Text Study for Matthew 9:2-17, Part Two

Matthew 9:2-17 (NRSV)

Twice the Matthean author has Jesus quote Hosea 6:6 — here in Matthew 9:13, and in Matthew 12:7. This citation doesn’t appear in the other synoptic accounts at all, much less in the parallels to these passages. It’s clear that Hosea 6:6 is a big deal for the Matthean author, an interpretive key to understand Jesus’ mission and ministry.

Mary Hinkle (now Mary Hinkle Shore) offers a helpful analysis of this usage in her 1998 article in Word and World. She argues that understanding how the Matthean Jesus deploys this verse and the whole concept of “mercy” will help us as readers in “learning what righteousness means.” These two citations and other mercy-related spots in the Matthean account will help us to see that the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is to show mercy (page 356).

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In addition to the direct quotations of the Hosea passage, the Matthean author uses the verb form of “to have mercy” seven times. Five of those, Hinkle notes, are in healing stories. “Mercy is what people ask for from Jesus,” Hinkle writes, “before they receive healing” (page 357).

Moreover, in both of the direct quotations, Jesus is engaged in a controversy with Pharisees about the interpretation of Torah. Here in Matthew 9, the question is about appropriate table fellowship. In Matthew 12, the question will be about plucking grain on the Sabbath. In each case, Jesus argues that merciful acts supersede ritual observance. “Righteous observance of the law,” Hinkle observes, “is expressed in merciful action toward the neighbor” (page 357).

Before we go further on this path, I want to be responsible to our Jewish siblings. As, for example, Amy-Jill Levine so often points out, we should be alert to the use of the Pharisees here as a Matthean foil and polemical tool. We should not argue in historical terms that the Pharisees always put ritual purity and practice ahead of works of mercy. In fact, Torah commands works of mercy. It’s important to make sure, as Levine says, that we don’t make Jews look bad in order to make Jesus (or Christians) look good.

That beings said, the context and content of Hosea six is a prophetic critique of the religious practices and priorities of Israelites in the Northern Kingdom prior to the Assyrian assault and conquest. Hinkle points us to that context and notes that the Hebrew word for “mercy” in that text is “chesed.” This word is most often translated in English as “steadfast love.” In the Septuagint, it is translated as “eleos,” which typically shows up in English translations as “mercy.”

In Hosea 6:1-3, the prophet quotes Israelites who urge repentance from unfaithfulness and the worship of idols. It is difficult to read the tone of the verses. The tone could be of sincere remorse and a commitment to do better. Or the tone could be a shallow confidence that God will forgive because that’s what the Lord always does. I think of the Heinrich Heine quote in this regard: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His job.”

I lean toward the latter interpretation, and the text seems to support that reading. “Whether these remarks indicate sincere repentance or only the expectation that God can be quickly and easily manipulated by a show of remorse,” Hinkle writes, “the prophet lets the people know in the next verses that their devotion falls short of God’s desire” (page 358).

God sounds like God is about ready to throw in the towel when it comes to the Israelites. Their steadfast love is about as reliable as a morning cloud. It last about as long as dew in the early morning. As Hinkle notes, their steadfast love is anything but steadfast. It is not faithful over time. Therefore, it is not anything like God’s steadfast love.

In addition, their “mercy” is not merciful. Hinkle observes that “instead of demonstrating
steadfastness in their devotion to the Lord, or mercy in their interactions with fellow Israelites, Ephraim has been making love with Baal and making war with Judah” (page 359). The problem with Israel in Hosea 6 is that their steadfast love is neither steadfast nor loving (merciful).

Let’s take the Hosea quote as the framework that Jesus uses to asses the behavior of those he criticizes. Hinkle points to the Matthean Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees. Their actions don’t match their words. They are hypocrites (see Matthew 23). They are, therefore, not steadfast. Nor are they merciful, in the Matthean construction, since they put a greater premium on ritual observance than on “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).

“In short,” Hinkle writes, “the Pharisees’ righteousness exhibits neither of the defining characteristics of [chesed], and so is not the righteousness of God at all” (page 360).

These days, some New Testament scholars are engaged in a “quest for the historical Pharisees.” In 2019, for example, a conference was organized in Rome titled “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Interdisciplinary Reappraisal.” You can watch some of the presentations on YouTube, including an incisive talk by Amy-Jill Levine.

In part, that quest is a way to moderate the anti-Judaism which can so easily arise from traditional readings of texts like Matthew 9. The historical Pharisees were a lay-led reform movement within the Judaisms of the time — a movement that did indeed focus on holiness but was not in any way opposed to works of mercy and charity.

Instead, the historical Pharisees understood these works as clearly commanded by Torah. It’s a mistake to read the Matthean account of the Pharisees as an historical report of the actual behavior of the Pharisees in the twenties and thirties of the first century. Instead, we need to remember that the Matthean community is engaged in an intra-Jewish struggle with other communal interpretations of Torah. The Matthean community is made up of Christian Jews who are trying to make sense of their allegiance to Jesus as Messiah both for themselves and for the surrounding community.

It’s also important to me as an interpreter to remember that the primary audience for the Matthean account is the Matthean community. The question isn’t whether this is an historically accurate representation of the Pharisees. Instead, the interpretive question is more like, “What is the Matthean author seeking to impact and change within the author’s own community?” With that question in mind, we can focus less on what was “wrong” with the historical Pharisees and more on what the Matthean author has to say to our own faith and practice.

In the Matthean account, as Hinkle concludes, the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees is marked by an abundance of steadfast love — doing mercy. In contemporary terms, I would suggest that the Matthean author is critiquing a “performative” spirituality. By this I mean an understanding of discipleship that focuses on saying the right things, holding the right beliefs, and engaging in the the right expressions of public piety.

There’s nothing wrong with that performative spirituality in and of itself. It is problematic, however, when it becomes the maximum or normative standard for discipleship. I think this is the “evangelical” version of sacrifice rather than mercy. It is equally problematic when performative spirituality is regarded as “enough” discipleship or even as a substitute for doing mercy. I think this is the “mainline” version of sacrifice rather than mercy.

In the Matthean account, discipleship means hearing Jesus’ words and doing them. “For readers of Matthew,” Hinkle concludes, “to learn what Hos 6:6 means is not so much to receive a new law as to come to recognize the steadfast love of the God of Israel as it is embodied and enacted by Jesus” (page 362). Jesus heals and exorcises. Jesus sits at table with sinners. He embodies mercy and does it. And he does it faithfully — that is, to the end.

“Demonstrating both mercy and faithfulness,” Hinkle continues, “Jesus loves the way God loves, and Jesus loves the way Hosea announces that God intends God’s people to love” (page 362). If the Matthean account if a manual for disciples (and it clearly is), then disciples need to regularly learn and relearn the Hosea lesson. And then, as Hinkle notes in pointing to the Great Commission, disciples are called to teach that command of mercy to all nations.

On the one hand, Jesus teaches this path in continuity with the Hebrew prophets. On the other hand, there is clearly something new going on here as well. Immediately after the Hosea quote, we get a question from John’s disciples about a ritual practice. In response, Jesus identifies himself as the Messianic bridegroom — the new factor in the equation. God has come to be with us in Jesus and to do mercy for all the nations.

Patching up the old practices isn’t going to be enough now. Refilling the stiff old wine skins of traditionalism is a formula for disaster. Something new is going on here. And that newness continues to unfold in the Matthean account.

Text Study for Matthew 9:2-17, part one

Matthew 9:2-17 (NRSV)

The longer and more deeply I study the Matthean account, the more taken I am with it. I’m glad to recover from my unfounded prejudices and to hear in this account some wonderful artistry, theological depth, and practical nuance.

Jesus has returned from the territory of the Gadarenes to his home in Capernaum. The disciples have weathered the storm on the lake and witnessed Jesus’ authority over wind and waves. Jesus barely gets into town when he is accosted by a quartet of faithful friends carrying their fifth and paralyzed friend on a litter.

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Some commentators suggest that they “ran into” Jesus in a moment of serendipity. That seems unlikely on its face and isn’t really supported by the text. Matthew 9:2 says they were bearing their friend “to him.” They had been waiting for his return from the other side of the lake. Perhaps they’d been camped out at Jesus’ house or had posted a lookout down at the shore. When word of Jesus’ arrival came to them, they were ready.

The Matthean account can encourage some interpreters to portray the Matthean Jesus as a sort of mind-reader. I don’t think that’s necessary or helpful. The “faith” that Jesus sees on the part of the four friends in verse two doesn’t have to be mysterious (nor is the skepticism in verses 3 and 4).

Warren Carter observes that the verb “were bringing,” in the imperfect tense “suggests a protracted action” (page 215). They waited for Jesus to return. They had the litter ready to go. They had prepared their friend for the adventure. They pushed their way through the crowd to get to Jesus.

This is what “faith” looks like in the Matthean account. Believing is never separate from doing. Trust results in action. There is no spiritualizing of faith away from works. There is no hyper-Protestant segregation of believing and doing. They are organically related. More than that, actions are the evidence of faith, as is the case in our text. And faith is the motive for such actions. The text provides an opportunity to hold the two together.

This faith is a communal phenomenon rather than an individual one. Upon observing “their” faith, Jesus began the healing process. Many preachers assume, I think, that the plural pronoun refers to the faith of the friends. I always imagine four of them, one at each corner of the litter. But the text is not that specific.

Nor is the pronoun limited to those who were carrying the litter. There is no reason to think that “their” excludes the paralyzed one. It could be that the paralyzed one was not consulted in advance, but that seems unlikely. It seems more credible that this initiative had the consent of all involved — and especially the consent of the paralyzed one. At the least, there is no reason to exclude the paralyzed one from the decision-making process.

I think this is important as one way to screen out the worst parts of able-ist readings of this text. I am trying to repent of readings that deprive the disabled characters of agency. There is no reason to see the paralyzed one as purely passive in this text — as one whose “faith” was of no consequence in Jesus’ response.

In fact, the text portrays Jesus as looking directly at the litter and seeing “their” faith. So, I think we should not make the paralyzed one into a prop. Instead, we should portray that one as a full participant in the story and a partner in the outcome.

And I suspect that we should portray the paralyzed one as a person at least known to Jesus. It may be that the friends carried the litter from some distance away. But it is more likely that all were residents of Capernaum or the immediate area.

Scholars estimate the population of Capernaum at about 1500 people in Jesus’ time. It may be that Jesus did not know the group personally, but it is hard to imagine that he had no familiarity with the situation of the paralyzed one. It is more likely that, either through personal acquaintance or through the highly efficient local gossip network, Jesus knew the story and circumstances of the paralyzed one in some detail.

I think this matters for a couple interpretive reasons. First, Jesus addresses the paralyzed one as “child.” The Greek word is “teknon,” and could be translated here as “my child.” Warren Carter suggests that this is a term of endearment, although only his reference of Matthew 7:11 really supports that claim. Nonetheless, it seems to be such an expression of tender and familiar care here.

Second, Jesus declares that the paralyzed one’s sins are forgiven. This certainly reflects the first century conviction that suffering — and especially paralysis — came as a result of a personal sin. It seems to me that Jesus has some familiarity with the paralyzed one’s history. I find that important because then this forgiveness is about that individual rather than a blanket declaration that suffering is always a punishment for or consequence of sin.

A text like this is going to cause a certain amount of emotional distress for some of those who hear our interpretations. It’s typical that in the midst of distress we might wonder to ourselves, “What did I do to deserve this?” Some folks will convert that into a declaration — “I must have done something to deserve this.”

In my experience, those folks most likely to think in these ways have the least justification for thinking like this. But we are creatures who make meaning. We’d often rather settle for a bad explanation for suffering than to live with the ambiguity of no explanation at all. We often prefer self-recrimination to living with the mystery of suffering.

It may be that Jesus knows something of the personal situation of the paralyzed one. But he has bigger fish to fry here. I think we tend to interpret the “forgiveness” as the precursor to the healing. But that is another example of separating the internal from the external — a separation which makes little sense in the Matthean account. Instead, as we shall see in a few verses, the healing is the forgiveness, and the forgiveness is the healing.

The word translated as “forgiven” has as its most basic meaning “to release” or “to let go.” Think about how many times in the gospel accounts Jesus connects healing with release from bondage or captivity. When Jesus forgives the sins of the paralyzed one, he releases that one from the things that hold that one in bondage. Jesus doesn’t shame or blame. Jesus liberates and releases.

In addition, when the Matthean author quotes Jesus as using the passive voice of the verb — “are forgiven” — that is often an indication that God is the one doing the action. This is the so-called “divine passive.” It may be this passive construction which leads the religious authorities on the scene to conclude that Jesus is claiming the Divine prerogative to heal for himself. That is either a sign that the Kin(g)dom has indeed come or it is blasphemy.

The paralyzed one may be in bondage to some element of past history. The paralyzed one may be held captive by physical illness or injury. The paralyzed one may be a victim of a whole system that keeps God’s people in bondage — political, social, spiritual, and emotional.

The call to “take heart” echoes numerous verses in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Jesus may be echoing the words of Psalm 31. The Psalmist prays for rescue from a variety of enemies. The poet is wasting away physically. The poet is scorned and shamed by adversaries and forgotten by friends and family. The Psalmist is surrounded by threats and dangers and prays for deliverance.

The Lord answers this cry for help. In response the Psalmist offers a benediction in verses 23-24 (NRSV). “Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” I think this is the sort of interpretive horizon against which Jesus offers comfort and hope to the paralyzed one.

We could also think about Deuteronomy 31:6 or Psalm 27:14 in this regard. The call to the paralyzed one reverberates with the hope of the Hebrew scriptures. And we will hear this encouraging phrase again in Matthew 9:22, as the woman in healed in that story.

The words to the paralytic are words to the western Church in this time. Be released from whatever paralyzes you. Get up and leave oppressive systems behind. That’s what Easter looks like in the here and now. The paralysis in the Matthean account has both personal and systemic causes. The same is often true for us in the here and now.

Well, dear friends, that gets us all the way through Matthew 9, verse 2. More to come!

Three Easter A, 2023 — Part Two

Life in the Rearview

“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards” wrote Soren Kierkegaard. “But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” This proposition can help us reflect on the reports of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the canonical gospels. In several of those accounts, Jesus tells “opens the scriptures” and describes how the suffering and death of the Messiah were “necessary.”

In Luke’s report there seems to be at least a mild rebuke of the disciples on the road to Emmaus for not “getting it” by themselves since they were “foolish” and “slow of heart.” That strikes me as a bit harsh. But after the small critique, Jesus then walks then through the Hebrew scriptures to note how they pointed to him.

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He “interpreted” the scriptures. The verb Luke uses is a form of the Greek word from which we get “hermeneutics,” which is, according to the dictionary, “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” In fact, even for the first disciples, there is no unvarnished encounter with the written text. Rather, Christian scripture is always interpreted, first, by Jesus, and then later, through Jesus. Jesus is the interpretive “lens” through which we read any text we dare to call Christian scripture.

Kierkegaard is talking about how we interpret our lives. He knows that we always make our interpretation from our current position. We live life forward and understand it in the rearview mirror. But, he acknowledges, that’s really a sort of useful fiction. His observation, he notes, is “A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”

As we remember events in our lives, we don’t pass through our experiences since those events and then travel back in time better informed and wiser in our interpretation. Instead, we look through our experiences since those events and bring them forward as part of our experience here and now.

Our memories are not written on some hard drive in the recesses of our brains to be accessed unaltered when we retrieve them. No, every time we retrieve them, we re-write them in light of whatever we have lived through in the meantime.

Kierkegaard knows, a century in advance of current neuroscience that “there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for to take a position” that would allow me to go backwards. Contemporary studies of human memory formation and retrieval support the Danish philosopher’s insight.

“But it is a stubborn fact, or at least is presented this way in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke,” writes Father John Behr, “that the one born of Mary was not known by the disciples to be the Son of God until after the Passion, his crucifixion and resurrection” (page 7, my emphasis). Some Christians claim to have direct access to Jesus in the biblical text. They would assert either that their reading is free from interpretation or that it is the only possible interpretation. That is self-delusion at best. There is no uninterpreted text. Instead, there is either unconscious interpretation or conscious interpretation.

“Although popular imagination is still enthralled by the idea of ‘what really happened,’” Father Behr writes, “it is generally recognized today that there is no such thing as uninterpreted history. Failing to appreciate the confessional nature of theological assertions gives much modern theology a character that can only be described,” he notes, “as an odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology” (page 7).

Those who claim direct access to Jesus in the biblical text generally claim to “believe in the Bible.” In the gospels, however, Jesus calls disciples to believe in him and not in some text that bears witness to him. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life,” Jesus says in John 5:39, “and it is they that testify on my behalf.” The Bible does not authenticate Jesus. Jesus authenticates the Bible.

We see in today’s reading that this knowing found in the Scriptures happened only through Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures for the disciples post-Resurrection. All four gospels are at pains to remind us that we are in the same boat as the first disciples in that regard.

Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, re-writes and interprets the memories of the disciples and of the scriptures in the light of that crucifixion and resurrection. In Luke 24:27, he “re-interprets” Moses and all the prophets through the lens of these events.

In verses forty-four to forty-seven he seems to go further in the interpretive process. He reminds them that this was his teaching all along, while he was still “together with them.” And he tells them again that it was “necessary” for all these written scriptures to be fulfilled. The NRSV misses the boat by translating this as “must be.” This is the word for Divine necessity that we find repeatedly in the Synoptic gospels.

Reminding the disciples, however, is not enough. He “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Jesus does more than provide information. Instead, he works transformation. I can’t help but be reminded here of Paul’s words in Romans 12:2. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” he writes, “so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The word for “minds” both in Luke 24:45 and in Romans 12:2 is the Greek word “nous.” The Greeks loved to think about thinking. They had a variety of words for “mind.” “Nous” might be translated as intellectual and intelligible understanding. It is not “spirit,” which would relate to deeper and even pre-verbal insight and intuition. It is not “heart,” which would relate to emotion-fused thought and action. Jesus needs to instruct the disciples so they can properly understand and then interpret for others the witness to the Messiah in the Hebrew scriptures.

This understanding is, however, more than intellectual. It is the basis for one’s view of the world, one’s framework of understanding what is true and good and beautiful. It is the faculty through which one determines what is real and possible. So, one’s mind can be “opened” to new possibilities which a person could not have entertained previously. One can be transformed by the “renewing” of the mind. This new view of the world can make one into a new and different person.

Luke’s account reveals what God is up to in Jesus. “As far as Luke is concerned, then,” notes N. T. Wright, “we need have no doubt: he believed in the one-off, unique event of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and he believed that the entire story of the creator’s dealings with the world and with Israel had come into new focus as a result of it. All the scriptural stories pointed this way, not that anyone had read them like that before. Israel’s story had reached its climax in the Messiah,” Wright concludes, “with him, the new chapter of the world’s history had opened, a new era characterized by divine forgiveness” (Wright, Resurrection, page 659).

Wright notes that this mind-opening reinterpretation of the Hebrew scriptures results not only in a new people but also in a new commission. We should recall that three of the four gospels have some sort of “Great Commission” near the end.

This is not the case only with Matthew, where Matthew 28:19-20 is often labelled as “The Great Commission.” In that commission, we have the commands to baptize and teach. For Christians, baptism is always in part about forgiveness of sins. And teaching always leads to proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In both Luke and John, the Great Commission is even more explicit about this vocation to forgive and proclaim. We can read the Johannine version in John 20:21-23 (part of last week’s gospel text). Here in Luke, the commission is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.

The word for repentance is, of course, “metanoia.” This is not about a moral turnaround. Rather, this is about a “change of mind” (“nous”). Just as Jesus has taught and proclaimed to the disciples, so they are called to teach and proclaim to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.

“Because Jesus is risen, he is demonstrated to be Israel’s Messiah; because he is Israel’s Messiah, he is the true lord of the world and will summon it to allegiance; to this end, he will commission his followers to act on his behalf, in the power of the Spirit which itself is a sign and means of covenant renewal and fresh life,” Wright asserts. “And the key followers, through whom the project will be launched, are the ‘witnesses’ who have seen for themselves that Jesus really is alive again after his crucifixion” (Wright, Resurrection, page 660).

In the next post or two, we will reflect further on the nature of the bodily resurrection as recorded in the first half of our reading and the call to be “witnesses of these things.”

References and Resources

Behr, John . The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Downers Grove, ILL.: IVP, 2019.

Curtice, Kaitlin. Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2020.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Journalen JJ:167 (1843), http://homepage.math.uiowa.edu/~jorgen/kierkegaardquotesource.html].

Lose, David (1). http://www.davidlose.net/2015/04/easter-3-b-resurrection-doubts/.

Meyers, Jacob. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-2436-48-3.

Rinehart, Michael. https://bishopmike.com/2021/01/17/fishing-for-people/.

Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-2436-48-4.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press.

Wright, N. T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: HarperOne, 2006.

Text Study for the Third Sunday of Easter 2023

“Grandma, do you have any snacks?” The question indicates several things. First, it means that Grandma and Grandpa put up much less resistance to multiple snack times than Mom and Dad do. Second, it means that growing kids are always hungry, and we try to be well-stocked for such occasions. Third, sitting down for a snack is another time and another way to connect at the most human level with the people we love.

“Do you have anything edible in this place?” Jesus asks the quaking and incredulous disciples. It’s such a human request, such a physical, bodily request. Jesus takes us back to Luke 15:2 – “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” Before we get to the dinner table, however, we need to examine the request in the context of the conversation.

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In his 2018 workingpreacher.org commentary, Mark Vitalis Hoffman notes that in Luke’s account, Jesus is carrying out the approved test to demonstrate that he is not an apparition, a ghost, or a mere spirit. “Among the ghost tests in antiquity, one could check extremities where bones were evident (namely, hands and feet),” he writes, “make sure that a person’s feet were touching the ground, and show one’s teeth and eat food.”

He notes that this is described explicitly, for example, in Tertullian’s writings against Marcion. Tertullian notes that showing the extremities is a way to demonstrate that the person in question has bones. Eating, similarly, is a way to show that the person in question has teeth. Ancient literature is filled with stories of appearances by ghost, apparitions, spirits, angels, demons, and other non-corporeal entities. The tests for bodily existence were well-known. Luke includes the results of those tests in his account of the post-resurrection appearances in chapter 24.

Luke, along with the other gospel writers, knows that acceptance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is one of the great sticking points that keeps people from embracing the Good News of Jesus. I am encouraged to know that this was a problem with the first disciples as well as with current disciples.

I am struck by Jesus’ patience and persistence in dealing with this resistant credulity. The problem in all the gospel accounts is not a too-easy acceptance of the Resurrection. Rather, the issue is a reluctance to believe either the evidence of their senses or the witness of their colleagues. The first witnesses were more likely to doubt than to believe. That is, perhaps, still the case.

One form of this doubt lives under the cover of a “deeper” faith. That is, some theologians and preachers would suggest that the Resurrection of the body is a metaphor for the deep and abiding experience of Jesus in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. I think we need to push back on that pious skepticism.

“We cannot take these stories [in Luke 24] and transform them, without remainder, into pictures of ongoing Christian experience without doing violence, in every line, to Luke’s manifest intention,” N. T. Wright argues. “Once more, this is not to say that Luke is unaware of the multiple resonances in Christian experience which the stories set up; only that these are resonances which echo out, as far as he is concerned, from the original event itself.” (Wright, Resurrection, page 657).

It’s not the case that stories of the bodily resurrection of Jesus arose as a way to give “flesh” to the real story of a more “spiritual” experience of the risen Lord and Savior. Instead, the process was that the spiritualizing of the resurrection of the body has arisen out of a rejection of the possibility that such an “actual” resurrection took place. The gospel writers, including Luke, are clear in their witness. “Every line, almost every word, in this scene [in Luke 24:36-43] demonstrates the point, “N. T. Wright notes. “For Luke, the risen Jesus is firmly and solidly embodied, able to be touched, able to eat.” (Wright Resurrection, page 657).

Some of us have lived with the Resurrection stories for so long that we have lost the shock and surprise, the wonder and amazement of the message. Or perhaps we have also adjusted the story to fit what is possible in the world as we know it and have thus “spiritualized” the resurrection of the body into a profound, but internal, experience. Can we recapture some of that sense as we read about the stubborn resistance of the disciples in Luke’s account? They knew that dead people stay dead.

“Here’s my brief take on this vignette from Luke’s larger narrative about the resurrection appearances of Jesus,” David Lose writes, “if you don’t have serious doubts about the Easter story, you’re not paying attention.” Let’s remember where we are at in Luke’s narrative. The women have reported the empty tomb, but their male colleagues considered their report “an idle tale.” The risen Jesus has appeared to Peter, although that appearance is referenced without narration. Two disciples spent half a day talking with Jesus (whom they didn’t recognize) and sat down to a meal with him.

All these experiences produce is a confused and animated debate about what it all means. Jesus appears in the middle of them and says, “Hush, children. It’s all right.” At first, Jesus makes things worse, and they shift from confusion to full-on terror. Nothing makes sense any longer. They are stirred up the way a storm troubles the waters of the sea. Competing explanations fill their heads and cloud their hearts. They need an anchor to reality.

“Can we just say it, preachers?” David Lose (1) asks, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt, in fact, is probably a necessary ingredient to faith. Faith, by definition, is trust in spite of a lack of evidence. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is more tension-filled. It is acting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.”

I’m not sure, however, that’s all that helpful in this text. What Jesus offers is not some sort of conviction in spite of the lack of evidence. Instead, he offers the disciples the evidence of his resurrected body. Then he opens their minds to a whole new way of seeing and understanding reality that allows for such a thing to happen in their midst. It’s not that they will believe it when they see it. Rather, it’s that they will see it when they believe it.

This has been the problem throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. It continues to be the problem after the Resurrection. It is our problem now. I’m not with Dr. Lose on this one. It’s not the lack of evidence that’s the problem. It’s the lack of open eyes, open hearts, and open minds to take the evidence that exists. That’s at least as true of disciples “inside” the church as skeptics “outside” the church.

“All of which suggests two things to me for this week’s sermon,” Lose writes. “First, let people know it’s okay to doubt. In fact, let them know that it’s probably a requirement of faith. Because, honestly, in light of all the death and trauma and disappoint and tragedy that colors every human life, if you don’t have at least some difficulty believing the promise that God not only raised one person, Jesus, from the dead, but also promises new life and second chances and forgiveness and grace to all, then you’re probably not paying attention” (David Lose (1).

Indeed, that is true and helpful. “We believe in the resurrection of the body,” most of us confess week in and week out. I’m always glad that it’s “we” who are confessing that trust. Some Sundays I get it and embrace it. Some Sundays (and the rest of the week) I don’t get it or embrace it. When I don’t, I’m glad there’s someone else in the faith community who does. I depend on the solid faith of others when mine is shaky. And I’m glad to be that resource for others when the situation is reversed.

“Second, I would like to ask people how we might live differently if acted like God’s promises were true,” Lose continues. “So often, I think, these promises are so familiar to us that we hold them far back in our head but don’t actually think about them and so don’t act as if they are true. But if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead… If it’s true that God promises to renew the whole creation and grant us new life… If it’s true that nothing – nothing we’ve done or has been done to us – can separate us from the love of God… If it’s true that God will not turn God’s back on any of us but always reaches out to us in grace, mercy, and forgiveness… If any of this – let alone all of this – is true, then how might we live our lives this week differently? How might this faith – not knowledge, but trusting, courageous faith – change how we look at our relationships, and our politics, and our work, and our resources, and our future?”

In this season of Easter, we confess as a church loud and clear that all these things are true. But we don’t root that confession in our own powers of believing. Instead, the Holy Spirit now makes Christ physically present in us by faith. We, too, are disciples who are confronted by the evidence, the testimony of witnesses, and the living presence of Jesus among us. Jesus opens our eyes in the breaking of the bread and our minds in the proclamation of God’s Word in our midst. Our hearts burn with recognition, and our vocation is to share that with others.

References and Resources

Behr, John . The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Downers Grove, ILL.: IVP, 2019.

Curtice, Kaitlin. Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2020.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Journalen JJ:167 (1843), http://homepage.math.uiowa.edu/~jorgen/kierkegaardquotesource.html].

Lose, David (1). http://www.davidlose.net/2015/04/easter-3-b-resurrection-doubts/.

Meyers, Jacob. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-2436-48-3.

Rinehart, Michael. https://bishopmike.com/2021/01/17/fishing-for-people/.

Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-2436-48-4.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press.

Wright, N. T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: HarperOne, 2006.

Normal is not all it’s cracked up to be…

“If we could begin to see much illness itself not as a cruel twist of fate or some nefarious mystery,” writes Gabor Mate in The Myth of Normal, “but rather as an expected and therefore normal consequence of abnormal, unnatural circumstances, it would have revolutionary implications for how we approach everything health related” (page 8).

Mate urges us to turn our understanding of life in our culture inside out. What is abnormal is the toxic culture we inhabit. Our responses to such a culture are “normal,” insofar as they respond to the realities of the world in which we live.

“Far more than a lack of technological acumen, sufficient funds, or new discoveries,” Mate continues, “our culture’s skewed idea of normality is the single biggest impediment to fostering a healthy world, even keeping us from acting on what we already know” (page 8).

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The normality Mate indicts is the white, male, individualist, capitalist, rationalist, hierarchical, hegemonic, patriarchal, racist, classist, and ableist colonial system which is so familiar to us Americans that it is like the air we breathe.

For the few privileged at the “top” of this system — those who seek to define what is “normal,” the benefits of the system are huge. For the rest of us, the system takes resources from us and leaves us feeling chronically ill and personally responsible for our own disease.

“The core of it,” Mate writes, “which accords entirely with what the science shows is this: health and illness are not random states in a particular body or body part. They are, in fact,” he continues, “an expression of an entire life lived, one that cannot, in turn, be understood in isolation: it is influenced by — or better yet, it arises from — a web of circumstances, relationships, events, and experiences” (page 9).

I see this whole-culture understanding of disease in the healing ministry of Jesus in Matthew, chapters eight and nine. Jesus doesn’t blame any victims of illness for their conditions. He restores them to health and community. Jesus doesn’t expect any victims of illness to demonstrate that they are somehow “normal” or deserving of his attention. He just touches them. He just talks to them. He just sees them. In that welcoming touch and talk and gaze, they are restored to wholeness.

“Normal” in the first-century Mediterranean world was defined by the honorable, free, male, Roman noble man. Others in the culture found themselves placed on a scale of value with such “normal” individuals at the top of the scale. At the bottom of the scale were enslaved persons.

It it probably not entirely accurate to describe the enslaved as “persons” in that system. In fact, the enslaved were regarded as “natally alienated” and “socially dead,” according to Orlando Patterson. Such individuals were often regarded as two-legged cattle or tools that could speak. They were seen and treated as extensions of their enslavers’ bodies and were thought to have no independent existence of their own.

Other free males, free women, freed persons, children, and foreigners were assigned varying degrees of normality in comparison with the ideal and honorable man of Roman ideology. At the top of the top of the scale was the emperor — the epitome of maleness, the paragon of virtue, the font of all wisdom and intelligence, the bravest of the brave, father of the fatherland, source of peace and prosperity, and either a god himself or soon to become one.

Imperial life was a contest of honor and shame. The goal was always to increase one’s own honor. Since this was a zero-sum, limited good society, such an increase was always at the expense of someone else in the game. It was an agonistic culture, defined by struggle and competition. The definition of human flourishing was to be one of the few who reached the pinnacle. Of course, that position was always threatened by other contenders. Thus life was always an exercise in anxious self-protection.

Is it any wonder that such a system would produce numerous and serious chronic physical and mental illnesses? Compound that with that grinding poverty and lack of resources among the majority of the population, and it’s no wonder that Jesus was doing land-office business when it came to healing. Compound that with the effects of multi-generational trauma imposed on subject peoples and you get a culture consumed by infirmities and diseases.

I could just as easily be describing what Kelly Brown Douglas identifies as the imaginary of Whiteness in American culture and society. I’m working my way through her book, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter, and I see the connections all over the place. Let’s start with her definition of Whiteness:

“…whiteness is not a biological or an ethnic given. Rather, it is a socially constructed demarcation of race that serves as a badge of privilege and power. It fuels white supremacy, which in turn exists to protect it” (page 3). In Greco-Roman culture, noble and honorable maleness was the social construct that presumed to define normality, underwrite privilege and power, and protect the system upon which that privilege and power depended.

The system that underwrites and protects Whiteness is White supremacy: “the network of systemic, structural, and ideological realities that protect the “presumed” superiority of whiteness by granting certain privileges to those raced white and not to others (page 3). Like the Greco-Roman analogue, Whiteness is oppositional, agonistic, zero-sum, and inherently violent.

“Anything that belittles, degrades, or betrays the sacred humanity of another is violent,” Brown Douglas writes, “and, insofar as it separates one from the ways of a just and loving God, sinful. Whiteness, therefore, is both an intrinsically violent and sinful construct” (page 3). The same could be said of the Greco-Roman system. In his ministry of healing and wholeness, Jesus is claiming and restoring the sacred humanity of those he cures.

As Douglas points out, echoing many others, those who benefit from such systems are also cut off from their sacred humanity, even though they are resistantly oblivious to such disability. “Those who remain willfully or obliviously trapped in the privileges of whiteness,” Douglas argues, “are prevented from appreciating their common connection with the rest of humanity. In effect, uninterrupted whiteness overwhelms white people’s very souls…” (page 4).

The Matthean author concludes our small section of the Matthean account with an odd reference from Hebrew scripture. It is odd that the Matthean author doesn’t use the typical formula to describe what’s happening here. It is odd that the Matthean author references the “word through the prophet Isaiah,” rather pointing to what was written in that prophet’s corpus. It is odd that the Matthean author uses a text that seems only tangentially related to what has happened in the previous verses.

I don’t think the Matthean author has gotten momentarily sloppy. Instead, I think the Matthean author wants us to look deeply at what is happening in these healings in chapters eight and nine. Jesus is taking on the whole system of Greco-Roman “normalcy” and rejecting the ideology that underwrites that system. Jesus absorbs the violence of that system which betrays and denies the sacred humanity of those who don’t “measure up.”

And Jesus shows how such a system is inadequate even for one of the beneficiaries of the system — a Roman centurion. The centurion puts faith in Jesus rather than in empire. That’s radical.

“It is no overstatement,” Kelly Brown Douglas declares, “to say that white supremacy is the normative identifying marker of American identity” (page 6). Whiteness is the standard of American normalcy. All other lives are valued relative to Whiteness. The corollary to Whiteness as ideology is anti-Blackness as practice.

When a norm is constructed as superior — as defining the nature of what it means to be human — the justification is created for the denigration and elimination of all that is not “normal.” If I am not “normal,” then my suffering is my own fault, the result of my own deficiencies. Then the system and its beneficiaries are not only let off the hook but are justified in punishing and eliminating the “abnormal.”

The Matthean author proclaims that Jesus has joined the “abnormal” and is dismantling the tyranny of normalcy. He takes it all on and buries it in a rock-hewn tomb. He invites his followers to partner with him in the ongoing project of recognizing and restoring the sacred humanity of all people.

Douglas, Kelly Brown. Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter. Maryknoll Fathers. Kindle Edition.

Mate, Gabor. The Myth of Normal.

Healing the Centurion’s Servant

Matthew 8:5-13 (Here’s the NRSV translation). And here’s my rough translation.

(5) But while he was entering into Capernaum, a centurion came to him and begged him, (6) and he said, “Lord, my servant-child has been lying in the house as a paralytic, terribly tormented. (7) And [Jesus] said to him, “I can come, and I shall heal him.”

(8) And the centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but if you would just say the word, my servant-child shall be healed. (9) For I also am a man under authority — I have soldiers under my command — and I say to that one “Be gone!” and he goes, and to another “Come!” and he comes, and to my slave, “Do that!” and he does it.”

(10) But when Jesus heard [this], he was amazed and said to those who were following, “I’m telling you the truth, among no one in Israel have I found this sort of faith! (11) But I’m telling you that many are coming from the east and the west and shall recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens. (12) But the “children” of the kingdom shall be thrown out into the outer darkness; in that place shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

(13) And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go, as you have trusted, it shall be done for you.”

The genitive absolutes continue. Jesus has made his way down from the Sermonic Mountain. The crowds continue to accompany Jesus and his disciples. He barely gets inside the city limits of Capernaum when he is met by a Roman centurion (there’s really no other kind, as I think about it).

The centurion begs, beseeches, pleads with Jesus on behalf of his “servant-child.” The verb is the same one Paul uses in Romans 12:1, for example, to plead with the Romans to present themselves as living sacrifices. The centurion is solicitous and subservient in his conversation with this itinerant, lower-class Jew. The scene itself is remarkable and, if it happened that way, would have occasioned numerous comments and consequences.

What happened when the report of this scene got back to the centurion’s superiors? A Roman commander treating a Jewish nobody with the sort of deference that should be reserved only for the Latin nobility? They might have wondered about the centurion’s mental stability. They might have questioned the centurion’s reliability and loyalty. They certainly would have called him on the carpet (or marble) for making mighty Rome appear so weak and needy.

“The display of God’s empire collides with the assertions of Rome’s sovereignty,” Warren Carter writes in Matthew and the Margins. “God’s empire,” Carter continues, “brings the wholeness which Rome’s rule cannot provide…and it will effect Rome’s demise” (page 196).

The public presence of the Roman eagle comes to this marginal Jew for the gift of healing. And that gift prompts Jesus to describe the authentic rule of peace, God’s rule, where the blessed will recline at table with the patriarchal families of Israel in the eschaton (verses 11-12).

“Jesus demonstrates God’s empire in healing the centurion’s servant and asserts God’s supremacy in accomplishing what Rome’s empire cannot do,” Carter continues, “despite the propaganda claims of Aristides and Josephus that Rome has healed a sick world” (page 200).

Alternative sources of healing, well-being, and flourishing always undercut the claims of empire. Autocrats always claim that they are the only ones who can save us, fix us, restore us, make us great again. And those claims never hold up for long.

Imperial systems create the very problems which they promise to “solve.” Such systems concentrate the resources of healing, well-being, and flourishing in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. Then such systems promise to distribute a few of those resources to those who are “worthy” of receiving the “help.”

Imperial systems create the circumstances that turn scarcity thinking into common sense. Such systems foster the facts that make zero-sum thinking appear reasonable. Imperial systems rely on the human psychologies of loss aversion and last place aversion to motivate the “have-nots” to collaborate with the “have too much-ers.” If you want a history of that system in the American context, I’d recommend Heather McGhee’s excellent book, The Sum of Us.

When it comes to the power of death, empire fails even its best and brightest in the end. And the ideology of empire cannot overcome the needs of the human heart. The centurion comes begging healing for his “servant-child.” I translate it that way because no single English word really captures the sense of the term. The Greek word is “pais.” The word can mean “child,” or “slave,” or “servant.”

Greek has a perfectly good word for “slave” — “doulos.” And Greek has a perfectly good word for “servant” — “diakonos.” The word the centurion uses has a greater sense of intimacy and dependency than the other terms. This child is not merely a servant and more than a slave.

Commentators speculate on the relationship between the centurion and the servant-child. Is this servant-child the enslaved gay lover of the centurion, for whom the older man has developed some real affection? Is this servant-child the result of the centurion’s rape of one of his enslaved women and a biological offspring? Is this servant-child an adopted son-slave who has become valued in some way? The narrative reality may be none of those things, but all are possibilities.

In any event, the centurion in the story cares enough for the servant-child to risk public ridicule and censure in order to find a cure. The centurion sets aside the accepted norms and rules to save someone for whom he cares. Perhaps this experience opens the eyes of the centurion to the realities of health and well-being in the Imperial system.

I think about how many of our straight church folks have come to new understandings of LGBTQIA+ realities and life. They’ve had a child or a sibling or another relative come out (or suffer in silence). They’ve witnessed the pain and struggle straight white culture continues to impose on their loved ones. That’s particularly true these days for our trans siblings. It’s this loving proximity that has brought about for many changed attitudes and the willingness to engage in public action.

I wonder if something like that happened for the centurion in Matthew 8.

Like the leper in the preceding text, the centurion addresses Jesus as “Lord.” This is the title that the centurion would use with his superiors in government and military circles. The Latin term would be “Domine.” That the centurion would use this term for Jesus is another astonishing feature in this surprise-filled exchange.

I think it’s worth noting how the centurion describes his life. If he order someone to do something, they do it. They hear his words and do them. This is the description that Jesus offers in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount. The wise person, the one who builds a house upon the rock, is the one who hears Jesus’ words in the Sermon and does them. The centurion understands how that system is supposed to work.

Jesus is astonished to hear such an understanding issued from this Gentile mouth. He has not heard this from those who should get it — those who are the historic children of the Kin(g)dom. This leads Jesus to describe an eschatological scene where Gentiles come streaming into the Kin(g)dom and take their places at the Divine table. The result of this understanding of the working of the Kin(g)dom leads Jesus to respond immediately to the centurion’s plea.

We see in Matthew a mixed understanding of the relationship between Gentiles and Jesus — at least pre-crucifixion. Jesus declares that he has come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Yet, Gentiles keep crashing the party. This is a preview of the mission of the Church as described in the Great Commission. But already ahead of the cross, Gentiles see what’s happening and want in — whether Jesus is really ready for them or not.

I don’t think the Matthean author has a rigid view of this — no matter what Jesus might say. In the second half of the chapter, Jesus makes a probe into Gentile territory to (pardon the pun) test the waters. The time is not quite right, Jesus discovers, but that is not a sign that the time will never be right.

Back to Reading Matthew

All right, friends, we’re through Holy Week, Easter, and the post-Easter recovery phase (sort of). So I’m headed back to my serial reading of and preaching on Matthew’s gospel. This week we’re reading and studying Matthew 8:18-9:1. I preached on Matthew 8:1-17 on Transfiguration Sunday, but I will need to re-orient myself to chapter eight and perhaps will need to do so for my listeners as well.

Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, and the reviews are excellent. Jesus “finished these words” (Mt. 7:28). The verb is “teleo,” which can also mean to perfect or bring to fruition. The Matthean author likes that set of words and applies them to Jesus and his actions at several strategic points.

Photo by Tibek Xanderson on Pexels.com

The author doesn’t have the Johannine “it is finished” to conclude the crucifixion account. But the Matthean author does have Jesus promise to be with the disciples until the “sunteleias” of the age. This is another related word that points to how Jesus sums up and brings to fruition God’s mission of life for the cosmos.

This might seem like a random connection, except that it isn’t. Jesus finishes saying these words. The crowds are astonished at his teaching because he teaches with authority. We should hear a prefiguring of the words of the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19-20. There Jesus declares that all authority in heaven and upon the earth has been given to him. He now commissions his disciples to baptize in the name of the Triune God and to teach all to obey what Jesus has commanded.

The verbal connection between Matthew 7:28-29 and 28:19-20 should be clear.

As Jesus was coming down from the sermonic mountain (Mt. 8:1), large crowds are following him. The verse begins with a genitive absolute which should be translated as “while” or “as.” Therefore, the crowds who had heard the Sermon, along with the disciples, also witnessed the healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1-4. It appears that the crowds continue to accompany Jesus as he heals the centurion’s servant in Capernaum and Peter’s mother-in-law, presumably in the same village.

I make this suggestion because in verse eighteen, the Matthean author mentions the presence of the crowds around Jesus. At this point, Jesus embarks on a boat and leaves the crowds behind. When Jesus and the disciples return to Capernaum (Mt. 9:1), the crowds appear to be waiting for him. They are explicitly mentioned again in Mt. 9:8 and Mt. 9:33. In this section of the Matthean account, the crowds serve as a sort of chorus repeatedly declaring their awe and amazement and glorifying God for what they have seen.

The leper embodies and enacts the astonishment of the crowds. While Jesus was descending the mountain, guess what! A leper, coming toward him, fell on his face before Jesus. He called him “Lord.” He appealed to Jesus “will” or desire to heal him.

The NRSV translates the leper’s request as “if you choose, you can make me clean.” But really, it’s much more like, “If it is your will to heal me, I shall be made clean.” I think the Matthean author wants us to think immediately about the Lord’s Prayer — “Let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Depending on how we translate this text (and others like it), we can significantly under-read the Matthean Christology built into the narrative. I think it’s a pretty “high” Christology, but that can, as they say, get lost in translation.

Jesus stretches out his hand toward the leper. He accompanies this action with the declaration, “I will [it]. Be cleansed.” The healing is immediate and complete. Then Jesus orders the man to complete the ritual requirements for restoration to the community. Two things happen here. Jesus does not abrogate the Mosaic Torah but rather fulfills it. And he fulfills it by implementing the real intention of the Torah, which is the maintenance and restoration of the community of God’s people.

“In the ancient Mediterranean,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “one’s state of being was more important than one’s ability to act or function. The healers of that world,” they continue, “focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, page 70, Kindle Edition). As we go through Matthew 8 and 9, we meet several people who are restored to community and connection due to Jesus’ healing.

Illness was stigmatized and moralized in the ancient world. It remains stigmatized and moralized to a significant degree to this day. That is particularly true of our responses to mental illness, but we are still profoundly tempted to hold people personally responsible for their physical illnesses as well (even though we should know better).

Worse yet, we hold people morally culpable for situations like poverty. The “we” here is privileged, mostly white, people in the Western world. Capitalism is always in search of the “worthy poor,” those “deserving” of our help. Of course, poverty is, for many of us, a clear demonstration of unworthiness. Thus we find no “worthy poor” that we can help. And thus, we let ourselves of the hook and hang on to our stuff.

Whenever we make “worth” a condition of offering care, we’re opposing the Kin(g)dom of God. Yet it is the “unworthy” who provide the clearest direction to that Kin(g)dom. We need to keep that in mind, for example, when we come to the Great Judgment parable/prophecy in Matthew 25. As Stanley Hauerwas points out in his commentary on Matthew, it is the excluded and the stigmatized who recognize Jesus as Lord (page 93). And, I would add, it is the excluded and the stigmatized who bear the Lord’s presences in their excluded and stigmatized bodies.

Robert H. Smith writes these words about the leper’s healing. “Jesus…looks beyond the efforts to define boundaries. He has come with the authority of God neither to build a better wall nor to bow before the power of uncleanness. Acting in the place of God,” Smith continues, “Jesus begins to roll back the polluting powers and to restore God’s creation to primal purity and wholeness” (Matthew, page 131).

Jesus doesn’t “risk uncleanness” when he reaches out to touch the leper. Instead, he brings cleansing because he embodies that whole-making power of God in his ministry and in the world. We see throughout the Matthean account that the methodology of the Kin(g)dom is inclusion rather than exclusion. If we lose track of that interpretive focus as we read this gospel account, we can easily misread it as focused on exclusion. The texts in chapters eight and nine can help us to maintain the proper focus.

I have been re-reading Gabor Mate’s book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, & Healing in a Toxic Culture. Mate argues that “chronic illness — mental or physical — is to a large extent a function or feature of the way things are and not a glitch; a consequence of how we live, not a mysterious aberration” (page 2).

I think that the Greco-Roman culture of the first-century Mediterranean world qualifies as another example of a “toxic culture.” The people Jesus encounters in Matthew 8 and 9 suffer the effects of that culture and point to the underlying trauma and tragedy upon which that culture is based. Therefore, Jesus heals people by taking away their illnesses and restoring them to a fullness of life that the larger culture cannot offer.

Jonathan Pennington argues that the Sermon on the Mount describes God’s blueprint for human flourishing. I think that’s a helpful discussion point, although I would extend that to a focus on the flourishing of all Creation. In any event, that’s the run-up to these healings and exorcisms. Jesus has taught what human flourishing can really mean. Now in thee chapters, he enacts and embodies that flourishing in those who have been trapped in the web of a toxic culture.

We’ll see how that continues to unfold in the succeeding stories.

A Tale of Two Mountains

In Matthew 28:19-20, the author takes us to a mountain to fulfill the work of Moses in Deuteronomy 30-34.

In Deuteronomy 31:23, the LORD commissions Joshua as Moses successor. The commission contains these words: “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you” (NRSV). I hear a resonance between this note and the note struck in Matthew 28:20. The Matthean Jesus finishes his journey as he began it: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (NRSV).

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The language in Deuteronomy 31:23 is in one sense unremarkable and in another sense striking. The first-person singular pronoun is emphatic. The future form of “to be” is a cognate of the Divine Name – YHWH. And the “with you” phrase has the root of Matthew’s preferred label for Jesus: “Immanuel” – “God with us.” It strikes me that the words to Joshua echo in the Matthean ears as the final words of the gospel are uttered.

The commission to Joshua is ratified with this promise of Divine presence. In Matthew 28:20, Yeshua (Jesus, Joshua) passes this promise on to his disciples. He makes the same promise the LORD made to Joshua a millennium before. Jesus commissions the disciples to go forward in the mission, confident in the continuing Divine presence just as the LORD commissioned Joshua to go forward.

The resonant language continues in Deuteronomy 32:44-47. This text is on the other side of the Song of Moses in chapter thirty-two. In particular, I am struck by the words in verse 46. Moses declares to “all Israel” – “Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today; give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law” (NSRV).

I am struck by the intertextual harmonies when I put these words next to Matthew 28:20a – “and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (NRSV). Moses’ words to all Israel seem like a compelling summary of the Matthean program of discipleship training. The words echo the running desire of Deuteronomy that the Torah would be written on the hearts of God’s people and that they would do what they hear.

In fact, the word “shema” appears in the Deuteronomy text. And it is reflected, of course, in how the Matthean author understands the nature of discipleship. The wise person, described at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is the one who hears all of Jesus’ words and does them. The emphasis on hearing the words is striking. In the Deuteronomy text, we have the Hebrew debarim. In Matthew 7:24ff, we have the Greek logoi.

The “children” in the Matthean account are no longer limited to the biological offspring of Israel. Instead, the children of God (the true siblings of Jesus) are those who hear his words and do them. These are the “children” in Matthew 28 to whom the disciples are to teach everything that Jesus has commanded them. They are to keep hold of these words in obedience as baptized children of God.

Further similarities and resonances echo through these texts, but it is for real scholars to describe these connections in detail. For the Matthean author, we have “a tale of two mountains.” Moses comes to the edge of the Promised Land and gets a glimpse of it from Mount Nebo. He does not, however, enter into that blessing himself. That is for the next generation of Israel, led by Joshua. Someone else will need to complete the work that Moses has begun.

The new Joshua – Yeshua, Jesus – is, according to the Matthean author, the one who completes and fulfills and brings to perfection the work that Moses began. This is a theme of the Matthean account from beginning to end. And that theme is capped and crowned in the last words of the gospel account.

For those of us whose biblical imagination is not as enriched with the Old Testament as was Matthew’s, this connection takes some digging and stretching. I suspect that the connections were obvious and clear to the Matthean author and to many in the Matthean audience.

The Matthean work is not, therefore, appropriation or supersession. It is, rather – as the text argues repeatedly – fulfillment of the great arc of Israel’s history from Abraham to Jesus. Now the genealogy makes even more sense than it did before.

One may argue that the Matthean author has gotten it wrong. That is probably part of the intra-Jewish debate that drives the composition of the Matthean work. But one cannot argue that the Matthean work is somehow “anti-Jewish,” as has sometimes been the case. Rather, the argument is that those Jews who follow the new Joshua are on the path of completing the work begun with Moses.

Now, however, the Promised Land is not limited to a piece of real estate “on the other side of the Jordan.” The Matthean argument is that this Promised Land is all nations, all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike. The call of God’s people is to invite all into the name of the triune God and the way of life embodied in allegiance to that name. As we respond to that call, we remember that we are not alone.

Just as the Lord promised to accompany Joshua into that new land, so Jesus promises to accompany the disciples of every age into the new land of Resurrection hope and loving service to the neighbor. The “I am” of Matthew 28:20 should have no less significance as an expression of the Divine Name than any of the statements in the Gospel of John.

That fact can be lost on us as interpreters. It certainly was lost on me until I read more closely. The “I am” of the Divine Name is stitched into the commission to Joshua in Deuteronomy. It is sewn just as tightly into the Great Commission to all disciples in Matthew 28:20. Now that name has a Triune ring to it, but the presence is no different than that promised to great Joshua of old.

I’m not sure what this means entirely. But I do know that it matters deeply for our ongoing interpretation of the Matthean texts for the balance of the liturgical year.

This article addresses a similar perspective.

Sparks, Kenton L. “Gospel as conquest: Mosaic typology in Matthew 28: 16-20.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2006): 651-663.

The Man Born Blind

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 9:1-41

It’s that moment when you move from shadows to sunlight. That’s how it was for me. I was born blind. I had spent a lifetime in darkness. I didn’t even know what “light” looked like. Suddenly my brain was flooded with brightness.

At first I was dizzy. My eyes hurt. I was confused. I couldn’t yet distinguish distances or recognize faces. I staggered and stumbled.

But for the first time in my life, I could see!

Now those around me had trouble seeing clearly. For my whole life, I had been nothing but a helpless beggar. Many people had never even seen me standing up! Now I was walking—no stick, no beggar’s bowl, and no shame.

As my confusion cleared, the questions around me increased.

One person asked, “Isn’t this that blind beggar boy who used to sit near the Pool of Siloam? I stepped right over him many times!”

Another disagreed. “No, that can’t be him! That beggar has been blind from the day he was born! This fellow obviously can see. I must say, however, that the physical resemblance is striking.”

Back and forth they debated. Yes, he is! No, he’s not!

All the while I tried to get them to listen to me. “The man called Jesus made some mud. He spread it on my eyes. Then he told me to wash off the mud in the Pool of Siloam. I went and washed and received my sight.”

The moment I mentioned Jesus, I had their full attention. “Where is he?” they demanded. I had no idea. I used to be blind, remember?

Rough hands grabbed me and hauled me away. Suddenly I felt eight years old again. Cruel boys in our village grabbed me one day. They spun me around. Then they hit me. “Who hit you?” they demanded. If I guessed right, they would let me go. If not, they hit me again. It was a game the bullies played many times.

I got pretty good at guessing.

Now I was standing in front of a group of serious-looking men. “You were blind,” one of them barked. “How is it that now you can see?”

I told the story again—Jesus, mud, washing, sight. Why couldn’t they just believe me?

The men began to argue among themselves. “It’s the Sabbath!” said some. “This Jesus can’t be from God. He does nothing but break the rules!”

Others were not convinced. “A blind man now sees,” they said. How can such a thing happen without God’s help?” They debated for quite a while. I just pretended to be invisible as I had done with the bullies of my younger days.

As they continued to argue, I drifted back to synagogue school in my village. I remembered learning the words of Isaiah. That great prophet described a suffering servant sent from God. God said to the servant, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind…”

I loved that prophetic promise. When I was a boy, I prayed every night for that suffering servant to come and to heal me. As I got older, I gave up on such prayers. It seemed that they did no good. But now I could see! Might this Jesus be the suffering servant Isaiah promised?

I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t even hear the question. “You there!” one of them shouted. “What do you say about him? After all, it was your eyes he opened!”

I spoke before I thought. “He is a prophet!” I declared. 

That was clearly not the right answer.

Because that was the wrong answer, the argument returned to my identity. Was I really that guy formerly known as the poor, blind beggar? They couldn’t get that settled. That’s when they found my parents and dragged them into the mess.

Truth be told, I didn’t have much connection with my folks. To them, I was an embarrassment. I was a sign of their failure. I was a source of deep shame. People were always whispering to each other. “What did those people do to deserve such punishment?” they would ask each other. “It must be some terrible secret they are hiding.

This is what everyone believed. Even Jesus’ disciples asked the question. “Rabbi,” I heard them say, “Who sinned—this man or his parents—that he was born blind?” I got ready for another load of theological garbage, another tirade about how terrible my family must have been.

Jesus, however, said something else. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” I know he said more. But at that moment I didn’t catch the rest of it. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and overcome with astonishment. This Jesus would not be my judge. His business was much bigger and better.

Mom and Dad, of course, didn’t hear Jesus. So they decided to play it safe. The word was out that supporting Jesus was a bad idea. Saying good things about him would get them nothing but grief. In fairness to them, they had dealt with this stuff my whole life. So they slid the problem back to me.

“Yes, this is our son,” they admitted. “And he used to be blind.”

He used to be blind. They said those words with almost no emotion. No joy. No celebration. No gratitude. They were just terrified. “We have no idea how this happened,” they whispered. “He’s a grown man. He can speak for himself. Ask him!”

Thanks, Mom and Dad. I was on my own again. They disappeared into the crowd.

“Give the credit to God!” the men demanded. “We know this Jesus is a sinner.”

I was so sick and tired of being bullied. A lifetime of rage and resentment ran away with my good sense. “Play your religious games with someone else!” I shouted. “What I know is very simple. I was blind. Now I see.”

I should have stopped there. But the years of abuse and bullying had equipped me with a smart mouth.

“After all,” I prodded, “why are you so interested? Do you want to become Jesus followers too?” The words were out before I could stop. Things went downhill fast from there. 

“How can you be so blind?” I finally shouted. “If Jesus weren’t from God, I’d still be blind, begging and broken. Do I look blind, begging and broken to you?” I had to run for my life after that one.

I hid in the shadows on the far side of the Temple. That’s where Jesus found me. “You know the promises of God’s healing,” he said. I nodded. “You know that God’s healing is a sign of God’s kingdom among us.” I nodded again. “Do you trust,” he asked, “in the Son of Man?”

I had spent years in the dark, waiting for God’s light to shine in my eyes and in my heart. “Who is this Son of Man?” I asked. “If he’s the one who gave me my sight, I will follow him anywhere.”

Jesus smiled. “You’re looking at him.” I fell dizzy back against the stone wall. All my hopes came rushing into that moment. This was about more than my eyes. This was about light for the whole world. “Lord, I trust you,” I said. I fell on my face at his feet.

By this time, some of the men had caught up to us. They overheard the conversation. Jesus described them as blind sinners. They made him pay for that in the end.

Later, they arrested him on charges of treason and blasphemy. He was sentenced to torture and death. Some of them blindfolded him as they taunted him. He was blind as I had been. And they played a cruel game. They hit him over and over. Each time they hit him, they said, “Prophesy! Tell us who hit you!”

When I heard that part of the story, I wept out loud. I remembered what that was like for me. Jesus was bullied and tortured just like me. His accusers were blinded by their fear and hatred. They saw him as an object of ridicule and rage. They were not unable to see. Instead they were unwilling to see.

And no amount of spit and mud can fix that sort of blindness.

The darkness, however, was not the last word. They killed him and buried him in a lightless tomb. They crucified him and wrapped him in a shroud of darkness. They drove him out of this world and on to a Roman cross.

But now I remember Jesus’ words to his disciples. “As long as I am in the world,” he told them, “I am the light of the world.” The darkness could not overwhelm him. Death could not hold him. Jesus is in the world now and forever. He is the light of the world. And he is the light of my life.

Now I tell my story as often as I can. One of the members of our little church even made a song about it. “Sleeper, awake” she sang, “Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” It is my joy and my honor to walk in the light of the Lord every day. My prayer is that Jesus will continue to shine through me today and always.

Thank you for listening. And thank you for being willing to see.

Message for March 12, 2023

Going Platinum

Matthew 7:1-14

Matthew seven, verse one, should read something like this. “Don’t keep on condemning, so that you won’t keep on being condemned.” Condemning is more than judging. When I condemn someone, I judge them negatively. I declare them worthless and disposable.

Don’t keep on condemning others. Okay, Jesus – got it. The result, it seems, is that I will no longer be condemned. But, condemned by whom? God? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think Jesus surfaces a deep reality about human life.

The degree to which we condemn others is a measure of how much we condemn ourselves. Jesus says this in Matthew seven, verse two. We will be condemned, Jesus says, according to our very own standards. The metric I apply to others will be the precise metric applied to me.

Is God doing all this measuring and condemning? I don’t think so. That would contradict everything so far in the Sermon on the Mount. No, God isn’t the one who is judging me. I’m the one who is judging me.

And I rarely measure up to my own standards.

The harder I am on myself, the harder I am on others. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Hurt people hurt people. It’s a pretty reliable psychological rule of thumb. In Twelve-step groups, that rule often goes like this. If you spot it, you got it. What I judge most harshly in others is typically the thing I hate most in myself.

I feel better condemning the flaws, foibles, and faults of others than looking at myself. Jesus captures this in his “speck and log” metaphor. It’s more fun to squint at the speck in your eye. That distracts me from my own stuff. I may not be worth much according to my own standards. But at least I can pretend to be better than you.

“Pretending” is a key word in our text. I can’t BE better than you. I can only ACT like I am. That’s play-acting. So, I’m one of those “hypocrites” Jesus calls out in verse five.

In the ancient world, a “hypocrite” was a stage actor. That’s what we do when we judge ourselves better than others. We play a part. We perform a role. We pretend to be something we’re not.

All the time, we hide the truth about ourselves – and from ourselves. Voices inside me shout it constantly. You’re a fraud! You’re an imposter! You’re worthless! If others really knew you, no one would love you!

Is it any wonder we’re so hard on other people? We’ll do almost anything to drown out those voices for a while.

I think Jesus reminds us of another rule of human existence. What you feed is what will grow. The more time and energy we give to those judging voices, the louder they become.

So, Jesus says, stop feeding them. Stop handing your holy self to the dogs of despair. Stop throwing the pearls of your humanity to the pigs of hatred. If you keep feeding them, those voices will eat you alive. At some point, only the voices will remain.

Stop focusing on your flaws, Jesus says. Start trusting in God’s goodness, grace, and generosity. Ask, search, knock! God longs to give, reveal, and respond. This is God’s character. This is God’s heart. This is God’s desire – not to condemn, but to love.

“That can’t be right!” the voices shout. If God really knew me, God would discard me without a second thought. So, if God loves me, God must be a blind fool.

No, in fact, God is not a blind fool. I had a seminary professor who began every class with the same words. “Beloved in Christ,” he said with a half-smile, “God knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you anyway!”

That’s the good news Jesus always brings. Paul says it in Romans five. Here we are – weak, ungodly, enemies of God and all that is good. “But God proves God’s love for us,” Paul writes in verse eight, “in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Say that to yourself ten times a day this week. Then notice how the other voices fade to a whisper.

This is God’s “judgment” on you and me. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” we read in John 3:16. Too often, however, we don’t read verse seventeen. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you anyway!

Now we can have a fuller understanding of Matthew seven, verse twelve. It’s one of several places where Jesus offers “the Golden Rule.” People usually pull this verse out of its context. It shows up on hallway plaques and bumper stickers. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus says, “for this is the law and the prophets.

Let’s put that verse back into Matthew seven for a bit. Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule really becomes “the Platinum Rule.” In everything, do to others as Jesus has done to you. This is really the Law and the Prophets. This rule is the “narrow gate” Jesus describes in verse thirteen. This is the difficult road that leads to life.

Few enter that gate and travel that road because we’re so used to condemning ourselves and others. Condemning ourselves and others is the road to destruction. Doing to others as Jesus does for us is the road to life – life now and life forever. Ask for directions. Seek the path. Knock on the gate. God will answer with goodness, grace, and generosity.

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

It should be clear by now in the Sermon on the Mount that this loving always means doing. Do to others as Jesus has done to you. One thing may not be so clear. All the “you’s” in our text are plural. Jesus isn’t talking just to you as an individual. Jesus is talking to us as a community of disciples. The “you’s” here are “you-all’s.”

As a society, we have told many stories that describe others as less than human. We have told many stories that describe others as unworthy of our love. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, we described Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages.” We used that story to feel good about exterminating ninety-five percent of them from this continent.

Some Christians used Old Testament stories to describe Africans as subhuman beasts. These stories declared that Black people were only good for manual labor and the benefit of white people. These stories allowed us to kidnap thirteen million black people from Africa.

For two centuries, we have told stories that blame poor people for their own poverty. We have said we are willing to help the “worthy poor.” Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find any. These stories have allowed us to shift the blame away from our own desires to have more for ourselves.

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

And loving them anyway means resisting and rejecting the stories that tell us they don’t deserve our love.

In everything, do to others as Jesus has done to you. This is really the Law and the Prophets. How will the Platinum Rule impact your life this week?

Let’s pray…