under the tent of Abraham
(Last Sunday, Bro Cassian and I participated in The Tent of Abraham, an almost-yearly gathering in the Santa Cruz area of Jews, Christians and Muslims, with shared song and prayer, dialogue and food. This year our friend Rabbi Paula Marcus was the host with her community at Temple Beth-El, but the event was organized by a great team of workers including several members of Sangha Shantivanam. Rabbi Paula, Imam Houcine Ahmad of the Santa Cruz Islamic Center, and I all gave a short talk. Here was my contribution to the event (in addition to getting to sing with Gitanjali and John and everyone). If you’ve been reading my homilies on this blog you will notice that this is a version of the homily I did on Matthew 5 two weeks ago, with some additions specifically for the event. –Cyprian)
There is some version of what is known as the Golden Rule in many spiritual-religious traditions. But I only learned recently that there is also what is called “the Silver Rule,” that comes first: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them to unto you” or “…what you hate do not do to anyone.” It’s recorded in the Jewish apocryphal Book of Tobit and found in the teachings of the great rabbi Hillel, who was almost a contemporary of Jesus and whose teachings are very similar to his. Then comes the Golden Rule, for example as Jesus lays it out in the Gospel of Matthew (7:12), which asks for a little more, asks for the same thing in a positive light: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The difference is that this implies positive action, taking the initiative to create an atmosphere of good will. And in some way little way, that is what we are doing here, under the Tent of Abraham, taking the initiative to create an atmosphere of good will.
I attended a marvelous conference in Alabama recently in which we offered a series of talks on Leadership in a Rapidly Changing World. One of the juxtapositions that was offered to us was recognizing the difference between a technical solution and an adaptive challenge. In a technical solution something breaks and you bring in an expert to fix it––a plumber, an IT expert, an accountant. But some situations can’t be fixed by a technician; an adaptive challenge means that something may have to die, one way of being in the world has to give way to another, and we need to learn something new. And a significant problem is when we try to apply a technical solution to an adaptive problem. We try to fix something that can’t be fixed because it needs to grow and change and evolve into a new way of being in the world. The first example I thought of this was health: quite often when we get sick we go to the doctor and we just want the doctor to fix us—“Give me a pill! Give me a machine! Is there some surgery we can do to fix this?” But more and more doctors are saying, “No, medicine is only going to be a palliative or maybe it will treat the symptoms. You’re gonna have to change the way you live, your diet, your lack of exercise, your lifestyle.” This is an adaptive challenge. One of most significant examples of this tension that the speaker offered us was war. She used the word “always,” but that may be an overstatement, but still… War is sometimes, often, usually, a technical solution to an adaptive problem. And the prime example that was given was the terrorist attacks of September 2001. The first days after that catastrophic event there huge headlines: TWIN TOWERS FALL! THOUSANDS DEAD! AMERICA UNDER ATTACK! A few days later the headlines read, in somewhat muted tones and font, “Why Do They Hate Us?” Now you see: that was the adaptive question. Why? What’s going on here? What’s beneath this? What do we have to learn? What has to change? And then the next day the headlines were back to enormous size and emotion: WAR ON TERROR! A technical solution to an adaptive problem. One expert in leadership training was asked, well then, what would be the adaptive challenge here? And his answer was three-fold. First of all, at the time (so I have heard) there was no one in the State Department who spoke Arabic. (Now of course the DLI in Monterey is flooded with military personnel studying Arabic, hopefully not just for the sake of defense but also for the sake of understanding the culture of the peoples with who we are in conflict.) Secondly, there is what I’m told is called the “fight for Mecca,” the struggle within Islam itself, which our friends can speak of more eloquently than it, to decide who speaks for Islam. Is it Boko Haram and ISIS and al-Quaeda, or is it and Imam Navid Baig in Copenhagen, Seeyed Hossein Nasr, Reza Azlan and Ali Lakhani, and our friend Houcine and the good Muslims with whom we have broken bread and shared stories all these years, our neighbors, our compatriots and our co-workers? And finally the adaptive solution is going to come from the conversation between Jews, Christian, and Muslims, the children of Abraham. And, again, that is what we are doing here, following the Golden Rule, not just not-doing evil, but taking the initiative to create an atmosphere of good will. An adaptive solution: what has to die? What do we need to learn? What new way do we have to learn how to be in the world?
But then the next step is this teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:43-48): ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ This is nothing less than moral heroism; this is the height of sanctity; this is perfection. Jesus has said earlier in the same sermon: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it’; and in this teaching Jesus is showing us what the fulfillment of the Law is.
‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Jesus says here. The Greek word Matthew uses is teleios–“perfect,” a word rarely used in the New Testament. It’s related to the Greek word telos––one of my favorite concepts––, which means the end, the ultimate goal: to be perfect is to have reached the consummated goal of life. You could say Jesus is bringing the Law to its telos–to its end, to its consummated goal, and its fulfillment. And what does it mean to be perfect? What’s the fulfillment? There are several variations on this saying in the Hebrew scriptures, and perhaps we should remember all of them in this saying of Jesus. The Book of Deuteronomy (18:13) urges us to be tamin––blameless or loyal; in the Book of Leviticus (19:2) it’s qedosim–‘be holy as I am holy.’ Matthew uses instead this Greek word teleios, which is usually translated “perfect,” but for the Greeks “perfect” meant being conformed to the divine ideal. And that’s where the Gospel of Luke comes in handy. He also records a version of this saying which ties it back to this teaching about our enemies. In Luke’s version of this story (6:36) Jesus says, ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’ That’s what it means to be perfect––it means to be merciful! That is what conforms to the divine ideal! Because Jesus’ Abba-God is ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, “All-Merciful and All Compassionate.” That’s what it means to be like God who rains on the just and the unjust. It means to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Jesus tells us that our ultimate goal is to be merciful as God is merciful. That is the proof of our perfection. The fulfillment of the law is mercy.
While we indeed disagree about some very fundamental things between our faith traditions, even about the concept of God, this is one fundamental thing that our traditions agree on: that the very nature of God is mercy; that the very essence of religion is compassion; that the source and summit, the beginning and end, the perfection of our faith is mercy. And if this is true, then who could be my enemy? Who is not my neighbor?
And that’s why we’re here to day, too, to learn how to be more loyal and blameless, holy, perfect, to be god-like—to be merciful.