Tag Archives: Gospel of Matthew

What lurks in the cellar?

Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 5 verses 17 – 26

We should be like cows grazing in the meadow. Coming to a thistle, it is best not to get upset: just move gently on to some fresh green grass. In this sermon on the mount meadow I come to verses 17 – 20: several thistles! Some scholars think these verses represent the struggle of those very first Christians in Jerusalem (Jews, remember) as they tried to reconcile their profound experience of Jesus with their Jewish upbringing. Since I am not attempting a scholarly blog I can quietly let the scholars get on with their (important) discussions and move on.

The grass gets greener in verse 20:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom.”

It looks like a thistle at first sight but look at what follows in the rest of this chapter 5. We get a series of sayings each beginning with, “You have heard it said…..but I say to you…..” Each one highlights a practical outcome of the shift in consciousness I talked about in my last post. If they look impossible to achieve that’s because we haven’t ‘repented’: we haven’t made the shift into the kingdom consciousness. We haven’t learned how to ‘let go and let God’. Therefore we don’t know who we truly are.

Perhaps Jesus got a bit frustrated with people who asked him for a ‘sign’ (see Matthew 24: 23-27; Luke 11:29; John 4:48). They were looking everywhere for the truth except inwards. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was already an Anglican priest when he heard a sermon in a Moravian church in Fetter Lane, London. He reported, “I felt my heart strangely warmed”. Now, I cannot ‘strangely warm’ my heart to order. Such an experience is not mine to manipulate. It is a gift. I can receive it. I can ignore it, or even reject it. I cannot make it happen. I can put myself in the way of it, hope for it, ask for it. If I have eyes to see, ears to hear, if I let go of all that I think I know, I discover that the gift has already been given. I discover that it was lying there within me, unopened, all the time. It might be hidden amongst the junk I have collected in my search for meaning and truth but it was there from the beginning.

What follows in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount are examples of how the junk gets in the way: anger, for example, in verses 21-26. Here I am, feeling angry with someone, just at the moment when I want to do something good: to offer my gift at the altar, as Jesus puts it. What to do? Deal with the anger first, says Jesus. That means first, accept that I am feeling angry. Trying to ignore it, push it away, won’t help. That’s just pushing around the junk in the cellar of my mind, disturbing a lot of dust maybe, anything but finding the gift that lies there in the depths of my being. So step one is, accept that I am feeling angry. I’ve picked up a piece of my mental junk. Step two: don’t throw it away in disgust. That just raises more dust and disturbs the other junk that’s lying around. Put in down gently and wait. What then becomes clearer is the next step. That’s the wonder of the gift of the strangely warmed heart. The next step may indeed be to go and say sorry, or explore gently with the other person why I’m feeling angry with them. Quite often, though, such a step becomes unnecessary once I have gently put the anger junk down. It simply subsides. Notice I keep using the word ‘gently’. Getting agitated about feeling angry is, well, more junk! It’s like worrying about being worried.

So where is this gift of the strangely warmed heart? Why can’t I find it? Well, I’ll never find it so long as I keep poking about amongst the junk in the cellar. It’s not just another package. Stand still amongst all the clutter. Wait, quietly. Look! It’s the whole cellar!! And here’s the astonishing good news. If dealing with the junk takes me down into this wonderful cellar then even the junk is useful. Tempting junk? Bring it on because it can help me discover who I truly am in the depths of my being!!

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Salt and light

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5 verses 13-16

How did Jesus read the scriptures (what we Christians now call the Old Testament)? The answer must surely be: with an entirely fresh and startling (not to say revolutionary) insight. There are clues, for example in Luke’s gospel 4: 14-21 when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue and comments on the passage. Or think of Psalm 37 verse 34: “Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land,” and compare that with, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”

So what are we to make of, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil….” (verses 17 – 20). Jesus is inviting us, not into an ever stricter legalistic approach; he’s saying make the shift from your head to your heart, see into the heart of things. In other words, repent, that is enter into an entirely new and revolutionary way of being in the world. When we make this shift, this change of consciousness, we become those who are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

That’s why those who make this shift are blessed. They (we) become part of a much wider shift in human consciousness, a river you might say, that is sometimes little more than a trickle, sometimes a broad steady flow. It is not confined to any one religious tradition. In my tradition today some call it emergent Christianity.

The collection of pithy sayings we call the Sermon on the Mount explores some practical consequences of this shift in consciousness. Whether or not Jesus actually uttered them in this order as one sermon doesn’t matter. What really matters is to read them as clues to what happens when we discover who we truly are. Of course they often show us how we have forgotten who we truly are; when it comes to anger, for example, or our ‘enemies’. The good news, the gospel, that also emerges in these chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is that failure is always an opportunity, an invitation to return home to that centre and ground of our being. More on the sermon on the mount next time.

Mark chapter 6 verses 45 – 52. Walking on water.

The relationship between Jesus and his closest followers was forged around the large lake called the Sea of Galilee. Several of his disciples were fishermen who knew the lake well. Jesus taught on its shores and travelled on its waters with his fishermen friends. Their experience of Jesus led to the outburst of spiritual energy called the Resurrection. The magnetism of that energy, pulsating through the men and women who had known Jesus, and especially through Paul of Tarsus who had not known him, created the communities which became the Christian church. The gospel writers were each part of one of these communities. What they wrote emerged out of memories of what Jesus had said and done and reflection on all that had happened since his death.

Why do I mention all this? Because I am fascinated by two stories which appear in all four gospels – a rare occurrence in itself. In both stories the disciples are caught in a storm on the lake. In one Jesus is in the boat with his disciples. In the other (here in chapter 6) he comes to them walking on the water through the storm.

I have already posted a blog on September 30th about Mark’s stilling the storm story. (Matthew’s version is in chapter 8 verses 23-27 and Luke’s in chapter 8 verses 22-25). Now we come to Mark’s walking on the water story (paralleled in Matthew 14: 22-23 and John 6: 16-21. Luke doesn’t relate the story). We might ask, are these stories an accurate memory of something that actually happened or are they part memory, part reflection in the light of those vibrant new Christian communities within which the gospel writers lived and worked? Readers of this blog will know what my answer is!

Two things puzzle me about the walking on the water story. In Mark, Matthew and John (Luke doesn’t have the story, remember) the disciples think the figure approaching through the storm is a ghost. Secondly, only Mark ends his story with these words:

And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

What on earth have loaves got to do with it?! Matthew and John don’t mention them, but all three gospels place this story after the feeding of a large crowd with loaves and fish, so there’s a connection somewhere.

For clues to these puzzles let’s look first at some passages from the Psalms:

Some went down to the sea in ships,
 doing business on the mighty waters; 
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep. 
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
 which lifted up the waves of the sea. 
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
 and were at their wits’ end. 
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress; 
he made the storm be still,
 and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven. Psalm 107: 23-30

18:16  he drew me out of the mighty waters

69:1 Save me O God for the waters have come up to my neck

77:16 When the waters saw you O God they were afraid…. (and verse 19): your way was through the sea.

89:9 You rule the raging of the sea.

Clearly the gospel writers had these passages in mind as they wrote their stories.

My next clue lies in chapter 21 of John’s gospel. In this post-Resurrection story Peter and some other disciples have been fishing unsuccessfully all night. Jesus is waiting on the shore but they do not recognise him. (As if he was a ghost?) He tells them to try once more for some fish and – bingo! – a huge haul. John says, “It is the Lord!”. They come ashore with their catch and there is Jesus, waiting for them with an invitation to breakfast. “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it too them and did the same with the fish.” Remember the feeding of the feeding with loaves and fishes?

Surely here in all these stories we have recollections of the remarkable presence of Jesus, his utter stillness in the midst of a storm on the lake, his complete trust in the God he called ‘Abba’, his enjoyment of meals as profoundly social occasions from which no one was excluded. Whatever else the Resurrection may have been it was surely a process of reflecting on this real Presence of Jesus. So still, today, when things go wrong, when negotiating a large crowd in a busy city street, at meal times and ultimately facing mortality and death, a Presence arises within us if we are attentive and let it be so.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 1 -12. Forgiveness

The colours of the rainbow are beautiful but without sunlight they would not exist. The teaching of Jesus is pure, undivided sunlight but it helps if we pass it through a prism so we can see all its rainbow colours. This is what Gospel writers do. In my first blog post I looked at Mark chapter 1 verse 15 which gives us the themes of time, kingdom and repentance. Now, in this story at the beginning of chapter 2 we get a fourth vibrant colour of Jesus’ teaching – forgiveness. The story appears in all four gospels which is unusual. In John’s version the Scribes object to the healed paralytic carrying his mat on the Sabbath. For the three synoptic Gospel writers it’s Jesus’ claim to forgive sins which upsets the Scribes. Here is Mark’s version (which Matthew and Luke have borrowed) but I’ve shortened it for the sake of brevity in this post.

3. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. 4. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and …they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  …. 10. ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority of earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic – 11. ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’

Several of Jesus’ parables shed light on the power and primacy of forgiveness. He had infinite compassion for those who felt they were no good at following in his way. Paul of Tarsus understood the power and necessity of forgiveness. “Wretched man that I am”, he writes in his letter to the Romans, “who will deliver me from this body of death?” His answer follows immediately: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What inhibits my ability to follow the way of Jesus is the power of my mind to drag me away from the present moment in which the kingdom lies hidden. I am booby trapped with land mines of the past and sometimes consumed with fear about the future. I have experienced the trauma of being a vulnerable infant in a world which is blind to the kingdom. Then there is that primitive, animal part of my brain which still, after millennia of evolution, tries to ask of any unknown situation, ‘Do I fight it? Run away from it? Eat it? Mate with it?’

Beset by all that paralyses me, forgiveness is the dynamic key that sets me free to pick up my mat and follow the path that Jesus has mapped out for humanity. Forgiveness has very little to do with the past, except when guilt, resentment, and pain cripple me now in the present and so blind me to the power and Presence of the kingdom. Most writers on the practice of contemplative prayer urge gentleness as we deal with all that distracts us from the reality of the Presence. To observe without judgement but with gentle awareness all the antics of our minds is to practice forgiveness.

Some people, of course, have been so deeply hurt by the brutality of others that forgiveness does not come easily to them even though lack of it prevents them from moving on. The press often suggests that a public enquiry will bring closure for child abuse victims, for example. Of course public enquires into child abuse are an essential tool but they do not enable the victims to move on into abundant life. Only the practice of forgiveness can do that.

And here’s a startling truth. Forgiveness cannot be practiced without confession. What?! A child abuse victim should ‘confess’?!! Yes, if by ‘confession’ we mean a total, unconditional, non-judgemental acceptance of myself just as I am now in this present moment, with all my pain about the past; all my hope for the outcome of an enquiry into the abuse or the trial and conviction of my abuser. When I adopt this attitude of total acceptance of the way things are for me at this moment, suddenly forgiveness is at work. For deeply hurt people the process will take time and outside help may well be needed but sooner or later the truth will dawn that the dynamic of forgiveness is always, unconditionally available. Then the outcome of any enquiry becomes irrelevant at least for the victim’s spiritual and psychological health and wholeness. They are able to ‘take up their mat and walk in the pure sunlight of the Presence which Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’.

Forgiveness is not a mental activity that I can exercise at will, just by thinking about it. I enter into it when I ‘repent’ and discover that it is part of that total, ongoing experience which Christians have called the Resurrection, the ever present, pure sunlight of the Presence.