Friday, October 31, 2014

Matthew 25-28

These four chapters cover an amazing depth and breadth of truly crucial events in a short space. Here we have…

  1. The final teachings of Jesus
  2. The anointing at Bethany
  3. The Last Supper
  4. The prayer in Gethsemane
  5. Peter’s denial
  6. Judas’ betrayal and subsequent suicide
  7. Jesus’ arrest, trial, and beating
  8. Jesus’ journey to Golgotha, crucifixion, death, and burial
  9. Jesus’ resurrection
  10. The Great Commission

Reading four chapters in the Old Testament could, in one sense, take us through a greater span of history, covering hundreds or even thousands or, in the case of the opening chapters of Genesis, millions of years. However, here, in these closing four chapters of Matthew, we have the sense that we are peering into the very center, the crux, of history.

Perhaps the reason why we get this feeling in reading of these last events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is because in him, as St. Irenaeus said, we have the human story recapitulated. C. S. Lewis puts it this way in Letter VIII of Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep—as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. This also is characteristic. In every Church, in every, institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. Its pretentions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that very reason it may be free from local fanaticisms. It claims to be just on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’├ętat. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost.  There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He Himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it. To be like the fox at the end of the run; the earths all staked.

As for the last dereliction of all, how can we either understand or endure it? Is it that God Himself cannot be Man unless God seems to vanish at His greatest need? And if so, why? I sometimes wonder if we have even begun to understand what is involved in the very concept of creation. If God will create, He will make something to be, and yet to be not Himself. To be created is, in some sense, to be ejected or separated. Can it be that the more perfect the creature is the further this separation must at some point be pushed? It is saints, not common people, who experience the “dark night.” It is men and angels, not beasts, who rebel. Inanimate matter sleeps in the bosom of the Father. The “hiddenness” of God perhaps presses most painfully on those who are in another way nearest to Him, and therefore God Himself, made man, will of all men be by God most forsaken? One of the seventeenth-century divines says, “By pretending to be visible God could only deceive the world.” Perhaps He does pretend just a little to simple souls who need a full measure of “sensible consolation.” Not deceiving them, but tempering the wind to the shorn lamb. Of course I’m not saying like Niebuhr that evil is inherent in finitude. That would identify the creation with the fall and make God the author of evil. But perhaps there is an anguish, an alienation, a crucifixion involved in the creative act. Yet He who alone can judge judges the far-off consummation to be worth it.

I am, you see, a Job’s comforter. Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. But on second thoughts I don’t regret what I have written. I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.

“But what of the resurrection?” you may well ask. Yes, it is there, in chapter 28. And I believe in the resurrection of the body, in Jesus’ resurrection and ours, just as we confess in the Creed. Lewis believed in it as well. But notice how Matthew takes more time to dwell on Jesus’ suffering. That suffering which Jesus shares with us is a comfort too, just as is the hope of resurrection. But even the resurrection is not the end of the road, rather a bend in the road, with all of eternity beyond….

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Matthew 21-24

In reading this section of Matthew’s Gospel, I was struck once again by the originality, even cleverness, of so many of the sayings of Jesus. It is often asked, “How do we know that Jesus spoke the words attributed to him in the Gospels?” Well, I do not know how one can prove, categorically, that Jesus spoke all the words attributed to him in the Gospels. After all, there were no iPhones, video cameras, or even tape recorders to catch whatever he said verbatim. However, what would be the result if one simply tried to create a character out of whole cloth that says all the types of things Jesus says in the Gospels. I doubt even the best writers of fiction alive today could do it. Why do I say that? Because some of the things Jesus says are so shrewd, and spoken off the cuff, like: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” As Joseph Sobran wrote many years ago, if the Gospel writers made this stuff up, then maybe we should be worshipping the forgers.

Then there is the place where Jesus sums up the essence of over six hundred laws in the Hebrew Scriptures with the one statement: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. And… ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” If that is not brilliance, what is? I would much rather follow a person who says that obeying God is all about loving him and your neighbor than I would the person who says, “Here is a rule book to follow.”

And then there are the hints at Jesus’ deity that pop out in the most unexpected places. As he looks out over Jerusalem Jesus says, “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Do you see what Jesus is doing? He is claiming, implicitly, to be the God who has sent prophets to his people, the Jews, down through the ages. He is claiming to be the God who longs to gather his people under his wing. The Gospel writers don’t make a point of this; it is simply there in the text.

Sure there are probably some words that the Gospel writers placed on Jesus lips after the fact. As Perrin and Duling point out, the Gospel of Matthew “presupposes the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by its comment that the angry king destroyed the murderers of the king’s son and burned their city” (Matthew 22:7). But the Gospel writers did not make up the character of Jesus. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion—those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them—was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson (ten times more so than Eckermann’s Goethe or Lockhart’s Scott), yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Matthew 17-20

The story that stood out to me the most in today’s reading was that of the two blind men sitting by the roadside in Jericho. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd ordered them to be quiet. Crowds do not often like people who are demonstratively religious. However, this did not stop the two blind men. They shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!”

This is a wonderful prayer. This is a prayer that we can pray every day, and at many moments throughout the day, either silently or out loud. It is very similar to the Jesus Prayer taught and practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or we can pray even more simply: “Lord, have mercy.”

The example of the blind men leads me to wonder: how badly, how desperately, do we want healing from Jesus? Do we care more about what others think of us? Or do we care most about getting close to Jesus and receiving what he has to give to us?

Then we read that Jesus stood still and called the blind men to himself. Isn’t that amazing? This shows us that our prayers have the power to arrest the Lord, to stop him in his tracks and call him to us. This also shows us the great mercy of the Lord. He did not have to stop and help these two blind men. After all, he was on his way to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. However, in mercy he chose to stop for these two men. And in mercy Jesus will choose to stop for us and heal us, if we cry out to him.

Then Jesus asks the blind men, “What do you want me to do for you?” That is a great question. How would you answer that question if Jesus posed it to you this moment? What do you most want Jesus to do for you right now?

The two blind men, of course, wanted most to be able to see. “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

Then we read that: “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.”

Jesus is moved by compassion for us as he considers our individual situations and the things that unnecessarily limit us and hinder his work in us. He longs to heal us completely and immediately, if we will only ask.

Of course, Jesus does not always heal us in exactly the ways we think are best or that we would like. But he always heals us in the way that is truly for our best good and the good of his kingdom purpose. We must always remember that the ultimate healing is found in death that leads to new life and being present with God face to face.

Notice too that the result of this healing is that these two blind men follow Jesus. They do not just walk away. They do not go back to their old lives. How could they? No, they follow Jesus. They long to be with this man forever who has shown them such compassion and healing power.

I wonder: do we long to be with Jesus wherever he is leading?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Matthew 13-16

In this section of Matthew’s Gospel we come to his third book of the new Torah, his third large block of teaching from Jesus, or what Perrin and Duling call…

13:1-52 The Third Book of the New Revelation: the Parables of the Kingdom. Like Mark, Matthew has a collection of parables, but he increases their number and makes special use of them. He has just called attention to the true family of Jesus as those who accept his revelation. Now Jesus addresses the parables of the Sower, the Weeds, the Mustard Seed, and the Leaven to “the crowds” (13:1-33). Matthew concludes this half of his parable chapter with a formula quotation (13:34-35). Jesus then turns to the “disciples,” the true family, and gives them the explanation of the Weeds and the parables of the Pearl and the Net….

13:53-58 The climactic rejection. 13:53 contains the formula to the end of the third book of the new revelation. Matthew ends his third revelatory discourse with the theme that Jesus is not onored “in his own country and in his own house,” and because of lack of belief, he is not able to work many miracles.

The New Revelation: Jesus Instructs His Disciples, 14:1-20:34

The ministry to Israel now having reached the climax in the inability of Jesus to find faith among “ his own,” Matthew turns to the second stage of the new revelation, which occurs in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples.

14:1-16:12 Preliminary instruction. In this section Matthew is closely following his source, the gospel of Mark….

16:13-20:34 The predictions of the passion and resurrection and instruction on ife in the Christin community. This section is Matthew’s equivalent of Mark 8:27-10:52 (he omits 8:22-26). In general, he follows Mark but adds considerable material, and the additions transform Mark’s teaching on discipleship into instruction on life in the Christian community.

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13) This is the pivot point in this Gospel. As soon as Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” the narrative begins moving on a beeline to the cross. Jesus explains in advance to his disciples that he must suffer, die, and rise again, but they do not understand, nor can they accept what he is saying.

Jesus poses the same question to us today: “Who do you say that I am?”

C. S. Lewis has written,

‘What are we to make of Jesus Christ?’ This is a question, which has, in a sense, a frantically comic side. For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us? The picture of a fly sitting deciding what it is going to make of an elephant has comic elements about it. (God in the Dock, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?”)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Matthew 9-12

Perrin and Duling, in their book, The New Testament: An Introduction, provide a helpful overview of the Gospel of Matthew. Here is what they have to say about this section….

8:1-9:34 The miracles of Jesus. Matthew characteristically arranges his material in blocks. He follows his first revelatory discourse with a block of ten miracle stories interwoven with teaching on discipleship. In 4:23 and 9:35 the summaries of the characteristic activity of Jesus’ ministry stress healing, and nine of the ten miracles are healing miracles. The collection of ten miracles perhaps recalls the ten plagues of Moses in Egypt (Ex 7:8-11:10). In general, Matthew transforms the miracles by introducing or expanding dialogues….

9:35-38 Summary of the characteristic activity of the ministry. Matthew has inherited from Mark 6:6b-11 an account of a teaching journey by Jesus, followed by the commissioning of “the twelve” for a missionary journey. The teaching journey further summarizes the activities characteristic of Jesus’ ministry—preaching, teaching, and healing (9:35; cf. 4:23).

10:1-11:1 The Second Book of the New Revelation: The Missionary Discourse. The commissioning of “the twelve” becomes the occasion for the second revelatory discourse. The discourse itself contains originally disparate elements (10:5-42). Matt 10:5-6 reflects the Christian mission to the Jews rather than the Hellenistic [Greek speaking] Jewish Christian mission. In 10:7 Matthew gives to the disciples the exact proclamation of Jesus (4:17) and John the Baptist (3:2). John the Baptist, Jesus, and now the Christian church are the succession of the new revelation. Notice, however, that the disciples are not commissioned to teach, as they are when the revelation is complete. Matt 10:9-16 seems to be a development form some traditional “handbook” for the missionaries of the Hellenistic Jewish Christian mission, since Luke 10:4-12 has a similar set of instructions. 11:1 contains the formula ending to the second book of the new revelation.

11:2-12:50 Opposition by leaders; the people’s lack of understanding. Matthew ends his account of the mission of Jesus to Israel by focusing attention on Jesus himself, developing a Christology [study of the person and works of Christ], and interweaving with it an account of the opposition by leaders and the people’s lack of understanding. It is a skillful blend of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and the difficulties he faced among the Jews themselves.

The verse I find most comforting in this section is 11:28 containing these words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I wonder: what burden do you or I need to roll off on to Jesus today so that we can find spiritual rest? We can do this in prayer by praying: “Lord Jesus, I come to you today and I give you my burden of _________. Thank you for giving me your rest in exchange. Amen.” I believe that the more we pray this kind of prayer, as many times as necessary throughout the day, we will receive Jesus’ rest and peace.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Matthew 5-8

A number of years ago a movie was made about the first pilots who broke the sound barrier. Up until that time no airplane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound. A lot of people didn’t believe it could happen. It was thought that an airplane might disintegrate under the pressure. In fact, in the movie, that is exactly what happened to a number of pilots who tried it. The controls of the plane refused to work properly once they came close to breaking the speed of sound.

The climax of the movie came when one pilot had a hunch. “Maybe when a plane breaks the sound barrier the controls will work in reverse.” So at the all-important moment, when the plane approached the sound barrier the pilot pushed the stick forward, which would normally send the plane into a nosedive. But it didn’t. The nose went up and the plane flew on, faster than any plane had ever flown before.

Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier in real life, insisted that it didn’t happen exactly as it was in the movie. However, the movie gives us an interesting picture of something that is true in the Christian life. In Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is taking the controls of life and making them work in reverse. Jesus takes us through a spiritual sound barrier to a place we have never been before.

When planes go through the sound barrier, you hear a loud explosion. Growing up near a naval air base, I often heard the earth-shattering noise of planes breaking the sound barrier. A visitor to San Diego not accustomed to the vibration might think he or she was in the middle of an earthquake. However, in an earthquake the ground rolls, whereas when a plane breaks the sound barrier it shakes the windows of every house in its vicinity.
When Jesus’ contemporaries first heard him utter the teachings contained in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, it must have been like hearing a loud explosion or having their whole life rattled. I cannot imagine that Jesus actually uttered all of these sayings in one sermon at one time. For one thing, it would be too much to take in at a sitting. There is such depth to each individual saying in this section that each is worthy of a sermon or more. On the contrary, I think what Matthew has done is to bring together a collection of Jesus’ sayings from across the broad spectrum of his ministry. I like what C. S. Lewis has to say about this….

We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no book. We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context. And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system. He preaches but He does not lecture. He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the “wisecrack”. He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be “got up” as if it were a “subject”. If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, “pinned down”. The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam….

Taken by a literalist, He will always prove the most elusive of teachers. Systems cannot keep up with that darting illumination. No net less wide than a man’s whole heart, nor less fine of mesh than love, will hold the sacred Fish. (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 112-113, 119)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Matthew 1-4

The Inspiration of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

Providing an adequate introduction to the Gospel of Matthew in a single blog post is an impossible task. However, I do want to give you some idea of where I think Matthew fits with the other Gospels, who the author is, and so on.

In order to accomplish this as succinctly and hopefully as accurately as possible, I turn to Michael Green’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible Speaks Today series published by InterVarsity Press. Here are some excerpts from Green’s introduction….

We do not know who wrote the Gospel. Like all the others, it is anonymous. The coming of Jesus sparked off an entirely new literary form, the ‘Gospel’. It is not biography, though it contains it. It is not history, though it reflects it. A Gospel is the proclamation of good news: the good news of salvation which had long been looked for in Judaism, and which Christians were persuaded had burst upon the world in Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels are utterly captivated by him, and none of them mentions the name of its author.

Second-century writers sought to remedy this situation. They do tell us who wrote them, and they may or may not have been right. In the case of Matthew, it is not at all easy to know whether they were right, because there is a major contradiction in the evidence. The external evidence points uniformly in one direction, the internal in another.

The external evidence is coherent and clear. Indeed, it is unanimous. It makes three main points. First, the Gospel according to Matthew is the earliest of the Gospels. Secondly, it was written in ‘Hebrew’. This may mean Hebrew or Aramaic: at all events, it means that the early Christians were confident that it had not originally been penned in the Greek we have before us today. Most of the second-century writers were also persuaded that it was written for those who were converts from Judaism, which is a very likely assumption. The links between the Gospel and the Old Testament are many and obvious. The third conviction of the second-century church was that the Gospel was written by Matthew, one of the twelve apostles….

However, the internal evidence is strongly against this. Indeed, the careful study of the text of the Gospels over the last 250 years has, until recently, yielded virtual unanimity on the three points cited above. First, Matthew does not seem to be the earliest Gospel. Secondly, it does not seem to have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Thirdly, it does not seem to have been written by an apostle, let alone Matthew….

Irrespective of denomination, irrespective of theological position, those who have looked carefully into this matter are broadly convinced that the earliest documents about Jesus which have come down to us are the Gospel of Mark and the sayings of Jesus common to Luke and Matthew, usually known by the symbol Q. The order of events in Mark is clearly the basis for the order in Matthew and Luke, for Matthew and Luke never combine in order against Mark. Mark’s order is primary. Moreover, if Matthew’s Gospel had been written first, with its clear beginning, teaching, Lord’s Prayer, and post-resurrection appearances, it would have been almost incredible for Mark to come and truncate the beginning and end, and leave out marvelous teaching like the Sermon on the Mount.

Several years ago, I, in my simple way, and with the help of a computer, laid the Gospels side by side in parallel fashion and came to the same conclusion that countless scholars have come to over the past few hundred years. Mark’s Gospel must have been first. Matthew and Luke have shared material that is not in Mark; this shared material is often called “Q” for the German word “quelle” or source. Matthew and Luke also have some material that is not in Mark and is unique to each of their Gospels. These sources are often simply referred to as “M” and “L”.

So, we do not know who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, or more properly, who edited it and brought these various sources together, but it seems clear that it was edited by a first century Jew, writing sometime between 70 and 100 CE (AD) for a Jewish Christian community somewhere in the Middle East.

Matthew’s Gospel is structured, in a way, to mirror the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah in that Matthew has five great blocks of teaching material. The basic outline works out like this in the words of Michael Green….

Chs. 1-4 Introduction: genealogy, infancy (chs 1-2); baptism and beginnings of the ministry (chs. 3-4)
Chs. 5-7 Teaching 1: the Sermon on the Mount
Chs. 8-9 Jesus’ miracles of healing (three groups of them)
Ch. 10 Teaching 2: the mission charge
Chs. 11-12 The rejection of John and Jesus by the Jews
Ch. 13 Teaching 3: the parables of the kingdom
Chs. 14-17 Miracles, controversies with Pharisees, Peter’s confession, and the transfiguration
Ch. 18 Teaching 4: the church
Chs. 19-22 Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and teaches
Chs. 23-25 Teaching 5: judgment and the end of the world
Chs. 26-28 The last days, death and resurrection of Jesus

Whoever wrote this Gospel, he had a very ordered mind, bordering on perfectionism. He wanted everything arranged just so.

The thing that struck me in today’s reading, after reading through the major and minor prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, is how long it has been since we had story, narrative, in our Scripture reading. Certainly, most readers relate more to narrative than they do to any other type of literature, and we have a lot of it in Matthew. Here we have in the first four chapters, some of the most famous stories of the Bible, just as we have many of these famous stories in Genesis. Another similarity to Genesis is the use of genealogy. All of this would have been very appealing and very familiar to “Matthew’s” first Jewish audience.