Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48)
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36)
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34)
As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21b)
Yes, I know. It’s been over four years. And I still haven’t finished the Lord’s Prayer. Well, a few things happened. There was Brexit, which threw everyone (at least everyone I know). Then in the autumn of 2016 I started a two year part time MA in Writing Poetry. Then in early 2017, just as I was really enjoying that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. Fortunately, it was entirely separate from the first time sixteen years earlier, but it was on both sides, with three totally different tumours, all of which needed surgery. After struggling on with the course through brain surgery (they found a lesion on my brain lining which needed investigating, but turned out as expected to be harmless), then a double mastectomy, I decided when chemotherapy loomed that I really needed to defer for a year. Barely recovered, I resumed the MA in summer 2018, and finished in September 2019, graduating in December with distinction. Meanwhile, I was invited to contribute regularly to a theology blog (The Thinking Faith Project, https://www.princeodoemena.com/) and so this one was relegated again. Now here I am, in lockdown, having run out of work, and ready to blog again. Thank you for your patience, anyone who kept the link…
This post was always going to be a digression into thinking about chiasmus. You’ve probably worked out from the examples above that it’s a literary device used to make poetry or oratory memorable and striking, as well as to drive home teaching. It balances two phrases, which may be opposites or equivalents; in a sense, all of Hebrew poetry as we encounter it in the prophets and Wisdom literature, is based on chiasmus (as, often, is Anglo-Saxon poetry which I studied in my first degree). Jesus uses it frequently, and these are perhaps the best known instances.
Let’s start with the first. I’m not a scholar of biblical languages, but I believe there is no word in the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, that is equivalent to Matthew’s Greek word here translated as ‘perfect’. Even the Greek does not necessarily mean ‘flawless’, as in ‘this cream will give you perfect skin’. It means something more like ‘whole, ‘mature’, ‘complete’; and is related to the Greek for ‘aim’ or ‘goal’. We might render it as ‘be wholeheartedly for God, as God is wholeheartedly for you’. Or ‘be all out for God, as God is all out for you’.
Luke’s use of ‘merciful’ may be nearer to what Jesus actually said, since both Matthew and Luke place this command in the context of Jesus’ teaching of enemy love. We are to love even our enemies, as God loves God’s enemies: ‘While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son’ (Romans 5:10).
Finally John, in the farewell discourses and the resurrection appearances, bases Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ on God’s love for us expressed in Christ, and draws a parallel between Jesus’ mission to us and our mission to the world. Learning to fulfil this mission is a lifelong task: some call it sanctification, the Orthodox call it ‘theosis’, or becoming divine, for which there is real scriptural justification. I call it simply ‘salvation’ a word which in its biblical use is far broader and carries far more weight than a one-off event or decision, encompassing wholeness for individuals, society and creation. It is always a process: ‘And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47b)
Some Christian traditions, who read Jesus through Paul read through Luther, are not very good at teaching this aspect of faith; in the last twenty-eight years, Anabaptism has offered me a new perspective, in which we are not saved by good works, but we are very much saved for good works, which proceed from our response to God’s love in Christ. This is where the importance of chiasmus comes in: our love for God, for God’s people, for neighbour and enemy, is the syntactical balance for God’s love for us. Another chiasmus: ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us’ (1John 4:10).
This last takes us to another important point. The love, the ‘tikkun olam’ or ‘repairing the world’ as orthodox Judaism puts it, that we are to offer is not a matter of making supreme efforts to be better. Rather, the repeated chiasmus Jesus uses indicates that any love we may engender is always a response to God’s love for us as demonstrated in Jesus — it is, to borrow the title of Thomas à Kempis’ famous work, an ‘imitation of Christ’.
Why this long digression from the Lord’s prayer? I think it is partly because, as I said in my last post four years ago, I struggle with this forgiveness thing. Jesus’ use of chiasmus in his model prayer reminds me that any mercy I show, any grace I extend to others, is based on my own understanding and contemplation of God’s grace and mercy to me – not understood in an intellectual fashion as an abstract transaction allowing remission of sins, but experienced daily as I catch myself wronging both God and neighbour, and yet finding that none of this diminishes God’s love for me one iota.