Showing posts with label Gospel of Matthew. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gospel of Matthew. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mercy (continued)

Dear Readers,
Please add your comments to Grace’s response below. We hope this new format of posting
each writer’s response separately will enable you to join our conversation more easily. My response will appear next Wednesday. Until then, we look forward to hearing from you, Tziporah

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (The Gospel of Matthew 5:7)

I am grateful, Yasmina, for your words about the Prophet Mohammed, for I agree that misconceptions about him, his teachings, and his followers can only lead to fears and misgivings that create barriers where bridges are needed. Mohammed’s teachings about women will surely surprise many Christians, including some who fail to see that even the Apostle Paul (who is commonly viewed as misogynistic) admonished husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25) The concept of mercy lies, too, at the very heart of Christian teaching. For example, in the beloved Parable of the Good Samaritan, one’s neighbor is defined as “the one who showed mercy.” (The Gospel of Luke 10:37) Similarly, this biblical verse virtually mirrors the Hadith you cite: “There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others.” (James 2:13a) Our three religious traditions are different from one another in particularity. Yet, whether it is through Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed that our gaze is directed to God, we come to discover a universal truth that love of God and the manifestation of God’s love for us is not complete until we can express that love for one another, for all people everywhere, and, as Mohammed emphasized, for all of God’s creation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Increase the Light

“When a person lights one candle from another, neither flame is diminished.” 
(Bemidbar Rabbah 13)
My favorite night of Hanukkah is the last night, when each of us lights our favorite menorah. That’s 45 candles: 8, plus 1 server to light the others, times 5 family members, burning for at least 30 minutes.  My spouse usually remarks that our dining room resembles the nave of a cathedral, which conjures memories of my childhood visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.  In the text that I quoted, the early rabbis use the physical properties of a candle’s flame to focus on light as a metaphor for wisdom. This is one message of Hanukkah, the celebration of which involves adding candles each night to increase the light.  Many religions prescribe candle lighting and singing to dispel the darkness of the winter solstice. When we light a flame in our own homes and houses of worship, and we keep one another in our prayers, I have no doubt that we will increase the light in the world and the warmth in our hearts.  

Tziporah, your delightful family tradition on the last night of Hanukkah makes me smile as I imagine all that flame! It also brings to mind these words from a familiar song: “If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be!” That same song makes the connection you make between the light of a candle and a prayer that brings light into dark places. How much we need to heed that call to prayer in our world today: Darkness and evil can never be eliminated, I think, but I also believe with people of every faith tradition that darkness cannot prevail where the light of God shines. A favorite verse of mine from Christian scripture affirms, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (The Gospel of John 1:5) In another account, Jesus speaks words that I see as applying to people of good will everywhere: “You are the light of the world.” (The Gospel of Matthew 5:14, emphasis mine) What an awesome calling to be light for one another!

Although the Islamic tradition does not call for physical lighting of candles, the notion of sharing and increasing the light brings to my mind many positive associations. I recall immediately the beginning of a Hadith that I have memorized. It is a Hadith about charity; the type of charity that is not limited to financial giving, but encompasses any form of voluntarily sharing one’s knowledge, time, advice and emotional support: “Charity does not in any way decrease the wealth.”* Many verses of the Quran and other Hadiths emphasize the superiority of light over darkness and the many forms in which each is manifested. Light is wisdom and blessings, and all that is of benefit to us. Light is also equated with prayer, guidance, knowledge, piety and righteousness; these noble qualities will all take the form of physical light on the Day of Judgment. There is one last, unique depiction of light that is visible to the angels and attracts them to visit its source: it is the light that emanates from houses where the remembrance of God is fundamental.

* Charity does not in any way decrease the wealth; and the servant who forgives, God adds to his respect; and the one who shows humility, God elevates him in the estimation of the people.” (Sahih Muslim, Book 32, Hadith 6264)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seven times seven."  (The Gospel of Matthew 18:21-22)

Accustomed to the “three strikes and you’re out” rule, most of us imagine forgiveness in conditional terms.  How can an Amish community, grieving the savage killing of five innocent children, forgive the perpetrator and then offer support to the shooter’s family?[1] How can a Holocaust survivor live with memories of a Nazi officer leading his parents and siblings to death in a gas chamber?[2]  How does a doctor in Gaza forgive the soldiers in tanks who decimated his home and claimed the lives of three of his five children?[3]  How can any of us forgive those who intentionally inflict harm and justify evil deeds with talk of righteousness? I think forgiving “seven times seven” calls us not to deny evil, but repeatedly to face darkness with light. Doing so requires deep faith and real courage." Yet I believe that in going through the painful and anguished process of forgiving others, we ourselves are transformed.

Grace, I know this is not a mere coincidence. I attended a youth discussion this morning with my children at their first day of Sunday School and the topic happened to be forgiveness. I wish I could share in this forum the hour’s worth of sharp arguments and conversations. It was clear that forgiveness is complex, and part of the noble behavior that a Muslim strives to attain. The Quran and the Sunnah offer depictions of the virtues underlying it: determination, grace, patience, self-control and a strong desire to “do good.” Forgiveness is also described as having tangible, positive consequences; some are enjoyed in this world, such as turning adversaries into friends, and others are granted in the hereafter. Reflecting on the power of forgiveness is inspiring, and knowing that the All-Forgiving is willing to forgive us over and over again is deeply humbling. One of my favorite reminders of this is the verse, “…and let them pardon and overlook, would you not like that God should forgive you?” (al-Nur 24:22)

Grace, this is also a timely topic for me, since Jews are currently in the period of what we call the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe, a time for repentance and forgiveness.  The text from Matthew and your reflection made me think of Maimonides, who cautions: “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.”[4]  Maimonides’ code is sensitive to the realities of interpersonal relations: it can be quite difficult to forgive another who has hurt you deeply, and some actions seem entirely unforgiveable. At the same time, refusing to forgive another is inevitably more hurtful to the person who bears the grudge.  I am also reminded of Pharaoh’s hardened heart and the terrible pain he ultimately endures because of his own cruelty.

[2] See the memoir of Holocaust survivor Benjamin Hirsch and Elie Wiesel’s The Fifth Son.
[4] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2, 10. There is an excellent online resource of Maimonides’ works in English translation at Chabad’s website.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Taking Possession of Sacred Space

“You shall completely destroy all the places there, where the nations that you’re dispossessing worshiped their gods: on the high mountains and on the hills and under every lush tree.  And you shall demolish their altars and shatter their pillars and burn their Asherot in fire and cut down the statues of their gods and destroy their name from that place.”
(Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
While I can appreciate the historical context of this commandmentto take possession of the land by abolishing the pagan cults of its indigenous people—reading this text makes me uncomfortable. The sounds of destruction resonate as I chant the Hebrew words aloud: demolish them, shatter them, burn them, cut them down and destroy them.  At first I thought it was the rampant destruction of the environment along with man-made structures that offended my modern, ecological sensibilities. After rereading this section of the Torah, however, I find myself deeply disturbed by a realization: This is not merely an historical account.  In modern struggles over physical space and sacred space, we continue to completely destroy places and utterly dispossess people in order to exert ownership.  And then—after we take possession—what do we have?

I share Tziporah’s discomfort with this text if it is treated as a contemporary commandment. But I understand the Deuteronomist’s words as an attempt by a devout man, writing thousands of years ago in a very different culture, to imagine how the God he knew and worshiped might speak to a monotheistic people. As we read and interpret Holy Scriptures today, I think most of us are genuinely striving to listen to God and to heed God’s commands. However, just as we have come to understand the ungodliness of slavery, despite justifications our ancestors quoted from the words of sacred texts, we might do well to realize that we are equally prone to misrepresent in our own time the One who continually reshapes us. When trying to make sense of difficult texts, I find it helpful to recall the words of Jesus: “As you would that others do to you, do you even so to them.” (The Gospel of Matthew 7:12)

I totally agree that this text ought to be interpreted in light of the time and place it was written, and we need to consider for whom it was intended. I, too, share your discomfort when sacred text is used to justify any wrongdoing, whether it is expropriation, destruction or abuse.  In our days, individuals around the globe misquote sacred texts to purposely spread fear and mistrust in people’s minds. I am deeply concerned when I hear about acts of injustice which violate people and their property, regardless of whether these abuses are physical or emotional. This can make me feel helpless, because it deeply affects our personal states of being, and can lead to despair. However, in response to this state of being, I am empowered by what fills my own heart: a renewed sense of submission to the will of God, because He is the Best Disposer of all affairs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When Prayers Go Unanswered

“When My servants ask you about Me, then I am near. I respond to the call of one when he prays to Me. So they should respond to Me and have faith in Me, so that they may be on the right path.”
(al-Baqarah 2:186)

Muslims are taught early on that supplications or personal prayers are to be coupled with all their actions.[1] These prayers are meant as a way to remember God, be closer to Him, and affirm the need for Him in all affairs. However, people might wonder why some of their prayers are answered while others are not. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him] gave the following explanation: “The supplication of the servant will be accepted as long as he does not pray for what includes sin or severing family ties, and as long as he does not become hasty.” He explained that a hasty person says, ‘I prayed and prayed, but I do not see that my prayer is being accepted from me,’ and thus loses interest and abandons his prayers. The prophet further said: “God will grant him one of three things. He will either hasten the response to his prayer, save it for him until the Hereafter, or turn an equivalent amount of evil away from him.'' This definitely reminds me of the notion that we must always trust in God for He is the All-Wise.

Jews often struggle with the idea of personal prayer, since there are prescribed supplications in the liturgy, which implies that there is a correct way to pray.  Many of these ancient prayers relate to the rebuilding of the Temple and coming of the Messiah—supplications that do not appear to have been granted for nearly 2,000 years.  For me, true prayer is about searching my own heart and finding the strength to ask for things that I deeply desire but may never be given.  Each time I pray for the healing of someone who is dying, I struggle to find the right words to pray.  This brings to mind a folk tale, found originally in the Talmud, about a shepherd who does not know the liturgy but desperately wishes to pray to God.  In alternate versions of the story he plays his flute, sings the alphabet and says, “God, if You had sheep, I would take care of them as if they were my own.”[2] Some people mock his prayers and attempt to silence him, but in the end he is always rewarded for offering a true and heartfelt prayer.

Christians too struggle with the question of why some prayers, particularly deep supplications of the heart, seemingly go unanswered.  The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives…”[3] The lives of saints and mystics show that the search is particularly important, for long periods of seemingly unanswered prayer are not empty at all; the search always leads to discovery, always brings the seeker closer to the heart of God. We discover that prayer is about changing us. “Not my will, but thine be done” was the prayer of Jesus in his darkest hour. That supplication shows Christians that when we seek to conform our own will to God’s, darkness becomes light and goodness ultimately prevails.

[1] These prayers are distinct from Salaat, the mandatory act of worship which includes prostration. They are referred to as Duaa.
[2] This version is retold by Eric A. Kimmel in Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Another beautifully told and illustrated rendition is Yussel’s Prayer, by Barbara Cohen.
[3] The Gospel of Matthew 7:7-8