Category Archives: Matthew’s Gospel

Forgiveness

Matthew’s gospel chapter 9.

Chapter 9 begins with two stories about forgiveness. It’s obvious in the first one about the healing of a paralysed man. Jesus says to him:

“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

But what about the story that follows in verse 9 when Jesus calls Matthew to be one of his disciples? What’s this one got to do with forgiveness? Matthew was one of a hated group of people: tax collectors. Two thousand years later their reputation hasn’t improved much has it? Maybe it was some of Matthew’s professional friends who sat down with him and Jesus for dinner (verses 10 to 13). I wonder if Jesus was using some gentle sarcasm when he responded to the Pharisees who criticised him for daring to eat with such pariahs? He says:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

I don’t think Jesus is saying, ‘I have come only to help those who have problems or are desperate’. Surely he is saying, ‘I have good news for those who want to grow.’

The virtuous are self-satisfied. They do not hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus is not interested here in the moral question of tax collecting. He is light years away from the Pharisees’ obsession with ritual and ethical purity. He is focussed on the power of forgiveness but even here he upsets our somewhat mean, narrow understanding of it. For Jesus, forgiveness has almost nothing to do with the past. Forgiveness is all about new life. ‘Today is the first day of the rest of my life’, as the saying goes. When the future looks like a promised land to be taken by storm, forgiveness is at work. And we are talking here about the sense of release that comes when it dawns on us that we are forgiven; all those past failures, including our failure to forgive others who have wronged us. Brother Roger, founder and Prior of the Taize Community in France, wrote:

“In order to live for Christ in the midst of others, one of the greatest risks is forgiveness. Forgiving again and again is what wipes away the past and plunges us in the present moment. To forgive: this is as far as love goes. Human beings are sometimes harsh. God for his part comes to clothe us in compassion. God is never, never at all a tormentor of the human conscience. God buries our past in the heart of Christ and has already taken care of our future. The assurance of forgiveness is the most unheard of, the most unbelievable, the most generous of God’s realities. It makes us free, incomparably free.”

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Matthew’s gospel chapter 8.
So moving on from Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’, we come to chapter 8 which begins with:

“When Jesus had come down from the mountain….”

My aim in this blog is to re-discover Jesus the wisdom teacher. I am not trying to write a general commentary on the gospels so the three healing stories that Matthew tells here (chapter 8 verses 1 – 17) are, for me, an interlude. I wonder if Matthew had Moses in mind when he composed these verses. When Moses came down from the mountain on which he had received the ten commandments he was confronted with problems which had developed amongst the Israelites while he was up there for forty days (see Exodus chapter 31:18 and chapter 32). Perhaps Matthew saw the ‘sermon on the mount’ as the new commandment of love and now here’s Jesus as the new Moses responding to the crises he encounters.

Anyway, sticking to my overall plan, I can skip to verses 18 – 22 which include these startling words in response to a scribe who says he wants to follow Jesus:

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

And to someone described as a disciple who says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus replies:

Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.

Is Jesus being hard hearted here? I think not. I think this is the good news, the gospel, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. If the bereaved son or daughter thinks that following Jesus involves dropping all responsibility they have misunderstood the message. The time to follow Jesus is always now. Get that right and all one’s responsibilities take on an entirely new dimension. Elsewhere (Matthew chapter 22) Jesus tells us the parable of guests invited to a banquet who all begin to offer excuses. The crucial message is: I do not necessarily have to change what I am doing. It’s the way I am doing it that is profoundly changed when I have discovered how to follow Jesus. The banquet the guests are refusing to attend (the kingdom of God as it is called in the gospels) is always here and now. If I refuse the invitation I am saying, this is not the way I want to live my life. I am deaf to the message of Jesus, blind to the possibilities that his way of living opens up. No thanks, I’m too busy. I’m more concerned with my future, too burdened with responsibilities to follow you at this moment.

Now, why does the storm on the lake story follow on from the verses I have just been looking at and what about the story after that: the Gadarene demoniacs? I cannot possibly know what the author of Matthew’s gospel was thinking but I assume that he (she?) had reasons for arranging the stories in this particular order. For me personally the sequence makes sense. Jesus tells the grieving disciple to get the funeral arrangements in the right perspective. When the storm swamps the boat he tells his followers to have faith. When the mentally deranged Gadarenes come charging up to him yelling at him, the healing Presence of Jesus brings stillness and calm to them. People who have discovered the ‘Power of Now’, who practice the contemplative way of life, are not exempt from life’s trials and suffering but they are not swamped by them. What goes on in my head can be scary. What goes on around me in the world can sometimes threaten to swamp me. The good news is that the more I practice the way of Jesus the more these events and situations do not disturb the depths of the lake that is me. The surface may be very rough. The deeps are always still.

Know-it-all

Matthew chapter 7 verses 24 to 27:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock…….”

This morning as I sit to write this post it feels as if the rain is falling, the floods are rising and the wind is blowing. I won’t bore you with the personal details; just to say that I am thinking, who am I to be writing stuff about spirituality when I am feeling like this? The other temptation when I am feeling like this is to look around for help. Maybe, I should re-read that book, visit that church to pray, talk to that person ……?

The uncomfortable truth is that I am a ‘know-it-all’ – a phrase normally used in a critical way about bores who think they know everything. But in the spiritual life there does come a point at which being a ‘know-it-all’ is good. Finding yet another inspirational book, or speaker, or retreat centre can become an escape, a failure to act on what I know. What I need to know, or rather to remember, is that my house is built on rock; that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’; that there is ‘nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God’. This is what I forget too often and, of course, inspirational books and people do help me to remember. However, eventually I have to recognise that getting more knowledge won’t help. I am talking about  head knowledge. What I know in my head has to become stuff that I experience at a gut level, almost literally in my body. I re-member it, re-embody it and that is a process that can only happen from moment to moment. Perhaps this re-membering, this re-embodying, is the narrow gate through which Jesus says we must pass into the kingdom.

When J. S. Bach wrote his cantata ‘Ich habe genug (I have enough) he had in mind the old man Simeon who according to Luke’s Gospel, took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, in effect, ‘now I’m happy to die because I’ve seen all I need to see.’ (Luke 2: 29) You can hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the cantata at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSTDibqXuGo

So, at the end of this series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount you could say, “That’s it. That’s all I need. I have enough.” I could make this my last post for this blog but I think I’ll continue in the hope that I’ll find different ways of saying the same thing which, come to think about it, is probably what Jesus was doing. Words point to the reality but they are not that reality itself. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, ‘Don’t go babbling on’ and why he warned that not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’  enters the kingdom.

Perhaps this from Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Island’ is a good way to finish a series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount

“….people ought to take their religion warm from the cow, if you see what I mean. Not skimmed or pasteurized or homogenized. Above all not canned in any kind of theological or liturgical container.”

It’s not what it says on the tin

Beware of false prophets….you will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles. (Matthew chapter 7 verses15-20) 

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew chapter 7 verses 21- 23)

I find Roman Catholic imagery and worship off-putting so I was unsettled when one of my children married a Roman Catholic and became one also. But they and their two children are the most wonderful loving family and I love to spend time in their presence. Then again there are atheists and agnostics who exhibit the loving presence that I aspire to. And of course the same is true of Buddhists, Muslims and any other religious practice you can think of. As Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.” So the message for me is, don’t judge the contents of the tin by its label. Incidentally, I owe a great deal to Roman Catholic writers, who have opened up for me the path of contemplative prayer and living. I ‘know them by their fruits’.

Reader, if you care to go back to the very first post of this blog you will find there the principles on which I approach the Gospels, especially this from Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch: “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). Suddenly, at the end of today’s two passages you get a sense of the way in which the distinctive original voice of Jesus has been overlaid by the kind of conversation that produced Matthew’s Gospel: “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you: go away from me you evildoers’.” Here the immediacy of Jesus’ message has been exchanged for a future event called the Kingdom of God from which some people will then be excluded.

It has taken me years to accept that the first Christians were not a perfect bunch! True, they were part of an astonishing transformation of human society. It is also true that, just like us, they struggled to hear and understand the truth that Jesus taught. That is why the Gospels reflect that struggle; sometimes faithfully recording words that Jesus spoke; sometimes making assumptions that have shaped Christian history so that we too can find ourselves struggling to understand. The blog http://earliestchristianity.wordpress.com sheds light on that struggle and is worth looking at if you fancy a more scholarly approach to these questions than I am capable of.

Richard Rohr, one of those Roman Catholic writers I have found helpful, puts these words into the mouth of Jesus, “Don’t worship me. Follow me!” Now there’s a bright light to shine into the mysteries of the New Testament.

It’s open. Come in!

Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!                                   Matthew chapter 7 verses 7 – 11

William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, said, “When I pray coincidences happen.” My personal experience verifies the truth of this. Yet it was precisely this experience of ‘answers’ to prayer that undermined my traditional belief in a personal God ‘out there’ somewhere managing the affairs of this world (caricatured as the bearded old man above the skies). Why did this ‘God’ apparently ignore so many requests? There have been times when I wonder if my prayers have an almost geographical range. Blunderbuss requests for peace in Iraq or the poor in Africa have no (immediate) discernable effect, whereas sniper rifle shots at a specific, limited target seem to fall within the Archbishop’s truth. Please note that I speak here very tentatively. In my last post I referred to my unease when this mysterious process becomes the primary focus of religious events from Lourdes pilgrimages to Pentecostal healing services. Most of them are concerned with healing of one sort or another and of course I deeply desire healing: for people I love, for people I hear about in the media. The suffering of the world moves me.

The Archbishop’s point about coincidences can include physical and mental healing. Again, I can verify the truth of this from my own experience but still I find myself in the presence of mystery. Trying to explain it gets us into real trouble, especially the temptation to think that we can manipulate the process for our own selfish ends. (There are warnings about this kind of temptation a few verses after today’s passage and I’ll explore them in my next post.)

This morning in bed I was flooded by a sense of profound peace. What more could I want? There was no point in asking for anything. To do so would have been to superimpose my puny desire on this ineffable mystery. What I personally want seems pointless in the midst of such reality. So, still speaking very tentatively, I read “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find……” in the context of the rest of chapters 5 to 7. Apart from physical healing the question arises, how desperate am I to find the narrow gate; to enter the realm of the rule of love; to begin the rehabilitation process for my addiction to anxiety, resentment and all the rest of the mental junk that afflicts us? The good news, the Gospel, is that the door I am knocking at is open. The truth I am looking for, the peace I desire, is already present. As many saints and sages have testified, the God I am looking for has already found me: is and always was present in every fibre of my being. I am simply one beggar telling any other beggar who might be interested, where I have found bread.

Puppy dogs

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew’s Gospel chapter 7 verse 6)

 Can Jesus really have said something like this? Biblical scholars are divided on this one. I wonder if there’s a clue to the puzzle in chapter 15 verses 21 – 28 of Matthew’s Gospel: a story often quoted as the only example in the New Testament of Jesus changing his mind. He is being pestered by a Canaanite woman with a sick daughter and his response is, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Us Christians easily forget that Jesus was a Jew, steeped in what we call the Old Testament with its wonderful visions of the destiny of Israel as a focus for universal salvation. I can understand how Jesus might have wanted to confine himself to his fellow Jews as the best way to achieve his mission.

Surely these two stories relate to the same encounter? In the second one in chapter 15 there’s a subtle difference in the Greek word for dog. Here it might be translated ‘puppy’ which gives the story a different feel. In chapter 7 the story is followed by ‘Ask, and it will be given you….’ and that is exactly the point of the story in chapter 15. The woman persists in asking in spite of the off-putting response she gets at first from Jesus.

Now, I know from my limited personal experience that prayer is answered, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but the experience is by no means straightforward and I feel uneasy when this mysterious process becomes the primary focus of religious events from Lourdes pilgrimages to Pentecostal healing services. I’ll need a separate posting to explore this one.

Returning briefly to the dogs in verse 6, I feel on much firmer ground with the Buddhist maxim – ‘when the pupil is ready the teacher appears’. It’s no good teaching, or offering good news about Life with a capital L when people are not ready for it. There are appropriate moments and discerning them, waiting with alert patience for them, is vital otherwise the pearls will get lost in the mud.

If not now, when?

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.  (Matthew chapter 7 verses 13 and 14)

The narrow gate? What did Jesus mean?

I am part of a dispersed community called Contemplative Fire. Most of us live in the United Kingdom, though there are Companions on the Way (as we are called) in Canada and elsewhere on the planet. We commit ourselves to a threefold rhythm of life: A learning journey, crossing thresholds and the pivotal one, on which the first two depend is:

‘Encountering the present moment in quietness’.

I suggest that the narrow gate of which Jesus speaks is precisely this: the present moment. Isn’t this the key to much of his teaching? Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now is a world-wide best seller. There’s nothing new in what he says. Look carefully through the teaching of many Christian saints and sages and we discover that they all say the same thing in many different ways – ‘if not now, when?’ If we wish to discover the abiding Presence that we call God we should stop searching here, there, in the past, in the future. In fact we must simply stop searching. Rather, we must, in the words of the Psalm: Be still and know…..

I’ve been talking about addiction in the last few posts – our addiction to worry, anxiety, fear, resentment, anger and all the afflictions that our minds fill us with. Is this what Jesus calls the wide gate and the easy road? Surely he doesn’t mean that we actually prefer this state of mind? But look around you; look within yourself. It really does appear that we do rather like worrying, being resentful, angry and all the rest of it! Otherwise, why do we persist with such states of mind? Why do our newspapers and televisions successfully appeal to our sense of outrage, dissatisfaction and blame? Perhaps Jesus is right: it appears to us easier to put up with all the pain than to find the narrow gate, pass through and start out on the disciplined road of the present moment.

Even those of us who believe in the power of prayer and seek to practice the presence of God can be hoodwinked. We get upset about something and we think, I must get to church, go to Confession, find a quiet spot, book a session with my therapist, wait for this wait for that. What we often fail to appreciate fully is that, to quote Martin Laird,

God does not know how to be absent.

 This is why searching is pointless. What could be more pointless than looking for something that is already Present? This is why encountering the present moment in quietness is the key. It’s simple but it’s not easy. Given the pressures of our past personal experience and of contemporary life, we all need to keep practicing our spiritual five finger exercises (prayer, meditation, yoga – whatever helps us to excavate the present moment). For some of us the wounds of our past life are so deep seated that we can benefit from the outside support of a sensitive therapist or a spiritual accompanier. For all of us the rhythm of withdrawal/engagement is essential. As we practice, gradually it becomes a state of being that we live within moment by moment, whatever the outward circumstances of our life. Eckhart Tolle says, “If you miss the present step on the journey, you miss your life”. Let’s spell Life with a capital L because that’s what Jesus is inviting us into.

Rehab.

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Matthew chapter 7 verses 1 – 4)

Is Jesus offering here a rehabilitation programme for our addiction to worry, anxiety and resentment? Yes he is. However, the word ‘judgement’ carries heavy overtones for us, doesn’t it? (See my post for September 25th, The Sound Eye.) Yet, ‘Do not judge…’ are three of the most important words in the New Testament, provided that we read also the words that follow “…..so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make, you will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” For most of us, the rehabilitation programme starts when we stop judging ourselves. 

Faced with addiction of any kind we ask, ‘how do I get out of this?’ and we are inclined to give ourselves the answer, ‘if I were you I wouldn’t start from here’. But here, however, is the only possible place anyone can ever start from. We’ll look at this in more detail later when we deal with verse 13 of this chapter: “Enter by the narrow gate…”

Starting from here, in this moment, besieged and beset by our addictive behaviour is the only way forward. It is so obvious that we cannot start anywhere else but it is so counter-intuitive that we try every strategy except that of recognising and therefore welcoming the situation we’re in. ‘I don’t want to be here’ is what we are often saying and our response to that is to rush through what we are doing, or struggle with attitudes and thoughts we wish we weren’t having.

So here is the first step in our rehabilitation programme – notice the log.

And here is the crucial bit: just notice it, drop all judgement about it. Don’t immediately slap a label on it. And by the way I’m talking here not just about things we label ‘bad’ but also things we label ‘good’. Stick a label on something and you are … well….stuck with it!!

Please note that we are talking here about the vital first step. In the words of a famous hymn, ‘Just as I am, without one plea….’ Only after this first crucial step does the next one become clearer. Only then are we able to return to the practice of the presence of God. Actually, taking this first step opens up for us, however briefly, the peaceful vista of the promised land. Being the kind of people we are, it’s a step we have to keep on keeping on taking.

Addiction

Patience Strong was the pen name of someone who used to write regular ‘uplifting’ thoughts for a magazine here in the United Kingdom. They tended to be a bit ‘motherhood and apple pie’ as the Americans say. The final verse of chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel sounds a bit Patience Strong unless we read it, as Matthew obviously intends, in the context of his chapters 5 to 7.

 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”         (Chapter 6 verse 34)

The Greek word for ‘worry’ here pops up again in Matthew’s explanation of Jesus’ parable of the sower (chapter 13 verse 22) where it is translated ‘the cares of the world’. These are concerns that choke off the growth of the seed. There’s a suggestion of a divided mind as we saw a few verses back in this chapter. (See the last three or four posts in this blog). Us humans are addicted to the divided mind aren’t we? Addicted to worry I mean. It’s a perversion of the human genius for asking ‘what if?’ – a gift that has enabled us to survive countless threats throughout the millennia of our emergence. We are good at predicting and preparing for future situations. That’s how we developed agriculture all those millennia ago. But it is this very gift that becomes addictive and so inhibits our creative capacity to cope with real emergencies. Much more seriously, according to Jesus, our addiction to ‘what if?’ inhibits our emergence into full humanity. So we find ourselves constantly having to react to emergencies instead of allowing the growth of the seed (what Jesus calls the kingdom of God) that would actually equip us with infinitely greater capacity to cope creatively with all the problems that begin to threaten our very existence as a species.

So my task, as one vulnerable individual among the billions on the planet, is to nurture the seed planted in me and that means dealing with my addiction to my divided mind, to worry about stuff that might happen, about stuff that has happened and might happen again.

How? We could begin by recognising that what I am talking about is acutally a form of addiction (a word we usually reserve for drug or alcohol habits). For depressed people it’s an addiction to ‘I’m useless; I’m no good’ thoughts. For some of us it’s an addiction to resentment about something someone did to us in the past. We can be addicted to worries about our health, the food we eat, the clothes we ought to buy – just as Jesus suggested in verses 25 to 33 of this chapter. Many of us think this state of affairs in our heads is a normal part of being human. We don’t see it as a form of addiction because we don’t know there’s any other way of being. If we are lucky, however, we get dissatisfied with this way of being and we begin to wish we didn’t keep thinking these thoughts. With such dissatisfaction comes hope that things might be different.

We are coming to two crucial bits of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 7 of Matthew’s Gospel. They offer a rehabilitation programme for our addiction. They will be the focus of my next blog post.

Compassionate action

So, if you have followed me through the last seven blog posts on Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’: his skilful summary of Jesus’ teaching, we are ready to take an axe to the roots of our consumerist society. Well, that’s what these next words of Jesus seem to suggest –

“…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Chapter 6 verse 25)

 Monks and nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Those of us who desire to live the way of Jesus in our complex secular lives must find our own interpretations of these vows. I talked about chastity in my last blog post. Some rare and courageous individuals take the vow of poverty quite literally in their daily living – Hindu and Buddhist monks with their begging bowls for example as well as some Christians. The difficulty for them is that they have to rely on the rest of us who do plan ahead.

Looking carefully at verses 25 – 34 of this chapter 6, I do not think those of us who make plans for the week, or month, or even years ahead are excluded by Jesus’ teaching. Last week I heard the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University talking about their research programme. He told us that it has taken the last 8,000 years to achieve a 40% increase in agricultural productivity (No, I have not added a nought by mistake). Given the rapid increase in world population we need a similar 40% increase over the next 30 years. Scientists don’t have much time to help us avert a catastrophe. We can say the same about our response to climate change.

There are, of course, Christians who think the end of the world is a good and inevitable thing that God might bring about in our lifetime. Reading my blog, I think you will guess that I’m not one of them. The teaching of Jesus makes sense whatever we may think about the way the world might end. Notice one little word in verse 32. In the version I use it’s the word ‘strive’. Our consumerist society depends upon striving for the latest fashion, or some newly created take-away food. Jesus says,

“Strive first for the kingdom of God. So do not worry about tomorrow….” 

Notice, it’s not strive only but strive first. Get your priorities right. If you are an activist, be a contemplative activist. Act out of enlightened consciousness, not out of fear, desperation, hatred, contempt for politicians who are ‘getting it wrong’ or any other ‘I’m-right-you-are-wrong’ attitude. A Buddhist might say, listen to the cries of the world and act out of compassion and a Christian can fully embrace that. I am profoundly grateful for all the contemplatives-in-action whose compassionate striving is part of the silent revolution that is this stage of the evolution of human consciousness. They might help us avoid panicky short term solutions.