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.

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