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.
Nine years ago it was – December 2005. In a bookshop here in central London I picked up a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’. It was one of those apparently random choices that produce an extraordinary Aha! experience. Suddenly I could see clearly what I had been searching for since the 1950s. Books I had read over the years, experiences, fumblings in the dark, all fell into a pattern. “So that’s what it’s all about” was my underlying feeling/thought.
Isn’t this what happened to those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Especially the authors of the Gospels? Whether or not they had actually met Jesus in the flesh, things fell into place when they heard his message and reflected on his life. What they had read and pondered over the years before was what we Christians now call the Old Testament. Suddenly in the light of their experience of Jesus, it was alive with startling fresh meaning. ‘So that’s what it means’ must have been their frequent response.
Time and again the Gospel authors weave passages from the Old Testament into their accounts. This year in the approach to Christmas I have been struck as never before by the astonishing creativity of both Luke and Matthew in their nativity stories. Are there any other passages in the whole of literature that have been the source of such a two thousand year stream of artistic and spiritual inspiration as these two?
Might it be one of the gifts of this doubting, skeptical age to accept the liberal scholarly consensus that we are dealing here, with poetic mythical writing, not a factual account? I for one am set free as never before to relish and revel in these stories, allowing them their own artistic integrity.
I must admit that I prefer Luke’s version. He concentrates on the women: more appropriate, don’t you think, for a story about a birth? Matthew is a bit too dark for me, though I can understand why folk feel it’s more appropriate in our present troubled world.
Luke’s story of the angelic messenger to Mary ends with, ‘then the angel departed from her’. After all the commercial hype, that’s what happens on Christmas day, don’t you think? It can feel a bit flat. However, in the midst of whatever happens to you at Christmas and in the coming year may you know the Presence that does not depart.
I’ll be back with my next post on Matthew’s Gospel in the new year.
St Mark’s gospel chapter 9
“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.” (Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)
But sometimes those conversations become so loud that the voice of Jesus is drowned out. Biblical scholars can interpret the conversations for us but when they have done their work we are left with the challenge: how much of it is relevant for me here in the 21st century? What resonates with my experience now? How can I respond from the heart?’ In 1963 a couple of Jews turned Christians published a book with the startling title, ‘God Is No More’. (A phrase, by the way, from a William Blake poem). Introducing it they wrote:
“At such a time, when the centre of life has been evacuated for its suburbs and the father’s furniture moved into the spare room, we become free – for better, for worse – for a new beginning…..we could once again listen attentively and without prejudice to the words of and about the man Jesus of Nazareth. We are no longer tempted to fit those words into a system – there are no systems left, except in the spare room. We need not try to fit them into the religious thought forms of our age – there is little religion left except in the suburbs. Today we could be met by the simple, ‘naked’, ‘untheologised’ words of Jesus, and if we are lucky they will disturb, frighten, shock and puzzle us – as life itself…..Now the words concerning Jesus consist of words about him and of words alleged to have been spoken by him. It is not easy to draw the line between these two kinds of words. ….But I believe that in most instances the imaginative ear can still pick out the sound of an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice.” (Werner & Lotte Pelz, ‘God Is No More’ page 12/13)
“…an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice” the Pelz’s wrote. It’s the consistent message of this blog that to discover and hear echoes of that voice is to receive a message which resonates with the spiritual longing of increasingly large numbers of people. It’s a message with echoes in Buddhism, and some aspects of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and elsewhere. Tomorrow I’ll listen for echoes of that voice in chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel.
Did you know that the earliest manuscripts of Gospels that we have were written in Greek capital letters with no gaps between words, no punctuation, and no division into chapters and verses? The earliest manuscript is a small fragment of John’s Gospel dating from about 125 CE.
So, the end of chapter one of Mark’s Gospel marks an artificial division that some later editor has imposed. So far as we know Mark didn’t put those divisions in his original manuscript which is lost. (Incidentally, if there’s any reader of this blog out there who knows when chapter and verse divisions were introduced and by whom I would be glad to hear from you.) The Gospel writers weren’t just stringing together sayings of Jesus and stories about him. They weren’t writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. They had a plan, a message they wanted to get across. They were part of that great onward flow of the river ‘Jesus Event’. They were helping to shape what we now call Christianity and the Church. Whatever facts they knew about the history of Jesus of Nazareth, they took and shaped according to the purpose they had in mind. Later editors noticed what the Gospel writers were trying to do and introduced chapter and verse divisions to help readers see what they could see.
So far, I’ve been publishing a post more or less every day but things cannot go on at this pace. I’m retired and I’ve got plenty of time but I’m aware that many readers are much busier than I am, so I’m going to limit myself to two posts a week. Actually it will be slightly more than a week before my next post which will focus on the fourth fundamental part of Jesus’ teaching – forgiveness. I dealt with the other three in my first post.