Observe the flow through the last few chapters of Matthew: In Chapter 13 we hear about Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. Chapter 14 begins with an alternative kingdom which is the kingdom of Herod, and his feast; exclusion, fear, exploitation and, finally, murder. Then Jesus shows us the feast of the true Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven in story of the Feeding of Five Thousand men, with women and children, as well; inclusion, safety, healing, and compassion. We are then shown the lordship of Jesus over the whole creation, and over all the chaos of creation, which includes us and our culture, in the story of walking on the water. And soon, (Chapter 15:32-39) we will see another Feast which is specifically shaped to emphasise the inclusion of Gentiles in the Kingdom of Heaven.
It all leads to this point: God's Kingdom is for all peoples.
In all of this there is a movement from the crowd in general, to the particular behaviour of individuals. Compassion, healing, and love, all become very personal things; none of us are exempt. It is we who make up the crowd, both in our need, and in our nastiness.
This week we begin with Jesus in Jewish territory, although Galilee was considered less orthodox than Judea and Jerusalem. The whole story is taking place in the world of Jewish orthodoxy, the proper Jewish people are the ones who are being upset by Jesus, and already, by being in Galilee, he is on the margins.
But then he goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon which is not only gentile territory, but is highlighted by Matthew as Canaanite. This is the place, and these are the people, of the old enemy. Mark D. Davis wonders if there may be an Old Testament memory here that Matthew wishes to evoke. In 1 Kings 17, Elisha is sent to Zarephath: "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you."
Being fed— given life— is central to the expounding of the Kingdom in Matthew. How ironic that a holy man of Israel who goes to Sidon is fed, and that another holy man of Israel refuses (at first) to feed a woman of Tyre and Sidon!... Read on >>>>
Did you hear about the netballer who was asked how many how many goals she had kicked during the game on Saturday? That's what's called a category mistake. It is not so much asking the wrong question, as completely misunderstanding what's going on!
(If you live in the USA: netballers don't kick the ball.)
In the story where Jesus walks on the water, we often make a category mistake. We ask whether he really walked on the water or not. But that's a question of our time, not Jesus' time. It's not the wrong question— it simply misses the point.
In Jesus' time there were people, without doubt, who simply assumed that he literally walked on the water. And there were other people— both groups including followers of Jesus— who assumed he didn't walk on the water; that idea would have made no sense to them. It was not the question they would have asked about the story.
The question that was of interest to Jesus' people was not, "Did it really happen?" but "What does this story mean? What on earth happened to make Matthew tell us this story?"
That's the question we're going to look at this morning. We could ask the other question, and we could argue about it for ages, but I'm pretty sure it would not get us anywhere useful.
Water, and particularly lakes and the sea, were symbols of a place for chaos and evil in Jesus' time... Read on >>>>
You can listen to this post here. (18 minutes)
When is a “nature miracle” something else?
On the surface, this miracle story is making an obvious point. Jesus is Lord even of the sea. He can walk over the place where evil and chaos lie... Matthew adds to Mark’s story of the night on the lake (in Mark 6) by having Peter get out of the boat, at Jesus’ command, and begin the impossible. For a few moments, he too, walks on the water. It’s a vivid image of living the impossible until we look at the power of the wind and sink into our fears. Yet even then, Jesus saves us.
But Mark D Davis says
I have often thought that this was the most useless “miracle” in all of the gospels. With no obvious upside – like a healing or exorcism or feeding the masses – the miracle here simply seems to be a demonstration that Jesus is “the son of God” and has the ability to do things that others have too much doubt to do. … I am not saying that every miracle needs to serve a utilitarian purpose that is evident to me in order for me to find meaning in it. But, I do not sense – from the general direction of the gospel – that miracles are meant to be simple demonstrative proof of Jesus’ sonship of God.
There is some force to this argument. The miracles are not about brute power. There is something more subtle going on. If we do not look for this, we will be like those in John's Gospel who came not because they saw signs, but only because they ate their fill of the loaves. (John 6:26)... Read on >>>>
I've had some discussion with a colleague about my post on Matthew 14 with a colleague. As always, he has been incisive in his critique, and forced me to clarify what I am trying to say. Underlying our discussion are a number of issues which are often not acknowledged. Not least of these is the immense pressure that comes "from the pews," and other places, not to betray the received understanding of particular portions of scripture or, indeed, the received understanding of wider theology or doctrines of the church.
There are also profound interpretive issues which will affect what we see in any scriptural story. Some are highlighted in the current week's reading, which is The Feeding of the Five Thousand (plus women and children) in Matthew 14.
Who are we as we interpret scripture? Are we looking to preserve the way we read texts, or are we seeking to be transformed, opened to new possibilities? This is at the heart of much debate about biblical interpretation, although not always obviously so.... Read on >>>>
I have been troubled by Magic Jesus for most of my Christian life. Every time anything startling happens, there he is, working some more magic— although people call it a miracle. But it is magic. It moves stuff around just like Harry Potter does. It moves stuff which, just as in Harry Potter, we know can't be moved like that. How then can what the Bible says be true, instead of being Harry Potter: Draft One?
I understand the appeal of Magic Jesus. He lets us read the text without too much reflection or work: the Bible says it, I believe it. Believing in Him means that we are not ostracised, or even persecuted, by His many followers. And I grew up with the story of Magic Jesus. If it were true, everything would be all right in the end. I have emotional loyalty to the story. Or is that "loyalty" simply one more reluctance to grow up and live in harsh reality?
And belief in Magic Jesus appears to give him, and therefore God, lots of power. We say we believe in Jesus because of God, but many of us believe in God because of Jesus, and a Magic Jesus bolsters God's claims to power.
The problem with the power of Harry Potter, despite Harry's goodwill, is that he uses the same power as he who must not be named. He does a violence against the physics of reality, which is all too easily a violence against other people. Gentle though he is, his power is of the same order as the satan of the series; there is no qualitative difference beyond Harry's goodwill and the ill will of the other.... Read on >>>>
You can listen to this here
My change in understanding "life after death" seems to have come from an appreciation of the absoluteness of physical death. As a new Christian I had assumed that Jesus gave us, in some way, life after death. That was not something I had explored. It was more a way, I think, of avoiding death. It basically took death off the table, but if the Terror Management Theorists and the Girardians are correct, it was basically a denial of death. I was using my religion "under the table" to avoid the issue of death, just as other people immerse themselves in sport or computer coding.
The next step came as I understood the finality of death in its physical aspects. If we are merely physical, then death is completely destructive. If we are merely physical, we are dependent upon the physical substrate of our brain for our consciousness and being. And so I learned to live with that. I accepted it as given, and as inevitable. I began to cease the denial of my death. It's one of the side effects of burying your friends. Read on >>>>
I planned a three day ride up into the Flinders, but this came unstuck with a broken spoke on the first day, 123 km north of Adelaide. A wheel should keep running with one spoke missing, but I've been down this path before and found that eventually another spoke will go. So heavier gauge spokes or not, I was not going into more remote country on a suspect back wheel. Day One was a 246km training ride up past Clare and back home! Read on >>>>
For 40 years, this farm kid has read the Parable of the Mustard Seed with a nagging question: who in their right mind would plant mustard? Mustard is a weed. Blinded by my father's love of Dijon and English Hot, it has never occurred to me that the Farmer might not be growing condiments, but might be sowing a weed called Jesus.
And the Woman is hiding yeast in the unleavened bread of Passover.
After this pithy introduction, I am about to embark on a long exploration with lengthy quotations. I think it's worth following through. The parables of the Kingdom of Heaven, here in Chapter 13 of Matthew, and again in Matthew 25 expose a radical reorientation of our way of being. We tend to reduce them to something less, which has lost its edge.
Matthew 13 can appear to be a somewhat disconnected compilation of stories. But what if "he means what he says and knows what he means," as Mark D Davis puts it? What if we read the text as a whole— as having a driving purpose, rather than leaving out pieces, and reordering our reading of the parables, as the Revised Common Lectionary does? What do we hear then? ... Read on >>>>
I am not writing a First Impressions this week, as I am privileged with a few days leave.
I have listed previous posts on the text, and offer this short excerpt from James Alison, which informed much of my post Pigsty or Paradise from last week.
James Allison on Judging
He is speaking of the changes in the perceptions of the disciples after they meet the crucified and risen Jesus
It is very difficult for us to imagine the huge change of perception underway here, but it could be described as to change from a perception of a god in which the deity has a double face, saying "yes, but…" or "yes, and no," or "yes, if…," to the perception according to which God only and unconditionally says, "yes." Another way of putting it is as a change from a god who is both good and bad, who loves and who punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all. Jesus had begun to teach this to his disciples, but it had been incomprehensible to them until after the resurrection. Consider Jesus' teaching that God makes the sun to shine on good and bad alike and causes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. This has the effect of removing God completely from the sphere of reference of our human morality, excluding him from any participation in judging and condemning humans. The same thing happens in the parables: we are not to separate the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30) in this life, because we cannot judge adequately, and God's judgement has nothing to do with our own. (Raising Abel pp42-3)
It is not so much that we will pull out the wrong plants, good seed instead of weeds. Rather, as human beings, we do not perceive God's categories of judgement. We do not know what weed and good seed actually are; our whole enterprise is based on exclusion and personal/group safety underpinned by human violence. We do not know how God sees us. We cannot conceive of a God who is "all yes."
We wish to judge. But "… there is no ambivalence at all in God: God is not "love, but also vengeful justice," but purely and unambiguously love." (pp43)
Alison goes on to note that Paul's comment in Romans 1
they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools… (1:21-22)
and the rhetorical trap of Romans 2:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. (2:1)
In some of the posts below, I address how one might keep people safe, but not exclude or judge those who we find difficult, or even evil. I have no concrete answers here, except one: If I exclude you, I have failed the Kingdom to which God invites me to enter. Perhaps failure is the best I can do to keep some who are vulnerable safe, but it is always failure.
Andrew Prior (2017)
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