Showing posts with label kingdom of heaven. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kingdom of heaven. Show all posts

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

In Defence of Christian Vegetarianism? Introduction

For a very long time in human history, there have been people who did not eat animal flesh. The ancient Greeks referred to vegetarianism as "ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων", or "abstinence from beings with a soul", and one of the more famous Greeks, Pythagoras, was a vegetarian. In the East, both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions have strong vegetarian tendencies. Among the Christian saints, St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great seem to have been vegetarians. More generally among Christians, St Augustine of Hippo (certainly not a vegetarian himself) notes that Christians who abstain from meat are "without number" (cf. On the Morals of the Catholic Church).

Still, neither humanity nor Christianity have by any means been traditionally vegetarian. Even the many other Christians who abstained from meat have typically not done so for ethical reasons, but as part of some form of asceticism. Nonetheless, it is necessary to examine our practices, even those which have been practised for thousands of years, and ask: is this ethical?

Having thought about this issue on occasion for about a month now, I think there are about twelve arguments of varying strength for being a vegetarian, and about a dozen objections to Christians being vegetarians, each of which is worthy of note, but none of which are, in the end, successful. Not all the arguments for Christian vegetarianism are explicitly Christian, and I would not consider them all to be entirely convincing - for instance, I do not believe in human rights, so I am far from accepting the "extension" of these to animals. However, since talk of human rights is frequently found in Christian parlance, I have included it in the list. On the other side, I doubt most Christians will readily accept explicitly utilitarian arguments, even though I tend to find these more convincing than the rights-based ones.

Allow me to briefly summarize my position: the ideal for human life is to live in a world without death, both of animals and humans, where we live at peace with each other, creation, and God. However, whilst the coming kingdom of Heaven is like that, this is not the world we live in yet. Right now, there is death, pain and suffering, and the way we live our lives must recognize this fact. However, where possible, we should try and minimize unnecessary death and pain. Hence, we should avoid eating meat. More generally, however, our food (and other) choices should take into consideration the amount of suffering that is required to produce that food, and the meat industry, in general, produces more suffering than can be justified. It is therefore not right to eat meat, since this constitutes formal cooperation with the evil of that suffering. This is a position taken in light of current meat-rearing practices, and cannot necessarily be projected onto the past.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

One of the archetypical pictures of Jesus is him giving the beatitudes - a series of blessings to certain groups of people. There is another, shorter set in Luke's gospel, which I can use redaction criticism on later on and compare the two. For now, let me centre on St Matthew's account. Allow me also to note how these blessings fit into a covenantal framework in which Jesus operates: when covenants are made, their clauses have covenant blessings for those who are faithful to it, and covenant curses to those who are unfaithful to it. These are then the new covenant blessings, I think, which should be contrasted with the new covenant woes (or curses) later on.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 3)

This term "poor in spirit" is interesting in that poor generally means "lacking in [...](usually money)", but "lacking in spirit" is an English idiom equivalent roughly to being downcast. Since this is a modern idiom, I doubt this interpretation is right. Some have interpreted it to mean those who are materially poor, which fits with God's care for the poor as seen throughout the Old Testament, but that interpretation ignores the in spirit bit.

My interpretation goes something like this: blessed are those who realize their spiritual poverty. That is, not so much those who lack a spirit as some kind of entity, but more, those who are spiritually humble, who recognize their spiritual deficit. One objection to this is that, in reality, everyone is poor in spirit before God, so by that measure, everyone's is the kingdom of heaven. I do not think this objection is a good one, since this is a public sermon in which people are going to be relating these terms to themselves. Some of the audience will think "truly I am poor in spirit", and then be contented by the blessing, but others (and St Matthew probably has the Pharisees in mind) will think of themselves as rich in spirit. The distinction between the two is whether or not they recognize it - but of course, that makes a great deal of difference in practice.

Yet that is not all - I run this risk of over spiritualizing this beatitude if I make it only about knowledge of spiritual poverty, but no more. Being poor in spirit entails not only recognition of that, but also recognition of the material lack. That is to say poor in essence. Material poverty is included because this recognition of "I have nothing before you, God"  extends to both the spiritual and the material.

"...theirs is the kingdom of heaven" From my interpretation, it follows that those who recognize their poverty, both spiritual and material, are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. 

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (v. 4)

This blessing highlights the sad, those who mourn - in general, people who mourn lack something. So I suggest that this blessing is a divine promise that those who do not think they have it all, those who are aware of their lack, will be comforted by God. 

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (v. 5)

This blessing is the clearest example of the upside down kingdom which Jesus proclaims, because the meek are usually the ones trodden on the most - they are not rulers, instead they are the doormats of rulers in this age. Not so in the age to come, Jesus says, for they will inherit the earth! This is also a clear example of how Jesus' heaven is not ethereal and other-worldly; no no, Jesus the redeemer is going to redeem this earth, and give it as inheritance to the meek.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (v. 6)

I suppose the best way to understand this is another "those who recognize they lack will be given to" statement, in that those who are not satisfied with the righteousness they have are the ones who will be given more. A similar sentiment can be found in 1 John where John says that those who are without sin make Jesus out to be deceitful - ahh, but those who sin and plead forgiveness have an advocate with the Father. This is another bid that we recognize our spiritual poverty, this time specifically our moral poverty, that we may hunger ever for more. [1]

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." (v. 7)

It is unfortunate that Matthew was chosen as the first gospel to be read in this reading plan, because it has such richness that points back to the Old Testament. It is, after all, the "Jewish gospel" - and that means it requires even more context. This word "mercy" is one of those key words, I believe, which would gain enormous profundity if the reading plan had covered more of the Old Testament by this point. Not to worry, though, because the common-sense reading is already rich: Jesus blesses those who have mercy, saying that they will be had mercy on. This is not the same as "God will have mercy on you if you have mercy on others," but instead "Those who yearn for God's mercy are merciful." These beatitudes, I contend, should be seen as cumulative in the sense that I think Jesus is blessing the same group with each one. Therefore, I suggest that those will will receive mercy are merciful, over the interpretation "those who are merciful will (for this reason) receive mercy." These things are all attributes of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven, who will see God, who will receive mercy - the attributes are not why they receive these things.

Let me stress another point, though: the merciful are not often thought of as the most forgiven. It is a sad fact of life that far too often, those who are forgiving get trampled on, not given mercy. So here too we see those who are full of mercy being given just what they yearn for themselves: mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (v. 8)

Uh oh.  Nobody who really thinks they are spiritually impoverished also thinks they are pure in heart, I do not think. Has Jesus just alienated everyone?

Yes and no. I contend that here it is a matter of degree. In fact, all of the beatitudes can most aptly be thought of as a matter of degree, but this one most of all, because this one is special. Those who are closest to God are, by his grace, also those who are purest and see God the clearest. I find it difficult to find myself close to God, to see him clearly, but one thing that recurs in the lives of the saints is that as they grow in holiness, they see God all the clearer - in nature, in their brethren, in the faces of others.

Yet there's another way in this is true, and this meaning is profound: if you agree with me that the attributes accumulate and refer to the same group, then this acts as a promise. "You will be pure in heart, and will see God" - because how can you inherit God's kingdom and not see God? So those who hunger for righteousness will be filled, and those same people will be made pure in heart. This is a promise, then, of God's sanctifying grace.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (v. 9)

There's a sort of twist here, because no longer does this have the structure of "recognize need, have that need satisfied," and more generally, the connection between peacemaking and being children of God is not so obvious. Or is it? I'm going to cheat slightly and quote St Paul in chapter 5 verse 1 of his epistle to the Romans: "Having been put right with God by faith, we are at peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

See, the peacemakers really are given peace when they become children of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 10)

 In other words, "blessed are those who put the kingdom first (invariably leading to persecution of some form), for theirs the kingdom of heaven is." This is a blessing for proper prioritization - because you never get persecuted for righteousness sake if looking good in front of everyone is your priority.

"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. " (vv. 11-12)

This blessing is, primarily one of hope, but it shows us two things, and with this I can end. First, Jesus uses the term "rejoice and be glad", which means we can now look back on all those blessings, and mentally replace "blessed" with "happy." The Greek makarios allows for both interpretations, and although I think this idea of covenant blessings is the primary one (because Jesus has just gone up the mount to deliver the law of Christ - mirroring Mount Sinai and the law of Moses), this subversive understanding use of the term "happy" would surely get some heads turning. "Happy are those who mourn"? Really Jesus? "Happy are the poor in spirit?" Surely not! Yet this is proclaimed, good news for the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness' sake, the merciful, pure...these are the true happy ones, Jesus says. His kingdom is upside down, you see - no longer will Caesar rule with all his riches.

Secondly, and here is the interpretive key to all these eight beatitudes: who truly embodies them? Jesus gives us a hint in verse 12, saying "for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." This is the hint we need, because now we know with clarity who embodies these blessings, because it is the same person who embodies the prophets, the revelation from God: Jesus himself.

Who is truly poor in spirit? In St Paul's wonderful poem in his epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2, we read: "...Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." So who is poor in spirit? Jesus Christ on the cross.

Who truly mourns? We see Jesus weep for Jerusalem as he makes his way to sacrifice himself. Then he sees the sins of the world crucifying him, taking their King to death - who mourns? Jesus Christ on the cross.

Who is truly meek? On his way up Calvary, Jesus takes on himself the scorn of the multitudes, as they mock him and whip him. He takes this all the way up, not "getting off the cross" as those who mock him in the crowd say to him to do. Who is meek? Jesus Christ on the cross.

I hope you see where this is going: Jesus Christ on the cross embodies all the beatitudes: hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking, persecution and the object of reviling of men. We must understand the fulfilment of Christ of the beatitudes if we are to understand the victory of Christ.

[1] I have recently finished reading a book by NT Wright, who is known to hold somewhat controversial views on the term righteousness in the writings of St Paul - but for the sake of this, the distinction is not quite so meaningful, instead a matter of emphasis, which I will omit.  

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Beginnings of Jesus' Ministry (Matthew 4:12-25)

As interesting as it is to read about Jesus, it is not until chapter 4 that we read the words of Jesus himself. In the first part of the chapter, Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil; where Israel had failed in the desert, Jesus succeeded, and now he can move on to do what Israel was supposed to do - proclaim the word of God. Israel was meant to be the light for the world, the nation through which salvation would be extended to all, and now we have in Jesus a true Israelite to do what the whole nation was supposed to do.

The passage starts with a bit of narrative and a fulfilled quotation from Isaiah. I am a bit confused as to what to make of Jesus' retreat when John is arrested:

 "Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee" (v.12)

 I may have to think more about why the arrest of John has such an impact.

Next, I would like to urge any reader of the gospel of Matthew to think of many of the things that are "fulfilled" as affirmed in Jesus, more than open-ended prophecies which people are waiting for. Some really are that kind of prophecy - but a lot of the time we see things affirmed in Jesus as the true Christ, more than "this is a prediction which now comes true." Having said that, I am not quite sure under which category this quotation falls: affirmed or predicted-come-true. I suspect the former, just because of where the passage quoted in Isaiah is (the messianic section of Isaiah starts a lot later in the book).

"From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (v. 17)

We have seen how Jesus is being presented to us as the true king of Israel, having been given his Davidic lineage, been named the Messiah, given a miraculous birth, christened Son of God and excelled where Israel had fallen in temptation - now his ministry is going to begin to show this crucial fact. Jesus, King Jesus, has come to announce his kingdom. "The kingdom of heaven" is a foundational theme in the gospel according to St Matthew, and throughout the gospels the message of the King arriving constitutes the essence of what is meant by the "good news", or gospel.[1] 

"As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him." (vv. 18-22)

 This account is expanded in the gospel according to St Luke, but we shall get there when we do - it is important to understand passages first within the context of the book itself before venturing out to supplement from elsewhere. Jesus begins forming the inner circle of his group as he walks along the Sea of Galilee.[2] He calls fishermen to follow him and transforms their vocation to the fishing of people. Now, fishermen were abundant at that time around the Sea of Galilee, so we are to understand the call of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, then the two sons of Zebedee, as the calling of ordinary people. Their response is quick and decisive: they respond to Jesus' call and follow "immediately" (vv. 20, 22).

We can nowadays be much more hesitant to respond to Jesus' call to follow him. These first disciples of Jesus, all four of which are saints of the Church and became the foundation of it,[3] are ordinary people when Jesus calls them to be followers of his and fishers of people. They respond in the only way that is proper to respond to the call of God: faith. This passage expresses what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ - to come when he beckons and to step out in trust when there is not proof in the mathematical sense of Jesus' goodness. The responses of these first disciples - by no means perfect people - are an inspiration to me as I consider my own vocation, my own calling, because I think their response is the one Jesus wanted. So then, if I am to live consecrated to the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom I have already pledged all my life, I too must "immediately leave my place and follow him." I am called - yet it is not entirely clear what to. I think reflecting on the beatitudes tomorrow will do me good in that regard. Nonetheless, any who read the words of Jesus are also called to be his followers - we must come when he beckons, and go too where he commands.

"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan." (vv. 23-25)

Jesus' ministry seems to have the following character: he travels, teaches and proclaims the kingdom of heaven (that is, he proclaims the gospel, ancient Greek for "good news"), and ministers to the sick. This is the model that I think many are called to follow, and the close relationship between proclamation of the gospel and works for the sick (or marginalized in general) is one that we sever to the detriment of both. It will become clearer why the two are so related soon in this gospel account.

 Jesus gains himself some fame for these deeds, and people begin to come to him for healing. He gains himself quite the following from the surrounding area - he will soon preach the greatest sermon ever delivered to this crowd, and the message given is perhaps even more counter-cultural now than it was then. The crowds of people delighted that Jesus heals them are going to dwindle when it comes to responding to his call.

[1] For a treatment of this conception of the gospel in the writings of St Paul, see "What Saint Paul Really Said", by NT Wright. His treatment of St Paul the apostle is highly illuminating.
[2] I find the very idea that we can go and walk around the same place that Jesus did to this very day absolutely incredible. The mystery of the incarnation is indeed deep.
[3] See Ephesians 2:20.