Tag Archives: Community

The Suburbs of Hell

Mauricio Garcia Vega “Visita al infierno’ shared by artist under Creative Commons 3.0

All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!” Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

“Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

What if the existentialists were wrong seeing in others eyes the mirror that condemns themselves?
That their self-directed focus loosed the bonds of the compassion experienced in community
Their desire to liberate themselves from the plight of humanity became their own chains
Which they forged like Marley in Dickens’ Christmas Carol when their neighbor no longer mattered
Their revelation became the great unseeing of their place within the covenant of the commonwealth
Where they looked at the unenlightened with disdain seeking to isolate themselves in their suffering
As they moved into the suburbs of hell to discover what one slowly but inexorably uncovers
That the mirror that condemns oneself is the looking glass of one’s own crafting they gaze into
Discovering in their loneliness that hell is a dungeon of one’s own mind that they are locked within
And the only key to salvation, though it goes against every practice they’ve embraced, every dogma
Is the other people they feared would see them as they are and would deem them unlovable

Perhaps they, like the denizens of C.S. Lewis’ vision, looked with disgust and moved themselves
Further and further away from the city, further away from the possibility of looking into another’s eye
As they move further and further into the wilderness to build their utopias in their grey worlds
Building the walls higher around their stately grounds along roads that no one travels
Locking themselves inside their places of paranoia and safety, hoarding their treasure like dragons
And still Amazon delivers to these unmapped places all the possessions which come to possess
Houses full of unopened boxes with smiles upon the side for people who no longer smile
“I think therefore I am” proclaimed their apostle Descartes as they declared the world outside false
No need for the flames of the lake of fire nor demonic torturers and devilish prison wardens
They in their own self-flagellation willingly wield the red-hot pokers unwilling to accept forgiveness
Remaining locked inside their self-imposed sentence of solitary confinement for unknown offenses

Matthew 12: 46-50 Redefining Community

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 12: 46-50

Parallel Mark 3: 31-35; Luke 8: 19-21

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Central to one’s understanding of identity throughout the ancient world was the family and not merely the nuclear family of father and mother, brothers and sisters. There is a reason that one of the ten commandments is dedicated to honoring the familial bonds and relationships and why Matthew spends seventeen verses at the beginning of the gospel narrating the genealogy of Jesus. Yet, within Judaism, there is always a higher calling to follow God than one’s family. This is particularly highlighted in the Abraham narrative which begins with Abram (later renamed Abraham) being separated from his family:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. Genesis 12: 1-2

Even the bond between father and the long-awaited son Isaac is to be secondary to Abraham’s commitment to the LORD his God.

He (God) said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22: 2

Throughout Matthew’s gospel we have seen Jesus insisting that following him is more central than one’s commitment to family. In fact the arrival of Jesus may bring conflict within those relationships: a disciple is to follow Jesus rather than burying his father (8: 18-22), family members may betray other family members over conflicting views of Jesus (10: 21-22) and the presence of Jesus will create strife within families but the followers of Jesus are to love Jesus more than familial relationships. (10: 35-37) The people hearing Matthew’s gospel may understand these broken familial relationships at a personal level, but here they also hear Jesus elevating them above the level of his own earthly family. If they have given up their family, the community of those gathered around Jesus has become their new brothers and sisters.

Others will attempt to define Jesus from his family relations:

“Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” Matthew 13: 55-56

And while the community of family is important for Matthew it cannot be central, only Jesus can occupy that position. Jesus is not opposed to families, many of his miracles are requested by family members and one of his conflicts with the Pharisees and scribes will center around keeping the commandment to honor father and mother (Matthew 15: 1-20). Yet, Jesus also occupies a place that previously only the God of Israel could occupy. He is one who can ask those who follow him to be willing to leave family behind so that they can be blessing to the nations.  After the rich young man has gone away grieving his unwillingness to give up his possessions to follow Jesus, Peter asks: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” and Jesus’ answer in addition to their positions judging Israel includes “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundred-fold, and will inherit eternal life” (19: 29)

Many Christians in Matthew’s time and beyond have experienced broken families and have needed the community of disciples to be mother and brothers and sisters. Here Jesus also embraces this community of disciples above those family relationships which cared for him. Jesus is creating a new family, a new Israel and like God’s call to Abram, there are times where Jesus’ call means leaving previously central relationships behind, but it also involves the formation of a new family network to support and care for one another.

Matthew 6: 1-4 Exploring Righteousness and Justice

Lady Justice at the Castellania in Valletta, Malta shared by user: Continentaleurope under Creative Commons 3.0

Matthew 6: 1-4

highlighted words translation will have comment below on translation

1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Righteousness is an important concept to Matthew, and that is one of the reasons the translation of dikaisune as piety instead of righteousness in verse one obscures this linkage. While piety may capture the idea of the concrete religious acts like giving to the poor, prayer and fasting it also doesn’t capture the way that Jesus in Matthew’s, and the Hebrew Scriptures prior to this link a life lived in faithfulness to the covenant as more important than sacrifice or cultic ritual for one’s being in a right or just relationship with the God they come to worship. Justice/righteousness (the same word in Greek and Hebrew) is a critical concept of how one lives in relationship with one’s neighbor and ultimately with God in Jewish thought. Now the reason for practicing this righteousness is examined in view of the neighbor.

In the musical Wicked, Elphaba (the ‘wicked’ witch of the West as she will be known in the Wizard of Oz) sings about how ‘No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” after several losses in her story. A few of her lyrics are worth quoting as we consider practicing righteousness before others:

One question haunts and hurts
Too much, too much to mention
Was I really seeking good
Or just seeking attention?
Is that all good deeds are
When looked at with an ice-cold eye?
If that’s all good deeds are
Maybe that’s the reason why
No good deed goes unpunished

What is the reason for these practices of righteousness, are they seeking good or seeking attention? If the deeds are done to build up honor for the self, to place oneself as the righteous (in comparison with the unrighteous ones), or to win the admiration of the neighbor then the righteousness has become a public piety for others to see rather than a practiced righteousness seeking the justice for my neighbor. It is the type of practiced righteousness that allows those hungering and thirsting for righteousness to be filled.

This warning about how one practices righteousness is followed by three whenever statements (verse 2, 5 and 16) which expand upon this just practice of righteousness. The first has to do with the practice of providing for those in need. The Greek work eleemosune is one of two words, the other being dikaisune used in verse one, used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) to translate the Hebrew tsadeqah. (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 87) Justice/righteousness in Hebrew thought involves how one cares for the at risk members of the community and there are numerous provisions in the law to ensure that there is a means for the poor, the widow, the orphans and the strangers in the land to be cared for.  We think of alms in terms of charity for the poor, but the Hebrew people thought of this in terms of justice and righteousness. Yet this righteousness is not to be proclaimed to call attention to the giver, but instead is done for the benefit of the neighbor. It is done without fanfare and without consideration for the reward of the individual but instead is done for the sake of the community that the person able to give to those in need is called to live within.

The paradox of the visible community (see Matthew 5: 13-20) and doing righteousness in secret may seem strange to people used to thinking about righteousness and its practice in individualistic terms, but the key is that the disciple acts in a way that calls attention to the community and not to the individual. As Warren Carter can cleverly state, “Disciples are to “fish for” people, not impress them.” (Carter, 2005, p. 159)  Yet, it is the community of disciples which are the bait which lures people in the nets of the kingdom. One’s future security depends on the community and ultimately on the God the community serves rather than the individual acts to secure one’s prosperity. In a community where people give to those who beg of them and not refuse those who borrow from them acts of giving to those in need are a part of the character of the community. This is a community where the poor in spirit can experience the kingdom of heaven and truly be blessed.

Behind these actions of righteousness is the trust in a God whose kingdom has come near. God may provide for both the righteous and unrighteous, but the righteous can trust that God to provide for them as they live in a community of justice. This type of community and trust may be difficult to imagine for people living in an individualistic society where the weight of providing for one’s security rests upon the ability of the solitary individual, but in a kingdom where God provides the daily bread and where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven one can learn that practicing justice toward one’s neighbor requires neither public recognition nor assurances of recompense. The community that the Sermon on the Mount envisions rests upon the provision of a Father who sees the hidden things and knows the needs of the righteous ones of God.

Psalm 12-Save Us from Ourselves

Bible Paintings in Castra center, Haifa- David and Batsheva, David and Avshalom

Bible Paintings in Castra center, Haifa- David and Batsheva, David and Avshalom

Psalm 12

To the leader: according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.
1 Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
   the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
2 They utter lies to each other;
  with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
3 May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
   the tongue that makes great boasts,
4 those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;
   Our lips are our own—who is our master?”
 5 “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
   I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
  “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
6 The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure,
   silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
   purified seven times.
7 You, O LORD, will protect us;
   you will guard us from this generation forever.
8 On every side the wicked prowl,
   as vileness is exalted among humankind.
 
The Psalm begins as a cry for help and while the cry may come from an individual the cry goes forth on behalf of a community that no longer is the place it was intended to be. What was dreamed to be a place of faithfulness and trustworthy people has turned into a place where tongues have been loosed, boasts have been made and community has been destroyed. The double-hearted nature of the community has broken the heart of the Psalmist and sent them into a search for hope in the midst of the empty words they see in a community that was meant to be something much different. In a toxic environment where the tongues of those who are seeking their own interests rule the day the community of the faithful is in mortal peril.

Many leaders of communities have known times where the community, through conflict or by the actions of a bully, devolves into the opposite of its original intent. Unfortunately, it is all too common for churches and places of worship which preach forgiveness to become unforgiving. Sometimes the message of justice becomes perverted into a message of just-us, and sometimes the boastful words overpower the quiet insistence of those trying to follow whole heartedly. It is from this experience of disillusionment that the Psalmist cries for help. In a feeling of isolation and desolation where the faithful have been replaced by the duplicitous, the powerlessness of the Psalmist on their own is overpowering.

Family Systems Theory can talk about a Karpmann Drama Triangle where people are stuck into roles as the victim, oppressor or hero. Claus Westermann noted that in many of the Psalms of Lament that Israel or the speaker find themselves in the role of the victim where the LORD becomes the liberator of the speaker or Israel from their adversaries. (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 74) With the speaker in the role of the victim in the midst of their adversaries they are reliant upon God as their deliverer from their adversaries. This is the nature of the relationship that the people of God have with their deliverer. However, the danger is that these same people can easily move into the role of the oppressor where now the LORD must stand with the oppressed ones over against them. Perhaps, this is something that the Psalmist feels is now happening among their community. That the empty words have allowed the people to deny the contingency of their existence that is based upon their living into the covenant they have with the God of Israel.

The Psalmist sees those around him denying reality and doing violence to others in that denial. They have arrogated themselves into the position of being their own gods who no one can judge. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 156) Their tongues have become the small member that boasts of great exploits, setting fire to the world around them. (See James 3: 1-12) In claiming this place they have denied the reign of God feeling free to craft their own dominions.  Yet, as so often is the case, when the powerful and the boastful feel free to create their own realities it comes at the expense of the poor and the vulnerable. Whether the Psalmist can claim a spot among the alien, the widow and the orphan (the classic way that the Hebrew bible speaks of the vulnerable) or not they are aware of the way in which the law, the commandments and the ordinances of God attempt to create a society where the oppressed are cared for. Yet, as the community moves away from its groundings and devolves into a place where unpleasant truths are denied at the expense of a more convenient illusion it also becomes a place that loses its understanding of hospitality and mercy.

The Psalm rests on the confidence that God will see and God will intervene even when the immediate evidence may point in the opposite direction. In a place where vileness is exalted among humanity and the poor are despoiled and the needy groan the Psalmist sees beyond the present moment to a hopeful future where God sees and acts. The Psalms understand, like the rest of the Bible, that God acts on behalf of the powerlessness and has an ear for the cries of the poor and oppressed.  It is in the LORD’s answer, “I will now rise up” that the Psalmist trusts. The LORD has acted in the past; the LORD’s promises are true and precious. In comparison to the dross the Psalmist hears spoken around him the promises of God to them are like pure silver. As Mary can sing in Luke’s gospel the time is coming when:

He has shown the strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1: 51-55)