Category Archives: Matthew’s Gospel

Spotting the clues

Matthew chapter 16

An advertisement on London Underground trains aimed at fare dodgers asks, ‘How would you recognize a ticket inspector?’ Answer, ‘he/she looks just like you’! Jesus, of course, looked just like any other human being because that’s what he was. But clearly, he was a very charismatic human being with commanding presence and a challenging message.

Religious authorities felt threatened by Jesus and challenged his credentials. Locked into a narrow understanding of their scriptures they wanted to fit Jesus in to their way of seeing things. And they weren’t the only ones who were confused. So were the disciples. The miracle is that the Gospel authors did not try to gloss over the disciples’ confusion. Perhaps it was because the emerging Christian communities were themselves still trying to sort out what they thought about Jesus and his message. The disciples were confused and Peter got it wrong. The sequence in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel is about recognizing the truth about Jesus. Once again, after two thousand years, there’s confusion about it. What are we to make of his teaching? Was he claiming to be the Jewish Messiah? If so how did he understand what that meant?

Here’s my summary of the sequence in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel:

  • Verses 1-4 Give us a sign. OK look at the story of Jonah.
  • Verses 5-12 The yeast of the Pharisees? What’s he talking about? The disciples are confused.
  • Verses 13-20 Does Peter get it right? Maybe, but then….
  • Verses 21-23. Peter gets it seriously wrong.
  • Verses 24-26. Now here’s the truth but then….
  • Verses 27-end. Now here’s the church probably getting it wrong.

Jesus did not come to start a church, so what we have here is a conversation amongst the first Christians about what he was really up to. Fortunately it’s laced with references to things Jesus probably did say. Does that conversation really matter to us 21st century Christians? Surely it does matter but only as a warning about the dangers of trying to fit Jesus into our preconceived ideas and systems. We do not need to see Jesus’s credentials (Messiah, Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity) before we follow him. How do we know which passages of the Gospels most represent the path Jesus points out to us? I suggest three clues:

  1.  Read the Gospels in the way this blog tries to show and draw your own conclusions.
  2. Ask yourself, does what I am reading now fit with the sermon on the mount?
  3. See everything in the light of the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to Christians at Corinth. Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.
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When to break the rules

Matthew, chapters 14 and 15

“His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.” (chapter 14 verse 12)

Was it a headless body they reverently gathered up and buried? The head, you recall, had been presented on a gruesome platter to the daughter of Herodias.

Clearly John and Jesus had been close. John’s baptism had been a decisive moment for Jesus. After it, he withdrew to the desert to discern the direction he should take.

Both men upset the Jewish religious authorities. They both challenged the way things were done. They both based their challenge on a fresh understanding of the Hebrew scriptures. In chapter 15 of his gospel, Matthew shows us why the Pharisees and Sadducees got upset. For them outward observance had become more important than inner truth. Making sure you’ve got clean hands is less important, much less important, than having a clean heart, says Jesus (chapter 15 verses 17 to 20).

Then, as if to show that a Gentile understands this truth better than some Pharisees and Sadducees, Matthew gives us a story about a Canaanite woman (chapter 15 verses 21 to 28). Apparently Jesus had to be persuaded to respond to her. “Send her away,” say his disciples, “for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus appears to agree with them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Even more startling, Matthew has Jesus add, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Can Jesus really have said that? Remember, until Paul was converted the earliest Jesus Movement was a purely Jewish affair based around Peter and the original disciples. But Jesus had been willing to sit and eat with social outcasts: hardly the action of someone sticking to religious rules! No, I think we have here echoes of the controversy, stirred up by Paul’s ministry to Gentiles, about the future of the Jesus Movement. Was it to be a purely Jewish affair or did the teaching of Jesus contain the seeds of a universal truth crossing boundaries and freeing us to acknowledge the presence of God in every human being, whatever their beliefs and regulations? There’s nothing wrong with regulations, provided they don’t dominate the heart. There’s nothing wrong with the way in which every major religion expresses the truth. We all need signposts. The trouble starts when we mistake the signpost for the inwardly experienced reality.

Abundance

Matthew 14: 13 – 21 Feeding five thousand people.

The recent death of Marcus Borg brings to an end the creative partnership of two wonderful Biblical scholars. With John Dominic Crossan, he wrote several books including ‘The Last Week’, about the final fateful week of Jesus’ life. I mention this to acknowledge my debt to them as I comment on Matthew’s account of the feeding of five thousand people.

Borg and Crossan point out that Jesus was often criticized for eating meals with the wrong sort of people and that food supplies and debt were frequent problems for many in those days. Faced with the problem of feeding a big crowd, the disciples want Jesus to send them away to fend for themselves but, no, he insists, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The feeding stories are not about a miraculous multiplication of a few loaves and fish. Rather, they show how cooperation and fair distribution can bring abundance and harmony. There is enough for everyone if nobody grabs what they can without a thought for their neighbours. Jesus took the meager supply available and blessed, broke and distributed them. These three actions are at the heart of our Holy Communions, Masses, Eucharists – whatever we call them. The sad fact, reflected in these different titles, is that our attempts to follow the example and teaching of Jesus have resulted in division, disharmony and self-protective hoarding. The ego, the false self that Jesus tells us must be put to death, is always concerned about scarcity, always therefore seeks to hoard, is afraid of the generosity of God, assumes that more is necessary before anything can be achieved. When I discover the underlying truth about who I really am the abundance of the present moment opens up. There is no need to wait until one condition or another is fulfilled. If, in trust, I use what is available to me at this moment then I am blessing, breaking and giving.

Flames of hate and of love.

Matthew gospel chapter 12.

It’s been a terrible week for religion hasn’t it?! Here in the United Kingdom lots of us are hooked on a television dramatization of the Wolf Hall novels by Hilary Mantel about Tudor England when Thomas Cromwell was advising king Henry VIII. In those days we burnt alive those we called heretics: that is people who disagreed with us. Few people are more dangerous than those who think they know exactly what God wants and have the power to pursue their beliefs in God’s name. Of course ISIS is utterly unrepresentative of Islam today. Let’s be profoundly thankful for that. But they think they know what God wants and in God’s name they have burnt a man alive. In 16th century Tudor England religion and politics couldn’t be separated out. They burnt people alive because they were afraid of political upheaval if they allowed ‘heretical’ religious ideas to get a foothold. They could have taught ISIS a ghastly thing or two.

In chapter 12 of his gospel Matthew presents us with some stories about religious leaders who were sure they also knew what God wanted. Their certainty would lead rapidly to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Look at verses 9 to 14 of chapter 12 – the story of a man with a withered hand. His condition was presumably seen as ‘just the way things are’. When Jesus appears in the synagogue the congregation gets nervous. Jesus already has a reputation for not accepting the way things are. What will he get up to here, today? What we are really nervous about, they must have been thinking, is the way he keeps breaking the rules that God has laid down.

In Mark’s version of this story Jesus asks the man to stand out. Jesus is asking him to take a personal risk, to take a step of faith, to use that part of his body that was not withered. So there they are, the two of them, Jesus and the man, standing there in full view of a crowd who are just waiting to see if Jesus will break the religious rules. They expect Jesus will and they are ready to pounce. They are so rule-bound they can’t see the love-in-action that knows when rules should be broken. They can’t deny the facts. People are being healed. But people who break the religious rules must be in the service of Satan mustn’t they? They can’t be one of us can they? Being rule bound can lead to cynicism and denial about love-in-action as we see in verses 22 to 30 of this chapter.

In his book, ‘The Crucified Is No Stranger’, Sebastian Moore says “We will murder to protect our mediocrity” – the mediocrity of keeping religious rules in the name of God, of accepting the way things are. Jesus is more concerned with the sheep that has fallen into a pit (verse 11). The needs of the sheep, or the man with the withered hand, overrule the religious demand to keep the Sabbath. Love overrules mediocrity; in this case the mediocrity of law-keeping. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (verse 12) Sebastian Moore suggests there is an innocent child within each of us and we are afraid of our vulnerability. If we gave the child in us any chance who knows what might happen? Everything might go to pot. Us adults need order and stability. We cannot allow the reign of love to have any part in our safely ordered society. So, out of fear of that vulnerable part of us, Sebastian Moore suggests we will sometimes murder and lie, even crucify, just as Jesus was crucified, to protect our defences and preserve our mediocrity.

A truly religious community (no matter what its rules and beliefs) will be one in which people are being healed (in the broadest sense of that word) in ways that challenge the accepted limits of what is reasonable and what is ‘natural’. Such healing will cause wonder and sometimes persecution.

How long, O Lord, how long?

Matthew’s gospel chapter 11.

Jesus and John the Baptist – how well did they get on together? We’ll never know for certain because we’ve only got Matthew and the other gospel writers to go on and they weren’t interested in biography. But look at what pops up in this passage at the beginning of chapter 11 of Matthew’s gospel:

“….no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence [or, ‘has been coming violently’] and the violent take it by force.” (verses 11-15)

Isn’t that intriguing? What can it mean? No serious student of the Bible is sure but this fool of a contemplative Christian is going to rush in with an idea. I wonder if there’s a clue in some verses at the end of this chapter?

“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (verse 25)

“Come to me all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (verses 28-30)

John the Baptist was an ascetic. He lived in the desert, wore rough clothes and had a restricted diet of locusts and honey: a pretty severe character I would have thought. Jesus was different: enjoying himself, eating and drinking with a bunch of social misfits. There’s a long history of people being severe on themselves in their persistent (sometimes desperate) search for the truth. The Buddha, for example, spent many austere years before he was enlightened. Christian saints have fasted, flagellated and forced themselves into what they hoped was an acceptable state of being before God. Might this be what is meant here by violent people taking the kingdom of God by force? Perhaps Jesus could see what John the Baptist was getting at but thought there was a gentle, more direct route to take.

George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, clearly wasn’t happy with traditional spirituality. In his book, Only One Way Left, he painted a picture of a series of individual souls, laboriously climbing ladders to heaven where “a perpetual concert was in progress.” He pointed out that there were two routes from his front door to his front garden gate. He could leave by the back door and circumnavigate the globe, or……. you’ve guessed it. He could take the direct route. Maybe it was no coincidence that George MacLeod, like Jesus, began his ministry among misfits and outcasts – in the 1940s slums of Glasgow. There would have been no point in telling people like that to restrict their diet and wear rough clothes if they wanted to enter the kingdom of God. They didn’t have much choice about things like that.

Slowly, over the last hundred years more and more people have been discovering the direct route. I should say ‘re-discovering’ the route. It’s been available ever since Jesus pointed it out. We lost sight of it pretty quickly, because people expected the return of Jesus in glory to change the world: the kingdom of God postponed. Fortunately, over the centuries there has always been someone saying, ‘look, look, can’t you see? It’s here, now!’ God, whatever we might mean by that word, isn’t over there somewhere. God is here, now, within. The momentum of this re-discovering is increasing, and it’s not a route that we are finding. There isn’t anywhere to go. That way of thinking dumps us back in the old ways of the postponed kingdom. In a recent lecture Fr. Vincent MacNamara said, “The beatitudes don’t have to be imported into our lives.” Nothing has to be imported. Everything is waiting to be discovered as we allow ourselves to become aware of the sacred beauty in the depths of each one of us. To be sure, that process is usually a long and often painful one but the yoke that Jesus spoke of gives rest to our weary souls as we lay down the burden of being harsh on ourselves and others.

A cup of cold (?) water.

A recent newspaper article referred to something called ‘slamming’. Apparently the aim is to keep walking in a straight line on a busy pavement. If that involves bumping into someone who doesn’t get out of the way quickly enough, so be it.

In my youth I enjoyed ballroom dancing. In those far off days the man was responsible for leading his partner and, on a crowded dance floor, it required some deft manoeuvering to avoid collisions with other couples. Without a skillfully responsive, trusting partner the task was much more difficult. Together, weaving our way through the crowd while enjoying our mutually supportive skill, was an exhilarating experience. Today, in a crowded city, the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ in me comes into play. I need both will and grace if I am to treat anyone who enters ‘my space’ as a guest to be honoured (and of course avoided unless we actually wish to meet!!). We no longer practice the first century middle eastern customs of hospitality underlying today’s passage in Matthew’s gospel chapter 10 verses 4- -42

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…….and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

In our busy lives most of our encounters are not slow, stately expressions of hospitality. As followers of the Way of Jesus, however, our aim is to avoid bumping into people, to be open always to the possibility of meeting them and to give them the cup of human recognition however quickly they pass us by.

Families and how to survive them

So, as I was saying in yesterday’s post…..

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10: 37 – 39)

Later in this gospel (chapter 12 verses 46 to 50) there’s the story of Jesus’ mother and his brothers wanting to speak to him. When someone tells him they are waiting outside Jesus replies: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Pointing to the crowd he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”

Some of us never properly grow up. We remain attached to our parents’ apron strings. On the other hand some of us older parents find it difficult to let our adult children go. Often it’s not obvious to us. The attachment lies at a deep level so we are not aware of it.

The question is, what do we expect of family life? Trying to make it carry all our emotional and spiritual needs is asking too much of our parents, our siblings and our children. As always, for Jesus, the primary source of strength and satisfaction is in what he called the Kingdom of God. Entering the kingdom can mean a painful process of breaking or healing those immature emotional bonds. Perhaps that is why Matthew couples Jesus’ words about family relationships with the familiar advice to take up the cross and lose one’s life. Forgiveness is almost always involved. I mean forgiving our parents, our siblings, our adult children for their failings. ‘Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing’. I certainly mean forgiving ourselves for our own failings in our family network.

My wife and I used to help run weekend conferences for couples. Called Marriage Enrichment (those were the days before unmarried partnerships were common) they weren’t meant to be therapy for troubled relationships. A highlight of each conference was an exercise in which we asked each couple to tell one another ‘the story of my marriage’. Almost always, as we introduced the exercise, people would ask, “Don’t you mean the story of our marriage?” We would explain that each partner was to take turns to tell the other the story of the partnership from their own personal point of view. The rule was that the listening partner was not allowed to interrupt and say, “but that’s not how it happened!”, or “I can’t believe that’s how you see it!”. They were simply to listen. Almost without exception people found this to be an illuminating and often healing experience.

Few writers have expressed the true nature of family relationships better than the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran:

But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.

Then and Now

To understand a passage in the Bible it is helpful to take two steps. First I should ask, what did this passage mean for the person who wrote it and his readers then? Secondly I can then ask, if that is what it meant for them in the first century AD what might it mean for me now in the 21st century? Sometimes the gap between the two is so great it is best to move on gently and quietly like a cow that comes across a thistle while grazing the lush green grass. For example some references to Jews in Matthew’s gospel reflect the tension between those upstart Jews who had become Christians and their fellow citizens who had not. Centuries of anti-semitism have flowed from the failure to follow the two step rule when reading those passages. It is also clear that the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth confidently expected his triumphant return in their lifetime in devastating glory to bring an end to life on earth as they then knew it. It didn’t happen and Paul, in one of his letters, had to deal with their disappointment.

The return of Jesus Christ in glory (the Parousia as it is sometimes called) has continued to cause confusion. Some Christians see events in Israel/Palestine as evidence of what they call ‘the end time’. Others have confidently predicted the date of the Parousia with rather sad, sometimes even amusing consequences. There’s a story about John Wesley that I haven’t been able to verify. Asked what he would do when Jesus returned he replied that he would continue whatever he was doing at that moment.

This blog is called The Now Testament because the simple fact is that we can only live in this present moment. What we do now is influenced by our past and by our expectations about the future. Human beings are gifted with this capacity to remember and to make plans. Our curse is our tendency is to allow these gifts to obscure the reality of each present moment. Regular readers of this blog will know that, in my opinion, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God can only be entered now, not at some point in the future. Living the Way of Jesus requires a constant oscillation between the underlying present reality of the Kingdom and our capacity for memory and anticipation. Let’s now apply this principle to the puzzling passage in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel verses 37 – 39

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

In the last two hundred years of Biblical study we have discovered a lot about how a passage like this took its present form. You can find it in slightly different form in all three synoptic gospels and in a stark form in the Gospel of Thomas:

Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me. (Thomas 55:1)

So somewhere in the background are some words that Jesus probably uttered but the problem is to find out exactly what he did say. Even if we could find that out we would still have to face the question, if that’s what he meant then what might it mean for us now? Some take the words much more literally than others. Many Christians feel called to follow a path with which their relatives profoundly disagree. In some Muslim countries becoming a Christian is a dangerous and divisive act. And let’s not forget that the same applies to Muslims who decide to join jihadists in Syria against their families’ wishes.

This blog post has already gone on long enough so I’m going to leave it till tomorrow before suggesting another, 21st century way of approaching this passage.

Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite.

Just occasionally my systematic journey in this blog synchronises with a newsworthy event. In this case the advice in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel is about living according to the Way of Jesus of Nazareth in a world that has startling similarities with the slaughter in Paris last week and the gruesome mayhem perpetrated by jihadists in several other countries. Before going any further I remind myself that more Muslims are killed by jihadists than Christians. I wish to write in solidarity (fraternity, the French might say) with my brothers and sisters of other faiths, these fellow human beings of mine.

I confess my ignorance of the Quran but I believe it speaks of Jesus as a prophet rather than the Saviour of the world. I can live with that! I have spoken elsewhere in this blog of the human tendency to turn a prophet who points us to the truth into The Truth itself. In my (I hope humble) opinion the truth is not a person, it is a Way of being and living. I try to practice the contemplative path and, if asked, I refer to myself not as a Christian contemplative but as a contemplative in the Christian tradition. There are times when I feel I have more in common with a Jewish, a Buddhist, or a Sufi practitioner than with some of my fellow Christians.

Matthew invites us all in chapter 10 of his gospel:

  • to live in this troubled world like sheep among wolves, being wise as serpents and innocent as doves (verse 16)
  • to love our enemies, even if they persecute us (verses 16 – 25)
  • to love the truth more than our human families (verse 37) always provided that we understand truth as a way of living not a set of beliefs or doctrines.
  • to let go of all we think we know about ourselves, especially the thoughts we cling to in the mistaken belief that without them we could not exist (verses 38 and 39)
  • to live with compassion for all human beings because, like us, they are made in the image of God (verses 40 – 42). The virtue of fraternity, enshrined in the French constitution, comes close to that of compassion. It underlies the expression of both liberty and equality as Paul of Tarsus understood when writing to Christians in Corinth. Some of them were offended by fellow believers who felt free to eat meat that had been offered to idols and then sold on the market. Of course their freedom was compatible with the gospel, Paul agreed, but perhaps they should restrict their freedom out of loving sensitivity to the consciences of those who were offended. (1 Corinthians chapter 8)

Amid all the human sin and tragedy a new consciousness is arising on the planet and it is not restricted to any one of the great religions. To be sure, each in its own way has managed to encode the truth, whatever difficulties we in the 21st century might experience in decoding it.

Finally I recommend an article in the Guardian newspaper about Sufism:

Christmas distractions

This morning at my daily practice of Centering Prayer I was besieged by distractions. They included creative thoughts about writing this post. I was tempted to go and note them down in case I forgot them. I tried to let go of the temptation. Then I was besieged by worries about dementia. If you practice this form of prayer you will recognize what I am describing! The Silence within us is often drowned out by noisy thoughts, even good creative ones. We so easily lose touch with that Presence we call God.

Here is the idea I had while praying. (See, I didn’t forget it!) My purpose in this blog is to recover more of Jesus the wisdom teacher. I began it back in 2013 with this quote:

“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)

Sometimes the conversations of the followers of Jesus are in danger of drowning out his distinctive, original voice. They can even do so with beautiful, creative parables like the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew. For example, the author of Matthew’s gospel has Jewish Christians in mind and his aim is to relate Jesus to Jewish history and tradition. He does it in ways that are sometimes obscure to us. He presents Jesus as a second (better?) Moses. He is very fond of relating his Jesus story to passages in what we Christians call the Old Testament.

Now I have to confess that the idea of Jesus as a second Moses and the details of Jesus birth and childhood are a bit like those distractions I experience in prayer. They can drown out that distinctive voice whose message resonates with 21st century people for whom traditional religion is off-putting. I am pretty familiar with the Bible and it is helpful to see how Jesus uses scriptures he was familiar with. But is not essential for me. I find much more help and inspiration in modern writers and speakers, for example Eckhart Tolle, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and many, many more who point out to me the Way I should follow. We are in the midst of a profound shift in religious and spiritual consciousness. The miracle is that the teaching of Jesus still has the power to enable that shift to continue. The miracle was that the Gospel writers had collections of the sayings of Jesus to work with and modern scholarship is a great help in discerning when they are using those sources. My purpose in this blog is cautiously to sift out the teaching of Jesus from the ways in which those earliest Christians encoded it. Ultimately (and paradoxically) what can be drowned out is the sound of silence. Within that silence is the Silence of true Being. I believe Jesus was continually pointing to that silent Presence, inviting us to enter into it, there to discover who we truly are.

I’ll continue my sifting of Matthew’s gospel in my next post. Happy New Year.