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.”