Reading Chapter 6

Rohr pictureRichard Rohr writes,


Distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy religion, Jesus gave us this criterion:
“Does it bear fruit”?  (Matthew. 7:15-20)

The metaphor of ‘bearing fruit’:  When we speak about God, we can only use metaphors and symbols. That means that whenever we think we know God fully, we are always wrong.

When we know we don’t know fully, we will be more concerned about loving behavior than correct ideas.  And so the entire biblical text emphasizes ‘right relationships’ more than ‘being right’.

This is the razor’s edge: finding the balance between knowing and not-knowing.

The two streams: knowing and not-knowing

In the history of Christian spirituality, there have been two distinct ways of learning and praying. The first way has been called the ‘cataphatic’ way – filling the heart and mind with words, images, and knowledge of the Holy. The second way has been called the ‘apophatic way – emptying the heart and mind to make space for the Holy to come in.

The apophatic tradition has been underdeveloped in our modern era. But since both ways – filling and emptying – are necessary for our spiritual development, it is crucial to integrate these two streams of knowing and not-knowing.

Remember that Jesus spoke in parables, which are similar to poetry. A good poem doesn’t try to define an experience as much as it tries to give you the experience. A poem tries to awaken your own seeing, hearing and knowing; it doesn’t give you the answer so much as a process through which you can know for yourself.

Desert and mountaintop in scripture

Using two more metaphors, Rohr says “it’s the mountain of knowing and the desert of not-knowing.” The tradition of the mountain is about presence; the tradition of the desert is about absence. The tradition of the mountain is about speaking; the tradition of the desert is about silence.

“The pillar of flame by night and the pillar of cloud by day” (Exodus 13:21f) are both good guides, but not one without the other!

Today’s confusion

Most Christian denominations claim great certainty in their interpretations of Tradition and Scripture (and so many of our religious arguments today stem from that certainty). However, no denomination has taught a parallel and equally serious process of prayer.

Today we are overwhelmed with voluminous and conflicting information. But we can’t settle our confusion by pretending to know all the answers, or arguing that our own religious tradition has the right answers.  Instead, we need to learn to pray – a humble process for listening and discernment.

Prayer as the process

The two paths of knowing and not-knowing are primarily taught through prayer.

The prayer of words: Jesus taught his disciples the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, and he encouraged them to ask for what they needed (Luke 11: 1-13).  From his Last Supper, Christians developed forms of liturgical prayer often centering around intercession, gratitude and worship.

The prayer beyond words:  Jesus told his disciples to “pray in secret” (Matthew 6:5f), and he himself went out for solitary prayer (Mark 1:35f). The example of Jesus’ own prayer point us toward what today we would call contemplation.

Practicing contemplative prayer  – and struggling with pain and suffering – are the primary paths to spiritual transformation.

An idolatry of words

Each of the three monotheistic religions offers words, sacred texts, and creeds as their claim to truth.  But perfect agreement on words and forms is never going to happen. Instead, we need to invite people into an experience of the Presence.

The great shortcoming of biblical literalism is that it presumes it understands, yet in fact it often misses the deep and profound stirrings of the Spirit.

When Jesus healed, touched, taught and transformed people, he didn’t give them a formal religious education first.  He simply taught them with stories, parables, and concrete examples, instead of teaching a system of beliefs.

A concrete example can be a spiritual doorway, because incarnation is always specific and concrete, always in the here and now. (We don’t fall in love with abstractions but with concrete people. This is why the Word became flesh.)

The roundabout way of ‘wilderness’

The people of Israel are said to have wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Rohr writes, “There was apparently a much quicker way than forty years of wandering around in circles,  but the real goal was not getting there, it was the journey itself.” Only a journey of faith can create a people of faith.

Rohr’s point?  Only people who have first lived and loved, suffered and failed – and then lived and loved again – are in a position to read the scriptures in a humble, needy, inclusive and finally fruitful way.

You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.  (Exodus 20)

The prohibition against speaking ‘the Name of God in vain’ is not really about swearing.   Rather, it forbids us to use God’s name casually, or with a false presumption of understanding.

God cannot be known the way we can know a tree, a scientific fact, or a book.  God is not an ordinary piece of our experience so much as the Experience that is broad enough and deep enough to allow us to hold all of our other experiences.  This God can only be known through a reciprocal knowing, where we “come to know as we are fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

I AM:   When Moses asked for God’s name, God replied “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”  (Exodus 3:1-15).  In the Hebrew Bible, this is written as YHWH; to this day observant Jews will not pronounce this name when they come upon it in the scriptures.  They understand that God’s eternal mystery cannot be captured or controlledthe mystery can only be spoken and received by the breath itself. 

Rohr writes, “Isn’t that the very meaning of Jesus’ breathing on his disciples after the Resurrection? (John 20:22f).  The Biblical message comes to a crescendo in the resurrected breath of Jesus, which is Jesus unbound by space or time. So for the rest of your life let your breathing – in and out, in and out – become your prayer. You do not need to prove God’s existence to anyone else. Just keep breathing with full consciousness and without resistance, and you will know what you need to know.” (Things Hidden, p. 131)

 Some questions for your reflection:

The prayer of words:  Can you remember the first prayers you learned to say?

Liturgical prayer:  Think of your experiences in worship. When does the liturgy touch you through words?  When does it touch you in ways beyond words?

The prayer beyond words:  Once again, think back over your life.  Can you remember a time when – without words – you found yourself in God’s presence?


Reading chapter 7

Rohr pictureRichard Rohr writes,


The high priest shall take two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and he shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for a scapegoat. He shall sacrifice the goat chosen for the LORD as a sin offering…  When he has finished atoning…he shall lay both his hands on the head of the scapegoat, and confess over it all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:6-22)

The text above comes from the instructions for one day of the year – the Jewish Day of Atonement. However, every day of the year we try to shift blame to other people – and Rohr calls this ‘scapegoating’.

This is the basic human delusion – we always want to think someone else is the problem. And scapegoating can be very effective – blaming others can make us feel better about ourselves; hating or fearing another group can bind us more closely to our own social or religious group.

The nature of criticism

The unconverted ego always wants control, and deeply resists any call to change. Yet Jesus and all the prophets called for change – metanoia (usually translated into English as ‘repentance’, but the word really means a ‘change of mind and heart’).

The Bible tells us story after story of people who were called to change/metanoia, yet resisted the call. Over and over again, people (often the nation’s leaders) said they valued justice, love, truth and fairness, but their actions belied those values.

Human beings seem to have an endless capacity to miss the point.  The New Testament word for ‘missing the point’ is hamartia (usually translated as ‘sin’ but really meaning to miss the mark). We are always shooting at the wrong target. God calls for mercy and justice; but we shoot our arrows towards a different target – protecting and perfecting ourselves.

The mystery hidden from the foundation of the world (Psalm 78:2)

The blaming pattern appears in the very first chapters of the Bible – Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, Cain blames Abel… The theme leads all the way to Noah’s ark (Genesis, chapters 3 – 9 ).  In these stories, God’s love is still seen as conditional, determined by the worthiness of the receiver. The authors of these stories were not ready to understand a love that is determined only by the abundance of the Giver.

In Deuteronomy we will find some new understanding of God’s love (see Deuteronomy 7). Here we see Israel beginning to move toward recognition of God’s nonviolence:  God tells the Israelites that they haven’t been chosen because they are better than any other people; their election is absolutely free from God’s side and undeserved from theirs.  (They would never have come to this idea of God on their own – so the passage has all the earmarks of a ‘breakthrough’ and authentic ‘revelation’.)

So why, in spite of this and other revelations, does the Bible appear to teach violence, and God appear to condone it?  We must remember that the Biblical text includes everything: the deep human insights and genuine revelations from God’s Spirit, and the justifications for violence and hatred.  In other words, not everything we find in the Bible points us in the right direction.

But how can we trust that we are moving in the right direction?  Rohr tells us: By noting ‘the trim of the sails’! Where is the ‘tack’ of the text directing us? The Bible’s sails are set for a God of suffering and humble love, as we will finally see in Jesus.

The scapegoat ritual (Leviticus 16:6f)

The ancient scapegoat ritual was a classic displacement ritual, which placed the sins of many on one. Immediately after the scapegoat instructions comes the ‘Law of Holiness’ (see Leviticus chapters 17 – 27) which largely defines holiness as separation from evil). But Jesus did not define holiness as separation from evil so much as absorption and transformation of it – wherein we pay the price instead of asking others to pay the price for us.

Only a minority of Christians ever got this point.  Instead, we turned it into a cosmic transaction between Jesus and the Father. (Traditional atonement theories asked a lot of Jesus but little of us, except for thanks.)   Then we, who worship the scapegoat, Jesus, became the primary scapegoaters ourselves. After all, our task was to separate ourselves from evil, wasn’t it?

That is the lie! Any exclusionary process of thinking, any exclusively dualistic thinking, will always create violent people on some level.  So we will pose the great spiritual problem in this way: “How do you stand against hate without becoming hate yourselves?”

Jesus is clearly the greatest example of a scapegoat in the scriptures.  We find two other scapegoats in the New Testament: John the Baptist and Stephen. John the Baptist was a rather all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinker, who raised his anger against power and paid for it (see Mark 6:17f).  But Stephen forgave his persecutors, and was released into a transformed state that we can call ‘risen’ (see Acts 6:8-8:1).  Perhaps Paul’s presence at Stephen’s death was the beginning of his own transformation; a chapter later, he is becoming Paul.

The idea of Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ is first mentioned by John the Baptist (John 1:36).   The Lamb is not a natural or logical God-image; yet at the Bible comes to an end, we see the Lamb enthroned at the center and judgment seat of all things (Revelation 5:6-8:1. Some have called this part of Revelation ‘the Lamb’s War,’ which is a totally different way of dealing with evil – absorbing it in God, instead of attacking it.)

Preparation for the Lamb’s War in the Hebrew Scriptures

There is little direct nonviolent teaching in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, in the book of Judges (chapters 6-8) God repeatedly tells Gideon to reduce the size of his army – because Gideon needs to trust in God’s power, not force.  Here the text is moving us from trust in violence to a growing trust in nonviolence.

The message continues and broadens in the prophets, who denounce military alliances, and Israel’s tendency to trust in military force. This is why most of the prophets were killed: their messages never supported empire, or security, or power.

Isaiah is already moving toward inclusion and away from tribalism, declaring that Israel’s vocation is for the sake of the whole earth.  The prophet’s Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-10; 52:13-53:12) understand redemptive suffering, and lay a strong foundation for a nonviolent spirituality.  The message of Isaiah’s Servant Songs is repeated in Jesus’ teachings on Servant leadership (see Mark 8:31f; Luke 22:24f, John 13:14f). 

Only when we recognize God as the true Source of power are we ready for for a totally new kind of Messiah with a new kind of kingdom.

Paul, the converted persecutor

The New Testament presents Paul as a transformed accuser, a converted persecutor.  In the midst of his fiery persecution, Paul suddenly realized that in the name of love he had become hate, in the name of religion he had become a murderer, in the name of goodness he had become evil.

Both Peter and Paul understood Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership.  Paul became a servant to the gentiles; Peter saw the Holy Spirit come down upon gentiles, and concluded: “Remember, we believe that we are saved in the same way as the Gentiles are – by grace” (see Acts, chapter 10).

Paul recognized the dark side of religion, the scapegoating mechanism, and the self-serving laws of small religion.  Our later fascination with domination power, which set loose a spiral of violence throughout Christian history, finds no basis in Jesus and his first disciples.

Jesus, the forgiver

Jesus has no part in the myth of redemptive violence. His life and teaching are starkly opposed to our instinct to destroy what we perceive as the source of our problem. In Jesus, we see the practical names of love: forgiveness and inclusion. These are also the two practices that undercut human violence.

To oppose violence, Jesus has to diminish the very things that people use to justify their violence. He speaks critically against his own group whenever they try to use his message for group arrogance or to justify violence. How different Christian history would have been if we had listened to him!

The only thing more dangerous than the individual ego is the group ego. That’s why Jesus calls his disciples away from their jobs (see Mark 1:18, Luke 5:28) and their families (see Luke 14:26, Matthew 12:48f).  He is moving his disciples away from a narrow world view – and not surprisingly, we often find outsiders understanding him and responding to him more than insiders: the Roman centurion (Mark 15:39); the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21f); the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:10; the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26f); the Samaritan Woman (John 4:4f); Zacchaeus the tax-collector (Luke 17:19f;  and the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:39f).

What does Jesus usually say to outsiders? “You have great faith.” He does not ask them to join his group but simply says, “Go in peace – your faith has made you whole” (see Luke 7:50). This is his message: Holiness is nor found through separation and exclusion,  but in the radical inclusion (read ‘forgiveness’) of the supposedly contaminating elements.

Jesus turns around Leviticus’  Law of Holiness (with its detailed rules for separating the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’) to identity the act of separation itself – and the accompanying attitude of superiority – as the sin! Jesus teaches us that if we put our energy into choosing the good – instead of the negative and largely illusory energy of rejecting the bad – we will overcome evil in a much better way, and we will not become evil ourselves!

People like Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi make difficult enemies for empires, because they cannot be used or co-opted.   Any worldly system actually prefers violent partners to nonviolent ones; it gives them a clear target and a credible enemy.

The passion accounts demonstrate that the world’s violent power systems are wrong. The Gospels go out of their way to point out that it was the political and religious leaders who judged Jesus to be the problem. So it is all the more amazing – but follows the pattern – that Christians ever blamed Jews for the death of Jesus.

Bad power, which always eliminates its opponents, killed Jesus.

Some questions for your reflection:

Sr. Joan Chittister writes,”What we see depends on where we are.  To see differently, we will have to move our point of view.”  (from ‘The Monastic Way’, February 2016)

Sr. Joan also writes, “Awareness is the beginning of empathy, the beginning of human connections, the end of self-centeredness.”

Think about a person or group whose thoughts, ideology, or values you currently ‘bump up against’. 

How do you develop empathy for that person or group?

Reading Chapter 8

Rohr pictureRichard Rohr writes,


Understanding God’s grace is the key that unlocks the Bible’s deepest message.

God eternally gives himself away – for no good reason except for love:
Happy are those servants whom the master finds awake.
I tell you he will put on an apron, sit them down at table, and wait on them.
(Luke 12:37-38)

In this parable Jesus paints a picture of God waiting on us – in the middle of the night! That’s not our usual image of God at all.  We like to be found worthy, and we certainly want to understand before we accept things.  We also expect a world of scarcity, or at least a world of ‘quid pro quo’.

Grace: the key that opens the Bible’s deepest theme

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the theme of God’s overflowing grace begins with manna and quails in the desert, and water gushing from a rock (Exodus 16-17); grace continues when Abraham and Sarah welcome angels in the desert (Genesis 18); grace eventually develops into an entire ritual for eating sacred foods (Leviticus 8:31f).

In the Gospels, we find Jesus at the welcoming table – perhaps a meal with sinners, or Pharisees, or a  wedding banquet.  At his Last Supper, he tells his disciples that this banquet is a foretaste and promise of what they will do forever in God’s kingdom (Mark 14:25, Luke 22:16; Matthew 26:29).   There are ‘bread and fish’ meals where people experience overflowing abundance: the loaves and fishes story told by all four gospels (Mark 6:30f,, Matthew 14:13f, Luke 9:10f, John 6:1f); the breakfast on the beach with the Risen Jesus after a miraculous catch of fish (John 21:1f). There are ‘bread and wine’ meals: the Last Supper (Luke 22:14f, Matthew 26:26f); and the Risen Jesus breaking bread with his disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13f).

But it takes a long time for us to be willing to come to the banquet. In real life as in Jesus’ parables, people have tended to resent the banquet, fear it, deny it or make it impossible (for themselves and others) to attend. We are either afraid or unwilling to just receive the gift of divine union.

We expect rewards and punishments; and only grace can move us beyond a list of ‘requirements’ to a religion that transforms our consciousness. As long as we remain inside of a win-lose script, we will always honor duty instead of expecting delight, and look for ‘jars of purification’ at the wedding (John 2:6) instead of the 150 gallons at the end of the party! (How did we avoid the clear message on that one?)  We have kept the basic story-line of all human history in place and simply laid the gospel on top of it, like frosting on a cake.

For instance, we hear the parable of the laborers in the vineyard who worked only for an hour, but got paid the same as those who worked all day (Matthew 20:1f) – but seldom do we really get Jesus’ point – everyone will get the same reward, which is to sit with the Lord at the welcoming table.

For instance, forgiveness:  By the the 4th century, the church was already trying to control the process of forgiveness through rules and penitential liturgies. But when forgiveness becomes largely a juridical process – when we can measure it out, or try to earn it, or find ways to exclude the unworthy – we destroy the likelihood that people will ever experience the pure gift of God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is only and always pure gift – and that is precisely the experience that changes us so deeply.

God’s grace comes to David

In the Bible God’s grace starts with creation, and continues in God’s choice of ordinary people for extraordinary tasks.

King David’s remembered ‘holiness’ came from God’s presence in his life, not from his own actions. David was a violent warrior and an adulterer, but – by God’s grace – he  eventually realized that whatever worthiness he had was a gift from God.

The prophet Nathan publicly exposed David’s sins (2 Samuel 12:13f), and here we see David in a deep struggle with his shadow self.  This is the only time in the Bible where a king is confronted by a prophet and the king acknowledges that he is wrong and the prophet is right!

The problem isn’t sinning nearly as much as our unwillingness to admit that we have sinned.  Jesus himself is never upset at sinners. He’s only upset with people who don’t think they’re sinners.

Toward the end of his life, David wanted to build Yahweh a house to prove how great he was. But Yahweh said to David, “I will build you a house.” (2 Samuel 7)  We all start by thinking we are going to do something for God, and by the end of our lives we know that God has done it all for us.

Israel’s God of grace

“Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exodus 34:6-7)

The word that is translated ‘steadfast love’ has often been called ‘covenant love’; today we call it ‘unconditional love’.

The Bible presents the covenant as a bilateral agreement between the people and God (Exodus 24, Joshua 24, (Nehemiah 8:12f). But covenant love turned out to be a one-sided love, because there were very few times when Israel (or we) kept our side of the relationship.

After the great flood, God extends the covenant to every living creature on earth (Genesis 9:16). Centuries later, it would become a ‘new covenant’ written by God in human hearts, not religious laws (Jeremiah 31:31). The prophet Isaiah would repeat the same theme; after telling the people their religion is phony, God says “I will love you at even deeper levels, because I am determined to win. Your pettiness is not going to determine or limit my greatness” (Isaiah 29:13). In Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, God completely disqualifies Israel as a worthy people, but then promises to rebuild Israel from the bottom up (Ezekiel 36-37).

Grace and eternal life

The metaphor of hell – the tragic and eternal fire that awaits sinners – is an archetypal metaphor used by Jewish teachers down to Jesus himself.  But later generations of Christians, without realizing what they were doing, used the metaphor of hell to turn the message of a loving God into a message about a God who tortures eternally.

But Jesus never said, “Be good now, and I will give you a reward later.” All of his healings were clearly for now.  Christians literalized the metaphor (thinking that eternal suffering actually happens) and localized it (thinking that hell is a real place of fire under the earth).

You cannot prepare for love by practicing fear.  Here is the real message:  What we choose now, we will receive later.  The spiritual life is quite simply ‘practicing for heaven’. If you want it later, do it now – how you get there determines where you will finally arrive.

The banquet as an image of grace

The banquet is Jesus’ most common image for what God offers us.

The banquet parables confuse us because we have assumed that Jesus’ teaching was primarily about moral behavior – and certainly ‘bad’ people should not be invited to a banquet!  But when we realize that Jesus’ teaching isn’t about how to climb ladders of perfection – but how to allow God to carry us upward – then we can see his parables as God’s invitation to union.

Luke 14 has three banquet stories. In response to the banquet invitations, people make excuses, or try to create seating hierarchies when they arrive, or simply refuse to come. But Jesus responds, “When you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind – that they cannot pay you back will mean you are blessed” (Luke 14:13).  You will be blessed, you will feel blessed, because now you will have a different worldview, and can see a world of abundance instead of a world of scarcity.

Jesus’ banquet theme culminates with the Last Supper itself.  After the Resurrection, the disciples remembered his welcoming table, and were not afraid, at least in the early church, to follow his example (1 Corinthians 11:18-20).   And so the Last Supper became the church’s ongoing banquet – its Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist.

Yet even the Eucharist has been presented as a reward system for good behavior or correct belief. But the Last Supper included those who couldn’t possibly have understood what Jesus was teaching them, as well as two betrayers. That’s the way Jesus always transformed the contaminating element – through inclusion.

Feeding of JudasFeeding Judas – by Solomon Raj

God’s grace comes to Mary

Mary understands that God does not need worthiness ahead of time; God creates worthiness by the choice itself.

God is the eternal ‘I’, always waiting for those  – like Mary – who are willing to be a ‘Thou’. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God is an icon of prayer; the part of us that says ‘yes’ to God is the Holy Spirit praying within us.

By the end of the Bible we will see the New Jerusalem descending to earth, unearned and unprepared for (Revelation 21:2). After an entire Bible of warring, arguing, protecting, earning, competing, buying and selling of God, the gift is simply given and handed over to us.    Yet the struggle – arguing, protecting ourselves, achieving merit, competing for rewards, even buying and selling God – is ultimately necessary. The struggle carves out the space within us for deep desire.

God both creates that desire and fulfills it. Our job is to desire God’s presence and our ‘yes’, like Mary’s, is still necessary.

Babette’s Feast

Rohr concludes this chapter of grace by retelling the classic story of ‘Babette’s Feast’: Babette decides to prepare a sumptuous banquet for the entire community.  The people resist Babette’s invitation, but finally agree to attend.  They decide to eat the food, but not to enjoy it.

At the end of the marvelous feast (which they have finally enjoyed), the worthy general stands up and speaks:

“Humanity, my friends, is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe but in our human foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine that divine grace is finite and for this reason we tremble.

The moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace…demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace… makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all… to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty.

That which we have chosen is given to us, and that which we have refused is… granted to us. Ay, that which we have rejected has been poured upon us abundantly.” (Isak Dinesen, “Babette’s Feast).

Understanding God’s grace – God’s unstoppable love – is the key that unlocks the Bible’s deepest message: God eternally gives himself away – for no good reason except for love.


Questions for your reflection:

Think back to a time when you were an honored guest at a banquet. The food may have been sumptuous or simple, but it was prepared especially for the occasion, and you felt pure love.

What made this banquet one of special love for you?
What specifically do you remember about the meaning of the occasion?
What foods added delight and joy to the occasion, and why?



Reading Chapter 9

Rohr pictureRichard Rohr writes,


They will gaze upon the one whom they have pierced.
(Zechariah 12:10; John 19:37)

To ‘gaze upon’ Jesus on the cross demands no theological education – we can simply open ourselves to this image, and then offer our own souls back in return.

Those who ‘gaze upon’ the crucified with contemplative eyes are healed at deep levels of pain, unforgiveness, aggression and victimhood. (see Things Hidden, p. 186)

The cross is an iconic symbol which clarifies the very nature of God.  If God is somehow participating in human suffering (instead of passively tolerating it and observing it), that changes everything.  The Christian scriptures reveal this participating God most dramatically in Jesus.

The Hebrew scriptures set the stage for Jesus: the stories of Joseph (Genesis 37:20f); Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:6f); Jonah (Jonah 2:1-11); and the Servant Songs (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52-53). Clearly Jesus knew these stories and taught them to his disciples (Mark 8:31f; 9:30f; 10:32f).

Jesus is saying, in effect, “This is how evil is transformed into good!”  He ‘takes away the sin of the world’ by exposing what is that sin is (sin is not violating purity codes, but ignorant attacking and violence).  Jesus refuses to attack or kill in return, and shows us that we can do the same.

Jesus on the cross identifies with the human situation; he refuses to stand outside or above the human dilemma. Further, he refuses to be the scapegoater, and instead becomes the scapegoat.

And so in Jesus we find three sacred healing images: the Passover Lamb; the  ‘Lifted-up One’; and the Scapegoat. In all three images we see Jesus identifying with humanity at its most critical and vulnerable level.

The Passover Lamb (Exodus 12-1-14) was something good, innocent, and even beloved. So Jesus on the cross is not an image of the death of the ‘bad’ self, but an image of the ‘good’ self.  This is the ‘lamb’ that has to die: our self-image as innocent, right and sufficient. It wasn’t a ‘bad man’ who died on the cross, but a ‘good man’ – so that he could become a much larger man.  So Jesus dies, and Christ rises.

The bronze serpent (Numbers 21:8) was a homeopathic image – medicine that gives you just enough of a disease so you can develop resistance and be healed from it. So the cross dramatically reveals the problem of violence –  and (if we pay attention) it saves us from doing the same thing. The prophet Zechariah speaks of gazing upon the mystery of suffering: “Look upon the pierced one and mourn over him as for an only son” and then from the mourning will flow “a spirit of kindness and prayer (12:10) and “a fountain of water” (13:1; 14:8).  Today we might call this ‘grief work’ – holding the mystery of pain and looking right at it and learning deeply from it.

And so we come to Jesus as scapegoat: The third image is central to understanding the very engines of history, and to understand how Jesus resets that engine.

Human beings have always needed to find a way to deal with our anxiety and evil. We have usually turned to sacrificial systems, thinking, “blood has to be shed”. We think it is our job to destroy evil, and thus we have created systems (and religions) of exclusion and violence.

Historically, we moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, and then to various modes of self-sacrifice.   Yet it was not usually our egos that we sacrificed, but our bodies instead. But it is precisely our egos that have to die – our need to be right, to be in control, to be superior.

As long as we can deal with evil by some other means than forgiveness, we will never experience the real meaning of evil and sin. We will keep projecting it over there, fearing it over there and attacking it over there.

Forgiveness is probably the only action that demands three new ‘seeings’ at the same time: (1) we must see God in the other; (2) we must find God in ourselves; and (3) we must see God as loving and merciful, not judgmental and punishing.

History has been determined by powerful people telling us whom to fear and hate. If only they had gazed upon the victim instead: Jesus exposed sin as different than we imagined, and let us know that our historic pattern of ignorant killing, attacking and blaming is in fact history’s primary illusion. Then Jesus shared with us a great participatory love, which can make it possible for us not to hate at all.

Did Jesus have to ‘die for our sins’?

The most common understanding of the crucifixion as Christ’s heroic sacrifice –  paying the price for human sin – is not the only Christian theology of atonement.  The Franciscan Duns Scotus (1266-1308) understood the cross as God’s utterly free initiative of love, not a payment for the sins of the world.  Duns Scotus saw that God’s action is always absolutely free; therefore, Jesus was not ‘necessary’ to solve any problem created by humans – instead, Jesus was a pure and gracious declaration of God’s truth from the very beginning of creation.

The incarnation of God in Jesus gives us a living ‘icon of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15f) who reconciles all things in himself, and who is the head of a cosmic body that follows after him. Jesus is the pattern for all. He does what we must also do – which is why he says, “Follow me.”

To summarize:

Whatever happens to Jesus must and will happen to every soul: incarnation, embodied life of ordinariness and hiddenness, initiation, trial, faith, death, surrender, resurrection and return to God. Such is the Christ-pattern that we all share in, either joyfully and trustfully (from a ‘place’ we call heaven) or unwillingly and resentfully (from a ‘place’ we call hell).

Jesus is not the afterthought, but the first thought, the distilled icon of all that God does in creation (Ephesians 2:7f).  Jesus communicates this most graphically and dramatically on the cross itself. There we see and learn to trust the free offer of God’s love in a brutal yet utterly compelling image. “Self-giving love calls forth love in return.”

The trouble is that the church emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love. We ended up with a God who appears to be vindictive, violent and petty, subject to supposed laws of offended justice – and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem, instead of revealing the heart of God.

Whose mind needs changing – God’s, or ours?

Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity,
but to change the mind of humanity about God. 

God is not someone we need to fear or mistrust.
Instead, God is the One we can trust above all others:
Grace, mercy and eternal generosity are the very shape of God.

Those who gaze upon the one they themselves have pierced,
those who pray from a place of needed mercy,
those who allow love to enter their hearts,
will find themselves changed from the bottom up.

cf. Things Hidden, p. 200ff



Reading Chapter 10

Rohr pictureRichard Rohr writes,


There are two very different ways of understanding what Jesus is trying to teach us in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:48):

“You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
(in the Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version)

But no one is perfect – and we never will be. Here’s another translation:

“Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God has lived toward you.”
(in The Message: the Bible in Contemporary Language)

The second translation tells us that our goal (our télos) is not personal perfection but union with God.

A little Greek lesson

The word translated ‘perfect’ in English Bibles is teleios in New Testament Greek:
the noun is télos  (matured, having completed its growth process) and the adjective is teleios (full-grown, having reached its goal, with every part complete).

Things Hidden small telescope
A telescope unfolds or extends, one stage at a time, to reach full effectiveness

Our télos – our goal

If we study Scripture without really understanding what God is trying to give us – grace, love, forgiveness, relationship, union – the Bible is a wineskin that hasn’t yet been filled with wine.  So Jesus teaches his disciples that there is an Inner Knower that we call the Holy Spirit, who will ‘teach you and remind you of all things’ (John 14:26).   With the aid of that Inner Knower, we can read the Bible differently.

We begin in the Garden, where Adam and Eve walk with God (Genesis 2:25). Once they seek their own knowledge rather than God’s guidance, they begin to hide from God – and start scapegoating.

All this sets the plot for the entire Bible, which aims to return us to the Garden.  By the end of the Bible (Revelation 21-22) we have come to the New Jerusalem. Finally, the prophet’s vision (Ezekiel 37:27) has been fulfilled: we have been reunited with God. There is no need for a religious building, because the Garden itself is the temple.

The Garden is the symbol of unitive consciousness: life is one sacred reality.

Objectively, we cannot be separate from God; we all walk in the Garden whether we know it or not.  (In our deepest selves, we already know this.  Authentic spiritual cognition always has the character of re-cognition. As Jacob put it when he awoke from his sleep: “Truly, Yahweh was always in this place all the time, and I never knew it” – Genesis 28:16).

There are recurring biblical texts of fall and recovery, hiddenness and discovery, loss and renewal, failure and forgiveness, exile and return. Note the clear pattern in Jesus’ teaching: his parables of the treasure, the pearl, the dragnet, the weeds and the wheat, the lost coin, the lost son and the lost sheep.  In almost every case, the end of the parable is a party of celebration.

The whole movement of the Bible is toward ever-greater incarnation and embodiment, until the mystery of mutual indwelling is finally experienced – even here, in this world and in this life. We then move on to the banquet that we call eternal life or heaven.

Henceforth we know our true and lasting life in the new ‘force field’ that Paul calls the Body of Christ, and not in individual or private perfection. It becomes more important to be connected than to be privately correct.

The clear goal and direction is mutual indwelling, where ‘the mystery is Christ within you, your hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). In this mutual indwelling we no longer live as just ourselves, but in a larger force field called the body of Christ (Galatians 2:20).

In the complexity of life’s journeys we all begin to forget. As we get older, the patterns become too complex, and eventually we don’t even expect a pattern any more. That is probably the loss of faith we see among so many today.

How strange that we have the capacity to not see what is taught so clearly by Jesus, our Teacher!  How can we learn that we abide in God, who already abides in us?

We need to learn how to live a simple life, not taking more than our share, which makes communion and community possible.

We need to learn contemplative disciplines – methods that can move us beyond the mind.

Eucharist as contemplative discipline

In the eucharistic meal, Jesus gave us a contemplative practice, saying, Do this: 

After I leave, just keep doing this until I come back again.

Take your whole life in your hands, as I am about to do tonight and tomorrow.

Thank God, because your life is pure gift.

Break it (your life), let it be broken, give it away and don’t protect it.

Now chew on that, drink that!

Eat and drink together until I return, and you will have the heart of the message,
a new covenant based on love and divine union.

When you ‘do this’ you offer your own body for everything that Christ still needs to accomplish (Colossians 1:24).

When you ‘do this’ you are eating and drinking your own death, in loving union with Jesus. You are walking right into the mystery of death and, like Jesus, trusting that the other side will be resurrection.

The Eucharist is the ongoing Incarnation, continued in space and time, and bringing us to God’s télos.  You can see this promise and cosmic hope growing throughout the Bible, but perhaps an early Christian hymn sums it up best (Ephesians 1:9f):

God set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.  It is in Christ that we find out who we are, and what we are living for.  Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.  (from The Message)