Galilee

The radical truth of Christianity, which sets it off from all other world-faiths, is that God became a human being and not just any human being, but Jesus of Nazareth.  He was a Jew.  But he wasn’t just any Jew, he was a Galilean Jew.

 

Sunday after Easter

The Gospel of John actually ends with the twentieth chapter without mention of Galilee.  The twenty first chapter is an add on that corrects his story by describing a later meeting of  Jesus with his disciples at the sea of Tiberias, the Roman name for Galilee that, according to John, occurred sometime later.  There is no mention of Galilee in Mark or Luke.  Luke concludes his Gospel with Jesus and company going no farther than the little village of Bethany in the Jerusalem’s suburbs and reports Jesus’ ascension. And then in the Book of Acts, his sequel to his Gospel, we read this of Jesus: “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem…”

 

Matthew, the contrarian, reports three times where certain disciples of Jesus were instructed to meet the Lord in Galilee after His resurrection. The first was during the Passover meal that Jesus ate the night of his betrayal. He informed his disciples, saying, “After I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matthew 26:32). Three days later, on the day of Jesus’ resurrection when Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the empty tomb of Jesus, Matthew reports that the effusive angel told them to notify the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection, and to tell them exactly the same thing they were told three days earlier: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him” (28:7). Then, only three verses later, as the women were on their way to inform the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and the message given to them by the angel, Matthew says that Jesus appeared to them and said: “Rejoice!… Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (28:9-10). Then Matthew tells us that the disciples went to Galilee.  Why Galilee?  Why not Jerusalem?  Why not Judea? What is so significant about Galilee, at least to Matthew?  This is another reason that the Gospel’s can’t be harmonized.  I have to wonder why Luke goes out of his way to say that the disciples were to stay in Jerusalem while Matthew is clear about Jesus’ instructions for them to go to Galilee.

 

The radical truth of Christianity, which sets it off from all other world-faiths, is that God became a human being and not just any human being, but Jesus of Nazareth.  He was a Jew.  But he wasn’t just any Jew, he was a Galilean Jew. True, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, but his stay in Bethlehem was only a matter of weeks, if that.  He was never known as Jesus of Bethlehem, but Jesus of Nazareth. Nazareth, in Galilee, that was his real home. Matter of fact he was conceived in Nazareth.  He made Galilee the center of his life and work. Why Galilee?

Unlike Jerusalem and Judean Jews, for Galilean Jews their home land was a multicultural, multiracial region. Galileans were, in every sense of the word, a racially and culturally mixed people.  Galilee was surrounded and inhabited by Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and others.  This racial and cultural mix affected their language; Galileans were often ridiculed for not speaking correct Aramaic and Hebrew. Their speech betrayed them.  Remember how Peter was able to deny Jesus but he couldn’t deny being a Galilean:  “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean, your accent betrays you” (Mark 14:70; Matthew 26:73).  The terms “peasants,” “the common people,” the ‘am ha-arez —”the people of the land” —were all terms applied to Galileans, all of which carried the stigma of a religiously uneducated people.  The Talmud advises orthodox Judean Jews “No man may marry the daughter of the ‘am ha-arez, for they are like unclean animals, and their wives like reptiles, and it is concerning their daughters that Scripture says: ‘Cursed be he who lies with any kind of beast’ (Deut.  27:21).”

On the political side, Galilee was the headquarters for the majority of the revolutionary movements attempting to overthrow Roman oppression.  It was the home of Judas the Galilean, the founder of the Zealot Movement.  Tradition has it that about the time when Jesus was just a small boy in Nazareth, possibly 8-10 years of age, Judas the Galilean captured the weapons arsenal of Herod the Great and led a revolt against the Romans.  But Rome crushed the rebels, leveled the town, sold the women and children into slavery and crucified some two thousand Jews.  All of this took place merely four miles from Nazareth.  Can you imagine the impact that this must have made on Jesus’ young impressionable mind?    In Luke 13:1-3 Jesus relates the incident of Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices.  Notice the tone of compassion towards the Galileans in His words:  “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no.”  It could very well have been that some of these Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered were Jesus’ own playmates as a boy in Nazareth.  The point is that rebellion was so common in Galilee that the term “Galilean”  took on the dark political connotation of a possible association with Judas the Galilean.”  Remember the sign placed over Jesus’ head when he was crucified?  It read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” the connection to Galilean rebellious movements was very strong.  Here is another pretender to the throne; this is what Rome does to such!

Pedigree was also involved.  There was this notion that only Israelites of pure ancestry made up the pure Israel.   After the exile, genealogies became important in order to separate pure families from those racially mixed.  The books of Ezra, Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles, written after the exile, are all filled with genealogical lists.    In the post-exilic period, these lists were important in order to determine who was a pure Israelite.  A person could not be a priest unless they could prove their ancestral purity to at least five generations.  No person could hold a public office who was not of pure ancestry  nor would they associate in court or in public office with persons whose ancestry was of doubt.  Proof of pure ancestry was important for a woman to marry into a priestly family.  Every Israelite knew his immediate ancestors and could point to which of the twelve tribes he belonged.  If the Messiah were to come from any place it would be from Judea, from Bethlehem, from Jerusalem—  but not Galilee! When Nicodemus stood up in the Council and defended Jesus, even he was labeled as a Galilean: “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee!” (John 7:40-52).

Galilee was the land of the rejected, the despised, the outcasts and foreigners.  It was here where people, wanting to escape from the puritans of Judea could flee into anonymity and obscurity.  This is where Jesus found Mary Magdalene and healed her of demon possession.  Their racial and cultural mix and their constant contact with gentiles and heathens, resulted in Galileans being despised and rejected by the “pure” Jews of Jerusalem who saw themselves as the sole heirs of cultural and religious purity.   As far as the Jews were concerned, nothing good could ever come out of Galilee, except a bunch of, rabble-rousers, half-breeds, ruthless, unrighteous people who despise the teachings of God.  Thus Galileans were regarded as fools, heretics and rebels.   No wonder Nathaniel was shocked to hear that the Messiah was coming from Galilee.  It was the last place from which one would expect the Messiah to come. Remember his reply to Phillip?:  “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-46).

There’s a huge change in how Jesus addresses his followers in this text.  We of the Religious Society of Friends hang our hats on the passage in John 14 where Jesus says “I no longer call you servants (or slaves) but friends”  and the reason given is that he had told his followers everything, making them equals in that they would love one another.  But the shift is even greater in this passage in Matthew.  He tells the women to go tell “my brothers” – this is ghetto talk, barrio talk… this isn’t ancestry.com, it’s brotherhood from sharing the same cultural realities.

Galileans, by their racial and cultural mixture, were not only deprived of earthly social positions, they were predestined to hell!  Yet, when one looks at the attitude of John the Baptist and Jesus, they both disdained the preoccupation with ancestral and racial purity.  When the Pharisees insisted they were the children of Abraham and had Abraham as their father, John tells them that it is not ancestral purity that matters in the Kingdom of God, but repentance  (Matthew 3:9).  And Jesus declares to the religious leaders, that it is belief in the Son of God,  and not in being descents of Abraham, that would save them (John 8:36).

The human scandal of God’s way does not begin with the cross, but with the historical-cultural incarnation of  Jesus, in Galilee.  That God chose to become a Galilean underscores the great paradox of the incarnation in which God becomes the despised and lowly of the world and identifies with them and becomes one with them.

In Mark 1:9, 14-15, we read that Galilee is not only the place from  which Jesus comes to be baptized, but the place into  which he returns to begin his ministry.  One of the challenges faced by persons of  minority groups, or people that have experienced a great deal of powerlessness in society, is that once they leave the barrio or the ghetto, no one wants to go back.  We’ve seen this with international students from third world countries sent abroad to get training to enrich their homeland only to choose not to return. The push for upward mobility is too strong, and people no longer want to identify with their roots, their people. And here is the reason for the importance for Jesus’ brothers to meet him in Galilee–somebody has to go back and tell them that there is hope.  Jesus comes from that ghetto, he is the quintessential “homeboy”!  Out of Galilee, the place of the nobodies, comes the Somebody of God, Jesus Christ, who goes back into Galilee to form a community of hope, a community consisting of the children of God.

After Matthew tells us that the keepers of the tomb reported their experience with the angel to the religious authorities and are given hush money he concludes his Gospel with this: Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

Here is the great commission. And the reality of to whom Jesus’ brothers were first called to go can’t be missed.  That’s were Jesus is and where we will meet Jesus, in Galilee among the Galileans.

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Easter 2015

 

…interestingly enough, even after two thousand years we can experience what those two women experienced in the cemetery on that first Easter morning.  We can, even today, experience the fellowship that his followers enjoyed on the Galilean shore.  The stories recounted in the other Gospels of Jesus coming among his followers – can still be ours today.  The living, aroused, Jesus is among us and as he said, is with us until the end of the age.  That’s the promise of Easter.

 

Easter

Scholarship suggests that the resurrection we celebrate today occurred on the morning of April 5th in the year 33. That’s based on fixing the crucifixion at 3: p.m. on April 3rd in the year 33.  The earliest account of Jesus’ resurrection is reported by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, written from Ephesus in the year 56, some twenty three years later. All of the Gospel accounts are written even later. The point is, there are no eye witness accounts.  At best what we have preserved are stories that circulated within the wider fellowship of the followers of ‘the way’.

 

You recall that the women in Mark’s version go to the tomb wondering about who will roll the stone away.  In Luke and John the women find the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body missing. Matthew’s account of Easter morning starts similarly to John’s.  As soon as daylight permits, the text actually says “at the end of the Sabbath”, the two Marys begin their trek to see the tomb…and from that moment on Matthew’s story takes a very different course.    Matthew goes for the spectacular. It’s thunder and lightning, earthquake, wind and fire all rolled together. It is the best that nature can muster in response to the arrival of an angel of the Lord.

 

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

 

Matthew answers the question that the women in Mark’s version were asking “who will roll the stone away for us?”  The angel, that’s who.  And he not only rolls it back, he sits on it.  His is a commanding presence, shinning like lightning itself.  Those commissioned by the authorities, the Greek calls them ‘keepers’, to ensure that Jesus’ followers didn’t steal the body and then claim that the promised resurrection occurred, are rendered senseless, dumb-founded – shock and awe at the sight of the angel that rolled the stoned away and were completely shaken by the earthquake.

 

Matthew allows us to imagine what happens about the time the women arrive at the sepulcher.  The women were afraid.  Which is the first thing the angel says to them: But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid;…”  Yeah, right.  The commanding presence of this brilliant angel looking down at them from his perch atop the stone and they aren’t supposed to be afraid.   To complete the picture you have to imagine Mary Magdalene and the other Mary standing in front of the open tomb with the dumb struck keepers looking up at the angel. How different this is from the one young man in Mark and the two men who Luke says ‘stood by’.  And you’ll recall from reading John’s version, on Mary’s second trip to the tomb there are two angels in white sitting quietly where Jesus’ body had been laid.

 

The angel continued:  “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.  And he had said. You have to think back to Matthew 16 to when Jesus had tried to prepare his disciples for what lay ahead.  He told them that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  “He has been raised, as he said” the angel told them.  I wonder whether, in all the Passover activity and then the legal proceedings and then being witnesses to Jesus’ excruciatingly painful crucifixion that they had had time to reflect on what they had been told weeks or before.  But the angel knew.  He knew why they had come to the cemetery and he was exuberant in telling them the good news “he has been raised…”  A better Greek translation is ‘he has been roused’.

 

And what of us, do we, like those two Marys, still come to Easter morning expecting to find an entombed Jesus?  That’s not where Jesus is to be found.

Wrapping up his colloquy the angel says Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

 

This is the Easter story.  It was the message of the effusive angel “He has been roused from the dead.”  There’s a great story that still needs to be nudged out of the text but it isn’t the Easter story. It’s the story for next week. The Easter story is simple but is simply beyond my capacity to understand.  My brain gets in the way.

 

When we were in truck driving school and struggling to learn how to snug the DOT bumper of a 53 foot long trailer up against a dock our trainer said, ‘just follow it back’.  What?  Sitting in that high seat, staring at two rear view mirrors and the dock in the distance and he’s telling me to get out of my head and trust my instincts and allow the trailer to lead me.  It wasn’t a matter of belief, that’s a head trip.   It was simply a matter of letting off the clutch.

 

Easter’s like that.  Jesus was roused the Greek text says.  He was crucified, dead and buried, as the Apostle’s Creed confesses but God didn’t leave him there.  He didn’t leave his message there.  He didn’t leave his mission – not at all. Matthew says So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 

 

During the Passover meal before the events of the last three days when Jesus ate the night of His betrayal, he informed his disciples, saying, “After I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”  We will explore that next week.  Now, the serious challenge of Easter is no different than it was that morning in the garden, but, I think, quite a bit more difficult for us. We really don’t know how to get out of our heads, we don’t know how to extricate ourselves from geography and geometry.  We prefer to concoct theories about how things happen and then create belief statements that we repeat and ask others to repeat.  You can’t believe it but death wasn’t an end and we get to celebrate it’s new beginnings.

 

No one witnessed the resurrection – not even the struck dumb Roman keepers – But the witnesses that are most important are the time tested stories of people whose lives have been interrupted by the aroused Jesus.  Matthew tells us that the first two were the two Marys.  “Jesus met them and said ‘surprise, it’s me’ – that’s a lot closer to the Greek than ‘greetings’.  Later Matthew tells of a shore side breakfast and a commissioning. The other Gospels are similar in that regard.

 

The last words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel are these: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  We can’t comprehend it. But, interestingly enough, even after two thousand years we can experience what those two women experienced in the cemetery on that first Easter morning.  We can, even today, experience the fellowship that his followers enjoyed on the Galilean shore.  The stories recounted in the other Gospels of Jesus coming among his followers – can still be ours today.  The living, aroused, Jesus is among us and as he said, is with us until the end of the age.  That’s the promise of Easter.

 

 

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What’s with the Donkeys?

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

Matthew, in the twenty-first chapter, relates the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The story on which Palm Sunday is based occurred about two thousand years ago. When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew is at great pains to place Jesus’ entering Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in the very center of Israel’s history and tradition. In his telling the story he quotes part of Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey,…. That Jesus is mounted on a donkey was no small thing. Now in our time we think of the donkey as an humble beast of burden and an animal of industry, clearly not a fit animal for any important assignment. Of course reality is that for the rough terrain of the eastern Mediterranean it was much better suited than the horse.

One of the most important stories in Jewish tradition is called “The Binding of Isaac”. It is found in Genesis 22:3: So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. The place to which Abraham was commanded to take Isaac ostensibly to sacrifice his late in life miracle son was an elongated north-south stretch of mountainous wilderness known as Mount Moriah. When it occurred, four thousand years ago, the location meant nothing to the actors in this intense drama that ultimately contrasted a single God of abundance and grace with the blood thirsty gods of Caanan. But we know that that place in the wilderness would, in time, become the seat of David’s government and of Israel’s worship, the home to Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple, the old city of Jerusalem. The fact that Abraham was mounted on donkey is no little thing in Israel’s salvation history.

The most important Biblical reference to a donkey is found in the tenth commandment which warns the Israelites to not covet their neighbor’s donkey. Had you ever noticed? I’ve just got to ask that of all the things in the world we might be tempted to covet, would it be our neighbor’s donkey? I dare not touch the question of whether it was a man’s wife or his donkey which is of greater importance. According to Jewish teaching, when the tenth commandment speaks of not coveting either another man’s donkey or his wife this has everything to do with seeking knowledge from God. The Jews recognized that a man’s wife represents a spiritual medium. In the reference to a donkey the Israelites are being warned not to seek messages from foreign prophets.

Probably the most famous donkey in the Old Testament is the one ridden by Balaam. You remembe the story. While on his way to curse the Children of Israel, Balaam and his donkey passed between two vineyards. Standing in their way was an angel with a drawn sword, but only the donkey was able see him. In an attempt to save his master, the donkey turned from the path and crushed Balaam’s foot against a stone wall. Balaam, oblivious to the angel’s presence, began to beat the donkey and at this point the donkey began to speak. By crushing Balaam’s foot the donkey was attempting to make Balaam aware of the presence of the messenger of God. The donkey of Balaam both speaks and carries the prophet on his back. The donkey is both “a voice” as well the means of delivery for God’s messengers. Of course the good news is that after the donkey speaks, Balaam is able “to see” the angel.

There are some other donkey stories. There is the message of salvation in the story whre Joseph sends wheat to his father from Egypt on the backs of donkeys. And when the Syrian general, Naaman, returned home he took dirt from the land of Israel on the backs of two donkeys we have a story about the importance of the land of Israel. I particularly like the story of Saul, before he was anointed king, He was actually on a mission to find his father’s donkeys. On that excursion Saul meets Samuel and his life is changed forever. It reinforces the connection between donkeys and communications from God. And of special importance for today, three thousand years ago, a thousand years before the time of Jesus, King Solomon entered what becomes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to assume the throne of David, the very same piece of turf and, wouldn’t you know it, on the back of a donkey. The donkey again is the medium by which messages from God arrive.

Mounted on a donkey Jesus wasn’t just entering Jerusalem to cheering crowds. It’s too easy for us to envision an historical event in which the whole of Jerusalem lined the streets, thronging the new Messiah. What the authors of the Bible fail to tell us is that on the same day, while Jesus, mounted on a donkey, enters Jerusalem near the north entrance to the outer court of the Temple Pilate is parading through one of the main gates of the city on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers.

There were two parades that day. The first and by far the biggest consisted of those who wanted to curry favor with the political, religious and military power. The other crowd is singing a pilgrims’ chant of “Hosanna” from Psalm 118:25-26. It is an acclamation of praise. “Son of David”, and “He who comes in the name of the Lord”, are both messianic titles. “Hosanna in the highest” is equivalent to “Glory to God in the highest.” Tradition doesn’t tell us what the other crowd was singing but you can bet it wasn’t “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord”

It is important, however, not to cut story from its moorings so that it becomes a triumphalist celebration. Two thousand years before Jesus Abraham rode his donkey into the wilderness of Mount Moriah in obedience to God. A thousand years before Jesus Solomon, astraddle a donkey, entered David’s enclave to assume the throne of Israel. Matthew tells us that two thousand years ago, just like Solomon and Abraham before him, Jesus approaches that exact same piece of real estate mounted on a donkey.

In contrast to Pilate Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem as if he were a glorious king seeking the adulation of the populous, nor does he come as a conquering king seeking vengeance. Jesus comes in peace; he comes to bring peace between the Creator and his creation; he comes to break down the barriers that exist between humankind; he comes that we may find a peace that passes all understanding. Matthew has the crowd proclaiming Jesus as the king in Jerusalem who has come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:11). This is not a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”: things are going to change, and in the biggest of ways, when Jesus is king — starting with how kings rule. Matthew also wants people to know that when he says that Jesus is king, we’re not talking about kingship as it’s usually conceived, or kingship as it’s usually used by those who have it. Jesus is a king who restores the glory of God’s people, but not with military victories. Jesus is not like other kings. Jesus did not come to be “king of the hill,” but to fulfill our longing that, as we find in Isaiah 40 “every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level,and the rough places a plain.

Isn’t that what the writer of the Gospel According to John meant when he wrote that Jesus said to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s not that Jesus is uninterested in what happens on earth. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus didn’t come to tell us to give up on the earth, any more than he came to rule it like Pilate. Jesus came to redeem it. Jesus is king, but his kingship is not of Pilate’s world.Jesus didn’t come to take over Pilate’s system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates of this world. When we confess Jesus as Lord – not in some distant world or only in the future, but of all that is, and of here and now – we are proclaiming the Good News. To affirm the vision of the kingdom and to live out its hopes in the present means championing alternatives to existing structures of oppression and authority. And it is possible, with Jesus as Lord, for all those with power to use it as he used his, for the vision of the prophets to find flesh among us who proclaim Christ the king.

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

 

Matthew, in the twenty-first chapter, relates the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The story on which Palm Sunday is based occurred about two thousand years ago. When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew is at great pains to place Jesus’ entering Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in the very center of Israel’s history and tradition. In his telling the story he quotes part of Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey,…. That Jesus is mounted on a donkey was no small thing. Now in our time we think of the donkey as an humble beast of burden and an animal of industry, clearly not a fit animal for any important assignment. Of course reality is that for the rough terrain of the eastern Mediterranean it was much better suited than the horse.

One of the most important stories in Jewish tradition is called “The Binding of Isaac”. It is found in Genesis 22:3: So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. The place to which Abraham was commanded to take Isaac ostensibly to sacrifice his late in life miracle son was an elongated north-south stretch of mountainous wilderness known as Mount Moriah. When it occurred, four thousand years ago, the location meant nothing to the actors in this intense drama that ultimately contrasted a single God of abundance and grace with the blood thirsty gods of Caanan. But we know that that place in the wilderness would, in time, become the seat of David’s government and of Israel’s worship, the home to Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple, the old city of Jerusalem. The fact that Abraham was mounted on donkey is no little thing in Israel’s salvation history.

The most important Biblical reference to a donkey is found in the tenth commandment which warns the Israelites to not covet their neighbor’s donkey. Had you ever noticed? I’ve just got to ask that of all the things in the world we might be tempted to covet, would it be our neighbor’s donkey? I dare not touch the question of whether it was a man’s wife or his donkey which is of greater importance. According to Jewish teaching, when the tenth commandment speaks of not coveting either another man’s donkey or his wife this has everything to do with seeking knowledge from God. The Jews recognized that a man’s wife represents a spiritual medium. In the reference to a donkey the Israelites are being warned not to seek messages from foreign prophets.

Probably the most famous donkey in the Old Testament is the one ridden by Balaam. You remember the story. While on his way to curse the Children of Israel, Balaam and his donkey passed between two vineyards. Standing in their way was an angel with a drawn sword, but only the donkey was able see him. In an attempt to save his master, the donkey turned from the path and crushed Balaam’s foot against a stone wall. Balaam, oblivious to the angel’s presence, began to beat the donkey and at this point the donkey began to speak. By crushing Balaam’s foot the donkey was attempting to make Balaam aware of the presence of the messenger of God. The donkey of Balaam both speaks and carries the prophet on his back. The donkey is both “a voice” as well the means of delivery for God’s messengers. Of course the good news is that after the donkey speaks, Balaam is able “to see” the angel.

There are some other donkey stories. There is the message of salvation in the story where Joseph sends wheat to his father from Egypt on the backs of donkeys. And when the Syrian general, Naaman, returned home he took dirt from the land of Israel on the backs of two donkeys we have a story about the importance of the land of Israel. I particularly like the story of Saul, before he was anointed king, He was actually on a mission to find his father’s donkeys. On that excursion Saul meets Samuel and his life is changed forever. It reinforces the connection between donkeys and communications from God. And of special importance for today, three thousand years ago, a thousand years before the time of Jesus, King Solomon entered what becomes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to assume the throne of David, the very same piece of turf and, wouldn’t you know it, on the back of a donkey. The donkey again is the medium by which messages from God arrive.

Mounted on a donkey Jesus wasn’t just entering Jerusalem to cheering crowds. It’s too easy for us to envision an historical event in which the whole of Jerusalem lined the streets, thronging the new Messiah. What the authors of the Bible fail to tell us is that on the same day, while Jesus, mounted on a donkey, enters Jerusalem near the north entrance to the outer court of the Temple Pilate is parading through one of the main gates of the city on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers.

There were two parades that day. The first and by far the biggest consisted of those who wanted to curry favor with the political, religious and military power. The other crowd is singing a pilgrims’ chant of “Hosanna” from Psalm 118:25-26. It is an acclamation of praise. “Son of David”, and “He who comes in the name of the Lord”, are both messianic titles. “Hosanna in the highest” is equivalent to “Glory to God in the highest.” Tradition doesn’t tell us what the other crowd was singing but you can bet it wasn’t “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord”

It is important, however, not to cut story from its moorings so that it becomes a triumphalist celebration. Two thousand years before Jesus Abraham rode his donkey into the wilderness of Mount Moriah in obedience to God. A thousand years before Jesus Solomon, astraddle a donkey, entered David’s enclave to assume the throne of Israel. Matthew tells us that two thousand years ago, just like Solomon and Abraham before him, Jesus approaches that exact same piece of real estate mounted on a donkey.

In contrast to Pilate Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem as if he were a glorious king seeking the adulation of the populous, nor does he come as a conquering king seeking vengeance. Jesus comes in peace; he comes to bring peace between the Creator and his creation; he comes to break down the barriers that exist between humankind; he comes that we may find a peace that passes all understanding. Matthew has the crowd proclaiming Jesus as the king in Jerusalem who has come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:11). This is not a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”: things are going to change, and in the biggest of ways, when Jesus is king — starting with how kings rule. Matthew also wants people to know that when he says that Jesus is king, we’re not talking about kingship as it’s usually conceived, or kingship as it’s usually used by those who have it. Jesus is a king who restores the glory of God’s people, but not with military victories. Jesus is not like other kings. Jesus did not come to be “king of the hill,” but to fulfill our longing that, as we find in Isaiah 40 “every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Isn’t that what the writer of the Gospel According to John meant when he wrote that Jesus said to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s not that Jesus is uninterested in what happens on earth. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus didn’t come to tell us to give up on the earth, any more than he came to rule it like Pilate. Jesus came to redeem it. Jesus is king, but his kingship is not of Pilate’s world. Jesus didn’t come to take over Pilate’s system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates of this world. When we confess Jesus as Lord – not in some distant world or only in the future, but of all that is, and of here and now – we are proclaiming the Good News. To affirm the vision of the kingdom and to live out its hopes in the present means championing alternatives to existing structures of oppression and authority. And it is possible, with Jesus as Lord, for all those with power to use it as he used his, for the vision of the prophets to find flesh among us who proclaim Christ the king.

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

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Sheep and Goats

I can’t believe all the opinions I found about the goodness of sheep and the badness of goats trying to answer the question “What does Jesus have against goats?” I’ve got an answer. Nothing. According to the parable the Son of Man is not sorting sheep or goats. He is sorting people. They are simply divided the way a shepherd does. It’s a literary device. A simile. Through out the rest of the parable it is about those on the right or the left. You might recall in Exodus 12, when the original instructions for Passover were offered people were told they should choose a lamb of either a sheep or a goat.

Premised on how God has welcomed us, in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, hospitality is presented as central to Christians’ life together. Today our culture reduces ‘hospitality’ to friendliness and private entertaining and with regard to the stranger, the indigent and the powerless, we have foisted this ancient obligation onto government and not for profit programs. Has genuine hospitality become a lost art? Christian hospitality remains a public and economic reality by which God re-creates us through the places and people we are given. Recovering this ancient tradition is essential in a world that has grown terrifyingly defensive and harsh.

Sarah Dylan Breuer says that all are invited to experience ‘salvation’ without precondition. And then goes on to answer the question “… what is salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw salvation not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife. Salvation is something that starts today, and it’s about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus’ view and Paul’s, that’s not just any community, it’s a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God’s word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers. Some modern translations have mangled that by employing the word “believers” for seeing the body of Christ of consisting of brothers and sisters. In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus’ invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God’s people. The invitation to join the community is issued to everyone. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to which our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus’ invitation. That’s the invitation issued to us today. That’s the vision we’re called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world.

That’s the challenge of this parable spoken by Jesus.

Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

As this parable is structured several things are important to acknowledge. Jesus sets this parable in terms of the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the eternal life of the soul with which the Jews of his day were familiar. It is set in the Kingdom of God, sometime after earthly life has concluded and all is said and done. There is no opportunity for any do-over or changes. There is no opportunity to make a defense or offer a list of reasons, excuses or alibis. The Son of Man does a basic sort of all humankind. Sheep on his right. Goats on his left.

I can’t believe all the opinions I found about the goodness of sheep and the badness of goats trying to answer the question “What does Jesus have against goats?” I’ve got an answer. Nothing. According to the parable the Son of Man is not sorting sheep or goats. He is sorting people. They are simply divided the way a shepherd does. It’s a literary device. A simile. Through out the rest of the parable it is about those on the right or the left. You might recall in Exodus 12, when the original instructions for passover were offered people were told they should choose a lamb of either a sheep or a goat.

The one of the throne pronounces sentences. To those on the right he says: ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’… And to those on the left he says ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;’. That seems awful unfair to us. We want to think that judgment would be a personal thing based on what we believe or our achievements or our intentions. That’s clearly not the picture Jesus paints in the parable.

In both cases the standard by which people were judged was either for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ or , for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Either you did nor did not respond to the needs of ‘The Son of Man’. That’s pretty simple.

Both neither those on the left or on the right have any conscious recollection of when they had or had not met the test. Both ask the same question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison…?” Why was there no recall? Because the Son of Man wasn’t in the divine throne room sitting in judgment and wearing his robe. He was out in the world identifying with the indigent, unclean, struggling, mentally challenged, anxious, vulnerable, incarcerated, hungry, homeless and powerless. “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The least of these…

Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malnutrition in infancy in Africa, or have his hate kindled by living among the displaced being brutalized and depersonalized in a refugee camp knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl have her life taken away in the sex trade or by spending her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffering when the water she carries is causes illness? If we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn’t do for this family was what we did and didn’t do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners–the least of our world?

This invitation is not for after we die — then the chance to act is gone. It’s an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And, please, it’s not about avoiding punishment. It’s interesting to ask of his parable whether there were those on the left who had great intentions but failed to follow through and were there truly nasty people on the right who had unintentionally done the right thing. And what about this? Doesn’t this free us up from making decisions about who deserves our assistance and who doesn’t because they are in dire straits because of their own poor choices? I like the notion that those on the right didn’t do what they had done for praise or recognition nor did they do what they did out of obligation. Evidently they saw a need and met it, like George Mallory said of his climbing Everest, because it was there. There is no divine micromanagement of our lives.

What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus’ invitation not just to come into the House of God’s chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God’s just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. It is in such community that we become aware of the needs of others. In Paul’s words, Christ’s risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. The goal is not justice. Justice alone leaves no room for mercy and grace. It’s hospitality. It’s sharing the extravagant grace of our creator. Do you want a taste of that? It’s there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

 

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I Gotta Robe, You’ve Gotta Robe…

Tepid, lukewarm, indifferent, cool, halfhearted, apathetic, unenthusiastic, perfunctory,  noncommittal…those are words to describe the one who was ejected. Too un-involved to slip on a party robe.  Could our response to the gracious invitation of God become jaded that way?  Oh, that’s a different word with synonyms like tired, bored and lacking enthusiasm.  Of course that is what typically follows having too much of something.  Imagine, having too much of God’s hospitality and grace.

Matthew 22:

The background for our lesson today is pretty heady.  Jesus had just chased the money changers out of the Temple and then had withdrawn to Bethany for the night.  The next morning he returned and the Gospel reads: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  The issue of authority continues up until today to be a huge issue for the professionally religious. But, before  Jesus answers he challenges them to answer his question first. “From where did the Baptism of John come, from heaven or men?”  Their answer was that they couldn’t tell, which was a way to cover up the fact the whatever they said would be used against them in the court of public opinion.

What follows are a couple of pretty brutal parables focused on the religious authorities. In one two sons were called to work in the father’s vineyard… one said he wouldn’t and did the other said he would and then didn’t. He chastised the leaders for their answer about which of  the two sons was the most righteous.   The next story was about those who operated a man’s vineyard on shares and in refusing to recompense the owner beat and killed the man sent to collect and then killed the owner’s son.  He asked the chief priests and elders what was required of the law.  Of course he used their answer to further show their hypocrisy. And that’s when they decided that Jesus was too much for them and that he needed to be incarcerated.  But, just like their unwillingness to answer Jesus’  first question to them, out of fear of the general public in that many considered Jesus a prophet, they did nothing.

Our  text takes up there.  Our modern translations simply say that Jesus, again, spoke to them in parables. Our word parable comes from the Greek  παραβολή (parabolē), meaning “comparison, illustration, analogy.”  It was the name Greek  rhetoricians gave to an illustration in the form of a brief fictional narrative. This one is not on the list of favorite New Testament parables….

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The king’s invitation list had been drawn up carefully and circulated. When all was prepared the king sent messengers to call those who had been invited. To a person, those he wanted to be there refused to come.  He sent different servants those who had been invited to say the time to come was at hand, explaining all he had done to make things ready. Making light of it some went to work others actually treated the king’s servants shamefully and actually killed them.  Angered, the king sent the army to kill the worst of the lot and destroy their city.

The banquet was ready and those the king preferred to attend had proven themselves unworthy of his hospitality.  That’s were that well rehearsed line is spoken “9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

We’d really like it if Jesus’ parable ended there.  In the face of rejection by the preferred the banquet hall was filled with those caught up in a status free sweep of the community, the good and bad alike.  Were it to end there it would be this great story about the King’s universal  generosity, hospitality and welcome to all. In Luke’s version the first people caught up in the drag net were the poor, maimed and blind and lame but not being enough to fill the banquet hall the servants were told ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in that my house may be filled.’

That’s not how Matthew’s version ends.  You have to wonder what Matthew had in mind when he concluded the parable the way he did.

The banquet hall is packed with people not originally invited.  And one person in the whole gathering was not wearing a wedding garment.  When the king asked how he got in without the garment he didn’t know what to say.  The king had him tossed out.  Only one out of all those who packed the banquet hall was expelled.

In trying to make sense of this, Fred Craddock, some years ago, suggested that Matthew,  in writing the conclusion to Jesus’ parable, was aware of how easily grace can melt into permissiveness and wanted to warn the church against losing the distinction between accepting all persons and condoning all behavior.  All are invited to God’s banquet but there is more required than just having a belly button.

Another person wrote that she couldn’t sleep nights after reading this parable until she learned that it was the responsibility of the host to provide the wedding garment. The failure of the one tossed from the party was that he didn’t put on what had been provide him.

In Rom 13:12 the Apostle Paul wrote: The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  In Ephesians six he counseled his readers to “Put on the full armor of God “ and then described each piece. But in Jesus’ parable in Matthew this wasn’t armor, armor for protection or of illumination.  This amounted to simply slipping into a robe that was provided.  It was part of being fully engaged in the celebration.  Coming in and consuming the banquet wasn’t just about good nutrition – it was about celebrating the king’s son’s wedding.

Tepid, lukewarm, indifferent, cool, halfhearted, apathetic, unenthusiastic, perfunctory,  noncommittal…those are words to describe the one who was ejected. Too un-involved to slip on a party robe.  Could our response to the gracious invitation of God become jaded that way?  Oh, that’s a different word with synonyms like tired, bored and lacking enthusiasm.  Of course that is what typically follows having too much of something.  Imagine, having too much of God’s hospitality and grace.

There’s a bit of African American spirituality that seems appropriate. It goes:

I’ve got a robe, you’ve got a robe, All of God’s children got a robe;
When I get to Heaven, goin’ to put on my robe, Goin’ to shout all over God’s Heav’n.

Refrain:
Heav’n, Heav’n, Ev’rybody talking ’bout heav’n ain’t going there,
Heav’n, Heav’n, Goin’ to shout all over God’s Heav’n.

 

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The Evil Eye

In a culture built on “rights” and “justice,” there seems to be little room for generosity and abundance. No one can receive more than others. Envy rules. In this the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God are revealed.

Matthew 20:1-16

The “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” is unique to Matthew.  One traditional interpretation of this parable has been to focus on the very last verse where it says “the last will be first…,” and insist on understanding the parable as a statement about the gift of eternal life as the ultimate equalizer, that will be granted to all “laborers in the vineyard.”  But there may be a more practical application that might require a different title.

From our contemporary context, this parable brings to mind issues of immigration and daily laborers. What is “fair” for those who work among us as migrant workers or labor in the various service industries which supporting our highly educated professional class and our technologically-driven economic complex? And, what is it to us if the minimum wage rises to assist those workers on the lowest end of our economic system?

It is fascinating that even after two thousand years this parable in Matthew 20 still arouses indignation in some people.

20“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

To cut to the chase Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is like this very responsible landowner.  More than anyone else he is critically aware that he can’t make wine from grapes on the vine.  He knows that he is in business.  He negotiates a usual days wage and sends those who were available out into his vineyard. He goes to the labor pool at nine but this time he doesn’t  negotiate with them he simply says “I’ll pay you what’s right!” He is desperate for more hands and he needs them now.  He does the same at noon and three.  Too much sun, to much rain, too little sun, too little rain and too long ripe on the vines cuts into his income.  He hires. He hires every available pair of hands to pick his grapes.  We shouldn’t miss the reality that his is not the only vineyard in the valley that needs pickers at the same time.  At this point he is in competition with the other wine producers who need the same help at the same time.  He is desperate. He goes out at five, with only a hour left to work.  I also think he may be thinking ahead, planning the work that’s needed the next day.  He needs all the hands he can get. But beyond that this vineyard owner is part of the fabric of the Jewish society in which Jesus lives and teaches.  Derived from the written and oral Torah there is a standard covenant of employer/employee relations from which Conservative Jews and Conservative Jewish institutions operate.  It is a commitment to treat their workers with dignity and respect; pay their employees a living wage and not knowingly put them at risk of injury or death. Employees, in turn, are expected to do their best work and treat their employers with the same dignity and respect due them.  This is a special relationship in which both employers and employees feel that their work in ‘sacred’ and they are involved in a partnership with God in the work of creation.In Leviticus and Deuteronomy the Torah specifies that one must pay a worker on the day that he completes his work. In Jesus’ parable the manager is sent out to pay the daily laborers – not for the hours they worked but a day’s wages.  The underlying principle is that a day worker needs a day’s wage to meet his family’s needs.  Paying less than that leaves the worker and his family destitute.   The Torah recognizes that often a worker is in urgent need of his wages; he needs to feed himself and/or his family. To postpone paying him may cause him distress and, in some cases, death.   In addition, by keeping this patter we train ourselves to be compassionate and kind. This, in turn, prepares us to accept God’s goodness to us.

This is a hard concept for us.  Jesus’ parable holds up for all to see a responsible business person. We are expected to live our values in the ways in which we care for members of our communities, in our choices about how to spend time and money, and in other aspects of our communal lives.  Conservative Jews do that because they believe that their commitments to individuals within their communities, their children, and to the principles of their system are not theoretical constructs. Low-wage workers are members of our communities.  If we are to live our values in our business practices, we will be considerate in determining how much to pay these employees and how to treat them.

Did you catch that last Sunday evening on Downtown Abbey when the Jewish family was asked whether it was hard for them, being Jewish, to get good employees?  The response was, “We are Jews and we pay well.”

That’s a pretty high bar.  Jesus started his story saying that the landowner and vineyard operator was like the Kingdom of God. In that, he meets his obligations and provides a model for others in the community.  Every worker gets a daily wage, not based on the hours worked but based on their need.

Then there are the grumblers.  Speaking of those who were paid a day’s wage but had worked fewer hours they said to the landowner “you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” And yes, that is exactly what he had done.  He paid each and everyone a living wage.

Rhetorically the landowner pleads: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? And of course in our culture the answer to that,  is ‘no’.  You can’t open a pot store next to an elementary school.  You can’t have topless baristas serving coffee in some neighbourhoods.  The owner’s property does not belong to him; it belongs to the community. Ask the people in Nebraska who are in court over pipeline proponents and their claims of imminent domain. Here, everyone gets only what is just. No room for generosity is allowed. All ownership that would allow for generosity is unjust.

In a culture built on “rights” and “justice,” there seems to be little room for generosity and abundance. No one can receive more than others. Envy rules. In this the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God are revealed.  Is it true that there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine who need no repentance. We can lose the Kingdom of Heaven if we are just but begrudge generosity to others. Must God in dealing with us be only just? Must we blame God if God is more than just? Must we be more than just?

In the divine owner’s contract with us, we must accept one condition, namely, His generosity. Many a just man refuses it.

The last question was for the workers and us : Or are you envious because I am generous?  How do you respond to that?  The literal Greek is “Is your eye evil because I am good?”   Reference to the “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets our eye. As Jesus taught in the 6th chapter “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness”. In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity.  In both Islamic and Jewish cultures the ‘evil eye’ is taken quite seriously.  It’s about regretting the good fortune of another.  It’s about jealousy, greed and  stinginess.
So our  parable is really not about the “laborers in the vineyard.” In fact, this is not even a story about the productivity of the vineyard. We hear the complaints of those who have toiled all day long, but the story was really not about them either.  Rather, Jesus’ parable highlights the generosity of God.  God, the ultimate “landowner,” will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all, even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes. In Jesus words in the fifth chapter God’s perfection is exemplified in God’s rain on the just and the unjust. The landowner’s question in the parable is Jesus’ punchline: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

 

 

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Being the Called Out Ones

Reconciliation and acceptance is meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest with you, if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our community of faith might be a holy place where holy relationships might flourish. And, it’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living another way.

Our text from Matthew 18 is bracketed by parables and teaching on how we are to see ourselves in relation to others. Preceding the passage we read that Jesus responded to the question of who’s the greatest in the Kingdom by calling a child into the gathering. It was a clear call to humility and self deprecation and a warning about placing “a stumbling block” in the way of someone less prominent. Next comes the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to restore a wayward lamb. The story emphasizes the value of every person. No one is expendable.

In the narrative immediately following our text Jesus tells Peter that the requirement of seeking reconciliation is beyond calculation. And added to that we hear the scathing story of the unforgiving servant which makes the point that God, from whom we have received grace, expects us to extend that grace to others. It’s more than mere forgiveness. We can actually take pride in how forgiving we’ve been. It can give us the notion that we are a step above another in righteousness. Forgiveness must come from the heart. Which takes us to our text. I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version. It is an update of the American Standard Version.

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Some versions of Matthew have shown their King James heritage and have been less than helpful in getting to the heart of the intended message. Several other translations put new light on this passage.

First of all we need to note that this version translates the word for the “called out” as “the church”. According to the chronology of Matthew’s gospel Jesus is instructing the diverse group of persons who were accepted by him as disciples. At best the “called out” consists of the diverse gathering of those who have been following Rabbi Jesus. He calls them, “the called out”, that’s the literal translation of the word eclessia that has been translated as the assembly or ‘the church’. There was no such thing as ‘the church’ at that time.

The character of the ‘twelve’ was quite diverse. Tradition tells us that the core of this movement to reveal the new activity of God consisted of the twelve men. What adds to our confusion is that different lists in the New Testament included different persons. Some would suggest that the number was significant as a symbol of the new Israel and not to be taken in its numerically literal sense. We know that, though not listed among the males, women were part of this core. The first evangelists were, in fact, women. Those who followed Jesus represent the whole of the economic and social levels of the day. The group included journeymen, zealots, and Roman collaborators. What could possibly hold just a diverse group together?

We all have different ideas about what is a sin. Modern versions of the New Testament translate the Greek word ‘hamartia’ as “sin”. In Classic Greek it means to err. The word has migrated into English to describe a fatal flaw, an inherent defect or shortcoming, in the hero of a tragedy. We’ve often noted that the Greek word means ‘missing the mark’ as in shooting an arrow toward a target. It simply means ‘missing’.
Modern versions substitute the phrase “another member of the church” for the Greek which says that the person in question is your brother or sister. This substitution obscures from us the familial relationship Jesus intends to exist among the ‘called out’ ones. This person isn’t just some other person, it’s your sister or your brother.

Next, modern versions further confuse things when it adds ‘against you’ to the Greek. It’s not there. If we include “against you” the emphasis is on the personal nature of the offense. If we follow the best Greek manuscripts the focus is on what the other person did to offend.

So. Let’s try the first verse this way: “If a brother or sister among the called out is missing, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

“…go and show him his shortcoming and maybe how it effects you. The goal is to restore the relationship with your brother or sister. It’s a very private intervention aimed at reconciliation. I’d suggest it requires substantial prayer and thoughtful preparation. This is the most discreet and least threatening possible intervention. It protects them against unnecessary embarrassment, permitting reconciliation before the issue becomes general knowledge.

So, the text suggests step two if the first step failed. The first step was to confront the Christian brother or sister individually. Step two is to take witnesses for one more face-to-face confrontation. “But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you.” The requirement for two or three witnesses comes from Torah law (Deuteronomy 19:15. This protects people against unfair accusations. The church is to be deliberate, careful, and fair in its discipline. If the conflict cannot be resolved during this second intervention, the “one or two others” will serve as witnesses before the church. Their testimony will help the church to understand the problem and to establish a remedy.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the ‘called out.’ If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”

On the one hand, the phrase “let him be to you” is singular not “you-all.” The fact that “you” is singular in verses 15-17 and plural in verses 18-20 suggests that the advice to treat the offender as “a Gentile and a tax collector” is given as guidance for the person who began this intervention without resolution rather than the whole church. Of course, I couldn’t help wonder how Matthew himself would have received this word. In this view followers of Rabbi Jesus who can’t resolve a conflict with a brother or sister should just avoid each other.

From a corporate perspective the object is to restore an erring brother or sister to the fellowship, faith and practice of the group. Failing that, the advice is to relate to the person as an outsider –– a person of no faith –– spiritually dead. While it appears that the church is forcing the offender outside its circle, it is, in reality, only acknowledging publicly that the offender has already placed him/herself outside its circle. Should the body of the faithful ceases to be a marked by forgiveness, grace, and mercy you well could say that it ceases to be a church in any discernible fashion.

The last three verses of this passage are scary in their implications. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus says ‘listen up’. Jesus warns us that we dare not thumb our nose at the church. He says the body of the faithful have the authority that he previously gave to Peter. “Bind” and “loose” have to do with forbidden or permitted activities. They also have to do with who is and is not part of the body of Christ. When he saysthat if two of you will agree…For where two or three are gathered together in my name” he is referring to Jewish worship practices which require the presence of at least ten adult Jewish males to hold a public worship. The Mishnah says, “But if two sit together and words of the law are gathered between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Aboth 3:2). Jesus chooses this latter standard of two persons, but makes no mention of adult males. Two or three! A person can pray alone, as Jesus demonstrated, but coming together in Jesus’ name multiplies the power. This minimal requirement should be an encouragement to us. And here’s the good part. Jesus says “there I am in their midst” (v. 20). In the beginning chapter this Gospel says, “They shall call his name Immanuel, which is being interpreted, ‘God with us’ ” (1:23). The Gospel will conclude with Jesus’ promise to be with us always (28:20). Here Jesus promises to be with every group of two or more who gather in his name.

Reconciliation and acceptance is meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest with you, if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our community of faith might be a holy place where holy relationships might flourish. And, it’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living another way.

Because, for Jesus, there isn’t another way.

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How So?

The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” Our question should be ‘How So?’ That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” We prefer our English translations such as “God loved the world so much,” but that obscures the implications of the phrase.  It literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”

John 3:16 is the greatest text for Valentine’s Day. Its ability to pop up anywhere and everywhere—from lips of little children to signs in football stadiums—distinguishes it as the most well-known passage in Scripture; rightfully so, for John 3:16 succinctly summarizes the central message of the Bible.  It is the gospel in a nutshell.

In a real sense, if you edited down the Bible to this one verse, you would still have enough gospel to save the world. John 3:16 declares what every human heart—whether we admit it or not– knows—wants to hear and needs to hear: God loves you! In fact, as Augustine said, God loves each of us as if there was only one of us to love.

John 3:16 plainly makes one of the most awesome claims of the New Testament: God loves the whole world. This statement is remarkable for several reasons.

God is a lover. Jesus said so. This goes against the prevailing notions of God. Many people think God is angry. We see God as a God of wrath, but we misinterpret that wrath in terms of our humanness rather than God’s holiness. Thus, we view God as a tyrant, a cosmic killjoy, an angry parent sitting in the heavenly throne room belt in hand waiting for the disobedient sinner to come through the door. Others view God as indifferent. They think God does not and cannot care about the world or anyone in it.

Others view God as temperamental. They spend their lives trying to earn it. This produces a legalism, which results in either despondency or pride, but never reveals the true love of God. John 3:16 stands against all these misinterpretations of God’s attitude toward us and declares God loves us. 1st John 4:8 says, “God is love.” God personifies love. If fact, if it has to do with God, it has to do with love.
Mercy is God’s forgiving love.
Grace is God’s undeserved love.
Peace is God’s comforting love.
The will of God is God’s unerring love.
Providence is God’s caring love.
The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s proven love.
Sanctification is God’s nurturing love.
Heaven is God’s rewarding love.
Eternity is God’s unending love.
The Universal Scope of the Love
It had to have been mind blowing for Nicodemus to hear that God loves the world.  He had grown up believing that God only loved Israel.  But the verse claims God does not love just certain groups, races or nations. God loves everybody. God doesn’t exclusively love Christians. God loves the world. What a truth!

And just as amazing the breadth of this simple verse forces us to look not just beyond our own race but beyond our species and even broader at this planet we call home and the universe in which it spins.

The fundamental point of John 3:16 is that God loves the world. If the point of the most famous verse in the Bible is that God loves you, why is it that so many people live as if there is no God? At the same time, many who call themselves followers of Christ often question God’s love for them. In spite of all the publicity that John 3:16 gives to this truth, how is it that so many of us do not really know the true love of God?

In his book The Five Love Languages Gary Chapman argues that people communicate love differently. Each person has a natural and distinct way in which he or she gives and/or receives love. Physical affection, verbal expression, acts of service, providing, giving gifts, opening opportunities, and spending time are some of the common love languages.

There are couples who obviously love one another but each feels unloved. They haven’t understood the others’ love language. He, in his way, demonstrates  his love by slaving at a job he hates. She receives love by how much time he spends with her. So, he feels unloved because she doesn’t appreciate his bread winning efforts. She feels unloved because he doesn’t spend more quality time with her. They love one another, but they are not speaking the same love language. Could this be why we do not understand the love of God?

The truth of God’s love is hidden with the nature of God’s love. We hear about the fact of God’s love in the words of John 3:16 but the verse speaks to us about the manner of God’s love.  You can live under a dark cloud of divine abandonment while the light of John 3:16 shines the light of God’s love in your face if you do not know how God communicates His love for you.

The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” Our question should be ‘How So?’ That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” We prefer our English translations such as “God loved the world so much,” but that obscures the implications of the phrase.  It literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”

John 3:16 is about how God says, “I love you.” What’s the answer? Here it is: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son.” John 3:16 does not teach that God loves us so much that He would do anything for us. Rather, it teaches us that God loved us by doing something specific for us: He gave! You cannot know the love of God without embracing it in terms of the gift He gave to communicate His love for us.  John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

All human beings are God’s children through creation. but our New Testament writers insist  that Jesus  is God’s Son uniquely because He is the only begotten Son of the Father.  In other words, there is nobody like Jesus. Nobody was born like Jesus. Nobody lived like Jesus. When John 3:16 says God loved us by giving His only begotten Son.  Theologians have argued for the last two thousand years what that means.  It may best be said by the author of II Corinthians “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!”

For most people there are three characteristics about God that seem essential to us.  First, God is holy. It means God is not like us. God is set apart, completely unique, totally different, morally excellent and without any speck of darkness whatsoever.  That is un-doubtably our needing that in God. Second, we want to believe God to be just. That is, God judges on the basis of a righteous standard. God judges by the standard of His own holy character. Holding these two attributes of God are big trouble to us. God is holy. We are not. It fits our persuasive purposes to believe that some day, you will have to answer to God for how you have lived your life.

Here is the best news: God is love. “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Recently one of the leaders of one of the largest churches in America stirred the pot when she said  “when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. “So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”  Promoters of the prosperity gospel tell us that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy and happy.

I wonder how that works for Christians in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and North Korea today.  2014 saw twice as many Christians martyred than the year before.

To believe in someone one or something is to have faith in it or them, to follow them.  Early in Jesus’ ministry he told his disciples that if they would follow him, their rabbi, they would have to take up their own cross – note that this occurred about two and a half years before the leaders of the popular religion saw Jesus’ message as such a threat that they used the powers of the civil authorities to kill him.  Our cross and his cross are not the same but they come from the same source, a willingness to follow Rabbi Jesus and live in a way that challenges the world.

With that in mind we can put away our images of some imagined court room or theories of ransom paid to a personification of evil.  or  you are a criminal. The closing portion of John 3:16 states “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The benefits of God’s gift are only received through faith. Jesus made this point with his references to Numbers 21. The story of Moses, the children of Israel and the bronzed serpent. It is a story of the children of Israel’s rebellion against God. It is a story of judgment as the Lord sent fiery serpents into the camp. It is a story of grace as God provided an undeserved way of salvation, but it is also a story of faith as those who obeyed the word and looked to the uplifted serpent were saved.  Words like faith and belief are based in a concept of trust.  Despite our acts of disobedience, rebellion and rejection God never stops loving us.

We can all see ourselves in that story.  It’s easy to believe that due to the consequences of poor judgment or our outright nastiness God’s judgment already has bitten us.  Not so.  Jesus himself said “he makes his sun rise on both evil and good people, and he lets rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  But the fact that you too will inevitably die, like every other living entity in the world that God created will die, is not punishment.  It is part of our humanity for which we are grateful.  You eventually, inevitably. will die. It’s no curse.  And there is no divine inoculation from natural death.

Yes, like Nicodemus, we need to be born from above, that is we need to raise our sights from the things of this world, taking our cue from Jesus who early on told his disciples that to follow him they must take up their own cross, a willingness to find their life in trusting God and loving what God loves. That’s what following Jesus meant throughout Jesus ministry. Life eternal, living life in God’s kingdom begins the moment you put your trust in Jesus Christ. It introduces you to a new quality of life. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  This life isn’t a test we have to pass.  It is this moment .  The greatest love song is the world goes:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.

 

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Standing in the Disciple’s Sandals

Standing in the Disciple’s Sandals.

Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples,

and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This is such a familiar story that it’s hard to hear anything new in it.  Even so, while for the most part these are not ‘original’ thoughts on this story, these are what come to mind today…

When Jesus said ‘go and make disciples’ he was addressing people, like himself, who were Jews communicating in a Semitic dialect.  They fully understood what the word disciple meant.  For us, our struggle is that that over a couple thousand years and through translations into various languages and dialects what the disciples of Jesus day understood has changed.  What did the word disciple mean to the followers of Jesus in that day and time?  The story plainly shows that there was a great difference between the disciples and the thousands of men, women and children who had pursued Jesus to that remote sea shore.

Today, we have board certified surgeons, licensed electricians, biochemists. psychologists and psychiatrists, school teachers and college professors. Common to each profession are long periods of study, training, mentoring, on the job training and continuing education.  In each case the person has placed themselves under the oversight of another or others who have established proficiency in an area of interest.

In Jesus day it was the Rabbi who was person with established proficiency in the area of how by doing the right things one would honor God.  Scrupulous behavior was the standard for being a ‘righteous person’ not the condition of one’s heart.  The Rabbi was the authority to interpret the oral and written law for the living of a righteous life – defining what behavior did or did not please God.

A person allowed to become ‘a disciple’ of a Rabbi agreed to totally submit to the rabbi’s authority in all ares of interpreting the Torah for his life.  This was something all observant Jewish young mem wanted to do.  As a result, each disciple came to a rabbinic relationship with a desire and willingness to surrender to the authority of the whole law as interpreted by his Rabbi.

The group of students would discuss in depth their Rabbi’s view of the meaning of Torah on a particular aspect of life.   The oral tradition was needed to accompany the written Law, because the Torah alone, with its 613 commandments, was an insufficent guide to Jewish life.  They would memorize most of the written Torah and learn from the Talmud and Mishna about how those words were interpreted.

Here’s an example why that was the case. Exodus 20:8, the fourth commandment says “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy.” That makes it clear that the Sabbath is an important holy day.  Yet when you look for specifics in the written scriptures that regulate how to observe the day all you find are injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from your dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing or harvesting. Would merely refraining from these specific activities fulfill the commandment to make the Sabbath holy?  Jewish Sabbath rituals, including reciting the kiddush and reading of the weekly Torah portion are not found in written scripture but in the oral law.   Studying their rabbi’s view of the written and oral law to comprehend God’s way for the conduct of their life was the main task of a disciple. The issue was not what specific words were found in the scroll but rather what did it mean and how was it to be lived out.

In this intimate relationship the rabbi would ask questions of the disciple as he closely observed the their daily life, or the disciple would initiate a discussion by raising an issue or asking a question based on some aspect of his daily life.   A disciple would expect the rabbi’s consistent and persistent question, “Why did you do that?” The emphasis was always on behavior, not just the imparting of wisdom and related interpretive information. In this interactive manner, the rabbis functioned to clear up gray areas of understanding and difficult areas of textual interpretation for their disciples.

Real life questions were the fodder for these sessions. A real-life question regarding marriage might be, “Can I divorce my wife if…” Another regarding tax collectors would be, “If I know my taxes are going to oppress our people, should I pay them?” The rabbi would authoritatively address such daily practical concerns around righteous living as defined and interpreted by the rabbi.  As part of this how-should-we-live interactive process, the disciples would debate various rabbinic interpretations of a real life issue. This might involve weeks of dialogue and debate. However, when the rabbi ultimately declared his authoritative interpretation on an issue, all further debate ceased. His declared interpretation was now binding on his disciples’ lives for the rest of their days. As such, the rabbi was the lens through which every life issue was viewed.

By always asking questions, the rabbis were concentrating on developing discernment in the mind of the disciple, not the imparting of “how to” formulas. Notions of three principles of prayer or four steps to prosperity would be abhorrent to a first-century rabbi.

Disciples had a deep desire to emulate their rabbi. This often included imitating how and what their rabbi ate, how he observed the Sabbath, what he liked and disliked, as well as his mannerisms, prejudices and preferences. A story is told of one disciple who so wanted to emulate his rabbi that he hid in the rabbi’s bedchamber. That way he would be better able to emulate with his own future wife how the rabbi was intimate with his wife.

The first-century disciple willingly submitted to his rabbi’s interpretive authority regarding what pleased God in every area of his life. Thus, to say you were a disciple in the name of Gamaliel, meant that you totally surrendered your life to Gamaliel’s way of interpreting the whole law. As a result, you conformed all of your life’s behavior to his interpretations.  There was a passion together with zeal to give up any and all of their preconceived notions of how to live one’s life and then to embrace the behavior that their rabbi deemed best to honor God. It was a radical, willing, and totally conforming submission to the interpretive authority of their rabbi.

I can’t imagine a more practical question than Jesus’ disciples raised with him that evening by the remote lake shore.  They weren’t telling Jesus anything he didn’t know when they said that it was late and the people were growing hungry.  It was a way to raise the real question. Rabbi, these people have needs that need to be met.  “What would please God?” they wanted to know. Their best solution they had come up with was to send them to villages in the area so they could find food to eat.

“No”, Rabbi Jesus said. “You give them something to eat”.

This is where this passage gets uncomfortable for us.   I know what it feels like to be told, “You give them something to eat…” and to feel as though there is so little to give, it’s hardly worth starting to prepare the meal.

Of course this story in Matthew’s telling occurs right after Jesus hears about the gruesome and pointless death of his cousin, John the Baptist.  It would make perfect sense that, in response to this horrific news, Jesus was trying to escape the crowds to mourn. I can’t imagine a more appropriate moment to seek such solitude. But it wasn’t going to happen.  The word was out. Jesus has something to offer that can’t be found anywhere else.  The crowds with their sick and suffering in tow catch up with him.  And then they don’t leave.  Like unexpected guests with no manners, they don’t leave.  And a handful of disciples are left to carry out the ministry of hospitality which Jesus personifies.

And there it is.  Opportunities to be about the work to which Jesus calls us don’t necessarily come at convenient times.  Matter of fact they are most likely to come when we are most tired or sad or fearful for the future.  More times than not all there is to do is just start doing that to which Jesus calls us.  Most times we are unable to see the ending — in fact most of the time we surely can’t — but if we don’t at least start, we will certainly never get there.  For the disciples in this story, the only logical thing to do was to send that hungry crowd away.  They could not, at first, have fathomed the possibility that all those growling stomachs could be satisfied with what began as five loaves and two fish. But they trusted Jesus enough to hand what they had to him and pretty soon it was a party.

This really is a story about scarcity and abundance.  I live in a time and place where it is seldom that I worry about a scarcity of food. That is not true, of course, for all of my neighbors — but it is true for most of the people I interact with much of the time.  I can’t remember where I read it recently but it was a quotation from a woman who said “I can’t think of anything else until I know from where my next meal is coming.”

And what about the guy at the back of the crowd. The one who hardly knows why he is there. There is no big screen projection to give him a sense of what is going on down front.    He only hears what’s going on because the one in front of him is telling him.  In fact, he may never fully comprehend or appreciate the actual source of the meal he is enjoying. He may never realize it is actually a gift from God’s own hand.  But that doesn’t make it any less so. Indeed, I wonder how many moments in how many days I am like that.  A lot, I would expect.  I need to remember that and give thanks even when I can’t quite put it all together.

And there is this, too.  How does one end up with more than that with which one started? Twelve baskets full.  How does that happen?

 

 

 

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Temptations

Matthew 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

According to Matthew the confrontation he reports between Jesus and Satan didn’t just happened. He is very clear, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” It was intentional. Was it a “Boot Camp” experience, designed to train Jesus or to test his metal against the wiles of Satan? How you answer that question says a lot about who you see Jesus to be.

Matthew tells us is that Jesus’ temptation came at breakfast, literally. This is a direct contradiction of how Luke tells his story. With Luke, the temptations lasted for forty days. We are going to throw in our lot with Matthew and say that Jesus wasn’t tempted for forty days and forty nights. The temptations came at the conclusion of his fast, when he was famished, at a point of extreme vulnerability.

There is a lot we don’t know about Jesus’ fast. There is the rare and inadequately supported report of a victim of torture actually surviving forty days without food. Putting Jesus in that category of robust humanity isn’t a struggle for many. For others, Jesus is super human anyway and it isn’t an issue. But for many of us the fact of Jesus’ humanity is in question. It’s known that Ghandi survived twenty one days of living without food but he consumed water. But a good place for us to begin is to consider what was going on with Jesus and his intentional fast. It’s not a stretch. Most religions in the world recommend fasting.

There are impassioned prose writers who say that the number forty signifies God’s judgment of one sort or another somehow implying that Jesus’ was being judged by his temptations. Others simply shrug their shoulders and say that nothing is clear about the biblical use of the number forty other than it is what it is, a period of time other than another way of saying a long time. Some neuro-scientists get excited about the Gamma frequency of 40 Hz and its relationship to the human brains’ operating frequency which is also the frequency of middle ‘c’ on the piano key board.

There is no numerical figure in scripture as pervasive as that of the number ‘forty’, especially ‘forty days and forty nights’. For quite a few years now I’ve wanted to host a retreat starting with the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion and concluding with Easter sunrise, a forty hour retreat. Of course the rains in Noah’s day fell for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:4). Israel ate Manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was with God in the mount, 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18). Moses was again with God 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 34:28). Moses led Israel from Egypt at age 80 (2 times 40), and after 40 years in the wilderness, died at 120 (3 times 40; Deuteronomy 34:7). The spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days (Numbers 13:25). God made Israel wander for 40 years (Numbers 14:33-34). 40 stripes was the maximum whipping penalty (Deuteronomy 25:3). Three different times reported in Judges God allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11). Abdon (a judge in Israel) had 40 sons (Judges 12:14). Israel did evil; God gave them to an enemy for 40 years (Judges 13:1). Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18). Goliath presented himself to Israel for 40 days (1 Samuel 17:16). Saul reigned for 40 years (Acts 13:21). Saul’s son was 40 when he began reign (2 Samuel 2:10). David reigned over Israel for 40 years (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11). Solomon reigned same length as his father; 40 years (1 Kings 11:42). Jehoash (Joash) reigned 40 years in Jerusalem (2 Kings 12:1). The holy place of the temple was 40 cubits long (1 Kings 6:17). The size of lavers in Temple were forty baths (1 Kings 7:38). God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4). The sockets of silver are in groups of 40 (Exodus 26:19 & 21). Elijah had one meal that gave him strength 40 days (1 Kings 19:8). Ezekiel bore the iniquity of the house of Judah for 40 days (Ezekiel 4:6). Egypt to be laid desolate for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-12). Ezekiel’s (symbolic) temple is 40 cubits long (Ezekiel 41:2). The courts in Ezekiel’s temple were 40 cubits long (Ezra 46:22). Jesus fasted 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:2). Jesus was tempted 40 days (Luke 4:2, Mark 1:13). Jesus remained on earth 40 days after resurrection (Acts 1:3). And then there is the relationship between the times of Jewish festivals and the 40 week period of human pregnancy.  So, “forty days and nights…”

Traditionally we have understood that there were three temptations:

  1. If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
  2. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
  3. the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

The first challenge is about Jesus simply employing the power, prestige and privileges that are his as ‘the Son of God’ to meet his own needs. Recently we read the passage where John the Baptist lashed out at the privileged Pharisees and Sadducees saying that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” So why is this act of feeding oneself considered a temptation, a temptation from which Jesus turned away? I want to suggest that the issue is Jesus’ humanity and how he identifies himself. Is he able to survive without drawing upon divine resources? If God is able to raise up children for Abraham from stones, why not raising up loaves of bread from stones to meet the needs of a fleshly body?

Jesus’ reply was: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Our life is dependent on ‘every word’ that comes from the mouth of God including the creative word that brought stones into being. Even the stones have an intrinsic integrity. There is a huge environmental message in that. Far to easily can we fool ourselves into thinking that we can meet our most basic and simple needs and in the acquisition of which no one else is hurt, no one else is deprived, no one else is effected. In how we meet our needs, much less our wants, we are in a set of living relationships with all creation.  Were we to only eat fruit that falls of its own accord to the ground, our action interrupts the cycle of planting, germination, maturity and fruition.

So next, from the top of Herod’s Temple, Satan again challenges Jesus’ sense of identity. “Are you really who you think you are?” Satan asks. He quotes the Ninety First Psalm reminding Jesus again of his exceptionalness.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Do you believe that Jesus? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus replies with a word of scripture of his own: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” The response is from Deuteronomy 6. In Deuteronomy 5 Moses teaches the people what God had told him on the Mountain. It is a recitation of the Ten Commandments. Then, recorded at the first of Chapter 6 is Moses’ statement of the Shema “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

There is a brief recounting of Israel’s salvation history and then, in the sixteenth verse we find “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

As I was thinking about how Jesus handled this intense confrontation I wondered how equipped I am. Do I have an adequate command of the assurances offered in our scriptures to give me the necessary back bone to survive such an attack?

The third temptation puzzles us all. Making bread seemed relevant. The spectacular stunt we can understand. But after deflecting the first two challenges the last seems so glaringly obvious that Jesus would reject it.

Jesus is given a view of all the kingdoms of the world and Satan offers to give them to him on the one condition that Jesus worship him. Jesus doesn’t challenge Satan’s power to make the world such a gift. All the evidence in the gospels suggests that Jesus had no interest whatsoever in political power. In John 6, when it was offered to him he literally ran for the hills. So how can Satan’s offer be a temptation, be something attractive to Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t want political power, but this whole experience is preparing him for his ministry and he is considering various ways of approaching his task. He wants to influence people, he has a message that he wants people to hear. Perhaps here is where the devil’s suggestion becomes a little more plausible. He’s trying to get Jesus to keep his eyes fixed on all the kingdoms of the world. He’s trying to make him desire and go after as many followers as possible. He’s trying to get him to play the ratings game; to be guided, if you like, by opinion polls. He’s trying to make him desire success above all things. And it sounds so good and holy. What could be better than for Jesus to be THE influence, the guiding force over everyone on earth?

John Hemer, a British Catholic, asks, “But if Jesus does that how will he cope with his opposition? How will he cope when the Pharisees tell him he’s wrong, or when some of his own disciples tell him that his words are intolerable and leave him? (John 6: 66) Well, if he eyes are fixed on getting (and keeping) as many followers as possible might he tailor his message to suit his audience? He won’t do a complete about turn, he won’t deny anything he’s said or done so far, but would he make subtle changes in order to make his message more palatable? The Pharisees, after all, are hugely influential, there’s no point in alienating them when they can be such useful allies. So rather than heal on the Sabbath and court controversy, Jesus can heal on other days, he’s still healing after all. Rather than lose all those followers at Capernaum, he can call them back and explain his ministry in terms that are less offensive, more acceptable. No major changes, just tweaking the message here and there to make sure it hits its target audience.

If Jesus makes these little changes here and there, he will end up preaching not God’s truth but what his audience want God’s truth to be. What will be guiding him will not be the voice of God but the voice of sinful human beings, the values of sinful human institutions. Without even realizing it he will no longer be worshiping God, but the devil. And by worship we mean more than just an isolated religious act. The thing we worship is the thing which guides our lives, the thing that motivates us. If Jesus allows himself to be motivated by the desire for success, it will always be fallen human concerns which guide him. The Truth will then be whatever his listeners want to hear and that is tantamount to worshipping the devil.

All through Jesus’ public life we see the consequences of his coming unscathed through Satan’s challenges as he refuses to be swayed by public opinion or by threats or violence. Worshipping Satan isn’t necessarily a huge act of rebellion, but a series of small acts of accommodation. It is a constant temptation for us as Christians and the only sure antidote is the one Jesus gives: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

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