Living The Kingdom of God

In the book Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (page 124), Michael Plekon, building upon the writings of Paul Evdokimov, notes:

 “For every Christian, the sacraments of initiation confer the dignity of prophet, priest and king. Every profession and state in life can be a form of this universal priesthood. In the liturgy, such a priest ‘makes of everything a human offering, a hymn, a doxology’. Then, in daily life, in the ‘liturgy after liturgy’ of St. John Chrysostom, such a Christian is

‘freed by his faith from the “greater fear” of his twentieth century, fear of the bomb, of cancer, of communism, of death; [his] faith is always a way of loving the world, away of following his Lord even into hell. This is certainly not a part of a theological system, but perhaps it is only from the depths of hell that a dazzling and joyous hope can be born and assert itself. Christianity in the grandeur of its confessors and martyrs, in the dignity of every believer, is messianic, revolutionary, explosive.  In the domain of Caesar, we are ordered to see and therefore to find what is not found there—the Kingdom of God. This order signifies that we must transform the form of the world, change it into the icon of the Kingdom. To change the world means to pass from what the world does not yet possess—for this reason it is still this world—to that in which it is transfigured, thus becoming something else—the Kingdom.’ (Paul Evdokimov)”


Blessed is the Kingdom

“The first exclamation of the Divine Liturgy reveals the key to the entire celebration:

Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

With these words the celebrant announces the source and the goal of the divine service of the People of God, the very context and contents of the entire liturgical action. It is the Kingdom of God brought to the world by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and mystically reigning already in the faithful disciples of Christ by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom of God is eternal life in communion with God in loving obedience to his divine will. It is life in union with the Blessed Trinity; life lived toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is the life which Christ has given to men by his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification. It is the life to be lived already in this world by the People of God. To bless the Kingdom of God means to love it as one’s most precious possession. The response of the people to the proclamation of blessing by the priest is with the word Amen, which means so be it. This is the solemn affirmation that indeed the blessing of God’s Kingdom is fitting and proper. It is the official confirmation that this Kingdom is indeed the ‘pearl of great price’ for the faithful, which once having found it, they will love it and serve it and desire to have it forever (Lk 13.14).” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Worship, Vol. 2, pp 152-153)

RSVP: The Messianic Banquet

Eaeh year in the Orthodox calendar during the Nativity Fast the Gospel lesson from Luke 14:16-24 is proclaimed on a Sunday a few weeks before Christmas.  The parable is often interpreted as one of the parables of the Kingdom of God, this one referring particularly to the Messianic Banquet to be experienced at the end of this age.

At that time, the Lord Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’  Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

Fr. John Behr comments:

“Coming together now, to get ourselves ready, we hear a familiar but very striking parable from Christ. A man is ready to give a great banquet, and sends out his servant to call the invited guests. But they all make excuses – and how familiar these excuses are: some need to work their fields or look after their animal, they need to take care of their business; while others are now married and need to look after their families.

The host doesn’t simply abandon the idea of having a banquet; he instead changes his guest list. He invites all those who had absolutely no expectation whatsoever that they would ever be invited to such a feast. He invites the maimed, the blind and lame, all the outcasts of society who live on the streets and in the lanes begging for their food.

Then, as there is still more room, the net is cast wider, this time going outside the city to the country roads and fields, so that, he says, the house will be full; and then he adds, full that ‘not one of those who were formerly invited shall taste my banquet.’Clearly, the point of the parable is to question the confidence of those who think that they will be present at Christ’s own messianic banquet when he comes again in glory. All those who were assured of a place turned out not really to want it. So, we need to ask ourselves, do we really think that, when we are called, we will act any differently from those in the parable? Why should we think that we will have the conviction and the strength to act differently, when even the disciples of Christ didn’t?” (John Behr, The Cross Stands Still While the World Turns, pp 107-108)

The Goal of the Christian Life and of the Church

St. John Cassian  (d. 435AD) offers us straightforward advice on how to stay focused as a Christian on what is important.  There are so many things we might imagine that each of us Christians individually are to do,  or collectively as Church are to accomplish.  Cassian reminds  us that it is easy to lose sight of the goal and then all of our spiritual activities will be aimless.  This is as true for each of us in our spiritual as it is for a parish council or an entire parish or any committee or institutional assembly.  We have to know where we are going in order to know if we are getting close to our destination or to know if we have arrived.   St. John would want to remind us that before we begin any deed to keep in mind the goal of Christians is the Kingdom of God.  Before we begin any activity or meeting, we might ask ourselves how this activity or meeting moves us toward that goal.

“In the same fashion the objective of our life is the kingdom of God, but we should carefully ask what we should aim for. If we do not look very carefully into this we will wear ourselves out in useless strivings. For those who travel without a marked road there is the toil of the journey – and no arrival at a destination. Seeing our amazement at all this, the old man resumed: ‘As we have said, the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. But our point of reference, our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target. If we keep to this point of reference we will proceed with all assurance, as though along a carefully drawn line. If our minds wander a little from this we can come back to it again and keep our eye on it, using it as a standard by which to give ourselves sure guidance.” (Conferences, pg. 39)

Arising from Sleep

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,

the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

(1 Corinthians 15:20)

In the Scriptures, we find an interplay between the ideas of sleep and death.   The Psalmist writes:  Lest I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:3), indicating there is some relationship between sleep and death – the two states are seen as being similar.  The dead  in the Old Testament are sometimes pictured as sleeping with their ancestors.

Sleep is sometimes used as a euphemism for death, as we note in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ good friend Lazarus (John 11) who Jesus tells His disciples had fallen asleep, meaning Lazarus had died.  The implication in the Gospel of course being that death is not a permanent state, but a temporary one from which Christ can summon a person by command.

As St. Paul expresses it:

“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first…”   (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16)

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”  (Ephesians 5:14)

This play on the image of death as a form of sleep can also be read backwards into the creation story of Genesis 2 where God puts Adam to sleep and then removes a rib from the side of Adam to use for the creation of Eve.   Genesis 2 doesn’t mention death in relationship to Adam’s sleep, but  later the Patristic writers will see in the story of Eve being taken from the side of the sleeping Adam as a prototype or prefiguring of the Church, Christ’s bride, coming from His wounded side when he fell asleep upon the cross.

We can see this intentional play on images in one of the hymns from the Lenten Triodion:

I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness,

but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the Cross,

awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.

The “heavy sleep of sin” is certainly another way of implying that sin leads to death.  The Scriptures call for us to be vigilant, which Christian monasticism often interpreted literally to mean we should ward off sleep and watch for the coming of Christ.  But sinfulness causes us to be sleepy and disregard the warning that Christ will come at an hour when we don’t expect it.

The call to prayer is one which implies both arising from sleep and death in order to call upon the Lord.  In Muslim countries the morning call to prayer reminds believers that prayer is preferable to sleep, an idea Islam no doubt learned from Christian monastics.

Christ’s falling asleep yields the resurrection and the defeat of sin and death.  Christ arises from His sleep to awaken us all to that day that knows no evening – the day of the Lord.

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there…”   (Revelation 21:22-25)

St. Symeon the New Theologian on the Last Judgment

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

In the blog series St. Simeon’s Interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, we encountered St. Simeon’s effort to reread the Parable of the Last Judgment so that it applied directly to the lives of monks.  Below is another comment of St. Simeon on the same Parable and we get another sense of how he applied his interpretation to the parable.   In St. Symeon’s comments below Christ is “the light” who is speaking.

“For this reason the light speaks as follows: ‘Wicked servant, from your own mouth I will judge you because, as you say, I came and dwelt in you Who am unapproachable to the orders of angels. You, knowing this, allowed Me to lie buried by the darkness of your evils, just as you yourself say. And, while I was patient for so many years, expecting your repentance and awaiting in addition the doing of My commandments, you did not, even to the end, choose somehow to see Me out, nor did you pity Me Who was choked and cramped within you, nor did you allow Me to find the drachmas which I had lost – I mean you – because I was not allowed to take flame and see you and be seen by you, but was perpetually concealed by the passions which are in you. Therefore, you worker of iniquity, depart from me to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels; because I hungered for your repentance and conversion, and you gave Me no food; I thirsted for your salvation, and you gave Me no drink; I was naked of your deeds of virtue, and you did not clothe Me with them; I existed in the narrow and filthy and dark prison of your heart, and you did not wish to come visit Me and lead Me out to the light; you know Me to be lying in the infirmity of your laziness and inactivity, yet you did not minister to Me by your good works and deeds. So, go away from Me!” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, pgs. 162-163)

Sermon Notes for the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father

2/12/2012  Sermon Notes for   Luke 15:11-31 

Notice that on the first 3 Pre-Lenten Sundays, the Gospel Lessons are each a Parable:  The Publican and Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment.

The fact that Tradition places 3 parables on the Sundays before Lent is intriguing to me because so often we see Great Lent as THE religious season of the year.  One would almost expect to find Gospels in which Christ COMMANDS us what to do.  Yet, instead we are given stories, parables to ponder not direct commandments.   Parables call us to reflect and meditate and think about what lessons are being offered to us.  It is not mere obedience to religious law that God wants from us, He teaches us how to change our hearts.  We can listen to the Gospel parables and learn what behavior to imitate and what religious behavior is not pleasing to God.   I think it is St. Mark the Ascetic in THE PHILOKALIA  who says fulfilling the commandments is one thing but virtue is something else.  Christ is teaching us to be virtuous not just obedient.

Interestingly the Lessons are almost in contradiction to the ideas of religious LAW, for note the heroes in each of the Pre-Lenten Gospels:  it is not the Law-abiding religious person.  In the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee, the Pharisee is clearly the religious person and righteous, but not the hero of the story and not the one who has God’s approval.  In the Prodigal Son it is not the son who stays home and is completely faithful to his father who is the hero, but it is the profligate prodigal who squanders his father’s livelihood (not just his wealth!) in frivolous partying with HARLOTS who is the stories hero.   And next Sunday in the Parable of the Last Judgment it is not the irreligious and those who ignore the 10 Commandments who are condemned in judgment, but those who failed to show mercy.   The Parables of the up-side-down Kingdom challenge our thinking about what is important to God.  God recognizes we are sinners and not perfect and so it is the penitent not the self-righteous who is commended to God and justified by God.  God not only desires mercy rather than Pharisaic faithful to law, but God practices mercy in judgment on those who have been merciful.

So before Great Lent we are taught important lessons by Christ in parables.  But why parables?

Matthew 13:10-17

Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

Prophet Isaiah

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,

and you will indeed look, but never perceive.

For this people’s heart has grown dull,

and their ears are hard of hearing,

and they have shut their eyes;

so that they might not look with their eyes,

and listen with their ears,

and understand with their heart and turn—

and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

The answer to the question about why are we taught in parables is that we might receive the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven.  Lent is not so much about self sacrifice as it is about opening our hearts and minds to receive the mysteries of God’s Kingdom.  We are to shake up our thinking so that we can be receptive to God’s message.

Christ quotes in explaining “why parables?” a passage from the Prophet Isaiah.  And here we see the nature of prophecy.  Prophecy does not predestine what is to happen.  The point of Christ quoting Isaiah is not to say “the inability of people to understand parables was bound to happen as Isaiah said.”  Rather prophecy is a glimpse into what might happen, but it is also a warning that it is not too late to change behavior.

Prophet Jonah

Think about the Prophet Jonah.  He reluctantly goes to Nineveh and warns the people that in 3 days the city will be destroyed.  But in 3 days the city was not destroyed.  Did Jonah lie to the Ninevites?  NO!   They heard his message and repented – their repentance changed the course of history.  The Prophet Jonah saw what was going to occur – where things were headed – but then the people changed their ways.

So too with Isaiah’s prophecy.  Isaiah foresaw a time in which people’s hearts, eyes and ears would be hardened to God’s Word.  A time when people wouldn’t listen to God.  Jesus quotes Isaiah not to predestine the people of His day to fulfilling the prophecy but to cause them to think again so that they would change their behavior and change history too.

The Parables of Jesus give us a glimpse at the Kingdom of Heaven, reveal to us the mysteries that are being laid open to us through Christ and through our following Christian discipline.   We have the change in contemplating the Parables to see and hear what God is doing in our lives today as we progress through Great Lent toward the great day of the final Resurrection.

Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (II)

This is the conclusion to the blog that began with Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (I).   In these two blogs we are looking at how the early Christians intentionally shaped the understanding of Christ and the Christmas story as a challenge to pagan and imperial Roman ideas concerning religion, creation, kingdoms and lords.   For example, Christians came to read some of the Jewish prophets as writing for and speaking to the Gentiles to prepare them for the coming of the Christ, and they came to see even in pagan literature references, however oblique, to the coming of the Messiah.

“Finally, as we saw in the previous chapter, a major aspect of popular early Christian perceptions of Isaiah was undoubtedly his role as a prophet to the gentiles.   In the patristic period the Book of Isaiah was much used in debates about one of the most intriguing gentile ‘messianic prophecies’, namely, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil, known as the ‘Pollio’.  In language and imagery often strikingly close to Latin versions of Isaiah, this first-century BC poem, written in honour of the emperor Augustus, foretells the coming of an age of peace, a new heaven and a new earth, heralded by the appearance of a virgin (iam redit et virgo) and the birth of a boy (nascent puero), where mountains burst into song, trees and flowers grow up in wild places, and goats and lions live together in peace.

Constantine the Great and Augustine both claimed the fourth Eclogue as a gentile prophecy of Christ, using Isaiah as the proof…”   (John Sawyer, THE FIFTH GOSPEL, ISAIAH IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, p 47)

The early Christians were so awed by the truth of the Gospel that they saw it supplanting and fulfilling not just Jewish prophecies or the promises of God in the Old Testament but also pagan religion and its oracles.  As already mentioned, the Roman Empire had no separation of church and state but understood the truth about religion as being foundational to its very success.  Thus the emperors’ own understanding of religion and divinity was essential to the well being of the empire.

“It was Augustus who established this dominant role for the emperor, and his divine power was conveyed through the various titles used for him.  Divi Filius, meaning ‘Son of the Divine,’ or ‘Son of God,’ was his favorite title.  This title appears on almost every coin that Augustus had minted.  … Augustus was considered Son of God because he had a god for his father, Julius Caesar.  Julius was deified upon his death by Augustus, thus also giving Augustus divine status.  Another prominent title for Augustus was Dominus in Latin, or Kyrios in Greek, which means ‘Lord.’  …  Another title for Augustus was Soter, meaning ‘Savior,’ a title conveying that he had saved the empire from instability and foreign powers for peace.  Augustus was also Pontifex  Maximus, ‘High Priest’…   Such is the sketch of the dominant kingdom and king in Paul’s lifetime—the kingdom of Rome, the kingdom of Augustus, the kingdom of god.  This divine king brought peace to the kingdom by means of military victory, and he was worshipped as a god by the people as a basic expression of loyalty to him.”  (John Fotopoulos in THINKING THROUGH FAITH: NEW PERSPECTIVES FROM ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN SCHOLARS, p 25)

Pantheon in Rome

The Christian Gospel was a direct challenge to the commonly accepted ideas about the emperor and about religion.   Thus Constantine’s embrace of Christianity was a true conversion for the empire.  He came to accept the meta-narrative of Christianity as being the correct way to understand himself and the Roman Empire which he governed.  This challenge to imperial and pagan religion began in the First Century of Christianity, when Christianity had no empire or army to support its claims.

Evangelist Mark

Stanley Porter in his book,  HEARING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT,  describes the Gospel of Mark as a direct challenge to the Roman Empire’s claim about Emperor Vespasian (reigned 69-79 AD).  Even Jewish Historian Josephus (d. 100AD) claimed the Jewish scriptures foretold Vespasian’s coming to power.   Porter claims Mark’s opening line to his Gospel (“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”)  was written to oppose any idea that the Old Testament prophesied Vespasian as the savior:

“the Markan evangelist has challenged the imperial cult of the divine emperor… The Markan evangelist puts forward Jesus as the true Son of God, in whom the good news for the world really begins.”

 Porter thinks Mark wrote his Gospel the same year that Vespasian came to power.  Vespasian was

“regarded as divine, as savior, and as the beginning of the good news for the world.  In many other inscriptions and papyri Augustus is referred to as ‘son of God.’ … The language is applied to Vespasian when he was acclaimed emperor.  According to Josephesus, ‘every city celebrated the good news (evangelia)… the whole empire being now secured and Roman state saved.’”  (Porter, pp 93-94)

St. Mark rejects the notion that any Roman Emperor, mere mortal, could be the savior of the world.  The Roman Emperors’ reigns and ability to save the world were limited to their life on earth.  Jesus is prcoclaimed in the Gospel as  a King who rules forever, not from some earthly throne, but seated on God’s throne in heaven.

Thus the Christmas narrative though containing human description surrounding the birth of Jesus, was actually written to challenge both imperial claims and pagan myths.  The Christmas story as written is a powerful message of God’s Kingdom which transformed the mistaken beliefs of an empire into a proclamation of the truth about God, government and creation.

See the addendum:  Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (III)

Preparing to Enter the Kingdom of God

“What can be simpler, he asks, than giving a glass of cold water or bread, or than refraining from one’s own desires and petty thoughts. Yet through such things the kingdom of heaven is offered to us, by the grace of Him who said:  ‘Behold the kingdom of heaven is within you.’   For as St. John of Damaskos says, the kingdom of heaven is not far away, not outside us, but within us.  Simply choose to overcome the passions, and you will possess it within you because you live in accordance with the will of God.”   (St. Peter of Damaskos in Longing for God: Orthodox Reflections on Bible, Ethics, and Liturgy by John Breck, pg. 46)

Reading the Gospel, Learning to Hate?

Recently I was asked why in the Luke 14:25-35 Gospel lesson does Jesus teach “hate”:

“Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.'” (emphasis not in the orginal text)

Jesus teaching us to “hate” seems uncharacteristic of the Lord who not only taught us to love not only neighbor but enemy as well, but who died for us while we were still considered to be the enemies of God!

In answering the question about why Jesus said we are to “hate” other family members, I’m not going to address any issues about translating the Greek word for hate or its connotations.   Rather, I want to bring attention to the very way in which we read Scriptures as a key to dealing with the difficult sayings of Jesus. I won’t claim that my answer will address the question satisfactorily, but it raises an issue we should keep in mind as we read and try to comprehend the Bible .

There are the claims that Jesus in this passage is speaking with a certain form of speech referred to as Mideast or Mediterranean “exaggeration.”    I’ve also heard it said that Americans tend to prefer understatement when speaking and thus “exaggeration” seems even more magnified in our minds.   All of this possibly gives us some insight into  understanding Jesus in Luke 14.

There is the fact that Jesus at times confronts us in our thinking and tries to shake us out of our lethargy by making shocking statements.   He speaks from the point of view of the Kingdom of God whose values are often just the opposite of what we might expect say for example of justice which turns out to be forgiveness, or where the first are made last, and the least are made the greatest.

Jesus demands from us a radically new way of life, and if we listen to his words we really have to wrestle with what he could possibly have meant. What is He teaching us to do? This saying about “hating” parents is just the opposite of his teaching to “love your enemies.” It is the world of the up-side-down Kingdom of God. We are to examine our assumptions, loyalties, dependencies, and our worldly values in order to constantly question how it is possible for us to live in this world of the Fall and yet claim membership in the Body of Christ and thus claim membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, one possibility is that Jesus wanted to challenge us in our normal thinking and make us realize how different the values of the Kingdom of Heaven really are.

In that sense, His words cannot be taken out of the context of the Gospel. In other words, we cannot simply take one line out of the Gospel and try to create a way of life around it for Christ gives to us the values of the Kingdom of God to transform the world.   It can be a  dangerous thing (which we often do) to take one sentence of Christ’s teaching out of its Kingdom context and try to impose it on our lives in the world of the Fall.  This is very true of Jesus’ teaching on hating family (for He also said other things about family which tell us to love and respect the other members of our families, and when at His death He commends His own mother to the care of His disciple John, he also demonstrates something different than hate for His mother ).

Unfortunately, many Christians rely on single passages or sayings of Jesus as their only encounter with Christ.  There are countless books which “help” us by rearranging the Gospel lessons into neat collections of sayings, one liners, sound bytes, which are designed exactly to give full power to each sentence by taking them out of context so that each saying really stands out in our minds.  This form of Scripture reading when it becomes our only way of reading the Gospels, causes us to think of the Bible as an endless collection of quotable quotes, favorite sayings, and incantations to apply to any situation.   While it is a way to read the bible, it should not be our sole diet of Scripture reading.  Each text will be much more meaningful when also understood in its context.

The saying of Jesus about hating one’s parents or children are meant to shock us, to force us to take notice, and to actively pursue their meaning – but their meaning within the context of all the other things Jesus taught and commanded.  If we simply take one line out of the Gospel context and try to comprehend it separated from the rest of Christ’s discipline and from His body of disciples, we distort its meaning.

The same Christ who spoke to us about hating parents and children, tells us to love our neighbors and enemies. We cannot read each verse as if it is unconnected from all the other teachings of Jesus. We need to read them all within the context of the entire New Testament, and we need to read them within the Christian community in order to be able to search for their meaning.

When we try to treat the bible like a collection of one line pithy sayings, then we think we can just pull any one verse out of its context and use it as almost a magic saying to live by for the day.   In doing this, we begin to treat each line of Scripture almost as some magical spell if we say it correctly will exhibit magical powers.  Think for example of the fictional Harry Potter books and movies.  There the wizards and witches have to memorize one line formulas and each when spoken has magical power to do something.   That is not what Scripture reading is to be.  We are not engaged in magic, we are not invoking the elemental powers of this world.  Rather we are engaged in a process by which we ourselves become transformed by the teachings of Christ:  whether in imitating Him or obeying Him, we begin to conform our lives to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sometimes  taking individual passages out of their contexts reduces the passage to a magic spell formula.   But that is not what the Scriptures are nor do they ever tell us to use them in that way.  Every text of Scripture is to be kept in the context of the Bible.  When we read them contextually, we also make them the context in which we understand them and try to practice them!  Scripture is theology, not wizardry.

Every Scripture text has its context, and so reading any one of the difficult sayings of Jesus is meant to draw us back into the deep well of the Scriptures and to try to understand the saying in the light of all of Jesus’ other teachings and his own actions. Did He hate his mother or brothers? NO.  In fact He expands His definition of brother, sister mother to include all of His disciples including us (Mark 3:34-35).   Do we see Him showing respect for the 10 Commandments law to honor your mother and father? yes.

So obviously a mere literal reading of a single text taken out of context is not the best way to read the bible.  Memorizing certain passages has value to it, but we are not merely trying to inform our minds, we are trying to transform our hearts and lives.   This happens best when we keep each line of Scritpure in its context:  the rest of the bible and the Christian community.

We are to keep on reading the Scriptures, and wrestling with the text, and learning to understand them within the context of the people of God to whom God entrusted them.