Tag Archives: Matthew

A Thorny Problem

My aim throughout this blog is to try and recover the message of Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing comes closer to his authentic voice than the parables. Here, at the beginning of chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel, is the well known parable of the sower.   Thorns are one of the reasons why the seeds don’t grow and I have to admit that, for me, there are several large thorns in the rest of the chapter. Look at the sequence of chapter 13.

  • Verses 1 – 9 the parable of the sower.
  • Verses 10 – 23. The disciples don’t get it so the parable is explained, but would Jesus himself have told parables deliberately to keep people out of the kingdom of God?
  • What’s more, in verses 24 to 30, the parable suggests that those who don’t get it are in for some gruesome punishment.
  • Verses 31 – 33 give us two simple parables, the mustard seed and the yeast, suggesting the way the kingdom of God opens up for us.
  • But then in verses 34 to 43 we’re back with explanations of the parables and more gruesome punishment for those who don’t get it.

It’s true, those early Christians had severe problems. They were confronted by their fellow Jews who not only didn’t get the message of new life offered by Jesus but actually persecuted those ‘heretical deserters’ from the ancient ways of Judaism. I can’t help feeling, though, that Matthew is putting words into the mouth of Jesus that he would not have spoken. In fact he tells us as much in verse 34: “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.” The contrast between the beatitudes of the sermon on the mount and these dire predictions of eternal punishment is too great for me. Fortunately, hidden in this chapter among these thorns, we catch glimpses of the open invitation to enter the kingdom offered by Jesus: the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price. R S Thomas expresses the truth of these parables in his poem The Bright Field:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

 

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

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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.

Christmas interlude

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.

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.

The sound eye

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6 verses 22 & 23

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

Open your eyes and light enters your body. That’s what people once believed, apparently in a simple, literal way. But here Jesus is pointing to something deeper and the 1611 King James Version gets nearer to what I think Jesus intended. It says, “…if therefore thine eye be single…” and “But if thine be evil….”.

An old lady spots a group of hoodies ahead so she crosses the road, being afraid of them. She falls and is momentarily concussed. When she comes round she finds herself surrounded by the hoodies anxiously caring for her. One of them has phoned for an ambulance.

We make lightning quick judgements on the basis of what we see. Often we are wrong. Our eyes give us information only about this instant. They don’t recall the past and they cannot foresee the future. The brain does that.

On several occasions Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” He is asking people to stop making judgements on the basis of what they have seen in the past so that they can actually see this person in front of them here and now. Seeing in this way is actually a form of repentance. Take a look at my second post in this blog: The Heart of the Matter, to see what I mean.

Wordsworth got it right in his poem, Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power
of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
we see into the life of things.”

Jesus gently pulls our legs about this truth in the story at the beginning of chapter 7: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We might say the logs are not in our eyes, they are in our brains. They are the judgements we so quickly make, like the old lady and the hoodies.

Since writing that last sentence, two days ago, I have become the victim of a telephone scam aimed particularly at older people. The caller pretended to be a policeman. He invited me to disconnect and dial 999 to verify this. Apparently, because the caller didn’t also disconnect, my 999 call went straight back to his telephone and I was therefore ‘hooked’. Would the hoaxer have succeeded if I had been in eye contact with him? I very much doubt it. Like the old lady and the hoodies we are all making judgements all the time but here, without eye contact I got it seriously wrong. I shall explore this in a later blog post when I get to chapter 7: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

Matthew’s Gospel

So far in this blog the focus has been Mark’s Gospel. Now it’s time to turn to Matthew. The author of this gospel had a copy of Mark and borrowed passages from it. Perhaps he had a more strongly Jewish background. Although he follows Mark’s general pattern, he expands it a lot, usually with Jewish Christian readers in mind. Some scholars suggest Matthew mirrored the Pentateuch (the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament) with his own five sections:

  1. The Sermon on the Mount. Chapters 5, 6 and 7
  2. Instructions for the twelve Apostles. Chapters 9 verse 35 to 10 verse 42.
  3. Parables. Chapter 13.
  4. Community regulations. Chapter 18.
  5. Condemnations and judgements. Chapters 23, 24 and 25.

There’s a wrap-up verse or two, the scholars suggest, at the end of each of these sections: Chapters 7 verses 28-29; 11 verse 1; 13 verse 53; 19 verse 1; and 26 verses 1-2.

So, focusing on Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher, the elusive Jesus of Nazareth (please see my very first blog post for this approach) we start with John the Baptist in chapter 3 who had an important influence on Jesus. John baptises Jesus and it’s clearly a profound experience for him (for Jesus, I mean). Following Mark here, Matthew goes straight on to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in chapter 4 verses 1 to 11. He expands Mark’s terse account (Mark chapter 1 verses 12 and 13) in a way which later Christians found helpful as they searched in the third and fourth centuries for clues about the spirituality of Jesus. These ‘desert fathers’ as they are called (though women were probably involved as well) had gone into the Egyptian desert to try and recover the essence of Christian spirituality. They spotted that Jesus dealt with temptation by using verses of scripture. Remember, no one was actually there in the desert with Jesus so he must have taught his followers this technique for coping with temptation.

You don’t believe in the devil? Neither do I but sometimes it feels as if what goes on in my mind is part of a deliberate policy to unsettle me! Perhaps Matthew did believe in the devil. It doesn’t matter. The point is that temptation is taken seriously here in chapter 4. “If you are the Son of God…..” The lure of the first two temptations is, ‘so you think you have a calling? think you’re someone special do you? Well then, surely you should have these special powers’. On holiday recently I found myself thinking, ‘what’s the point of all my meditating when it doesn’t make me special? All these people around me on this lovely sunny Greek island seem quite happy without all the spiritual stuff that I try to practice. Surely I ought to stand out from the crowd?’ But, what if I stop expecting anything special? What if I carry on with my daily spiritual routine without any expectation? What if I just try to be present, to live each moment as it comes, without foresight, without forethought? Hmm! Jesus had something to say about that kind of attitude in what we call the sermon on the mount, later in this Gospel. 

“All these I will give you……” This, the third temptation, is still surprisingly relevant to me, even in my ninth decade. I can still find myself regretting my lack of achievement, feeling I should have ‘made it’ in some way; or that I haven’t been recognized enough. This is the temptation to enter the kingdom of ego and pursue power, profit and reputation at the expense of truth. Of course younger people should exercise power, create profitable businesses, be successful politicians. Without all this human society can hardly function. The temptation however is to lose sight of the truth about who we are, to forget our essential vulnerability, to lose touch with the still, silent, immense Presence at the heart of the universe that therefore is at the heart of each one of us. More on these temptations in my next blog post in about a week’s 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 13 – 17

Tax gatherers were the hated stooges of the occupying Roman administration in Palestine when Jesus was alive. Now here’s Jesus calling Matthew, one of those stooges, to follow him. Matthew invites Jesus home to dinner and religious folk are not best pleased. They corner some of Jesus’ disciples and mutter:

“Why does he eat with tax gatherers and sinners?”

Jesus replies,

“Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

The basic stance of prayer is confession (see my previous post) but not as it has been widely understood in Christian circles for centuries. By confession I mean first a deep sense of longing, unease, dissatisfaction with the way I am. Later, once I have found the Compassionate  Presence that gives some fulfillment of my longing, some ease, some satisfaction, confession means a lack of pretence, a willingness always to say, ‘this is how I am at this moment’. But ‘this is how I am at this moment’ is not a blanket of weary resignation thrown over the whole of the rest of my life. It is simply a surrender to the way things are with me, in me, around me, at this moment. Put like this, it is madness to pretend that things are not as they are now, at this moment. But I am not telling myself that things are going to stay this way. In true confession I am not labeling the ‘things’ that are the facts about my situation at this moment. For example if I have a headache, I have a headache. That’s a fact. If I tell myself, ‘Oh my God, it must be a brain tumour!’  That, to put it mildly, is an opinion. If I am feeling angry with someone that’s a fact to be acknowledged (confessed) without pretence, without running a commentary about it in my head, especially without going over the event which caused my anger, or feeling guilty about being angry, or imagining what I might do about it in the next few seconds, or minutes, or days, or weeks. Given the speed with which my mind can gallop away with any of these thoughts when I am angry, it is best if my ‘confession’ focuses on the actual physical sensations that are happening – pounding heart, flushed cheeks, sensations in the pit of my stomach. Why is it OK to practice confession in this way? Because nothing separates me from the Compassionate Presence which we often call God, which is actually the deepest truth about us. Does this mean that there’s nothing else for me to do about it? Not necessarily by any means. It does mean that confession enables me to see clearly what, if anything, needs to be done and how to do it.