Sermon for January 29, 2023

4 Epiphany C

Matthew 4:23-5:12

Jesus says there are no disposable people. That’s today’s main thought. And that’s the main thought in Matthew’s gospel for the next twenty chapters. So, hang on to that thought from now to November. Use that thought to understand every gospel reading this year.

Jesus says there are no disposable people.

At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has started his public ministry. “Repent,” Jesus declares, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change how you see the world. Seek a different story to make sense of life. Adjust your thinking to make room for God.

That’s what it means to repent.

Jesus announces the change. Jesus then recruits the changers. The changers are the disciples. Remember – Jesus chooses to change the world through us. Then, Jesus gets to work.

Jesus travels the length and breadth of Galilee. Galilee isn’t a power center. Galilee is the backwoods, the hinterland, the territory of the forgotten and abandoned. And this is where Jesus launches his campaign.

Jesus heals every sick person they bring to him. He cures the demon-possessed, the epileptics, the paralyzed. These people are primary examples of the cursed and ignored. They are case studies of the alienated and isolated. They are regarded as disposable people.

This is where Jesus starts.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. People crave this message. In no time at all, Jesus attracts crowds from a fifty-mile radius. Those crowds include Jews and Greeks, rabbis and soldiers, rich and poor. Because everyone feels disposable in one way or another.

Here’s an important point. It comes from John Swinton, a marvelous theologian and writer. “Jesus did not sit with those on the margins of society,” Swinton writes, “Rather, he moved the margins.”

That idea unlocks the mystery of today’s gospel reading. I want you to chew on that idea this morning. Jesus moves the margins.

In Matthew five, Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount. The first twelve verses are often called “The Beatitudes.” That title comes from the Latin word for “blessed.” These verses begin with that word. That’s where we get the title.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells a “counter-story.” A counter-story pushes against the story everybody accepts as true. More than that, a counter-story usually comes from a different perspective. A counter-story usually comes from the edges of society, not the center.

Jesus tells a counter-story. In that story, Jesus moves the margins. But what is the story Jesus is “countering”?

The regular story blames the poor for their poverty. In the end, the poor get nothing.

The regular story tells the grieving to get over it. In the end, we just suck it up and move on.

The regular story says that gentleness is for suckers. Only the strong survive.

The regular story says that only fools think things will get better. Instead, you should just get yours while you have the chance.

The regular story says people are selfish. Life is a war of all against all. God doesn’t care. Get over it. The regular story is how most people see the world. The regular story supports the regular system. In the regular system the few get the goodies and the many get the shaft.

The regular story says that power, privilege, property, and pleasure are the prize. And people are disposable.

Jesus doesn’t buy the regular story. Jesus moves the margin. Jesus says there are no disposable people.

You might think this has nothing to do with you. You’re not poor or grieving or powerless or raging for justice. Too bad for the others. But you’re not one of the disposables.

That’s all right. Just keep telling yourself that.

Or…you can look a little deeper. That regular story lives inside of me. I’ll never really be good enough for anyone. I’ll never really have enough stuff to cure my poverty of spirit. I can’t get over my grief, so I just bury it under busyness. I can’t make the world right. So, I stop trying and just numb the pain.

I’m pretty sure I’m disposable too.

I suspect the regular story works for somebody. I suspect there are normal people somewhere. I’m also sure the story doesn’t work for me. I’m also sure I’m not one of those normal people.

I’m guessing that, whether you admit it or not, you’re with me on this. I’m not normal. I’m not worthwhile. I’m certainly not blessed. Most of the time, I’m pretty disposable.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. The regular story is not God’s story. The regular story is wrong. Jesus calls us to reject the regular story. Jesus calls us to live in God’s story. That’s what it means to repent.

Here’s God’s story. Jesus moves the margins. Jesus claims us disposables for the kingdom of God. Jesus names us blessed and worthy and greatly honored. Jesus comes to heal the sick, not to congratulate the healthy. Jesus comes to call not the righteous bus sinners.

Jesus will go anywhere to claim us disposables. Jesus joins us despised and disposable people on a Roman cross. That’s the final tool and symbol of the regular story. But not even death can dispose of Jesus.

God raises Jesus from the dead. God moves the margins of life. The regular story says death wins in the end. The regular story says we all get disposed of in the dirt. The regular story is wrong.

Jesus says there are no disposable people.

Jesus turns the regular story inside out and upside down. This makes no sense to the regular story people. But we aren’t regular story people. We follow Jesus. We trust that Jesus is, as Paul writes, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” We are blessed to live in that power and by that wisdom.

Now we can read the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are a poem. The first stanza is verses three through six. In that first stanza, Jesus reverses the regular story. In God’s kingdom, the disposable people are greatly honored. Jesus moves the margins to the center.

The regular story has an expiration date. That expiration date is the first Easter Sunday.

The second stanza is verses seven through ten. The Church says there are no disposable people. We are called to be margin-movers. We do that through gentleness. We do that through peace-building. We do that by challenging the systems designed to dispose of people daily.

The second stanza is a job-description for world-changers. Jesus calls us world-changers disciples.

Maybe this sounds a bit airy-fairy to you. So, let me give an example. I’m honored to visit homebound members of our congregation. I pray with them and bring them communion. We spend time in small talk. Some might think this is a waste of time. But I go because Jesus says there are no disposable people.

Have you ever been stuck at home because of an illness or injury? Think about how quickly you disappeared from other people’s social radar screens. Perhaps you got a taste of that during the COVID lockdowns. It doesn’t take long to wonder if we matter much. It’s no surprise that loneliness and depression were the most common results of the lockdowns.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. In November, we’ll get to Matthew twenty-five – the bookend for today’s gospel. In that chapter, we’ll get a list of people discarded by the regular story. We’ll meet the hungry and thirsty, the unwelcome and unhoused, the ill and imprisoned. This is an inventory of folks who drop off our radar screens. These are some of the disposable people in the regular story.

Jesus moves the margins. Jesus puts the hungry and thirsty, the unwelcome and the unhoused, the ill and the imprisoned in the center of God’s story. Jesus calls us margin-movers to do that daily.

Moving the margins was easier for Matthew’s community. Most of them were on the edge already. They didn’t have inherited power, privilege, and property. Most were illiterate. Many were enslaved people. Matthew’s folks didn’t have to find the disposables. They were the disposables.

It’s harder for us. We have power, privilege, and property. We have education and influence. We can determine our own destinies. Most of us here are not among the social disposables.

Don’t feel bad about that. You and I can leverage our privilege for those who have less. You and I can use our wealth to benefit the impoverished. You and I can use our influence to move the margins. You and I can resist the regular story by living the Jesus story.

When we get that right, we’ll know. Now we come to verses eleven and twelve. When we move the margins, the center reacts. When we embrace the disposables, we join them in their struggles. When we do that, we can rejoice and be glad, Jesus says. We’ll be in very good company.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. Is that how we’ll live this week?

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part Three)

Things are coming into a bit more focus now. The first four beatitudes form a stanza in this programmatic poem. Those beatitudes offer examples of the Great Reversal promised in the coming Kin(g)dom of God. Jesus has announced, in line with John the Baptist and carrying through on that preview, that the Kin(g)dom is drawing near.

“Fundamental to all the beatitudes,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary, “is the establishment of God’s justice or righteousness by removing oppressive societal relationships and inadequate distribution of resources” (page 131).

Jesus demonstrates the truth of that announcement by enacting it through teaching, healing, and casting out demons. He shows what the world looks like when the Great Reversal is put into action. The first and third beatitudes parallel one another. And we know we have seen the people mentioned in these beatitudes. They are part of the crowd that Jesus healed in chapter four and who overhear the Sermon on the Mount now.

Those who have been drained of any hope for the future will receive the Kingdom of Heaven and will inherit the earth. Carter describes them as “economically poor and whose spirits are crushed by economic injustice” (page 131). Those who mourn the victory of oppressors will see that victory reversed. They will be filled with the justice of God (Beatitudes two and four).

“The first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary. “They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” (page 131).

The Great Reversal has been launched in the ministry and mission of Jesus. He has called at least the first four of the frontline troops who will continue that ministry and mission. How are they to participate in that ministry and mission in the here and now?

We come to the second stanza. Offering mercy and doing peace are two of the practices of that ministry and mission. Clean hearts filled with a passion for God’s justice are requisites for those who will be part of the work. It’s worth quoting Carter at length here.

“The focus in the second group of beatitudes moves from the circumstances which God is reversing to human actions that manifest God’s empire. These and similar actions (this is not a complete list) enact God’s purposes for just societal relationships and access to resources. Such a way of life is blessed now and rewarded by God in the future, at the completion of God’s purposes. That is, while the “empire of the heavens” is God’s rule, this emphasis on human actions indicates a partnership between God and those living in accord with God’s purposes” (page 134).

The work of mercy and peace, purity and justice – that work in itself is the reward. Those who engage in such practices become more and more of what God created them to be in the beginning. “To act like God is to be one of God’s children now (5:45; 6:9),” Carter writes, “which will mean intimacy with God in the future completion of God’s purposes. God’s children are shaped not by ethnicity (cf. Deut 14:1) but by imitating God (cf. Matt 3:9)” (page 136).

So, first we have the promise of the Great Reversal. Then we have the job description for those who will be part of the work. And third, we see the response of the world and the freedom of those who do it. Yes, the system that depends on poverty, oppression, humiliation, and injustice will react badly to any changes.

Yet, those reactions will be signs that the system cannot stand forever. “Disciples, like prophets, know a liminal role,” Warren Carter notes, “They live in but at odds with their dominant culture. Yet they cannot retreat from it because they have a God-given mission to it and in it” page 137).

Those involved in this process are to be “greatly honored.” I think that’s the best translation of “Makarios.” The English word “blessed” has been stretched to cover so many things that it has become nearly meaningless.

In our text, two groups of people are “greatly honored.” First, there are those whom the system regards as being without honor. They are among those whom Carter might describe as the “involuntarily marginalized.” They are the expendables, the people who can be disregarded and discarded. They are the ones who’ve been told their lives don’t matter.

The first stanza radically reverses this evaluation. The good news for these people is that their situation is not permanent. It is not God’s judgment. It is a failure of a system in bondage to sin, death, and the devil. The system stands under judgment and will come to an end. That is the promise of the Kin(g)dom which is beginning to bear fruit here and now in Jesus.

Second to be greatly honored, I think, are the voluntarily marginalized. These are the disciples (and not just the four who have been named). These are the ones who accept the call to be part of the struggle and to do so by means of nonviolent resistance rooted in God’s grace and mercy. As a result of answering the call, the marginalized all find one another in the Kin(g)dom of God (notice the double mention in verses 3 and 10).

The Great Reversal calls for the Great Resistance. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives further details about how that Great Resistance works.

I try to imagine, first, how these words landed with the Matthean community. Matthew’s gospel, according to Carter, “is a counternarrative. It is a work of resistance,” he continues, “written for a largely Jewish religious group” (page 1). The Matthean community resists the pressures of the larger Jewish community (in Antioch or Galilee) on the one hand and Roman imperial power on the other.

Carter argues that the gospel is also “a work of advocacy and hope. The gospel constructs an alternative worldview and community. It affirms a way of life marginal to the dominant structures. It challenges its audience to live this resistant way of life faithfully in its present circumstances. And,” he concludes, “it promises that Jesus will return to establish God’s empire and salvation in full” (page 1).

To challenge an audience to live in a resistant way – I think that’s my task as a preacher in the setting where I live and work. When I think about how that might turn out, I’m not sure that I will be rejoicing and being very glad. But too often, I think I sell people short. I find in surprising places a hunger and thirst for God’s justice in a world of injustice.

“Reading the gospel is a world-advocating and world-rejecting,” Carter writes, “world-unveiling and world-decentering, world-affirming and world-exposing process” (page 3). And this reading urges people to abandon old ways, ways that only produce death and despair. “One of the effects of reading this story of Jesus is to see God’s reign or empire at work,” Carter continues, “to notice it in unlikely places, to understand its goals and methods, to hear its call to live in and for a just and compassionate world, and to participate in its final triumph over all” (page 3).

I suppose I’m writing this to give myself another personal pep talk. This gospel is at work among us. We who claim to follow Jesus are called to be part of the work. I am surprised by how often the people I serve seek to answer that call. It’s not without some weeping and gnashing of teeth, on their part and on mine. But the gospel shapes disciples far beyond my meager efforts. I’m glad once in a while to be part of that process.

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part Two)

See POWELL, MARK ALLAN. “Matthew’s Beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 3 (1996): 460–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43722717.

Are the Beatitudes about “reversals” or “rewards”? Mark Allan Powell answers that question with a confident “Yes.” According to Powell’s analysis, the Beatitudes devote one stanza to each subject with a concluding beatitude at the end. Warren Carter notes that he relies in large part on Powell’s analysis. It’s worth reading the original article for a deeper understanding.

This two-stanza poetic structure “marks the Beatitudes as one of the most carefully crafted passages in the Gospel. Unless no other option exists,” Powell argues, “Matthew’s readers should not be forced to decide between finding meaning for the individual verses and finding meaning for the collection as a whole” (page 461). Some middle ground in this regard would certainly help us as preachers, too.

Most scholars regard Matthew 5:3-10 as a unit to which Matthew 5:11-12 is added – at least in structural terms. As Powell notes, we change from the second person plural in the main body to the third person plural in the conclusion. The first unit has the bookends of “the kingdom of the heavens” to mark its limits. The verbs of the second unit are in the imperative rather than the indicative mood. So far, so good.

Now for the two stanzas. Verses three through six and verses seven through ten each contain precisely thirty-six words in the Greek. Verses three through six use a sort of alliteration. Each of the groups begins in Greek with the “p” sound. Warren Carter identifies them as the poor in spirit, the plaintive, the powerless, and those who pine for righteousness (page 131). I like that a lot! And both verses 6 and 10 end with a reference to righteousness, creating a parallelism of stanza endings.

“Acceptance of a two-stanza structure allows for a compromise solution to the reversal-reward debate,” Powell concludes, “the first stanza (5:3-6) speaks of reversals for the unfortunate, and the second stanza (5:7-10) describes rewards for the virtuous” (page 462). We’ll hold off on the structural role of verses eleven and twelve for now.

I think that, for the preacher, this analysis is most helpful. The Matthean author is not commending poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, and starving for righteousness. These are not the “Be-Happy Attitudes.” These challenging circumstances and states will be reversed when the Kin(g)dom comes in its fullness.

Part of the call of discipleship is to resist the powers that bring about these states and to begin to live as if they are real in the here and now. “The first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary. “They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” (page 131).

The Matthean author is, on the other hand, commending mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance when persecuted. These are behaviors that reflect the Kin(g)dom in its fullness. They are marks of the path of discipleship in the here and now. They are practices to be encouraged and formed.

“The remaining four, and the elaboration in vv. 11-12,” Carter writes, “concern human actions which, inspired by the experience of God’s reign in vv. 3-6, are honored or esteemed because they express God’s transforming reign until God’s completion of it” (page 131).

While I can understand Powell’s label for the first stanza as “resistance,” I’m not so sure about his label for the second stanza as “reward.” That will take some more reflection. But first, back to the structural analysis.

Powell argues that this two-stanza solution encourages the assumption that the beatitudes are really for the whole world and not just for the Church. That assumption is contested, and Powell goes on to wrestle with the evidence.

While Powell doesn’t include this in his analysis, I am wondering about Hebraic parallelism within the stanzas as well. What I’m wondering is if we can use lines in this poetry to interpret and expand each other? For example, there’s great similarity between “poor in spirit” and “meek.” I suspect that these ideas are intended to “rhyme” in the style of Hebrew poetry, such as some of the Psalms.

I think it’s interesting to look at the possible parallels between “mourning” and “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” It is likely that what’s being mourned is the continuing internal exile of God’s chosen as the various empires hold them captive. On the other hand, anyone who has grieved wonders how their loss is right, just, or fair.

In the next stanza, the parallels between the merciful and the peacemakers are not hard to see. It’s again interesting to wonder what parallels exist between the pure in heart and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Purity of heart may not be simply some sort of innocence or (as Kierkegaard said) the ability “to will one thing.” Perhaps it is the passion for God’s justice and the willingness to suffer in pursuit of that justice which marks real purity of heart for the disciples.

In any event, this sort of analysis reduces the pressure on the preacher to come up with a definition for each of the Beatitude classes. However, I would commend to you Powell’s discussion of the various terms in use here. That discussion is instructive. That being said, this is a poem that has within it resources for interpretation, if we know where to look.

Let me quote Powell’s summary of the first four beatitudes here.

“In short, all of the first four beatitudes speak of reversal of circumstances for those who are unfortunate. Contrary to popular homiletical treatments, being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness or justice are not presented here as characteristics that people should exhibit if they want to earn God’s favor. Rather, these are undesirable conditions that characterize no one when God’s will is done” (page 469).

Powell notes that the grammar makes something clear. The Matthean Jesus is using the third person plural in verses three through ten. This is about “those people,” not exclusively about the disciples. Jesus switches to a second person plural in verse eleven when he addresses the disciples directly. The Beatitudes, Powell argues, are not limited to the Church. These are not entrance requirements for the Kin(g)dom. These are the people for whom the coming Kin(g)dom will in fact be a blessing (page 470).

Now, on to the second stanza. Powell argues that these verses promise eschatological rewards to people who exhibit virtuous behavior. But, Powell says, the text is more specific than that. He suggests that “the people whom Jesus declares blessed in 5:7-10 are those who help to bring to reality the blessings promised to others in 5:3-6” (page 470). Once again, Powell has some detailed description and discussion of each of the verses in this stanza.

Powell offers a summary for the second stanza that parallels his summary of the first. “When God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, no one will have to be poor in spirit, mourn, be meek, or hunger and thirst for righteousness, but everyone who is ruled by God and does God’s will is merciful, pure in heart, committed to peacemaking, and willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness” (page 475).

Powell goes on to note the ironic connection between the stanzas. This connection, he suggests, “lies in the realization that those who practice the virtues described in the second stanza may on that account come to be numbered among those described in the first stanza on whose behalf these virtues are exercised” (pages 475-476). In Warren Carter’s terms, my voluntary action on behalf of the involuntarily marginalized may result in my joining them on the margins (please see the previous post).

That temporary change in status, however, does not change God’s goals for all people, according to Powell. “God’s rule sets things right,” he concludes, “for all oppressed people” (page 476). “Whether the coming of God’s kingdom is perceived as bringing reversal or reward depends only on the position that one occupies prior to its advent,” Powell writes, “God’s rule sets things right. Those for whom things have not been right are blessed by the change it brings, and those who have been seeking to set things right are blessed by the accomplishment of what they have sought” (page 477).

And what about the ninth beatitude in Matthew 5:11-12? While God’s rule is intended to set things right for all people, Jesus’ words are most directly applicable to the disciples themselves (and to all disciples in future generations). “Fundamental to all the beatitudes,” Warren Carter writes, “is the establishment of God’s justice or righteousness by removing oppressive societal relationships and inadequate distribution of resources” (page 131).

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part One)

I am working my way through Warren Carter’s massive and magisterial verse by verse 2000 commentary on Matthew’s gospel, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. It is a rich resource and worth both the time and the investment (not terribly expensive as such commentaries go).

I will refer to Carter’s work frequently for the rest of the year. I am grateful to have this (for me) new conversation. I may yet become a fan of the Matthean account, in spite of myself.

Carter and others suggest that this section of the Matthean account begins with Matthew 4:17-25, as Jesus launches his public ministry. Carter proposes that this section runs through Matthew 11:1 and includes the first of five teaching discourses, what we typically refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. Carter says this second section of the Matthean account answers the question as to how Jesus “carries out his mission to manifest God’s saving presence” (page 119).

This week we read and reflect on the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the verses most often described as “The Beatitudes.” Carter argues that the Sermon is not a comprehensive manual for discipleship. “Rather it offers a series of illustrations or ‘for examples’ or ‘case studies’ of life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign” (page 128).

“The sermon,” Carter continues, “is direction-pointing, more than giving commands, suggestive and illustrative rather than comprehensive” (page 128). I think that matters for our interpretation of the Beatitudes. The list in these verses, however we might analyze the structure, is not a comprehensive catalogue of blessed behaviors and situations.

While these behaviors and situations are perhaps diagnostic of what it means to be a disciple, they are not everything it means. In particular, Carter argues, “the sermon portrays and invites its audience to a voluntarily marginal way of life as a minority community” (page 128).

We encountered this concept of “voluntary marginality” when we read one of Carter’s articles for last Sunday’s text. Before we go on, I want to review and interrogate that concept a bit more.

“I suggest that the gospel legitimates a marginal identity and way of life for the community of disciples,” Carter writes in his introduction (page 43). Based on the work of a century of social scientists, Carter identifies several “useful perspectives” on this concept.

Marginal groups live in at least two worlds at once – the larger cultural context and their own group context. (page 45). The dominant center excludes the marginal group from the center of power (involuntary). Or the group excludes itself from that center “by its own ideology commitments and visions of reality” (voluntary). “To be marginal is to exist out of the center,” Carter writes, “on the edge, at the periphery in an antithetical relationship in which groups live in some opposition to the dominant or central reality (structure/anti-structure) (page 45).”

The marginal group can experience this life on the edge as positive. Life at the margins can allow that group to see its world and worldview as better than the world and worldview of the dominant center. “The group fosters and maintains its own commitments, practices, and worldview, as alternatives to those of the dominant or central world” (page 45).

This description of life on the edge informs how Carter reads the Matthean account. He sees the Matthean audience as a community of voluntary marginals. The group’s “communal life, centered on following Jesus, is its primary world. Its chosen marginality in relation to the larger society is ideological and social. It lives as participants in the wider society, but in tension with, over against, as an alternative to its dominant values and structures” (page 45).

The world and worldview of the Matthean community includes a number of identity, lifestyle, and practical characteristics. The community looks to Jesus to manifest God’s will. The community follows Jesus, who is crucified by the (Roman) empire. The community embodies and prays for the coming of God’s empire. God’s saving presence is manifested in Jesus, not the emperor.

The community criticizes imperial rule and calls it to account. The community lives as “slaves” of one another. The community is more egalitarian than the dominant culture. The community recognizes God’s sovereignty and tolerates but does not ratify some of the emperor’s “false” claims. The community relies on nonviolent resistance to the empire. The community responds to the needs of all without condition. The community uses wealth to bring well-being rather than luxury (pages 45-46).

“My thesis is that the gospel calls its audience to such an existence,” Carter argues. “It offers the audience a vision of life as voluntary marginals, confirms and strengthens those who already embrace such an existence, and challenges them and others to greater faithfulness” (page 46).

Carter’s detailed description fits well, I think, with the material we read in the Matthean account. I’m not sure how well this description translates from that account into the lives of my week-to-week audience. For the most part, I do not serve marginalized people, either involuntary or voluntary. Instead, I serve people who are firmly embedded in the dominant and central world and worldview.

That’s not, in and of itself, a critique of the people I serve. It’s also a description that applies completely to me and my life. The Matthean account surely critiques my place in and allegiance to that dominant and central world and worldview. But that’s not where I want to focus for the moment.

I could regard this status of “voluntary marginal” as a sort of goal to be achieved. I think that’s a problem. I am concerned that, as a member of the dominant culture, I am tempted to perform some variety of voluntary marginalization. I can join, for example, in protests, acts of resistance, and critiques of power without much cost to myself.

I can return to my place in the dominant culture any time I choose. I can easily take on this “voluntary marginal” status as a colonizing condescension. I can pat myself on the back for standing with the poor. I can congratulate myself for doing anti-racist work. And those actions don’t have to cost me much of anything, at least in the long run.

Being marginalized is a problem, not a hobby. It’s an outcome, not a goal.

Perhaps this is a too-subtle distinction to be useful. But it’s something I need to work out – at least for me. I think that what’s really “voluntary” in Carter’s description is the world and worldview we Christians are called to inhabit. When we respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship, we embrace any number of anti-dominant views and behaviors. The result of that embrace may well be real marginalization.

I will find myself on “the margins” whenever I stand firm with the values of the Kin(g)dom of God. I will be marginalized by those who do not hold such values. I don’t seek to be ostracized by family members, friends, or neighbors. But, for example, if I hold anti-racism as a Kin(g)dom value and challenge the racism of someone important to me, I am probably going to find myself excluded from that relationship.

Another example. Brenda and I adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet several years ago. As a result, we often find ourselves on the margins of social gatherings. We don’t always find something on the menu we would choose to eat. We often bring our own food or choose to eat when we get home. We aren’t choosing to be anti-social. But some of our worldview, lifestyle, and behavioral choices require us to abandon the dominant center. And others sometimes regard us as adversarial and judgmental, even if that’s not our intention.

I’m not suggesting that such dietary choices are part of Christian discipleship. That’s a conversation for another day. Nor am I suggesting that we are either heroic or persecuted as a result. But I am suggesting that our choices to embrace a particular ethical stance result in an experience of marginalization. I would add that nuance to Carter’s analysis of the Matthean account.

It’s clear from the text that responding to the call to discipleship can and does lead to (“good”) trouble. Members of the dominant cultural center may respond with insults and abuse. They may persecute the disciples. They may speak all manner of evil against the disciples, even if such accusations and indictments are false. “The empire,” as Carter says several times, “will certainly strike back…” (page 136).

In response, Jesus calls disciples to “rejoice and be really glad” (Matthew 5:12a, my translation). That will take a lot more unpacking. However, I would refer you for a moment to the other scriptural focus of my attention these days. Re-read Philippians 1:12-19 for a description of Paul’s imprisonment and some of the outcomes of that imprisonment.

Regardless of what’s happening, Paul says, Christ is proclaimed. And as a result, Paul rejoices. Indeed, Paul continues to rejoice, in spite of expectations to the contrary. There’s a strong adversative at the end of Philippians 1:18 that the NRSV translate as “and.” That’s not quite right. Continued rejoicing is not what Paul thinks the Philippians will expect at such a moment. But it is the discipleship behavior Paul wishes to model for them as they endure their own trials and persecutions.

Well, I’m not sure what to do with all that yet. But it’s a place to start.

Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part One)

I’m beginning to think about the message for a week from Sunday. I’ll post this Sunday’s message in a day or two. I’ll be reading Matthew 4:12-25. That text offers a great variety of events, perspectives, pronouncements and questions. I’m beginning with Matthew 4:18-22.

I would commend to you Warren Carter’s 1997 article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Carter reads the text from an “audience-oriented” perspective. That is, he seeks to discern the issues and assumptions of the Matthean audience based on what is hit or missed in the text.

Carter argues that the Matthean community is a “marginal minority” in the larger community of (most likely) Syrian Antioch in the late first century. While the community lives in this marginal status, the Matthean author does not advocate either withdrawal from or acquiescence to the larger culture. Instead, the Matthean community lives on the boundary between those two options.

“The narrative does not present perfect discipleship,” Carter argues, “but it does legitimate the experience of following Jesus as a difficult way of life in which one participates in prevailing societal values and power structures, but challenges them in the pursuit of an alternative existence which manifests the presence of ‘the reign of the heavens'” (page 74).

The Matthew text proposes, according to Carter, a life that involves both participation in local social and economic structures and “a life of wholehearted commitment to doing and obeying God’s will which prevents disciples from being whole-hearted participants in societal structures” (page 71). This is, therefore, a liminal position in and ambivalent attitude toward the larger culture and power structure.

The community I serve, however, is definitively not a “marginal minority” in the local community. Instead, this congregation is a locus of social power and networking. That’s a function of history, size, and context. The call from the Matthean text requires some additional reflection and discernment in our social setting.

One reminder in this regard is that we must always “read” our own social position as the current audience as well as the social position of the “original” audience. If we simply assume that we are in the same position as the original audience (or vice versa), we are certain to get our reading wrong. The Matthean community may have been marginalized and somewhat under the gun. The community I serve is not. That difference makes a big difference.

It’s not surprising that the Sermon on the Mount comes next in the Matthean narrative. The Sermon functions as a “manual” for the marginalized Matthean minority. In particular, I think the metaphors of “salt” and “light” help me to understand this. It would seem that being “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth” describe two different functions. Part of our mission discernment, I think, requires us to decide which element is the more needed one in our missional context.

In the one where I currently serve, I think we are called to emphasize the “light of the world” aspect of our serving role. I serve a community that is relatively resource-rich and has the opportunity to continue to do a great deal of good with those resources. We can take some real risks in our community without fear of a lot of pushback because in large part we are that community.

The danger is that we can confuse our mission with a comfortable and self-serving status quo. Instead of being the salt of the earth in our space, we likely need to have some salt rubbed into our tender places so we don’t get too comfortable with our privileged position. If the proper place of the disciple community is that of “voluntary marginalization” (see page 58), that is a challenge for a community like ours that has been at the center of the local system for as long as there has been a local system.

How do we discern the God-desired balance between salt and light in our contexts? How do we balance detachment from the demands of that context while maintaining healthy participation in it? This is the ongoing challenge presented by the Matthean texts.