Posts Tagged ‘Matthew’

After exploring idolatry’s irony in chapter 45 around the issue of shaping and forming, the prophet again trains his sardonic firepower on idolaters in chapter 46. This time his sarcasm needles the makers of idols via the metaphors of lifting and carrying. Behind each of the two images lies the wearying nature of making and worshipping one’s own gods, on the one hand, and YHWH’s tireless lifting up and bearing around of his daughters and sons, on the other.

I quote the short chapter in full, below. The speaker is presumed to be YHWH throughout. I have attempted to highlight in italics the chapter’s references to the wearisome burden-bearing that depletes idolators, idols, and even the gods those idols purport to represent. ‘Bowing down’ and ‘stooping’ are best understood as the collapse of persons subjected to a forced march. The exhaustion spreads to the unfortunate animals that are doomed to carry heavy idols around, though in the broader Isaianic irony these innocent beasts of burden are more perceptive than foolish Judahites. (more…)

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We may live in a world with its horrors, yet we do not live in a horrible world.

There is goodness and gift aplenty amid these hills, in this city, within the troubled textures of this little life. (more…)

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Jesus promises his followers no perks.

In fact, he suggests that perk-seekers will best look elsewhere for a north star. He, rather, welcomes those who give up everything and expect nothing.

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8:18–20 ESV)

Something deep within us presumes that there is a guarantee. There is something for us in following Jesus.

The man himself, however, affirms that there is none.

In the verses quoted above, Jesus lays to rest all presumption that he will take care of his followers in the temporal sense. He himself has ‘nowhere to lay his head’. Neither should his followers expect a pillow.

Let us expand the thought: No bed. No bedroom. No home.

And yet Jesus is sure enough of himself to imagine that following him is, in spite of this, worthwhile.

Jesus’ statement in Matthew’s citation of it ends abruptly. There is no commentary, no explanation, no nuances that soften the observation he has just made.

The implication is clear. If you walk this way, you leave everything else behind. Everything else.

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One wonders what the Mary’s knew? Or felt? Or feared? Or awaited?

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. (Matthew 27:61 ESV)

In the midst of horrible and amazing events, this Mary and the other Mary simply sat beside the tomb of their beloved Jesus, and waited.

Or wept.

Who is to say?

Very often it is the least and the loyal who hang close to events when others have moved on. More often than the histories recall, they are the first to know of new things. Of the miracle. Of the resurrection.

Providence depends upon those who wait, watch, weep, await.

One wonders what the Eternal One would have done without this Mary, that Mary, and perhaps a handful of others who could not yet give up.

Probably, they did not yet know their own hearts, or minds. Yet there they were.

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Is it only the hope born so relentlessly in a new year’s first hours?

Or is YHWH’s purpose as unstoppable as it appears this first morning?

… and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel .. (Matthew 1:11–12 ESV)

From the conjunction of a January 1st and the first verses of the New Testament emerges a fresh glimpse of divine purpose, pushing through the bitter-sweets of the year just gone and into the face of all manner of fears about the one taking shape under our feet.

Matthew—grouping a genealogy of the about-to-be-born Jesus into an artifice of fourteen generations here, another fourteen there—molds history’s apparent chaos to make it a bit more ordered and orderly than rapid readers in the twenty-first century might understand it to be.

Between one fourteen and another, he skips over an apparent end-point: deportation, or exile. In the world of Babylonian eminence, a people did not emerge from exile. They either died in its grip or assimilated into the empire’s powerful ways and means so as to become unrecognizable among the flotsam and jetsam of once-proud peoples and nations now subjugated by the empire’s irresistible force. So was Israel’s great crisis short-handed as ‘exile’.

Yet Matthew skips over Babylonian captivity as though it were nothing. Well, not quite nothing, but nothing more than a comma in the long story of YHWH’s purpose.

Exilic calamity brands death into the bodies of less favored nations, who will die sooner or later far from home and be forgotten when they do.

Not to those who serve the divine Father of the about-to-be-born Jesus. They taste the same blood as those who are ground into dust by history. Their hearts race to the same fears. They curse the same mornings. Far from  immunity to history, they have been thrust into its sweaty core.

But, just when all seems lost, a new fourteen appears, a biographical cluster that promises life, progeny, and future.

And now, we are about to be told, a king is born. His name means ‘He rescues’.

And, on top of that, it is January 1st, when all things are possible.

Give us fourteen more, then.



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In the gospels’ presentation, the scribes and Pharisees come across as villainous for two reasons. First, they fail to discern the scale of relative priorities that orders the manifold demands of Torah. Second, they strain after a public pose while neglecting the righteous internal life that organically produces a public reputation.

In the face of these two failures, Jesus is merciless.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. (Matthew 23:23–26 NRSV)

Hypocrisy is endlessly subtle and supple. Its capacity for adapting to the self-protective requirements of the moment is almost inexhaustible.

Yet it pivots upon these two sins, making righteousness all the more difficult for those who by ignorance or principle fail to play by ‘pharisaical’ religion’s arbitrary and self-referential rules.

In Jesus’ dialect, those who act this way—no matter how nicely starched their robes—are sons of hell.

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We think of faith as a matter of the heart.

Each man, woman, or child has faith. Faith is mine, faith is private, faith is the exertion of a person’s will against the privations, limitations, and frustrations of circumstance.

So we believe, for our culture has taught us well. We have been good learners.

Yet over and above the indelible individuality of faith and the experience of it, the biblical witness allows us to glimpse shared faith.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’

In the famous story of the paralytic whose friends bore him to Jesus, these men would not be stopped. Although Matthew’s telling does not linger over such details, we learn elsewhere that they cut their way through a roof and lowered the man practically on top of Jesus. Crowds clogged the doorway and faith would not permit postponement.

Curiously—for us, at least—the text discerns Jesus’ motivation to heal this man in the faith of more than one individual. It is reasonable, though perhaps not necessary, to imagine that the paralyzed man shared the adventurous confidence of his friends. They appear convinced that—if only Jesus could me made aware of their friend’s plight—he would do something. The text does not find it urgent to localize faith in them or in him or in any one.

Jesus sees their faith, turns to a man who has forgotten how to move his limbs, and pronounces his sins forgiven.

They walk away, the man’s litter tucked under someone’s arm.

Sometimes we carry a fallen friend to Jesus, believing—almost—for him.

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It is too easy to imagine that God is in the fire.

He is often absent there.

Though it is wrong to fear the extraordinary, it is equally misguided to crave it. We lust after raised voices and clenched fists when our nourishment comes cradled in whisper and caress.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15–20, NRSV)

Jesus routinely follows precedent in biblical wisdom by privileging simple, steady obedience over its ambitious alternatives.

Prophets will come, he warns his followers. No doubt they will be impressive, disturbing, and spiritually invigorating. Such prophetic voices, raised in anger or illumination, are for Jesus a dime a dozen.

‘Show me their fruit’, he says, reducing their appeal to that feature of human behavior that is most difficult both to produce and to reproduce: righteous deeds.

One must not forget that Jesus and the tradition that treasures his words and brings them to our ears revere, to name just one, a John the Baptist. Jesus and his earliest witnesses are not opposed to sizzling flame on the tongue of a prophet. Indeed, they tell us, one must not dare the mistake of ignoring such a heavenly torch.

Yet if simple righteousness is absent from their conduct, they are like a fruitless tree. Fire goes there, but not the spoken, impressive kind. Just fire. Consuming fire. No glory there.

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Everywhere, we are told to plan for the future. This is no idle counsel. Tomorrow relentlessly and suddenly becomes today.

Yet Jesus’ radical counsel removes the demands of the future from the licit objects of our fretting. Tomorrow? Fuggedaboudit.

Therefore I tell you, 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? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing?

Such teaching exercises upon us an influence that oscillates between great release and immense frustration.

We want to live carefree. Yet we cannot. We know neither the language nor the rhythm of such trust.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

Jesus bring us closer, here, to the engine of such existential ease. Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

Here, at least, our need is legitimated. We are not fools to imagine that we require these things.

Foolishness is banished to the space occupied by worry about them. It is there that we are not to stand, there that our feet and hands find themselves unfit for an alien task, there that we stumble over obstacles we cannot see. But our heavenly Father knows, thus we can rest.

Jesus’ summons is not to mental relaxation for its own sake. We are not relieved of effort. Rather, we are directed to marshal our energies towards a particularly focused project.

What we are to abandon is not the irrefutable, economic sine qua non of life on earth. That would be gnostic self-deception. Rather, we are to trust our heavenly Father with all of that, if Jesus is to believed, while we bend our shoulder to this.

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Jesus does not here call his own to self-abandonment or an excessively other-worldly state of mind. In fact, with stunning realism, today is defined in terms of its freight of trouble.

Jesus calls us to focus on the one thing we can do something about. Remarkably, it is a project that, in bearing his Father’s own name, seems as though it might have been the one thing that lies beyond our reach: the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Before us lies one of the Christian story’s great reversals. We are told that the one thing we might be reasonably expected to accomplish—providing for our future—lies outside our control and in better hands than ours. Jesus’ Father and ours has that one covered. Paradoxically, the matter toward which we are to give ourselves heart and soul is owned entirely by God, in fact named after him: his kingdom and his righteousness.

Things are—ever, always—not as they appear.

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Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
(Matthew 6:19–21 NRSV)

Jesus appears to have exercised a utilitarian view of wealth. He had little of the stuff we use to define the term and appeared not not to miss much what he did not possess. He was also severe about the ability of wealth to distract, detour, and corrupt.

‘How can this be?’, one asks in a world where accumulated resources feel as though they’re the important bulwark against calamity.

For starters, Jesus seemed to find the greatest beauty in what his Father himself had created. Not to make a romantic naturalist of him, he found in the lilies and birds of the field not only beauty but also a bit of instruction.

And then Jesus appears to have found the little he needed, when it arrived, to be gift rather than achievement or prerogative.

The twice-used phrase (do not) store up for yourselves treasures and the following—third—reference to treasures (Greek θεσαῦροι) probably points to excess rather than modest provision against hunger and the evil day. Yet this observation does not relieve the would-be follower of Jesus from asking how much that might be.

One is faced down here with a conventional division of reality into ‘heaven’ and earth’. Unconventionally, we are asked to invest our productive capacity in the former, because it endures. The world, we read, makes a poor investment for our limited and precious energies because it is so impermanent.

Only a fool would stock up on perishables that are surely to be rotten long before the anticipated need of them has been exhausted.

Appearances as to what endures and what is most real savage us with their persuasive deception.

‘Find heaven’, Jesus might tell us, ‘and do not mess around with diversifying your portfolio beyond that rather expansive category. Your enthusiasm will follow your allocation like a well-loved puppy. Trust me.’

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