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Contents of Jesus
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
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.
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:
|[ . . . Your heavenly
Father knows that you need all
||[ . . . Your Father knows
you need these things.]
for the kingdom of God and his
righteousness, and all these things
will be given to you as well.
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:
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 5:8 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:
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.
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:
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
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
• 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).
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.
and Pious Actions (Matthew 6:1-18)
We may reasonably suppose that almsgiving (6:1-4), prayer
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
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
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”.
July 24, 2003
Contents of Jesus
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