The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Julia_DSCF1149.JPG By J. Lane (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where ladies are dressed

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Thursday

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

27“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

Paul is not confirming the power of ignorance. It is not a diatribe against learning. Paul, himself, is well schooled and knowledgeable. This is a challenge of the “wisdom of the world”: the everyday realities accepted by all as “the way things are” – and the way God wants them. These are the realities of the ancient world where a few elite families hold positions of power and prestige granted by the emperor or passed down through the ages by a noble family line. Inherited wealth. Inherited power. Inherited privilege. The “wisdom of the world” is the world of Downton Abbey where ladies are dressed by maids and servants stand at attention while the family dines and the upper class doctor is believed over the village physician. This is the world where Rome rules by decree and those granted Roman citizenship are subject to a different law than the rest (so Peter is brutally crucified but Paul, the citizen, is granted a quick and clean beheading). This is the world that has always been and the gods confirm.

But this strange God of Abraham and Isaac chose Jacob, the younger, over Esau the elder. This strange God summoned the murderer, Moses, at the burning bush and chose a people in bondage. And when the time came, God didn’t choose the palace but the peasant home. God didn’t choose finery but a manger. God didn’t choose the priestly cast but the construction trade. God didn’t choose the literate students of the city rulers but fishermen and a tax collector.

It looks like folly to the privileged – but this is not about rejecting knowledge. It is about the nature of God’s kingdom where honor doesn’t go to the fine houses at the top of the hill by the temple, but to those poor and meek who live the justice and mercy God desires.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” asks Nathanael when he is urgently summoned by Philip. “Of course not,” we all know. But, surprise, what is honored in God’s sight is not happening in Jerusalem; it is happening in Nazareth and Capernaum Sychar and wherever bread is shared and outcasts welcomed and tears shed for the world to be made new.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaler_der_Grabkammer_des_Zeserker%C3%AAsonb_001.jpg By Maler der Grabkammer des Zeserkerêsonb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What does the LORD require?

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Watching for the Morning of January 29, 2017

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sunday takes us to the Sermon on the Mount and the familiar words of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the merciful.” They are great and powerful declarations about what is honored in God’s sight.

We sometimes miss the meaning of these potent declarations. They sound gentle and kind to us – at least until we get to the one about persecutions – but these are thunderclaps, imperial proclamations reversing the values of all the kingdoms that have come before.

Words like ‘meek’ and ‘blessed’ convey something different in a modern western society than in the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus is not talking about those who are fortunate in life, but those who are honored in God’s sight. Honor belongs to those at the bottom of the heap, not those who have climbed to the top. Honor belongs to those who embody God’s mercy and faithfulness, not those who lead the parade. Those working in the soup kitchens of the District of Columbia this last week are the nobility of God’s kingdom, not those ushered about in limousines.

So Sunday we listen as the prophet Micah utters those famous words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And the psalmist will sing that those who are welcome in God’s presence are not the ritually clean but those who live faithfully towards their fellow human beings. And Paul sets out his opening gambit in the first letter to the Corinthians talking about the folly of “the wisdom of the world” versus the wisdom of the folly of God.

And then we will hear the beatitudes. They are not the “be-happy-attitudes”; they are the broad sweeping scythe that cuts down all that is exalted in the empires of this world and raises up those of generous heart and kind spirit, who weep at the walls and weapons we build, who hunger for a world of mercy and peace. Their prayers will be answered. Their prayers are being answered, even now, as Jesus speaks.

The Prayer for January 29, 2017

Lord of Life,
by your word and deed you overturn the values of our world,
declaring honorable what is often despised:
the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Help us to hear your Word,
and in hearing to trust,
and in trusting to live as you call us to live;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 29, 2017

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Through the prophet, God brings charges against his people, summoning the surrounding hills to hear God’s case and render judgment. God has done great things for this people and asked for justice and mercy, but the people have been faithless.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” – The poet describes the one who is worthy to enter the temple precinct in terms of faithfulness to others rather than ritual purity. Where we expect to her about ‘clean hands’, we hear instead about justice and mercy.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” –
The values of ‘the world’, the things honored and treasured by a humanity that has lost its harmony with God, are shown to be foolish and empty by God’s revelation of himself in Christ crucified.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the first of five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of what is honorable in God’s sight and declares God’s favor.

The comments from this and previous years on this Sunday of the church year can be found under the list of Sundays or by clicking here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVolunteers_of_America_Soup_Kitchen_in_Washington%2C_D.C..gif By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Live the mercy

 

Thursday

Deuteronomy 30:1-14

File:Musée du Petit Palais Petit Palais n09.jpg1When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, 3then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. 4Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back.

These words are not part of the assigned text for the first reading on Sunday, but they should be. They set the context for the promise of prosperity and for the declaration that “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you.”

The story starts in exile. The exhortation begins in mercy. This is a word of hope. When all is lost, there is yet a future. If we turn back, God will restore. And what God asks is “not too hard” for us. It is not esoteric. The life God wants for us is within our reach.

Justice and mercy are simple things. We may not want to give them, but they are simple and straightforward. God’s commands are not like the tax code. You do not need a legal expert to make them intelligible. You do not need a hero to discern them. God’s commands are really pretty modest: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

At first glance, Jesus seems to make the commands tougher: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you… But what Jesus is asking is that we keep the spirit of God’s law not simply its outward form. There is a lust of the heart not just of the body, and an anger that rends the human community though it does not murder.

God has commanded us to love our neighbor. Jesus just wants us to stop limiting mercy. Mercy is not hard. Compassion is not hard. It is our hearts that can be hard.

There are a thousand reasons not to stop and help the wounded man. The priest will be defiled and have to return to Jerusalem to undergo purification. The Levite, too, is surely on some important business and has good cause not to get involved. But this is not a situation that calls for nuanced interpretation of legal obligations; this is a situation that calls for us to live the mercy of God. Pretty simple: Live the mercy of God.

11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMus%C3%A9e_du_Petit_Palais_Petit_Palais_n09.jpg By jean-louis Zimmermann from Moulins, FRANCE [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Love your enemies”

Saturday

File:Racial theories about Jesus Christ.pngMatthew 5

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

To be fair, the scripture nowhere says, “hate your enemy” – though there are plenty of vindictive verses in the scriptures about one’s enemies.

In the aftermath of the brutal destruction of Jerusalem, the author of Psalm 137 is full of bitterness towards Edom and says of Babylon 9Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  Although technically this is not so much hate as revenge; these outsiders brutally harmed his group and the poet wants them to pay.

The psalmist declares, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” (139:21) – though again, to be fair, the word ‘hate’ in the Biblical world wasn’t an emotion infused hostility and desire to harm; it was more of a detachment, regarding the other as a person for whom one has no obligation, no group solidarity.  To ‘hate’ those who ‘hate’ God is to have no fellowship, no regard, no concern for those who show no allegiance to God.

The scribes have taught that the commandment in Leviticus to love your neighbor applies only to fellow Israelites.  You have no obligation to those who are not of your tribe.  No need to grant them either mercy or justice.  No need to clothe them when they are naked, shelter them when they are homeless, or feed them when they are hungry.

But, Jesus has declared that the kingdom of God is dawning.  He is teaching his followers to live as citizens of God’s kingdom.  And here Jesus points out the simple truth that God sends rain on all.  God shows faithfulness and solidarity to all humanity.  God regards all people as members of his kin group.  We are all God’s children.  And if we are all God’s children, then there are no enemies, there are none outside the circle of our concern, there are none we should not receive as family, none we should allow to go hungry or cold or without a sip of cool water.  None who should languish untended in prison.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel we will hear that great story about the sheep and the goats with those memorable words: “as you have done to the least of these you have done it to me.”  Those who treat everyone as if they were members of their family are the true children of the kingdom – and they will be acknowledged and welcomed as members of the household of God.

Slapped

Friday

File:Meister der Reichenauer Schule 001.jpgMatthew 5

38  “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”

The word here in Matthew should perhaps be translated better as ‘slap.’  We are not talking here about defending ourselves from violence; we are talking about assaults on our honor.  The key to this is the reference to the ‘right cheek’.  In order for a normally right-handed person to strike me on my right cheek he or she would have to strike me with the back of his or her hand.  A backhanded slap in every culture is an insult, dismissing me as worthless – a not uncommon experience for peasants.  Nor is it uncommon when enemy soldiers roam the land (or domestic soldiers serving an occupying enemy, Judean soldiers serving Rome!  Collaborators!!  The zealots wanted to knife them.).

What does it mean to stand up before someone who has slapped you down?

A slap on my right cheek can also be accomplished by a left-handed slap.  It was a great offense in Israel to even put your left hand on the table when eating.  The left hand was unclean.  You used your left hand to wipe yourself.  To extend the left hand, to touch someone with your left hand, was to treat them as dung.  Again, a not uncommon experience of the poor, the peasants, the oppressed.

What does it mean to stand up before someone who has dismissed you as dung and insist that they slap your left cheek?  To insist the treat you as an equal?!  To offer them the opportunity to see you as a fellow human being?  To offer them the opportunity to treat you with respect?  To offer them the opportunity to be reconciled?

When Jesus says not to resist one who is evil, he doesn’t mean we do not resist evil – but that we resist it in a unique and radical way: not with revenge, but with the hope of reconciliation, the hope that enemies can be transformed into friends, the hope that in this one small place the world might be made new, that into this ruptured relationship, this broken piece of the world, the kingdom of God might dawn.

One human family

Watching for the morning of February 23

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

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Sunday we continue with Jesus’ exposition of the Torah, God’s commands and teaching for Israel’s life together.  We hear the rich legacy of Leviticus that calls Israel to be a holy people as God is holy, a proper vessel for God’s presence among them – and for God’s witness to the world.  Again we hear from the magisterial psalm 119 celebrating God’s law, listening to the voice of the psalmist yearn for God to lead him in God’s way.  Paul reminds us that the Christian community is the temple of God, the dwelling of God on earth.  And Jesus extends the command to love your neighbor to all people, even enemies.  Such love is not a sentimental emotion, but a courageous determination to regard all people as members of your own household – and to help them see you in the same way.

The Prayer for February 23, 2014

Gracious God,
you call us to love not just our friends but our enemies,
to show kindness not just to family but to strangers,
to see all people as members of one human family
even as you have look upon us all as your children.
May our hearts be shaped by your heart,
and our spirits by your Spirit,
that we might be truly human
as your Son Jesus was truly human.

The Texts for February 23, 2014

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” From this section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code God calls the people to be a community that reflects the character of God, showing justice and mercy.  Here, Jesus finds the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – As we continue with the Sermon on the Mount, we read again from the magisterial acrostic psalm 119 that celebrates the Torah/law/teaching of God

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
 Paul continues his re-education of his troubled congregation about the fundamental importance of their life as a community.

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Jesus continues his exposition of the commandments, taking up the command in Leviticus to “love your neighbor” and transforming the law of revenge.

Dumplings

Sunday Evening

File:EucharistBread.JPGThere is something exceedingly precious about that small bit of bread in one’s hand that comes with the words “The body of Christ, given for you.”  Sunday, I listened to it more carefully.

Perhaps it was the rigorous words of Jesus we had just heard calling us to a life that embodies the reign of God – a life that eschews not only killing, but all that leads to killing.  A life that does not travel the path of anger.  A life that does not travel the path of enmity.  A life that does not travel the path that curses another or dismisses him as a fool.  A life that not only refrains from adultery, but does not even begin to travel the paths of desire that would harm another’s family.  A life that would rather bring shame on itself than shame another.  A life that need make no oath, for every word is simple and true.  A life that coheres with God’s work of gathering his broken and scattered world into a new Jerusalem; God’s work of redeeming, rescuing, reconciling; God’s work of breaking open prisons and setting captives free; God’s work of uniting all creation in a single song of praise.

I want to travel that path.  Yet I know the passions and failures that attend life, the disharmonies that rattle within me and escape now and again.

So there, at the altar, with that bread in my hand and the words of Jesus fresh in my mind, I hear not only the radical call to follow the path of life, I hear also the bread: the word that I, even I, broken as I am, I am welcome at God’s table.  I am fed by God’s own hand.

When I was ten, Mrs. Roberts made me feel welcome like that at her dinner table, as though I was just another of her large brood.  Funny, that dumplings should be a lasting memory.  But it is not the dumplings; it was the dinner table, the welcome, the pleasure of being part of that household.

The bread in my hand is as those dumplings: a simple, moving declaration that I am welcome in the household of God.

+     +     +

How are we to behave in a world where sins are forgiven, the lame walk, the outcasts gathered in, and the dead raised to life?  How are we to behave as a community that is a foretaste of that new world – and an agent in bringing that new world to birth?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is not just tightening the rules so that we are more rigorous followers of Moses.  Jesus is trying to give us a whole new vision of what it means to walk in the Spirit of God.

God is in the world to reconcile.  God is in the world to heal the human community.  God is working to restore the torn fabric of life.  It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger.  We ought not think religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.  Indeed, as they prophets often proclaim, they are more likely to offend God than to honor him if we are not living the justice, mercy and reconciliation of God.

From Sunday’s sermon “Don’t Start”

Lest you balk at the door

Friday

Matthew 5

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Wedding Cakes at the Seattle Bridal Show

20 Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

It doesn’t mean you won’t get into heaven; it means you won’t enjoy the reign of God, the setting right of the world that has begun and will come to completion in Christ Jesus.  You won’t enter into the life that is dawning in Jesus.

You won’t be able to forgive – and you won’t enjoy it when others are forgiven.

You won’t enjoy giving – and won’t understand why others do.

You won’t enjoy the presence of strangers and the outcast and won’t understand why others do.

You won’t enjoy the banquet table of God symbolized by a common cup and a shared loaf of bread.

You won’t enjoy looking upon all human beings as members of your household.

You won’t enjoy loving those who, in this fading world, are your enemies.

You won’t enjoy yielding the right to indignation and revenge.

The words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 will seem insipid to you:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Unless your fidelity to God and others is more than an outward conformity to rules and rituals, you won’t understand what God is doing in recreating the world.  It will not be comfortable to you.  You will not want to enter it.

But those who grieve, who hunger, who yearn, who struggle, who hope, who hear the words of Jesus and live them, who enter into the life he brings, who are filled with his Spirit – they will inherit the fulfillment of God’s wondrous plans to rescue the world from its brokenness and bring us to the joy of his eternal wedding banquet.

I bet there will be cake.

City of God, light of the world

Thursday

Matthew 5

The New Jerusalem by Kimon Berlin based on a 14th century tapestry

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 1

“A city set on a hill cannot be hid.”  Except that the word is not ‘hill’, but ‘mountain’ – the same as Jesus going up a mountain to deliver this Sermon on the Mount.  The NIV (New International Version) even dares to translate it “town” – but the word is polis, city, as in metropolis.  There are other words for town and village.  For Israel there is only one city on a mountain and that is Jerusalem.  Yes, there are cities high up on the hills over the Sea of Galilee that cast their light for miles – and shining cities like Sepphoris – but these are not the point.  And yes, Mount Zion isn’t a mountain like Mt. Hermon.  But the prophets declare that Mt. Zion will be raised above all other mountains and all nations shall come to its light.  It is the city of the great king (as Jesus will mention in verse 35).  The story of the world culminates with the New Jerusalem radiant with light, arrayed like a bride adorned for her husband.  Revelation 21 will take up Isaiah’s imagery to declare “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light,” adding only “and its lamp is the Lamb.” (21:23)

You are that city.  You, the honored of God, living the reign of God – you the salt that makes the fire of God burn brightly – you are the New Jerusalem to which a hungry world, stumbling in the valley of the shadow of death, will come.  What they will see is not the stunning architecture and shining white walls and gold leaf of Herod’s temple – they will see your good works.  They will see the good that you do, the goodness of God manifest in you.  They will see justice and mercy, the hungry fed, the homeless sheltered, the outcast welcomed.  They will see the compassion of God lived.  They will see justice fought for – our faithfulness to one another in this human community.  They will not see a farm bill that takes from the hungry and gives to the wealthy; they will see fields sold and the money laid at the feet of the apostles that all may be fed.  They will see bread shared, bread that is the first taste of the banquet to come, bread that brings the risen Christ into our midst and the remembrance of all he has said and done.

You are that city.  You are that light for the whole inhabited world.  You are the body of the risen Christ.

And again, Jesus throws down a challenge to the leaders of the earthly Jerusalem.  The temple was to be more than a tourist attraction.  The priests were supposed to be the dispensers of God’s wise Word, the source of knowledge about the way of the Lord.  Instead they have become plunderers, feeding off the people.  These words in the Sermon on the Mount are not pious platitudes of a gentle Jesus; they are fiery words of a spiritual revolution – a transformation of the people into true citizens of the realm of God.