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.

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