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Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke

 

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Contents of Jesus Traditions

 

Jesus’ Heritage of Spirituality  

Jesus comes from a rich tradition of spirituality, mediated (if we may be so bold as to guess) through what was a pious Jewish home, through synagogue and scriptures and the round of weekly and yearly celebrations, but especially through the psalms and through prophets like Jeremiah, where the inner conversation with God is so notable.

One may refer to Psalms 73 and 40, in particular; and Jeremiah 17:9-10; 20:7-12; 31:31-34, where we find the prophet’s ideas and experiences reported: a God who knows our hearts or minds; his inner dialogue or quarrel with God; his emphasis upon inwardness as characteristic of the new covenant. 

Spirituality as Getting to Know God

There is no hard and fast formula for getting to know God. What we can hope for as the outcome of our spiritual quest is a first-hand knowledge of God — recognizing that God has been present and “pursuing” us already, even before we were aware that we wanted him and needed him. The “sermon” does, however, make clear that commitment and singleness of purpose are indispensable. When God truly becomes the center of one’s life, then other matters are relativized, and serenity becomes possible in the midst of aggravations.

1. Commitment

Arguably the starting point of spirituality, as we find it in the “sermon,” is commitment to God’s kingdom, and more personally, to his will. There is no room for detachment or neutrality here, as this key text (from the Q source) makes clear:

 

Matthew 6:33

 

Luke 12:31

[ . . . Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.]    [ . . . Your Father knows that 
you need these things.] 
     
33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.   31Instead, strive  for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

     

 

The committed disciple is willing to undertake spiritual training in the manner of an athlete preparing for a race (compare 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). The “sermon” gives some guidance for those taking discipleship seriously:
 

Matthew 7:13-14

 

Luke 13:24

13Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
  Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.

 

 

The choice is clear: to take the easy way out, or the hard way in.  
     

2. Singleness of Purpose

Matthew 5:Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

As already noted,  purity of heart suggests not so much the absence of vice as a life integrated around a single, commanding purpose, free from the distractions and conflicts which might interfere with our sensitivity to the presence and guidance of God.

If the beatitudes are to some degree miniatures which encapsulate insights in later parts of the “sermon,” singleness of purpose is nicely explicated in this passage:

Matthew 6:22-24

 

Luke 11:34-36; 16:13

22The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy [Greek, haplous, “single”], your whole body will be full of light; 23but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!           34Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy [Greek, haplous, “single”], your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. 35Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. 
    36If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.
            24No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.   [16:13] No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Obviously, the reference to a single eye is metaphorical, and it is regrettable that translations usually dissolve this metaphor into its interpretation and thus dissipate its force. An eye which is single surely represents one of the qualities of healthy vision, the ability to focus on a single image. Thus the single eye describes the integrated person who is focused upon a single goal or purpose, undistracted by competing interests. Such a person has her priorities sorted out, and qualifies for the description of one who does indeed search first for God’s kingdom.

The same point is made by the common sense observation that a person cannot take orders from two superiors, without causing internal conflict and confusion. Happy indeed is the person who is free from divided loyalties and can serve God with his whole being — heart, soul and strength — and be responsive to God’s leading and open to the resources which he offers: this is truly to know God, or, to employ the metaphor of our beatitude, to see God.

To be sure, distractions will come, whether they have to do with possessions (ones we already have, or would like to have), with anger, with sexual feelings, with sins for which we have not asked forgiveness, or offences against us for which we have not extended forgiveness. Worship is futile and formalistic unless we have sought reconciliation with the person from whom we may have been alienated, as the following text makes clear:

Matthew 5:23-24  23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

“For they will see God!”  (Matthew 5:8)

This metaphorical expression signifies a direct experience of God. This first-hand knowledge of God is what we can hope for as the outcome of our spiritual quest — recognizing that God has been present and “pursuing” us already, even before we were aware that we wanted him or needed him.

This experience is not necessarily an emotional high, nor a reward for some virtue: who needs a reward, if we have seen God! God’s nearness is not dependent upon our feeling him near; what matters is his accessibility:  
   •  Being able to speak freely to him when we have a problem, when we sense that some one else has a problem, when we see or hear something of great beauty, when we need to turn on the after-burner to get a little more energy at the end of a long day; but also . . .
   •  Cultivating the art of listening, waiting upon the Lord, knowing that we too may mount up with wings as eagles, run and not be weary, and walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).
     

3. Spirituality and Possessions

From this experience with God comes a holy nonchalance, in which the disciple is freed from his possessions. The disciple will be no less industrious, but the worry will be gone. The extended Q passage in Matthew 6:25-34 demonstrates the folly of being anxious about the necessities of life: if God feeds the birds of the air, and clothes lilies and grass, is it not possible to trust him for our food and clothing too? With this new perspective, one also sees the folly of accumulating possessions Matthew 6:19-21), as if they were invulnerable to moth or rust, or to enterprising thieves, or even to the cycles of the stock market.

  

4. Spirituality and Pious Actions (Matthew 6:1-18)

We may reasonably suppose that almsgiving (6:1-4), prayer (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18) were important components of the Christian Jewish spirituality of Matthew and the community for which he wrote. Matthew makes it clear that these are not to be performed for public display (nor, we might add, as ways of nourishing spiritual pride). A person living in the mood of holy nonchalance earlier mentioned will have little interest in trying to impress others with his/her generosity, or skill in public prayer, or capacity for self-denial. (Matthew’s valuable contribution on prayer is discussed in Spirituality (b).)

     

5. Walking the Talk: Spirituality in Action

Spirituality without morality? Call in the prophets! The two belong together, and some of the harshest words of the great eighth century B.C.E. prophets were directed against those who persisted in gross injustices while fulfilling their religious rituals punctiliously. 

Amos 5:21-24  21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

Such separation between faith and morality, sometimes called religious formalism, was intolerable not only in the view of Amos, but also in the teaching of Isaiah (1:12-17) and Micah (6:6-8).

Something of this prophetic outlook is reflected in the “Sermon” on the “Mount,” as in the insistence upon reconciliation before offering one’s gift at the altar [in the Temple] (Matthew 5:23-24), but especially in the extended sections of Matthew 7:15-27:

Matthew 7:15-16  15Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? . . .

Matthew 7:21  Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. . . .

Matthew 7:24  Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. . . .

Spirituality and morality are thus both present in the collection of sayings known as “Sermon” on the “Mount”.

 

 

Revised July 24, 2003

     

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