Bob Schwartz

Tag: Jesus

Moses, Elijah and Jesus (Plus Four) Meet on a Mountain: The Feast of the Transfiguration

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated today in many Christian communities. It marks one of the most fascinating stories reported in the Gospels. From the Gospel of Matthew:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. (Matthew 17:1-8, NRSV)

Among those Christian communities, the transfiguration has been subject to different interpretations:

The Transfiguration refers to the appearance of Jesus to his disciples in glorified form. The three synoptic Gospels record the episode: Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36. Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him onto a mountain. (Tradition locates it on Mount Tabor, but many scholars prefer Mount Hermon.) He appeared there before them in a luminous form with Moses and Elijah at his side. Peter proposed that they build three tabernacles, or tents. A heavenly voice declared Jesus to be the “beloved son” and enjoined the disciples to heed him. Jesus then appeared in his usual form and commanded his disciples to keep silence.

There are various interpretations of the episode. Some view it as a misplaced account of a resurrection appearance. Others view it as a mystical experience that Jesus’ disciples had in his presence. Others as a symbolic account devised by Matthew or the tradition on which his Gospel relied. Whatever its origin, the episode of the Transfiguration serves at the very least as a literary device to place Jesus on the same level as the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah) and as a foreshadowing of his future glory. He is the authentic source of divine truth for those who would listen to him.

The feast of the Transfiguration originated in the East and became widely celebrated there before the end of the first Christian millennium. The feast was not celebrated in the West until a much later date. Pope Callistus III ordered its celebration in 1457 in thanksgiving for the victory over the Turks at Belgrade on July 22, 1456, news of which reached Rome on August 6. The feast is on the General Roman Calendar and is also celebrated by the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, the Church of England, and the Episcopal Church in the USA. (Lives of The Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa by Richard P. McBrien)

However you view this story as a matter of fact, faith or theology, it is a big meeting of some heavy hitters. It begins with Jesus plus three apostles, which is not by itself particularly unusual. Then Moses and Elijah arrive. This meeting now qualifies as a big deal, one of the highest-level conclaves in the Bible. But of course there’s more. God shows up—and speaks. (Note that Moses and Elijah both had experience with this: we aren’t sure what kind of voice Moses heard, but Elijah reportedly heard something still and small.)

Maybe the most fascinating detail of the story is the offer by the apostles to build three separate tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Some think this is a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish pilgrimage festival at which tents/booths are built. But it seems more a gesture of welcome: You guys have traveled a long way to get here for this meeting; the least we can do is give you someplace to rest and refresh. Would they have gone ahead and built those tents for Moses and Elijah if God had not interrupted? It’s a thought.

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The Mountain and the Cross

The Mountain and the Cross

How is the view
From up there?

Can you see
How you got there?
Others look
At every act you took
Word you spoke
Song you sang
Pull them apart
Put them together
A journey
That never seems to end.

For you it ends here
For a time
On the mountain and the cross.

A privileged child
A prince
A prodigy
A champion of the people
An enemy
A wise man
A miracle worker embarrassing mere magicians
A leader
A rebel
How did that rebellion go
How is it now?

One mistake after another
Has cost you everything
Won you something
But what in the end
Did it all mean?

(Jesus wonders
If he might have lived longer
Not one hundred twenty
But more than thirty three.
Moses has no complaint
About the number
And would not trade places
Sitting on a mountain
Not hanging from a cross
But regrets having to survey
An unreachable destination.)

You were just infants
Too young to remember
How it began.
Leave it to others
To imagine that past
And future.
You have no choice
But to let them see and speak for you
As you saw and spoke for others.
Now your eyes and mouth are closed
In dark silence from a height.

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Two Thoughts on the Passion: The Buddha and Bob Dylan

 

Bringing It All Back Home

“He not busy being born is busy dying.”

For anyone, Christian or not, the story of Easter is remarkable. Story, that is, not necessarily treated either as a story told or as a history chronicled.

Two of a thousand thoughts.

1.

The Buddhist conception of rebirth is complicated, beyond my simple and simplest understanding. So consider this just a summary and a thought about something of nearly infinite scope.

The realization that we are bound to grow old and die breaks the spell of infatuation cast over us by sensual pleasures, wealth, and power. It dispels the mist of confusion and motivates us to take fresh stock of our purposes in life. We may not be ready to give up family and possessions for a life of homeless wandering and solitary meditation, but this is not an option the Buddha generally expects of his householder disciples. Rather, as we saw above, the first lesson he draws from the fact that our lives end in old age and death is an ethical one interwoven with the twin principles of kamma and rebirth. The law of kamma stipulates that our unwholesome and wholesome actions have consequences extending far beyond this present life: unwholesome actions lead to rebirth in states of misery and bring future pain and suffering; wholesome actions lead to a pleasant rebirth and bring future well-being and happiness. Since we have to grow old and die, we should be constantly aware that any present prosperity we might enjoy is merely temporary. We can enjoy it only as long as we are young and healthy; and when we die, our newly acquired kamma will gain the opportunity to ripen and bring forth its own results. We must then reap the due fruits of our deeds. With an eye to our long-term future welfare, we should scrupulously avoid evil deeds that result in suffering and diligently engage in wholesome deeds that generate happiness here and in future lives.

In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

My own take is that these rebirths are not a succession of lives, in the sense of multiple spans, but within this one life, this span of decades. We are constantly offered the opportunity to be new, based on who we have been but also on who we will be—who we will ourselves through thoughts and actions to be. If this sounds somewhat like the premise of Christian rebirth—of being born again—it might be.

(Note: To add yet another layer, Zen Master Bankei   talked about the unborn, that is, the unborn Buddha mind. When we realize that there is a reality that is there even before birth, we are marvelously illuminated. Not being born, we are not even subject to rebirth. But that’s another story.)

2.

Thinking about the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, a soundtrack came to mind: Bob Dylan’s song It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), from the album Bringing It All Back Home (1965).

I looked to see whether Dylan had ever talked about a connection between the song and the Bible story. At first glance, it looks like not.

Maybe I’m just reaching, the way exegetes sometimes do, but it seems clear to me. If you’re not familiar with the song, please read the lyrics (below) and listen to the track. As a poem, it is up there with the classics of modern beat poetry, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. It is that good.

The song begins with a son singing to his mother about a darkness at noon. He obviously is, or considers himself, some kind of prophet, railing against the status quo and the powers that be. He acknowledges that this is dangerous. He finishes by imagining his execution: “And if my thought-dreams could be seen/They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”

All along, he assures the mother that everything is alright:

It’s alright, Ma, I’m only bleeding…
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing…
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it…
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to…
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him…
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

 

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Written by Bob Dylan

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Person crying

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

Translators May Be Traitors

If you read important books that are written in a language other than your own, you are at a disadvantage. You are depending on the kindness or brilliance of strangers. On translators.

That is doubly complicated if the original text is ancient, and the original language itself is a mystery, even for those who are expert.

The Bible, both First and Second Testaments, not to mention collatral ancient scriptural books and fragments, are a well-known example. The same problem arises with Asian texts such as the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, or early Buddhist discourses.

So you see the challenge. Jesus or the Buddha said great things in their native language. Nobody transcribed them when spoken. The thoughts and words were remembered and kept accurately alive, as accurately as possible, in oral transmission and storage. Then they were set down in writing, in a language related to the original speech, maybe, but later in entirely different languages. And as the words migrated, the texts were overlaid and transformed, even as there was a sincere attempt to preserve the original.

Finally, they come to you, in the language you speak, read and understand. Which is far removed from the original.

When the French had the audacity to translate Dante into their own language, the Italians came up with a harsh accusation: Traduttore, traditore. Translator, traitor.

Consider that when you read translations, you are someone who cannot read yourself, or even see. You are in the dark. You depend on those who read to you. And hope that they are good and true readers themselves.

Give to the Emperor

Render Unto Caesar

Resolutions to stay away from politics, when it’s pretty or ugly or pretty ugly, can be hard to keep. But politics, no matter how significant it may seem, can be like psychic, emotional, moral quicksand, which as it reaches your shoulders, leaves you wondering if this trip was really necessary.

So let’s see what Jesus said about all this.

The famous “Question about Paying Taxes” is one of the most discussed and interpreted passages in the Gospels. Here it is, from the Gospel of Luke in the NRSV translation:

So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:20-26)

Some view this as a story about the separation of state and church. Some view it as about obedience to civil or religious authority. Some view it very particularly as a directive on withholding tax payment from ungodly government. And so on.

I take this as a spiritual message, grounded in practical experience. Political speech and action can be very important, even essential, to the accomplishment of positive and beneficial goals. And very seductive. But those activities can also set you in the midst of circumstances and environments that can seriously put you at a distance from more enlightening aspirations and possibilities. Sometimes really far from them.

You can’t run away from politics and its consequences. Those coins and emperors are always going to be there. So if you get caught up in it, just remember that there are other higher callings that have nothing to do with policies and positions and politicians.

Jim Wallis: Evangelical Voters Have Some Explaining To Do

Embarrasing to Be an Evangelical

Jim Wallis says that some Evangelical voters should be embarrassed.

Wallis is President and Founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners. It is impossible in short form to explain what treasures Jim Wallis and Sojourners are. So please visit the links to read the descriptions.

Wallis is a stubborn reminder of what he believes Jesus would expect from American Christians, in the face of some of their shortcomings, hypocrisy and grandstanding. No matter what your own faith preference, he is admirable as a brave and insistent conscience for America.

Please read today’s piece, “It’s Embarrassing to Be an Evangelical This Election:
The So-Called ‘Evangelical Vote’ Has Some Explaining to Do.

Bernie Sanders as John the Baptist

John the Baptist

The Democratic Party is in trouble. Politically, philosophically, spiritually, demographically. Bernie Sanders won’t save the party or win the presidency. But he is setting the scene for the party’s reform and renewal.

John the Baptist was a terrible candidate to lead a religious revolution. He was a wild-eyed radical who seemed to be crazy. His people skills needed work. But his cause found a much better spokesman and leader, who took it to the next level. And then some.

When you think carefully about the party and its recent Presidents and leaders, you look hard for real radical inspiration. Bill Clinton was affable and politically adept, but his was the politics of radical compromise, to the point of digging a rut in the middle of the road that invited neo-conservative disaster and greed. Barack Obama was genuinely inspirational, and has helped the cause of humane Americanism as much as politics would allow. But circumstances and inclination led him to solid pragmatism.

One problem with pragmatism is that it makes a terrible anthem and cause. Another is that it allows all sorts of accommodations that look to the would-be believer like nothing but surrender.

That’s where Bernie Sanders and John the Baptist come together. When the stakes are high, and the troubles are deep, that’s when you have to invoke big visions. That’s what gets people who have fallen into both practical and spiritual malaise to answer the call and start working for real change.

There are few in the Democratic Party willing or able to do this. Whether or not Hillary Clinton wins the nomination or the election, it is not her. If she wins the nomination but loses the election, the party will do some typical superficial soul searching. If she wins both, she may consolidate her power, and the power of the establishment, but the Congress will be even less effective than it is now.

Either way, it is possible that Bernie Sanders is unleashing something bigger than the Clintons or any tepid self-inquiry the party may pretend to engage in. He may not be heir to the spirit of Bobby Kennedy, but he might as well be saying this:

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

When Bernie Sanders is done with this election, another Democratic reformer and revolutionary will come along, and another. At that point, if we are lucky, millions of previously unengaged and disappointed people may come to the party dreaming and asking “why not?” And Bernie, like John the Baptist, will have prevailed.

One God Two God

One Fish Two Fish

One God
Two God
Red God
Blue God
(apologies to Dr. Seuss)

A professor at Wheaton College may be dismissed for saying that Christian and Muslims worship the same God.

There is so much that could be said about this.

About the history of American evangelicalism, of which Wheaton is a part. How it began as an open and activist socially liberal Christian movement and has ended up in some instances a radically conservative and strictly exclusivist movement.

About theology as complex as any machine ever built, and just as incomprehensible to those who are not religion mechanics and engineers. How even though the God of the Jews was absolutely the God of Jesus, and the God of the Jews and Jesus was absolutely the God of Muhammed, that isn’t so according to people who may think themselves smarter and more important than Jesus or Muhammed.

The concept of one God was a revolution in civilization. The earlier belief in an entourage of gods, greater and lesser, has been mostly replaced by the one. (Whether that one might be three-in-one goes back to the theology complexities mentioned above, so let’s leave that for now.)

It is no wonder that after thousands of years with religion as a standard way of life, more people are rejecting it than ever. Because if there is a God, and if religions have sprung up on his behalf (with or without his blessing), that God and those religions can look spectacularly ridiculous in the eyes of good people who want nothing but good for people. And because if God really cares about all this very human nonsense, a growing number of people want nothing to do with him or his religions. And who can blame them?

WWJDAB: What Would Jesus Do About Guns?

If Jesus returned, and found America flooded with guns, and saw so many people drowning in that flood, what would he do?

A lot of people claim to speak for Jesus, but I am not one of them. Still, I have a guess, or maybe just a hope. Jesus would make the guns disappear. He might—might—later give them back to some who were hunting to put food on their table. He might not give them back to those who use them for sport, explaining that golf is more challenging and that far fewer people are killed by golf balls and golf clubs.

Almost immediately, Jesus would be criticized for taking away a God-given freedom. God blessed the world with America, God blessed America with a Constitution, and God blessed the Constitution with a Second Amendment. Jesus might reply that he had a better idea of what God blessed and what God had in mind. And that what he didn’t have in mind was millions of people running around with deadly weapons and often wantonly shooting thousands of others. God also isn’t keen on Kindergarten teachers packing heat while shepherding five-year-old children. Jesus would close by reminding folks that it is the peacemakers who are blessed, not the gun makers.

By then, it would be too late. Nobody would be listening. As if they ever did.

Netanyahu Scapegoats the Palestinians for Holocaust

The Jews killed Jesus. The Palestinians started the Holocaust. So who’s the scapegoat now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that in the early days leading up to World War II, Hitler visited the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and it was that Palestinian leader who came up with the idea of the Final Solution:

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’

Historians have already weighed in heavily on how historically bogus this is, given that, among other things, Hitler published Mein Kampf three years before that meeting. The assertion has been described as “jaw-dropping”, with even friendly politicians “agog” at this dark nonsense.

Just when you thought it was the Jews who have for centuries been scurrilously blamed for every terrible thing, Netanyahu goes and turns the tables and scapegoats somebody else. Not just any somebody else. The enemy within and on the borders, the one that you could happily live without.

It appears that the very unpopular Prime Minister is trying to take lessons from Donald Trump, with whom he shares the kinship of attending Wharton. The strategy: Demonize those unwanted immigrants and/or natives. Say anything, no matter how incendiary, explosive, ridiculous or unrelated to fact about the enemies within, and people will love it. And you.

Just one glitch. Trump doesn’t lead a nation at the center of global conflict; actually he doesn’t lead any nation at all. And if America has a history of scapegoating, which it does (take your pick among religious, cultural, political and ethnic groups), it doesn’t compare in long-term viciousness to what the Jews have endured.

Starting, of course, with the big one. In fact, if you look closely at Netanyahu’s indictment, it is not that the Palestinians actually ran the death camps. They just planted the idea, whispering in the ear of an emperor, who was happy to carry out the deed. This time a German emperor, instead of Roman one.

Who’s the scapegoat now?