On Unity: Some Observations on Mark 3:20-35

To all Friends who are in the unity, which is in the light; walk in the light. It is one light that doth convince you all; and one Christ, that doth call all to repentance, up to himself the one head, which is Christ.1 – George Fox

The passage in Mark 3:20-35 is so complex with its various examples of unity and disunity that it is hard to know where to begin! Implied throughout the text, however, is a single, fixed theme: unity with the holy Spirit provides strength, while separation from that Spirit ensures weakness and failure.

The topic of unity is set forth at the beginning of the passage in verse 20 where we read: “the multitude cometh together again.” Though the multitude is “together” (in unity), they are without Christ, and thus seek him. Without Christ, they are weak, even though they are gathered together. We are told “they could not so much as eat bread,” which is to say, they cannot sustain themselves.

In the verse that follows (21), Jesus’s friends enter the scene. Friends are those with whom we feel some unity. These friends, however, are not in unity with Jesus, and even go so far as to assert that Jesus himself is divided; they say of him, “He is beside himself” (21). Finally, adding to the muddle, a third group enters: the scribes, who claim Jesus is in unity with “the prince of devils” (22).

As each of the three groups – the multitude, the friends, and the scribes — enter the scene, the situation worsens into confusion, error, and malice. The crowd is unable to order itself to meet its basic needs; Jesus’s friends undermine him; and the scribes demonize him. The situation is one of disorder, ignorance, and hostility.

One feels a sense of relief when Jesus begins to speak. We know that he will bring clarity and truth to the chaos spread out before us; his words bring order and peace. For through the Logos, God created the heaven and the earth, and through the Logos the world can be restored to its godly estate in gospel order. Robert Barclay in his Apology refers to “common principles of natural truths [that] do move and incline the mind to a natural assent.”2 Even in his unredeemed state, Man is capable of reason and assent to natural truths.

And so, Jesus begins with reason. The scribes have charged him with casting out devils by means of unity with the prince of devils (22). Jesus repels the charge with logic (specifically, the first principle of identity: A = A): he rhetorically asks the scribes, how can he be in unity with Satan when he counteracts Satan by healing the demonically possessed? “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (23) Jesus disarms his opponents by compelling them to see the contradiction or disunity in their thought. He carries the idea further with illustration: “a kingdom . . . divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (24 and 25). In order to be sustained and continue, any being, any entity, any thing – be it a spirit, a thought, a house, or a kingdom – must be in unity with itself: its identity whole, and not fragmented by counterforce. Even “if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end” (26). Jesus therewith dismisses the scribes’ accusation by means of logic, a method amenable to their predilection.

Continuing with the theme of unity versus division, Jesus deepens the dialogue in the next verses to show the need for unity with the Lord, not opposition to him. In the brief parable that follows, the Lord is the owner, the strong man, of the house:

27No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man, and then he will spoil his house. 28Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: 29But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

In these few verses, Jesus has set out the following ideas:  

  1. The Lord is the true, strong, and rightful owner and inhabitant of the house of Man.
  2. Man must recognize his unity with this Spirit in order to remain strong, free, and whole. Conversely, he must not join with the false, invading spirit that would bind the strong man (blaspheme the Lord) and spoil his house.
  3. It is blasphemy to slander another by calling the true Spirit that empowers him false, but if done in ignorance, the blasphemy is forgivable.
  4. To knowingly slander the true Spirit in another – to call it false – destroys the slanderer permanently. Denying the Spirit of Truth within oneself is likewise unforgiveable and puts one “in danger of eternal damnation” (29).

We read in the next verse Jesus’s reason for presenting this lesson: “Because they [had] said, He hath an unclean spirit” (30). He has been slandered by his friends (“He is beside himself.” [21]) and by his enemies (“by the prince of devils casteth he out devils” [22]). His unity with the Spirit of Truth/Logos has empowered him to refute the scribes’ charge and caution against his friends’ ignorant error. Finally, in the last few verses of this chapter (31 – 35), he provides the order necessary for a society (the multitude) to be sustained.

In the early part of this passage, we were told two things about this group “the multitude”: that they had come “together” and “they could not so much as eat bread” (20), which is to say that although people were gathered together (unified), the unity among themselves was insufficient to sustain them. This verse is telling us that without Christ, a social group – though unified among its members – cannot truly be alive: cannot participate in the Life. To be sustained, members of a group must be in unity with the Lord, not simply in unity among themselves.

31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and standing without, sent unto him, calling him. 32And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. 33And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren. 34And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! 35For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

By refusing the call of his family to come away from his work and accompany them, Jesus refutes the authority claims of all social groups. For if the family’s demand is set aside (the family being the principal social group), then must every social group’s demands be likewise considered secondary. Jesus upends the social group’s dominant hold upon people (or screen for them) by setting aside the one social group (the family) where natural ties and obligations are the strongest. He reorients kinship (unity) away from natural, social groupings and establishes it anew; kinship is now founded upon knowledge of and obedience to God: “For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother” (35). Jesus thereby directs people away from the natural tendency to find strength in numbers (social groups) and instead refers them to the power that can order and sustain them each under his own vine and fig tree (Mic. 4:4): that is to say, in the power of God.

In an earlier essay, “Beyond Idealism,” I wrote of some Christians’ preference for presenting Jesus as the facilitator of a smooth, easy flow of omnipresent love from on high to all sinners below. This notion dulls the conscience of the many and extends the influence of the few who perpetrate the claim, for the people love to have it so. Jesus, however, says nothing of the kind, not in this passage, nor in general, nor is he presented as such by early Friends. Jesus doesn’t lull Man into somnolence but awakens him to greater clarity and insight. He calls everyone to a higher way of being that requires the substance of Truth. His example will not let the conscientious person who loves truth continue in the well-worn, unexamined tracks of the millennia, plod out for us wearily to follow. On the contrary, his inward presence enables us to join with him, in spirit and in truth. Therein is the one, true, and miraculous unity.

1  The Works of George Fox (Philadelphia: Marcus T. C. Gould, 1831), 7:58.

2 Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 2002), 22.

Road to Calvary, Baptistery of S. Giovanni Battista, Florence Italy Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1424

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Beyond Idealism: Some Observations on Mark 3:1-6

Much that passes as idealism is . . . disguised love of power. — Bertrand Russell

Last First Day, I joined a group of Friends for Bible study an hour before worship at annual sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). The text before us was Mark 3:1-6 in which Jesus heals a man with a withered hand and evokes the ire of the Pharisees:

1And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. 2And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. 3And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. 4And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. 5And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. 6And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him (KJV).

The first two verses of this passage introduce the short narrative’s two strands of interest: (1) a man is to be healed, and (2) there’s opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees. In verse 3, Jesus prioritizes the first of these two—that is, the healing—by first giving his attention to the man with the withered hand and telling him to “Stand forth.” Though given initial priority, the healing is primarily a catalyst to precipitate the main plot line of this story: the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

After having spoken to the man, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and rhetorically asks: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil: To save life, or to kill?” (v. 4) With this question, Jesus identifies opposing principles: do good and save life, or do evil and kill. Having defined the two conflicting positions, Jesus then demonstrates through the healing which of the two he upholds; that is to say, he is on the side of doing good and saving life. Seeing the demonstration, the Pharisees are left to conclude on which of the two sides their opposition to Jesus puts them, and they must realize that they occupy the side of doing evil and killing. The verse that follows confirms this fact: “And the Pharisees went forth and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him” (v. 6).

The person of today may read this story and quickly judge the Pharisees to be inexcusably wrong in their insistence on the Law with its hard-and-fast Sabbath rules: that this error was something from long ago that we have progressed well beyond. I propose, however, that the present-day elevation of ideals to the position of primary guiding force of individual or corporate life is but a reenactment of the Pharisees mistake: both Law and ideals are secondary ethical standards that usurp the central place of Christ, both within a person and within the religious group. Where Christ should be central, ideals are instead rallied around. As was shown in this brief story at the beginning of Mark 3, such usurpation will inevitably entail hostility toward the true standard of righteousness: Christ, the Lord our righteousness (Jer. 33:16).    

Although the Law of Moses is no longer weaponized to ensure conformity in and manageability of religious communities, different ideals—peace, love, and community—occupy the pedestal in both Liberal and Christian groups. Psychological techniques have replaced physical violence as the means to compel conformity and self-censorship.

In some Christian groups, Jesus is presented as vapidly sweet, and never as he appears in Revelation where he is “called Faithful and True,” from whose mouth issues “a sharp sword with which to smite the nations” (19:12,15 NEB). All the while in passages such as the one at the beginning of Mark 3, we see Jesus exercising that sword as he puts in place the culprits who hide their love of power behind the guise of ideals. Jesus looks at them with anger and sorrow at their obstinate stupidity (v.5).

“Stretch forth thine hand” (v. 5).

It is the man with the withered hand whom Jesus heals. The hand is the means by which Man can make or do; it is the means by which a person can express outwardly what is within: that is, it is the means by which one creates. Symbolically, Christ’s restoration of the hand tells of the person’s new-found gift to bring forth what is within that it may become visible to the world.

 

Apocalypse, Bolognese School 1350
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Redefining the Vocabulary of Faith

The following is a series of excerpts taken from an email exchange that occurred during the last week of Sixth month between Daniel Rowan and me. Daniel is a young Brit who recently has found Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) after having passed through the time of affliction of which Scripture speaks (Mk. 13:19) and which was frequently documented in early Friends journals as a time preceding their having come into the knowledge of the Lord.

In this exchange, we begin by discussing the meaning of the term “repentance” and then move on to a more general discussion of how terms of faith are redefined after one has moved through what Penington identifies as the three-fold state of man: the state of nature, of the law, and of grace. Two of Penington’s tracts are referred to in this exchange: (1) “Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At,”1 and (2) “There Is a Three-fold State of Man, Wherein the Grace of God Visits Him.”2  

On Sixth month, the 22nd, Daniel wrote: From what I have read and heard, the early Friends understood that there was but a single true way to God, and that was through true repentance: to be convicted by God through Christ and to be reformed inwardly and then to be reformed outwardly by God through Christ. Repentance is not sufficient but it is necessary. It is necessary to deny one’s self, take up one’s cross and follow Christ above all else. One therefore has to be prepared to accept that single route to God otherwise there is no route to God. One must be in a state of sufficient desperation to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God; to accept that we are in a fallen state; to accept the sword of Christ to severe our preoccupations with worldly things and worldly ways, and put our priorities and loyalties in order with Him being number 1; to accept the fire of Christ to burn from us our sinful thoughts and ways. Anything that is in service of the ego will not work, and I wonder if a hunger and thirst to be loved and for God’s love is in service of the ego. On the other hand, I wonder if a hunger and thirst to want to love God and thy neighbour, recognising one’s inability to do that without His help, could be sufficient, although that may be referring to much the same thing as hunger and thirst for righteousness. But I may be wrong. I came to God on my hands and knees in existential desperation for righteousness, and I don’t have any other experience to draw on.

On 6/23, Patricia wrote: What I sense in [this] paragraph is a focus upon the first-birth state and the need to get beyond it, along with a mixed understanding of what “repentance” is. What I mean by “mixed” is the implication in some sentences but not others that the agent to effect repentance is the person himself: Your statement “Repentance is not sufficient but it is necessary” suggests to me that though insufficient for salvation, the person chooses to repent; and an example of the second describes the fraught state pursuant to accepting Christ’s gift of repentance [where you write]:

One must be in a state of sufficient desperation to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God. 

The Quaker understanding of repentance is Christ is the agent, not the person. “Christ’s turning of the heart from the dead nature, and from the dead works, towards the living principle, and the living works thereof,” is Penington’s description of the term “repentance” (337). 

For a long time after coming to the Quaker faith, I thought that repentance was to be sorry for wrong-doing and to “deny oneself.” It’s the common meaning of the word: the idea most of us were first given. There’s a problem, however, of having the concept of a thing reside in one’s mind when one doesn’t have the experience of the thing itself. (I don’t think that this is your situation, given the things I’ve read and heard from you.) Once one has the experience, the new-found knowledge resulting from that experience can assist in redefining the vocabulary of faith to more accurately reflect the Truth.    

Now why is it important to name the agent of repentance to be Christ rather than the self? First, it’s true; and second, because the mistaken idea that one can choose to repent allows for a false assumption that one can put oneself right with God. One does not and cannot become righteous until after the second birth has been given: one can’t turn to God; one can only receive Christ when repentance is given. Again, Penington writes: 

Quest. Cannot a man turn from sin, and turn to God when he will? 

Ans. No; man is a captive, his understanding captive, his will captive; all his affections and nature in captivity; and nothing can turn him towards God, but that which is stronger than that power which captivateth him (337). 

Practically, if a person who hasn’t known Christ considers himself to be his own agent of repentance (and furthermore entertains popular concepts about faith), he will likely decry his sin, “turn to God,” and think he’s done his bit to obtain salvation. And he can remain captivated, decrying his sin forever—and perhaps secretly congratulate himself for his pious act of “repentance”—all the while not realizing that his confidence in his concepts and his “repentance” express a pride that is keeping him more insidiously captivated than any particular behaviors he and his social group deem sinful. 

Once true repentance is given by Christ, one has a new understanding of Christ, how he comes to be known; of faith, hope, and love; of obedience; of peace, or rest; of joy; of liberty; of prayer; of regeneration, justification, sanctification, reconciliation, and redemption. All these topics are covered in an excellent tract by Penington that I’ve already referred to a couple of times in this email: “Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At.” The body of the tract is comprised of Penington’s redefining the vocabulary of faith to reflect Quaker understanding, recognizing the ever-present discrepancy between concepts (what he calls “description . . . received into the understanding”) and “revelation or unveiling . . . in the heart”(333).

It may seem as though I’ve dwelt too much in this email on the issue of concepts and revelation affording different meanings to words. But striving for clarity of speech, clarity of meaning, exercises and strengthens discernment, and discernment is our given, natural power for developing sensitivity to truth. Along with the desire for truth, its exercise is the means by which the Father draws us to the Son (Jn. 6:44).  Our seeing our inevitable failure to find truth/righteousness—and suffering the humility that follows—are necessary to bring our consciousness to what you’ve rightly identified as “a state of sufficient desperation” where we are ready “to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God,” or what is experientially known as personal effort that has led to nowhere. And in that state of despairing resignation, one is prepared to receive the true repentance that God in his mercy gives. 

Penington begins this tract with these words: “None but Christ, none but Christ, saith my soul, from the sense of my continual need of him, and from the deep love of my heart to him” (333). Knowing Christ, we feel Penington’s words reverberate within us: just as his thought focuses on the savior, and not on sin, so must ours. We may discover on occasion that in our souls “the enemy is not there wholly cast out,” yet, as Penington continues, “if the bent of the heart be against the sin committed, God chargeth it upon the enemy and not upon the soul” (338), and Penington supports his statement with a reference to Romans 7:20. Acknowledgment of one’s transgression is necessary, but dwelling upon it is not productive—especially if one knows Christ. Dwelling upon and pleading for sin was the primary difference between the 17th-century Puritans and the Quakers. One’s focus should be where the Quakers placed it: upon one’s need and love for Christ, accompanied by the confidence born of experience that when he shall appear we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn. 3:2). 

On 6/25, Daniel wrote: One could say “a person can do the will of God or can chose not to,” which implies one can chose to do the will of God. But that makes no sense. If one’s will has been surrendered to that of God, one has surrendered one’s choice, or capacity to choose, to God. And so it would be better to say: a person can do the will of God or can chose. That is, the word “choice” needs to be redefined as = not doing the will of God = sin, or choice = sin. God has given us the physiological and psychological “machinery” to do his will on earth. But in our fallen, wretched ego-laden state, some of that psychological machinery has become corrupted such that it serves ourselves and can be exercised for our own sake: choice, free will etc. God wants us to return to our right state and will, at some point(s) in our lives, “knock at our doors” and offer us His Spirit and Power to return us to that right state. At that time of visitation, we can either surrender choice, and be guided onto the path to return, or we can continue to choose, and remain in that fallen state. This makes much more sense of my experiences since December 2021 of being convicted by the Lord and there feeling that I did not have and did not make a choice. Since that point, Christ has been redefining me. Hallelujah!

Am I getting it?

Daniel

On 6/27, Patricia wrote: Yes, Daniel, I think you’ve understood that there is no free will until Christ appears within and sets us free from sin. We need his heavenly light and power revealed within to become free from that which confines consciousness to its natural, darkened state.

Isaac Penington writes of the “three-fold state of man” (258) in which he outlines different conditions of the soul. Each condition is supplied with a form of God’s grace that is appropriate to it. In the first, the state of nature, man is given leadings towards the good and away from the evil: divine leadings to choose good over evil, but in this state, Christ isn’t known and is yet a promise, and the person himself identifies the particulars of what “good” entails. In the second state, says Penington, the soul is exercised in obedience to the law and continues in the “pure fear . . .  the place of wisdom’s teaching,” and in this state, the person anticipates coming into knowledge of Christ. Finally, in the state of grace or faith, a person knows and enjoys the power to do the will of God; “the light of life entering into, and possessing the vessel.”These states are not permanent–one doesn’t possess them; our soul’s condition depends upon which spirit, in fact, possesses us! 

These differing inward conditions of the soul yield different perspectives on what religion is and what the words of faith mean. The first state of nature where Man himself decides what is good and chooses to enact it is, I think, what modern Friends mistake for God’s leadings. Do you see the distinction between this and the gospel state? That is, in the first (the state of nature), people may choose “good,” but they themselves define what “good” is rather than being given knowledge that arises when “the light of life enter[s] into, and possess[es] the vessel.” In the first state of nature, repentance would be seen as arising from a person’s will to repent, because he knows repentance is “good.” Erroneously identifying the state of nature with the state of grace, the modern Quaker is averse to coming into the second state, that of the law, proudly thinking he’s beyond needing an external standard of righteousness, and not acknowledging early Friends’ stand that “the law, the light, the life, the wisdom, the power, are one and the same.” The law checks the state of nature but is met and superseded by the state of grace or faith. 

For those who have come into a state of faith, the third state, it’s necessary to communicate the new and living way that we’ve been given. To do this, we often have to redefine religious vocabulary to reflect our newfound understanding. We need to do this for two reasons: (1) it alerts others to the fact that there is something beyond the state or condition of nature or law that they presently inhabit, implying the need for them to come into it themselves, and (2) our clear communication of our new understanding supports and strengthens others who also have come into the new understanding. So for these reasons, it’s helpful for us to work together to honestly and clearly communicate the one thing needful: Christ—whether through ministering the gospel, or by intellectually parsing ideas to accurately reflect the reality we’ve known.

Patricia

On 6/29, Daniel wrote: If I understand correctly, those three states of man relate to the three states of mankind, or three states of relationship with God, in the bible: the natural state parallels our “fallen” state, the law state parallels our state within the old covenant, and the Gospel state parallels our state within new covenant through Christ.

Also, if I understand correctly, you are using a definition of “free” that would arise from the faith state, i.e., free from our own will, and a slave to God’s will. This contrasts with the definition that would arise from the natural state, which really means free from God’s will and a slave to “our own” will (our pride, ego etc.), to other egos in the world, and to evil one.

An analogy of God’s power to work on us to gravity came to me the other morning. God is always pulling on us towards Him. When we are further away from Him, we feel that pull more weakly, but it is still there. And as we are pulled closer towards Him, so we are pulled harder (to those who have some, more will be given). While it is not through our power that we fall towards Him, we can resist and pull, and be pulled, away. But He is always trying to pull us back. When we let go, we initially feel that we are in free fall, confused, unable to breathe. But if we continue to let go, we realise that He has us in His power and will bring us swiftly into His arms. As with all analogies, best not take them too far, so I’ll leave that one there.

Daniel

1 Works of Isaac Penington,” Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At” (Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995, 2:336-8).

2 Works, “There Is a Three-fold State of Man,” 2:258-9.

Rembrandt Christ with Arms Folded, 1657-61, Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York
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The Mind of Christ

For it hath been declared unto me of you . . . that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? . . . For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:11-13 and 17-18 KJV).

What I mean is this: each of you is saying, ‘I am Paul’s man’, or ‘I am for Apollos’; ‘I follow Cephas, or ‘I am Christ’s.’ . . . Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the Gospel; and to do it without relying on the language of worldly wisdom, so that the fact of Christ on his cross might have its full weight. This doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin, but to us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God (12 and 17-18 NEB).

For Christ did not send me forth to baptize, but to preach the gospel; not in accomplished oratory, but so that the cross of the Christ might not be made meaningless. For the word of the cross is folly to those who go the way of perdition, but to us who go the way of salvation it is the power of God (17-18 RL).1

In this passage from the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul dismisses as trivial the quarrel that has divided the church: members have allied themselves with – and perhaps sought baptism from – one of several visiting apostles, and thereby have put themselves at odds with one another. Whichever visiting speaker has most impressed with “wisdom of words” has gained a particular following within the group. Paul will have none of it; chastises their divisiveness; and redirects their attention to the one essential, unifying power: the cross of Christ.

Having sensed the root of the problem to be a misbegotten debate of ideas, Paul then devotes the remainder of this first chapter, as well as the entirety of second, to illustrating the difference between thought and revelation, contrasting their respective origins, natures, and effects.

Ideas and opinions come about through the use of the intellect, and as intelligence has been the primary means by which these Corinthians – as well as the rest of humanity – have survived and thrived, Paul must express and convince them of the reality of the superior power that is hidden from but nonetheless calls to them. His first move is to debunk their “faith” in their intelligence to discern and know the things of God, and so he draws from the authority of Scripture (Isa. 29:14) to show the dictum on the matter: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will make void the intelligence of the intelligent” (19, RL). To drive home the point that intellect is not to be revered above its place (which is to say, intellect is not to be idolized), Paul assumes a tone of mockery and fires a smattering of rhetorical questions in the Greeks’ direction: “Where is the sage? Where is the scholar? Where is the student of the age? Did not God turn the wisdom of the world to folly?” (20) The world’s wisdom is chided as futile: incapable of coming into the knowledge of God.

Reversals of worldly expectation abound throughout the remainder of this first chapter, for example: “the folly of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (25). All serve to deflate the intellect’s suppositions and over-estimation of its reach and compass, necessary if one is to learn that “there is no place for human pride in the presence of God” (29, NEB). Yet having upended the doings of the Corinthians, Paul takes care to redirect their hope and confidence toward their proper destination: “You are in Christ Jesus by God’s act, for God has made him our wisdom; he is our righteousness; in him we are consecrated and set free” (30).

In chapter 2, Paul describes in more detail the differences between the power of God and the wisdom of men: he asserts the former can supply words whose import is hidden from even the most privileged, astute natural man, and available only to those initiated into the knowledge of God.  Again, turning to Isaiah for authority (64:4), Paul puts the wisdom of God out of reach of men’s way of knowing – through eyes, ears, or heart – until God reveals by his Spirit “the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (2:9, KJV). Repeatedly throughout this chapter, Paul emphasizes the fact that discernment and judgment are available to the person who knows God, but remain inaccessible to even the most intellectually diligent and capable (6-8, 9-10, 11-13, and 14-15).

It is at the start of this chapter, however, that Paul identifies the fulcrum on which the great transition or movement from natural to spiritual rests. He writes:

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified (2:1-2 KJV).

What does Paul mean by his bald statement that his intention was to know only Jesus Christ crucified? How does this phrase express the distinction made between intellect – our natural power of discernment – and the transcendent wisdom that must be bestowed from above? What was it Christ knew and expressed on the cross that Paul asserts is the one essential thing to be known? It comes to this:  By God’s Will alone are we sustained in the glory of Life; this is a verity that must be birthed in the heart, not adopted by the mind.

Having accepted God’s Will for himself, Jesus, the Christ on the cross, had ousted every impulse toward (and was deprived of) the comforts and powers that worldly life can supply. Nevertheless, in faith he was sustained and lifted up into Life by the power of God. We likewise may be lifted up into the glory of the Light of Christ, while concomitantly discovering that even our most virtuous thoughts and intents (though seeming to affirm, comfort, and enable us) do but intrude upon and dim the pure joy in the Light of his Presence. It is in that Light of Christ that the distinction between Spirit and intellect is clearly felt and known, as surely as the difference between life and death.

In the beginning pages of his Journal, George Fox compares the superior beneficence of the Lord to the best the world has to offer:

I found two thirsts in me; the one after the creatures, to have got help and strength there; and the other after the Lord the creator, and his son Jesus Christ; and I saw all the world could do me no good. If I had had a king’s diet, palace, and attendance, all would have been as nothing; for nothing gave me comfort but the Lord by his power (Works, 1:75).

We, too, can be pre-occupied with the pains or pleasures of worldly life, including intellectual activity, but can learn to set them all aside in order to wait open and empty to receive Christ. He appears and presents himself as pure Light, perfectly and fully overriding whatever our particular worldly condition had been in the moment previous. Any imposition of thought, however virtuous – such as questioning how to be of help to others in spiritual matters – pollutes (a strong but accurate word) the purity of the Presence. Use and service to others must be found in refraining from impinging upon the purity of the Light within. In its purity is its power, and any imposition made upon it interferes with that purity and thus its power. When present and turned to, the Light does overcome any dark thoughts which detract from being, whether virtuous or vicious. To be conscious of the purity of the Light is to sense its saving, sanctifying power. From this personal reflection, one may infer that it is through the power of the Light of Christ that the world comes to be redeemed, which is, of course, a message confirmed by our tradition.

So the Lord God almighty preserve you in that which is pure, up to himself, who is pure, to receive his wisdom, and that with it and in it, ye all may come to be ordered to his glory, who is God over all; to whom be all honour and glory, God blessed for ever; that with it ye may come to see the lamb of God, the saviour of your souls, who was, before the letter was (Works, 7:48-49).

Paul ends this second chapter by stating one last capacity that distinguishes the natural (sensual) man from the one who is gifted with the Spirit: the power to judge justly. He then concludes his lesson with the simple, triumphant claim of the Spirit of Christ incarnate.

But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ (15-16, KJV).

1 I’ve used three Bible versions in this essay: the King James Version (KJV), The New English Bible (NEB), and The New Testament translated by Richmond Lattimore (RL). My choice of which version to use at any given point in the essay depended upon which of the three best provided clarity and meaning through the wording of the verse in question. Following each quotation, I identify which of the three versions I’ve used, unless the previous quotation was taken from the same source.

Mosaic of Paul, 1315-1321, Chora Church in Istanbul
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The Day Before April

The day before April
   Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
   And I sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
   And sang to the birds.
The tune was God’s making
   But I made the words.

— Mary Carolyn Davies

This time of year, I often recall this poem from my childhood. Out of doors and alone in the chill of early spring, I would repeat the poem’s two stanzas, wonder at the haunting effect they had upon me, and try to name the strange feeling the words evoked. Revisiting this poem today, I still feel its power, though now from the perspective of an adult who has lived through much of the time typically allotted our species. I still ponder and fail to name the precise feeling the poem calls forth, but now can understand some of the causes for the mysterious effect it had upon my younger self.

The tune was God’s making / But I made the words.

Through these few simple words, the poem intimated the deep encounter and pre-occupation that would characterize my life in the decades to come: the visitation of the Divine to the particular being that I am, and my willingness to abide in accord, in unity, with the Life that was manifest. To each of us, God sounds the underlying refrain, the particular order and cadence of Being, to which we each contribute our unique offering, which must attune to and express the same melodious grace. We are such that our purpose and joy is to adhere to and amplify the goodness, truth, and beauty that announces itself within the soul. “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” (Lk. 1:46) says Mary, the archetypal one who in purity of heart brings forth into the world that which is Holy.

The words “Alone, alone, / I walked in the woods” spoke to my early and growing recognition that solitude was a necessary condition for inward reflection. Consciousness reflecting back on itself was a burgeoning element in late-childhood, as I took my first steps in the long, arduous journey toward maturity with its new complexity and powers. I’d found in fascinating fairy tales, and would later find in classic literature, that “the woods” symbolize the confusion and anxiety of existing without clear direction or bearings, such as in this example found in the beginning lines of Dante’s Inferno:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),

a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than the good.

How gentle is Davies in her child’s poem to lighten the dark meaning of the walk “in the woods,” an image that usually signifies vulnerability to and danger of becoming lost, fearful, or preyed upon. She benignly assures us the woods are a place where one can walk peacefully and find a place to rest that is solid and secure: “a broad stone,” such as one that might be used in a foundation (1 Cor. 3:11). Upon that broad foundation stone, she tells us, we can find and sing our words to creation, and in so doing perform those things that are in concert with and thus pleasing to the Father (Jn. 8:29).  How surely must Mary Carolyn Davies have pleased the Father when she wrote this poem! Her words hint to the child – and still speak to the adult – of beauty, goodness, and truth.

Young Girl Giacomo Manzu, 1955
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Some Thoughts On “Don’t Do This” and “Do Only That!”

Last week I received an email from Friend John Edminster that spoke of his “skeptical but fascinated” scrutiny in years past of A Course in Miracles, a phenomenon that became popular with a number of Liberal Friends beginning in the ‘80s, and whose following has continued into the present-day. Recently John had received an email in a mass mailing that told of the death of Judith Skutch Whitson (1931—2021), one of the founders of the organization that published A Course in Miracles. As a result, John was led to revisit some of the tenets of this belief system and wrote about one of them in his latest essay “Do Only That?”1 In that essay, John quotes the following lesson from A Course in Miracles:

A wise teacher teaches through approach, not avoidance. He does not emphasize what you must avoid to escape from harm, but what you need to learn to have joy. Consider the fear and confusion a child would experience if he were told, “Do not do this because it will hurt you and make you unsafe; but if you do that instead, you will escape from harm and be safe, and then you will not be afraid.” It is surely better to use only three words: “Do only that!” This simple statement is perfectly clear, easily understood and very easily memorized.2

The concluding paragraphs from John’s essay reflect upon this proposal to use only positive injunctions (Do only that!) when teaching the path to joy, and to eliminate admonitory restrictions (Don’t do this!) that are intended to keep from harm. In the final two paragraphs of John’s essay, he considers whether the right course requires the use of one or both of these injunctions:

After reading this, I wandered through the next few hours of my day asking the Lord, “Is this what You’re asking of me, to direct people only to the positive side of Your teachings, like ‘Love one another,’ ‘Love your enemies,’ and ‘Forgive everyone their trespasses’?” I was all but ready to silence my own impulses to warn people against damning themselves, for, even though I believe that people knowingly do much evil, and that we must all reap what we’ve sowed, I was starting to think myself a fool for believing that anyone might listen to “Don’t do this!” who couldn’t hear me calling “Do only that!” Why not try being Christ’s flower-child?

What brought me to my senses was my remembering the many recorded warnings of Jesus, such as His powerful conclusions in Luke 13:3 and 13:5 (nrsv): “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” So I intend to continue to warn people against doing “lesser evils,” “necessary evils,” telling “white lies,” “doing evil, that good may come” (see Romans 3:8), calling evil good, and good evil (Isaiah 5:20), and in general hardening their hearts against their fellow creatures in order to continue living selfishly. There is a bondage to evil that we fallen ones won’t likely escape unless we can hear the Savior calling “Don’t do this!” as well as His blessed “Do only that!”

After having read John’s essay and email, I responded to him with the following:

Your email from yesterday brought up an idea that has been floating around my mind for a few days. I’d read your [essay] . . . on Facebook but hadn’t felt the clarity to respond. Additionally, last night in Bible study, we examined the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, and the same thought occurred that I’d been sensing as I read your essay. . . . Our tradition uses both admonitions (1) “don’t do this” and (2) “do only that” to move us from worldly (first-birth) into the heavenly (second-birth) consciousness, which is the conclusion you came to in your essay.  

Before we know the second birth, we have only our first-birth consciousness, which is hell-bent on making life good for ourselves. All the self-indulgent behaviors and ambitions (as well as the ideals, virtues, and innocent joys of life) are ways we go about trying to make life good. As we know nothing better and this can consume the entirety of our lives, we need the admonition “don’t do this.” The “don’t do this” alerts us (hopefully) to the futility of this way of being and specifically to avoid corruption/deceit. On a macro-scale, the Law of Moses was the Grand Inhibitor to first-birth methods of acquiring the good life! The Law of “thou shalt not,” or “don’t do this,” puts the brakes on the first-birth way of life. Jesus then refines the admonition when he states Moses’s Law is insufficient: “except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20).

Even pursuit of righteousness through ideals and virtues cannot bring us into the Kingdom. A diligent pursuit of righteousness . . . [a]s you indicated in your email . . . is not enough. Behaving virtuously and imitating Christ doesn’t give us the Kingdom of peace that we need. And we simply cannot do the things we’re admonished to do: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you . . . [t]hat ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Mt.5:44-45): [a few of] the “do only that” admonitions. 

Only the second birth is given power to perform the “do only that” commands. But we’re given these impossible commands in order to teach us of our incapacity and need. Paul’s state described in the Romans 7:24 passage, namely the “O wretched man that I am!” passage illustrates the place to which we’re to come: the final stage of first-birth suffering. The tradition is set up to make us keenly aware of our need for God, to make our lives unbearable without him, in fact, to raise our consciousness to the level of suffering that comes with dying to the self: the cross within. I think you know all this; this inward growth is essential and apparently not understood [or practiced] by many.

The admonition to “do only that” is [intended] to elicit the awareness of need for the power of God. Once we’re truly in that condition, God can work with us. We can’t follow “do only that” commands without Christ, the power of God (Jn. 15:5). The worldly usually think someone is full of pride if claiming to know this power (“whom makest thou thyself?” [Jn.8:53]), but it is utter humility – unknown to the worldly – that precedes receiving the gospel, the power of God.

Not only is this the predominant theme of the tradition, but it’s also stated in single Bible verses.  Matthew 6:12 is one such verse: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Our only hope of fully forgiving our debtors (I’m referring not solely to finances but to the many ways others can impact our well-being) is to know that our treasure in heaven is not subject to thievery or corruption (Mt. 6:19), and having been given that treasure, i.e., having life eternal, we are immune to loss from such “debtors” or detractors. As we are inwardly assured of Christ’s Presence—that nothing has been or could be lost—-we have nothing to forgive, which is another way of saying, we forgive our debtors, knowing their worldly ways and means are of no account. So much of Scripture is to inform us of this possibility of entering a way of life that has overcome our initial ignorance of and separation from God, and to urge us toward receiving the way of life He alone provides.

1 John writes in his email to me: “Do Only That?” . . . describes my inner processing of what I’d read on that page in A Course in Miracles, which led me from wavering skepticism to outright rejection of at least one of its tenets. And if one of its corner-posts is on a sandy foundation, I think that that house will not stand. But I may yet find sand under other of its corner-posts, too, and find words to name it.” (I’m hoping to add a link to John’s essay titled “Do Only That?” in the near future, and will provide it in the comment section.)

2 John provides information on this excerpt’s location in the text: “The page in the 2007 Third Edition of Combined Volume of A Course in Miracles on which (T-6.V-A) appears is page 104. A bit higher on that page I read a paragraph numbered 3.”

Rev. 12:13-14, Manuscript from France 1290-1299, The Morgan Library and Museum
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Righteousness Fulfilled: Some Observations on the Third Chapter of the Book of Matthew

[R]eligion is a pure stream of righteousness flowing from the image of God, and is the life and power of God planted in the heart and mind by the law of life, which bringeth the soul, mind, spirit, and body to be conformable to God, the Father of spirits, and to Christ; so that they come to have fellowship with the Father and the son, and with all his holy angels and saints. —George Fox1

Upon entering the cathedral of Pisa on a visit to that city 20 years ago, and walking a short distance along the nave toward the altar, I came across two small bronze sculptures, directly across from one another on either side of the center aisle. As I recall, each free-standing sculpted figure was about two feet high and placed on a small pedestal that brought the piece to eye level. On the right stood John the Baptist, and on the left, Jesus. As the two works had been made by the same artist in the same material and style, and placed directly across the nave one from the other, they stood in mirror-like relationship. Thus the art conveyed the theological idea that Jesus and John the Baptist are alike, and yet different.

In the third chapter of Matthew, the characters of John the Baptist and Jesus together work to convey an idea: the righteous stance of man is prelude to the divine nature of Christ. Where we are in our first-birth, earthly nature can – and must – be moved into the second-birth, the heavenly nature. In its layout, chapter 3 is structured to illustrate this idea: the beginning verses are given to John, the prophet born of woman (11:11), and the ending verses to Jesus, the “beloved Son,” born of God (17).   

In the first few verses of this chapter, we learn about the Baptist: how he lives and what he does. John stations himself in the wilderness, and what he wears and eats is of little concern to him (4). In the silence of solitude, away from society’s pursuits and distractions, he attends to the inward claim upon him, rather than the outward clamor around him. John’s work is to prepare the way of the Lord (3), and so he preaches: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (2).” His call to repentance is not some meager scolding to elicit remorse or sadness for a misstep, but a challenge to recalibrate the inward vantage point of one’s being.

The focus of the narrative widens to include John’s placement in and effect upon society. Verse 3 has settled him securely within the history of Israel: he is the prophet foretold by the prophet Isaiah, who envisioned John’s ministry to the society of his day.2 Both city and country folk flock to him in his solitary abode: responding to his call, confessing their sins, and seeking the change his baptism signifies. John draws people to righteousness and holiness . . . but not all people.

In chapter 2, the wise men from the east came to worship the new king, while Herod attempted to slay him. In chapter 3, clear lines are again drawn between those who respond favorably to the appearance of the righteous, and those who do not. In verses 5 through 10, a distinction is made between the receptive folk of “all Judea”(5) and the venomous Pharisees and the Sadducees (7). By the time this group arrives at the Jordan, they have been sized up by John and given no opportunity to speak, no chance to strike (7). Their “religion” has come from their association with others: “We have Abraham to our father”(9), they say within themselves. Relying on the pedigree of one’s social or historical connection, however, is not the substance of true religion. Rather, as stated by Fox, “religion is a pure stream of righteousness flowing from the image of God.” Each of these two diametric dispositions produces its own commensurate fruit, and John informs the hypocrites, they will be like trees “hewn down, and cast into the fire”(10).  

The first 12 verses of the chapter have prefaced the primary theme: divine nature comes to those who accept the responsibility of knowing themselves to be created in the image of the righteous God.

As we near the end of the narrative, we see the two main figures – John and Jesus – for a moment inhabiting a kind of stasis or a state of equilibrium where John (none greater born of women [11:11]), having ascended to his highest potential, hovers, as Jesus, the heavenly man, readies himself to receive Sonship. It is a touching moment of beauty, where the nobility of the human spirit is seen and quietly appreciated. A sweet exchange ensues between the two over who will baptize whom. Each defers to the other, not as polite nicety but that their course of action may be rightly ordered. For both men recognize righteousness to be their rule: the single and only pathway that leads from earth to heaven, from the earthly nature into the divine. “For thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness”(15), Jesus reasons with John, and John, in righteousness, obeys the one who is “mightier than [he]”(11).

The final verses of this third chapter of Matthew display the culminating moment to which all that has passed before has led: here is man transformed into his divine nature. John the Baptist had risen to the peak of human capacity, and from that point, Jesus, now baptized, continues upward in straight, righteous ascent: he “went up straightway out of the water” to find “the heavens were opened unto him”(16). That is to say, in Jesus Christ, God reveals Himself to man. In love to humanity, the Spirit of God descends and lights upon us (16), and in this revelation, we are given to know the divine nature present within. Through receiving the Spirit/Word of God, the rightness of being is known unequivocally and in fullness, and confirmed extant forever. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

1 The Works of George Fox (Philadelphia: Marcus T. C. Gould, 1831), 1:411. 

2 As in the previous chapter, the narrator asserts Jewish tradition confirms the new.  

   

Statue of John the Baptist, Baptistery, The Duomo, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy
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Sifting the Heart: Some Observations on the Second Chapter of Matthew

To believe that wherever the true Gospel is proclaimed with power, men will open their hearts without further difficulty, is a mistaken optimism. Rather, a living proclamation of the Gospel often sifts the hearts of men, and the more powerful the message the more violent is the hostility of the powers of darkness. Hence it is precisely those Christians who have the deepest Christian experience, who have the greatest personal experience of the reality of the power of Darkness. — Emil Brunner1

Brunner’s assertion that “a living proclamation of the Gospel often sifts the hearts of men” is illustrated in the second chapter of Matthew. Here is a story that focuses on the contrasting responses to Jesus’s birth: the response of Herod the king is contrasted to that of the wise men from the east. This topic of differing reactions to the appearance of Christ occurs very early in Matthew’s gospel, immediately after the genealogy and description of the circumstances of the birth. That these opposite reactions hold a prime position at the beginning of this book suggests their matter is of foremost relevance when considering Jesus’s purpose in coming into the world: his appearing acts as a catalyst that precipitates reaction or movement in man at the most profound level, the level at which his life is orchestrated and determined.

As did the characters in this story, each of us must answer the question posed by Christ’s coming into the world: Is this new being worthy of worship, or is he to be rejected and destroyed? Confronted with this dilemma, each from his inmost heart will declare his fealty: whether to God, or to Satan; whether to Truth or to deceit; whether to good or to evil; to life or to death; to Being or to nothingness. The power of God has come into our midst, and we can no longer entertain a clouded, indeterminate awareness; Christ the light reveals what darkness has hidden.

Verses 1 and 2 introduce the main characters – Herod and the wise men – and the contrasts between them are immediately evident. Herod is king of Judaea where the birth occurs, and the wise men have come from the distant east. Coming from another land, they have news that Herod, who sits as king in control of his provincial domain, does not have; for knowledge of Christ does not arise from the narrow localized self; it comes from another place. Interpreted, knowledge of Christ does not arise from earthly man; it is given from heaven, which is far from the earthly, and “a better country”(Heb. 11:16).

Whereas the wise men, recognize the new-born king as worthy of their journeying and their worship, Herod (and all his domain with him) are troubled by the news of the birth of the “King of the Jews”(3). In fear of being displaced by the new king, Herod marshalls his resources, calling together his priests and scribes, who correctly identify Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah.2

Herod relies on a different source for his information than do the wise men: he turns to prophetic writings to learn where the birth is to take place (Mc. 5:2). By contrast, the wise men rely on the heavenly portent – the star – to locate the place of birth. That is to say, the earthly one looks to the written record of the past, while the wise ones look to the light of heaven. The earthly have a preserved, static record to inform them, while the wise turn to the active and present light for guidance.

Though Herod can place the location of the birth, he cannot know the time, for time is a medium of change, and Herod only has access to the inert words of history. Therefore he asks the wise ones, “what time the star appeared”(7). This cooperative exchange of information of the birth’s location and time suggests the two parties share a common intent, and Herod exploits that false assumption by requesting the wise ones reveal the child’s whereabouts once he’s been found, “that I may come and worship him also”(8). Herod’s intent is not to worship (6) but to destroy (16), and with this act of deceit, Herod declares his fealty to death and the devil.  In pursuing the death of the Christ through ordaining the death of the innocents (16), it is inevitable and just that it is Herod himself who dies in this story (19). So dies the soul of any who act in deceit.

The wise ones, having departed from Herod, follow the light of heaven to the new birth. We are told, the star “stood over where the young child was”(9), which is to say the light is a reliable guide that leads its followers to a place where it rests over and upon the new birth. It is a place of rest, discovered within, where we, too, may “rejoice[d] with exceeding great joy”(10). As Herod’s act of deceit declared his dark conspiracy with evil, the wise ones’ actions – in contrast – demonstrate their fealty to the new King. They have traveled to a new place; they have sought and found; they have rejoiced, worshipped, and offered their gifts. Unlike Herod, they continue to live throughout the remainder of the story, having wisely “departed into their own country another way”(12), a way unknown to the Herods of the world.

In departing to “their own country” (their true home), the wise are given heavenly direction, this time coming from a dream. As there were four Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in this story, there are likewise four dreams that offer direction, again showing a continuity and balance between old and the new: between what has been given by God formerly and what is presently given now. Each dream directs a change of location: the wise men are to return to their country by a different way; Joseph is to take his family to Egypt; and once Herod is dead, he’s directed by the same angel to bring them back to Israel (20). Once in Israel, Joseph dreams of God’s warning and turns aside to settle in Nazareth. Thus the story ends with a fulfilled prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Judg. 13:5).

This early chapter in Matthew sets the stage for more particular explorations of the themes it’s introduced. Foremost is the message that the arrival of Christ upon earth will sift the heart of each person, resulting in either one’s salvation or one’s condemnation. Respectively, the heart will know life and joy; or it will remain captivated by fear, rage, and death: one or the other will result; there are no exemptions nor obfuscations to be had. Secondly, that although past prophecy has validity, its efficacy and influence is now superseded by the present, active light of heaven, which is Christ. Finally, this chapter’s end note and destination tells us the true Light/Word is now become flesh, and is, in fact, “a Nazarene”(23). Previewed in this chapter are the consequences that result from the momentous event of the new birth, the coming of the Lord. We are prepared to read on.

Emil Brunner. The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 145.

2As to the birthplace, the two sources (prophetic writings [5] and the star [9]) agree: both indicate Bethlehem. Thus – the narrator is telling us – the Jewish Scriptures confirm Jesus as the Messiah. Of the four canonical gospels, the book of Matthew is considered to be the most Jewish, emphasizing the validity of the Law and the prophets and asserting Christ Jesus’s rightful position within the tradition. In addition to the prophecy naming Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah (the ruler of the people Israel [6]), this chapter contains three additional references to Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in Jesus: these are found in verses 15, 18, and 23. Written between 70 and 80 A.D., the book of Matthew exemplifies a Jewish-Christian perspective.  

Adoration of the Magi, c.a.1320 Giotto
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Right Use of Our Tradition (Some Observations on Mark 12:18-34)

[A]nd many may have the Scriptures, and yet be very ignorant of, and strangers to, God’s Holy Spirit; as the Jews were, who had them read in their synagogues every sabbath day, and yet Christ told them, “Ye neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” (Penington, Works, III, 284)

The words Penington quotes (“Ye neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.”) are from a passage in chapter 12 of Mark in which the Sadducees confront Jesus with their intent to deny the doctrine of resurrection. They, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe it possible to rise from the dead, and they make their case to Jesus by posing a comic scenario through which they subtlely suggest the doctrine of resurrection is likewise ridiculous. Relying upon their knowledge and sophistry, the Sadducees appear to be satisfied with their way of using the tradition. In verses 19-23, they challenge Jesus:

Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man’s brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed. And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise. And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? For the seven had her to wife.

Jesus responds by diving deep below the surface of their silly question to reveal the error that had enabled them to ask it, namely, the words Penington quoted: “[They] neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” After identifying the underlying cause of their ignorance (and after delivering a short lesson on the status of those risen to new life [25]), Jesus proceeds to refute the Sadducees’ “argument” against resurrection. His means of doing so mocks their self-assured but limited vision that Scripture’s truth can be discovered by reason alone. And beyond that, Jesus seems to be having fun at the Sadducees’ expense, for his manner of refuting their argument precisely mirrors their own attitude and technique in presenting it: Jesus likewise begins with a reference to Moses, and then echoes the Sadducees’ flamboyant confidence by implying his logic is so obvious and unassailable that he also needn’t make the reasoning explicit. He says:

And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err (26-27).

In his brief retort, Jesus uses two syllogisms to make his point. As both are implied, I’ve deconstructed them to reveal the logic of his argument:  

Syllogism #1

1st premise: If God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;

2nd premise: And, if God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living,

Conclusion: Then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living.

Syllogism #2

1st premise: If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living;

2nd premise: And if they have physically died,

Conclusion: Then there is resurrection from the dead.

Using logic, Jesus has adeptly, cleverly beaten the Sadducees at their own game. The Sadducees’ method of interpretating Scripture is to strip words of spiritual meaning and then subject their lifeless husks to the overbearing rule of reason. The Sadducees would claim truth is served thereby, and that they – as literalistic logic-choppers – are the master purveyors of it.

Jesus does believe in resurrection but not as a result of the argument he’s presented, which is as specious as the original question the Sadducees posed. Resurrection, as a concept, cannot be proved or denied by means of logic, emotion, study, sophistry, will, or presumption. Neither can it be understood before one has come into the knowledge of God (Jn. 17:3); it is Christ inwardly known who is the resurrection and the life (Jn. 11:25). C. S. Lewis shows the limits of intellect when he states:  

What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything (A Preface to Paradise Lost).   

Had the Sadducees asked a genuine question, they would have received a genuine answer, as does the scribe in subsequent passage (28-34). The scribe has asked: “Which is the first commandment of all”? (28), and Jesus answers him:

The first of all the commandments is Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment (29-30).

Jesus refers to the Law given by Moses (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), which calls the individual to rightly order his life, to gather his whole inward being (heart, soul, mind, strength) to one end: to love God.  To prepare the individual to receive heaven’s master, integrating principle of life is the Law’s purpose, and Jesus echoes this intent by gathering the Law’s many particulars into one commandment.

Right use of the Law is primarily to guide Man toward integrated wholeness (perfection); the Sadducees recognize a different primary use for the Law: the promotion of social order. The Law becomes a means to order society through regulating social behavior and relations. Their nonsensical hypothesis of the seven brothers with one wife speaks to their need to define right relationships between and among people: “Whose wife shall she be”? they ask. That resurrection could pose an unresolvable absurdity in social relations is for them sufficient reason to discount it altogether as a doctrine of faith.

In addition to misapplying the Law, the Sadducees fragment it into minute particulars. For them, ethical life consists of fidelity to whatever precepts or duties are prescribed for particular situations. Their approach fragments moral life into something like a paint-by-number picture: when all the tiny, separate spaces have been filled with the prescribed color, there’s an image, but it lacks creativity and life, just as the Sadducees observance of the Law – point by point – lacks the Life the Creator would have us know.

The Sadducees fragment the Law, and their hypothetical resurrection story trivializes it. Neither the fragmented nor the trivial is found in Jesus’s answer to the scribe’s question: “Which is the first commandment of all?” (28) Jesus repeats Deuteronomy 6:4-5 in all its dignified formality. In so answering the scribe’s question with the original formal language given by Moses, Jesus affirms the tradition is to be revered; it stands as a repository of impermeable, sacred Truth. In his own words, the scribe recapitulates the statement he’s heard. He thereby models the right approach to Scripture and tradition, as he is “duly applying them to [his] own state[s]” as George Fox wrote in his journal (Nickalls, 31). With the truth of Scripture resonating in his soul, the scribe can rely upon his own less formal speech to affirm what the tradition has held in keeping for him and for all. Having heard the scribe join with this commandment, Jesus can encourage him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God” (34).

There is one more point Jesus makes about the tradition and the need to have its precepts live within one’s own being. This point is brought forward in verse 31:

And the second [commandment] is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

In adding this second commandment to the first given by Moses, Jesus provides an example of continuing revelation. When the Holy Spirit – that which has given us the tradition – is known, it will lead us whither it will into new understanding. Though new understanding can arise, it will be of a piece with the old, for both new and old arise from the same source, the same Holy Spirit of Truth. Says Jesus in preface to this new commandment: “And the second [commandment] is like” [unto the first] (31). Such continuity can only be revealed; it cannot be produced, for its mark is so delineated and refined as to be inimitable as life itself, for that is what it is.

These two stories in the book of Mark (the encounter with the Sadducees [18-27] and the exchange with the scribe [28-34]) are back-to-back for this reason: they contrast right and wrong use of the Scriptures of our tradition. Wrong use is displayed by the Sadducees: spurious imposters who meddle with religion – employing worldly means and seeking worldly gain. Right use is evident in the scribe who shows the Scriptures’ precepts to have become inherent to his being. The way Scriptures and the tradition are used – rightly or wrongly – is the end result of that which begins with character: that is, whether the drawings of Truth are heeded (Jn. 6:44), or whether they are ignored and scorned. The two stories show the result of each choice. Additionally, these stories contrast Jesus’s evaluation and response to these different natures: taunting mockery to the Sadducees or earnest encouragement to the scribe.

It is the authentic, devoted seeker who speaks genuinely in simplicity of heart, who alone comes into the knowledge and kingdom of God. It is he who will be resurrected to new life; it is he who will come to affirm the tradition and sustain its vitality; and it is she who will come to read and understand the Scriptures “with profit and great delight” (Nickalls, 32).   

For he that knows truth, that hath received from God the thing the Scriptures speak of, how easy is it to him to understand the words that speak of that thing! But he who hath the knowledge of the thing but from the words, how easy is it for him to misunderstand the words! (Penington, Works, IV, 27)

The Raising of Lazarus, 1642 Rembrandt
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Mind the Oneness

God hath given ability to every one according to their measure, (that are faithful to it,) and here is the righteousness of God received, and the wrath of God revealed upon the children of disobedience (Works, VII, 58).

On Seventh month, the 18th, six Friends met to read and discuss George Fox’s Epistle 46, which is found in the 1831 edition of Fox’s Works in volume 7, pages 58 and 59. Fox begins this epistle with a call to “unity, which is in the light”(58). It is Christ alone who gives faith, and all to whom this faith is given are in unity one with another. In minding the light, we are kept out of the world, “out of darkness [and brought] into the everlasting day.” The remainder of the two-page epistle contrasts the person “that loves the light [and] brings his deeds to the light”(58) with the people that “love darkness rather than light”(59).

Our discussion begins at 6:25 with several observations on the light’s activity within the soul. One participant then noticed that God’s love (although the first of Himself that God reveals to us) went unmentioned in this epistle. This topic of His love appeared at intervals throughout our discussion. The beginning theme of unity was picked up at 26:09 with a reading from Barclay’s Apology (Prop. 10, sect. 2) on the nature of the Church. The true Church – or Ecclesia – is comprised of those who have been called out of the world to enter into life in Christ, and in them alone is found the true unity. Defining “grace” occupied our discussion beginning at 42:16. At 53:14, one participant wonders about the causative relationship between putting the letter for the light and the perverseness that follows: putting darkness for light, evil for good. Here Fox writes of this reversal:

And it is thou, that puttest the letter for the light, which was given from the light, from them that walked in the light; but thou hating the light given thee, thou knowest not the conditions of them that had the light, but puttest darkness for light, and light for darkness; and so wo rests upon thee! It is thou that puttest evil for good, and the wo rests upon thee! (59)

Epistle 46 largely focuses on the contrasting conditions found in souls, according to which of two opposing forces rules within: 1) Christ, our righteousness, or 2) the devil, “a liar” and “murderer from the beginning”(Jn. 8:44). Fox ends this epistle with these words of warning:

And this light shall be thy condemnation, when the book of conscience is opened, which should exercise your conscience, which will condemn you. And the wrath of God abides upon the children of disobedience (59).   

NFF discussion 7/18/21
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