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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.

On the other hand, I have highlighted with underlining those references that denote or allude to YHWH’s lifting and carrying of his people. Note that even the clause ‘and will save’ at the end of the second paragraph quoted must be read as a lifting-and-carrying reference because the verb (מלט) is the same word used in the first paragraph’s ‘they cannot save the burden’ (לא יכלו מלט משא) rather than the more conventional biblical language of salvation.

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.

To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.

Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory. (Isaiah 46:1–13 ESV)

The prophet presents Judah with a world in which folly and wisdom represent a carry-or-be-carried choice. Worshipping what one has created is not empowering, we are told. Just the opposite, it saps the life from everyone and everything. It is simply exhausting.

Finding oneself enveloped in YHWH’s redemptive purpose, on the other hand, is likened to the experience of being lifted up and carried to a worthwhile destiny rather than carried off into exile.

One thinks here of Jesus’ famous claim in the eleventh chapter of the gospel of Matthew.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30 ESV)

Though I am not aware of convincing evidence the Jesus purposely alludes to Isaiah 46, the rhetoric is strikingly similar both in intent and in means.

In Isaiah, prophetic sarcasm deploys emotional violence to clarify the consequences of idolatrous piety vs. confidence in YHWH. In Matthew, Jesus extends an invitation to abandon wearisome labor and to find rest under—ironically—a ‘burden’ of discipleship that he rests lightly upon human shoulders.

As with so many other things, neither religion nor work nor rest are necessarily what they appear on the surface of things to be.

 

 

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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.

In his ‘sermon on the mount’, Jesus pictures life with his Father as a most loving, most natural conversation.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7–11 ESV)

The regularities of life when it is good, the patterns that lead us to expect that a request will be met, a knocked door soon opened, a hunger satisfied carry over—so Jesus instructs his audience—into life with our unseen Father.

There is goodness here, a responsive if invisible heart, an expectation of gifts and the satisfaction they bring. Jesus’ words both denote and connote a generous reciprocity as the normal life of one who lives dependent upon this tenderly described Father. In fact, the gentle imperative of Jesus’ teaching seems purposed to counter a sense in his listeners that life might not be so good as this. Ask, he urges. Knock. Seek.

You’ll see.

It might be a bridge too far for people acquainted with hunger and sorrow to imagine that the heavens—in the abstract—are kind. But our Father is, Jesus instructs them, choosing the image of the home to make his point. The Responsive One whom he describes is not far off, not hovering in some distant heaven. On the contrary, he is at home with you, as a father is just a few words away from his needy daughter, his momentarily lonely son calling out from a room just six steps down the hall.

Life becomes, in Jesus’ teaching, a gentle, generous conversation. One needs, so one asks. The answer can be expected to come. We live with our Father in the good domesticity of hearth and home.

Is it bread you need? A fish? The answer will not come as stone or snake.

But how can we know this?

Ask. Seek.

Knock.

 

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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 list, 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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