Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Matthew 19-20

Matthew 19:1-12: Perhaps continuing with the theme of life in the new Christian community, Matthew places here a teaching of Jesus on divorce. The text is also a part of the on-going dispute between Jesus and some of the religious leaders. Jesus seems clear that God’s intent is for life-long covenanted relationships. Divorce was permitted under Jewish law, but could only be initiated by the man. The typical result was that the divorced woman, who had few economic and property rights, was left destitute. Jesus, in limiting the acceptable situation for divorce argues for greater equality in marriage. One might argue that unfaithfulness in a relationship (unchastity) could go beyond sexual betrayal. There are other kinds of betrayal that may do even more damage to a marriage and might be considered acceptable grounds for divorce. In most cases there is an element of tragedy in any divorce, and Jesus’ teaching acknowledges this. His other teachings about compassion lead me to believe that he would not have used his strong feelings about marriage and divorce to beat up on those who had been divorced. The church has not always done the best job of showing compassion to those divorced and that is inconsistent with the overall teaching of Jesus and the Christian faith. The cryptic saying at the end of these verses is an invitation to some to consider a life of celibacy as one way to live out one’s faith.

Matthew 19:13-15: Another affirmation of children as symbolic of the kingdom of God. Part of the power of this image comes from knowing the status of children in the time of Jesus. Children were excluded from adult male society. They were without economic resources. They were powerless and vulnerable.

Matthew 19:16-30: The countercultural message of Jesus continues. Many of those in the Jesus community in Matthew’s time were probably among the poor and outcast of society. There may have also been some more well-to-do members. What do we do about wealth? A rich young comes asking Jesus about life, life in God’s kingdom, eternal life. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. The young man responds that he has already done this, but is convinced something is lacking. Jesus tells him to go and sell, give and follow. The young man turns away. He is wealthy. Jesus has invited him to be “perfect” – whole. There is perhaps a sense in the text that someone who had many possessions, given the social situation of the time, could not have also been someone who kept the commandments. Whatever the situation, this person felt incomplete, Jesus offered him a way to completeness, but his many possessions got in the way. Possessions themselves may not have been the problem, only the way they hindered this young man in his life. The irony is that during the time of Jesus, wealth was often thought to be evidence of God’s favor. If it is difficult for those who have wealth to be saved (like pulling a camel through the eye of a needle, what chance do regular folks have? With God, noting is impossible (an echo of 17:21). Those with wealth may be a part of the Jesus community, but they may have to hold their possessions more lightly. Many had, in fact, already given up quite a bit to become a follower of Jesus and Jesus assures them that their choice is a wise one. Possessions seem to be a potential impediment in the spiritual life. What has your experience been with what you own and possess? How might it be helpful for you to reevaluate your relationship to things? We all need to ask such questions from time to time.

Matthew 20:1-16: This is a difficult story in many ways. The basic story line, wherein laborers get paid the same amount of money at the end of the day regardless of how long they worked violates our sense of fairness. The justification provided by the landowner, that he can do whatever he pleases with what is his,strikes me as capricious. How can this story tell us anything very helpful about the kingdom of God? Perhaps we should keep in mind that a day’s wage was probably a subsistence wage, so those who were hired closer to the end of the day really needed the full day’s wage to get by adequately. Does God’s dream for the world include the idea that everyone has enough to get by? Might that idea also mean that at some very fundamental level we are all valued just because we are, and this “being valued” is grace, and grace really takes us beyond easy calculations like those normally used in paying wages? The landowner is generous. The kingdom of God might have something to do with fostering generosity, particularly in the face of human need. Sometimes we will be the recipients of generosity, and sometimes others will be. We need to be careful about guarding our hearts when others receive generously. God’s dream for the world does not seem to include envy.

Matthew 20:17-19: As Jesus and the disciples head toward Jerusalem, the ominous note about confrontation and death is again struck. But the promise is that there will be life on the other side.

Matthew 20:20-28: I love the irony often found in the gospels. The way Matthew puts together the sayings of Jesus here is really a work of art. In the story of the generous landowner, envy is eschewed. This is followed by remarks about what will happen when they all arrive in Jerusalem. Now the mother of the sons of Zebedee brings her sons to Jesus and asks that they will sit on his right and on his left in his kingdom. Whatever kingdom may be on its way will come only after the ugliness of Jerusalem. What has this woman misunderstood? Jesus is right, she doesn’t know what she is asking. Jesus turns to the two disciples and asks if they are really able to join him in mission and ministry, even when it may lead to dark days like those ahead in Jerusalem. They respond with a hymn (“Lord, we are able” – sorry to those of you not versed in Methodist hymnody - - - this is a joke!). Envy then rears its ugly head as the other disciples hear about the woman angling for a good place for her sons. So Jesus has to explain things. Leadership in God dream for the world is about service, not about power over others. I cannot read these words in any of the gospels without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.” I am fortunate to have it on tape (actually on a vinyl record!). If you have never read it, it is worth reading.

Matthew 20:29-34: Blindness has been an underlying theme in this chapter. The workers hired first are blind to some of the realities of the situation of the workers who were hired later. We who hear the story are often blind to the ways we receive graciously in our lives, and that blindness turns to envy when we see others receiving generosity when we don’t. The mother of the sons of Zebedee is blind to what it can mean to follow a Jesus who is seen as a threat to the political and religious authorities of the time. The disciples are blind to the true meaning of greatness in God’s dream for the world. Just to make sure we understand that blindness is a reality in our spiritual lives, but that it is a condition that can be healed, Matthew tells a healing story about Jesus. As Jesus leaves Jericho, a large crowd follows, and from the side of the road two blind men holler out for Jesus. They asked for their eyes to be opened. Not a bad prayer for most of us, at least some of the time. “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes.” That same Jesus power touches our eyes, too. “Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.” We are invited to respond likewise, and when we do, we are invited to be compassionate healers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Matthew 18

Further thoughts: I ended my reflection on Matthew 17 with these words. One does not capriciously withdraw support from a government or culture, but one can undermine those elements of culture which stand in the way of God’s dream for the world by spiritually disengaging from them, and by building alternative relationships that foster God’s dream, God’s purposes. Some further explanation may be in order. In light of the power of the Roman empire, the early Christians “spiritually disengaged” from the government and from certain elements of the culture. The empire ruled with an iron hand and possibilities for changing it were minimal. The culture valued power, prestige, position, wealth and saw the ordinary people as virtual “nobodies.” The church was open to all people, but it shared good news that was especially meaningful for those who were consistently told they really didn’t matter. With a democratic form of government one can argue that the more appropriate Christian response when we see things we believe don’t fit well with God’s dream for the world is to work for change. My doctoral dissertation was on Christian perspectives on political democracy. Even in a democracy, there may be elements of the political culture from which we want to disengage. Our tendency to look at politics as if it were a sporting event, where we focus on elections alone and who is winning and losing and why is something we would do well to resist. I don’t mean resist participating in elections, I mean resist seeing politics as primarily about elections. Politics should primarily be about the decisions we make on how we will live together, how we will provide for the common good, and not as much about who we elect. We would do well to spiritually disengage from seeing politics as a horse race. We would also do well to spiritually disengage from those elements of our culture which seek to define human persons merely as consumers and that define success only in terms of being beautiful or rich or famous. I know – that’s a lot to think about for a story about a fish with a coin in its mouth.

Matthew 18:1-5: In so many ways, the message and ministry of Jesus were countercultural (and that remains true). But cultural influence is difficult to shake, as we will see a few times in the coming chapters. Jesus has told the disciples that following his way will mean giving up some definitions of self. It will mean risking being identified with the despised and left out (the cross was a symbol that identified those most despised by the empire – taking up one’s cross is not simply about carrying small burdens, it is more about bringing good news to those who don’t often hear). Still, they ask about greatness. Well, Jesus isn’t against “greatness,” he wants to redefine it. Child-like humility will define greatness. Welcoming children will be welcoming Jesus. This is a rich image and my sermon on Sunday will explore it more. For now I offer these words (read Tuesday morning at the men’s group meeting) from author Kent Nerburn. They are his reflection on what it means to be a child. You are promise. You are possibility. You are hope when our hope has dimmed. You are joy when our hearts are heavy. In you we see the world as we dream it could be. Remain excited at the discovery of a leaf; it tells us there is still beauty in the small, when our eyes have gotten too focused on the great. Play with each other on playgrounds; it shows us that all people of all backgrounds can meet each other with open hearts. Keep talking to the dogs and the cats and the pigeons and the ducks; it reminds us that the spirit is present in all living things. Keep laughing and giggling when you are surprised and delighted; it offers our ears the music of grace…. You remind us what it means to be alive. (The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life). You know, these might find their way into Sunday’s sermon.

Matthew 18:6-9: Matthew has constructed the whole of chapter 18 as an extended discourse on what it means to live as followers of Jesus in community. It is to seek genuine greatness in child-like humility. In these verses, Jesus cautions against putting stumbling blocks in the way of others, especially the most vulnerable. So important is this issue that the saying is filled with hyperbole – millstones and amputation. “Stumbling blocks” are left undefined. Part of what is being asked for is concern for how one’s behavior affects others. One can have a negative impact on others in many different ways – it may be best to leave the category of “stumbling block” left open. But let me share a story. Not long ago I met with a woman who had been confirmed in a United Methodist Church. She told me that she had a lot of questions then, and still had a number of questions about the church and Christian faith. Somewhere along the way she was given the distinct feeling from church people that her questions were not welcome in church, so she left. I give her a lot of credit for coming back again to see if her questions would be welcome. Seems to me that’s a stumbling block the church has too often put in the way of people who are seeking a deeper faith, but can’t get there without asking significant questions. The church should welcome questions.

Matthew 18:10-14: This is yet another saying about caring for the least among the community. Furthermore, when a member of the community of Jesus happens to stray away, every effort should be made to help them find their way back into the community. Our communities are full of people who for one reason or another found church to be hurtful or irrelevant or who simply just slipped away. How can we reach out to such folks?

Matthew 18:15-20: The community of Jesus will have occasions when persons hurt one another. Reconciliation and forgiveness are always the goal. When a matter is serious it may require a process to resolve and here a process is provided. This reflects the situation in Matthew’s day much more than anything Jesus would have dealt with in his own time. The process outlined here seems to presuppose that one person is primarily at fault in a fractured relationship and that their behavior continues to threaten the peace and well-being of the community. This is not, then, a generic model for resolving all conflict. Most interpersonal conflicts are such that each party contributes something to it. There is an irony in the words about treating persons who refuse to change their disruptive ways. They are to be considered as “Gentiles and tax collectors.” The irony is that Jesus often sought out these very persons, to bring them hope and healing. Jesus promises to be with the community, especially as it seeks to be a community of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Matthew 18:21-22: I am amazed at how central forgiveness is to the teaching of Jesus, and not just forgiveness by God, but human forgiveness. Forgiveness finally goes beyond calculation. Forgiveness is not an easy matter, however. Forgiveness does not necessarily entail reconciliation. You may forgive someone who has hurt you badly without putting them back in a position to hurt you again. Forgiveness does not mean becoming a door mat for another person. Forgiveness does not entail forgetting, and it is consistent with justice and accountability. One can be forgiven and still asked to pay the consequences for one’s action. Forgiveness is focused on what happens inside the person trying to forgive. It means letting go of some of the pain and hurt and anger and bitterness that accompanied being wronged. It means not letting that hurt define you at your deepest. Jack Kornfield has written that forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace). I have come to believe that forgiveness is vital soul work and requires attention and thought. I have a deep appreciation for work being done on forgiveness by Lewis Smedes (Forgive and Forget) and Kent Nerburn (Calm Surrender) among others. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa are a powerful reminder that forgiveness is not just a soft, touch-feely concept, but is relevant to difficult political situations (see Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness).

Matthew 18:23-35: Often when Jesus wants to emphasize a point he tells a story. Here is a story about forgiveness and its importance. One should not read too much into the behavior of the king who ends up throwing his slave into prison in the end. It is not primarily meant to say “this is what God will do to you” – though Matthew leans in that direction with his editing. It is a story meant to emphasize the importance of forgiveness, of accepting it and of giving it. I think it is unhelpful to look at forgiveness as a command. It is better to look at it as a goal toward which we work. When we don’t get there, we suffer – our hearts are harder than they should be, we are less free to love and care than we would like to be.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Matthew 16-17

Matthew 16:1-4: This is almost an exact repeat of 12:38-40. Matthew may repeat it to show just how recalcitrant some of the Pharisees and Sadducees were being. These two groups often differed on key points of understanding the Jewish faith, but significant members of each group seem united in their opposition to Jesus’ understanding of the Jewish faith and of the God of that faith. They are blind to all that is happening in Jesus – healing, deliverance, good news.

Matthew 16:5-12: In light of their on-going resistance to Jesus, Jesus tells his followers to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He uses the image of yeast, and the disciples are initially confused by this. Matthew may be making a statement about the kind of confusion that comes to many in the course of their Christian spiritual life. When our faith is grounded in stories, we need to remember that stories and images are often multivocal, they speak with different voices and are open to differing interpretations. Of course, some interpretations are more adequate than others. Jesus had little concern for bread in this story!

Matthew 16:13-20: These verses are crucial to Matthew’s gospel. They are about the formation of a community of persons and about the central message around which that community is to be built. The political leaders have had John the Baptist killed. The religious leaders are resistant to the work and message of Jesus. Caesarea Philippi contained a shrine to the Greek god Pan and the city was associated with displays of imperial power, e.g. Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus there. It is here that Peter, in response to Jesus’ question, confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed one”), the Son of the Living God. The confession is important in a number of ways, two of which I want to mention. It says that Jesus is in fact God’s person, the one anointed by God to be God’s “saving agent” in the world, the one to share good news of the kingdom and to make the kingdom more real. There are ways in which Jesus does not fulfill some messianic expectations. He is not organizing to overthrow Rome militarily. He is not as strict in his interpretation of the Law as some would like. The confession also uses language that was used by Roman emperors to describe themselves – son of god. It says that it is in Jesus, not in the mighty and powerful in Rome that God is known. Such a confession defines the community for whom Matthew is writing his gospel. It is a community that is distinct from the Roman elite and from some elements in the synagogue. Verses 17-19 are found only in Matthew. For whatever reason, Peter takes on a certain importance in this gospel. Perhaps the Christian community at Antioch had, at one time, a special relationship with him. Simon becomes Peter. The power of God at work in Jesus transforms lives. The rock on which the church will be built could be Peter (there is word play here between Peter and rock in Greek), it could be Jesus, or it could be the confession that Peter uttered. A new community, more inclusive, is formed, and its central confession is that in Jesus, God’s kingdom has come near. This Jesus community (Matthew is the only gospel writer to use the word “church”) will be strong in the Spirit – not even the gates of Hades will prevail against it! This is a strong affirmation for a community that no doubt suffered a great deal.

Matthew 16:21-23: All this good news, all this joy quickly takes on a sobering tone. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the Living God. Yes, he will build a community that not even the gates of death will conquer, but death has a blow to strike. Did Jesus know he was going to die, or did he have a strong sense that anyone who would dare to propose an alternative kingdom to that of Rome and an alternative spirituality to that offered by some religious leaders could not last forever? One has to answer that question for oneself, but it is not unrealistic to assume that Jesus' plan to go to Jerusalem would end in confrontation and death. Jesus seemed to carry with him a certainty that God would prevail (that’s what resurrection is all about). The particular language in which all this is couched reflects the experience of the Christian community of a risen Jesus. Peter, who was so astute moments ago, does not put his best foot forward here. Perhaps this story reflects what could have been a genuine struggle for Jesus, whether to continue his ministry in the outer regions of Palestine, or take his message and his powerful deeds to the heart of the area – Jerusalem.

Matthew 16:24-28: Not only will the way forward be difficult for Jesus, but those who follow him should not expect anything different. Following Jesus will not always be easy. It will mean confronting that within which hinders one’s spiritual journey. It will mean not being intimidated in working for a better world, even when it is hard and the opposition strong. It will mean not clutching one’s life out of fear, but opening one’s life to the God of life who seeks to bring healing and peace, justice and beauty into the world.

Matthew 17:1-13: The story of the Transfiguration, ending with another “prediction” of Jesus’ suffering replays the same themes as the confession and “prediction” of suffering in the previous chapter. This story evokes other themes as well (the mountain, Moses and Elijah all have significance). Perhaps there is also a commentary here about deeply moving spiritual experiences. James, John and Peter are caught up in a wonderful moment. They see clearly. They “hear” the voice of God. They would like to prolong this spiritual high. But they have to go back down the mountain into the beautiful and hurting world. It is a world where great good can happen, but also where many who try and do good are made to suffer. They must go into the world to continue the work of the kingdom, healing, hope, good news. Jack Kornfield’s words are wise ones. “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance. In the spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry…. The true task of the spiritual life is not found in faraway places or unusual states of consciousness; it is here in the present. It asks of us a welcoming spirit to greet all that life presents to us with a wise, respectful, and kindly heart.” (After the Ecstasy, the Laundry). Our churches should be places where we help people experience God more deeply, and places where we send ourselves back into the world to do God’s work.

Matthew 17:14-20: This is the final exorcism story in Matthew’s gospel and it presents some interesting twists. Its placement right after the transfiguration story tells us again that wonderful spiritual experiences by themselves are insufficient as defining factors in the spiritual life. From them we are to be empowered to live God’s love in the world. A lack of faith seems to get in the way of Jesus work, temporarily. One should not infer that when good does not happen in our lives, it is because of our lack of faith. The point is that faith is powerful because it opens us up to God’s power in new ways. It does not guarantee that God’s power will do just what we want in any given circumstance. The assuring words that with God and faith, “nothing will be impossible” caution us against giving in too easily to the way things are.

Matthew 17:22-23: The shadow of potential death continues to be cast over the disciples.

Matthew 17:24-27: During the time of Jesus, all Jews were taxed to support the temple. Jesus response in this situation seems to suggest that children of the king (God) might be exempt from such a tax. Nevertheless, the tax should be paid to avoid giving offense. With God, a way would be found. When this story was read in Matthew’s time, Jews were taxed by the Roman emperor Vespasian. The tax was punitive and identified the Jews as a conquered people. The tax was used to rebuild and support a temple to Jupiter in Rome. The story seems to give Matthew’s community direction on its payment of such a tax. There is much in the ministry of Jesus which stands against the empire and its theology. However, Jesus is thoughtful. He is not out to overthrow the empire violently or through outright rebellion. His revolution will be a quiet revolution of the heart. God’s love changes people. It brings them into a community where they are to live differently, and when others see this difference the glitz and glamour of the powerful Roman empire will seem shallow by comparison. One does not capriciously withdraw support from a government or a culture, but one can undermine those elements of culture which stand in the way of God’s dream for the world by spiritually disengaging from them, and by building alternative relationships that foster God’s dream, God’s purposes.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Matthew 14-15

Outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth: Good day – thought I would begin with a light image to consider. As I have been reading and grappling with the gospel, I have wondered what to do with some of the language Matthew uses, language that Jesus may have used. Almost alone among the gospel writers, Matthew makes use of the phrase, “outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12, 13:42, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30). The phrase is found infrequently in the other gospels, and Matthew’s frequent use probably has something to do with the context in which he compiled his gospel – a deeply conflicted context where Jews who sought to follow Jesus were being separated from other Jews. The language can be oddly reassuring in that it assumes that at some point in the future, the question of who was right will be figured out, and Matthew assumed that the followers of Jesus would be vindicated. The language brings up all kinds of issues about death and hell, judgment and afterlife and I thought it might be helpful to offer a couple of thoughts about this. I will offer two extended quotes from writers/scholars of differing theological bent and then offer a few words of my own. First, Marcus Borg from his book Jesus (180-181): Granted Jesus used language about a final judgment, did he believe in a last judgment with eternal consequences – that some people would go to hell?... It is possible that Jesus did believe in a final judgment in which some people would go to hell. It is also possible, at least equally so, that the afterlife was not a central concern of Jesus and that he used the language of a final judgment to reinforce the importance of acting compassionately. We can imagine that language working this way: you who believe in a final judgment – what do you think the basis, the criterion will be? His own answers to that question, as reported in the gospels, subvert and undermine widely accepted notions of his time (and perhaps every time). The judgment will not be based on membership in a group, or on beliefs, or on rule keeping, but on deeds of compassion. But whatever Jesus believed about rewards and punishments in a final judgment, his mission and message were much more concerned about life in this world than about our fate beyond death. Next, Brian McLaren from his book The Secret Message of Jesus (174-175): If we take the biblical material less as prognostications and more as promises and warnings for their original hearers, we have a much simpler scenario: we humans live with ever-present warning and promise, with the ultimate warning that evil and injustice will lose and the ultimate promise that God and good will win. The goal is not to place us in a fatalistic, determined universe that makes us succumb to can’t-win disempowerment, fatalism, despair and resignation – or can’t-lose overconfidence, complacency, arrogance, and triumphalism. Instead, warnings and promises serve to heighten our sense of responsibility and accountability, and they wake us up – like children throwing rocks – to realize that serious consequences could flow from our current carelessness. Both of these thoughtful statements emphasize that language about judgment, about outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth, is literary language designed to evoke a response in its listeners. Jesus and Matthew want to emphasize the seriousness of responding to Jesus and the kingdom of God which is breaking into history in him. They suggest, especially Borg, the appropriate response is to live with compassion. I find this compelling. I also think it is somewhat incomplete. Another prominent theme in Christian faith is God’s grace, and I think a word needs to be said about grace in this context. We know we will not always live as compassionately as we might. May our hearts continue to grow in compassion. We also know we cannot do it all, feed every starving person, house every person who needs housing, even respond to every mail appeal for help we will receive (I have five of them sitting on my dresser at home right now). We take seriously the invitation to live with compassion. We do what we can trusting (and “trust” is a much more accurate synonym for “faith” than “belief” is) that God will make the best of what we are able to do. We also trust in God’s forgiveness (how forgiveness may be related to the death of Jesus will be a question examined in the future). If you want a parable for God’s surprising and amazing grace, how about the one where the person plowing the field comes across a valuable treasure?

Matthew 14:1-12: At the end of chapter 13, Jesus has experienced rejection in Nazareth. His hometown people could not see him in a new light. At this point, though, this is nothing like the rejection John has experienced. He is arrested by Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea by the consent of Rome until 39 CE. He is thus a Jewish collaborator with the Roman Empire, and his actions are consistent with imperial power. Herod marries Herodius, his brother’s wife for imperial reasons – to build alliances and expand control. A request by his daughter leads to the capricious execution of John, though it also gave Herod cover for his own desire to see John silenced. Violent and unjust action to silence the opposition are marks of the kingdom of Rome. John and Jesus are prophets of another kingdom, proclaimers of another dream. While the opposition to Jesus has not yet reached this fevered pitch, this story foreshadows what is to come.

Matthew 14:13-21: Even though there is opposition and conflict, kingdom action continues. Jesus is grieved by the death of John. Remember, his ministry began just after John’s arrest. He seeks some time alone, but crowds follow. He has compassion for them and does kingdom work – curing the sick. As the day wears on, the disciples are concerned for the hunger of the gathered crowd. They have only five loaves and two fish, but miraculously, Jesus is able to feed five thousand, plus women and children. This is a rich story, and again the primary question should not be “how?” but “why?” Matthew retells this story because it demonstrates that remarkable things happen when Jesus is around. The kingdom that is coming into being in Jesus is one where people are fed and healed. It is a kingdom of compassion. The placement of this story right after the story of John’s death is interesting. Herod’s banquet is all about pleasing guests, and saving face when his daughter asks for an outrageous gift. It is a banquet for only a few and it ends in violence against John. Jesus banquet feeds a multitude. Resources are shared. The are leftovers to continue to feast. There would have been room for others at the table. If verses 1-12 foreshadow Jesus’ death, verses 13-21 foreshadow Jesus sharing of himself at the last supper.

Matthew 14:22-33: The timing within this story does not fit the previous one very well. It was evening when the disciples were concerned about food. In this story, Jesus dismisses the crowd, sends his disciples out in a boat and then evening comes. Oh well. Matthew is less concerned with chronology than with continuing to make his point about Jesus. The remarkable things about Jesus continue. He has the ability to calm storms. The storm has ragged through the night, and in the early morning Jesus comes across the water to help. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” These are words of Jesus that we should let ourselves hear often – whenever the storms of life are raging against us. That we will sometimes let our fear get the best of us is probably a reality. Just ask Peter.

Matthew 14:34-36: Even the most casual contact with Jesus is efficacious for healing. As Christians called to be Jesus for the world, the church should let its fringes fly freely so that Christ’s healing might touch more people.

Matthew 15:1-9: Back to the conflict with some of the religious authorities of his day. They have accused Jesus and the disciples of breaking Sabbath laws by picking grain and by healing. Now they are concerned that the disciples eat without properly washing their hands. Jesus asks them to look more deeply at their own practice – at the log that may be in their own eye rather than the speck that may be in the eye of the disciples. There may be some irony in that this story about clean hands for eating sits in the middle of two miraculous feeding stories.

Matthew 15:10-20: The conflict over hand washing leads to some teaching. It is not that Jesus simply rejects rituals of purity, it is that he wants to focus attention on the more important matters of the heart. Purity of heart leading to appropriate words and compassionate action are what matter. While Jesus does not explicitly say so, we should understand that this is a two-way street. Appropriate words and compassionate action come from a pure heart, but one of the things that makes a heart purer is engaging in compassionate action. We don’t have to wait until our hearts are just right to be compassionate. At the same time, we need to tend to the condition of our hearts in order to extend our compassionate action.

Matthew 15:21-28: This is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament. As noted in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible “cultural, ethnic, political, economic, and religious barriers and prejudices operate in this scene.” It goes on to say about the woman – “with submissive and persistent action, she outwits Jesus…. Jesus identifies her persistence and dependence as faith. He heals her daughter.” I love this story because of the way barriers are broken down. I love it because even Jesus seems challenged to open up in new ways, and by an unlikely person. Finally, his compassion, egged on by her faith, wins out.

Matthew 15:29-31: Another one of Matthew’s summary statements about the ministry of Jesus and his work in bringing God’s kingdom close.

Matthew 15:32-39: A second feeding story, very similar to the one in chapter 14. Here it is the compassion of Jesus that initiates the feeding rather than a concern of the disciples that the people will go hungry if they don’t leave to find food. Small amounts of food are multiplied. Thanks is given. There is more than enough, and even leftovers. Four thousand men, and additional women and children are fed. The point of the story is identical to the earlier feeding story and it is unclear why Matthew feels the need to include both (in Mark’s gospel the locations indicate some difference of purpose in repeating the stories). Repetition can be a tool in helping people remember. I have discovered a lot of it in Buddhist Scriptures. The notes about this story in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible are worth quoting. “God’s will is that hungry people be fed. Imperial propaganda claimed the gods supplied food through the emperor. But hunger was common in the overtaxed Roman world. The scene anticipates the wholeness and plenty that will result from the establishment of God’s empire.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom)

Note on Parables: Teaching using parables was a signature method for Jesus. That Matthew has a long discourse precede Jesus speaking in parables reflects more his own editorial work than the mixture of teaching using parables and aphorisms that probably characterized Jesus teaching ministry. Here are a couple of extended quotations that help orient us to reading parables. The word “parable” literally means “to throw alongside” and underlies their comparative and revelatory function. These short narratives show something about God’s empire by engaging the imagination and challenging conventional perspectives. They often draw from everyday, peasant life, but an unexpected twist underlies the surprising, gracious, demanding and countercultural nature of god’s reign. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). Parables are an interactive form of teaching…. They tease the mind into active thought and engage the listener in the question, “What do you think?” But, additionally, they probably not only led hearers to think privately to themselves about their meaning, but also provoked interaction among the hearers and between the hearers and Jesus. (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 153) I remember how fascinated I was with scholarly work on the parables during my New Testament class in seminary. Some well-known scholars were working with the parables of Jesus at that time (the early 1980s), people like John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk. Parables are meant to provoke thought. If these are among the most characteristic methods in Jesus’ teaching, do you think Jesus remains interested in provoking thought, in encouraging a thoughtful faith? I do.

Note on the kingdom of God: The parables in this chapter are primarily “about” “the kingdom of God” (“about” is in quotes because being good stories parables can have more than a single meaning). These parables invite us to ask how the kingdom of God is like what is going on in the story. In his most recent book, Jesus, Marcus Borg argues that “Jesus’ mission and message were not about ‘heaven,” not about how to attain a blessed afterlife.” Rather, Jesus’ “mission was about the character of God, the way of centering in God, and the kingdom of God.” (p. 143, 144). Borg notes that Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as a substitute for “kingdom of God.” This was in keeping with a common Jewish reverential practice to about using “God” as much as possible. Borg contends that there is widespread agreement among scholars about certain aspects of the kingdom of God. This kingdom was not for the afterlife, but for the earth. “As a political-religious metaphor, the kingdom of God referred to what life would be like on earth if God were king” (Borg, 187). “The kingdom of God was not only for the earth, but involved a transformed world. It is a blessed state of affairs, a utopia brought about by God, God’s dream for the earth…. It means the end of injustice and violence. Everybody will have enough, and nations will not make war on nations anymore” (187). One of my favorite ways to talk about the kingdom of God is to see it as God’s dream for the world. The gospels are all pretty clear in claiming that Jesus taught that the kingdom of God had come near in the work of Jesus. The gospel writers argue that God indeed was up to something in Jesus. God’s kingdom, God’s dream was breaking into history. There is disagreement among New Testament scholars about whether Jesus (and early Christians) thought that God’s kingdom would fully arrive in the near future. They also disagree about the role of human response to Jesus in making that dream for the world more real.

Chapter 13 in context: Chapter 13 in Matthew follows chapter 12 (chapter 13 in any book follows chapter 12!) and chapter 12 portrayed a growing conflict between Jesus who was both teaching about the nearness of God’s kingdom and making it happen as he healed people and some of the significant religious leaders of his day. Such a conflict was still going on between followers of Jesus and other Jews in the time of Matthew. Crowds were following Jesus, for the power of his teaching and for the power that seemed to come from his person. He pushes out into a boat to continue teaching, and here he uses stories to say more about the kingdom of God. He has already described much of the content of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount, which Brian McLaren calls “Jesus kingdom manifesto” (McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, 117). With stories/parables Jesus now seems to be teaching about the dynamics of the kingdom – how it comes, how it is received, rather than its content. I hope that distinction makes some sense.

Matthew 13:1-23: In these verses we have a parable, an explanation of why Jesus taught using parables and an explanation of the parable itself. The parable itself is probably the part of these verses that goes back to Jesus himself. That does not mean the other parts are unimportant or uninspired, only that they represent faithful response to the parable-telling Jesus, and invite our response. The parable of the sower is well-known. The most common interpretation is that we want to be “good soil” so that the word of Jesus (the seed sown) yields a wonderful harvest. I think that is one helpful meaning. Jesus might have told the story to again indicate that his own ministry, when it met with receptive hearts, brought forth good things – healing, freeing, forgiving. While we might want to be good soil, the story also leads me to ask, “How am I to be like the sower?” Maybe as a follower of Jesus my primary task is to keep sowing the same seeds of love and healing Jesus sowed, knowing that not all will bear fruit, but that some will. Jesus is asked why he speaks in parables. One can imagine that this question reverberates through the centuries. Why couldn’t Jesus just spell everything out instead of telling stories which inevitably evoke multiple interpretations? Maybe because the way God works to make God’s dream come alive in the world has more to do with stories than with checklists. Stories invite imaginative engagement, checklists invite following a linear progression. Maybe God’s kingdom can be found that way, but more often it is found as one finds oneself inside a story. When you get that, you can get even more. If you don’t you may hear, but you won’t finally be changed. This story encourages me to ask myself, “How’s the soil of my heart?” and “How am I doing sowing seeds.” In asking these questions, the kingdom of God draws a little nearer. Eyes that see and ears that hear are blessed. An interpretation of the parable is offered. It is a good one, but if we are to take the form of parable seriously, it cannot be the only interpretation of the story.

Matthew 13:24-30: It helps in understanding this parable to know that there is a wheatlike weed (darnel, cheat) that is common in the Near East. An explanation is offered in verses 36-43, but as with the previous parable, we should acknowledge that this would be but one interpretation of the parable. The parable itself is about different kinds of seeds sown and about the intermingling of wheat and weeds. Only at some future time will an ultimate distinction be able to be made. The parable takes a gentle attitude in the present toward the weeds, perhaps encouraging us to be more cautious in our judgments (as in 7:1-5). At some point in the future that which was grown from good seed will be appropriately gathered and the weeds sown from bad seed will be burned. This is metaphoric language and we should be careful not to bring to it too much of our preconceived theology. Many of us grew up with notions of a place of eternal punishment, a hell, that was fiery. It is not so clear that this is what Jesus has in mind here. He is merely asserting that at some time that which is evil will get tossed aside as trash to be burned.

Matthew 13:31-32: Here we have another seed parable, but one very different in kind. God’s kingdom often comes in small, quiet ways, which can later burst forth with amazing abundance. When God’s dream blooms, there will be room for many birds of the air.

Matthew 13:33: Another image with a similar message, though the image would have been startling. It would have startled in two ways. The kingdom comes in the work of a woman – this image in a society where women were not considered the equals of men. The kingdom comes like yeast – this in a society in which yeast was almost exclusively used as a negative image. Jesus will use whatever images he can to open up his listeners to the remarkable work of God in the world. The work of God in the world, God’s dream, may include people we would not expect.

Matthew 13:34-35: Matthew inserts another theological reflection on parabolic teaching. Once again he makes use of the Hebrew Scriptures to help understand the significance of Jesus.

Matthew 13:36-43: The parable of the wheat and the weeds is given explanation, but only to the disciples. Seeds become people – good and bad. Let me offer two suggestions for consideration. In this context, Jesus is speaking words of assurance to those who are “good seed” – “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” It reminds me of a passage in the Buddhist Scripture The Dhammapada. “So amid the wretched, blinded ordinary folk, among them who have turned to rubbish, the disciple of the Fully Awakened One shines surpassingly with wisdom.” That word of assurance is primary. Another consideration I offer is to focus on the phrase “all causes of sin” as the primary point of judgment. If that is the focus, we recognize that within our own lives we sow seeds that produce wheat (love, joy, kindness, justice) and that produce weeds (hatred, prejudice, favoritism, exclusivity). In the end, what we ourselves have sown will be revealed, and we will know that parts of our lives will need to be put on the burning rubbish heap, even as parts will help us shine. One final word, from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: “Again, the Gospel regrettably uses imperial goals (destroying all adversaries) and patriarchal images to picture God’s empire.”

Matthew 13:44: One might stumble across God’s kingdom as upon a treasure hidden in a field. With joy, we find ways to respond appropriately to this amazing discovery. Where have you “stumbled into grace?”

Matthew 13:45-46: Sometimes we find God’s kingdom as we actively seek after it, and when we find it it is even better that we imagined, and we give ourselves to it fully.

Matthew 13:47-50: God’s kingdom stretches far and wide, like a fish net bringing in all kinds of fish. Necessary sorting occurs, and again strong images are used – furnace of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth. That evil needs to be seen for what it is, in some ultimate context is important. These stark images remind us of that and perhaps are best left as that, stark images reminding us of something important. Again, if we recognize that within us exist both good and bad fish, we understand that part of the task of the Christian life is to let the transforming power of God’s Spirit work in us so that we produce more of what is truly lasting and valuable, and less “garbage.”

Matthew 13:51-53: Here the disciples tell Jesus that they have understood. This will be a contrast to Mark’s gospel, where the disciples are often portrayed as misunderstanding Jesus. When you begin to get it, you can bring out what you need – old and new. Maybe this is a good parable for reading the Scriptures. As we let the Spirit of Jesus inspire our reading, we can build on what we have learned in the past, but also be open to new viewpoints which help form in us that Spirit of Jesus.

Matthew 13:54-58: Much of the teaching of Jesus has to do with seeing things in new ways, in a new light. The people of his hometown could not see Jesus as anything more than the son of his mother and father, and the brother of his brothers. They can’t imagine where he was getting all this “wisdom” and “power.” Because they were not open to new possibilities, new possibilities were shut off for them. There is a danger when our Jesus becomes too familiar. It is good to read and hear the stories again and again and ask what might be new about them.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Matthew 12

Further conversation on Matthew 7:13-14: Forgive me for backtracking, but I would like to respond to a comment about these verses. I said I think they are intended more for encouragement than judgment. However, some experience them more as judgment than encouragement. I certainly understand that point of view, and these verses have been used doctrinally to say that not many will make it, so WATCH OUT! I really appreciated these words from The People’s New Testament Commentary. “The ‘many’ and the ‘few’ are not informational, but hortatory. They function not to give a doctrinal statement on how many will be saved, but to exhort and admonish lagging disciples of the urgency of decision which must be made anew every day.” Matthew has put together his gospel for a small group of people, a group that is distinguishing itself from other Jews and from the Roman society in which they also live. The Jesus community in Matthew’s theology is to live a distinctive life in response to what God has done (and continues to do) in Jesus – a life of peacemaking, gentleness, mercy. All the original readers of Matthew’s gospel would have seen themselves already as a part of a unique and narrow way, something distinct from the wide roads of the Roman Empire. Matthew uses these words of Jesus, which will appear in slightly different form later on, to encourage those who have already found the way to hang in there, even when it is hard. Remember, this is but one image Jesus uses. Just a few chapters later, Jesus will say, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:30).

Matthew 12:1-14: Here we have two stories that should be seen in the context on an on-going debate within Judaism about the Sabbath. In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, and of Matthew’s, keeping the Sabbath was one central element of faithful Jewish practice. That being said, it was also generally agreed at that time that human good took precedence over strict interpretation of Sabbath practices. However, there was debate about the exact application of this notion. If healing did not involve a life threatening condition, might it wait until after the Sabbath? This was a live question in Jesus’ and Matthew’s day. Jesus weighs in on the debate by making a strong case that mercy trumps strict observance. At the heart of Sabbath practice is mercy and justice. Sabbath recognizes that human beings are more than their work, that their very existence is a joy to God and is to be celebrated. Sabbath practice, especially when extended to “Sabbath years,” speaks of justice, as during Sabbath Years debt is to be relieved and special attention is to be given to the poor. If mercy and justice are at the heart of Sabbath, shouldn’t Sabbath practice reflect this, allowing for feeding the hungry and healing the hurting? These stories not only take a position on debates about the meaning of Sabbath, but they assert the authority of Jesus to make such interpretation. This was a threat to other religious authorities, and they began plotting to destroy Jesus. A note in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible helps us understand such a reaction. “Doing mercy and good challenges the elite’s control of the Sabbath by putting the needs of the marginal and desperate ahead of their self-serving system.”

Matthew 12:15-21: In the face of such strong opposition, Jesus withdraws. He does not go into hiding, rather he chooses to concentrate on his healing work rather than on debate with some Pharisees and other religious authorities. Matthew uses verses from the prophet Isaiah to help give a theological reading of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is understood as a suffering servant. Interestingly, the verse speaks of bringing hope to the Gentiles.

Matthew 12:22-32: The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees resumes, and it is inevitable that it would. Jesus continues his work. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place. Certain Pharisees try a new tactic to discredit Jesus. If he casts out demons it is only because he is in league with them. Jesus responds with wit and wisdom. He makes a bold claim – “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God [Matthew until this time has used a more indirect phrase – ‘the kingdom of heaven’] has come has come to you.” That is precisely Matthew’s assertion of what happened in Jesus, the kingdom of God. God’s dream for the world breaks into the world in a remarkable way in Jesus and how a person responds to that makes all the difference for their lives here and now. Yes, there is an “afterlife” dimension, but this was not Jesus’ primary focus. “Jesus’ message and mission were not about ‘heaven,’ not about how to attain a blessed afterlife…. Rather, his mission was about the character of God, the way of centering in God, and the kingdom of God” (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 143-144). Jesus wants people to join in his work of gathering people into God’s work in the world. If you are not about this gathering work, you are probably scattering. Then come two verses which have created tremendous consternation among Christians for centuries – verses that refer to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as something that “will not be forgiven.” These verses are not speculative statements about unpardonable sins, but in the context of Matthew’s gospel, they are a word of judgment against those opposing Jesus in the story. Another way of stating what Matthew seems to be saying is this: “If you don’t see God’s Spirit working through Jesus, how can you receive the blessings of the Spirit’s work through Jesus?” You can’t. You’ve closed yourselves off from what God is doing in Jesus. Eugene Peterson’s rendering of verse 32 is helpful here. If you reject the Son of Man out of some misunderstanding, the Holy Spirit can forgive you, but when you reject the Holy Spirit, you’re sawing off the branch on which you are sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives. Sinning against the Holy Spirit is not something you do once, and then can never be forgiven. It is refusing to receive forgiveness from the one who offers forgiveness. If you then open yourself up to being forgiven, you are no longer “sinning against the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 12:33-37: Jesus has already used the image of the tree and the fruit in the Sermon on the Mount. Here the focus narrows. Jesus asserts that one’s words and one's heart correspond. This is a direct criticism of the words spoken by the Pharisees in the previous section – attributing Jesus healing work to Beelzebul. The broader implication is that a transformed heart is reflected in one’s words. There may be a little test in here for us. Pay attention to you words. How do they reflect what’s going on in your heart, your soul, your life? How do they indicate some need for inner change?

Matthew 12:38-42: It is amazing, given all that Jesus has done, that some scribes and Pharisees ask for yet more signs. Jesus seems to lose patience with their spiritual tone deafness or color-blindness. The sign of Jonah is a little ambiguous. Was Jesus referring to Jonah’s preaching which when offered led to a change (repentance), or to Jonah disappearing into a great fish? Matthew more clearly than Luke (11:29-32) focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is helpful to remember that the gospel writers were writing well after Jesus' life. They know the end of the story and put hints of it into the earlier story of Jesus. Luke’s version does not allude to the death of Jesus at all. The primary point of this text is the recalcitrance of the scribes and Pharisees in the story. God is at work in Jesus and they do all they can to avoid making a decision about their lives in light of this. Perhaps our lives have been like that sometimes.

Matthew 12:43-45: This is a cryptic saying. In a culture where demon possession and disease were often linked, it was the experience of persons that diseases could recur and come back even more strongly than before. The saying about the wandering demon may make some reference to such experiences. The basic point is that one’s situation can get worse, and so can one’s spiritual situation. In the context of the on-going dispute between Jesus and some of the religious leaders, these verses are probably yet another way of saying these people are missing out on what God is doing in Jesus.

Matthew 12:46-49: This chapter, so filled with conflict between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his day, ends on a note that is positive, but not unambiguously so. While some of the religious leaders have turned away from Jesus, other persons have chosen to follow – to let him lead them closer to God and to doing the work of God in the world. Then there is a more difficult word. Jesus’ family (mother and brothers) want to speak to him. He responds by saying that his real family are those who are about God’s purposes in the world. Those who respond to God and God’s Spirit in Jesus are a new family. It would be unfair to say that Jesus does not care about his family at all, but he makes it clear that there are other loyalties that are even deeper. Jesus is not easily placed into the camp of a champion of “family values.”

Monday, June 18, 2007

Matthew 11

Note One: Last week I saw the musical “Godspell” and in it Jesus utters a line that he really might have uttered at some time (in Aramaic, of course). “Did I promise you an answer to the question?” For some other thoughts about reading the New Testament, I hope you will check out my other blog, With Faith and With Feathers ( – the entry for June 17.

Note Two: If you would like to print one entry for a particular week, or the schedule of readings, but don’t want to print everything that’s posted, here is how to do that. With your mouse, right click and highlight the material you would like to save to be printed. Under the computer’s edit tab, click copy. Exit the web site and open a new document in your word processing program. Paste the copied contents into this new document. You can save this document, and/or print this document.

Matthew 11:1: In some of the gospels, Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about mission are followed by their actual going out and reporting back. Matthew does not include any such report. He continues to tell the story of Jesus’ ministry, of preaching and teaching. Matthew, in this transition statement does not mention healing. His focus in the coming section will be more on Jesus’ teaching and on contrasting the work of Jesus with others.

Matthew 11:2-6: If you remember from chapter 4, John the Baptist has been arrested. There will be more about John’s arrest in chapter 14. John sends disciples to ask Jesus if he is “the coming one.” Given that some continued to follow John even after Jesus’ followers became the church, not all would have been convinced by the response reported here. But this response is very telling. Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Then he adds another beatitude. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. When we are asked why we are Christian we should be able to respond with what we have seen and heard for our own lives. We can share what Jesus has done for us without asserting that we have all the answers, or that others who see Jesus in a way that is different from us are all wrong. Sharing our faith begins with sharing our own story.

Matthew 11:7-19: Here we have an extended riff on the figure of John the Baptist. It is both laudatory and forward-looking. Jesus shows deep appreciation for John’s ministry. He is a prophet in the mode of Elijah. But God is up to something more in Jesus. How clearly Jesus may have asserted this in his ministry is a matter of debate, but it is an important part of Christian faith – that God was up to something very special in the life and ministry of Jesus, so special that all those who work for God’s kingdom after Jesus are even greater than John! There is a section in these verses that puts John and Jesus on relatively equal footing – presenting God’s kingdom from different angles. John was more ascetic, Jesus more celebratory, but even with these options, many did not respond to the new thing God was doing. In our own lives we have times when we need to be more disciplined and times when we need to be more celebratory, and we need to pay attention to these changing needs in our spiritual lives. Two other verses are quite interesting. Verse 12 speaks of the kingdom coming with violence. This is may be a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the way political regimes (Greek and Roman) ruled with violence and proclaimed themselves the rule of God. The kingdom Jesus proclaims will come in a very different way. It can also mean that people are struggling to be a part of God’s kingdom. Verse 19 – the ending phrase – “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (New Revised Standard Version translation, the one I am using most often in this blog) is captivating. Wisdom is feminized, an important acknowledgement that there is a feminine element in the person of God. Jesus uses the phrase to speak of the deeds of John and of his own. They are “wisdom’s children.” Through them the wisdom of God calls to each of us, inviting us to be a part of God’s work, God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world.

Matthew 11:20-24: Jesus speaks harsh words to those who have witnessed his deeds of power, but have been unmoved by them. His language seems more rhetorical than literal. His goal is not to seal the fate of those on whom he is pronouncing judgment and woe, but to again invite them to turn around (repent) and re-orient their lives. If not, they may find that they have wasted their lives, that much of what they worked for really belongs on a burning trash heap. Jesus was not beyond using strong words to get the attention of his listeners.

Matthew 11:25-30: If Jesus can sometimes resort to harsh rhetoric to get the attention of his audience, he more often offers inviting images. Here Jesus thanks God for grace in helping those who are often left out and devalued find their place in God’s love and care. It is not so much that God has actively hidden things from “the wise and intelligent” as that the wise and intelligent are sometimes too smart for their own good, so self-reliant that they fail to realize the we all are recipients of grace, we all benefit from things we did not create ourselves. Theologian Bernard Meland puts this well, even if in language that may be rather philosophical and abstract. The nexus of relationships that forms our existence is not projected, it is given. We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence. And from this matrix come resources of grace that can carry us beyond the meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defining. This goodness in existence, which we do not create… creates and save us (Fallible Forms and Symbols, 151). The gospel writer has Jesus affirm his close connection to God, again, a central Christian affirmation. And this Jesus says to us all – come, come rest and learn. Jesus draws from the language on an inter-testamental Jewish writing, Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Sirach). Here is a short quote from that work. Draw near to me, you who are uneducated and lodge in the house of instruction…. I opened my mouth and said,”Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money.” Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. I really appreciate Eugene Peterson’s rendering of verses 28-30. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. What more needs to be said.

More commentary on Matthew 12-15 coming in the next couple of days.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Reading Plan Mapped Out

For those who like to see an entire plan laid out before them, here is the plan for reading the New Testament in one year, with the chapters for each week identified.

June 2007-June 2008

All dates listed are Monday – Sunday. Sermons will be based on some part of the five chapters read prior to Sunday with seasonal exceptions.

June 4-10: Matthew 1-5
June 11-17: Matthew 6-10
June 18-24: Matthew 11-15
June 25-July 1: Matthew 16-20
July 2-8: Matthew 21-25
July 9-15: Matthew 26-28, Mark 1-2
July 16-22: Mark 3-7
July 23-29: Mark 8-12
July 30-August 5: Mark 13-16, Luke 1
August 6-12: Luke 2-6
August 13-19: Luke 7-11
August 20-26: Luke 12-16
August 27-September 2: Luke 17-21
September 3-9: Luke 21-24, John 1
September 10-16: John 2-6
September 17-23: John 7-11
September 24-30: John 12-16
October 1-7: John 17-21
October 8-14: Acts 1-5
October 15-21: Acts 6-10
October 22-28: Acts 11-15
October 29-November 4: Acts 16-20
November 5-11: Acts 21-25
November 12-18: Acts 26-28, Romans 1-2
November 19-25: Romans 3-7
November 26-December 2: Romans 8-12
December 3-9: Romans 13-16, I Corinthians 1
December 10-16: I Corinthians 2-6
December 17-23: I Corinthians 7-11
December 24-30: I Corinthians 12-16
December 31-January 6, 2008: II Corinthians 1-5
January 7-13: II Corinthians 6-10
January 14-20: II Corinthians 11-13, Galatians 1-2
January 21-27: Galatians 3-6, Ephesians 1
January 28-February 3: Ephesians 2-6
February 4-10: Philippians 1-4, Colossians 1
February 11-17: Colossians 2-4, I Thessalonians 1-2
February 18-24: I Thessalonians 3-5, II Thessalonians 1-2
February 25-March 2: II Thessalonians 3, I Timothy 1-4
March 3-9: I Timothy 5-6, II Timothy 1-3
March 10-16: II Timothy 4, Titus 1-3, Philemon
March 17-23: Hebrews 1-5
March 24-30: Hebrews 6-10
March 31-April 6: Hebrews 11-13, James 1-2
April 7-13: James 3-5, I Peter 1-2
April 14-20: I Peter 3-5, II Peter 1-2
April 21-27: II Peter 3, I John 1-4
April 28-May 4: I John 5, II John, III John, Jude, Revelation 1
May 5-11: Revelation 2-6
May 12-18: Revelation 7-11
May 19-25: Revelation 12-16
May 26-June 1: Revelation 17-21

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Matthew 8-10

Just a Note: German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis wrote a book on discipleship in which he commented extensively on the Sermon on the Mount. As I was looking at some of this work again this week I came across this rich phrase – “the thralldom of material things.” Particularly in prosperous societies, in which we are grateful that so many do not have to simply eek out a subsistence existence (though some still do), there is the danger that we can get captured by the quest for more and more, that we can be consumed by consuming, that we can fall into "the thralldom of material things” all to the detriment of our spiritual life and our total well-being.

Miracle stories: Having given a long synopsis of the teaching of Jesus, Matthew provides a number of stories demonstrating the remarkable power Jesus had in people’s lives. We often refer to many of these stories as “miracle stories” and it would be helpful to say a few words about such stories in the gospels. The most important questions about miracle stories are not: “Did this happen?” or “How could this have happened?” Rather the important questions are “Why is this story being told?” and “What might it mean?” Faithful Christians can disagree about what actually happened while still learning together about the meaning of these stories for the life of faith. I am simply going to make a number of statements about miracle stories before moving on to discuss the specific texts. You may disagree with some of what I offer here, but you need to know some of the ideas I bring to trying to understand these stories. While the gospels share a number of miracle stories, the writings about Jesus in the other parts of the New Testament make virtually no mention of his performing miracles. The focus is instead on the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. In the world of Jesus’ time, miracle stories were told about a number of people, both within the Jewish tradition and outside of it. In the gospels, the miracles performed by Jesus are almost always miracles done for the benefit of people in distress – they seem to say something about the character of God’s love. That Jesus performs such miracles is meant to say something about his person – about how God’s love and Spirit was powerfully present in him, how when people experienced Jesus they felt a deeper experience of God. The miracle stories are intended to invite people to decide whether or not God really was up to something special and powerful in Jesus, and to decide whether or not God is still up to something special and powerful in Jesus. If so, we are invited to respond by following Jesus on the way. Dialogue about discipleship is often woven into the miracle stories.

Matthew 8:1-4: Lepers were considered ritually unclean and were to be avoided. Jesus chooses to heal this leper, and chooses to do so by touching him. He asks the man to go see a priest so he could be reintegrated into the community. Jesus reaches out to those on the margins and is concerned that they be included in community – this is in itself a healing.

Matthew 8:5-13: Another person on the margin is at the center of this story with Jesus. A centurion, a Roman soldier and thus a non-Jew, comes seeking help for a servant or a son, the language could be read either way. People have been amazed at Jesus’ teaching and power, now Jesus is amazed at the faith shown by the centurion, by his trust in Jesus. The difficult context in which Matthew was written, a context where Jewish followers of Jesus were contending with other Jews seems to color the language of the story. Of course, there were also Jewish followers of Jesus who has amazing faith. The point of the story is the faith of an outsider. This outsider will be included in the banquet of God’s people with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

Matthew 8:14-17: Yet another person on the margins, a woman, is healed. And the healing continues. These three stories together should move us to ask how we are reaching out to those on the margins or those who the faith community has traditionally overlooked. There are all kinds of healing desperately needed in our relationships and in our communities and as followers of Jesus, we are to carry on his work.

Matthew 8:18-22: In the miracle stories in the first part of the chapter, Jesus comes across as very caring and compassionate. This story seems to show another, harder side. Is Jesus trying to put these would-be followers off? Perhaps these stories use exaggeration to make a point already made in the Sermon on the Mount, the way of discipleship, the way of following Jesus, the way of love, can be challenging and difficult. It may mean having a sense of rootlessness in a world enamored with the rich and famous and powerful. It may mean, at times, setting aside certain family obligations in the service of a greater good.

Matthew 8:23-27: This story emphasizes that Jesus as a person powerful in God’s Spirit, as God-among-us, has power to keep us amidst the storms of life. “Why be afraid?” Living more from faith than from fear comes up again and again in the New Testament. If you missed them, please see my comments on Matthew 6:25-34. There I discuss the issue of fear.

Matthew 8:28-34: Of all the healing stories, stories in which demons are cast out may be the most puzzling to us. For most of us, our closest encounter with a demon was watching The Exorcist (if we watched it – I did not). While we might have some very interesting conversations speculating on the nature of demons and on whether or not there are such things as creatures that can possess us, I am not sure that helps us get to the heart of such stories. That people can get caught up in things that harm them immeasurably (drug addiction is a prime example) is a fact. I think it is also a fact that evil can take on a life of its own – the whole system of drug manufacture and distribution seems to have a life that is bigger than the sum of its parts. The Holocaust is another example of evil taking on a life of its own and sweeping people up into its destructive energy. Whatever we make of the exact nature of demons, stories of Jesus casting them out are a meaningful and important part of the gospel. The demons recognize that Jesus has power as “Son of God.” They ask what he is doing coming to torment them “before the time” – a reference to that time when God’s kingdom would come in all its fullness, banishing the demonic. This story is meant to reinforce the idea that Jesus has the power to stand up to the strongest forces of evil, of harm and hurt. It is a power that causes some to be afraid, ironic when you consider that the whole point is to help people live less fearfully. We are invited to trust even in the face of the worst life can throw at us. We are invited to trust enough to keep on loving and caring and making a difference, even when it is difficult.

Matthew 9:1-8: Another healing story, with yet another couple of twists. The faith that Jesus admires is the faith of those carrying a paralyzed man to Jesus. If I am not mistaken, paralytics were also rather marginalized people during the first century CE. The second major twist is that Jesus tells the man not that he is healed, but that his sins are forgiven. Sickness was often thought to be the result of sin or of demons. There is some modern wisdom in this, for we recognize the complex relationships between body, mind and emotion. But that should never lead us to assume a simplistic connection between physical sickness and the state of one’s “soul.” So Jesus forgives, and some question his authority to do so. The story takes a humorous turn. Jesus asks which is easier, to tell the man he is forgiven or to tell him to walk. Duh!!! So Jesus goes for the really incredible, not to show off, but to show that he really does have authority to forgive. Forgiveness is a central theme in the Christian faith, our need for it and our need to grant it. I’m sure I will have more to say about this as time goes on in our reading.

Matthew 9:9-13: The theme of welcoming those on the margins of the society of the time continues with this passage. Matthew, after whom the gospel is named, is a tax collector called by Jesus to follow the way. He then joins a meal at Matthew’s house, a meal which included other “tax collectors and sinners.” I find it interesting that Jesus is critical of the empire and much of its way of life, and yet he extends a welcoming hand to many who were part of the imperial system – tax collectors and centurions. Such people were considered outsiders by many of the Jewish religious authorities of the time. And Jesus called some of these people, too, to be his followers. Jesus will have none of the vision of an exclusive community – whether that be a community of religious elites or imperial elites.

Matthew 9:14-17: The beginning of God’s new inclusive community in Jesus is a cause for celebration. Fasting will have its place, but Jesus’ presence inspires joy. There is new wine in new wineskins.

Matthew 9:18-26: In these stories, Jesus responds to two very different people. One is a religious leader of the synagogue. Jesus has criticized some of these leaders, but he will not reject groups of people all together. While he is on his way to help this person, a woman who has been ill for years touches him. As she had been bleeding, her touching Jesus made Jesus unclean, but Jesus ignores this. He calls her “daughter” and tells her to take heart for her faith has made her well. Jesus not only praises someone who would have been considered unclean, he acknowledges her own inner strength. Maybe one way God works in our lives is in helping us call forth the gifts and strengths we have (which we understand to be a gift of God in the first place). Back to the original request for healing. When Jesus arrives at the leader’s home, his daughter has died. When I said that maybe stories of release from demons are the most difficult for us to understand, I was not thinking of this story. Maybe these stories, where someone dead comes back to life are even more challenging. The focus should be less on what happened and more on why the story is being told and what it might mean. As with stories about the casting out of demons, this story is meant to reinforce the idea that Jesus has the power to stand up to the strongest forces of evil, of harm and hurt – and overcome them. The meaning of this story is not medical – maybe sometime the power of Jesus can bring someone back for a few more years of life – but metaphorical. Physically, we will all die. While we live, there are other ways we “can die,” emotionally, spiritually, relationally, morally. The power of God’s Spirit, the power of God’s love at work in Jesus can bring us back from such death.

Matthew 9:27-31: The healing stories continue. Here we have two blind men. They believed that Jesus could change their lives, and change came. Blindness is often used in the Bible as a metaphor for a lack of understanding of or openness to God and God’s purposes. We are not sure why Jesus tells them to keep this to themselves, but they cannot. How unlike most of us today. Even when wonderful things happen to us because of our faith or our relationship to the church, we tend to be silent!

Matthew 9:32-34: This healing story involves a person who was demon possessed and mute because of it. He is healed and thereby speaks. Matthew compiles a rich selection of stories about Jesus, each with a little different twist – whether unique characters or differing conditions addressed. The cumulative message of these stories taken together is that God is up to something very special in Jesus, and what he is up to brings good things to people’s lives. We are invited to open ourselves to this new thing, and as we do, we will be transformed in ways described by Jesus’ teaching. Of course, one has to actually believe that God was up to something good in Jesus, and some of the religious leaders of the day refused to do so (verse 34).

Matthew 9:35-38: Another summary statement about Jesus ministry, almost exactly like the statement made at the end of chapter 4 – Jesus goes about teaching, sharing good news and healing. Here Matthew adds a little more. The reason for Jesus’ action is compassion. Jesus also recognizes that the work will need to be expanded, carried on by others. The work is such that there is always need for more to join in. We all have a place in the work of Jesus Christ. We all have a role in sharing good news and in bringing healing to others. Jesus wants us to grow in our compassion for others.

Matthew 10:1-25: Seeing the need for more workers, Jesus sends out twelve who have been following him. If one compares lists of the twelve disciples/apostles they don’t always correspond. Twelve was an important number for Jews at that time. There were twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus empowers these disciples, asking them to continue the work he has been doing – share the good news that the kingdom of God has come near (God’s dream for the world is already becoming a part of the world) and bring healing (cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons – this parallels the stories told about Jesus in chapters 8 and 9). In the course of our reading of the New Testament, I want to say more about the meaning of the kingdom of God and of the idea that it came near in Jesus. It is obvious two thousand years later that the world still isn’t the world God dreams of – filled with peace and justice, care and compassion, kindness and beauty. What should we make of the fact that Jesus said it had come near in his life, and of the fact that if it came near then, why isn’t it any nearer now? Stay tuned. Anyway, the mission is to the people of Israel – though isn’t it interesting that Jesus had not confined his own ministry to these people. Those on a mission are to travel light. In Matthew’s time there were followers of Jesus who were settled in their communities and followers who traveled around, as pictured here. In the church all are called to mission, not all are called to travel as teachers and preachers. Matthew acknowledges that not all will receive those coming in Jesus’ name with a warm welcome. This was the experience of the Christian community in Matthew’s own time. They experienced rejection both from some Jews and from some non-Jews (Greeks, Romans). No doubt some of the pitched rhetoric in these verses reflects the pain of such rejection, and some of the examples of family division and punishment in the synagogue were all too real to Matthew’s original audience. In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus is beginning to experience opposition, and the disciples of Jesus should expect no less. I am particularly fond of the phrase in verse 16: be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. In 1995, I had the wonderful opportunity to preach at our Minnesota Annual Conference meeting and I used this text to preach about our need to be wildly wise and winged (to be wise, to be creative, to be passionately alive in God’s Spirit) if we are to be convincing witnesses to God’s love in Jesus Christ in our day and time.

Matthew 10:26-32: Times can be tough for those following Jesus, proclaiming good news in his name and bringing hope and healing to others. Some Christians I know seem to think that being persecuted is a sign that they are on the right track. I think that is a fallacy. People can be rejected for being obnoxious or overbearing, and that has nothing to do with being put in a difficult spot because one is trying to faithfully follow Jesus. As citizens of the United States, we can be grateful that we are free to live out our faith, but if we find that our faith leads us to welcome people who have not always been welcomed (whether that be the poor, people of color, gays and lesbians, or those whose opinions differ from us) we may find ourselves put in a difficult place. In such places we may be afraid, but we are presented again with the familiar words of Jesus, “Do not be afraid.” He uses wonderful images of God being concerned for sparrows and God numbering the hair on our heads (some of us are really trying hard to make God’s job easier on that score!) to reassure us of God’s care.

Matthew 10:34-39: The kinds of trouble followers of Jesus may find themselves in can extend to families. When change happens to a member of a family, the entire family dynamic changes and such change is not always welcome. Jesus even suggests that loyalty to family, while not unimportant, cannot be our highest loyalty. If we don’t keep our loyalties in order, we risk losing the essence of our lives. To keep our loyalties straight, to give ourselves fully to that which is deserving of our highest loyalty (God and the work of God’s love in our lives and in the world) is to find our life, to have it be rich and full.

Matthew 10:40-42: How we treat one another as disciples of Jesus Christ, called together for mission is vitally important. We are to welcome one another, and offer refreshment to each other. I appreciate how Eugene Peterson translates verse 42. It is a good reminder to us all of the importance of small acts in the Christian spiritual life. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Matthew Chapter 7

Matthew 7:1-5: Don’t judge! Does that mean we are to be without opinions, without some sense of judgment? I don’t think so. The verb used here could be translated “be critical of” or “condemn.” Jesus is not against making discerning judgments in life, but he has a problem with people who are judgmental. Jesus is not discouraging us from being discerning people, but encouraging us to look more at our own lives, our own spiritual journeys. If we keep comparing ourselves to others, we won’t get very far. I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering of the first verse. “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults” (The Message). I also love the image Jesus uses. Why are we worried about the speck in someone else’s eye when there is a log in our own (try to picture that!). The term “hypocrite” which has been used quite a bit in this section of Matthew means a stage actor. To be a hypocrite is to play a role, rather than to be transformed. Paying more attention to how others are doing seems to be a sign that one’s own transformation in love needs some work. Don’t be judgmental. Pay more attention to your own spiritual life than trying to find fault in the spiritual life of others. If you really want to help others in their spiritual lives, begin by growing in your own. There are a couple of interesting parallels in Buddhist literature. “Look not at the faults of others nor at what they do or leave undone; but only at your own deeds and deeds unachieved” (The Dhammapada, 50). “One who is about to admonish another must realize within herself or himself five qualities before doing so. He or she must intend thus: In due season will I speak, and not out of season. In truth will I speak, not in falsehood. Gently will I speak, not harshly. To one’s profit will I speak, not to one’s loss. With kindly intent will I speak, not in anger. (Vinaya Pitaka).

Matthew 7:6: Egad, what a verse! Why Matthew would put this here is a bit of a mystery, following Jesus' words on being careful in making judgments. The word “holy” here refers to meat offered on the altar in Temple worship. Don’t throw such meat to dogs. Pigs have no use for pearls, so giving them some appears foolish. Here are three views of this verse. “The general proverbial meaning is clear enough – the truism that holy things should not be profaned – but the particular meaning remains unclear” (People’s New Testament Commentary). “We should simply acknowledge that the saying is provocatively obscure” (New Interpreter’s Bible). The Message translation: “Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce the holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege.” This verse is found only in Matthew (and in the non-biblical Gospel of Thomas). It should not be considered the centerpiece of the message of Jesus. We will get closer to the heart of Jesus message in verse 12.

Matthew 7:7-11: It is sometimes difficult to understand why Matthew put together these sayings of Jesus in the way he did. Sometimes the transitions are just hard to comprehend. Jesus circles back to talk about prayer. Ask, seek and knock are all Jewish expressions for prayer. In this “sermon,” Jesus sets a high standard for his disciples – love, gentleness, peacemaking, hungering for what is good and right and true. We are invited to be changed, to be different, to let love and light shine, and that is no easy task. Prayer is essential – opening ourselves to God in new ways, stilling our minds so that our responses to life are more considered, thoughtful, mindful. Jesus has a sense that when we struggle with being the kind of people he, and God, call us to be, we should pray – ask, seek, knock. He even uses a bit of sly humor to make his point. In these verses we read the phrase, “if you, then who are evil…” Is Jesus painting the whole of humankind as evil? I think that is too strong. Jesus seemed to think that we all managed at times to lose our way, to do things we ought not to have done, to have messed up. I find that pretty true to life. With these verses, Jesus says something like: “look, as bad as you are sometimes, as messed up as you sometimes can be, don’t you try, most of the time, to give good things to your children?” If our love is sometimes faltering, even as we try and do the right thing, God’s love never falters. Open yourselves to that love in prayer (and if you need one to pray, remember, Jesus has already supplied one).

Matthew 7:12: Now here is something we can grab hold of, and this gets closer to the heart of the teaching of Jesus. That forms of this "Golden Rule" are found in other spiritual and moral traditions does not make it any less an important feature of the teaching of Jesus (e.g. the teaching of Buddha, “consider others as yourself” The Dhammapada, 129). Jesus says that we should do this “in everything.” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Again, here is Eugene Peterson’s rendering. Here is a simple rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.

Matthew 7:13-14: Just like verse 6, these verses have often been inappropriately used against people. Insiders label outsiders as dogs or swine or those on the wide and easy way. The primary meaning here is encouragement, not judgment. The spiritual life is a journey, and one can lose one’s way. The spiritual life can be challenging (the way to life – to God – is vigorous and requires total attentionThe Message), so hang in there. Again, there are some striking parallels in Buddhist literature. “Few are those among people who cross to the other shore. The rest of humanity just runs about on the bank right here before us” (the other shore is a metaphor for the Buddhist notion of nirvana, The Dhammapada, 85). “Diligent among the negligent, ever vigilant among the sleeping, the wise person moves on like a swift horse who has overtaken a weak one” (The Dhammapada, 29). One other comment I want to make about this metaphor. The Romans were well-known for building wide roads. The way of discipleship, as Jesus lays it out, has some stark contrasts with the way of the empire and its values.

Note: I seem to be making a fair number of references to Buddhist literature. The point in doing so is not to equate Buddhism and Christianity, or deny their significant differences. My point is to show how other traditions can illuminate our own and to show that there are some common themes which can pave the way for interfaith dialogue in our religiously pluralistic world. If you are interested in looking at some parallels between Jesus and Buddha, I would recommend Marcus Borg, ed. Jesus and Buddha: the parallel sayings).

Matthew 7:15-23: The bottom line for Jesus is not eloquent teaching (like the kind you are reading here!!!) but a transformed life. Walking the walk – being kind and loving, making peace, seeking justice – is more important than talking the talk.

Matthew 7:24-28: We come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. The final verses of chapter four were a summary statement – people were amazed by the teaching and work of Jesus. Matthew then inserts this extended compilation of the teaching of Jesus into his gospel, ending with a note of astonishment at his teaching. But before that, there is the final word Jesus offers – “take my words and act on them. Let my words move you, guide you, transform you.” Here is Eugene Peterson’s rendering of verses 24-27. These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, home-owner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit – but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.

Monday, June 11, 2007


In a newsletter article encouraging people to join this reading adventure, I mentioned the importance for interfaith dialogue of going deep into our own tradition. Remarkably, I recently came across the following from the book Living Buddha, Living Christ by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Many years ago, I recognized that by understanding your own tradition better, you also develop increased respect, consideration, and understanding for others. It doesn’t always work that way, unfortunately, but it can and should. Later in the book he also wrote something very interesting for those of us reading through the New Testament this year. If you read the Bible but don’t practice, it will not help much.

I also want to mention two resources I am finding very helpful as I provide some comments for our reading together. I am making a lot of use of The People’s New Testament Commentary, Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock (WestminsterJohnKnox Press, 2004) and of the notes found in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. I am making no claims to scholarly completeness in my comments. Much more could be said. Many of the other comments I make will be based on other things I have read or simply my own engagement with the New Testament as a person of faith.

Matthew 6:1-4: The teaching of Jesus continues. He has been describing what God’s people should be like, the kind of people they should be and the kind of things they should do. Love tops the list, even love for enemies. Jesus has been interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. Now he turns his eye on practices, letting the disciples know how their spiritual practice should be distinct from some of the practices they might encounter around them. Jesus uses hyperbole to make his point (one cannot literally have one hand do something while the other hand is ignorant of that action!). He begins by cautioning the disciples not to practice their “piety” before others. The word “piety” used here is the same word translated “righteousness” in the previous chapter. The entire first part of this chapter, where the disciples are asked to do things quietly and in secret seems to contradict what Jesus says in chapter 5 about letting one’s light shine so others can see it and give glory to God. There is here a creative tension. “Proverbial wisdom does not deal in bland platitudes, but is provocatively paradoxical” (People’s New Testament Commentary, 35). What Jesus seems to encourage in his comments on giving to others, prayer and fasting is that these practices come from the heart and not from a shallow desire to look good to others or to increase one’s social standing. In this first section, we are invited to give because we genuinely care about the needs of others. Another provocative paradox in the spiritual life might be that we can sometimes do things for the “wrong reasons” at first, but our practice leads us into a transformed heart. For those in need of our generosity, it does not matter all that much whether we have our inner life all figured out, yet transformation of our lives inside and out is what God’s Spirit is trying to do in us.

Matthew 6:5-14: The focus of prayer should be opening ourselves to God, making ourselves more keenly aware of God’s presence in us and to us. If we pray so others notice our eloquence, we are praying for the wrong reasons. That certainly doesn’t mean we should not pray in public together. It does not preclude eloquence in prayers, especially if we compose prayers for shared use. Again the point is to ask ourselves why we are doing what we do. Is our focus to look good or to genuinely open ourselves up to God and to each other? In verses 9-13 we have the most famous prayer in the Christian faith tradition, called “the Lord’s Prayer.” Books have been written about this prayer alone, so commenting on it is rather daunting. As a prayer, it is as important that we pray it as that we have a wonderfully worked out theology of each phrase. I appreciate Marjorie Suchocki’s words about this prayer. “The oldest Christian liturgical prayer is the Lord’s Prayer, for it has been consistently prayed by Christians for the two millennia of Christian history. When we today pray this prayer, in whatever language, we are praying the translated words and spirit of generations of Christians” (In God’s Presence, 103). Let me offer a few comments. It was not unique to Jesus that he should offer his followers a prayer, and this prayer is not atypical of other Jewish prayers of the time. Even his address of God as Father (Abba in Aramaic) was probably not entirely unique to Jesus. However, his consistent use of the term Father was a distinguishing feature of his teaching. Three important things need to be said (though even more could be). One, this phrase does imply a certain intimacy that is possible between God’s people and God. In praying this prayer, you are invited to that intimacy. Two, to call God “Father” in the first century had a political edge to it. The Roman Caesars were called “father.” For followers of Jesus to call God by that name implied that their ultimate loyalty lay beyond the empire. Christians can be loyal and patriotic citizens, and we can and should appreciate the sacrifices many fine Christians have made for country. At the same time, from its earliest years, followers of Jesus have believed that there is always a higher loyalty than country, loyalty to God. In whatever nations Christians live, they should always seek to do what they can to make their countries more just and caring, in loyalty to God. Finally, a word about gender imagery for God. When Jesus addressed God as “father,” his intent was not to make God one gender over another, but to break down social barriers. In the society in which Jesus lived, who one’s father was determined one’s social status. But if we all call God “father,” suddenly we are on equal footing. Again, let me quote Marjorie Suchocki. “By inviting us together to name God as “our Father,” Jesus replaced social privilege with the humble privilege of the Spirit. If in our day the naming of “Father” is no longer capable of carrying this liberating message, then the heart of the prayer is truncated. If we can restore the word to its liberating invitation to sharing as a single family of God, then this aspect of the prayer can be restored to its gospel intent.” (In God’s Presence, 106) Because the term “Father” does not always convey the liberating intent of Jesus, I try and alternate versions of the Lord’s Prayer prayed in church. Occasionally, I will use Father/Mother. Other times, I will use phrases like “Sacred One,” The next three phrases of the prayer belong together. To hallow God’s name is to let God’s kingdom (or reign) come, to let God’s dream arrive, to let God’s purposes prevail. Again, Marjorie Suchocki: “God’s reign comes about as we ourselves are open to that divine guidance offered us in every moment. God’s guidance, in turn, leads us toward righteousness, and righteousness is itself the hallowing of God’s name” (In God’s Presence, 106-107). To pray for God’s dream for the world to be made more real is to pray that you will be a part of making that dream real! The prayer for daily bread is an acknowledgement of basic human need and God’s concern for it. Some argue that this phrase is better translated, “give us tomorrow’s bread today” which would be another reference to the hope for God’s reign to come. I will say a word about forgiveness shortly. Prayers to be kept safe in times of trial and to be rescued from evil or “the evil one” were very real for early Christians, when proclaiming one’s faith could mean death. They are prayers to have one’s faith stay strong in difficult times. They are prayers that God's peace and justice and healing will come quickly. Seen in that light, these are prayers that can be close to our hearts, too. They are also prayers that one not get caught up in evil. The last century proved that it is very possible for “ordinary people” to get caught up in evil – the Holocaust and race relations in the United States are two prime examples. All prayer is meant to open us up more fully to the transforming power of God’s love and God’s Spirit. One clear indication of that is the close association Jesus makes between “forgiveness” and “prayer.” We pray for forgiveness, and to have the strength to forgive. I don’t know about you, but there is probably no greater need in my life for transformation than being asked to forgive. Forgiveness is complicated and it is hard work. It is also crucial for our own well-being. To forgive someone is not to excuse their behavior, but it is to let go of the anger, bitterness and pain that reside in one’s own heart. Forgiveness can take time and it need not entail full reconciliation. I like the definition of forgiveness offered by Jack Kornfield. “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.” I know what kind of transformative work is needed in my life so that I can be more forgiving. But for Jesus, forgiveness and prayer intertwined. “Forgiveness – one’s own readiness to forgive and a request for forgiveness where one has committed and offence – is the presupposition for the prayer of Jesus’ disciples” (Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology, 193).

Matthew 6:16-18: Like other spiritual practices already discussed – giving and prayer – Jesus asks that our fasting be done for the right reasons, not for show, but to better tune into God.

Matthew 6:19-21: Matthew places certain summary statements of the teaching of Jesus here and there throughout this sermon. Here we seem to have another. If Jesus is concerned about how one engages in spiritual practices, one way to put that is to talk about where one’s treasure is. Where do you invest your resources, your very self? Jesus is not here condemning earthly wealth in itself. He is issuing a cautionary note. If all your effort and striving are for things that eventually rust, break down, end up in the trash heap or scrap yard, what does that say about your life? Investing in those “things” that are truly lasting – love, justice, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness – makes one a part of something “everlasting.” While this is only one image among many Jesus will use, does it have particular relevance for our day and time when the temptations to get caught up in our consumer culture, to let oneself be defined primarily by what one can purchase, are so prevalent?

Matthew 6:22-23: In the ancient world, it was thought that the eye let light out of the body and projected it onto objects so that they could be seen. If the eye was not working, darkness and confusion reign. Jesus uses a variety of images to get his message across – get your heart set right, make sure your eye is full of light.

Matthew 6:24: Related to verses 19-21, Jesus seemed concerned that people's lives could become consumed with gaining wealth and material prosperity. No doubt he witnessed a society where many of the wealthy were so due to injustices in the imperial system. Reading the teachings of Jesus there is a consistent concern for being consumed by consumption. Again, these words seem very timely for the 21st century.

Matthew 6:25-34: Do not worry. Do not be anxious. Do not be afraid. We will encounter such words again and again and again in our reading of the New Testament. Here Jesus seems to be continuing on with his cautions about getting caught up in material concerns. Jesus is not unrealistic about our need for food or clothing, but he seems perceptive in recognizing how easily we become consumed with consuming. Again, there is a familiar summary statement. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” This is followed by the familiar phrase, “so do not worry.” One of the most helpful pieces of writing I have ever read about worry is an essay that Parker Palmer wrote on leadership – “Leading From Within.” In that essay he says the following: “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94). We may have worry, fear and anxiety from time to time. Don’t beat yourself up over that. But don’t define yourself by your fears either. Again, this first century message seems particularly relevant to our twenty-first century, where fear seems to be so prominent.

These comments on the Sermon on the Mount are longer than I anticipate other comments to be. I will tackle the next chapter tomorrow and the remaining three in a couple of days. Thanks for your patience and thanks for reading.