Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lutherans (especially) and the Sermon on the Mount

I don't mean this to be a question just for Lutherans; I think the discussion will benefit from its not being an intramural contest. But my question arises from my Lutheran perspective: It is rendered acute by the Lutheran emphasis on "justification by grace through faith." And so I guess it is as a Lutheran that I raise the issue. But at the same time, I have benefited in thinking about this question from the on-going conversation at Mount Olive Lutheran Church of the Gospel of Matthew. We continue to meet (and will through the summer) and hope to finish the book -- probably late next year!

As any quick read of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel will reveal (and I'm not going into parallels and other practices of textual criticism), Jesus speaks repeatedly in terms that don't sound very Lutheran. In addition to the entire Sermon's reaffirmation of the Law and the Prophets (5:17), there are numerous threatening logia such as these:

  • "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (5:20)
  • "I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; ... and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire." (5:21f)
  • "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (6:1)
  • "[B]ut if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (6:15)
  • "For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." (7:2)

So here's my question: How do all y'all understand these sayings of Our Lord? (That implicates the general question of judgment at the end times, of course, too.) If you are a Lutheran (and also if you're not, but nonetheless don't subscribe an outright works-righteousness theology), how do you square these straightforward logia with the Lutheran "sola gratia" -- i.e., we are saved by grace, not anything we do? What is the reward that the Father will withhold unless we are discrete in our charity? Is there really room for a tit-for-tat in the Gospel?

I rather assume that no one will suggest that the Sermon on the Mount is simply idealistic language that Jesus knows no one can obey: That seems, even from the mouth of Reinhold Niebuhr (who I'm told held to that view) too facile and too unbiblical. But if that's your position, prove me wrong.

We've had some good times in the Matthew class with this, and I'd like to see what happens here.
Happy posting.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Long time no write

I think I have been in some sort of cave -- if not literally, certainly in terms of my ability to get anything done or anything put on this blog. I reached one of those swirly times (as I call them) when I have forty different themes swirling about in my head, smacking against each other, knocking each other in and out of orbit. And I can't nail anything down. (I feel sort of like a c-string player of quidditch, of Harry Potter origin -- one who can't figure out the game, let alone snare the Snitch!) But before heading off to Baltimore for the (as usual) exciting CCET conference, I set out a short bibliography of books that I'm reading and enjoying or have read and enjoyed -- without saying much about why I like them yet, because I'm trying to figure that out.

By accident, I ran across Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness. I have been looking for a pretty basic, introduction to the thought of Karl Barth. I intend to return to Robert Jenson's Alpha and Omega (which, I am happy to crow, was a gift of the author!), but I ran across this on a list and sent for it. It is written by Joseph Mangina who teaches theology at Wycliffe College and Toronto School of Theology, and that's impressive enough, but -- get this -- he's the incoming editor of Pro Ecclesia, so he's reallllly important. Best of all, he writes with utter clarity and with a good eye to answering questions that we less-than-competents might raise in our minds as we read. I'm by no means well into the book yet, but based on the work, I seem to confirm that I have distinct Barthian sympathies.

On another entirely different tack, I have just finished Tracy Kidder's portrait of an astounding doctor, lobbyist, teacher, researcher, gadfly, humanitarian. It is Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. Paul Farmer is an infectious disease doctor out of Harvard Med and Brigham and Women's Hospital and a medical anthropologist (PhD) from Harvard, who quite some time ago (and before he was a doctor) got inspired to try to cure people through a visit to Haiti. He began working with a missionary (even before he began medical school) and with his partners there and his companion Ophelia Dahl (the daughter -- for the gossipmongers among you -- of Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal) and with the financial support of Thomas White, a multimillionaire who stated his goal in life was to give away his fortune eventually set up Partners in Health. Farmer himself eventually became, at least according to Kidder, the single most important force in the fight against tuberculosis and advocate for funding for health care in the world. There is some really inspiring stuff in the book, even though I generally eschew hagiography. (You can read about PIH here.)

Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor is David Augsburger's stab at analyzing Anabaptist spirituality. He calls the best of Anabaptist spirituality "tripolar" -- integrating as it does a (very Matthean, if I may say so) call to forget self-interest, to look to God, and to see the impossibility of faithfulness without attention to the well-being of those around us. Aubsburger, too, is an excellent writer. I noted to one of my friends that he amazes me because just as I formulate a "yeah-but" to something he's saying, he raises the same issue in order to rebut or integrate it. Along with my Barthian inclinations, I'm definitely not very Lutheran in my utter respect for the Anabaptists. They can be cerebral and rigorously logical, but it is infused with Spirit and commitment to the life of faith, not just to the life of the mind. This is a good read.

I have also picked up a new -- to me -- novel by E.L. Doctorow, whom I really enjoy. This one, The March: A Novel is placed within Sherman's March to the Sea, and it draws in characters from all walks of life in that horrifying era. Doctorow's fictionalized history always sings, I think, and this is no exception. One of my friends was once (and may still be) absolutely taken with W.T. Sherman, and he as much as the author inspired me to pick up the volume. (It was $3 at the library used-book sale.) I had intended to send it to him when I was finished with it, but I'm not sure, now, when I'll be "finished," since I may want to return to it.

With the Saturday Book Group at my church, I recently read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. By all accounts, this is a book that every literate person (at least those aspiring to some sort of snobbery) should read, and I'm very happy to have read it. Of course, I'm even happier to be done reading it! But it is a really splendid melange of myth-making (it is a re-imagining of the Bible narrative, I think -- though with different themes), theologizing, satire, poetry, absurdism, fantasy -- and what else? I read online that of the "Books that Make you Smart," this is the second most important, so now I'm duty-bound to read number one -- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

OK, enough. This is a sampling from the last couple of months. (And it doesn't indicate the important journals -- pre-eminently Pro Ecclesia, but also Lutheran Forum, Word and World, Theology Today, National Geographic, and The Atlantic Times.) Now it's your turn to suggest good stuff -- what you've liked recently.

And I'll try to make some sense of the buzzing in my head in the future! That old Snitch can't get away every time, can it?