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The Kingdom: Relationship Reality is Among You

F. Earle Fox

Audio Version

Lent IV - 3/18/11 Ex. 16:4-15 Ps. 18:1-20; Gal. 4:21-31; Jn. 6:1-14
Hymns: 499, 60, 268

In the collect for today, we read about... "...we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved..."

What is the meaning of being "worthy to be punished..."? It may seem like a foolish question, but, Why does sin lead to punishment? What is the connection? It is a question debated for the 20 centuries of Christian history, and also for the nearly 20 centuries of prior Hebrew history.

One of the answers has been that the dignity of God is so supreme over us, and the offense is thus so high, that severe punishment must be meted out to sinners.

That is not, I think, a Biblical response to the question, but rather comes out of a strange combination of a Hebrew sense of righteousness with a more Greek sense of "wholly other", a concept foreign to the Bible. God is not wholly other than us -- so radically different that He is totally incomprehensible. We are made in His Image. We can know somethings about God by looking at ourselves.

Greek philosophy, especially neo-Platonic philosophy, imagined the divine as "wholly other" than what we commonly know and experience here on earth. The phrase ‘wholly other’ was taken quite literally to mean that God is intellectually wholly beyond our understanding, and morally utterly so superior to us so that we will never measure up to being worthy to reside in His presence.

But God in the Bible reminds His people over and over that He has spoken to them in terms that they can understand, they do not need to find their way to heaven to get His word to them, He has made it available to them already in ways they can understand -- as, for example, with two tablets of stone containing easily understood commandments. Or, Deuteronomy 30:11:

"For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it."

God is indeed high and lofty, but He also dwells with those of contrite heart, a humble and obedient spirit. This is unique to Biblical religion. God is approachable and understandable. He is not the inaccessible mystery of pagan religion.

The Hebrews understood "righteousness" to be the victory of the will of God. They understood morality to be wholly dependent upon that will, that righteousness meant conformity to the will of God. They were apparently the first religion in the world to link morality with God -- so that Hebrew religion is called "ethical monotheism". No other religion had understood morality and religion to be so part and parcel of each other. The pagan gods and goddesses were so immoral themselves that they could hardly claim their ways to be universal moral standards. And their worshippers did not claim that they did.

Greek philosophy had a way of elevating things completely out of our human range because they saw the physical/temporal world as the lowest end of the cosmic scale of life, with the divine many levels above us, to be ascended only at great cost and through leaving behind all that is familiar to us on earth. It was the elevated realm of the intellect, and then beyond even that, into the world of mysticism and the unknowable.

That is not at all the Hebrew picture of things. And while we can thank God for the intellectual tools of abstract thinking developed by the Greek philosophers, we must beware of adopting aspects of the Greek worldview which compromise and undermine the Biblical message by making ultimate reality inaccessible and unknowable, and therefore unshareable. If we cannot express something, we cannot share it. It becomes, at best, isolated and private. No community can develop around it.

The Greek cosmos is inherently impersonal, the Hebrew cosmos is inherently personal. On the Greek view, divinity and ultimate reality were inaccessible to ordinary persons and relationships. That tendency, caused by uncritical adoption of Hellenic theological language, changed Christian morality and righteousness into an equally exalted and inaccessible standard by which we fail, not because of what we do, but because of who we are. We are condemned before we even get started, not by rebellion and immoral behavior -- but by our own being.

But on the Hebrew view, righteousness was aimed by God at our choices, our attitudes, and our behavior, all things which very ordinary persons can understand.

The people in the desert were ready to stone Moses and Aaron because they were unhappy with the food they were eating (or not eating), and could not see how God could provide food for so many people out in the middle of the desert.

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them whether they will walk in my laws or not...

God would meet their needs, but He expected them to stop their whining and complaining, and to trust that He could get them through to the Promised Land.

There was nothing very mysterious or mystical about the matter. One might say that the miracles of the manna and the quail were mysteries, but that was not the concern of the people. They accepted the miracles, and that God did them. But their hearts were not with God and with the purpose for which He had drawn the Hebrew people into a nation, and for which He was bringing them to Canaan. The Hebrew sense of morality was based on the will of God, on that purpose which God had given them as individuals and as a people in His plan for the salvation of the world.

And then, from Exodus again:

...as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.

They did not need to ascend to heaven to see the glory of God . The glory of God came to them. The Incarnation of God in Jesus was not a wholly new thing, it was the continuation and ultimate extension of what God had been doing all along, ever since He called Abraham from Babylon to go to Canaan, part of the sacramental worldview. Abraham did not go to heaven to find God, God came to Abraham and chose him to begin the community of revelation, which would carry the revelation of God eventually to the whole world.

With Abraham, God was establishing a beachhead on enemy-held territory. And with Moses, God was establishing the government for that community. All of that was initiated by God, but God required the cooperation of the people because God was building a relationship of trust and obedience between Himself and His people -- which would then eventually prepare His people to go out into the world with the Gospel, the good news of a God who loved and cared for His people, and did not shy from living among them, residing in their very hearts and souls.

I want to make a brief side trip to look at a book which opened for me a whole new insight into the history of Hebrew religion and its development into what we call Judaism, and to which I have previously alluded. I have known for a long time that Judaism was not the same as the old Hebrew religion, but did not know until I read this book the significance of that difference. The book is The Hebrew Yeshua versus the Greek Jesus.

The distinction points to the difference between what was apparently the original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, and how it got translated into Greek. I had learned in seminary that the New Testament was first written in Greek, not Hebrew. I had later heard of such a Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, but had not heard of any significance that it had.

But Nehemia Gordon, the author of The Hebrew Yeshua versus the Greek Jesus, relates a discovery he made by chance in an investigation of Matthew 23:1, which reads:

Then said Jesus to the crowds and to His disciples: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses, so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.

Whenever I had read that verse, I was troubled, because the Pharisees were the primary antagonists of Jesus, and the following nearly 40 verses are a stinging rebuke of everything the Pharisees both say and do. How could Jesus be telling His disciples to follow what the Pharisees said?

Nehemia Gordon, a Karaite Jew, explains that, although the Greek translations of the original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew say, "observe whatever they tell you...", the Hebrew text says differently, "observe whatever he tells you", that is, whatever Moses tells you, not the Pharisees. The difference between the Hebrew ‘they’ and ‘he’ is just one extra vertical stroke, which the translator into Greek apparently left out, thus leaving the exact opposite impression of what Jesus in fact said.

So the Matthew passage would read: "...so practice and observe whatever he (Moses) tells you, but not what they (the Pharisees) do..."

The Karaite Jews were a branch of Judaism founded in Persia about 800 AD which rejected the Jewish oral tradition put together by the Pharisees, and which was added onto the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament. Karaite Jews use only the written Old Testament, not the later oral tradition.

As Gordon was reading what Jesus had said, he wondered to himself, "Is Jesus a Karaite Jew?!" Jesus was rejecting all the same things which the Karaite Jews later rejected, the so-called "oral law", which the Pharisees claimed was given to Moses orally on Mt. Sinai -- the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash.

The word ‘rabbi’ means literally, ‘the Great One’, a title given to ancient teachers. Gordon says that Pharisee theology turned this into a term for a teacher with Mosaic authority. The rabbis began to assert absolute authority to interpret every aspect of the Old Testament, no matter how radically, even to reversing what was written in the Torah. They, for example, said that it was wrong to use the name Yahweh, I AM, because it was too holy -- despite the fact that Yahweh Himself specifically commanded that that was the name by which He was to be known "throughout all generations" (Ex. 3:15).

It is not hard to see how such an attitude and commitment could lead to subversions of Hebrew religion. It is this for which Jesus severely condemned the Pharisees in the strongest language possible, calling them sons of Satan -- because they substituted their own self-made laws of men for the law of God. The Pharisees and rabbis had hi-jacked Hebrew religion, and turned it into a control mechanism for their own glory. They had elevated God literally to beyond comprehension, which left them the only legitimate interpreters of the nature and will of God. Jesus saw through all that.

In view of our look at the Hebrews in the Exodus, and then at Nehemiah Gordon’s Karaite critique of Matthew 23:1, let us now look at the Epistle by St. Paul.

Paul, lawyer of lawyers, is warning against leaning on the law for salvation. He compares those who put themselves under the law to Ishmael, born of Hagar, Abraham’s substitute wife -- who bore him a son, but not the son of promise. Only Isaac, son of Sarah, Abraham’s true wife, could be the son of promise. Christians are, like Isaac, sons and daughters of promise. Ishmael is seen as a son of law, Mt. Sinai. Christians are children of promise, of Jerusalem, the "mother of us all", foreshadowing the Christian understanding of the Church as the mother of us all.

Reading Gordon’s book brought home to me how wrenching conversion to Christ must have been for St. Paul, Pharisee of Pharisees. He struggles in his epistles to the churches to reconcile his knowledge that the law is indeed from God with his experience as a Pharisee that the law can be used in a vicious and destructive way.

The Pharisees had perverted the law so as to be out of reach by the average man. It took much time and effort to keep all the laws, so that only the rich had any hope of doing so to please God. No one else had enough time for it. So the Pharisees despised the poor as "sinners". That is why the disciples were surprised when Jesus said that it is very hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven -- he is too distracted by his riches to obey God. But the disciples thought, if the rich man has a hard time, how can the poor ever make it? Do not the rich have at least the time to devote to all the laws?

The disciples thought it was next to impossible for the poor -- because the Kingdom they were pursuing was that impossible, out-of-touch-with-reality kingdom invented by the Pharisees, not the Kingdom of God among us. We fallen people keep making the Kingdom of God out of touch for all but a favored minority.

The Kingdom of God is a bountiful gift, like the quail and the manna, like "the desolate having many more children than she which hath an husband", and like the bounty for 5000 persons produced from the lad’s five barley loaves and two small fishes in our Gospel lesson.

God puts His Kingdom squarely in our faces, right astride the path by which we pursue false kingdoms. But we run around the Kingdom of God in hot pursuit of false kingdoms.

Why is the Kingdom of God so accessible? Because it is all about personal relationship, all about loving God and loving one another. It may be hard and painful at times, but it certainly is right here among us. You cannot get any more "among us" than personal relationship. The Kingdom of God is "among you", Jesus said, because He is among us, accessible. He is hidden, not by His nature, but by our sin, our self-centeredness, our not willing to be truth-seekers and lovers of souls -- at any cost to ourselves. Instead we pursue "feeling-good", power, fame, riches, popularity. All of us do at some level, often not aware.

Those are the things which, ironically, are inaccessible. We will never succeed in our struggle for power, fame, riches, or popularity. They will always, in the end, betray us into the very opposite of what we pursue.

Living in the Kingdom of God comes by pursuit of relationship reality -- the stuff of any honest, integrated, helpful life. It means pursuit of truth and of love as the two highest goals of our lives. Relationship reality is among us.

So, back to our opening question: Why does sin lead to punishment?

Sin leads to punishment, not because we are inherently unworthy to stand before God. We are created to stand before God as His sons and daughters. That is where we belong. We become unworthy because of what we do, sin, not because of who we are. But what we do can be changed, we can, by the grace of God, repent.

We are punished partly because we create our own punishment. We create the collateral damage caused by sin which then comes back to bite us. We create the conditions for our own demise.

And we are punished by God because, like a father, He wants us to learn that He means business, and that if we do not understand that, and do not obey His laws, we will end up permanently destroying ourselves. So we might get spanked by God.

All this can make sense because God is among us. It is we who are distant, we who raise up defenses.... The question is not whether God is among us, but whether we are among us. Are we willing to step into open, honest relationships where we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor just like we love ourselves?

Are we willing to live in the Light -- the Light of Christ -- who has come into the world? Let the answer be "Yes!"

Lord Jesus, precious Light who has come among us, we bless You and thank You for your continued patience with us who make such a hard time for ourselves, for others, and for You, even as we try to follow You. We thank You for this Lenten season in which we can be reminded once again of Your coming all the way down from Heaven to save us from ourselves. and so, to find ourselves. Amen.  

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Date Posted - 03/14/2012   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012