SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD  (PART TWO)

By Jim Jordal

Last week we looked at the first part of Jesus’ first sermon where he announces that his task is to “preach the gospel to the poor.” Today we’ll continue with the second of his duties, “to heal the brokenhearted.”

The daily news reveals only a small amount of the brokenness now increasingly pervading the land. The dreams held by so many of creating the “good” life for themselves and their families is fast disappearing as vast numbers of people realize their hopes are virtually impossible. So, what has changed to render the situation virtually hopeless for so many people?

Human beings desperately need hope that whatever assails them can and will get better. That’s a big part of why people migrate, join self-improvement groups, work hard, and vote for political parties ---all in the hope for future improvement. Without hope depression and psychological maladies afflict humans. Alcoholism and other addictions increase and suicide rates soar as a certain spirit of anger pervades society. Thus we witness rising assaults of various types and almost continuous confrontations between racial, sexual, age and cultural groups. And people come to the conclusion that the “glue” formerly holding society together has somehow melted away, leaving large groups of distressed, alienated, and near-hopeless people just drifting through life.

What’s happened is that money and power have finally won the struggle to dominate and rule. The public used to believe that the constitutional system of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” would prevent governmental excesses. But now that we need them, where are they? They are suborned and seduced by the minions of power represented by the one percent of our people holding far more than their share of wealth and power.

They now have sufficient power to dare to propose the new Republican-initiated Trumpcare plan to replace the hated Obamacare. If implemented as proposed, this austere plan will have the effect of denying desperately-needed health care for  some 24 million Americans over the coming decade, thus forcing them back into using even more expensive emergency room care. It would also allow insurance companies to reject sicker and older people from affordable coverage.

Proponents of the new plan should realize as they crow about “saving the system” that their efforts really constitute “grinding the faces of the poor,” as the prophet Isaiah so succinctly said (Isa. 3:15).  Not only are the sufferers without hope, but their faces are pushed down and ground into their desperation. The dollars saved by this onslaught upon the poor will help create the trillion dollar tax cut for the wealthy mentioned in Trump’s classic one-page tax reduction plan. Shame on those legislators who support this travesty of justice. 

This struggle of wealthy power brokers against the poor is not new. It has been quietly proceeding since the founding of our country, periodically reaching sufficient severity to cause public outcry. Back in 1896 it reached crescendo at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as the forces of elitism backing the financial gold standard (meaning generally tight money) clashed with bimetallists wanting both gold and silver because a plenteous supply of cheaper silver promised better times. Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan rose to the occasion with a gripping speech defining the struggle and its effects upon the poor with his never-to-be-forgotten message to the powers of wealth: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,”

But Bryan lost the election to William McKinley, thus the money powers continued their sway until the Great Depression again raised the issue of power versus poverty. Today we view the endless struggle once again in the medical care field. How many faces will be ground into the dust as the supposedly human right to have access to adequate medical care is minimized and removed from vast numbers of citizens who have little or no say in the matter?

Only by placing the issue on the agenda of justice denied will we be able to prevent this newest disaster for the poor. We need in our places of worship to recognize and popularize what Jesus said he came to do: “To heal the brokenhearted.” Only by doing this can we fully implement what Jesus clearly taught.

SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD

By Jim Jordal

 "Therefore don't be anxious, saying, 'What will we eat?', 'What will we drink?' or, 'With what will we be clothed?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God's Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. Matt. 6:32-33 WEB

The entire 6th chapter of Matthew seems aimed at separating between mere trivia and the eternal, vital things of life. It’s human nature to be worried by the really inconsequential things of this life, but when one is hungry or thirsty it does not seem trivial to seek food or water.

In this passage Jesus urges us to transcend the fleshly needs of food and drink and seek the more enduring aspects of his kingdom, like righteousness, truth, mercy and justice. But merely existing through life is not an adequate spiritual posture; we are to seek the deeper things of the Spirit as revealed by the prophets and teachings of Jesus. Seeking something means paying attention to it and purposely addressing one’s actions toward that goal. It is active Christianity in pursuit of a goal, not passive existence in a religious atmosphere.

If we are to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, exactly what is this Kingdom mentioned so often in Scripture? To begin, it’s not heaven.

God’s Kingdom is here on earth---but it’s a cleansed, healed entity bringing righteousness, justice, mercy, and love that we envision. It’s not a place of beautiful dreams and harps playing, as I feared as a child. I’ve always been oriented toward activity, so I wasn’t enthused at the thought of sitting on a cloud playing a harp forever.

Seeking the Kingdom of God means creating here on earth exactly what Jesus in his first sermon said he was coming to accomplish: Good news to the poor, healing for the broken hearted, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and deliverance to the oppressed. You can attempt to avoid the impact of this truth by spiritualizing the words that Jesus said, like substituting “poor in spirit” for the poor in actual fact, or “healing for the spiritually broken” rather than healing for those whose spirits have been broken by oppressive human systems. I think you get my point: You can destroy the clear meaning of many Bible passages on deliverance from oppression by turning systemic group oppression into simple personal suffering.

What good news is there for the poor? I just read an article by tax attorney Bob Lord, writing on the web site Inequality that says Amazon chief Jeff Bezos enjoys an hourly increase in his personal wealth of more than Lord can expect to earn in a lifetime. This is not a diatribe against Bezos or the other billionaires in his group---they have undertaken risky and difficult tasks and are being rewarded beyond anyone’s dreams. What’s wrong is the taxation and financial systems creating such extremes through complicit legislation and regulatory decisions made by politicians who know full well the outcomes of their actions upon the poor. The Bible calls it “devising evil by law,” and “decreeing unrighteous decrees,” and pronounces woe on the perpetrators. Not much good news for the poor here!

Good news for the poor would be legislation that no one working  full time should be homeless, hungry, or denied medical care, especially in a land as rich as ours. Yet, as the debate over health care clutters the air waves, we see no real attempt to do what needs to be done---create a single payer health system open to all. It’s a wonder how we can spend trillions fighting hopeless wars in failing countries unable to govern themselves, yet we cannot increase spending for something as needed as universal health care.

Good news for the poor would also create toe-holds so poor people could once again get their feet on the first rungs of the ladder to financial success. This would necessitate adequate education through high school, and also free college for those able to meet basic standards.

And it would destroy forever the stigma now attaching to the status of “poverty-stricken.” Real poverty is not just a shortage of money, but also includes the unavoidable and continuously repeated messages that the poor are less worthy than other people and deserving of their problems. Perhaps a few, but certainly not all.

We’ll continue this next week.

THE WORLD OF JESUS

By Jim Jordal

 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I tell you, don't resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.  If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.  Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him who asks you, and don't turn away him who desires to borrow from you.”                                                                                         Matthew 5:38-42 WEB

In our search to humanize, sanitize, and popularize  the real Jesus, it might be helpful to look a bit at the world he inhabited during his 33 years on earth. In technology and communication ability it was very different from our world, but in the ancient human failings of greed, lust, power-seeking, and cruelty it was very much the same---only the scenery was different.

The world of Jesus was limited to his immediate area around the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem---an area perhaps 100 miles long by 30 miles wide. Transportation was by walking, riding an animal, or by boat on the Sea of Galilee. Communication was by personal contact, word-of-mouth messages, printed signs, written letters, and a very limited number of books used by educated religious figures.

Political power in the world of Jesus was exercised by Rome at the apex, then downward through local vassal kings like Herod.  Mixed in with this ménage were the Jewish temple authorities headed by the High Priest who was appointed by Rome. They existed in a sort of symbiotic relationship where each furnished something needed by the other and received certain benefits in return. Rome had the military power, but the temple authorities had the hearts and minds of the people. Rome provided protection from external political enemies while the temple legitimized Roman power by lending it Divine authority.

Jesus never directly opposed Roman authority. His approach was oblique, yet confronting, but in a respectful manner that is difficult for us to perceive unless we know something of the culture he lived in. Rome was the most powerful political system yet seen upon earth. From Europe into Asia and Africa it dominated commerce and trade with its organizational genius and vast military power. To most of its subjects, it was irresistibly powerful. But not to Jesus.

The Scripture quoted above is one example of how Jesus resisted the authority of both power centers without threatening them openly or directly. The last portion on going two miles instead of one was aimed at Roman power in that Roman troop had the legal right to compel Jewish citizens to carry their heavy packs for no more than one mile. If a citizen should then offer to carry for another mile, he surreptitiously but effectively usurped Roman power by forcing the Roman soldier to ask for the return of his pack, placing the soldier in a psychologically subservient role.

In the case of the proffered robe, in Jewish courts of the day unpaid debts could be satisfied by the seizure of personal items such as clothing from the debtor. Jewish law limited this to one of the two main garments worn by most men. So Jesus advocated that when a debtor lost his outer garment in the court proceeding he should then surrender his only remaining undergarment, thus leaving him naked. Jewish law stated that not the naked person, but the ones viewing him were rendered unclean, so the appearance of a naked man, even in an all-male setting, was something to be carefully avoided. Again, this act threatened the moral legitimacy of the court without ever openly threatening its power.

Jesus’ advice to turn the left cheek when struck on the right cheek refers to the fact that a right-handed person could only strike someone on the right cheek in what would be seen as a back-handed slap indicating the inferior status of the person struck. For the recipient to then turn the left cheek would be for him the invitation to strike me directly like a man of equal authority and status might. Again, Jesus struck at the soft underbelly of Roman authority and their Jewish temple lap dogs.

Christians today live in another symbiotic relationship where churches, like the Jewish Temple, seldom question government power or behavior. In return government generally leaves churches alone except when they egregiously break the law. So the church voice is generally silent on matters in which government, were we to heed the prophetic imperative of the Bible, would speak on national issues of justice in the authority of God Almighty.

 

LOVE IS JUSTICE

By Jim Jordal

 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not give false testimony," "You shall not covet," and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  Love doesn't harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.                                                                                                  Romans 13:8-10, WEB

History has it that the great Jewish rabbi Hillel who lived around the time of Christ once was asked by a student to explain the Torah, or Jewish law (also found in the first five books of the Bible). He replied: “What is hateful to thee, do not do to your fellowman. That is the whole law; the rest is but commentary.”

In the above passage from Romans, the apostle Paul says essentially the same thing--that love and respect for the rights of others is the fulfilling of the law. All other prohibitions under the law are merely commentary or explanation, and thus subordinate to the ultimate law of love. 

If we define justice as application of love in human relations and society, then we see that love is justice in all human aspects---personal, family, community, nations, and the entire earth. Love as justice also includes the political, economic, social, religious, ecological, and other issues over which we struggle so mightily today.

Our problem seems to be that we talk continuously of love but practice it only for our families, relatives, and some close neighbors. But it too often fails to reach out to those different from us in color, social class, wealth, and other behavior.

How many times have you heard the poor condemned for their own poverty with the comment, “Well, if they weren’t so lazy, stupid, lawless, etc. they wouldn’t be poor.” Comments like these reveal our ignorance about true economic conditions in the U.S. and also expose our utter contempt for many of the vulnerable among us as well as our willingness to hurl verbal abuse at them. This is neither love nor justice!

Why do we need so many laws, rules, decisions, courts, and prisons around us? Why do we among other democracies have far and away the highest percentage of our population under incarceration? And why do crimes and other anti-social behaviors seem to make up the bulk of our news broadcasts today?

Could it be our failure to love as the Bible teaches? Biblical love in the social sense doesn’t mean passive acceptance of any and all behavior. It doesn’t mean speaking of justice but never doing it. And it doesn’t mean accepting God’s freely given and totally unearned grace while sitting in our favorite pews regurgitating the platitudes about how good God is, but having no intent to change anything in our personal lives or in our culture in the direction of truth, mercy, and justice, as God orders.

If we really loved the destitute of society we would do something about the social conditions, political malfeasance, and economic policy failures that make them poor and vulnerable. In the absence of action, it’s just words, and that’s what a lot of the demonstrations and violence are all about. It’s the continual promises of more jobs and coupled with the obvious failure of living conditions to improve.

How can we have rising employment levels, but decreasing median family income? People are finally beginning to realize that without adequate family income most of the “benefits” of society are simply empty promises made by politicians desperate for reelection. Racial injustice and economic oppression are complementary afflictions—each one feeds on and supports the other. Perhaps this is the direction in which many of the demonstrations are headed.

Maybe it’s time to resurrect the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) movement of a few years ago. If we seriously ask ourselves what Jesus would do about social, political, and economic injustices, and then identify a few particular ones of importance to us and our community, then perhaps we’ll deepen our understanding of oppression and stimulate our willingness to act.

ADDICTED TO TRADITION

By Jim Jordal

 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, "Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don't wash their hands when they eat bread." He answered them, "Why do you also disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever may tell his father or his mother, "Whatever help you might otherwise have gotten from me is a gift devoted to God,’  he shall not honor his father or mother.' You have made the commandment of God void because of your tradition. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 'These people draw near to me with their mouth, And honor me with their lips; But their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, Teaching as doctrine rules made by men.'"

Matthew 15:1-9 WEB

Religious tradition isn’t bad, except when it substitutes for what’s more important. In the example above, Jesus condemned a traditional Pharisee practice of allowing adult children to avoid financial responsibilities to their parents by claiming that any discretionary funds were dedicated to God (meaning the temple domination system) and thus not available for the parents.

Jesus considered this a serious sin because the law (Ten Commandments) so clearly ordered people to honor their parents with love, respect, and financial support if needed. So what the temple authorities were really doing was disobeying the commandment of God because of their tradition, or as Jesus charged later, "You have made the commandment of God void because of your tradition," and you are "Teaching as doctrine rules made by men."

This all began when Pharisee leaders asked Jesus why his disciples violated the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands when eating. So to them appearances were far more important than justice, as was revealed in Jesus’ answer.

Do we in the Christian church ever make the word of God of no effect by our traditions? Do we teach for doctrines the commandments of men? Perhaps we do, but I think it’s not so much what we do, but what we don’t do. Our sins are more those of omission than of commission. I mean that our traditions often fail to allow for certain principles of scripture. They act as if these didn’t exist. Hence we hear little preaching on them, seldom consider them in devotions, and generally ignore them in worship.

Yes, I’m speaking specifically of the thousands of commands requiring us not only to serve and support indigent, vulnerable, and powerless groups within our society, but also to strongly advocate against the political and economic power systems allowing such abuse. There is no stronger message in Scripture.

One such command is found in Proverbs 31:8-9:  "Open your mouth for the mute, In the cause of all who are left desolate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And serve justice to the poor and needy." This is not merely a wish by God, it is an imperative for his people. It involves much more than mere charity since it orders us to speak out in the cause of justice---not just for the oppressed, but also against the oppressors. It involves more than individuals because it includes any group--- homeless, poor, those without medical care, those lacking education---that is desolate because of their socio-economic position. And it also includes any group---central bankers, mortgage lenders, white collar criminals, and even governments--- doing the oppressing.

If you consider your religion to be mainly aimed at making parishioners feel good, then you won’t be very interested in doing what God mandates concerning oppression and justice. So by omission you’ll be doing exactly what Christ accused the Pharisees of. Next time you repeat a prayer of confession as part of your liturgy, think about and seriously confess your sins of omission. Think about it.