Monday, July 29, 2013

What Did Jesus Mean by “Do Not Worry”?

Perhaps one of the more comforting passages from the teachings of Jesus is found in Luke 12:22-34, where Jesus commands his listeners not to worry about the concerns of life, for God will take care of you. But, is this really Jesus’ meaning? I once read the passage this way; but I wonder if there is something more. 

One thing we must keep in mind is the literary context in which we find Jesus speaking about worry. It follows his telling of the Parable of the Rich Fool, who Jesus says is a fool because he pursued more and more wealth for himself with no thought for what God would demand of him. Indeed, that very night, God demanded his life, and his riches were wasted.

In light of this context, at least for Luke, we might understand Jesus’ command about not worrying as more related to our pursuit of wealth and possessions than the lack of our needs being met. In other words, taking into account what Jesus has said in the parable about the landowner, he may be suggesting that worry and anxiety happen when we are striving for wealth and things. Worry will dissipate if we stop seeking these things and instead put our trust in God.

But what are we to make of the three illustrations Jesus offers in this passage?
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!
What is Jesus’ purpose in using the ravens, the life span of human existence, and the flowers to make his point?
First, we can perceive from Jesus’ statements about birds being fed, humans not being able to lengthen their lives, and lilies that are clothed in beauty that all of God’s creation, both nature and humanity, are dependent on the goodness of God for life and sustenance. This is the heart of understanding God as the Creator, who not only brings things into beings, but who also sustains those things until their natural end. All life is God dependent.
This is what the rich fool failed to see or recognize. He thought that what he had was all because of what he had done, and he gave no thought for how God had blessed him. He failed to be dependent on God.

Second, when Jesus speaks about birds not gathering into barns, humans not being able to add hours to their lives, and grass that is here today and thrown into the oven tomorrow, he is expressing the temporality to our current existence. Neither us, nor any of creation, is promised a tomorrow in this world, and thus we are not to spend our short existence striving for wealth and possessions that are here today and gone tomorrow.

Again, the rich fool failed to see this, for he thought that just by having his abundance he would have a happy future. But none of us are promised even tomorrow.
Third, the choice of birds, plants, and humans represents the consistent biblical teachings that all of creation is the concern of God. God, as Creator, sustains creation by God’s love, and God desires that creation live out its intended design. 
I think it is particularly important that the statement about humans not being able to lengthen their lives is placed between the statement about the birds and the one about the lilies. It seems reasonable that Jesus is intending his hearers to understand two important things.
One, they are a part of creation and not above creation. And, two, since we are a part of creation, and not above creation, we have a God-given purpose of using creation, but with great care and responsibility. Creation is a gift to humanity. It provides us not only with the needs of food, clothing, and shelter; it also provides us with beauty and meaningfulness.
But for humans to ravage God’s household for selfish purposes, is to live recklessly in God’s creation. Jesus’ use of the birds and the flowers, along with his statement about human life, spells out for us that God cares for God’s entire creation, and we ought to do the same.
We might interpret the actions of the rich landowner as transgressing this care for creation. He owns a lot of land, and though he is free within the bounds of the human understanding of ownership to use the land for his own purposes, he seems not to care for the creation itself, but only for what it can give him; a comfortable life.
Striving for what is temporal, as the rich man did, moves our focus from God and those around us to our own lives of selfish need and want, which results in our living as the world lives, in a constant struggle with the anxiety of desiring more. Then, it becomes about us, and we start speaking about “I” and “my” just as the rich fool does in Jesus’ parable.
But Jesus offers a different striving. Instead of striving for the things in this world that bring worry, and that pass away, Jesus calls us to strive for the kingdom of God, in which we are dependent on God and God’s goodness toward us and all of creation. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jesus’ Call to Radical Living

One of the actions Jesus carries out in the Gospel of Mark soon after announcing that the kingdom of God is near is the calling of his disciples. While Jesus was certainly calling individuals to follow him, he was always calling them into the community of Jesus in which they were to find a new way of existing in the world that demonstrates the ethics of God’s rule. Indeed, the followers of Jesus formed somewhat of a political community who viewed their ethics in opposition to that which was present in the Roman Empire.

In forming an alternative political community that acted, in its own way, subversively to Rome, the early Christian community offered a radical way of living that was counter to what Rome stood for. In light of Jesus’ teachings, and his death on a Roman cross, this way of living became the norm for the community.

There are some significant practices modeled or stated by Jesus that clarify this radical way of living. These very much apply to today’s followers of Jesus as they are emblematic of what it means to be a disciple.

First, Jesus called followers to service, not political domination. Jesus is the paradigm of service as he claims to give his life for others (Mark 10:32-45), and he called his followers to be a community in which imperial ideas of authority were cast out and replaced by a new ethic of service.

The political symbol of Roman power and domination, the cross, became for the followers of Jesus the symbol of service in the community, and the pattern of lordship practices found outside the community were to be replaced by the service demonstrated by the Son of Man.

Second, Jesus called for inclusive welcoming, not exclusion based on status, as the norm of living in community. The discussion of who was the greatest among the twelve in Mark 9:30-41 prompts Jesus to take unto himself a child and declare that faithfulness to Jesus is found in the actions of welcoming a child. While we can take the child to mean literally a child, we may also view Jesus as using the child to represent those seen as weak or of lowly status.    

Roman society was built on a distinct class structure. This system helped to maintain the practice of patronage, through which clients were held down. Moreover, this class structure prevented social mobility, which meant that the classes maintained a degree of pedigree and segregation, preventing social interaction between the classes.

Jesus rebuffs this exclusion by declaring that the weakest of a society must be welcomed into the community. The practice of such inclusion may have been shocking to new members, who may very well have struggled with letting go of their status over another within the Jesus movement. Yet, the norm of the community was one of inclusion that was not based on status. 

This is illustrated in the life of Jesus himself as he welcomes the marginalized and as he institutes the community meal. In eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus was affirming that the banquet of God’s kingdom was open to all to come and partake. All would find equality and acceptance in the rule of God.

Third, Jesus taught his followers that the power of goodness, not oppressive power, is the norm for making and keeping peace. Peace and non-violence are the heart of Jesus’ message and life, and he calls his followers to “be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50)”. Jesus’ idea of peace is realized through the power of goodness; not through violence, as the infamous Pax Romana dictated.

Fourth, Jesus commanded the sharing of possessions in community, not self-indulgence and prosperity, as the economic norms of the community. Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who seeks eternal life in Mark 10:17-22 serves as instruction on the use and possession of worldly goods in the community. The man desires eternal life, and, upon hearing Jesus list the commandments, which he claims he has observed, the man assumes that all is well. Yet Jesus calls him to a more radical decision to sell his many possessions and give the money to the poor.

The story does not reveal how this man gained his wealth. We do not even know he is wealthy until he walks away (Mark 10:22). Perhaps this man has gained his possessions through some form of oppression of others. More certainly he may have neglected caring for others by hoarding his wealth, much like we can assume about the rich fool in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 12:13-21. Both will not relinquish their control over their abundance so that they might share with those who do not have. 

Jesus called his followers to relinquish control over their wealth and give it to the community to be used to care for those in need. Joining the Jesus movement demanded a renunciation of one’s wealth as a tool of power and position and called for Jesus’ followers to sell “their possessions and goods” and to give “to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:45).

It is clear that Jesus set forth and modeled a radical way of living that is contrary to what has been and still is often the dominant world view. In doing so, Jesus’ teachings are not so much focused on the personal salvation and spirituality of a person, but on a radical way of living in community with others that challenges the norms of our society.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jesus' Call to Radical Love

There is no doubt that Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies; there is no room for negotiation with Jesus on this point. No intelligent person can present a persuasive argument against taking his command seriously. Indeed, while we attempt to evade Jesus’ clear teaching by placing limitations on his command, specifically related to who we love and how much we love, these limitations cannot be accepted by those who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus with sincerity.
While loving one’s enemy is a difficult and often impossible struggle, viewing Jesus’ command as unattainable misses something that is rooted in the heart of the gospel of grace. In our finite human existence, we believe that the strength to love others is found in ourselves and in our ability to muster up a forced love. We hear Jesus’ command, believe it to be true, but grit our teeth and force what is humanly impossible to do; love someone who we believe to be unlovable.  But such a view of Jesus’ command will certainly lead us to fail.

The ability to love others, and especially our enemies, comes not from our own strength. Rather, we find the strength to love our enemies through the character and image of God that dwells in us, just as God dwelled in Jesus. In other words, our love for others comes not so much from our human capacity to love, but through God’s empowering grace, given to us through God’s limitless love. Our strength to love others can only be discovered in our identity in Christ, as we are transformed by his call to see others as he sees others. 

There are many good deeds that Jesus defined as actions of this radical love, but there are some foundational practices that are at the core of his message that God loves the world. In fact, while many acts of goodness could be discussed, it seems to me that Jesus modeled for us three primary actions and reactions that express radical love towards our friends and enemies. 

First, Jesus called his followers to respond to the harm that is done to them with actions that are nonviolent.  When Jesus was arrested in the garden, the height of his conflict with his enemies, he responded with nonviolence and called his disciples to do the same. While those who came to seize him carried swords and clubs, Jesus reacted to their aggression with peacefulness. Thus, a reaction to a wrong done to us by our enemies that is both an authentic and transformative expression of Christ’s love is always nonviolent.

This does not mean that Jesus forbid the seeking of justice. Rather, he envisioned seeking God’s true justice that breaks a cycle of hatred and violence; a justice that is not retaliatory, but is measured and redemptive. Moreover, Jesus’ command for his followers to turn the other cheek is not a command for them to become weak in the face of evil done against them. Rather, through turning the cheek, we express a strength that epitomizes the actions of Christ and opens the possibility for love and peace between us and our enemies.

Second, Jesus commanded love for enemies through unconditional forgiveness for the wrongs others have committed. God’s forgiveness for humanity is not based on the human action of confession and repentance. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and extends to those who have committed the most gravest of sins. Thus, if we are to reveal the character of God to others, then we must extend the same kind of forgiveness that God has so graciously extended to us.

Yet, forgiveness is not simply the overlooking of a wrong that has been committed. Those who commit wrongs against others and against society should be brought to justice. However, the justice we seek is not a condition for the forgiveness we are called to offer.

In fact, the justice we seek must be restorative justice; a justice that offers reconciliation and a rebuilding of relationships. Jesus does not command forgiveness when someone serves their penalty for a wrong committed. Rather, he calls for forgiveness apart from that penalty, for he believed that forgiveness opens the opportunity for healing and transformation.

Third, Jesus’ actions and words expressed love for enemies through the practice of welcoming and embracing enemies. We can look to Jesus’ experience with Judas, the one who would betray him. Jesus remained in table fellowship with Judas to the very end; an act which served as an expression of hospitality and intimacy.

Serving as host, Jesus not only shared a meal with Judas, he also washed the feet of his would be enemy. While Judas moved ahead with his evil intentions against Jesus, Jesus remained true to the character of God by continuing his hospitality and intimacy with Judas. Though Judas rejected Jesus, Jesus refused to reject Judas, and instead, he embraced and loved his enemy.

There are those who would argue that the kind of love of which Jesus spoke and which he modeled is unattainable. They argue that love will not change the relationship.

But this argument is theologically short-sighted, for if we believe that love is the prime characteristic of God, and that the love of God is powerful enough to change the world, and if we have embraced and now bear that love in our new identity in Christ, then we must believe that the love we share with others is the power through which God seeks to love and redeem all humanity, our neighbors and our enemies.

Monday, July 15, 2013

My Struggle With Prayer

I have always been a little jealous, but at the same time impressed, with folks who give a lot of time and effort toward praying. I am especially impressed by those who, without any hesitation, put so much faith in the act of prayer. These “prayer warriors” model for the rest of us a relentless belief that God hears our prayers and that God answers our prayers. Indeed, these folks will not only offer continual prayers for life’s challenges, they will see the outcome of those challenges directly related to their prayers.

But I have always struggled with prayer. I know how to pray; at least when it comes to the correct structure, the right language, and the exact tone of the voice. But these are merely surface issues that do not reveal what happens in my mind and heart when I am praying. I struggle to have any sense of assurance that God actually hears my prayers. I guess I am very much like the proverbial person who says that when he prays it feels as if his prayers are not even reaching the ceiling.

It is not for a lack of trying. In fact, at some points during each day I will stop and pray. More often these are short periods when I have moments to myself, but they can also be more extended sessions of prayer when something heavy is weighing on my mind. So, I do consider myself as giving an effort toward the activity of prayer.

But I still have this problem of not really feeling, as do some, as if my prayers really matter that much, either to me or to the people for whom I pray. This is probably the reason why I rarely tell folks that I will pray for them. I am certainly not one of those who when someone requests prayer on Facebook, others will post the comment “praying” as if something magical is about to happen by my praying.

For one reason, I am not sure I will remember to pray for them. For another, I’m sort of doubtful that my prayers will do them any good. I am often tempted to say to those who ask me to pray for them, “I don’t think you want me to pray for you. You might be better off asking someone else.”

I don’t mean to be flippant, or cold, or faithless by thinking such thoughts about prayer and my own effectiveness or ineffectiveness at prayer, but this is the reality that I have faced for years in my own Christian journey. I am often unsure how to pray, and I am very often unsure as to whether or not God hears my prayers, and as to whether or not my prayers are that effective.

Perhaps many other folks struggle with prayer, at least at some point in their life. And, if we do struggle with prayer, we may need to be honest with ourselves that this is not only natural, but normative. Admitting this may actually be the first step to moving toward a more authentic prayer life.

But, why, if scripture commands us to pray, do we struggle with prayer?

The obvious answer to this question is that we are human, and prayer, at least as we understand it, does not mesh with our normal way of living as humans. This may be particularly true because we rely so much on science and technology to provide answers to life’s big questions and life’s big struggles.

The problem is also compounded by the fact that in our normal ways of living, interacting, and conversing with other beings, we experience their presence through one or more of our senses. We can see them, hear them, and touch them. There is in most cases a two way conversation, and at least most of the time we are pretty sure that the person with whom we are speaking hears us.

But this does not happen with God. We cannot see God, nor touch God, and although many people claim to have heard God, most of us have not heard the voice of God, at least in ways we hear the voices of others. Our nature as finite human beings who interact with other human beings through verbal and non-verbal communication hinders us from interacting in this way with an infinite being such as God.

I also think we struggle with prayer because we do not know for what we should pray. Of course, there are needs that we and others have, some of which are so great that we cannot help but pray. But even in these situations we really do not know how to pray, and we struggle with the words we should be expressing to God.

The problem here is that the tragic situations that we and our loved ones encounter are periods in which life seems to spin out of control. These times of suffering bring to the surface our doubts about life with God. We move from periods in our life when things are going well, to periods when it seems that our world is crashing in on us.

In these moments of disorientation we really do not know how to pray. May be this is why the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that in these times when we do not know how to pray, the spirit of God intercedes for us with sighs that are too deep for words.

What Paul is telling us is that the spirit intercedes for us because the spirit knows us and knows our life situations better than we do. The spirit is in tune with what is the heart of God for us and for our world. And, at the heart of God is the love of God that Paul so beautifully describes as never being separated from us. This means that no matter what we encounter in life, God is always on our side, even if we do not realize that God is there or that God hears our prayers.

But there is also something very important we should understand about prayer that we often do not consider. Prayer is not really about us. 

Our prayers, whether we feel they are reaching God or not, have nothing to do with who we are, but have everything to do with who God is. In prayer, we are not saying to God that we are worthy of our requests. Rather, we are saying to God that we are helpless without the God who loves us and who has promised us hope and joy.

In this regard, prayer is not about what I want and need for my life; it is about where God is leading me in my life. I may struggle to believe that God hears my prayers or that God will answer my prayers, but the hope that all of us have is that God is with us, loving us, and moving us to places where God desires to use us, even if we do not understand.