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In a recent post on Quaker Pagan Reflections, the blog he shares with his helpmate Cat, Peter Bishop of Mt. Toby (MA) Friends Meeting has given me a phrase which I believe speaks to the heart of Quaker faith and practice.
Peter writes about “how difficult it is to express in words what worshiping in silence means to us,” even across the perceived barriers within Quakerism itself:
I see [some] Friends…using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice. It works for them—works so well, in fact, that if they were asked to give up the particularity of Christian myth, they would feel robbed of their voice, unable to speak about their religious experience at all.
That same Christian language is deeply alienating to [other] Friends, who often come to Quakerism as refugees from Christian churches of the kind Jesus was talking about when he said,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13 NIV)
Talking to one another across this kind of theological divide is hard. It is hard enough that many liberal Friends shy away from talking at all about what happens in worship, afraid of giving offense or of being offended, afraid of being shut down or told to shut up. We worship together in the deep intimacy of silence, but…often we rely on mind-reading when really we need to be talking.
Peter continues by describing the situation in New England Yearly Meeting.
As part of both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, NEYM includes a wide spectrum from the very liberal to the evangelical. In past years, I used to describe us as “teetering on the brink of schism,” but this past year we seemed to push through to a place of greater unity.
The phrase that came out of the 2011 Sessions was “listening in tongues,” and it describes the way liberals and evangelicals can try to hear into one another’s language, metaphors, and mythology, getting down to the root experience of worship that we all share.
There is the key phrase: listening in tongues.
Peter describes clearly the dilemma of all people of benevolent faith in this pluralistic modern world. The first Friends all “spoke Christian”—though in bold and idiosyncratic ways—because all the Europeans of their day shared the common Christian mythos. Now, knowing that people across the world express such faith in many religious and non-religious languages, we long to affirm and embrace them all, yet we often do not know how to hear or to be heard across the boundaries of our differing belief systems.
I experience this dilemma in my own meeting, as well as in the larger non-Quaker world. The predominant mode of public expression both in meeting and among my many friends and colleagues is liberal humanism. Even if individual faith and practice arise for some from private religious experience, these dear folks do as Peter describes so well. They never speak publicly in religious language. They rarely describe whatever faith sustains them in private.
I share this shyness, yet increasingly it leaves me uncomfortable. My discomfort has to do with the disconnect between the way I experience my faith and practice personally and the carefully non-religious language of my meeting and my friends. I am universalist in my beliefs, yet I am also one of those Peter describes as “using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice.”
My father was a Lutheran minister, my mother, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. They were both 1950s liberals. In their parenting they witnessed to a welcoming God who knows no boundaries between people, not a jealous God who imposes orthodoxies. It was therefore easy and natural for Christianity to become my “native language” of faith and practice.
By the time I reached seminary in 1972, though, I was wrestling with Peter’s dilemma. Along with my teachers and fellow students, I was seeing more deeply into the personal and communal realities to which Christian theology and practice at its best can point. Even so, I stumbled over this religion’s perceived exclusion of the non-Christian people whom I had come to know and affirm in college.
More immediately crucial for me, inner truth was finally compelling me to come out as a homosexual man. At that time the Lutheran church did not yet welcome such people into the ministry. After one term I left seminary, found a gay-friendly community in which to live and work, and gradually learned to integrate this essential dimension of myself into my personal and public life. Without intending to, though, in the process of coming out of the gay closet I hid Christianity away in a closet of its own. My faith in God went with me, but for several decades I could not in good conscience use the religious language of my birth.
What brought me back to that language, some years after my becoming a convinced Friend, was the leading to reclaim the religious awareness of my childhood. Not the belief system, but the experience. Doing so revealed to me that the Jesus of my childhood—Jeshua, the historical man of Galilee—is still my master and teacher.
I know privately what such religious metaphors represent for me. I do not mean “master and teacher” in the doctrinally defined Christian sense, nor do I mean it in the mundane sense of a historical “wise man” whose teachings I follow. In the way my brain uses its imaginative powers to symbolize and personify transformative inner experience, it is as if I know Jesus as a person who is still present, teaching me.
Here is Peter’s dilemma on the most intimate level. How do I speak with either orthodox Christians or refugees from Christendom or non-Christians or non-religious people, without their learned associations with “Christian language and Biblical reference points” getting in the way of hearing what I actually long to share with them? How do I hear them past my own assumptions about the deeper meaning of their various languages?
Some years ago on this blog I wrote:
I have come to understand that no religious language, whether in scripture, in doctrine, in written or spoken ministry, or in personal testimony, describes the ultimate Reality in any objective way. Rather, at its best such language can only describe the human experience of interaction with that Reality.
This is not because the Real is unknowable, but because human language is limited. Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.
How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?
This challenge remains at the heart of my efforts to live my faith with others and to help them give voice to their own faiths. How do we teach each other—how do we allow ourselves to be taught—the blessed talent of “listening in tongues”?
The notion in some traditions that saints are just a few especially pure and devout people is countered in others by the notion that any sinner who makes good faith efforts to live in God’s kingdom can be counted among the saints.
When Paul writes to his distant congregations and addresses those letters to the saints, he is not singling out certain particularly faithful members of the church…[He] writes to everyone in the congregation….
The saints are those who live with aching brokenness, great grief or chronic despair and yet know the saving love of the God met in Jesus.
Three years ago on this blog, I wrestled at length with Jesus’ parable of the weeds in the field (sometimes called “the wheat and the tares”).
At the heart of that struggle was my deep doubt that Jesus himself, Yeshua, would center his teaching parables—as Matthew claims in his interpretation of this one (Matt. 13:36-43)—on the matter of who is or is not included in the kingdom.
At the heart of my faith is a visceral awareness that Yeshua challenges us any time we try to exclude anyone based on our human notions of what G-d wants. To me,
Yeshua’s parable focuses upon how we are not to try to determine which are weeds and which, wheat. How we are to nurture the growth of every plant in the field. How it isn’t our business to pluck out those whom we don’t believe should be in the Kingdom.
Another way of considering this matter arises out of a tradition of Pagan Europe. Here’s an excerpt from an old Walhydra’s Porch post about the “Dumb Supper“:
The final harvest [of the year] came right at the cusp of Winter, around October 31st. But this was also when people believed the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest, when those whom Death had harvested could return to share a meal with their loved ones.
In Gaelic, the festival was called Samhain, “Summer’s End.” It was Christianized as All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en), preface to All Saints Day.
Folk gathered for an end-of-season feast to which they believed they could invite the dear departed by setting out extra places of food and wine. The dead could speak through the stories, jokes and laments their survivors told about them. They called it a “Dumb Supper.”
Granted, the dead these folks spoke for were most likely people they knew and cared about. Yet what resonates for me in this practice is the acknowledgment that mortality need not separate us. It is fear of mortality which separates us.
During my counseling career, I sometimes dealt with particularly hurtful behaviors on the part of a clients. I sometimes had to fall back on a counter-intuitive principle of therapy: however hurtful a behavior might be, that person believes there is a good reason for the behavior. The challenge is to help the client discern what that “good reason” is, and then to help him or her find humane means to address the need—or to cope with that need remaining unmet.
It is fear of mortality which separates us.
I believe that, at some level, everything we do which is hurtful to ourselves or others is ultimately motivated by fear of death. Of loss. Of the anticipated pain we imagine death and loss will bring us. Even the person who hurts me or my loved ones most brutally, most sadistically, is at root doing so to “avoid” death.
I’m not excusing anyone by asserting this. What I am doing is challenging myself to let G-d be the judge over if and when and how that person might enter the kingdom.
Meanwhile, I—we, all of us—do our best to sit humbly and tenderly with each other on the friendship bench, waiting for the openings which show us how to forgive and care for each other.
And so it is.
Wilderness and cultivation
“Religion in its purest form is a vast work of poetry.” (Carse, 111)
The first draft of “Weeds” was one long post. It began with my reaction to Matthew’s version of the weeds in the field parable, proceeded immediately with those insights from James Carse which now comprise the second half of Part II, and continued with an exploration of some recent biblical scholarship on the parables of Jesus. Then I got stuck.
Eventually, inner light showed me that I was not being honest with myself or my audience. Reading Carse has led me to significant faith openings. However, in the first draft I was slipping into an academic argument to mask my discomfort with the core metaphor of the parable: the sorting of the “good seeds” from the “weeds.”
Matthew told his first century audience that Jesus had explained his parable secretly to his disciples as an allegory. The good seed, Matthew wrote, are “those to whom Heaven’s domain belongs.” The weeds are “progeny of the evil one,” they are “subverters of the Law” who will be thrown “into the fiery furnace…[where they] will weep and grind their teeth” (Matt. 13:36-43).
By the definitions of almost every Christian belief system, I am one of the subverters of the Law. I am an unrepentant homosexual man, in a lifelong marriage with the man I love. I believe that people of any religion who aspire to follow the Golden Rule are walking in Heaven’s domain. I acknowledge Yeshua as my spiritual master, yet I am agnostic about the divine nature ascribed to him or its significance for humankind.
In particular, I struggle with the Christian doctrine of atonement which argues that G-d requires a sacrifice for human sin which only Jesus’ death can satisfy. What seems far more salutary to me is Yeshua’s incarnation, his having lived a life which fulfilled the divine longing for “mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6a; Matt. 9:13b). His having done so empowers and challenges us to do the same, for he showed that it is humanly possible.
Nonetheless, voicing my doubts publicly is daunting. I cannot affirm yet fear to deny what I was brought up to believe. That fear is part of the syntax of the “native religion” I was given as I first began to fit religious experience into images and concepts and words. Respect for and fear of divine and human authority are empowered and constrained by that syntax.
Or, at least, that is the case until I walk out into the wilderness on my own, without language, to discover divine love hidden there. Then fear becomes awe.
I discover that, despite my fallibility and ego-centeredness, G-d does not wish to destroy me. I was born mortal and finite, so death, suffering and unknowing are merely conditions of existence, not punishments. Instead, horror and amazement, loss and comfort, are all mingled in a living, challenging whole larger than any individual or communitas can know.
Most importantly, I find that I want to bless, rather than curse, as much as I can bless.
Having acknowledged these doubts and fears, I can return to what opened for me in reading James Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief. Once he has established his paradigm of contrasting belief systems and their boundaries with religions and their horizons, Carse argues that the latter are not primarily authoritative systems of doctrinal knowledge. Instead, he writes,
…we must integrate the factor of unknowability into each of our conceptions of religion. This can have a strong effect on our thinking in general: reflecting on the remarkable way the great religions seem to develop an awareness of the unknown keen enough to hold its most ardent followers in a state of wonder, we may begin to acquire the art of seeing the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of our most emphatic certainties. This is not just to develop a new intellectual talent, but to enter into a new mode of being, a “higher ignorance.” (3)
This speaks to my condition.
Higher ignorance does not wholly silence my fear over not being able to live within the walls of orthodox belief. Nonetheless, it assures me that the Divine Unknown of which I am in awe extends beyond those walls and on beyond the horizon.
Higher ignorance tells me that I must take the risk of listening to Yeshua directly. Not clothed in the language of formal Christianity, but naked and exposed in the wilderness, where he knows how to survive.
It was in this mode of being that I listened to the parable of the weeds back in July. I set aside for the moment—because I resist it—Matthew’s allegorical interpretation, yet the story itself remained in inner vision before me.
The first opening I was shown I owe in part to Richard Q. Ford and his 1997 book, The Parables of Jesus: Recovering the Art of Listening. As other contemporary scholars have done, Ford too tries the experiment of temporarily setting aside traditional Christian interpretations of the parables. He wonders, instead, what the slaves, hired laborers, landless peasants and newly urbanized villagers of Yeshua’s historical audience might have heard in those parabolic stories—both what they might have recognized and what might have puzzled them.
Ford’s pivotal insight is that the traditional interpreters—including the Gospel editors themselves—”regularly assume that the economically superior figure represents some aspect of divine intent” (3).
By agreeing with the Gospel editors to establish the economically powerful character as a figure for God, listeners tend to construct black and white patterns of inclusion and exclusion. The superior becomes the source of all resolution while the subordinate remains the repository of all difficulty; the more powerful is revered and the weaker is shouldered with the blame. This bias, steadfastly resisting all evidence of weakness in the superior and strength in the subordinate, has endured for twenty centuries.
Yet if Jesus is the creator of these parables, if his attitude is aptly caught in the aphorism, “Blessed are the destitute,” and if there is historical accuracy in the accounts of his presence among social outcasts, then it would be curious indeed if his imagination excluded representations of God ever from being found among the economically oppressed, preferring instead to locate that presence exclusively among the powerful. (4)
Ford leads me to ask several questions.
What if, instead of Yeshua meaning his parables as answers, he means them as questions? What if, instead of an allegorical “explanation” of G-d’s relationship with “good” or “evil” people, the parable of the weeds is a metaphorical “word problem” about a landowner, his slaves, a suspected yet unidentified enemy, and the dilemma of how to salvage a contaminated crop? What if, instead of saying that the Kingdom is like this person, Yeshua is saying that the Kingdom is like this situation?
In that case, both his first audience and every subsequent audience would be confronted with an insoluble yet compelling mystery: What in the world is it about the Kingdom which Yeshua hints at in the situation of this parable?
One thing Ford’s perspective suggests to me is that the alleged enemy and the slaves are people with their own needs and motives, as important to them as the landowner’s are to him. If we forego the tradition that the owner stands for G-d, we then have to wonder what injury the supposed enemy felt needed to be avenged so subversively. We have to wonder how the slaves feel about this trick played on the man who commands their lives because of their impoverishment and captivity.
Such wondering doesn’t tell me what Yeshua meant by the parable. It does open out the story’s horizon, though. There are other things going on here besides the landowner’s concern about his crop—or G-d’s alleged concern about who might not be “good seed.”
Once I considered Ford’s opening during worship, another occurred to me, one which drew my attention away from concern over how “right belief” relates to being “good seed,” and back to the all-inclusive embrace of Yeshua’s outstretched arms.
The labeling of certain plants as “weeds” is a phenomenon of agriculture. To borrow Carse’s paradigm, cultivated land is a purposefully ordered system. It has carefully drawn boundaries, both its geographical ones and those which define what is “crop” and what is “weed.” Its happier purpose is to feed people. Its secondary purpose—which may or may not involve exploitation of agrarian workers—is to earn a living for those who farm it, or a profit for those who own it, perhaps in absentia.
From the perspective of civitas, that is all there is to it. Anything which disrupts these orderly purposes, anything which creeps in from beyond the boundaries, is a toxic weed, an enemy, an evil.
From the perspective of nature, however, a plant is only a “weed” because human beings name it so when it interferes with the purposes of cultivation. Otherwise, it is simply a hardy plant, earning survival, as any other does, by scattering its seeds wherever it can—including in the best wheat fields. Only in the human agenda does it get labeled “evil.”
Again, this doesn’t tell me what Yeshua meant, yet it opens the story’s horizon even further.
Human community has learned to depend upon the orderedness of cultivation for survival, comfort and prosperity. Just so we have learned to depend upon the orderedness of our beliefs, especially those which speak to the moral and spiritual health of the community. In both cases, natural human intelligence and imagination have created artifices by which we can nurture and sustain that community.
Nonetheless, G-d’s world is not wholly contained within such boundaries. A plant which is not cultivated is not therefore “evil.” The rest of nature, the wilderness parts which seem to be of no use to civitas—or even seem to threaten the temporal borders of civitas—are part of the awe-inspiring mystery around which religious communitas gathers.
Perhaps I am a weed. Even so, I grow from a seed G-d planted, and I grow because of G-d’s light.
On that July Sunday, what I noticed was that Yeshua’s parable focuses upon how we are not to try to determine which are weeds and which, wheat. How we are to nurture the growth of every plant in the field. How it isn’t our business to pluck out those whom we don’t believe should be in the Kingdom.
Perhaps I am a weed.
And so it is.
Religion or belief
In Part I, I laid out a problem—really a faith challenge—presented to me by the parable of the weeds in the wheat field, as told and interpreted in the book of Matthew (13:24-30, 36-43). The significance of this parable for me is that it sets up an irresolvable contrast between the Jesus of Christian theology and Yeshua, the unknown yet world-changing peasant teacher and healer of Roman-occupied first century C.E. Galilee.
It would be easier if I could frame this as an either/or choice and pick between the Christian Jesus and the historical Yeshua. That is not possible. The two are inseparable. Inseparable in part because we know of Yeshua only because of Jesus.
Jesus has been the focus of two thousand years of worship, thought, writing, art, governance and warfare. Our current so-called “culture wars” in America are most commonly understood as forcing the (false) choice between Jesus and Yeshua. We are told that we must accept the “official” Jesus of institutional church belief (but which of the thousands of competing, contentious churches?). Or that we must reject theological notions altogether and consider Yeshua, if we consider him at all, as just a man.
The cognitive and visceral reality of humankind is that we cannot make such choices. Those like myself who were born into Christianity have it as our “native language,” whether or not we still consider ourselves to be Christians. Those not so born have had their lives and cultures influenced by the dominance of Christianity as a political ideology on this planet. And those who style themselves “new atheists” define themselves by rejection of the caricature of Christianity which they use as their straw man.
More basically, what we know of Yeshua is known solely through the sacred stories of first century people, who had seen in what they thought they knew of him a fulfillment of religious and political hopes. Whether we look at the Jesus of Christian sources or the “reconstructed” Yeshua of historical Jesus studies, we do not know—in the modern sense of “know empirically”—who he actually was, what he actually said, or what he actually meant. We can only know how people have understood and described their experience of him.
Time for a confession: that does not concern me.
He is a world-changing mystery. For me he is not, first of all, the Jesus of orthodox doctrine. He is the Yeshua who so profoundly moved, challenged and healed the people who crossed his path. I cannot expunge my native language and do not want to. Yet its boundaries and definitions are too narrow for this man whom I’ve known inwardly since childhood. Uncomfortable with “Christianity,” I nonetheless persist in reaching for Yeshua. Very deep within me I acknowledge the personal authority of this man to teach me how I ought to live my live.
It was in this awkward posture, following Yeshua yet baulking at Christian orthodoxy, that I listened to that lesson and novice Lutheran sermon back in July. As I listened, I already knew both the text from Matthew and the historical context which biblical scholars have reconstructed for it. What I did not yet have was James Carse’s illumination of why I am uncomfortable, and of why it is an essential act of faith to remain attentively within this discomfort.
In The Religious Case Against Belief (2008), Carse analyses the error he sees in most of our arguments over religion. Through compassionate yet incisive examination, he reveals that “what is currently criticized as religion is, in fact, the territory of belief” (book jacket). The distinction, as he defines it, is enlightening.
Belief systems are “comprehensive networks of tenets that reach into every area of thought and action” (32). They claim to define all that needs to be known, they mark the boundary beyond which orthodox thinking must not go, and they name anything and anyone beyond that boundary as enemy.
Religions may produce belief systems, yet “they are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox” (36). Unlike the Roman civitas, a society ruled by law and structured by clear lines of authority, a religion is a communitas stretching across time and space, a “spontaneous gathering of persons who identify themselves and one another as members of a unified body.” Unified, Carse writes, by “the desire…to get to the bottom of the very mystery that brings them together” (84).
While belief systems want only unambiguous answers, the very essence of religions is the continued expansion of the “discursive context,” that process by which communitas perpetually revisits its deepest questions and reinterprets its irresolvable mysteries. What is more, being “able to interpret [religions] ‘properly’ does not require us to get at the very essence of each but to succeed in taking our place in the discursive contexts surrounding them” (100-01).
In this light, Carse writes that sacred texts “demand interpretation, but without any indication of what that interpretation should be.” What counts is the sincere expansion of the dialogues among members of the communitas. “Moreover, there is nothing particularly rational in these extended dialogues. They explain nothing. Their power lies chiefly in the interpreter’s skill at provocation” (199).
That term “provocation” wakes me up. Yeshua, as he reinterpreted the scriptures his listeners all knew from hearing them read each week in synagogue, provoked them to reconsider what was the spirit of the text. Matthew did the same for his contemporaries. Rather than declare that the text means “this and this only,” the rabbinic approach of Yeshua and Matthew was to say, “Look beneath and beyond the boundaries of what you think you know about this. Open yourself to hear new meanings.”
Carse points out that while belief systems are characterized by boundaries, religions are characterized by horizons. However much members of communitas may help each other to extend their “common field of vision,” they always acknowledge that there is more to their mystery than they can possible know beyond the horizon. (107)
Furthermore, Carse notes that religious vision does “not restrict itself to a belief system but that belief systems always fall within the scope of poetic horizons. For this reason, horizons and belief systems are not opposites. They occur simultaneously…. Visionaries…do not destroy the walls, but show the openings through them. They do not promise what believers will see, only that the walls do not contain the horizon” (83).
In Part III, I will share some of the alternative approaches to the parable of the weeds which the openings Carse refers to make available to us, first some from contemporary biblical scholars, and then some from my own ponderings.
[To be continued]
The parable of the weeds in the field
In a July post on Walhydra’s Porch, I built a story around the troublesome contrast between a new Lutheran pastor’s doctrinally correct sermon and the palpable, all-inclusive embrace of an image of Jesus which spreads its arms over the sanctuary where the sermon was preached.
Since then I have read a remarkable new book by James P. Carse called The Religious Case Against Belief (2008). Carse’s valuable central distinctions are reflected in the contrast I just mentioned. Reading him has not resolved my discomfort with that July sermon or the gospel lesson upon which it was based, yet it has given me new ways to open out and explore that discomfort.
[Jesus] spun out another parable for them:
Heaven’s imperial rule is like someone who sowed good seed in his field. And while everyone was asleep, his enemy came and scattered weed seed around in his wheat and stole away. And when the crop sprouted and produced heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The owner’s slaves came and asked him, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then why are there weeds everywhere?” He replied to them, “Some enemy has done this.”
The slaves said to him, “Do you want us then to go and pull the weeds?” He replied, “No, otherwise you’ll root out the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to burn, but gather the wheat into my granary’.”
(The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version,
It was not actually this parable itself which troubled me. Or, rather, the parable troubled me in the way that parables are meant to do, as a deliberately puzzling story, devoid of context or particularity, designed to draw its hearers into a perpetual debate over its meanings.
What troubled me that Sunday, as it always does, was the second half of the lesson, the allegorical interpretation which the author/editor of Matthew contrives to have Jesus share privately with his disciples as an “explanation” of the parable:
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him with this request: “Explain the parable of the weeds in the field to us.”
This was his response: “The one who ‘sows the good seed’ is the son of Adam; ‘the field’ is the world; and ‘the good seed’ are those to whom Heaven’s domain belongs, but ‘the weeds’ represent progeny of the evil one. ‘The enemy’ who sows (the weeds) is the devil, and ‘the harvest’ is the end of the present age; ‘the harvesters’ are the heavenly messengers.
“Just as the weeds are gathered and destroyed by fire—that’s how it will be at the end of the age. The son of Adam will send his messengers and they will gather all the snares and the subverters of the Law out of his domain and throw them into the fiery furnace. People in that place will weep and grind their teeth. Then those who are vindicated will be radiant like the sun in my Father’s domain.
“Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
For most of my adult life, I have resisted Matthew’s portrayal of a Jesus who would cast out some and vindicate others. A Jesus who would instruct the crowds only in parables, yet give his privileged disciples in private “the secrets of Heaven’s imperial rule” (Matt. 13:10-11). Or, more accurately, I have resisted the way institutional Christianity has interpreted and applied Jesus’ words about “sorting out” over the millennia.
I understand now that Matthew was writing in a historical context, interpreting Hebrew scriptures in a way he hoped would minister to his little congregation of proto-Christian Jews. In the years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they had been expelled from the synagogue (Matt. 5:11) over the debate as to who was the true Israel. Was it the rabbinic Jews, the Pharisees, who valued the continuing revelation available through the study of scripture? Or was it those like Matthew’s group, who saw a special role for Jesus as bearer of a unique revelation, the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophetic tradition?
In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006), Karen Armstrong writes that the Pharisees believed
the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law…. [The] essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit…, summed up in the Golden Rule” (453).
One can see how such a transformation of Judaism from a temple-centered religion to one of attentiveness to daily life, contemplation and communal generosity would have been salutary to Jews of the post-Jerusalem Diaspora. Ironically, one can also see how similar the values of rabbinic Judaism, as described by Armstrong, are to those taught by Jesus.
Armstrong adds this:
In Rabbinic Judaism, study was as important as meditation in other traditions. It was a spiritual quest: the word for study, darash, meant “to search,” “to go in pursuit of.” It led not to an intellectual grasp of somebody else’s ideas, but to a new insight. So rabbinic midrash (“exegesis”) could go further than the original text, discover what it did not say, and find an entirely fresh interpretation….
Scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a historical event that had happened in a distant time. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own situation. This dynamic vision could set the world afire.
There were, therefore, no “orthodox” beliefs. Nobody—not even the voice of God himself—could tell a Jew what to think…. (455)
When they spoke of God’s presence on earth, they were careful to distinguish those traits of God that he had allowed us to see from the divine mystery that would always be inaccessible to us…. [The] reality they experienced did not correspond to the essence of the Godhead. No theology could be definitive…. God had, as it were, adapted himself to each person “according to the comprehension of each.” What we call “God” was not the same for everybody. (456)
Meanwhile, in the midst of the Diaspora communities were smaller groups of Jews like those for whom Matthew wrote. Probably for a variety of reasons, these people had been overmastered by the stories and personal witness shared with them by those of the previous generation who had known or heard of a teacher and healer named Yeshua or Yehoshua (Hebrew for Joshua, meaning “the Lord is salvation”; translated into Greek as Iesous, Latin Jesus). For these Jews, Yeshua was a profoundly compelling mashiah (“anointed one”; translated into Greek as christos).
While both Temple ritual and the study of Torah (“the Law”) had been ongoing traditions, Yeshua was the contemporary incarnation of a counterforce in the history of Judaism: the disruptive intrusions of the prophets. These were spirit-filled men who confronted the people when their ritual practice or argument of the Law had become superficially pious behavior, masking their real abuse and neglect of their neighbors.
The prophets had the role of calling people out from such unreflective, habit-bound practice of outward forms, calling them back to a life in which the reality of the mysterious and awesome YHWH (“G-d”) breathed in and through them, even without forms.
For Jews like those in Matthew’s congregation, Yeshua was a man in whom this Spirit (Hebrew ruach, “breath”) walked with unbounded clarity and compassion, yet also with a fierce, unflinching judgment. When he spoke in confrontation, whether gently or with anger, it was not with condemnation or malice, but with that same spiritual clarity.
Look. This is how things really are in G-d’s world. The Law is not commandments, rules to follow. It is—couched in human words and images—simply a description of how we live spontaneously whenever we let ourselves be led by G-d’s Spirit. When we, even for a moment, find ourselves together in the already present Kingdom. “Mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6a).
Imagine, then, a synagogue of Greek-speaking post-Jerusalem Jews, taking refuge in the hope and experience of G-d’s presence in their midst as they hear and interpret their scriptures. Imagine the ferment stirred by those among them who responded with enthusiasm (Greek entheos “possessed”; en– “in” + theos “god”) to the stories of this new prophet, Yeshua. Imagine the distress, uncertainty and conflict at this disruption of a recently regained sense of spiritual security in those communities.
However the conflicts played out across the Diaspora, in various places the rabbinic Jews forced out the Yeshua-followers. And scholars like Matthew, ministering to their expelled fellows, created their own midrash, reinterpreting Hebrew scriptures to place Yeshua in the center of expectations for a new mashiah. It was an effort to assure continuity between the Judaism they knew and this new revelation. It was also an effort to persuade those still in synagogue with their own scriptures.
Yet the hurt of expulsion vibrates through the text. The Pharisees and scholars are recast by Matthew as the “villains” who rejected Yeshua. Whatever actual dealings Yeshua had with such people during his life, Matthew tells us of them through the perspective of one who was expelled from synagogue. When he does his own rabbinic interpretation of Yeshua’s words, when he portrays Yeshua as doing such interpretation, how do we know whether we are hearing Yeshua in his own context or Matthew in his?
Wait, though. Even as I write this, I can recognize the temptation to use this “historical Jesus” perspective on Matthew as a dodge, a way to avoid having to consider the possibility that Yeshua did warn, both directly and in parable, of a sorting out of “weeds” from “wheat” in the community of humankind.
Whatever I may want him to have “really meant,” it is clear that Yeshua voiced scrupulous judgment and gave compassionate yet unwavering warnings to those whom he met personally. I must do as Armstrong says those first century Jews did. I must confront the text, open myself to it, and apply it to my own situation.
In Part II of this series, I will describe how my reading of James Carse has contributed to this process.
[To be continued]