Some Thoughts on a New Orientation

Posted: August 9, 2016 in Church of the Brethren, Hermeneutics, Theology

Over the past couple of weeks I have been considering this “rule of lifDSCN2853.JPGe” for Brethren discipleship that is being developed even now. The very premise that o
ne needs a “rule of life” presupposes that living according to particular habits is efficacious toward desirable faith. What is most interesting to me (right now) about this is the underlying prem
ises—what the trajectory (or desired results) of this form of living is and how it will take shape.

One of the central teachings of Jesus in his “Sermon on the Mount” is the necessity of one’s radical re-orientation toward God’s projected (and incarnated) imaginary (God’s kin(g)dom) and away from the empire’s projected imaginary as well as the misshaped protested responses to its imaginary. Take notice that this is not about merely two competing narratives but more accurately multiple narratives. In Matt. 6 what is often considered a teaching on giving or stewardship, Jesus emphasizes a posture that is distinctive from the other competing narratives. It is one that requires practicing personal piety in secret and not ways that make it obvious to the world. Most significantly it is requisite of breaking socio-cultural bonds and practices that define one’s place in society, i.e., not announcing one’s charitable giving and systemically changing how one perceives wealth.

Moreover, this section of his sermon intentionally addresses how practices (orientation) affect the allegiances of one’s heart. Thus, Jesus tells stories that require rich young rulers to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. In this particular context, however, Jesus is addressing people who were more probably living at the subsistence level (barely getting by). So when Jesus follows up his teachings about nonresistance and how to give benevolently with instructions on prayer and fasting, he reaches the climax of his sermon with words regarding orientation and allegiances. In this it is assumed that human beings possess a natural capacity to create bonds and emotional ties to inanimate objects. And that such bonds project these allegiances. It is a natural human response to a teaching concerning the expectation of benevolence and nonresistance that the p
erson would begin wondering the future cost of such behavioral practices. “How can I afford to give someone my outer garment when they have already taken my inner?” “How can I afford to lend to anyone who asks without expectation of being repaid let alone not charging interest?”

soci_benevolence_imgThese questions are especially justified when our bonds and ties to the inanimate objects are based upon ownership and possession. In the twenty-first century northwestern world, with its obsession over wealth and ownership, it becomes a radically more difficult teaching. And yet it speaks specifically to the reality of one’s allegiances (or bonds of the heart). I believe Jesus understood well the complexities of these relationships, especially the effects of liturgies surrounding and leading to them upon the people of the first century. Within the Roman culture society was structured vertically. It mattered explicitly where one was located on the societal ladder as it was determinative as to the rights and privileges one was afforded. Unfortunately, this vertical structuring was not limited to the Roman culture. Jewish culture was similarly structured regardless of where one found itself in the community. Admittedly, Pharisaical Judaism was an attempt to reform these structural impositions to a more horizontal nature. Yet even so it was the means by which it too imposed such reforms that inevitably resulted in a similar structure.

One of the underlying assumptions of the “Sermon on the mount” is the power of practice to definitively shape allegiances and identity. I suppose another way of posing part of these recent thoughts would be to consider the necessity of being oriented to the kin(g)dom of God. According to the “Sermon on the Mount” living according to the habits listed is requisite for such an orientation. When we posture ourselves in such a way that our attention is benevolently directed toward the margins of society and the people who are excluded, our bodily attitude (with all its values and judgments) is reformed and kin(g)dom shaped. It is no coincidence that in chapter twenty-five Jesus sets up the standard of judgment according to how one treats and relates to this marginalized population. He essentially tells them (those hearing the parable) that whatever they do (or not) to or (not) for them, they do (or not) to or (or not) for him. This intimate association Jesus makes with this population is determinative of the trajectory and consequential effects of the practices by which he is instructing his followers to live.

Essentially the development and implementation of these habits in one’s life ultimately expresses a rejection of the societal structures of the earthly powers. Through behavioral assimilation into such a rule, one’s life becomes a protest of the current social systems and the injustice and oppression they incur. Moreover it becomes a rejection of the Empire’s social reality and all the violent responses to it. Thus living according to this rule reshapes the desires and imagination of the disciple. In terms of spiritual formation, such discipline postures the disciple in such a way as to submit to the formative power of God’s Spirit. This is to say that what may begin as a discipline soon becomes a way of life that is effortless due to the transformation of one’s whole person (not merely heart) in the process.

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