Monday, February 27, 2017

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God


 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.  In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe.  He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.  That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. 

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.  He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.  But as many who received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:  who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before Me.'"  And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace.  For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

- John 1:1-18

As a good preparation for Lent, the lectionary has just taken us through a great deal of the Sermon on the Mount (see the readings from February 20 to February 25).  In Saturday's reading (February 25) Jesus taught:  "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.  And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites.  For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.  And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do.  For they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Therefore, do you not be like them.  For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.  In this manner, therefore, pray:  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.  For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.  Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with  sad countenance.  For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward."

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.   From the very personal message about prayer in Saturday's reading from the Sermon on the Mount, the lectionary takes us to the Prologue of John's Gospel.  Here we learn exactly who Jesus is.  To do that properly, the Gospel begins with in the beginning, bringing us to the creation story in Genesis.  But here, the Gospel speaks of the Creator Himself.  And while Genesis speaks of the first creation, John's Prologue (today's entire reading, verses 1-18) reveals the new creation in Christ.  In Greek, Word is "Logos."   The Word, through which all things were spoken into existence, is the eternal Son of God.  My study bible points out to us that was indicates existence without reference to a starting point.  It emphasizes the Word's eternal existence without beginning.  Logos has overlapping meanings in Greek.  It can mean "wisdom," "reason," and "action" as well as word.  Each of these are attributes of the Son of God.  That the Word was with God tells us about the Persons of the Trinity; while the Son is a distinct Person from the Father He is also in eternal communion with the Father.  That the Word was God teaches us of the co-equal and co-eternal nature of God the Son and God the Father; the Son is of the same divinity as the Father.  This was in the beginning; from a time before there was time; there wasn't a "time" when the Son was not with the Father.

All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.  The Word is co-Creator with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6, 9; Hebrews 1:2) and not just an instrument or servant used by the Father.  My study bible says that will, operation, and power are one in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The heavens and earth are the works of the One who made them, while the Son was not made but is eternally begotten of the Father, as we say in the Creed.

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  My study bible says that only God has life in Himself.  Therefore, the Word, being God, is the source of life, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  In saying that the life was the light of men, John introduces human beings or mankind as receiver of the divine light.  By participating in the life of the Son, says my study bible, believers become children of the light (12:36; Ephesians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:5).  Moses saw the divine light in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2); the whole nation of Israel saw it at the Red Sea (Exodus 13:21); Isaiah saw it in his heavenly vision (Isaiah 6:1-5); and three apostles saw it at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-5). 

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.  Darkness has to be understood as a theological term, of particular importance to the earliest Church.  It indicates both spiritual ignorance and satanic opposition to the light.  Those who hate truth prefer ignorance for themselves and strive to keep others ignorant as well, says my study bible (see 3:19).  Like the word in English, the Greek word translated as comprehend means both to "understand" and to "overcome" (or to "take in").  Therefore, darkness can never overpower the light of Christ, nor can it understand the way of love.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe.  He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.  That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.   The man sent from God, whose name was John refers to John the Baptist (not the author of this Gospel).  My study bible tells us that Christ offers light to every person, but the world and even many of His own refuse to receive Him; thus, they can neither know nor recognize Him. 

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.  He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.  But as many who received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:  who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.  The right to become children of God:  Here, right means "authority."  It indicates a gift from God, not an inalienable right.  Those who receive Christ become children of God by adoption (Galatians 4:4-7) and by grace they inherit everything that Christ is by nature.  My study bible says that to believe in His name is to believe in Him who in His humanity took the name Jesus as Word, Son, Messiah, and Savior.  To be adopted as a child of God is no matter of ethnic descent (of blood) as in the Old Testament, nor are we children of God by natural birth (the will of the flesh), nor by a human being's own decision (the will of man).  To become a child of God is a spiritual birth by grace, says my study bible; that is, through faith and in the Holy Spirit.  It is accomplished and manifested in the sacrament of Holy Baptism (3:5-8; see Titus 3:4-7). 

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before Me.'"   That the Word became flesh clarifies the manner in which the Son and Word of God came to His people, and points specifically to the Incarnation.  Christ the Word became fully human without ceasing to be fully God.  As Jesus He assumed complete human nature, says my study bible:  body, soul, will, emotion, and even mortality.  That is everything that pertains to humanity except sin.  Christ is God and man in one Person; as such, He pours divinity into all of human nature.  Anything not assumed by Christ would not have been healed.  When the text says that He dwelt among us, this is translated from specific words once again alluding to God's work among His people in the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament, God's presence dwelt in the ark of the covenant and later on in the temple.  This word used for dwelt in the Greek means literally "tented" or "tabernacled."  Here the eternal Word comes to dwell in and among humanity itself.  (We are reminded of St. Paul's words that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit - 1 Corinthians 6:19.)  His glory refers both to His divine power shown by the signs in the Gospel and also wonders (2:11; 11:4, 40), and to His service in humility to mankind, perfected on the Cross (12:23-32; 13:31).  In all these ways, He reveals that He is the One sent from the Father.  That He is the only begotten of the Father states that He has no beginning, but has the Father as His source from eternity.  Only begotten tells us that there is no other born from the Father (the Holy Spirit also exists eternally but through another mystery named "procession;" see 15:26).  My study bible says that the phrase full of grace and truth qualifies both the Word and His gloryGrace is the uncreated energy of Christ that is given to us through His love and mercy.  Truth includes His faithfulness to His promises and covenants and to the reality of His words and gifts. 

And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace.   For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  My study bible tells us that in saying we have all received of His fullness, the Scriptures confirm that God's grace can fill human nature to the extent of deifying it.  This is holiness shared with human beings, what it truly means to be adopted in spirit.  We become God's children by grace (10:34-35) without ceasing to be human beings.  An ancient example in the Church likens it to a metal object thrust into fire.  It takes on the properties of fire (such as heat and light) without ceasing to be metal.  In this sense human nature is permeated by God and takes on properties of the divine nature.  (These qualities are linked to the blessings of the Kingdom Jesus proclaims in the Beatitudes.)  Grace for grace is a Semitic expression which signifies an overabundance of grace.  

No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.  No one can see the nature, or essence, of God, for to see God is to die (Exodus 33:20), my study bible reminds us.  So only One who is Himself divine can see God; the Son is therefore only One who can declare Him.  This revelation of God's energies can be received by the faithful.  Moses saw the "back" of God (Exodus 33:21-23); Isaiah saw His glory (see Isaiah 6:1; John 12:41).

God comes and dwells among us.  But this isn't just "God," it is Logos, the Word, the Son of God.  The intimacy of the relationship that the Son has with the Father will be shared with us.  We will be eligible for such intimacy by adoption, through grace.  We can't know God as God knows God, "face to face," as the Scriptures put it.  But we can know God in a different way, as children to a Father.  It is the Incarnation of Christ that makes this all possible for us.  It is this great, extraordinary, superlative gift that Christ brings us, and John's Gospel introduces to us.  This is a work of love.  John is the evangelist of love.  It is in one of His letters that we are told that God is love (1 John 4:7-8).  Therefore John begins from the true beginning, before time, to tell us just Who has come to us as human being, and what He is here to give us, what He shared with His disciples, of which they have all received, and grace for grace.  John the Evangelist ties in Old Testament and New when he tells us that there was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  This is John the Baptist, the last in the line and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, of whom several of Christ's first disciples (including the Evangelist himself) were first disciples and sent to Christ.  Everything comes together here.  But what we truly need to remember is that so great and mighty a God loves us with the intimacy of our Father -- Who, as we read in the Sermon on the Mount (in Saturday's reading) Jesus teaches is in the secret place and who sees in secret.  Christ comes to bring the heights of unthinkable divinity to us as individuals, to our hearts, to the secret place where we meet God in prayer.  This is the whole of the Incarnation, revealed in love and given to us as a gift that surpasses all possible gifts and will never stop giving to us.  Let us pay attention.



Saturday, February 25, 2017

When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly


 "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites.  For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.  And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do.  For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

"Therefore, do you not be like them.  For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.  In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Amen.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with  sad countenance.  For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward."

- Matthew 6:1-16

We've been reading through the Sermon on the Mount.  We began with the Beatitudes, the blessings of the Kingdom.  Then Jesus taught about true righteousness for His disciples, the fulfillment of the Law.  He then spoke of the statute against murder, and the righteousness of His fulfillment, and about the Law and divorce, the inner workings of covetousness, and personal integrity.   In yesterday's reading, He taught, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'   But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?  Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

 "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."  We begin chapter 6 as Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount.  Having taught about the righteousness of the Kingdom and the Law, in this chapter He speaks about three traditional aspects of spiritual life:  charitable giving, prayer, and fasting.  Here, He uses the word hypocrite to express His emphasis on the deeper aspects of these practices.  Hypocrite originally meant "actor" in the Greek; it literally means "under a mask," as in the ancient theater.  My study bible says that hypocrites are play-actors practicing piety for show, desiring to please other people rather than God.  They may outwardly wear masks of compassion, but inwardly they are heartless.  Their reward is the applause of others, and nothing more.  It adds that God isn't impressed by what others think about us, nor about what we think of ourselves.  The reward is to good deeds based on pure motives of the heart.

"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites.  For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.  And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do.  For they think that they will be heard for their many words."  Hypocrites miss the spirit of prayer, which my study bible describes as an intimate and personal communion with God that leads to the vision of His glory (1 Corinthians 2:9).  It says that hypocrisy blocks out this communication, and this vision.  Vain repetitions don't establish this type of communion; God doesn't need babbling words.   To partake of this communion requires both silence and words.  So we pray always (Luke 18:1) and without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  It's not that Christ condemns many words, but that words must truly express the desire for communion with God.  In the next verses, Jesus does give us specific words to repeat (the Lord's Prayer), and so we note, it's not repetition per se that is a problem - it's "vain" repetition.  Psalms, prayers, and hymns have been repeated for countless generations even as we seek to worship God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23).  My study bible also says that true prayer isn't telling God what God already knows and then telling God what He should do about it.  It's not appearing pious in front of other people.  It's humble (go into your room), personal (pray to your Father), and sincere (do not use vain repetitions).

"Therefore, do you not be like them.  For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.  In this manner, therefore, pray:  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  My study bible says here that the Father-Son relationship within the Trinity reveals our potential relationship with God.  Christ, the true Son of God, gives us the privilege of calling God our Father by grace of adoption (Galatians 4:4-7).   As a "son of God" (that is, one who inherits), a Christian is called to love, trust, and serve God as Christ does the Father, my study bible tells us.  Let us note the importance of communion here, of relationship.  God isn't our Father only because He created us.  He is Father in a saving, personal relationship of love, a communion that comes by the grace of adoption (see John 1:13; Romans 8:14-16).  In these words, we see the closeness of communion; what we pray for is God's will to be thorough, in all places in heaven and on earth.

"Give us this day our daily bread."  The word translated as daily is ἐπιούσιος/epiousios in Greek.  It literally means "above the essence" or "supersubstantial."  Clearly it reflects the reality of the eucharistic bread, Christ Himself.  To pray thus for our daily bread means that we don't pray simply for daily nourishment - bread for this day.  It's the bread for the "eternal day of the Kingdom of God," my study bible puts it.  That is, the nourishment of our immortal soul.  The living supersubstantial bread is Christ (John 6:5).  In the Lord's Prayer, my study bible tells us, we don't ask merely for material bread for physical health, but rather for the spiritual bread of eternal life (John 6:27-58).

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."  This request to be forgiven is plural -- we're to pray always for the forgiveness of others.  Debts refers to spiritual debts.

"And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen."  God tempts no one to sin, says my study bible (see James 1:13).  But temptations do come from the evil one, the devil.  Temptations are aimed at the soul's giving in to sinful or selfish passions of the flesh (Romans 7:5).  None of us lives without temptations, but we pray not to encounter temptation or tests beyond what we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). 

"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."  Here Jesus poses mutual forgiveness as a precondition of God's forgiveness.  Those who don't forgive aren't forgiven.  Jesus will repeat this same teaching in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:21-35).  My study bible says that to not forgive others is to willfully flee from the forgiveness of God for ourselves.

"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with  sad countenance.  For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward."  As we come upon Lent, this is a good thing to think about.  Fasting practices are designed to help us to understand not only discipline, but that we are capable of saying no to the things that tempt us, to forego things we may desire for the love of God.  To keep a sad countenance or to show off one's fasting is once again a mere external display that has nothing to do with the point of the practice.  My study bible says that for the one who fasts, the compassion of God outshines physical discomfort.  In the tradition of the Church there are both seasons of fasting and seasons of feasting.

There is a lot to consider in today's reading.  But we do note that Jesus emphasizes the personal nature of relationship or communion with God.  Jesus does not speak about praying to the Almighty, or the Lord.  Instead, it is a deeply personal relationship that He speaks about.  He tells His disciples, "But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."  He speaks to them of "your Father," and repeats those words twice.   And what He says conveys the deepest intimacy.   To go into one's room, to shut the door, to pray to "your Father who is in the secret place" and "your Father who sees in secret" conveys yet another layer of intimacy.  Let us note that although generally speaking He addresses His disciples in the plural, here the "you" (of your Father) is singular.  That again gives us a further depth of intimacy.  All of this ties in with Jesus' teachings against hypocrisy in spiritual practices, because it's the depth of the relationship that makes faith a true richness of the heart.  Jesus speaks of One-to-one intimacy, in the deepest and most secret places both of God who is and who sees in the secret place, and our own secret place, so to speak.    These are the hidden places of the heart.  The word for room here in the Greek is ταμεῖον/tameion, which implies an inner chamber both for refuge or privacy and for storing treasure, one's cherished goods or wealth, things of value.  (In modern Greek, it's used as the word for cash register.)  This is the real depth Christ calls us to in relationship.  Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in his book Beginning to Pray teaches us also about intimacy in prayer.  Jesus speaks to each disciple in telling them to pray to "your Father."  Bloom encourages us also to find our private word for God.  He uses the example of David who, having addressed God in formal tones, bursts out in a psalm "You, my Joy!"  (see Psalm 42:4, "God my exceeding joy").  Repeatedly in the Psalms we encounter other words for God that express an intimacy of experience:  "my shield," "my strength,"  "my refuge," "my deliverer," "my salvation."  Jesus' own life teaches us about His intimacy with the Father, to which He calls each of us in our own inner rooms, in the privacy of the closed door, with our Father in the secret place who sees in secret.  Let us find our own way there and know the trust, joy, and refuge we may also find.





Friday, February 24, 2017

He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust


 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'   But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. 

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?  Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

- Matthew 5:38-48

We are currently reading through the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapter 5.  We began with the Beatitudes, the blessings of the Kingdom.  Then Jesus taught about true righteousness for His disciples, the fulfillment of the Law.  He then spoke of the statute against murder, and the righteousness of His fulfillment.   "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.  Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'  But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.  Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.'  But I say to you, do not swear at all:  neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.  But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.'  For whatever is more than these is from the evil one."

 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'   But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away."  As we continue the discussion of the fulfillment of the Law, Christ's righteousness for His disciples, we turn to concepts of justice.   He contrasts the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21), Jesus warns not to resist violence simply with reciprocal violence.  Evil, says my study bible, can only be overcome by good, which keeps us free from compromise with the devil and can bring our enemy under the yoke of God's love.  What this requires is discernment, a detachment from the merely "worldly" and a depth of bond to God's love.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?  Do not even the tax collectors do so?"  My study bible tells us about detachment and self-mastery.  If we're freed from hate, sadness, and anger, we are able to receive the greatest virtue:  perfect love, it tell us.  The love of enemies isn't merely emotion; it includes decision and action.  (See 1 John 4:7-21.)

"Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."  My study bible says this is the summary statement of all that has preceded it.  We grow in the perfection of the Father (Ephesians 4:13), which is shown by imitating his love and mercy (compare Luke 6:36). 

Jesus' righteousness of the Kingdom doesn't merely go "beyond" the Law in a simplistic sense.  What it does is go to the depths of the Law, to the fulfillment of the Law, as He has put it.  The purpose of the Law is a good society, good communion, relationships.  It begins with the love of God, and through the love of God we learn how we are to love one another.  He more or less says this completely, when He tells us, "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."  We may look at the commands in today's reading and see them simplistically as a formula for being taken advantage of, or for failing to protect ourselves.  But I think that is a perspective that separates His teachings once again into "mere commands" and loses sight of what it is to be a part of a communion, to begin with the love of God the Father and to participate in that love.  Jesus is not calling for us to present ourselves for abuse.  Rather, He is teaching us that our number one priority is focus on God's love and sharing that love.  That love also includes discernment and good judgment, not foolishness.  To detach from merely reciprocal violence is perhaps the wisest thing one can know, because it allows us not only to judge and discern what might be best in all circumstances, but it also allows us time to seek God's way and not merely to react.  That focus enables us to stay within the righteousness of the Kingdom, to live out that discipleship and its priorities, not worldly priorities of vengeance.  It is a different sense of justice to seek true discernment and what is best for community -- no matter what the community.   There may be those who have harmed and hurt us, but in seeing real need even in such a person, we may discover our circumstances strangely altered -- with an opportunity for showing grace.  We hold in mind that God makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  To what purpose for us?  In multiple teachings, Jesus emphasizes that we refrain from vengeance, from reciprocal action and aggression.  This is the most basic teaching we remember, because it sets us free to find wisdom instead, a better way.  In all things, we remember that vengeance isn't ours; that, too, belongs to God (Romans 12:19).  Instead we have the God of love to follow, the One who leads us to discernment and wisdom, the better way.    None of us is born knowing perfectly how to love.  It is a long journey learning to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.  But Jesus shows us the way.



Thursday, February 23, 2017

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell


 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

"Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'  But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.'  But I say to you, do not swear at all:  neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.  But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.'  For whatever is more than these is from the evil one."

- Matthew 5:27-37

We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapter 5.  We began with the Beatitudes, the blessings of the Kingdom.  Jesus then taught about the righteousness of the Kingdom.  In yesterday's reading, He began to explain what this means, how it is a depth and fulfillment of the Law:  "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire.  Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny."

 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  My study bible says that the issue here isn't the God-given mutual attraction of men and women, but rather the selfish promptings of lust.  Sin, it tells us, doesn't come out of nature but rather out of the distortion of nature for self-indulgence.  The thoughts that enter our minds involuntarily are not sins.  Rather they are temptations.  They only become sins when they are held and entertained.

"If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell."  Jesus uses the analogy of an eye or hand as sin that is nurtured and indulged beyond temptation.  In a certain sense, the analogy holds even further:  when we are covetous we cast an eye upon and view things or people a certain way.  A hand may wish to reach out and take what isn't rightfully or properly truly ours.  Habitual thoughts or desires can feel so much a part of ourselves that they are like a hand or eye.  In this sense Jesus is encouraging each one of us to decisive action to avoid sin.  The analogy acknowledges the difficulty, but it also stresses the need and the cost of the failure to do so.

"Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'  But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery."  Jesus repeatedly addresses the question of divorce in the Gospels (see this recent reading from Mark's Gospel).  Under Mosaic Law, there was very easy access to divorce for Jewish men.  But Jesus condemns divorce in light of what He sees as misuse of the Law.  Instead, He emphasizes the eternal nature of marriage and the depth of the marriage bond.  He does allow for divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality, teaching us how sin can destroy relationships.

 "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.'  But I say to you, do not swear at all:  neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.  But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.'  For whatever is more than these is from the evil one."  My study bible says that trust cannot be secured by swearing an oath by the things that aren't truly in our possession anyway.  It's only simple integrity in which trust is based.  If we studiously pay attention to Jesus' communication, we see that He embodies this Himself.

In each of Jesus' teachings, we can see that sin is a kind of toxin.    It poisons the well of relationships, of communion.  The things Jesus addresses all seem to have to do with depth of communion and relationship.  Marriage is a bond given by God.  In some sense, all communion is a reflection of Jesus' teaching on the two great commandments (see this recent reading from Mark's Gospel).  The first is a love of God with all one's being, the second love of neighbor as oneself.  That is, our participation in the love of God via the communion of faith allows us to share in that love with others.  Marriage as sacrament given by God to create a depth of communion ("the two shall become one flesh") is one example of the two great commandments at work.  But sin can destroy any relationship; it is in itself a kind of distance and separation from God, a reflection of such.  Selfishness poisons that well of love, the ties we have with others.  Whether we speak of murder and the things that are like it (as in yesterday's reading), or a thoughtless approach to marriage that treats one partner as possession one may discard, these behaviors harm love and community.  The sort of lust Jesus speaks about is a kind of covetousness that doesn't respect the real nature of communion either, not in social terms and not in personal terms.  It treats human beings as commodities rather than persons.  In addition, Jesus speaks about swearing oaths to prove or bolster one's truthfulness.  But what it all comes down to is personal integrity.  This is the stuff of true relationship -- within oneself, with God, and with others.  If one's word is one's bond, if "yes" means "yes" and "no" means "no," then we're speaking of the possibility of trust.  And trust is everything.  It is even the real root of faith.  This sort of integrity is related to purity of heart, a lack of duplicity, where what one is on the inside is what one sees on the outside.  To be tempted to magnify anything beyond this true wealth of integrity is to endanger the bonds we have with others based in that capacity for trust rooted in such a character.  All things come back to this, where we put our trust, and how others -- even God -- may put trust in us.  It starts with the heart, the place from which we discard that which poisons the well, and the place where we align with that which develops and builds love in all its forms.  Jesus offers us a choice in His vision of righteousness.







Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment


 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire.  Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny."

- Matthew 5:21-26

We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapter 5.  It began with the Beatitudes, the blessings of the Kingdom.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus continued:  "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.  You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.  Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire."  In yesterday's reading, Jesus spoke of the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, and also the fulfillment of the Law.  Here He begins to spell out what He means, beginning with the statute against murder.  My study bible tells us that the formula but I say to you is a statement of total, divine authority (7:29).  Jesus in His divinity as Son is Creator of man and also the Lord, the Author of the Law, thereby Christ can speak with this authority.  My study bible identifies an anger which is not sinful (Psalm 4:4, Mark 3:5), but notes that Jesus here is forbidding sinful anger and identifying it with murder.  The council is the supreme legal body among the Jews.  Hell (γέενναν/Gehenna in Greek) is the final condition of sinners who resist God's grace.  Raca is a term of contempt that means "empty" - implying stupidity.  The Greek word translated as fool is μωρός/moros, from which the English word moron is derived.

"Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."  My study bible says that peace with other believers is a requirement for worship (Mark 11:25).  The liturgical "kiss of peace" (sometimes called "fellowship") which comes at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer is a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness.  This is preparing the faithful to offer the holy gifts at the altar (1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Peter 5:14). 

"Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny."  In Luke's Gospel, this teaching comes in the context of the end of the age (Luke 12:57-59).  Here, however, my study bible notes it is in the context of reconciliation surrounding the Liturgy.  A delay in reconciliation allows for the spread of animosity and other evils (Ephesians 4:26-27).

The words that Christ uses to describe an angry rebuke may seem rather tame to us these days.   "Raca!" an Aramaic term implying emptyheadedness, may seem like the least of the words we hear nowadays thrown around at adversaries.  "You fool!" would possibly be a pleasant alternative to some of the discourse that passes for dialogue in certain contemporary contexts.  What Jesus makes clear here is the demeaning nature of such anger.  That is, these are insults designed to tear down a whole person.  They are not expressions of disagreement over specific things, and there is a difference between an anger that seeks to destroy a person and one that seeks correction or to right a wrong.  In this sense, these words imply murder -- they imply a desire for murder.  Modern psychology increasingly confirms the harm done to people through words, through insults.  They are a form of abuse.  But in the context of a communion between people, or even a society, they poison the well.  This sort of sinful anger brings something toxic into the body of whatever circle of people we may be speaking about.  We note also that Jesus says, "without a cause," another aspect of anger that tends to magnify our fears of things that have not actually happened.   My study bible points out that Christ is speaking to His disciples, and thereby within the context of the Church itself.  At least there, perhaps, we may start with learning to address differences in a peaceful way, one in which the judgment of a person -- and all the words and epithets that go along with an expression of such a judgment -- is left to God.  Disagreement about issues and behaviors is always going to be with us.  Let us learn to focus on those, rather than the vilification of persons.  It would go a long way to create peace and a functional society in any setting, whether that be a family, a community group, a parish, or the wider body of the Church -- even the world.  With love, we need not be afraid of our differences.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven


 "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.

"You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

- Matthew 5:13-20

Yesterday, we began reading in Matthew's Gospel.  The lectionary takes us to chapter 5.  This is the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes, or the blessings of the Kingdom.  Seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.  Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

 "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men."  Jesus has named the blessings of discipleship in the The Beatitudes (above, yesterday's reading).  He now describes the role of disciples in the world, using metaphors of salt and light.  Salt held the greatest importance in the ancient world, in ways many of us may have forgotten. Salt has preservative powers, it's necessary for life, and also had religious and sacrificial significance.  (See Leviticus 2:13; also Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5).  To eat salt with someone meant to be bound together in loyalty, my study bible tells us.  If Christians are the salt of the earth, therefore, they are the preservers of God's covenant, as well as giving true flavor to the world.  Salt may lose its flavor through humidity; the particular molecule of salt being leached out through moisture. 

"You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."  God is the true and uncreated Light, says my study bible, and all light is reflected from this Source.  In the Old Testament, light is symbolic of God (Isaiah 60:1-3), the divine Law (Psalm 119:105), and Israel as a contrast to all other nations.  In the New Testament, the Son of God is called "light" (John 1:4-9, 8:12; 1 John 1:5).  We need light in order to see clearly and for life itself.  Faith relies on divine light to see clearly, to be illumined with wisdom.  In living our faith, believers become "sons of light," through participation and communion (John 12:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:5).  Such light shines in a perverse world (Philippians 2:15).  At Easter, many of the Eastern churches begin the liturgy with a candle presented to all, and the invitation:  "Come receive the Light which is never overtaken by night."  Jesus makes it clear here that the blessings of discipleship don't work simply for us as individuals, but become that light that shines in the world and are therefore shared with others.  In so doing, virtue becomes not simply personal but also public.  My study bible says that in living discipleship, virtue can bring others to glorify the Father.

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill."  My study bible says that Jesus fulfills the Law in Himself, in His words, and in His actions in several ways.   He performs God's will in all its fullness (Matthew 3:15).  He transgresses none of the precepts of the Law (John 8:46; 14:30).  He declares further along in this Sermon the perfect fulfillment of the Law, and He grants to us righteousness, which is the goal of the Law (Romans 3:31; 8:3-4; 10:4).  He fulfills the Prophets by being and carrying out what they have foretold. 

"For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled."    Assuredly is translated from the original text in which Jesus begins His statement with the word "Amen."  It means "truly" or "confirmed," or "so be it."  It's a solemn affirmation used here by Jesus as a kind of oath pertaining to what He is about to say.   At various times in the Gospels Jesus uses "Amen" at the beginning of certain proclamations (rather than at the end).  My study bible calls this usage by Jesus unique and authoritative:  He declares His words are affirmed before they are even spoken.  A jot ("iota" in the Greek)is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet; a tittle is the smallest stroke in some Hebrew letters. Thereby, the whole of the Law is affirmed as the foundation of Jesus' new teaching.  All is fulfilled, says my study bible, refers to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. 

"Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."    My study bible says that righteousness according to the Law is a unified whole.  What that means is that the observance of the least commandments is to observe the whole Law, while a violation of the least commandment is considered a violation of the whole Law.  In our future readings, we will read the commandments Jesus is speaking up, His new commandments that take us deeper into an understanding of righteousness.

In yesterday's reading, Jesus prepared the way in the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount by teaching us the Beatitudes, the blessings of the Kingdom.  That is, He gave us discipleship as the blessed way of life.  These blessings are not material.  They transcend circumstances.  They come from a lived faith, and grow as we deepen our communion with Him, and continue a life of participation in His love:  this kingdom of Father, Son, Spirit and the whole of the communion of saints.  Life in the Kingdom must grow our own blessedness:  the comfort that comes to those who mourn, our understanding of what it is to be pure in heart, poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be peacemakers, to be merciful, and all those things that become the spiritual fruits of discipleship.  In these things we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  He invites us to grow in these things, sharing them with the world, glorifying God -- and building up that glory in those who will also accept it around us.  This is a very different picture of what we commonly call blessings, but it is the blessedness of the Kingdom, of life in the Kingdom as we live in this world.  And this is what He assures His followers:  that living such a life is indeed finding the full righteousness of the Law, a righteousness that even the scribes and Pharisees don't know.   He will go much further as He continues with His sermon in teaching us exactly what that kind of righteousness looks like.  But above all else, we have His life in the world as fulfillment of such, as a kind of record and example, a fulfillment of all righteousness -- so that we, too, may share in such.   Ultimately, to fulfill such righteousness through Christ becomes a job for each one of us, and He is laying out the way, His Way.  To become the living salt of the earth, or the light of the world begins within us, not "out there" with what we think can be fixed.  Let us be attentive.





Monday, February 20, 2017

Blessings of the Kingdom


 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.  Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

- Matthew 5:1-12

On Saturday our reading was in Mark's Gospel (12:35-44), which describes events taking place during Holy Week, in the temple in Jerusalem.   Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, "How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David?  For David himself said by the Holy Spirit:  'The LORD said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool."'  Therefore David himself calls Him 'Lord'; how is He then his Son?"  And the common people heard Him gladly.  Then He said to them in His teaching, "Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.  These will receive greater condemnation."  Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury.  And many who were rich put in much.  Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans.  So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood."

 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.   In today's reading the lectionary takes us to Matthew's Gospel, and we begin with chapter 5.  This is the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus begins with what are called The Beatitudes.  They are a description of the blessedness of life in the Kingdom; that is, the blessedness of discipleship.  My study bible calls them the joys of discipleship, the blessed way of life.  It says, "The people of God await the rewards Jesus promises in this section."  In the Old Testament, it adds, only a select few were chosen to hear God directly.  But here, God Incarnate speaks to the multitudes face to face.  The mountain is a place where divine action enters into human history -- this is where God reveals Himself to human beings (17:1; Genesis 22:2; Exodus 3:1; 3 Kings 18:20).  To be seated is the traditional Jewish position for teaching with authority.

Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  We often associate blessedness with material prosperity or happiness, but that's not really what it means.  Blessedness is about a spiritual state of being that has to do with holiness; it conveys here a spiritual exaltation, a spiritual gift.  "Poor" in Hebrew, says my study bible, means both those who are materially poor and also the faithful God's people.  The poor in spirit are therefore those who have the heart of the poor.  That is, the same attitude of humility or modesty and dependence upon God.  Consider then what gratitude means in this context. 

"Blessed are those who mourn, or they shall be comforted." My study bible says that those who mourn sorrow over the sufferings of this life (9:23), the sufferings of others (John 11:35), the state of the world (Luke 19:41), and their own sins (Luke 7:36-38).  All of these are therefore comforted by the power of God in the present time and in the age to come.  My study bible adds that holy sorrow is part of repentance, conversion, and virtuous action -- and therefore the firstfruit of infinite joy, the road of faith.  This is as distinguished from ungodly sorrow, which is one that leads to despair (2 Corinthians 7:10).

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  Meekness, says my study bible, is an attitude of being content with both honor and dishonor.  It's an imitation of Christ, who said, "Learn from Me, for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart" (11:29).  Those who are meek are God-controlled and have mastery over their passions, a note tells us, particularly anger.  Meekness isn't passive weakness but rather strength directed and under control.  What we must notice about these blessings is that they are those things that God shares with us:  God's "meekness" is absolute power used without undue harshness, with love and mercy.  The earth that the meek will inherit isn't power or worldly possession, but rather the new earth which is everlasting (Revelation 21:1). 

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."  To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to desire the presence of God and God's kingdom as deeply as one desires all else that sustains life, and to put it first.  My study bible says such people have a desperate craving for what is right before God, the way a starving person craves food.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."  My study bible calls mercy love set in motion, expressed in action.  In God's mercy, He took on our sufferings in order to grant us His Kingdom and set us free from the evil one.  In light of God's mercy, we practice mercy to be "like God."  This will not be the last time Jesus teaches us about this form of exchange, and the need to practice and learn to express that which we desire to receive for ourselves.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."  Pure means unmixed, unadulterated -- not compromised or stained with anything else.  The pure in heart are those devoted to God with whole heart, and don't accept to compromise in lives that serve, worship, and love as God asks.  My study bible says that with the help of the Holy Spirit, those who have this depth of pure hearts will practice virtue, have no conscious evil in themselves, and seek to live in temperance.  We may all strive for this.  A note reads, "When the soul's only desire is God, and a person's will holds to this desire, then that person will indeed see God everywhere."  Jesus frequently speaks of such depth of the heart, and it is exemplified in those whose faith He singles out, such as perhaps the poor widow in yesterday's reading (above).

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."  As Christ is the source of peace, says my study bible, He found no price sufficient for peace than shedding His own blood.  In doing so, He reveals Himself as Reconciler, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6; Ephesians 2:14-16).  Peace is also a gift of the Holy Spirit (as we understand about all the Beatitudes), and it comes to those who imitate Christ.  Peacemakers are those who share God's peace with those around them, in imitation of Christ's love and participating in His work.  (Thereby is peace also related to the two great commandments.)  By God's grace, says my study bible, peacemakers become sons of God themselves. 

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  My study bible tells us that children of God uphold truth, refuse to compromise with the ways of the world, and give themselves to no other (6:24, 33; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Like Jesus, such people will also be persecuted for righteousness sake (John 15:18-20).  Christ's kingdom, a note reads, is the crown awaiting the righteous.  To dwell in the kingdom of heaven isn't about a future far off happening; it is about living that life of righteousness in this world, even when it means persecution at the hands of the "worldly."

"Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."  Those who suffer persecution for Christ, says my study bible, are those who walk the road of the prophets, saints, and martyrs.   To be exceedingly glad is to exult; the Greek word literally comes from that which means to jump for joy.   (See Acts 5:40-41.)

 The Beatitudes tell us about the blessedness of the Kingdom.  That is, what it truly means to be blessed as a disciple.  We note that none of these things promised by Christ are material goods.  Rather, He even includes persecutions as part of the blessings, when He speaks of rejoicing and being exceedingly glad when one is reviled and persecuted, and spoken of in slanderous ways for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of righteousness.  These blessings are akin to the fruits of the Spirit, which St. Paul writes are "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).  St. Paul adds, "Against such there is no law."  To live the life of the Kingdom while still in this world is living the life of discipleship -- no less than that.  As such the blessings one accrues are the blessings of heaven, of the things that are a part of holiness.  They are the realities in which we may participate in communion with Christ and with the "great cloud of witnesses," the whole of the kingdom of heaven.  These are transcendent realities that sometimes seem completely incongruous with worldly circumstances.  Here is where we find joy that comes in travail or persecution when it comes for the sake of righteousness.  Here is where we find peace that passes understanding.  It is of this blessedness that Christ tells the disciples at the Last Supper that He gives His them His word, that "My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11).  He tells them, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).   These are all hallmarks of a transcendent reality in which we may participate, with which we are in communion, even as we live our worldly lives.  And that is the blessedness of which He speaks here, the life of discipleship, the life of the Kingdom.  These are the realities that add everything to our lives, that will color what we are all about, no matter the walk of life and whatever the path is that we follow in discipleship to Him.  One can live in lavish material circumstances and be miserable, as modern life has taught so many.  But to live with His purpose, His wisdom, and to share in that life is to have wealth that passes all understanding -- even when our worldly circumstances would defy such an assumption.  Let us remember His love, even as we share in it, and by so doing we are capable of sharing it with others.  What we receive from His love always shares itself with the world.