to the offender. Simone Weil wrote passionately about the arrogance of upper class judges in courts, passing their polished denunciations of the wretch in the dock.

Most people disagree with Jesus on this one, believing that the exposure of wrong -doing and the castigation of the wrongdoer is not only satisfying to the person doing it, but also to the one watching as a spectator. The popular press is full of such judgements on public figures and private citizens alike. The report of a serious crime for example is rarely complete without characterising the offender as an “animal”, “monster” or especially in the case of sexual crime, “beast.”

It is a matter of concern that this sort of standing in judgement has entered our politics, so that your opponent is not simply mistaken but evil; and therefore not only to be defeated but despised morally, and if possible, humiliated. This attitude allows you as judge to see yourself as virtuous and therefore entitled to humiliate the opponent. If the opponent has the audacity to suggest that you are, for example, lying, this automatically makes you a virtuous victim, so justifying your rage and your vengeance.

In family life and amongst colleagues the position of the one entitled to pass judgement is eagerly sought by some, with the kind of results one can view on twitter and facebook. Although dangerous, this vast, vulgar display of condemnation is by no means as serious as the cold arrogance of those who know they judge on God’s behalf and have not hesitated across the continents and centuries to condemn their fellow human beings to death, as indeed the Pharisees did to Jesus.

Jesus issued a particularly harsh warning to those who stand in judgement: the merciful God will abandon his own measure of human behaviour and use the measure employed by the judge! The justice of God may be able to overlook most of our wrongdoing but not our merciless arrogance.

 

 

 

 

 

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This is the third in a series of blogs which define behaviours which are unacceptable  amongst followers of Jesus.

At first sight today’s assertion seems to be the opposite of the truth since, for example, St Paul urged people to “pray constantly.” My own guess is that in his very busy life, pPaul didn’t spend a lot of time on his knees. But in any case, the definitive teaching comes from Jesus:

“In your prayers, don’t go babbling on like the heathen who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them, for your heavenly father knows what your needs are before you ask him. This is how you should pray, ‘Our Father etc’”

Jesus was a practicing Jew, attending synagogue and temple, but he was completely opposed to those who made religious duty into a means of asserting their own piety; he called them, “play actors”. For Jesus, God was an active presence in the lives of people, giving them confidence to act boldly, sharing his goodness with each other and with those who needed it most, the sick, the impoverished, the outcasts. Evil in the form of oppressive transcultural powers, which he called “evil spirits” had to be recognised, named and opposed. Acting in the strength of what he called “the finger of God”, Jesus needed to pray, but he did this secretly, as if such a holy thing could not be shared with others. The first communities of Jesus continued to attend Temple and synagogue worship, while holding their own gatherings for the Jesus meal. Predominantly Gentile communities, on the other hand developed their own worship based on the synagogue model, while incorporating the Jesus meal. Simple prayer could be offered by any believer, but Paul warns against “speaking in tongues” and other super- religious manifestations. His emphasis was on his convert communities becoming “bodies of Messiah”, living the life of Jesus.

Theologically one may say that because the early church believed in the gracious presence of God, it needed no elaborate or lengthy language to persuade him to draw near. Such language has nevertheless been used in various times and places, drawing attention to the religious expertise of a person or group, with the aim of gaining status.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr, wrote of the “secret discipline” of prayer and meditation in which a believer could cherish the mystery of God as the Beyond In The Midst, while living boldly and faithfully in the ordinary world. I think he understood Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This series of blogs is a bit like the 10 commandments: they try to define behaviours that are unacceptable in the Jesus community.

Surely wealth is not a crime, many will protest. Jesus would reply that it is a crime and the mother of crimes. He did not ask the rich young man how he used his wealth, but told him how to get rid of it, and to become a disciple. The rich man was honest enough to refuse because he wanted to keep his wealth. The co-existence of wealth and poverty was offensive to Jesus, whose communities made sure that no member went without anything they needed. This required a disciplined sharing of personal possessions.

This  discipline should not be mistaken for socialism which is a political movement committed to a just distribution of wealth and power in societies. Some followers of Jesus may be drawn to socialism, others may not, but all are obliged to eradicate poverty within the local, national and international church, and to minister to non-members in the same spirit. The church has not always made this clear to its members, but it seems to me such a central characteristic of Jesus and the first churches.

I suppose someone could argue that the society of Jesus’ Palestine was so different from say, modern Scotland, that we cannot transfer his teaching and example from his milieu to ours. As with the determinants of power, so indeed the determinants of wealth and poverty in Jesus’ society were different from those of 21st century capitalism, but the lived experience of being poor, or being rich was very similar. It is also the case that Jesus was not simply against wealth because it should be shared with the poor, but also because of its corrupting influence on the human soul: arrogance, irresponsibility, selfishness and greed, Jesus thought, were the results of wealth, leading him to ask his famous question, “what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

The discipline of refusing to be wealthy and sharing one’s resources within the partnership of the church is, on the other hand, the source of other virtues, such as solidarity, generosity, equality, compassion and the humility to receive the gifts of others. The beauty of this kind of community is its own justification.

The power of the economic system in which we live is a permanent temptation to forget or dismiss Jesus’ teaching and example. Many followers of Jesus, like me, will confess that we are only half- converted in this regard; but when we look at the appalling ugliness caused by the love of money, we are all the more encouraged to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

This blog signals a new start on this site: it will provide short, punchy articles dealing with basic issues for people who are followers of Jesus. The first series of blogs will look at what sort of activities are ruled out by  a genuine commitment to the way of Jesus.

There may not be more hatred in the world today than ever before but there has been certainly more hatred expressed in public over the last two decades than before. This is largely due to electronic social networks being available to a majority of the population of the world. Even in places of severe deprivation, for example, many people make use of the internet. On any matter of public interest, hatred will certainly be expressed; and on some matters the volume and violence of expressed hatred is truly horrific.

If we add to the amount of hatred expressed about public issues the amount generated by individual preference, life – style and appearance – the arena of so-called trolls- we can understand that many users of social media report that hate-speech is a permanent presence in their lives. This may explain why the expression of hatred seems more and more accepted in work-places, leisure facilities and public gatherings.

Even if you think you are standing up for Christian values, for example, opposition to current abortion laws, your expression of hatred invalidates your claim to be Christian: hate-speech is utterly foreign to the teaching and practice of Jesus. Any follower of Jesus who expresses hatred must view it as an evil from which he needs to turn.

Of course there is a difference between people whose hatred is towards those who question their privilege and people whose hatred is towards their persecutors. Surely I should make an exception for the latter group, the Tibetans oppressed by the Chinese state, say, or the women bullied by their male partners? The example of Jesus, who was oppressed and bullied, but did not give way to hatred, suggests otherwise. He opposed oppressors and bullies but he did not hate them or seek to arouse hatred towards them from others.

Anger is different from hatred: it protests against injustice and hopes to change it; whereas hatred is directed against people and hopes to diminish or destroy them. Anger may sometimes promote the way of Jesus although it should be expressed carefully, but hatred never does. In a culture such as ours, followers of Jesus must practice respect, understanding, wisdom, humour and forbearance in both personal and public communication, in the hope of creating enclaves of peace where people can listen to each other.

 

 

Here is another song by Sydney Carter, who also wrote Lord of the Dance.

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CANDLELIGHT

I am the candle light

I do not say there is a God

I only say hello.

Out of the nothingness

I have improbably come

and back again I go.

I am no messenger;

the thing I actually am

is all I ever show.

my fire is physical;

I have a body made of wax,

and soon it will be gone.

I am a miracle.

like you I contradict the night

and then I travel on.

 

Carter believed that in everything that comes into existence, God says, “Let there be light”. For him creation was never in the past tense. Dogma does not help people to live but only attention to what is being created in them and around them.

This tiny song celebrates the light of existence as communicating no message, because any message would be inadequate to express the miracle of existence. Being light is more important than any theory of light, being alive than any theory about life.

All creation is de nihilo, from nothingness, and as such improbable. And impermanent. Existence requires matter which does not last forever in the same form.

Every existence is a miracle which stands out from the nothingness, and does not return to nothingness, but moves on.

This morning I presided at the funeral of a stillborn child. I did not read this poem, but it was in my mind as I spoke of the perfection, individuality and brevity of the child’s earthly life, and his travelling on to God, who recreates us beyond death. I urged his family to appreciate him as a miracle, and as a contradiction of the night that seemed to have enveloped him.

I also urged them to see themselves as brief miracles, however long they might live, and to be themselves with joy and courage.

Because it is the 14th of February, I had asked the family to bring Valentine Cards for the child, expressing their love for him. They did so, and I read them out. This did not deny the fragility of life, or the dignity of mourning, but simply affirmed that our brief existence is encompassed by love.

Alleluia.

Here’s another song by Sydney Carter (see foregoing blog)

Come holy harlequin
Shake the world and shock that hypocrite.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Let the people laugh and shout
Let them in and let them out.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Come holy harlequin
Shake that steeple, rock that synagogue.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Shock the scribe and pharisee
Shatter their monopoly.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Come holy harlequin
Shake that graveyard, split that sepulchre.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Crack that clock that’s killing me
Knock it to eternity.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Leap holy harlequin
Slap that stick and show your liberty.
Rock love carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Caper with your Columbine
Turn the water into wine.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Rock, love, carry it away
Lift the world up by your levity.
Rock, love carry it away
Turn it upside down.
Let the dead begin to live
Be forgiven and forgive.
Rock, love, carry it away
Turn it upside down.

Here he’s using two dancing characters from the Commedia del Arte tradition to stand for the Christ and his partners. In face of all that is solemn,static, religious and safe, the harlequin brings ecstasy, movement, holiness and adventure. If people respond they are not coralled into an institution but into a relationship which lets them come and go. Scribe and pharisee are symbols of authoritarianism whether religious or secular.

But the dance relationship also disrupts the march of time of which there is never enough. By its pattern and rhythm it links participants to the pulse of creation rather than the clock that kills. The slapstick comedy of harlequin is linked to his sexual partnership with Columbine which in turn is linked by Carter to the wedding at Cana blessed by Christ the bridegroom of the people.

Finally Harlequin/Christ brings levity, which is of course humour, fun, dance and sex, but also lightness, the capacity to rise above dullness and death to restore life.

Sydney Carter became so aware of this integration of the ordinary and the holy, the human and the divine,that he was able to represent it vividly without departing from language and music that everyone can understand.

 

 

I’ve been rediscovering the songs of Sydney Carter and printing some of the lyrics in this blog. He often re-interprets incidents from the Bible, as here:

1 Said Judas to Mary, “Now what will you do
with your ointment so rich and so rare?”
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of the Lord
and I’ll wipe it away with my hair,” she said,
“wipe it away with my hair.”

2 “Oh Mary, Oh Mary, oh think of the poor —
this ointment, it could have been sold,
and think of the blankets and think of the bread
you could buy with the silver and gold,” he said,
“buy with the silver and gold.”

3 “Tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll think of the poor
Tomorrow,” she said, “not today;
for dearer than all of the poor in the world
is my love who is going away,” she said,
“my love who is going away.”

4 Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep
today you may do as you will.
Tomorrow you say I am going away,
but my body I leave with you still,” he said,
“my body I leave with you still.”

5 “The poor of the world are my body,’ he said,
“to the end of the world they shall be,
the bread and the justice you give to the poor
you will find you have given to me,” he said,
“you’ll find you have given to me.”

6 “My body will hang on the cross of the world
tomorrow,” he said, “not today,
and Martha and Mary will find me again
and wash all the sorrow away,” he said,
“wash all the sorrow away.”

It’s worth noting that in fact Carter is dealing with three bible stories here: the story of a sinful woman in Luke 7; the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman at Bethany in Matthew 26; and the story of the last judgement in Matthew 25; weaving one new story from the three. This creativity with the Bible continues the habit of the four gospellers in weaving sometimes very different new stories from their common tradition. A story about Jesus is never a true story till you have made it your own.

The use of the folk ballad format of a dialogue allows for brief and vivid characterisation: the penny pinching Judas, envious of the relationship of Mary and Jesus, is rendered irrelevant first of all by Mary and then by Jesus. The human richness of love outweighs all calculation, especially when it is dealing with the grief of separation, so that the poured out ointment is also linked to the anointing of Jesus corpse. These powerful elements are all aready present in the two bible stories about anointing.

It is Carter’s genius to use the parable of the last judgement, where the King reveals that those who have done something for the needy and the outcast have done it for him. Carter links this truth to the image of Christ’s body: the body he leaves to his disciples’ care is the poor, in whom he hangs on the cross of the world. There they can find him and wash his sorrow away.

All this goes beyond orthodoxy. In the bible Christ’s body is identified with the church, which of course Carter knew. He was suggesting that the church’s identity with the body of Christ is only true when it identifies with the poor. The pathos of insisting that Jesus hangs on the cross of the world, is also not orthodox, suggesting that his crucifixion continues, and that the world, as in John’s gospel, is utterly opposed to the way of God.

The whole episode however is created with such a light touch, that the ordinary sinful disciple is helped to rediscover her own love for Jesus and to enter the mystery of his crucifixion while remaining committed to the poor of our world. If this is heresy, let’s have more of it!