We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, September 15, 2017

Matthew 9:18-26 - Thinking Like a Historian

Most New Testament scholars are convinced that Mark's Gospel was the earliest of the four gospels and that Matthew and Luke drew heavily from it in writing their own gospels; and this passage is often cited as evidence to support the "Marcan priority" theory.  Matthew's author edited down Mark's version, tightening up the story, but the literary form here of a story within a story is more typical of Mark.  Also in Mark's version, when the woman touches Jesus' cloak, he asked, "Who touched my cloak?"  The author of Matthew apparently didn't like the implication of Jesus' ignorance and dropped the question, making Jesus more all-knowing.

Matthew also inserted a couple of things that aren't in Mark, and it is worth speculating why.  For one thing, Matthew makes a point of the disciples following Jesus when he goes to the home of the synagogue guy, a detail not found in Mark.  Also, at the end of Matthew's version, there is an editorial comment stating that the story of this healing was told all over the place.  How come?  Why insert the disciples going along and making the point that the healing of the guy's daughter was well-known?

Just maybe the compiler/author of Matthew felt that she or he had to justify the inclusion of these two stories in his or her gospel and did this in two ways.  First the author provides the original source of the story, the disciples.  They were there.  They saw these events.  We have, thus, a reputable source (and a footnote!) for the stories.  The author makes the point, furthermore, that the story of the daughter being healed was widely known to explain to the gospel's audience that the story was reputable and not made up.  It was fact not fiction.  It was widely known.  Jesus really did this sort of thing and everyone knew it.

In other words, it is possible that the author was citing sources so that his or her audience understood that the gospel contained verified, trustworthy data.  Any good biographer or historian would do nothing less.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Matthew 9:14-15 – Doing Something New

These two verses offer us a glimpse into the religio-political landscape facing Jesus.  The Pharisees were mostly traditionalists, and they would eventually be a key faction in the resistance to him.  There evidently was also a John party, which would have been a reform party, but here the author/compiler of Matthew places the “John-ites” closer to the Pharisees than to Jesus and his “party”.  At, least they are here presented as sharing the Pharisees’ criticism that Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast, which they took to be an important marker of true piety.

Some scholars have argued, however, that Jesus originally was a disciple of John, which explains his baptism at John’s hands.  If so, however, Jesus made it abundantly clear, according to the gospel, that he was no longer associated with John and his band of disciples.  He referred to himself as the “bridegroom” that Israel had been waiting for, that is the Messiah, and so it was a time for celebration not fasting.  There would be time for fasting later when the bridegroom was to be ripped away from the people, which was a foreshadowing of things to come.  In the meantime, Jesus also asserted that he represented something entirely new in the history of the Jewish people.  It could not have been made any clearer.  Jesus was a party onto himself, intentionally so.

How did our little church that we’ve been imagining hear this vignette in the gospel?  What value did it have for them?  The basic message seems clear enough, namely that Jesus represented something new and different, something that fell outside of the boundaries of typical religious practice with all of its expensive ceremonies, rites, and practices.  I'm not sure that the fasting thing was a big concern with the members of this congregation.  They were mostly poor and sometimes fasted out of necessity not as a religious practice. We will remember from the sermon on the mount, moreover, that Jesus in any event frowned on fasting as being mostly for showing off one's piety.  But the message of newness, reinforced in verses 16-17, would like have resonated with them.  They "joined up" because Jesus represented something different, which offered them hope, comfort, and a way to get beyond just coping with a hard life.  That is likely what they heard and why these verses resonated with them.

That being said, I do have to be careful to not claim that the compiler/author of the gospel had a Gentile audience in mind.  Many scholars believe that it was addressed to Jewish Christians, probably especially those living in Palestine.  I am assuming, however, that this gospel proved invaluable enough that copies of it soon circulated much more widely and reached a much larger audience within the Jesus Movement.  That must have been the case.  Otherwise, why did it become so prized across the early church that it became just one of four gospels to be included in the New Testament?  There were dozens of other gospels circulating in the churches, but Matthew came to be valued above all of them excepting only three others (Mark, Luke, John).  It circulated more widely, I assume, because verses like these hit home for Gentile followers of Jesus as well.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Matthew 9:9-13 - Key Story

In Matthew 8-9, the compiler/author of Matthew was working on two supremely important questions: (1) who was Jesus' target audience? and (2) what did he want from that audience?  These are issues that would have greatly concerned that little first century urban congregation that we've been imagining.  They were new followers of the Way and members of the working class poor who had joined the Jesus Movement because it spoke to them in their daily struggles.  But, they were still figuring things out and had a lot of questions.   They must have listened to the gospel with rapt attention precisely because it addressed their questions and gave them some answers.

Up to this point, the gospel has posed and begun to answer the question of, "Who is this guy?" (Mt. 8:27)  He was, as we've seen, most especially a Rabbi of serious power, power over nature, demons, and sin.  He was a healer as well as a teacher.  So, a picture was coming into focus.  But, members of our little church were still listening for a clear answer as to what this meant for them.  Were they part of the story?  Was Jesus speaking to them?  And, if so, how should they respond?

This passage, Matthew 9:913, provides answers to these questions.  First, what was expected was faith, the kind of faith that doesn't ask questions—the kind of faith that hears Jesus' call and says, "yes," on the spot, closes down the office, and follows the Master.  Second, this passage also answered the question as to who could follow Jesus.  In it, Jesus hobnobs with tax collectors and others of that ilk.  When some Pharisees complained about this to his disciples, Jesus responded that he was like a merciful doctor with his patients.  They were ill and needed his care.  That's who he had to associate with.  Jesus then quoted the prophet Hosea to make the point that he didn't begin his ministry to participate in rituals but to address the needs of "sinners," so called.

Did the members of our congregation feel that they fit in here?  As people who lived in the bottom rungs of society and certainly did not have the money to participate in the religious life of their society with all of the sacrifices to the gods that involved, they may well have felt that the appellation "sinners" fit them.  They may also have believed that their poverty and the lack of respect it entailed was a consequence of their own moral shortcomings.  Their "betters" certainly thought that was the case.  If that was the case, then these poor folks would also have felt that their poverty and lack of respectfulness was their own fault.  And in that context, they would have heard this story as a bombshell of comfort and hope:  "Jesus is powerful.  He is also merciful and came to heal and free people just like us—outcasts (see the TEV translation) living on the edges of society.  Whatever our condition, he is the way through it to a better life."  The stories of a merciful and powerful Jesus touched people who lived in a harsh, very real world and gave them hope.  They responded by putting their trust in the Rabbi and each other.  It is hardly surprising, then, that the Jesus Movement became the most popular and powerful religious movement of the late Roman Empire.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Matthew 8:29 - Son of God

Before moving on to Matthew chapter nine, I would like to linger for a moment on the title the demons used with Jesus, "Son of God."  Modern readers, whether devout Christians or not, are almost surely going to assume that the demons were addressing Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity, the divine, pre-existent God-Jesus who has been the object of Christian faith and devotion for many long centuries.  But that's not how the small, urban first-century church we've been imagining would have heard this title.  We can't be sure, actually, how they heard it or what it meant to them.

Bart Ehrman in his book, The Orthodox Corruption of the Church (Oxford University Press, 1993), points out that there was great theological ferment and diversity among Christians in the first three centuries of the church.  He writes that some Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries believed there is one God, others believed in more than one.  Some thought Jesus was only human, others that he was God and human (including some who thought that he was only temporarily part God), and some thought that he wasn't human at all.  They didn't even agree on whether or not Jesus' death on the cross was for salvation.  Some even believed that the biblical God is evil—and, yet, all of them were followers of Jesus.

When early Christians, thus, heard the term, "Son of God," some would have associated it with the Jewish Messiah, others would  have heard "merely" a term of respect for Jesus.  Still others would have seen it as a sign that God worked through Jesus or maybe temporarily inhabited Jesus.  And some may well have simply assumed that, since they were all God's children, that this was just a fancy way of pointing to Jesus' humanity as another son of God.  We don't know.

The important point here is that a modern-day Christians by-and-large read the Bible on the basis of a whole host of assumptions that have nothing to do with the ancient text(s) or the time in which they were written.  Those assumptions represent Christian traditions that developed in later centuries, which now are frequently treated as if they have the force of scripture themselves; and all they do is make it less likely that modern-day readers will wrestle with the meaning of the biblical text.  We feel that we don't have to wrestle because we already know what the Bible means—supposedly.

My sense is that the Spirit speaks through the Bible best when we wrestle with it, question it, and try to make sense of it in its own time and since then.  And, for me personally at least, the best way to wrestle with the text is to try to put it back in its original siz im leben, place in life.  That is nearly impossible, of course, but even so and with some imagination as well as research and reflection (and humility) we can still discern important some tangible, ancient meanings.  What a great challenge!  Amen.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Matthew 8:28-34 - Jesus' Powers

The little first-century urban church that I have been imagining to try to understand how the Gospel of Matthew was understood in its own time was a Gentile church.  Its members were almost surely new to the Jesus faith.  They would have been mostly poor and with little education.  One wonders how they would have understood the story about healing two demoniacs in Matthew 8:28-34.  Did they know enough Palestinian geography to know that the story took place in Gentile territory, not Jewish?  What did the title, "Son of God," mean to them?  It, apparently, was a Jewish messianic title.  Would they have known that?  Had they ever heard the Gospel of Mark read or even know about it with its very different version of this story (Mark 5:1-20)?

I raise these questions because this story in 8:28-34 must have required a more than passing knowledge of "things biblical" in order to be understood by first-century audiences.  The title, "Son of God," is a particularly important one.  In the first century, it did not mean that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, the whole trinitarian thing having yet to be worked out.  In a Jewish context, it was a term for the Messiah.  But, how would a Gentile audience have heard it?  Their background was not Jewish, and I'm not sure just how much background they had in Jewish theology.  Something like, "Son of God," was applied to the Roman emperors of the day.  What did they hear when the demons proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God?

Let me offer a possibility.  The demon's declaration comes in the midst of three stories about Jesus, which display his power and authority.  As we have seen in Matthew 8:23-27, Jesus had power over the storms, over chaos.  In this story, he has power over demons.  In the next story, 9:1-7, he has power to forgive human sin.  Nature. Demons. Sin.  That's a lot of power!  It certainly places Jesus in a category all by himself, one that puts him a lot closer to God than anyone else.  The title, "Son of God," in this context thus could have meant to our little church at least that Jesus had divine-like power and authority that came from God.  They could well have thought of him as being human-plus, something more than merely a human being.  They already knew about his resurrection, and this story must have served to reinforce a deep reverence for Jesus, the Christ.  And our little church would have taken great comfort in his divine-like power over the forces of chaos, evil, and sin.

In sum, our little church may not have known a whole lot about the Jewish context of the story of the demoniacs, but that may not have mattered very much either.  The basic message of the gospel as they heard it read to them was clear enough, and it reinforced their experience of Jesus as being practical, life-changing good news for them individually and in their life together as a community of faith.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Matthew 8:23-27 - Who is This Guy?

That little church in some city of the Roman Empire that we've been imagining heard the Gospel of Matthew read to them.  Their congregation would have acquired  a hand-written copy, probably on loan, and then one of the few literate members would have read it to the rest.  Scholars theorize that they probably heard it read in one sitting so that the order of its contents was very important.

Thus, in Matthew 8, the author told stories about Jesus' prowess as a healer and then in the midst of those stories observed that following Jesus was difficult.  He was the suffering servant and they had to share in that condition.  In other words: yes, Jesus, was a miracle worker and had a great compassion for the suffering of the people, but if you're going to follow him (and be a member of a church) you better temper your enthusiasm with the reality of what discipleship really means.

Then comes this story in Matthew 8:23-27 about Jesus' calming the storm.  How does it fit in with the flow of what came before?  What connections did the gospel's auditors make?  We can imagine that they heard, for one thing, that Jesus' disciples didn't seem to have all that much trust.  They also surely would have grasped the symbolism of the story: the storm stood for chaos, the chaos of their own realities.  They themselves would have gone through chaotic times when the ship of their life felt like it was sinking.  So, there were those disciples of Jesus, supposedly the heroes of the Jesus Movement, and when push came to shove they panicked and displayed a whole lot of a lack of trust in Jesus.  Jesus was clearly disappointed in them.

This following Jesus thing really isn't easy.  Even the best of us come up short.

The key to this story is verse 27:  Everyone was amazed and asked, "Who is this guy?  Even the forces of nature obey him."  Who is this guy?  In the context of the flow of the gospel, this was the question that the miracles posed and that, indeed, the whole gospel asked.  This was the fundamental question facing the disciples themselves as they experienced Jesus.  This, the author was telling her or his audience is the central, basic, and inescapable question posed by the story of Jesus, namely the question of his true identity.  Discipleship is a journey of discovery of who Jesus is and, just as important, what it means to live in trust of him in the midst of life's chaos.

The miracles reported in the gospel did not prove that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity.  They didn't "prove" anything.  What they did was raise the question of the identity of Jesus.  People witnessed what he did, and they could not help but ask, "Who is this guy?"  The life of faith is a journey of discovery.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Matthew 8:18-22 - Defining Discipleship

Jesus' followers in the first century understood that being the Messiah was no picnic.  They either witnessed Jesus' struggles directly or knew of them from people who had.  Thus, we saw in Matthew 8:17, the author cites the suffering servant passage from Isaiah 52 and 53 to describe the true nature of Messiahship.  The next verses, Matthew 8:18-22 follow up with a warning to the faithful that being a disciple is no picnic either.  Jesus here is portrayed as being homeless with the clear implication that the "teacher of the law" who said he'd follow Jesus anywhere better be prepared to be homeless, too.  Then, another disciple said that he was with Jesus 100%—but, oh, hey, Dad is dead and I really need to see to his funeral arrangements.  Sorry, but I gotta do this first.  Then, Jesus, I'll be right there with you.  Jesus' response was that discipleship means putting everything else second including the most important and pressing duties and relationships.  Jesus was the suffering Messiah.  His disciples were expected to suffer with him.

The message to the gospel's audience is clear.  Joining the Jesus Movement does not mean that your problems are all over.  Discipleship means making sacrifices.  We can speculate that the author may well have had those in mind who jumped on the Jesus bandwagon, all enthused and fired-up—only to give it up when things got tough.  Following Jesus meant a re-ordering of priorities that could be hard sometimes.  It meant a new way of living that didn't make you any better off financially, in fact it could cost you income.  If you're poor and living in a Roman urban center when you join up, you will still be poor after joining up.

Why would people have joined the little, mostly urban churches of the Jesus Movement in the face of such warnings?  As I've said before in this series, they became followers of Jesus because it made a difference in their lives, at least for most of them most of the time.  They learned that their discipleship was not a way around problems and challenges, but it was a better way through them.  They may not have had a larger income, but they had a richer life.  It was a life that demanded humility rather than the prideful arrogance of the Pharisees, which generally worked better than a dishonest pride.  Following the Jesus Way was nine times out of ten a better way to live and to work through the problems and challenges of life.  Nothing is 100%, but Jesus' way was a better way.

So, bring it on, Jesus.  We'll sleep under the stars with you.  We'll let someone else bury Dad.  We're game to give your way a try.  That's the attitude that the gospel called for.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Matthew 8:16-17 - The Suffering Servant Messiah

The Gospel of Matthew is not a biography of Jesus.  It is a first-century description of how his followers made sense of him, which is historical but not historiographical in our modern sense of a critical study of the past using modern research methods.  It does, nonetheless, offer us insights into what the Jesus Movement about Jesus, that is its Christology.

On the face of it, this brief bit of commentary in Matthew 8:16-17 seems to portray him as a miracle worker and a healer who had become very popular as a result.  The early church, however, had learned that this profile was only one side of the coin.  Jesus' own teachings about who is great and who is not, his intense struggle with the Jewish power structures, and the paradigm-shattering events of his death and resurrection—all of this had convinced his earliest followers that he was not your standard miracle-worker Messiah.  The Spirit was doing something very different in him.

The earliest church began as a Jewish sect-movement, and it was only natural that they thought Jesus was the Messiah—and maybe something more than that, but that's where they started.  However, he didn't fit the usual image of the Messiah.  There had been no army of angels.  He was not a conquering hero in the usual sense of the term.  So they turned to the (Hebrew) scriptures to sort things out, and one of the places that helped them make sense of Jesus was Isaiah's prophecy concerning a different kind of Messiah, namely a suffering servant who was humble, seemingly weak, despised by the powerful, and yet took on the suffering of the people and healed them (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  It is that prophecy that the author of Matthew cites here in the midst of several stories about Jesus' prowess as a healer.  Jesus really was humble, seemingly weak, and despised by the powerful.  On the cross, he took on their suffering.  And he healed them, as these stories demonstrate.  The inescapable conclusion was that God's Messiah, no question.  The author's research into the scriptures proved the case.

The gospel is not a biography, but that does not mean that the compiler/author did not conduct research in writing it.  In fact he or she, did a great deal of research especially in collecting and collating the stories contained in the gospel.  She or he also did the necessary secondary research into the scriptures, and from this research crafted a cogent, well-argued portrait of Jesus, the Messiah-plus, a portrait the churches have long believed shows evidence of the Spirit.

The Spirit can be present even in the work of researchers.  Amazing.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Matthew 8:5-13 - We Belong!

Let's continue to sit with that small Jesus Movement congregation that we have imagined as being composed of new followers situated in some urban center in the eastern Mediterranean; and imagine them as they listened to the story of the faithful Roman army captain in Matthew 8.  What did they hear?  Why was the story in the gospel in the first place?

There were several reasons, to be sure.  But it is likely an important one was that they would have heard an affirmation of themselves as valued, accepted followers of Jesus even though they were Gentiles.  It is clear from the Book of the Acts that the whole idea that Gentiles could be part of a Jewish-inspired religious movement was controversial, and it took some time and conflict to work things out.  It is entirely reasonable to think, then, that one reason the author/compiler of the gospel included this story was to reassure the gospel's Gentile audiences that they belonged, were valued.  After all, Jesus himself commended the Roman soldier's profound trust in his authority.

Now, certainly, the story taught them about more than that.  It was also about the very nature of faith itself.  It was about the power and authority of Jesus.  It was also about the political conflict between Jesus and the power-players of his day.  But the meaning of the back end of the story (vss. 10-12) is stark and blunt: lots of Gentiles from places like Persia to the east and Rome to the west will have their place in the Kingdom while many Jews, who should be the first citizens of the Kingdom, will be thrown out on their ear.  We belong!  That is one thing, maybe the most exciting thing, the members of our little church would have heard.  Jesus died and was risen for us.  That was good news worth sharing with others.  Race doesn't matter.  Social status doesn't matter.  Not to Jesus.

We are the heirs of the Jesus Movement, and one key element of our heritage is the understanding that Christianity is not tied to one race, ethnicity, culture, or class.  It is universal in the sense that anybody so inclined can follow Jesus and be welcomed into the family of the faithful.  We haven't always lived up to this ideal, which is an understatement; and far too often we have tried to make Christianity a Universal Religion, that is the totality of the way the Spirit works in our world.  Having been given the freedom of the Kingdom, we've spent a lot of our time trying to take it over and make it exclusively ours.

Still, that is not all we have done with our inheritance.  We have also fought against racism, ethnocentrism, and the other -isms that divided the human race.  It is still our heritage to celebrate the differences and distinctives that make the human race the diverse, endlessly fascinating thing that it is.  We belong means that They belong.  I belong means that You belong even if You don't speak my language, look like Me, or come from where I come from.  This is a precious inheritance.  Amen.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Matthew 8:1-4 -- Mark's version is better

So, we begin a new section of the gospel, which features Jesus' healing miracles just as the previous section (Matt. 5-7) featured his teachings.  The compiler/author begins this section with what can only be called a strange healing, a head-scratcher of sorts.  The story has Jesus coming down from the hills with a large crowd following him and then, without any transition in the story a man "with a dreaded skin disease" kneels before him and tells Jesus that if Jesus wants to he can heal this guy.  Jesus said he did want and then did.  And then, Jesus tells him to go to a priest, get himself certified as clean, and then sponsor a sacrifice—but, says Jesus, don't tell anyone.  Don't tell anyone?  What happened to the crowd?  And, why not tell anyone?  Isn't the whole point of Jesus' ministry to communicate good news of liberation by word and deed?

Scholars struggle to answer these questions, but at the end of the day there's something a little unsatisfying about this story whatever their explanations.   There is just one loose end too many however we cut it.  It helps, I think, to check out the earlier version of the story in Mark 1:40-45.  There the tale is much the same except for the ending.  In Mark, the guy who is healed went off and, having been ordered to be silent, proceeds to tell everyone and their uncle about Jesus.  In fact, he talked so much to so many that Jesus couldn't walk through town without being swamped by the crowd.  Instead, he had to go out into the country-side, and even then large crowds flocked to him.

Some scholars argue that Matthew drops Mark's ending because it is disrespectful of Jesus, a kind of undercutting of his authority.  The healed guy is more or less shown to be the star of the story, praiseworthy for his faith in Jesus and for his enthusiastic evangelistic endeavours in spite of the fact that he failed to do what Jesus instructed him to do.  The compiler of Matthew, so this argument goes, simply couldn't accept this diminishing of Jesus,' authority.  We don't know if this speculation is correct, of course, but if it is it only serves to underscore a point I made in a previous post (here) that Matthew reflects the thinking of a particular party within the early Jesus Movement.  It was a party that was already moving toward a more exalted view of the person of Christ.

But I like Mark.  Jesus' sanctity didn't need defending; and what is impressive in the story is the kind of fearless, open faith he excited in the man.  And Mark's story makes more sense.  The reason it has Jesus admonishing the guy not to tell anyone he's been healed is to highlight the extent of his subsequent elation.  Being healed of a "dreaded skin disease" was a big deal.  He had been exiled from home, family, and community and forced to live a degraded existence.  Suddenly, he could go home.  He was free!  Amazing!  Awesome!  He was so fired-up, so elated that he just couldn't keep what happened to him to himself.  He had to tell the story.

Piety isn't all it is cracked up to be.  It can be so straight-laced, so worried about right thinking, and so protective of its doctrines that it quashes things that matter because they don't seem to be pious enough.  Mark is ambiguous.  Matthew isn't.  And it is in Mark we get a happy, almost hilarious description of true faith in Jesus—a faith so exuberant that it won't let even the Rabbi himself silence it.  That seems contradictory.  It is counter-intuitive.  It is so typically human.  Mark thus celebrates what Matthew frowns on as wrong, bad, un-Christian.  Spoil-sport!  Mark's version is better.  Amen.