Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 5:12-26

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 5:12-26
Jesus continues teaching his followers about Kingdom life, and his directives seem to get more ludicrously impossible by the minute.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 5:12-26
Jesus is continuing on the theme of life in the kingdom of God. In the last section Jesus talked about some specific attributes of kingdom dwellers.

Kingdom is such a weird word to use today, isn't it? Maybe "country" or "world" is more applicable to today's language. Kingdom, like so many other words, carries unintended baggage. I will try using the word country in this post and see how it goes....

Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light to describe the citizens of God's country (Any better? Meh.), and the value they can bring to the rest of the world. As a young church-goer, this was a familiar passage to me. The more familiar the passage, the easier it is for me to associate it with something with American conservative evangelicalism. In that culture, being salt and light in the world meant two things: (1) witnessing (proselytizing) and (2) behavioral holiness. Relationships were only important in that they provided an "in" to persuading someone to accept Christ as their lord and savior. Holiness was defined by whichever church, denomination, or authority figure was currently in charge. Both of these activities made it difficult to express or experience love.

When I see Jesus' words now, I look to the previous verses to understand what salt and light actually look like. People who practice the beatitudes have more to offer our broken world than a gospel tract or zealous demonstrations of self-righteous indignation over "behavioral sin."

In the next section (vs. 17-20) Jesus pivots to something grave and, quite frankly, soul-crushing. He says that unless you obey every single command in the Law, even the least important ones, better than the Pharisees and Law teachers obey them, you will never get into the "kingdom of heaven." Excuse my language, but: fuck. I wonder if that's what his followers were thinking at this point, too?

Part of me wonders if this is just Matthew showing his intended audience that Jesus REALLY respects the Law, therefore providing yet another piece of evidence that he is the Jewish Messiah. But even if that is the case, it seems these types of Jesus teachings - the "impossible" commands - are meant to break the spirit. What other response do we have, but God have mercy? For that matter, what other response can we have to the horror we see in the world today, but God have mercy? What other response could we have when we realize our own riches compared to those who are starving, tortured, oppressed, and enslaved, but God have mercy?

Here's where my thoughts are leading: the impossible commands are a poetic symbol of death and resurrection. Jesus teaches us to obey impossible commands. We cannot fulfill them. We "die." Yet somehow, in that moment of humility, we are raised up again to try to do the impossible. To try to build God' country. To my Jungian mind, this makes sense. This provides meaning and purpose to life.

Could it be that the reason the Christian religion has survived (in some form) throughout the years is this example of brutal poetic beauty? Of these symbols of life and death and meaning?

Back to the text. In the next section (vs. 21-26) Jesus gives us even more impossible commands. In this country of God, which frankly is looking less and less appealing, you will stand trial if you (a) are angry with someone, (b) call someone a fool, or (c) call someone worthless. (In the latter case, Jesus actually says "you will be in danger of the fires of hell.") He goes on to say that if someone is angry with you, you should not do anything until you make it right with that person. Furthermore, you'll be dragged to jail if you do not, and "will not get out until you have paid the last cent you owe."

OMG Jesus! Give me a freaking break! More impossible standards of living in the country of God, more harsh penalties for not living and breathing perfection. This sounds like an Orwellian nightmare.

So yeah. This is all pretty spirit-crushing stuff. At this point, I'm not going to try to offer any "answers." I already made the point about "brutal poetic beauty" and while that still applies, it doesn't make reading this stuff and struggling with it any easier. I think that's the point. The Bible isn't meant to be read passively.

Stay tuned. Lots more to come. Things could get ugly!


paul said...

It's good to know I am not the only "Christian agnostic" (and sometime Christian atheist). I have a friend, who also happens to be a minister, who wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with the letters: WTFWJD. It cracks me up every time I see it. Some of the authors of the bible had way to much fun, and if the stuff attributed to Jesus is original, I imagine even Jesus must marvel at the dissonance between the what is and what 'should' be.

Kevin said...

I can't BEGIN to tell you how much I love WTFWJD.