Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Matthew chapters 3-5

Matthew 2:1-12: Just another thought about this story of wise men from the East before moving on. After presenting Jesus with gifts, these wise men travel back to their home land. Is there a metaphor here for interfaith dialogue and conversation? The men come because they see something of the light of the world in Jesus. But they return to their home, and presumably to their way of life, including their religious way of life. One hopes their encounter with Jesus made a difference to their living, including to their religious practice, but this does not seem to be a conversion story. I think of people like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh who have encountered the stories of Jesus, but remained in their religious traditions. Like the wise men, they have things to teach us. Perhaps like the wise men, we can travel into their traditions to learn, and return to our own, touched by the light of God in a new way.

Matthew 3:1-12: We have no stories about Jesus growing up in Matthew’s gospel (no, he never chopped down a cherry tree – that’s another story). We jump from the birth of Jesus, the flight to Egypt and the settling in Nazareth to years later when John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness. John is a colorful figure. His attire is unique and he does not seem to mince words. His message is one of change, of turning one’s life around, of turning the world around. John invites people to repent – to turn over the soil of their hearts, to be changed heart and mind. He invites them to do so because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of heaven is simply another way of saying, “the kingdom of God” and only Matthew uses this phrase. We don’t know what John may have experienced to lead him to believe that God was up to something new and important, but he was convinced that something was happening and people needed to turn toward God in new ways. And if they did so, their lives needed to evidence this – “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” John’s preaching included a message about one to come, one who would be even more powerful in God’s Spirit. Where does the message of change most need to penetrate your own life?

Matthew 3:13-17: Most scholars argue that Jesus was for a time a part of the group of people who followed John. It seems certain that he was baptized by John, and this presented an inconvenient truth for early Christian communities. There continued to be followers of John who did not become followers of Jesus, and a small religious group that may be traced to these followers of John still exists – the Mandeans (that’s “religion” for $1,000 Alex). Anyway, stories of the baptism of Jesus get told in such a way as to emphasize that he was the one more powerful in God’s Spirit. It might not have been easy for John to take a back seat to Jesus, just like it may not be easy for us to make way for new leaders in our churches. The voice Jesus hears at his baptism, calling him a child of God, beloved by God, is one Christians affirm still speaks to every child being baptized. For Matthew’s story, the bottom line is that God is up to something very new and powerful, and this will be centered in Jesus.

Matthew 4:1-11: Before the powerful work of Jesus can begin, however, he faces temptation. Jesus is concerned for the hungry and for economic justice, but will he let that concern be his sole concern? Will he work miracles to meet immediate human need or invite people into a deeper relationship with God? He will do both, and both are vitally important. Jesus will often do spectacular things, but will his ministry be centered in the spectacular, or also incorporate the slower pace of the Spirit’s movement in many people’s lives? Deep change is often more like water shaping stones than like instant oatmeal. Jesus is powerful, but will he seek the power the world seems to recognize best? The phrase used to describe what the devil shows Jesus, “all the kingdoms of the world,” was often used of the Roman Empire. The temptation here is to imperial power, and Jesus rejects it. Matthew is telling us that God is up to something new and wonderful and powerful in Jesus, but it may be different than expected – a gentler power, a transformative journey, bread for the hungry soul as well as for the hungry belly. Given that we probably have not been offered the position of emperor recently, nor been tempted to throw ourselves off the top of the Coppertop to draw a crowd to God, nor been tempted to turn stones into bread, what does this story say to us? We are all tempted along the way, though the specifics differ. How are you being tempted to lose your way? How are you dealing with these?

Matthew 4:12-22: John is arrested, and Jesus ministry begins. Sometimes ministry begins in crisis. The headquarters for Jesus ministry shifts north to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps a word here on Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures is in order. Sometimes one gets the impression that everything Jesus does has been mapped out in great detail by the Hebrew Scriptures – so that they might be fulfilled. I think this is a misreading of the text. The author of Matthew (whose name we do not know, by the way – authors in the ancient world often used the names of significant persons so as to better tell their stories) is using the resources of the Hebrew Scriptures to better understand the significance of Jesus and to assert the continuity of Jesus with the faith of the Jews. Remember, this was a time when tensions were high in the synagogues between Jews who were following Jesus and other Jews. Jesus begins his ministry with a message very similar to John’s. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. What is it about God coming near that often leads to deep change in our hearts and minds and lives? Jesus not only begins sharing a message, he begins recruiting disciples. Christian faith is not meant to be a solo enterprise, but lived in community.

Matthew 4:23-25: This is a nice summary statement of the work of Jesus – he teaches, he heals. Because of what is happening, his fame spreads.

Matthew 5:1-12: Here we begin “the sermon on the mount.” In all likelihood, this “sermon” is comprised of various sayings of Jesus pulled together in one place by Matthew. Early in his account of the work of Jesus, he wants to pull together what he views as significant teaching. Some of the words here go back to Jesus himself, and some may be later interpretations of his teaching placed back into the mouth of Jesus. This was a common practice. My concern here is not to try and figure out which sayings go back to Jesus and which don’t but to engage this wonderful “sermon” as a scripture of my faith from which I can learn. The sermon begins with statements of blessing – beatitudes. My Sunday sermon is going to focus on this passage so I am not going to say a lot here. Let me simply pose some questions about what Jesus may be up to here. Is Jesus issuing commands, inviting us to action? Is he simply telling us that certain kinds of people are blessed, are fortunate and happy – if not now then in the future? Is he proposing an interim ethic for the short term, believing that God’s kingdom is going to turn the world upside down in the very near future? Is he setting forth an impossible standard so as to convict people of their sin and remind them that only God’s grace can save them? I am going to ponder these questions in my sermon on Sunday and hope I come up with an answer by then! One piece of good advice for the Beatitudes is to read them slowly, letting their words sink into your heart and mind.

Matthew 5:13-16: Following up on the previous passage, Jesus seems to be saying that people who have the qualities described above are like salt and light in the world. Salt flavors and preserves. Here in Duluth salt spread on the roads in the winter keeps us from sliding into Lake Superior. Light helps us find our way in the dark. Can we be salt and light? When we are, what we say about God and faith and love really make some sense to those not a part of the Christian community. When our lives and our words are dramatically disconnected, we come across as little more than unsalty salt or dim bulbs.

Matthew 5:17-20: Matthew is concerned to assert the continuity of Jesus with the Jewish tradition, probably in contrast to other Jews of the time who felt like the teaching of Jesus missed the mark. Given Matthew’s concern to see such continuity, how sad is the history of Christian anti-Semitism. All of the passages that follow are a part of Jesus’ interpretation of the Jewish faith, part of a vibrant debate within first century Judaism.

Matthew 5:21-26: Everyone agrees that murder is wrong. Jesus seems to have a problem with people getting angry with each other. Is anger ever appropriate? I believe it can be, but only when it arises in the face of injustice and hurt in the world. Even then, anger is in danger of being captured by self-righteousness. We always need to be aware of our anger. We must always ask tough questions of our anger, whether or not it is really rooted in concern for others. We must not let anger turn into self-righteousness. If anger is ever to be creative and constructive, it must be thoroughly woven together with love. In the face of anger we should either be weaving it together with love or learning how to let it go. Failing to do that, we tend to nurture a negative attitude toward those with whom we stay angry. We would like to see them eliminated in one way or another. Sounds a little like murder.

Matthew 5:27-30: Aha! Jesus does talk about sex. With all the debate in the church these days over human sexuality, you would think Jesus would say much more about it. He does not, but what he says packs some punch. Adultery is widely frowned upon in the great religious traditions of humankind. I appreciate the way Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist, puts the matter of the appropriate use of our sexual energy. “All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure, and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires…. Sexuality is a very powerful force. A mature spirituality demands that we, without self-righteousness, commit to not harming ourselves or others through our sexual energy” (Lovingkindness). When we look at people only through the lenses of our own desires, we begin to see them as merely the sum of their parts, not as whole persons, and Jesus wants us to see others as whole persons. So important is this matter that a frighteningly wonderful rhetorical flourish is added on. If a part causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away – an interesting image for discussing the perils of human sexuality.

Matthew 5:31-32: Divorce – this passage has itself caused a lot of pain over the years. Many who have been divorced feel that the church rejects them out of hand. Careful attention to the language makes us realize that Jesus is not issuing a blanket condemnation of divorce. In his day and time, divorce was the sole prerogative of men, and divorced women had few opportunities to make a living economically. Capricious divorce left women destitute. Jesus wants to speak against this. He takes life-long covenantal relationships seriously and so should we. While divorce may be a regrettable but necessary alternative when there has been deep unfaithfulness in a relationship (this is not just sexual unfaithfulness), it should never be seen as an easy option.

Matthew 5:33-37: Because of their abundance in our day and time, words can seem cheap. Jesus doesn’t think so. He takes what we say seriously and expects us to speak with integrity.

Matthew 5:38-42: Revenge may be sweet, but not to Jesus. At the same time, he is not interested in his followers becoming doormats for the powerful. The phrase translated “do not resist” is better understood as saying “do not resist violently.” In each of the examples Jesus provides for not seeking retaliation, the dignity of the respondent is reaffirmed. Turning the other cheek would force the person hitting you to strike you with the palm of the hand, the way equals fought one another, not backhandedly, the way a superior hit a subordinate. Soldiers were only permitted to conscript a person to carry their gear for a mile, to do more put the soldier in an awkward spot. Giving up a second garment in a two garment society provides for interesting street theater. Resistance to evil is not to be violent, but it may be resistance.

Matthew 5:43-48: We come to one summary point in this long discourse, and it is a powerful one. LOVE! Love not just those who love you, but even your enemies. Being God-like means to love. The Revised English Bible translates verse 48 like this: “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.”

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