Tag Archives: Gospel of Matthew

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.

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.

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:

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Who needs religion?

Only in chapter 6 does Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount get round to religion. Almsgiving, prayer, fasting: apparently we should do these things secretly –

  • verse 3: “But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
  • verse 6: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”
  • verse 18: “….so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret….”

So why do we make prayer such a public activity? Lots of people find it difficult to get a rhythm of private spiritual practice going. They do most of their praying when they go to a church service. If we look at Luke’s account of Jesus teaching his followers to pray we might think he had to be persuaded to do it. Luke chapter 11 has one of the disciples saying, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples”. Luke seems to suggest that they had watched Jesus at prayer and wanted to know how to do it. If John could teach his disciples, why couldn’t Jesus do the same?

What the sermon on the mount seems to suggest, what Jesus seems to suggest, is that there is something more important than simply going to church. Religious practice, going to church (challenging and uplifting as it often is), may not deal with the junk in our personal cellars (see my last two blog posts). Indeed this junk, often labelled ‘the ego’, gets in the way so much that our religious practice may actually encourage it. Think of Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer in the temple (Luke chapter 18 verses 9 – 14). This is why the basic stance of prayer is confession, by which I mean, no deception (of myself or anyone else). Confession is nothing to do with grovelling guilt. It is the simple, honest, acknowledgement that this is me, warts and all, at this moment. No ifs, no buts, just me with all this junk in the cellar.

Now, here’s the miracle, the good news. We discover that this basic stance turns out to be not just confession but confession/forgiveness: a dynamic, perpetual process. Look at verse 14 and compare it with Mark chapter11 verse 25 and John chapter 20 verse 22/3. Clearly, for the Gospel writers, forgiveness is central to whatever we mean by prayer, indeed for the whole Christian way of life. As the American novelist Saul Bellow wrote, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required”. Amen to that.