Sunday, September 12, 2010

Truth as Polarity

Hermes is the messenger of the Gods in the Greek Pantheon, the master of eloquence, interpretation, translation, explanation, right seeing and saying. It is from the word “Hermes” that we get “hermeneutics,” the art of interpreting Biblical texts. I stand before you in the spirit of Hermes to interpret the texts and make plain the truth. It’s what you pay me to do. And, it’s worth noting that the Roman name of Hermes is Mercury, which is also known as Quicksilver, something that shifts, moves, changes quickly, such as the interpretation, understanding, of truth. Now it’s this, now it’s that. Look quickly if you want to see it. It is on the way to becoming something else, perhaps its opposite.

This is the nature of truth. It is not static, but dynamic, changing, shape-shifting, evolving, emerging, unfolding, becoming. And you, we, have to be as quick as it is if we would keep up and know in this moment what is trying to be known here, now. “You don’t keep new wine in old wineskins,” says Jesus, because new wine is still fermenting and will burst the old wineskins that have lost their elasticity and cannot expand to incorporate the new ways of understanding the world, life, ourselves. “It’s a new world, Golda,” says Tevya, and we have to be ready to receive well the world that is changing before our eyes. I don’t think Jesus would have said it in those words, but that’s what he said. This is his theme, the point that he makes over and over. “The way you have thought is not the way to think! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”

The Sermon on the Mount, the text in chapters 5, 6 and 7 in the Gospel of Matthew, is Jesus’ vision of what is required to live in the physical, visible, world as envoys, representatives, of the invisible world. Note carefully that it is not warfare that Jesus envisions. The Sermon on the Mount is not the book of Revelation or the message of John the Baptist. It is diametrically opposed to both. It begins with the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…Blessed are you all, right now, exactly as you are!” These words from the man John the Baptist predicted would come “with his winnowing fork in his hand, and clear the threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Jesus’ behavior is so not what John expected that John is reported by Luke (7:18ff) to have sent his disciples to Jesus to inquire, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” What John looked for was not to be delivered in that age, and will not be delivered in some future age. It will not be as we think it will be. This is the nature of truth, which is like quicksilver, turning, changing, becoming more than we ever imagined, something other than we would ever guess.

The nature of truth is reflected in the polarities that define existence: This is the way things are, and this is the way things also are. But which way IS it REALLY?, we ask. Both ways. At the same time. Here’s an example. You know the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus espouses the Golden Rule (which was not original with Jesus by a long stretch): “In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You think that’s clear don’t you? Well, square these two texts with the parable about the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13). Sometimes we love our neighbor as we love ourselves and sometimes we say, “Who made me your caretaker?” (cf. Luke 12:14). Sometimes, we do it this way, and sometimes, we do it that way. And, how do we know when to do what? We take our chances, don’t you know?

The polarities are evident throughout the Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes, which stand in opposition to the apocalyptic expectations of Jesus’ day, Jesus says, “Don’t think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets! I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17), then he spends the rest of the Sermon on the Mount setting aside the popular thinking about the Law and the Prophets. “You have heard it said,” he says time and again, “but I say unto you!” (For instance, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ But I say unto you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you to take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.’”)

All of which is to say that the truth is expanded, enlarged, deepened by that which is also true, and that we who want things spelled out and made plain have to understand the nature of truth and the task of hermeneutics, interpretation, explanation. We are dealing with quicksilver here, as slippery a substance as there is in the entire collection of substances. Truth will not be nailed down, codified, defined, locked up, walled in, roped, tied and branded. Truth is this AND that. Sometimes it’s like this, and sometimes it’s like that. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Which way IS it? Both ways at the same time. And we live within the polarities, between the opposites, laughing at the very idea of saying how it is really without saying how it also is really. And, if we strive for consistency and constancy and one way only-ness (the RIGHT way, of course), we only show that we don’t have a clue.

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