Posts Tagged ‘Matthew’

What kind of gospel is this?

Let’s be honest with one another. I hate the fact that this is the lectionary text this week. It’s a terrible story. Very un-gospel-y. It makes Jesus look like a jerk. It’s confusing, and full of what seem to be secret metaphors I don’t immediately understand. It feels incomplete. It makes me stop and ask the question, “What kind of gospel IS this?”

I try to preach and pray from the lectionary for one very particular reason: it keeps me honest as a believer. It makes me read stories like this, that are hard. It stretches me not to stick with what is comfortable, because the gospel isn’t comfortable. This Matthew text where Jesus meets the Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter definitely makes the list. What is the story we’re looking at today?

Jesus had just left “that place,” where he’d been ministering to the people – he’s headed toward Jerusalem, on the downswing of the gospel story, toward the cross. We’re more than halfway through Matthew, and he’s starting to really build momentum.

The district of Tyre and Sidon where he’s headed are outside the boundaries of Israel proper. Jesus actually told his disciples in chapter 10 not to go to these areas. However, while Tyre and Sidon aren’t Jewish, there are large pockets of Jewish settlements north of the Galilean border in these territories.

So here comes Jesus, striding through this territory, likely with his mind on how to proclaim the gospel to the Jews he would find there, and BAM here comes this Canaanite woman, shouting after him. The disciples follow – after all, that’s what they do – and everyone in the traveling party hears her yelling.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!”

She literal screams for mercy.

And what does Jesus do? The scripture says, “But he did not answer her at all.”

What?!? He ignores her. A screaming, frantic local woman. Probably pretty difficult to pretend she wasn’t there, but that’s what he does.

So the disciples hurry up to him. In my heart, when I read this text, I sort of breathe a sigh of relief, “Yeah, of course, this is a test. They’re going to beg him to help her and everything will be okay.”

Except. It doesn’t go like that at all. Instead, they beg for their OWN mercy…
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

They’re more worried about their own precious eardrums than the woman in pain in front of them…

What in the world is going on here? Usually, when the disciples are uncaring, Jesus finds a way to correct them. But here, HERE, Jesus seems to be on their side! What can this possibly mean? What sort of Gospel IS this?

Let’s talk briefly about this woman. The Israelites and the Canaanites had historically been terribly at odds. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Canaanites had been in the Promised Land LONG before the Israelites wandered in from the wilderness. And once the Israelites got there, all they wanted to do was to have God destroy the people living there already, to make space for them. The Promised Land wasn’t empty when they arrived.

So this woman is outside of Jesus’ frame of reference in some pretty striking ways. Their cultures are at odds, sort of enemies – in ethnicity, in heritage, in religion. Her behavior is entirely unacceptable for the time. She’s a Gentile woman approaching a Jewish man, and she is not reserved, respectful, and quiet. She’s shouting, she’s likely running, she’s demanding. Unacceptable. She’s a gentile and unclean. And where’s her husband? Meanwhile, she’s got this daughter who’s ill with demon possession. In a Jewish world worried about who’s in and who’s out, who’s clean and who’s not – this woman is as much an outsider to Jesus’ group as it can get.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus only ministers to Gentiles 3 times. Once to the centurion in Capernaum, once to the Gaderene demoniac who lives among the tombs, and (ultimately) here. His mission, he says to the disciples as they tell him to shoo off this woman, is to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” What he’s basically saying is, “This is not my problem. I’ve got my eye on other things.”

What sort of Gospel IS this?

When you hear these texts, it might make you wonder who you consider to be inside, and who is out. Where do we draw the lines and who matters? People of Jesus’ time asked these questions, and we do, too.
If we only have so many hours in a day and so many dollars to spend, who gets our resources? We live in a world of scarcity. Who gets our generosity and who gets our silent rejection?

These are tough questions to face.

It might surprise us that Jesus has to face the same questions, and he struggles with them.
He is focused on who he is and what he is about. He has come as prophet, priest, and king to restore his people – the Jewish people – to their right place in the world and their right place with God. The cross is coming.
There’s a lot of work to be done. He can’t do it all, and focusing may be the difference between success and failure.

Basically, Jesus has been called by the Father to bring people to repentance and to hear the good news about the Kingdom of God, and in Matthew – but not in Luke or Mark’s gospels, where he ministers to Gentiles in numerous contexts – his calling is limited to the Jewish people. Limited.

But here’s this non-Jewish woman begging for mercy from him. She’s planted herself in his path – literally – and won’t be ignored.

She kneels before him and says, “Lord, help me.” The mercy she is begging of him is something she believes he owes her. The word she uses is the same one that the merciful receive in the beatitudes “the merciful shall receive mercy.” It’s the same quality the unforgiving servant in chapter 18:33 lacks when he refuses to forgive the debts of his debtor. Mercy, here, is a challenge. She is challenging Jesus to admit that he has an obligation to God and to people to pay back debts that HE has. This is revolutionary. Does she really think Jesus owes her something?

Jesus doesn’t. In fact, he answers her harshly by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Basically, “I don’t owe you anything.” She begs for help, and his answer is to call her a dog.

Now, there are a few interpretations of what is going on here. Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s read this story and is uncomfortable with it. Theologians and biblical scholars have tried to give Jesus a “bye” on this passage a lot over the years. Suffice it to say, though, that no one has been able to honestly get around the fact that calling someone a dog (and using this word in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke), is a familiar insult, a favorite of the Israelites. Calling a woman a female dog would have had the same tone and effect as if it were shouted down a high school hallway today.

It was not a kind thing to say. More frankly, Jesus was being very rude. Dismissive. Discriminatory.

But the woman doesn’t scrub over, or try to wiggle out of, what Jesus labels her as. Instead, she brings their differences into the light and calls them into question. She uses the opportunity to teach Jesus a lesson.

Can you imagine?

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “I may be a dog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t matter – you owe me mercy.”

In Romans, Paul struggles with this question of “who matters.” What separates people from the love of God in Jesus Christ? Who deserves grace?

He ultimately comes to the conclusion that all people are the focus of God’s saving grace. Jew or Gentile, Christ came to save us regardless of our background – remember, Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman?

And here’s Jesus, on that journey, in that moment, excluding this woman and all people like her. To him, here, SOMETHING DOES separate some people from the good news.

But she challenges his laser-focus and says, “There is enough grace for everyone, even people like me.”

And here’s the kicker. He changes his mind. Literally, in the middle of chapter 15 in Matthew, we watch a nobody Canaanite woman preach a bigger gospel to Jesus than he’s been preaching, and he changes his mind. From ignoring her to insulting her to answering her prayers, he changes his mind, decides he DOES owe her something, and forever after the gospel is different, bigger.

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Here’s how we know his mind is changed forever: at the end of Matthew, the gospel is for all nations (28:19). All people. All nations. Jew or Canaanite, African or Greek. Free, slave. Male or female.

The final word in Matthew is basically Jesus saying, “The news is good, and there’s enough for everyone.” THIS is the kind of gospel this is. Amen and amen!


What to do with 5 loaves and 2 fish?

In my family, I’m always known as the one who can be counted on to pack enough food. I’ve been on trips where I’ve packed entire meals into my purse – my friends call it the feed bag – so that I wouldn’t have to worry about whether (or where) we’d be eating. I remember an important moment in one of my greatest friendships, April, a dear friend I roomed with on a trip to India in 2008. We’d been traveling all day in the heat, and someone asked if there was any food on the bus. April and I simultaneously started listing all of the things we had in our bags – Beef jerky! Snickers! Almonds! Trail mix! Peanut butter! – and the bus went silent. We realized we were soul sisters – the ones who would bring the food. Sometimes, though, I forget.
Have you ever gone on a trip and not packed enough food?
I remember another time when my dad took my baby brothers and I on a car trip to Montana. We always hiked together, and my dad was pretty good about bringing things so that we would be safe. This day, we got out of the car because we saw a trail we wanted to hike, got the back pack with the poncho, the safety gear, and the sunscreen, and started to hike the back trails outside of Big Sky. It was a really good hike – lots to see, hard trails, wildlife. But at one point, about an hour in, my youngest brother Lex asked Dad – as he usually would – “Can I have some water?” And Dad cracked open the pack, pulled out the canteen, and I remember the look on his face when he realized… it was light. It wasn’t full. He dug frantically into the pack again – one chocolate bar and a bag of granola. Not enough for all four of us, and no fresh water in sight. So we each got a sip to keep us going, a bite to refresh us… and we headed back the way we came.
So what is it about this scripture we read, Matthew’s loaves and fishes miracle? This is the only miracle story recounted in all four gospels.
When this sort of thing happens in Scripture, it means it’s of unusual importance – it’s like the biblical authors are saying, “That was so important, I’m going to repeat myself.”
First of all, you should know, this story happened once already in the Hebrew Bible – what we sometimes call our Old Testament. It parallels Elisha’s in II Kings 4:42-44. So this is an old pattern – God feeds his people in strange circumstances, through a prophetic leader.
So Jesus has just been rejected in Nazareth. He’s just watched his cousin and friend John the Baptist – a bit more of a fire-brand than Jesus – get his head chopped off for speaking truth to power. He’s had a very, very bad month. A sad month. He needs to recharge, to find his direction again. So he heads out to the wilderness. Away from the people crowding for his attention. But they follow him. I’ll don’t know about you, there’s a particular feeling you get when you think, FINALLY, I’m going to get some peace and quiet! Time to think! But he looks up, and there they are again. Matthew says this is the story of the 5,000, but the actual words are “5,000 men, besides women and children.” What we should know is that this means, in that time, about 20,000 people. Families.
And he sees these people, not famous, not rich, many ill, poor, uncertain, but hungry for words of power and sustaining bread… and his heart feels for them. The scripture says he has compassion – and this means he feels with them. He teaches them, gives them what they’re looking for, which is the power they feel coming from him, the possibility and the hope they need. He sits with them. But then night falls, and the disciples sidle up and let him know the crowds are starting to murmer about being hungry after a long day. I imagine the disciples themselves were pretty exhausted, pretty hungry. They suggest Jesus send the crowds home. Now, something you should know about the wilds outside of the towns there – there wouldn’t have beeen anywhere to go. They were, like my hiking trip, stuck. Either those people were going back hungry to fend for themselves without much of a plan, or they were going to be fed right there in the middle of the desert. Not a lot of choices.
He’s in a pretty vulnerable spot – Jesus’ ego, if he were one of us, might have been sorely tempted to feel better – This could take Jesus to a new opportunity to “turn stones into bread” as the Devil challenged him to do in the Temptation (4:2). Just get it over with! A hungry crowd, a wilderness place, fed with food from nowhere. The public seeks him out, follows like Ancient Near East paparazzi. He has the power. It would have been hard to resist.
The problem is, the disciples make a bit of a mistake. They should know this Jesus better by now. What do they say? “We have nothing here, but 5 loaves and 2 fish.” So they don’t tell a whole truth. They say they have nothing, but they do. The disciples clearly thought they had not nearly enough (v. 17). It was small, but it wasn’t nothing. They just don’t want to share. Which makes sense, right? What do you do when you have 5 loaves and 2 fish?
Jesus has the answer ready – he tells them to bring them. They dig into their travel packs and hand the fish and bread over to him. I can only imagine their faces. Were they curious? Or sheepish? Upset?
He looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread and returns the now holy food to his followers. Who then give them to the crowds. They probably watched and thought – oh, don’t take too much! Oh…. No! that one over there!
And they do it, and – this is the important part – ALL WERE FILLED. Unlike my story of hiking, where we had a bit of water and candy and got just enough to make it back to camp, these little bits of fish and crumbs truly FED the people. All of them. All ate and were filled, and they took in EXTRA.
So this story shouldn’t be called “Jesus Feeds the 5,000” after all. Jesus only feeds the 12. The 12 feed the 5,000, or the 20,000, if we count the invisible women and children.
The scripture says there were 12 baskets left over. Now, that may seem like a lot – 12 baskets out of those tiny servings??? But think about this – have you ever had a family reunion? What happens? There’s always a ton of food left over. People have to take home plates. No matter what. 20,000 people, and there end up with just12 baskets left over – this is a miracle of stewardship, as much as feeding. It’s like Jesus had a family reunion, and all that was left over was one pack of hotdogs.
Everyone got exactly what they needed, and there was enough. A small margin of error, and enough. Any more would have been a waste.
Now, in order to take this story seriously… we need to chat a bit about what it means that this is part of our Scriptures.
Interpretations vary. The most common ones are that Jesus and the generosity of the disciples moved the people to share so that all were fed. Basically – people had secret food they weren’t telling about.
That it was only a symbolic and spiritual feeding. (though verse 20 implies physical satiety, not spiritual.
That this was a truly powerful and miraculous experience for those involved, so shocking that all of the gospels felt the need to share it.
Hard to tell – obviously a supernatural event being reported, so must look theologically.
I wonder if it really matters how this happened. What is crucial is the message that Jesus shares in this story through his actions and his words: God will provide God’s people when they are hurting, and wandering in the desert, and trying to be faithful. With a little to spare – and perhaps with the simple things – , but there must be no greed or waste, or some will go hungry. Psalm 78:19 asks “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” This story, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, 11 Kings, and everywhere else it’s told answers with a resounding “Yes!”
“What do you do when what you’ve got is 5 loaves and 2 fish?” You simply remember:
God is love (compassion shown through Jesus)
Disciples have been given an awesome responsibility to be the body of Christ through concrete acts of love and justice. – Christ. As Elisha performed this through his servant, Jesus enlists the disciples – called to be God’s instruments in meeting the needs of others
When we need it most, God will give us the power to work for good in the world. Holy Spirit. God uses what we bring.
God’s will is that hungry people be fed. What are the loaves and fish you will share?

Lens of tears.

Usually, I wouldn’t do this, but early in December I started to write a post and then never finished it, partly because my mind hadn’t wrapped itself entirely around the topic and partly because holiday chaos overtook my capacity to think through it further.  But my head’s back in that same place today, so I’ll work with it now.  Originally, I was struggling with understanding a speaker I had heard at seminary, Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, who is the director of the Two Futures Project, an evangelical effort for a nuclear weapons-free world that works primarily with younger Christians.  This man, who’s only a little older than myself, spoke eloquently and passionately about the need for our nation and the nuclear-armed West in general to lay down its weapons for the sake of the future of our planet and our species.  He stated, referring to the fact that we are armed and yet simultaneously denouncing countries who are building and newly testing nuclear weapons, “As it stands, we’ve got no moral authority to oppose them; you can’t preach temperance from a barstool.”

The day after I heard him speak, a song came on the radio, one that I’m sure is familiar to most of us, “Someday At Christmas” sung by Stevie Wonder.  The lyrics felt like a collision between real life and dreaming: “Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys/ Playing with bombs like kids play with toys/ One warm December our hearts will see/ A world where men are free/ …Someday at Christmas there will be no wars.”  Music is an emotional experience for me, tending to sort out and clarify difficult feelings into organized thoughts and pictures, and this one hit me right in the chest.  I remember I was driving in my car, and the image of children of God playing with bombs as though they were toys welled up a sense of deep sadness and horror in my soul.  Then I remembered what Tyler had said about preaching temperance from a barstool… and I began to reflect on what Jesus said in Luke, “Can a blind person lead a blind person?  Will they not both fall into the pit?”  And, also, in Matthew, ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  Maybe these two verses don’t seem to fit together, I don’t know.  But they popped into my head and forced me to consider how nuclear weapons have anything to do with the anger I feel toward other people.  How the violence in my own heart can be as damaging, at least according to how I understand what Jesus might be saying, as a bomb decimating a city.  Am I exaggerating? Perhaps.  But I don’t think so, for two reasons.

First of all, how can I judge others to be in the wrong, when I’m comfortably sitting on my own barstool waving a hefty glass of antagonism, pride, need for power, and self-protection, even prejudice and, yes, hatred?  I think I hear Jesus saying to us that the slide from one type of violence to the next, from violence in our souls, little violences done daily, to larger violence done in the world is a slippery one.  That, possibly, the small angers and hurts we inflict upon one another sums up, combines, lives cosily together in a miasma of badness that ultimately must lead to larger violences.  Like that scene in Ghostbusters when the glowing pink goo takes over the city, a collection of the people’s evil boiling up from underneath.  Perhaps it’s about desensitization.  Research has taught us pretty clearly that small negative influences are gateways to larger ones.  But I also wonder if what Jesus was telling his people was that these small ways of being out of line with the way of God turn us even farther away from that vision for peace and justice, wholeness and love of neighbor, so that we must hedge ourselves against the small evils in order not to find ourselves unprotected when the big ones come.

I mean, we have to admit it…. we live in a fallen world.  There are big badnesses, real threats ever present, lurking in the shadows and looming in plain sight.  If we’re blind to our own ways of living violently with one another, whether it’s through cruelty of words or use of fists and weapons, neglect of those around us who live in need of basic kindnesses,  manipulation and coercion to make our own lives feel more secure… if we’re blind to these, then we can’t very well claim the high moral ground when others follow our example and take it even to the next level.  Especially when we’ve modeled that level so well and used our resources to exhibit our power.  How can we really ask others not to do the same if we are unable or unwilling to admit the wrongs we’ve done and resolve ourselves to learn from the lessons there?  I remember Tyler made another statement, toward the end of his talk, that has stuck with me.  It reminded me that it’s okay to make errors, as long as we can learn to see ourselves in an honest light.  God’s vision isn’t of us as unbroken, but it is of humanity as transformable, if we begin to see as God does.  He said, “In a fallen world, the only way we will see as God does is through the lens of tears.”  It won’t be easy or perfect, but tears can be cleansing.  Regret isn’t the end of the world.  Refusal to lay down our weapons, psychological, emotional, nuclear, will be.

(For the United Methodist position on nuclear arms, you can read the denominational statement,  “In Defense of Creation”.)