THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT 2017– THE GOOD SAMARITAN WOMAN


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT – THE GOOD SAMARITAN WOMAN  John 4:5-42

“So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 4:6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 4:8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 4:9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 4:10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 4:11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 4:12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 4:13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 4:14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 4:15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 4:16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 4:17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 4:19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 4:20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 4:22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 4:23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 4:25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 4:26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 4:27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 4:28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 4:29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 4:30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 4:31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 4:32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 4:33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 4:34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 4:35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  4:36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 4:37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 4:38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 4:40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 4:41 And many more believed because of his word. 4:42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

This is a revision and update of an earlier post.

In last week’s post, I said that Jesus initiated Nicodemus into a spiritual journey on which he discovered much about himself that changed the direction of his life. In the narrative about the Samaritan woman and Jesus, something similar happens. The Samaritan woman is taken on a spiritual journey, a journey rather of soul than of spirit, on which the fundamental questions of her life are asked and answered in a way that draws us into the narrative no longer as readers but now as the communion of Saints.

Therefore, story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman calls for careful study and reflection to uncover the message that John wants us to hear. There are literary and stylistic similarities between chapter 3 and chapter 4. In 3, Jesus enters into a religious dialogue with Nicodemus; Jesus reveals himself to him; the message of Jesus is passed on to others. In 4, Jesus enters into a religious dialogue with the Samaritan woman; he reveals himself to her as Messiah; the message is then taken to others. Both chapters emphasize that the mission of the church is established upon the foundation of the mission of Jesus. It is important for the mission of the church that Jesus reveal himself to males and females. The inner message of the revelation is that no one is excluded from the salvation which God makes available in the Son. (Galatians 3:28-29). This message is taken from Jerusalem to all parts of the world, and every nation can now hear the gospel. See Acts 2, the message of Pentecost. This mission is made clear in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Jesus is on his way to Galilee. 4:3. The journey is motivated perhaps by reason of safety, because the Pharisees had heard of his baptizing activities which was not pleasing to them. He is passing through the region of Samaria, and by noon one day he stops in the town of Sychar because he was tired and thirsty. He stops for water at Jacob’s well. The name of the well and the description surrounding it may be a local tradition as it is not attested elsewhere. Perhaps the intention is to emphasize that the Samaritans had a history and tradition relating to Jacob. The well is the scene of encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. His disciples are not with him at the moment. Jesus going through Samaria is the story of the missionary enterprise of the church through the ages. It is the drama of salvation enacted in word and deed, using the estranged soul of human beings as the stage upon which the action takes place. But first, the savior of the world must find the entrance onto that stage. The human soul is a forbidding place. It is what grounds the human being to this earth. It does not easily render itself up. It seldom knows that it is an eternal place of conflict. The soul is the human being in its entirety, the gathering place of all history and culture, all that defines the human. The soul is the ultimate guardian of what is fully and truly human. “What shall it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your own soul?”

The drama begins when a woman of Samaria comes to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink. She replied by asking Jesus how is it that a Jewish man is asking a Samaritan woman for a drink. Something about Jesus told the woman that he is a Jew. Her question reflects a tradition that Jews and Samaritans did not get along as is seen in the second part of 4:9. In Mt. 10:5 Jesus told his disciples not to enter any Samaritan town. In Luke 9:52 the Samaritans refused to welcome his disciples. In that cultural context, I would have expected at least that the rules of hospitality to have prevailed over cultural differences. John certainly had something quite different in mind as he prepared the scene for the dialogue. While she recognized Jesus as a Jew, in 4:10 he says to her, if you really knew me you would be asking me for living water. Jesus is much more than how he is perceived, as Nicodemus discovered earlier. He does not address her question. The fact that he spoke to her in the first place means that he has moved beyond what was customary and expected. He did not even acknowledge the status quo. He moved beyond it. Also, the fact that she spoke to him shows that she is not bound by custom either. Both of these people arrived at the well having relinquished something of their history.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” This cannot have been the original response of Jesus to the woman. This response was certainly made to a question that John does not offer. He has something different in view. “If you knew,” goes to the fact that she does not know. It is not surprising, for the disciples according to the Synoptic gospels were prohibited from going to the Samaritans and proclaiming the gospel. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”  See especially 10:14. Jesus cannot have expected her to know who he is. If, indeed, she knew who he was then there would be no need for his revelation as Messiah. The “gift of God” was made clear in 3:16. It is the Son of God. The word for “gift” and the “give” in “give me a drink,” share a common origin. Jesus, the gift of God, is asking for a gift from the Samaritan woman. The word appears again in “given,” referring to the gift of living water. He who is the gift of God offers living water as a gift to the woman. The living water is spring water, running water that does not remain stagnant. It is always moving. However, this is not the point that John wants to make. The water from Jacob’s well belongs to this world. Jesus as living water is the one who has descended and will ascend again. The water from Jacob’s well is of the earth, earthly; Jesus the living water is of heaven, heavenly. John is again using Gnostic ideas to present Jesus.  “The gift of God” is none other than “who it is that is saying to you.” These ideas are not a part of the content of faith of the Samaritan woman. She does not know and at that time cannot know who Jesus is, and consequently cannot ask him for the living water.

The dialogue that follows discloses that the Samaritan woman does not understand what Jesus has said. This is somewhat akin to the misunderstanding concerning Jesus in the Synoptic gospels and even in this gospel. Her focus continues to be the well and its traditions. “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well?” The well is also a “gift.”  Again, Jesus does not respond to her question about who is greater, Jacob or Jesus. He counters with his own gift. “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The contrast is again between earthly and heavenly. The Samaritan woman still does not understand. She wants Jesus to give her this water that she may never thirst nor come back to the well. This may be symbolic language, and John likes to use symbolic language. That she may not thirst again may be symbolic of something lacking in her life, something for which she thirsts always. She may believe that Jesus has the power to quench that inner lack or emptiness. This may be symbolic of her desire to forsake the local tradition or legend associated with Jacob’s well. Jesus does not respond to her request. She has completely missed the reference to living water and eternal life. As with Nicodemus, so long as the Samaritan woman’s life is determined by the flesh, by what is earthly, she cannot grasp the meaning of what is heavenly. John has accomplished one thing with this part of his narrative: the encounter and the dialogue of the earthly (Samaritan woman) and the heavenly (Jesus). However, John leaves off this discussion and nothing is resolved. He turns his attention to another matter.

The next stage in the development of the narrative will take this encounter to a different level. Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to go and get her husband. What importance her husband has for this encounter is not made clear. It appears to be some kind of narrative technique that will allow John another opportunity to disclose who Jesus is. So far, John has shown him as the Word” 1:1; “the true light,” 1:9;  “the only Son,” 1:14, 18; “the Lamb of God,: 1:29;  “the Son of God,” 1:34; “Rabbi,” 1:38;  “the Messiah,” 1:41; “him of whom Moses and the prophets spoke,” 1:45; “the King of Israel,” 1:50. John has not been reluctant to make known who Jesus is.

When Jesus asks her to bring her husband, she replies truthfully that she has no husband. Was Jesus testing her for some reason, since he already knew the answer? Jesus acknowledges her truthfulness, and then points out that she has had five husbands, and the one she currently has is not her legal husband. I have mentioned earlier that she is not afraid to go against custom. She lives her life the way she wants. Her marital situation is not a moral or spiritual matter for her. She is comfortable with her status. Commentators and pastors have tried to allegorize the five husbands, but I do not believe that this is necessary. She is a person who does not appreciate being alone.  The Samaritan woman is someone who does not prefer solitude. She is not embarrassed by having had five husbands. However, she might have been amazed that Jesus knew all this about her as her reply indicates. “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” Jesus is something other than she earlier perceived. Can this mean that she too is other than she thinks she is? Being in the presence of Jesus has given her a moment of insight into herself, as Jesus held up before her eyes a picture of what he has seen in her. Perhaps this is what Paul meant in I Corinthians 13:12.

John has used the technique of the omniscience of Jesus before with Simon and Nathanael in chapter 1. When Jesus is called a prophet, it means he possesses the ability to know things.  Consequently, she feels permitted to discuss a religious issue with him, namely, worship. In a somewhat awkward construction, the text makes it appear that other parts of the dialogue are not recorded. She claims that Jesus said people ought to worship in Jerusalem rather than “on this mountain” that is, Gerizim. One of the points of contention between Jews and Samaritans is precisely the location for proper worship. For Jews, it was Jerusalem; for Samaritans, it was Gerizim. John uses a literary technique to get “worship” into the discussion. He brings the dialogue back to her original question: why a Jew was asking a Samaritan for water. Their conflict revolved around worship.

Jesus says, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.”  In 2:4, even though the hour is not yet, Jesus still performed the first sign at the marriage in Cana. “The hour is coming” indicates that Jesus and the Samaritan woman are in a time of transition. While they were standing next to Jacob’s well (symbolic of the past) and speaking of worship (symbolic of the future) Jesus and the Samaritan woman are in a time when history becomes eschatology. “The hour is coming” is a reference to the eschatological moment which is even now dawning for the woman.  In the eschatological moment, the “neither/nor” of the place of worship is transcended because the Father transcends place and time, sacralizes space and sanctifies worshipers wherever they are. Jesus assures her that the place of worship soon will not be a matter that separates people. Both Jerusalem and Gerizim as geographical points are construed as belonging to “this world,” that is, of the earth, earthly. The Father as what pertains to the heavenly realm transcends the earthly. See revelation 21:22. True worship will rediscover its proper home in the human soul. Jesus in Samaria represents the ultimate triumph of the human soul. This is the true objective of the missionary impulse.

The eschatological moment depicted in “the hour is coming” is not congruent with 4:22. The ideas in this verse do not conform to John’s narrative purpose. The idea that “salvation is of the Jews” finds no place in John’s gospel. Already John informs his readers that “he came to his own home, and his own people did not receive him.” 1:11. It is likely that a later redactor inserted this verse for some purpose to appeal to a local tradition. The conflict is more strongly debated in 8:34-59.

Jesus continues in 23 the idea begun in 21. “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. For such the Father seeks to worship him.” Jesus is more specific here. Not only is the hour coming, it “now is.” The eschatological moment has broken into the present. The hour can mean only the redemptive moment is now. Nicodemus had learned that he had to be born of the Spirit to be part of the Kingdom of God. In 5:24 Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” One must worship God in spirit. In Revelation 1:10, the visionary says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” Spirit and truth are not ways of worshiping God. Spirit and truth are not attitudes adopted for worship. Spirit and truth are fundamental dispositions of the whole human soul toward the divine. In worship one completely surrenders to the divine, renders up heart and mind, soul and body to the divine, knowing that when the historical moment becomes the eschatological moment one’s entire existence is transformed, and what is called eternal life becomes real and present for one. “And this is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” 17:3. See Romans 12:1-2 for Paul’s view. The human being who stands in the presence of the divine already stands on holy ground and is thereby already sanctified by the divine. In worship, spirit and truth can simply be called faith.

When she hears this, the Samaritan woman becomes reflective. “I know that the Messiah is coming; when he comes, he will show us all things.” 4:25. She is not without some understanding of the expectation of redemption. She is awaiting the arrival of the Messiah and this might indicate that she would be receptive when the Messiah presented himself. Jesus replies in 4:26, “I who speak to you am he.” In this one sentence is the entire content of revelation. The coming one, the Omega, is already present in history as the Alpha. History has become eschatology and the redemptive moment is already spreading out from the center, from the place in which the Omega stands, in concentric circles to draw in all of creation. This is the gift that Jesus gives to the Samaritan woman. This is the foundation of the missionary enterprise of the church. Now, for the first time, she hears the Gospel from the Messiah himself. He who brings the message is himself the message. John does not tell us her immediate reaction, for just at that moment, the disciples of Jesus returned, and when they saw the woman they marveled that he was having a conversation with her. For them this was a matter of propriety. They were not concerned that he was talking with a Samaritan! The issue of Jew and Samaritan is no longer a problem by the time that the Gospel of John was written. This makes its way into the text by its absence in the attitude of the disciples.

At this point there appears to be an interruption in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in 4:31-38. I will discuss this section after I have completed exploring the Samaritan story in 4:39-42.

The woman to whom the Messiah has just revealed himself leaves her water jar (a symbol of her leaving the past; she has now received living water), returns to her town. She told the people, “Come and see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Messiah?” 4:29. She has just met the Messiah, and she immediately brings others to him. See Romans 10:14. She invites the others to find out for themselves, “Can this be the Messiah?” The scene picks up again in 4:39 after an interruption of another episode between Jesus and his disciples. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” This is something quite new. According to custom, a woman may not bear testimony. Now, in the eschatological age, something new has dawned. The new creation is gradually emerging. Galatians 4:28. She is not the first to bear witness to the Messiah in this gospel. John the Baptist bore witness, 1:7; Andrew bore witness, 1:41; Philip bore witness, 1:45. But she is the first woman to whom he revealed himself as the Messiah, and she testified to others. The Samaritans invited the Messiah to stay with them and he spent two days in their town. “And many more believed because of his word.”  Now that they have heard from the Messiah himself they no longer need the testimony of the woman. Now they can say, “we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” 4:42. John’s message is clearer now. In the missionary work of the church, people can hear the proclamation of the gospel directly or indirectly. They will come to believe and find redemption. To hear the word of proclamation is to be confronted by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. In this confrontation, the listener is allowed a moment of “soul review” that demands a response: to live in the flesh or to live in the spirit. To live in the spirit is eternal life, lived under the light of Christ and in the eternal presence of the divine. It is a choice between Jacob’s well and living water. Just as the woman had to stand before the Messiah and receive the revelation so also must the others. It is only in the presence of the divine that we can say with certainty “this is indeed the Savior of the world.” Something similar plays out at the crucifixion, when the centurion, in Mark 15:39, and the crowds, in Matthew 27:54 who stood facing Jesus on the cross, said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”

Now I must take up 4:31-38. I am not sure what John intended in this passage. It does not seem to fit in here; it has no relationship to what has gone before and what comes after. It seems to be made up of a kind of parable that contains local proverbs or wisdom sayings.  The disciples have returned from their shopping trip. They offered Jesus something to eat. Jesus replied, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” The disciples misunderstand him and wonder if someone has brought him something to eat. Creating contexts of misunderstanding is one of the literary techniques of John. I wonder if John is saying that not only the Samaritan woman, but even the disciples of Jesus do not understand him. But just as with the Samaritan woman, the lack of understanding on the part of the disciples provides an opportunity for Jesus to define himself and his mission. In 4:34 Jesus replied, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” What is this will? It seems as if the will of God has been presented in 3:16-19. The “will of him who sent me” has to do with the bringing of eschatological salvation to those who believe in him. This is confirmed in 6:38-40. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, and raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes inn him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” It follows, therefore, that the “work” of God that Jesus is to accomplish is salvation defined by “eternal life” and rising up “at the last day.”

Jesus says that this is what he has been sent to do. In 4:38 Jesus tells his disciples “I sent you to reap.” The sending of the disciples, the basis of apostleship, has its foundation in the sending of the Son of God. The proclamation of redemption which constitutes the “work” of the disciples is nothing other than the work of eschatological redemption that Jesus is accomplishing.The work of Jesus and his disciples is described in 4:35-38 as a harvest. There is a time for sowing and a time for harvesting. The sowing has been accomplished and “the fields are already white for harvest.”  The harvesters will reap “the fruit of eternal life.” One sows, another reaps. “He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit of eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.” 4:36. Rejoicing is a characteristic of redemption.

Verse 38 presents some exegetical problems. “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”  I have pointed out that the sending of the disciples is established on the basis of the sending of Jesus. Why would Jesus send them to reap where they did not sow?  Who are these “others” who did the sowing? This may be understandable only from a later time during and after the development of the young church where missionaries had built churches that were later led by others. If this is so, it reflects John’s understanding of the missionary impulse to build churches and then to move on to other areas where they were ready to sow the gospel.

While I still cannot fit this passage into the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the passage does make clear the whole mission of the church. This may be John’s way of saying, “Go therefore into all the world, making disciples of all nations.”

 

 

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SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT – THE PEOPLE’S VICTOR


SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT- 2017 – John 3:1-17

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 3:11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel. Today, he will be a teacher of the Church. He arrives to reveal to us what only he can reveal. He knows! That’s what he said to Jesus. He knows who Jesus is. He knows that Jesus has come from God. He knows that Jesus has done signs (miracles). He knows that Jesus is empowered by the presence of God. Nicodemus is a keen observer. From his observation, he draws conclusions. With his conclusions, he develops an idea. With this idea in mind he approaches Jesus. This is good scientific reasoning. Nicodemus has come to Jesus with a body of knowledge that allows him to enter into a conversation with Jesus. This is not simply a conversation. It is in effect a profound spiritual journey into which Nicodemus is initiated by Jesus. We who witness by sight and hearing become participants, students of a divine teacher gently leading a human teacher into a revelation from heaven.  On this spiritual journey, Nicodemus will grow from a man who knows Jesus based on his miracles, to a man who finds faith, based on God’s grace.

The event I am exploring describes a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. I personally believe that the story of Nicodemus ends at verse 10, which is the real end of the dialogue. The rest of the verses through 17 go on to speak about the Son of Man, who is a person quite different from Jesus himself, as the conversation at this point is in the third person. The writer has created this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus to make a particular point about the nature of the kingdom of God and redemption. As the dialogue progresses, we get a good picture of who Nicodemus is and who Jesus is.

Nicodemus – his name means “the people’s victor.” (Is not Jesus also the people’s victor?) It is a common name, but not much is known of this particular individual. However, what is known about him reveals him as a man of singular courage. He is a Pharisee, a member of a religious group that regularly challenged Jesus on points of law and practice. He is also a leader of the Jews, an “archon” which means that he is a member of the Sanhedrin, the institution of justice for the people of Israel. He is called a “teacher of Israel,” which means that he is a scribe. After the crucifixion, he provides one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. It is clear that Nicodemus is a man of great authority, learning, position and wealth. From this I conclude that it was not only the common people who listened to, and followed Jesus. People in authority like Nicodemus certainly showed an interest in him, and were probably filled with questions that troubled their souls. It is from this sector of the religious community that Nicodemus sought out Jesus. I am convinced that he does not come for his own sake only, but he appears before Jesus as a representative of the group to which he belonged, and which was certainly troubled by the activity of Jesus.

It is unimportant that he comes to Jesus “by night,” as if to say he does not want to be seen in the presence of Jesus. As a representative of his faith community he did not need the cover of darkness to speak with Jesus. The Pharisees challenged Jesus openly regularly, without fear of consequences. However, by the end of the gospel, we get an insight into the history of Nicodemus which reveals the kind of a man he was. Later in the gospel, in 7: 50-51, Nicodemus will defend Jesus in the Sanhedrin, of which he was a member, and such an action may have incurred the wrath of other members. It is clear that the Sanhedrin wanted to know who Jesus was, and what his mission was, but also that they could not reach a decision. Nicodemus insists that matters about Jesus be decided on points of law. Nicodemus will appear again after the death of Jesus in 19:39f. where he will join Joseph of Arimathea in removing the body of Jesus from the cross and preparing it for burial. Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes with which to do this, which indicates that he is also a person of means. This is the extent of what is known about Nicodemus. The fact that he comes to Jesus with questions means that he knows something about what Jesus had been doing. It is clear from the way he began the conversation that he is aware of the activity of Jesus, and that these activities, especially the miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. Through his understanding of these activities, Nicodemus formed an idea of who Jesus is. What Nicodemus knows of Jesus is that he is a worker of miracles. His entire knowledge of Jesus was based on the fact that Jesus performed miracles.

Nicodemus addresses Jesus as Rabbi. He is aware (“we know”) that Jesus has performed signs and that these prove that “God is with him.” This is reminiscent of the Prologue where “the Word was with God,” and the Word became flesh. The story of Nicodemus takes us back to the beginning, and this is one of the most important features of this story. One may say that the meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus was itself the prologue to the rest of his life. He approaches with a question, but before Nicodemus can ask his question Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.” The kingdom of God is used only here in this passage in the gospel. It is a common idea in the synoptic gospels. Jesus says unless one is born anew he cannot see (verse 3) or enter (verse 5) the kingdom of God. The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus in the Synoptics begins with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  However, “repent” and “born anew” do not share the same content. Nowhere in John do we find the term “repent.” (metanoia). The writer, however, is not alone in his use of “born anew.” The term occurs in I Peter 1: 3, 23; and Titus 3:5. It appears, then, that the idea of being born anew was already a part of the vocabulary of the young church.

Does Jesus read the mind of Nicodemus? I don’t believe so. Jesus is called Rabbi, and Nicodemus is called a teacher of Israel. They are both aware of words and meanings in the faith that is common to them. When Nicodemus says no one can do these things unless “God was with him,” that statement is identical to “no one can do these things unless he is already living in the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus knows that Jesus already participates in the kingdom of God on the basis of the signs that Jesus has done. Jesus perceives that Nicodemus’ unspoken question is “how does one come to belong to the kingdom of God?” Jesus replies, you must be born anew. This translation is the most appropriate and most accurate translation of the Greek word “anothen.” In others parts of the gospel the word certainly can be translated “from above” as in 3:31; 19:11, and 19:23. There are other such occurrences in the synoptic gospels also. Jesus is saying that this present creation that gave birth to Nicodemus holds no possibility of allowing him entrance into the kingdom of God. Hence, Nicodemus must be born in a way different from this creation. The meaning of “anew” is that Nicodemus must have a completely new origin, a completely new beginning, because that is the only way into the kingdom of God. Just as Jesus is from the beginning so also must be Nicodemus.

The gospel of John is quite different from the Synoptic gospels on this point. This gospel does not know of the tradition of the virgin birth. Jesus has always existed from the beginning and it is as “the beginning” that he enters into human history. In other words, Jesus enters the sphere of the human as the Alpha, and it is as the Alpha he discloses the nature and presence of the kingdom of God. Chapter 3 must be read in light of the Prologue of the gospel. “In the beginning was the Word,” and the beginning in this context is not a point of time. The beginning is the incipient source of all that has come to be. The beginning, where the new emerges and comes to stand, is presented to Nicodemus as being born “anew.” It is to this source that Jesus points Nicodemus. You must be born from that which is new and which always remains new because it is from that source that the kingdom of God emerges and manifests itself among humans. No wonder that Nicodemus is astonished. His mind could not comprehend the dimension of Spirit to which Jesus points. He is not only astonished; he is completely confused. Nicodemus’ question in verse 4 indicates that he does not understand what Jesus has just said. At the same time the impossibility of the idea of natural rebirth shows clearly that what is at issue is not a physical matter but something transcendent. Nicodemus is still very much a part of this present creation, the natural world from which it is impossible to be born anew. He cannot understand rebirth in any way other than physical. Jesus invites Nicodemus to expand his thinking, to entertain a different point of view, to see his life from a different perspective.

In 3:5 Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” This is the word of hope that Nicodemus hears for the first time. The testimony of John the Baptist in 1:32-34 about Jesus, brings together baptism and Spirit. Jesus clarifies for Nicodemus what he means by being “born anew.” Jesus does not refer to baptism in this passage. It is very likely that the phrase “born of water” was not an original part of the story but was inserted much later in the developmental stages of the gospel. The gospel of John does not have an interest in sacraments, so it is unlikely that what is implied here is some idea of baptism. It is likely that Jesus tells Nicodemus that entry into the kingdom of God is through the Spirit.  Here the Spirit is not some kind of disembodied entity that is at work in the world. It is the power present in Jesus, 1:12, that Nicodemus has seen in the signs that Jesus performed. Spirit proper is none other than God acting to renew and transform the life of Nicodemus, and therefore also of the church. Spirit is creative activity and transformative power, and both point to Christian life determined by a power that is other than itself. Jesus is saying that to be born anew is to be born of the Spirit. The Spirit is the origin and primal source of all that is and if Nicodemus is to participate in the kingdom of God he must come to understand that born anew and born of the Spirit and the kingdom of God are all one and the same thing: to be thrown forward by the beginning which is present in every “now” making new all creation that will finally be revealed as “Spirit.” The answer that Jesus gives is that only the power of the divine can bring about the new birth and that the real content of power is Spirit. Verse 6 presents contrasting worlds. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit.”

Nicodemus stands in the world of flesh. As long as his life is determined by flesh he will dwell within chaos, the inevitable disorder of his world and his existence, and ultimately everlasting death. At the same time, Nicodemus by his own self or will cannot choose the life of the Spirit. Life in the flesh cannot break out of itself; it can be only what it already always is: the inevitable march towards death. Life in the Spirit is given to him only as a free gift of God, and that is being born anew, an act whose origin lies beyond his present sphere of existence.

Jesus tells Nicodemus “Do not be astonished that I said to you ‘you must be born anew.’”  I stand with Nicodemus in that I am astonished at what I am hearing. This makes no sense to one who lives according to the flesh. Like Nicodemus, I marvel that what I have heard so far convinces me that this new birth, which is another name for salvation, is beyond my reach. Such an idea leads to the anxiety of despair. It confronts Nicodemus with the existential certainty of death. From this certainty, begin the stirrings within his soul to seek life. Jesus consoles an anxious Nicodemus by using what is known to explain the unknown. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound if it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The example is one of origin and destiny. Whoever is born of the Spirit has a past and a future that inhabits the unknown but is nevertheless present because it can be experienced. The Spirit must move in order to survive. Spirit exists in movement. When it comes to rest, it dies. The spirit goes where it wills. That is its nature. It seeks out what is new, different, excitingly dangerous, taking risks to be true to itself, always challenging whatever affects us to grow us to maturity. The spirit is the playful play of futurity, daring to release from lingering the things that surreptitiously bondage us to what is merely time. The spirit is the adversary of time, of the reasonableness of quotidian accidents whose aspirations to divine will or named tragedy inevitably fail. Spirit remains spirit only as the untamed, the radical uprooting of all anchorage, the absolute freedom to will itself multitudes of divergences from the normal. Spirit has no norm, resists norming, as norming breeds permanence and conditioned definitions that seek to set the frame for freedom as community. Spirit grants a reckless, restlessness to community without which there is neither liberty nor redemption. Spirit is fulness, here, there, everywhere pervading where the human stands and takes a stand. Spirit is the transcending futurity that invites what is next and proximate to become, linger, pass. Spirit brings about what comes to pass, so that in its passing it creates a clearing for the new to dawn. Spirit is the dawning of what is new and needs to be told for the first time. Spirit is the human story, still unfolding, spreading across the expanse of soul into tomorrow. This is what is troubling to Nicodemus. He is not easily consoled. For the second time he asks, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel; he carries within himself the content of the definition of Israel. However, that content still belongs to the natural world, under the real threat of existential annihilation, the existence in the flesh. There is nothing in life after the flesh that can understand what it is like to live in the Spirit. On this spiritual journey, Nicodemus is faced with a choice: flesh or Spirit, death or life.

I believe that verse 11 onwards is no longer part of the dialogue. Now, Jesus instructs Nicodemus about something different. In verse 11 Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; but you do not receive out testimony.” The singular personal pronoun is replaced by the plural. Jesus speaks of “we.” There are serious problems with this verse, and it has been suggested that it does not belong here. I’m not sure that I can make sense of it. In 3:2 Nicodemus came to Jesus saying “we know” even though he seemed to be speaking for himself. Is Jesus using the same linguistic technique? Perhaps the “we” refers to the early church that is bearing witness to the “world,” and the world does not receive this witness. In the Prologue, “he came to his own people and his own received him not.” It seems as if both the testimony and the bearer of the testimony are rejected. In the next verse Jesus returns to the singular pronoun speaking of “earthly things” and “heavenly things.”

What constitutes “earthly things,” and “heavenly things”? This is not made clear since Jesus has been speaking so far only of being born anew. Is being born anew a heavenly thing? The contrast is again flesh and Spirit, below and above, earth and heaven. This verse stands as a transition to the next thought. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” It is by descent, by the downward movement of the soul, by its seeking out anchorage and grounding, that it can cast its vision upwards. That the soul is grounded, cleaving itself in its primal substance, is its hope of arising. The writer is using Gnostic imagery and ideas to present his message. This makes it likely that his congregation was aware of these ideas and even that Gnostic beliefs were already a part of the practice of the church, as Paul discovered in his own ministry at Corinth. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man in the third person. He seems to create some space between himself and the Son of Man, and I believe that this space is meant to be filled by faith. It is faith that allows the believer to see in Jesus the Son of Man. In the ascent of the Son of Man to heaven, presumably something that will be witnessed, that faith will arise. Perhaps verse 13 is what constitutes heavenly things. However, it is difficult to make sense of an ascent that comes before a descent. It appears in this verse that the ascension, glorification of the Son of Man is spoken as prior to the incarnation, the descent into humanity under the conditions of flesh. If the Son of Man is to be exalted, is it not because first of all “the word became flesh”? In any case, incarnation and exaltation belong together theologically.

The following verses seem to attempt an explanation. In 3:15 the image of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness is compared to the lifting up of the Son of Man. His being lifted up is another way of expressing his ascent or exaltation. Again, the writer is using something that is known (the story of the bronze serpent) to explain what is unknown (the exaltation of the Son of Man). But this at once presents another difficulty, for the serpent and the Son of Man have nothing in common. It appears that the writer uses this analogy awkwardly to introduce a new concept. Now, “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The writer has transitioned from “born anew,” to the “kingdom of God,” to “eternal life.” Eternal life is a comprehensive concept that integrates within itself all that has been said so far. The writer has been moving his readers gradually from unbelief to the possibility of belief. He is saying now that the possibility exists for them to believe in heavenly things, which is none other than eternal life.

Life in the Spirit is accomplished in the incarnation and exaltation of the Son of Man. Being born of the Spirit is now finally defined as eternal life. This is confirmed in 3:16. It becomes clear now that the Son of Man is none other than “his only Son.” The divine motive is also made clear: the work of the Son is the result of the love of the Father. The ascent and descent of the Son, his incarnation and exaltation, constitute the work of salvation. God has sent his Son to save the world not to judge it. Salvation comes about through the love of God. The writer of the gospel presents the story of Nicodemus to unravel for the young church the meaning of eternal life. Like many new members, Nicodemus has come to Jesus seeking answers. From his later actions in the gospel, defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin and providing for his burial, I conclude that he became a follower of Jesus. Through his conversation with Jesus, we get an insight into who he is and who Jesus is. He is therefore not only a teacher of Israel, but also a teacher of the Church.

He came to Jesus on the basis of knowledge based on miracles. He discovers that even miracles cannot be the foundation of faith, for faith itself in order to be authentic can never have a foundation. Faith is the way in which the soul understands itself, as that which is always self-surrender, in order to uncover a more original ground that turns out to be self-reflective. Faith must surrender itself repeatedly to sustain the original ground. Faith is not cumulative, nor does it accumulate. It constantly sheds whatever adheres in order to be true to itself as “pistis,” that which alone can know itself, its true nature, faith. This faith understands that it can never have a foundation and still remain faith. Faith nurtures itself through its self-surrender. On his spiritual journey, Nicodemus discovers that true life is life in the Spirit and of the Spirit. He discovers that this life is offered to his him as the free gift of God and is appropriated by faith alone. This is what it means to be born anew. The Church today continues to be the place where people are born anew through water and the Spirit. The Church, whose essential nature is the transcendental presence of the Holy Spirit, is the voice of the redeemer calling out to the world, come, be born anew, receive eternal life. Live!

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THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT  – THE TEMPTATION OF JESUS


THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT  – THE TEMPTATION OF JESUS

Matthew 4: 1-11

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 4:3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 4:6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 4:9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 4:10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deut. 6:4-5. Matthew’s use of Deuteronomy 6 in the narrative of the Temptation indicates that he would have known the Shema. I interpret the Temptation as a singular event in the life of Jesus, but at the same time an event that never distances itself from him nor he from it. The Temptation is a transcendent event. I will address this matter in more detail later. Because it is transcendent, it is it is always present, illuminating Matthew’s narrative motive and meaning. It culminates in an eschatology of cosmic inclusiveness reaching forward to a mission of baptism of all nations, backwards to the baptism of Jesus that occasioned the Temptation, sustained by the promise, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” 28:19-20. On a separate note, I believe that the Passion narrative is superimposed over the Temptation, for which it is but a summary and an indication of what is to follow, and whose silent message is always that Jesus is victor not victim.

The Temptation was not originally a unit as is evidenced by the way it is treated in the several traditions. Mark and John have no interest in the Temptation. Mark barely mentions it as if to say that the Passion story suffices. It is apparent that Mark does not know of the version in the Q Document. John never mentions the Temptation. Both Matthew and Luke use the Q Document, but Luke’s version is almost exactly that of Q. Matthew makes a number of changes for apologetic and didactic reasons. He expands the dialogue between Jesus and the devil. He reverses the last two temptations. Matthew also knows Mark’s version, as is evidenced by the mention of the angels in Matt. 1:11. The primary apologetic reason for the narrative of the Temptation is to demonstrate, as does the baptism of Jesus, that Jesus submits totally and unconditionally to the will of the divine. Beyond this, the Temptation narrative reveals nothing new about Jesus that has not been known up to this point. As a result, it has always been a puzzle as to the reason for this narrative, and scholars will continue to debate it. However, the story encourages, and even demands that the early Christian church behave in a similar manner in the face of all the challenges and persecutions they faced daily. An exploration of the gospel discloses that Matthew addresses doctrinal and administrative matters that were affecting the development and functioning of his congregation. The narrative of the temptation of Jesus is one such event through which the evangelist speaks to his church. On a broader note, Matthew is presenting his gospel as the narrative of the new creation. He has both Genesis and Deuteronomy in mind in the Temptation. In addition to Deuteronomy, Matthew must have known of the story of manna from heaven in Exodus 16, and of the temptation of the Lord in Exodus 17. He is drawing upon the history of the Jews to insist upon his didactic message to his congregation. A new creation story requires a new humanity, and Matthew intends to offer a theological anthropology that will define his understanding of a new humanity. At the heart of that anthropology is Matthew’s view of discipleship that I have addressed in earlier postings,  that will form the foundation of his missiology, the redemption of the whole world. I believe that Matthew revises the Temptation narrative that he found in the Q Document for apologetic and didactic purposes, to prepare the disciples and the young church for the difficulties ahead.

Matthew begins his narrative by identifying Jesus. He is the son of Abraham, 1:1, and Matthew intends Jesus as the fulfilment of all the promises made to Abraham. (Gen. 12: 1-3; 17:5-7). The wise men of the east call Jesus “the king of the Jews,” and they came “to worship him,” Mt. 2:2. When they found him, “they fell down and worshiped him.” Mt. 2:11. One may pledge loyalty and obedience to a king, but does one worship him? The word for worship, proskuneo, is used with reference to Jesus nine times in Matthew, hence it holds special importance. The devil will use this same word in 4:4, demanding that Jesus worship him. Matthew must mean something quite specific with this incident. He is saying that Jesus is the son of Abraham, but he is more than that. Matthew clarifies that, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” 2:15. Jesus is son of Abraham, inheriting the promises, and he is the son of God. In the scene of the baptism of Jesus,  as well as the Transfiguration, the identification of Jesus is more pronounced. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” For Matthew, the identity of Jesus is settled, the Divine itself has announced it. Consequently, in what follows, I shall focus on what the devil demands of Jesus: command these stones to become bread; cast yourself down from the pinnacle; fall down and worship me.

The ideas presented here lead me to the conclusion that the Temptation of Jesus is not intended to affirm the identity of Jesus. That is an established fact for Matthew. He has demonstrated it through genealogy, 1:1-17. He has shown it through history, “in the days of Herod the king,” 2:1. It makes a difference whether one believe that Matthew himself has constructed the narrative of the Temptation or has adapted it from Q. The latter has no interest in Jesus as the Son of God. For Q, it is enough that Jesus is identified as the Son of Man. Matthew clearly identifies Jesus as the Son of God. It is as the Son of God that Jesus enters the desert and is tempted. However, Jesus was not alone in the desert. He was led out there by the Spirit that descended upon him at his baptism. After the Temptation, the angels came and ministered to him.

The First Temptation: Everything that takes place in the Temptation narrative does so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was in the desert, fasting for forty days and forty nights, at the end of which he was hungry. Moses was on the mountain with God forty days and forty nights, “he neither ate bread nor drank water,” fasting as he received the commandments. Ex.34:28. Matthew would have known this. The Pharisee in Luke 18:12 boasted that he fasted twice a week. He was fulfilling the minimum requirements of the law. Fasting and hunger are not words used lightly. They tell us something important if we listen intently. In the pre-Pauline hymn in Philippians 2, Christ emptied himself so that he became fully human. Fasting in the desert and emptying himself conceal a truth that needs to be revealed. This first Temptation is not simply about turning stones into bread. It is not a challenge to the authority and identity of Jesus. Hunger in this context is not a metaphor. It was real for Jesus, and it might have been real for the church. The devil says, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” He is demanding that Jesus change what God has made. This is the essence of this Temptation: the devil tempts Jesus to take God’s place, to dislodge the divine and to assume its place. This is exactly what the devil wishes for himself. The devil himself wants to replace the divine.  Jesus rejects the demand. This creation is a gift from God, the stones are a gift from God, but only so long as they remain what they were intended to be. Is not Jesus himself stone also? “The very stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” 21:42. In 7:9 Jesus says, “Who among you, if your son asks for bread, would give him a stone?” Stones and bread are both gifts from God, having different purposes. Jesus is both stone and bread, yet he has a singular purpose, to be himself in the act of accomplishing the purpose for which he was sent. (The changing of water into wine at the Marriage at Cana in John’s Gospel calls for a different analysis in the context of the meaning of that Gospel). Bread is a daily gift from God, so we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In 26:26 Jesus took bread and said to his disciples, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Jesus, the bread of life, the bread from heaven, gives himself as a gift to his disciples and to the church. He who is bread itself does not need to make stones into bread. He is stone and bread. He is self-sustaining and self-nurturing and for this reason he can fast for forty days and nights. He empties himself; he is hungry; he gives himself as a gift to be consumed by his disciples and the church. The Church does not exist as rocks and trees exist. Its roots can reach only so far into the earth before it becomes “earthly” and loses its divine transcendent nature. The Church is always temporary housing for lost souls that come seeking its redemptive shelter. It is not and cannot be permanent upon the earth, without losing its fluidity of water and Word that called it into being. As transient, the Church is always the wilderness that beckons to a world in search of its soul, speaking with the voice of the living Christ, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest for your souls.” The temptation of the Church is always to silence the voice of the living Christ.

The Second Temptation: The devil takes Jesus to the holy city, and up to the pinnacle of the temple. It is somewhat curious that the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert and the devil leads Jesus to the holy city and the temple. There will be another time when Jesus will enter the holy city to the shouts, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!” But for the present, Jesus is accompanied by the devil. Now he commands Jesus, “Cast yourself down.” He whose name, dia-bolos, meaning “the one cast down” (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9; John 12:31), wants Jesus to join him as one cast down. He wants Jesus to share his fate. If Jesus were to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, he would be giving up his life in the holiest place. Jerusalem is the center of the world; it is the place from which salvation will go out to all parts of the world. It is the scene of the final struggle between the divine and the demonic in a great apocalyptic event. That is what we are told in the Revelation of John. We are also told that in the new creation John “saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb.” Rev. 21:22. He who is himself the temple cannot cast himself down. But for the moment, in the scene of the Temptation, all of this is hidden. It will be revealed at the appropriate time.

The didactic content that Matthew wants to communicate here is this: danger lurks even in the holy city and the holy temple. But where danger exists, the church can be assured that the Lord God will deliver the people. The devil knows this. He can quote scripture to support this. The devil himself was cast down, not of his own will, but by the will of the divine and the divine did not send angels to deliver him. Perhaps he himself was unsure that God would deliver Jesus. And this uncertainty is something that might have prevailed in Matthew’s congregations. He had to provide an answer that would inspire the faith of the members of his church. Matthew is warning the members of his church that danger lurks in the church itself, as Paul saw so clearly in many of his congregations. He is encouraging them to be careful and to continue trusting that God will deliver them from internal and external dangers. He does this by showing how Jesus faced such dangers and overcame them by trusting in the word of the Lord. Indeed, Jesus will later give up his life in a holy place, but not at the command of the devil. For the moment, this too is hidden from the public.

Jesus says, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Matthew is cautioning his church not to tempt the Lord by any show of unfaithfulness or doubt. They are living in critical times, and they need to be careful of their words and their actions. The young church has just discovered new life in Christ, and they know that it is difficult to practice their faith in public. Matthew has constructed the narrative of the Temptation in this way to teach his church that they must not surrender their life to the temptation of the world. The devil asks Jesus to surrender his life, to give it up, in fact, to attempt suicide if his faith is so strong that God would deliver him. Matthew is saying that the dangers and trials which the church faces must be dealt with in the same way that Jesus rebuffed the devil. I find it curious that the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and asks him to sacrifice himself by jumping off the pinnacle. Jerusalem is the place where the Spirit will lead Jesus to the cross, to be lifted up, and then after a while to be taken down by his disciples and then again to be lifted up by the Spirit in the resurrection. The devil’s task is to cast down; the Spirit’s task is to lift up. One may pray to God, “Deliver us from evil,” but one may not tempt God by willing evil and then tempting God for deliverance. Matthew’s apologia is that God will certainly deliver the faithful.

The Third Temptation: The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain. Luke’s version has no mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the kosmos, the natural world. In Luke, Jesus is shown the oikoumene, the populated kingdoms. “All these I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.” We may recall that all the kingdoms of the natural world have already been given to God’s first son, Adam, Genesis 1:26-31. These kingdoms are not the devil’s to give. What is Matthew trying to teach his church with the use of this Temptation? The Q Document which is Matthew’s source for this, originated in the Palestinian Christian community. Perhaps some of the newer members who have come from Hellenistic backgrounds are not accustomed to a monotheistic faith. Some of them did not have a sense of a transcendent God who was at the same time imminent. We learn this from Paul who speaks of the people “who do not know God.” I Thess. 4:5. It is because of monotheistic preaching that these people “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” I Thess. 1:9. See also Gal. 4:8-9.

Note that in this third Temptation the devil does not say, “If you are the Son of God.” The Temptation is intended for a broader audience. I believe that Matthew is using a didactic technique that is intended to teach his church that the world will indeed offer them many things that are not theirs to offer to draw them away from their new-found faith. Later, in the Revelation of John, we will discover that Jesus will defeat Satan and everything will indeed be delivered to Jesus. Matthew is encouraging his church to be patiently faithful in these critical times and that their faith will be rewarded in time to come. In Rev. 2:20, the church at Smyrna which is under tribulation is told, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Matthew is teaching a lesson about the strength and persistence of faith.

How shall we understand the episode of the testing of Jesus? Twentieth century scholarship saw the Temptation of Jesus as a carefully written haggadah, a public disputation between two authorities with different points of views. In the Palestinian Christian church where the narrative of the Temptation originated, there must have been many such open disputations, challenging the new faith that attracted so many people from a variety of cultures. The narrative of the Temptation seems to have been an apologia for the defense of the faith. Matthew re-worked his source to address the concerns of his own congregation.

The devil is certainly not a flesh and blood adversary standing before Jesus challenging him, as for example the Pharisees and Sadducees did. What are we to make of the dialogue? Is it really a monologue between two distinct personas of Jesus? How to understand all this? I believe that Matthew has presented the Temptation of Jesus as an ecstatic apocalyptic vision in which Jesus is caught up, as John was in Rev. 1:10. John was “in the Spirit,” when he was caught up. Jesus entered this episode after the Holy Spirit had descended upon him, and he was led by the Spirit for forty days. When the testing was over, “angels came and ministered to him.” See also Paul’s apocalyptic vision, 2 Cor. 12. The demonic is hostile to the divine. An apocalyptic vision does not need to include each and every item that defines the content of apocalyptic. Mark 13 is an example of this. The young church was aware of such apocalyptic visions, and incorporated them into their worship as in Paul and the Apocalypse of John. Here in Matthew, there is a supernatural entity offering itself in place of the divine. There is symbolic apocalyptic language, the kingdom of this world as opposed to the Kingdom of God. There is also transport of the visionary without leaving the scene as in Revelation. There is a gradual progression within the narrative that culminated in the victory of the divine.

The Temptation of Jesus is a singular event, (apocalyptic visions by nature cannot be repeated, only re-told), a story that transcends time and place and uniqueness of meaning. It is a singular event that inhabits every proclamation, every “now” of the church. The church always exists in the context of temptation, that is, the church always exists in contexts of choices. As long as we can believe with Jesus, we too will transcend the divisions that challenge the church each day, each moment. We can never forget that the life of the church is a life of choosing.  In Deut. 30:19 we read, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses; therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and cleaving to him.” Later, Joshua will say to the people, “choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” 24:15. Matthew adds his voice to theirs. Now is the day of salvation!

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THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD


THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD  –  Matthew 17:1-9

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” Yogi Berra

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 17:2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 17:3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 17:4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 17:5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 17:6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 17:7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 17:8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Matthew has used the tradition of the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-10. As is his custom, Matthew follows Mark with significant changes. In 17:1, Matthew leaves out the word “apart” which Mark has used perhaps to emphasize the patently private event. In verse 2, Matthew adds, “and his face shone like the sun.” Regarding the clothing of Jesus, Mark says that they became dazzling white, “such that no one on earth could bleach them.” Matthew leaves out this description. In verse 3, Matthew reverses the names Moses and Elijah, and does not name Jesus, as does Mark. In verse 4, Peter addressed Jesus as “Lord” whereas Mark says “Rabbi.” Peter volunteered himself to make three dwellings, while in Mark Peter says, “Let us make three dwellings.” Mark adds, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Matthew leaves this out. Matthew’s verse 5 is more explicit than Mark. “While he (Peter) was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them.” Mark says simply, “Then a cloud overshadowed them.” To the voice from the cloud, Matthew adds, “with him I am well pleased.” Matthew adds verses 6-7 to Mark’s account. Verse 8 in Matthew is almost the same as verse 8 in Mark. This is where Mark’s version of the Transfiguration ends. Matthew adds verse 9, asking the disciples not to speak of the event “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Ever since the early twentieth century, Biblical scholars have interpreted the Transfiguration as a resurrection story that was placed earlier in the narrative of Jesus. It has been pointed out that the sixth day mentioned in verse 1 is associated with the Epiphany, when the calendar days are counted from the day of the crucifixion. It is also likely that the story originally was told only about Jesus, and that later the names of the disciples were added as the tradition developed. Matthew’s Transfiguration narrative also shows elements of a theophany. The scene is on a mountain, the event is accompanied by bright light, cloud, shadow and a voice from the cloud. However, this in itself does not make the event a theophany. In the context of New Testament apocalyptic, such descriptions may have been a normal part of the recitation of stories from the life of Jesus. While the Transfiguration is not a theophany, it certainly is an apocalyptic event in the life of Jesus. Luke’s version of the Transfiguration in 9:28-36 is much more detailed, and I believe in the interest of his theology of history.

Matthew begins his narrative by saying “six days later.” He and Mark are agreed on this, but Luke has it as eight days. Matthew dates the Transfiguration from the time of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, where Peter responded to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Matt. 16:16. Those intervening days are an important part of Matthew’s narrative. Jesus warns his disciples not to disclose his identity. He predicts his passion and resurrection. He rebukes Peter. He teaches his disciples self-sacrifice. He promises his disciples that soon, in their lifetime, the Son of Man will arrive with angels and with judgment. It seems as if all of these themes are rolled up into the story of the Transfiguration.

The mountain is not identified. It does not seem to make sense trying to identify it, because the only description is that it was “high.”. However, mountains are important in the history of Jesus. The mountain is where miracles can happen, Matt.17:20; 21:21. It is a place of nurture, where the shepherd feeds his flocks. Matt. 18:12. He is tempted on a mountain, Matt. 4:8. Jesus teaches on a mountain, Matt. 5:1. He goes to pray on a mountain, Matt. 14:23. He is transfigured on a mountain, Matt.17:1, and it is to a mountain that he invites his disciples to see him after he is raised from the dead, Matt.28:16.  It seems the natural thing for Jesus to do with his disciples when he takes them to the mountain to pray. After the confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus seems to need secrecy and isolation. In 16:21-23, he knows what will befall him, and he prepares himself for this by prayer. Of the three synoptic evangelists, only Luke 9:28, states that the purpose of going up the mountain was for prayer. That is assumed by Mark and Matthew, perhaps on good grounds, because it might have been the habit of Jesus to pray on mountains. After the celebration of the Passover (the Institution of the Last Supper), he and his disciples “went out to the Mount of Olives.” 26:30. Prayer was important in the life of Jesus and his disciples. It is likely that they prayed, as he did, regularly, and were not reluctant to learn different ways of praying. In Luke 11: 1, Jesus was at prayer. His disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” From this we learn that John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. Then Jesus taught his disciples what is now known as the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus had belonged to the Baptist’s sect. He would have known the prayers that John taught his followers. Is it possible that the Lord’s Prayer could have originated in the Baptist’s sect? There is no evidence for that, but it is still an interesting question. Luke’s version is identical to that of the Q Document, and is likely the earliest available, though whether it is original or not cannot be ascertained. There are events that show the content of other prayers of Jesus. In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus prays for Simon Peter. “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail, and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus does not pray only for himself, but for his disciples. In Luke 10:21; Matt. 11:25, Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” The prayers of Jesus are always for submission and obedience to the will of God. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was with Peter and the sons of Zebedee, praying. He was himself “grieved and agitated,” saying to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even unto death.” Then going some distance from them, “he threw himself upon the ground and prayed.” It is clear from this that Jesus was agonizing over what was to befall him. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” He prayed this same prayer three times before leaving the garden. There are other instances of Jesus teaching his disciples about prayer. Jesus emphasizes brevity and sincerity in prayer, Matt. 6:7. The one feature that is characteristic of all of his teaching on prayer is the eschatological hope of the kingdom in which the will of God is finally fulfilled. The one who comes to God in prayer submits to the divine obediently. Prayer is a request, a petition, a thanksgiving. Those who approach the divine in prayer do not expect to change the mind of the divine. They come offering up their will as a sacrifice, and asking that the divine will descend upon them and carry them day by day toward the fulfilment of God’s will for their lives. Prayer as submission and obedience to the divine will is at the same time confession. Every prayer is a confession because one cannot invoke the name of God by any other means than as a sinner who comes seeking grace and forgiveness. Jesus understands this. In Gethsemane, he throws himself upon the ground in the absolute condition of humility and obedience. From this grounding in humility he invokes the divine. Humility is the absolute rejection of what one is, of what one thinks that one is, of what one pretends to be, and empties oneself completely of will and desire, thought and action, even of the faintest hope that one has held. One can bring nothing of oneself to the altar of the Lord, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it; for he has founded it.” Psalm 24:1. It is with this disposition of soul that Jesus ascended the mountain.

Jesus “took with him” his three disciples up the mountain by themselves. After this, another verb is used here and in Mark 9:1 in this special sense of “lead up.” In other New Testament passages it is related to lifting up of sacrifice, but this sense is not warranted in the narrative of the Transfiguration. The idea of going up the mountain was initiated by Jesus. In 16:24, he had told them, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I have pointed out elsewhere that the essence of discipleship is to follow. His three disciples followed him up the mountain. Mark has “by themselves apart,” which may indicate that they were not the only ones on the mountain at that time. “And he was transfigured before them.”

This is decidedly an apocalyptic vision as a comparison with Rev. 1:14 would show. Jesus has called for repentance, because the kingdom of heaven had come near. In the kingdom of heaven believers are transformed already by their repentance. This is the content of the eschatological salvation that Jesus had promised his disciples. The Transfiguration of Jesus is a vivid demonstration of the transformation of the disciples. The disciples are allowed to see the Lord as he really is in his divine nature. Everything earthly about him falls away both in his body and in his garment. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The benediction in Numbers 6:24-26 comes to mind. The idea is that an intensely bright light shines from within Jesus and surrounds him. According to the Numbers passage, through the shining of the face of the Lord upon the people, the name of the Lord is placed upon Israel. (Numbers 6:27) Light has something to do with naming, owning and identification. Here, the light reveals the presence of Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus. In this apocalyptic vision, the celestial precursors are clearly seen by the three disciples. The Transfiguration is an event in which Jesus releases from within himself the Light that he, himself, is. He who is Light from before the beginning, who is himself the source of all light since the beginning, permits the disciples to behold him in the complete Otherness of his origin. Whatever meaning one associates with Moses and Elijah, from now on it is clear that only in the revelation of the Light of Christ can their meaning be uncovered. The Light of the Transfiguration reveals them talking with Jesus. In Luke 10:23-24, Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” However, the conversation is not noted. I wonder, did Moses and Elijah bring a message to Jesus? It is often said that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. For Matthew, the Law and the Prophets are the entire content of Scripture. But Moses and Elijah were known for other great things. Moses saved his people from slavery. Elijah saved his people from idolatry. In the Light of revelation, Scripture still speaks to us of salvation.

The Light of the Transfiguration that emanated from Jesus did not only reveal Moses and Elijah. The Light also encompassed Peter, James and John. They too are brought within its radiance. They too belong to the celestial vision. The Transfiguration of Jesus is not only about three persons; it is clearly about six persons standing within and under one Light. Peter, James and John are not merely witnesses to the Transfiguration. They are participants. That this is so is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus, and at the same time, Peter addressed Jesus. He said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here, if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Nothing is said about how Peter recognized Moses and Elijah, and perhaps nothing definitive can be said. I would like to suggest, however, that in this apocalyptic vision, everything that is necessary is immediately revealed to Peter and the other disciples. Peter did not recognize Moses and Elijah because he had some inner idea as to their identity. He recognized them because the Transfiguration is an event of revelation, and they were revealed to him as soon as they entered into the Light of Christ. The revelation brought the disciples completely into the event. They belong within the Transfiguration as much as Jesus, Moses and Elijah. They were “taken up” the mountain by Jesus for some reason, and one must seek within that Light to uncover why Jesus chose them to accompany him.

Peter’s suggestion to build dwellings indicates that he expects the heavenly company to remain with them on the mountain. Or, perhaps it is an expression of Peter’s fear that Jesus would depart from them along with Moses and Elijah. Whatever conclusion one reaches, it is clear that Peter did not want the event of the Transfiguration to come to an end. He understood the eschatological message that the kingdom of heaven had come near and he wanted to preserve it. This is one way of understanding Peter’s role here. Peter wants to preserve something to which he now belonged. The dwellings of which Peter speaks announce one thing clearly: the divine has come to dwell among human beings. This is how Peter understands the Transfiguration, and he speaks for the disciples. James and John are curiously silent throughout. This is an indication of the prominence given to Peter very early in the church. When he says that it is good that “we” are here, he refers to himself, along with James and John. He is not referring to Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The Transfiguration embodies the divine and the human. Peter recognizes the divine and wants to preserve its presence. It was Peter himself who six days earlier confessed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Transfiguration is the second revelation of the divinity of Jesus that has been given to Peter. Matt.16:17. In the confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus says he will build his church on this Rock. In the Transfiguration, six days later, it is Peter who wants to build.

The apocalyptic vision continued while Peter was still speaking with Jesus. For, “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” There are phenomena that need exploration: the face of Jesus that shone like the sun; the dazzling white garments; the bright cloud. One may indeed inquire how it is possible for a “bright cloud” to “overshadow” anyone. I interpret the bright cloud as the encompassing light that emanated from the face of Jesus. In Exodus 40:34-38, the glory of the Lord settled upon the tabernacle as a cloud. In the same way, the “bright cloud” settled upon the six persons on the mountain of Transfiguration. In this apocalyptic vision, it is the glory of the Lord that descends upon and envelops them. In the intensity of its radiance they could see nothing. The Apostle Paul had a similar vision, recorded in Acts 9:1-9, in which he was blinded by a bright light, and remained blinded for three days. John the apocalyptist also had a similar vision, Revelation 1:9-20. In all three events, those who were caught up in the vision fell to the ground in fear. In all, temporary blindness was followed by hearing the voice of the divine. It was as if their sense of sight having been blessed by the vision, must now give way to their sense of hearing. In the early part of the vision they could hear nothing. Now, the glory of the Lord speaks from the cloud. “This is my Son, the Beloved.” In Matt. 3:17, the same words were uttered by “a voice from heaven” at the baptism of Jesus. The voice does not issue a call to mission to Jesus. It is addressed to the disciples. It is the divine affirmation of itself. The divine, which has entered fully into human history, announces that it has arrived, bearing a message, therefore, “Listen to him!” The Transfiguration of Jesus is at the same time the proclamation of Jesus. Transfiguration is proclamation.

The messenger is the message. This is something completely new upon the earth. And the message is freedom. Jesus is joined by two ancient prophets who had a message of freedom for their times. Jesus has a message of freedom for his time. The disciples are temporarily lifted from the earth and taken up into the vision. They see and participate in the ineffable momentarily. They cannot endure the presence of the divine for long. They fell to the ground in fear, but not until after they had heard the message. They had already heard from the lips of Peter, six days earlier, that Jesus is the Son of the living God. This did not cause them to fall to the ground in fear. But here on the mountain what they heard was something completely different. The divine had broken into the human dimension and had spoken directly to them. The word of God is nothing other than the divine itself. These disciples had an encounter with the divine itself, and they knew from their religious history that to encounter the divine face to face is sure and certain death. This was the true cause of their fear. How long they were in that condition is not known. What transpired between Jesus, Moses and Elijah in that interval is not known. All that is stated is that Jesus came to them, touched them, and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” His touch conveys the assurance that they are still alive and that he alone is with them on the mountain. The apocalyptic vision has come to an end. In it, Jesus and the three disciples were all transfigured, in different ways. They all descended the mountain with a message to announce to the world. They have been empowered by being in the transforming presence of the divine. They have heard the voice of the divine itself. They have become the first real listeners, the first to hear directly from the divine what the message is. “Listen to him!”

On the way down, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one of the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The verb for “ordered” is quite strong having the sense of to forbid a specific thing from being disclosed. After Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus also warned the disciples not to announce that he was the Messiah. So far, his identity is known only to those closest to him. So also, the Transfiguration is an event that must remain undisclosed for a particular period of time, until after the resurrection. The Transfiguration reveals something specific, quite unlike the similar words used in the event of the baptism of Jesus. In the baptism, sonship was proclaimed publicly, the divine making known its presence. In the Transfiguration, Moses, Elijah and Jesus do not announce presence; what is new is that the divine announces that it is history; it has been present throughout human history but in a way that was not revealed until now. History is no longer to be determined by lawgivers and prophets, that is, by human authorities. Henceforth, history is determined solely by the divine. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” History in the hands of the Beloved is sacred history, history transformed by the love that the divine grants to the earth. By sacred history we must now understand the term “absolution.” The Transfiguration is the welcoming absolution by means of which the divine embraces creation. It is the reclaiming of earth and world. The Transfiguration is therefore a direct challenge to the historical forces, that is, to the secular and religious authorities of the times. This challenge has to be issued only when the time is right, and that day as they were descending the mountain was not the right time for it.

Only after the resurrection, when the divine discloses that life arises anew wherever human beings bring death, will be meaning of the Transfiguration be revealed. Yogi Berra is right, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

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SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: EVERYTHING THAT LIVES IS HOLY


SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: EVERYTHING THAT LIVES IS HOLY   — Matthew 5:38-48

“When the stars threw down their spears / And water’d heaven with their tears: / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” William Blake: The Tyger

“For everything that lives is Holy.” Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ (Ex.21:23-24; Lev. 24:19-20; Dt. 19:21) But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. 39. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40. and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; (Q and Luke 6:29: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.) 41. and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Q and Luke 6:30: “Give to anyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”) 43. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44. But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Q and Luke 6:27-28: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do go to those who hate you, Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”) 45. so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47. And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Q and Luke 6:32-36: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”)

The Sermon on the Mount continues here with another set of antitheses. These new antitheses call for positive action on the part of the disciples. In 5:38 the ancient rule of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is rejected by Jesus. Instead, he teaches that his followers are not to retaliate against those who harm them. Even though it was generally understood that the old rule was intended to assure equal justice, Jesus does not see this as an issue of justice, but as a confrontation with evil. Evil is the complete absence of righteousness, and righteousness is nothing other than divine justice. He cautions, “do not resist an evildoer.” He had said in 5:37, that anything beyond a “yes” or a “no” is excessive, and such excess comes from the Evil One. Verse 38 is closely related. Even equal justice, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is excessive, because justice belongs solely to God. Gen. 18:25, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” The kind of equal justice that calls for an eye or a tooth does not have its origin in the divine, but in the Evil One. However, “Do not resist an evildoer,” does not point to the Evil One, but to anyone who rejects the divine. Evil is interpreted as that which is contrary to the divine. Evil is especially relevant because the kingdom of heaven has come near and evil is emboldened to reject what the Lord brings forth. The Apostle Paul says in Rom. 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” In Gal. 1:4, he says that Jesus Christ “has set us free from the evil age.” In Eph. 5:16 we read that we must be wise, and make the most of time, “because the days are evil.” Matt. 6:13 asks God to “deliver us from the evil one.” In the Large Catechism, Luther understands the devil as the Evil One “who obstructs everything that we pray for.” In all these instances, evil can be interpreted differently. Therefore, we must strive the harder to uncover just what is contained in evil. It can be an act that is committed; it can be a thing; it can be a particular time; it can be a condition from which to be delivered. Evil is not from the beginning; it makes its appearance on the earth with the emergence of humans from the earth. The essence of evil is rejection of the divine. It wants to assume the place of the divine, seeking to dislodge it permanently. It does not seek equality with the divine; instead, it wants to replace the divine. Evil is not eternal; it is not immortal; it is not everlasting; it does not last forever; it yearns to remain, but it cannot. Evil recurs; that is its true nature. Evil exists by recurring. Evil is the exact opposite of blessed. Consequently, regarding human beings, evil is a disposition of the soul, of the whole person, whereby the person does not simply stand opposed to the divine, but lives in the complete absence of the divine. Evil is self-contained. It does not venture out of itself. It cannot go beyond itself because it cannot transcend itself. Evil expands from within itself by drawing what is on its periphery into its center. It absorbs whatever exists within its nearness by projecting an alternate condition that is flexible and porous and insubstantial.

It is to this insubstantial domain that the evildoer belongs. Jesus forbids resisting him or her because the evildoer already belongs to a condition of evil, from which only the divine can deliver him or her. To resist the evildoer is to enter his or her environment, to share the same ground with him or her, and possibly become what he or she is; this is what Jesus forbids. The kingdom of heaven has come near. The disciples of Jesus already stand on this new, holy ground. The disciples are already transformed by the arrival of the new aeon, and must let the old aeon and its evil pass away. Evil discloses itself in ways that do not appear to be evil. Thus, Jesus  teaches the disciples to turn the other cheek to one who abuses them, and to turn over possessions to those who would sue them. The disciples are to go the second mile; they are to be generous to beggars and borrowers alike. Jesus teaches them not to retaliate against others. What he teaches is neither cooperation with, nor accommodation of evildoers. He teaches his disciples to see evildoers in a different light. Those who are evil are also deserving of grace. To turn the other cheek or to relinquish one’s property is not an act of cowardice; neither is it an act of courage. It is faithfulness demonstrated. It is blessedness fully visible. It is redemptive living. The kingdom of heaven demands a radically new relationship among human beings. It declares that absolute authority belongs to God alone who delivers those who are called from this evil age and its evildoers. No one who belongs to the kingdom of heaven can presume to act in God’s stead. For this is what evil is.

Do verses 38-41 reflect problems in Matthew’s congregation? I have been interpreting the Sermon on the Mount with the understanding that it is based on actual events affecting Matthew’s congregation and the early Christian community. I think it is important to get an insight into the life of the congregation and to grasp Matthew’s method of dealing with the underlying problems. Through verses 38-41 the idea of conflict emerges, with one group seeking retaliation against another for perceived injustices. Evil persons have entered the community and are causing problems. Matthew cautions against resistance and retaliation, even when the conflict turns to personal violence. In 5:25-26, he had admonished the community to seek reconciliation rather than go to court over offenses. Again, there is the idea of lawsuits over one’s possessions. Matthew suggests relinquishing possessions rather than going to court. Behind this may be his idea of reconciliation within the community. The passage also suggests that poverty was an issue, and that those members who were wealthy should render financial assistance to the poor. I do not think that this conflict in the Christian community is an isolated event. Paul’s letters indicate that his congregations also had internal conflicts, and he offered advice on resolving them. The letters to the seven churches in the Revelation of John, chapters 2-3 also confirm that congregations were experiencing problems and receiving advice and encouragement.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44. But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45. so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” The disciple does not choose which enemy to love. The disciple does not choose which persecutor to pray for. Where love prevails, all are welcomed. Where prayers are offered, all are included. The great commandment in the law does not permit other than this. “Love your enemies,” is a strong demand. The verb is future tense with a sense of firm imperative. It is a demand that goes against the passions of heart and mind and tears the listener away from accustomed behavior. However, the kingdom of heaven has come near, and it is exactly this response that is required of those who have answered the call. To love the enemy is not to convert the enemy into a friend. It is to love the enemy as enemy, for only in this way is the demand to love fulfilled. The blessedness with which the disciple is covered declares the even the enemy is deserving of mercy. The love of which Jesus speaks is already at work in the disciples; it is the condition of life they entered into when he said, “follow me.” To the disciples, he now says, “pray for those who persecute you.”

Persecution of Christians was a sanctioned activity. The persecutors are not identified. The means of persecution are not enumerated. Matt. 5:10-11 gives an insight, “people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” See also, Matt. 10:17-18; 21-23; 28. Persecution has in view discipleship itself, following Jesus. It is this for which they are persecuted. To pray for those who persecute you is to deliver them into the care of the divine. To pray for them is to invite forgiveness. To be a disciple is an invitation. This kind of comportment toward enemies and persecutors is possible only in the new aeon that has dawned in the person of Jesus. The disciples always act from within the kingdom of heaven. It is only from that context that they have the power to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. The disciples pray so as to show who they are. The verb is the aorist subjunctive, and means “to demonstrate that you are already children of your Father in heaven.” God makes “his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The meaning here is that God’s grace and God’s justice is pronounced upon all equally. William Blake asks, “Did He who made the Lamb make Thee?” The answer is “Yes.” Those who belong to the kingdom of heaven can do not less.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47. And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew abbreviates the original version in Q and Luke. He has already made the point that those who belong to the kingdom of heaven transcend the world which the Christian community navigates. They cannot share just among themselves the divine gift of love that they have been freely given. The Church is not called to love only within itself. The Church exists as love toward the world and for the world. The Church is God’s active love in and for the world. The Church is not simply an instrument through which God’s love passes onto the world. The Church is God’s people, called, gathered and sent as love for the world. For this reason, the Church must not only welcome its members, brothers and sisters; it exists always as God’s welcome to the world. Sometimes the Church needs to be reminded of this, and that is what Matthew is doing in 5:46-47. The Church as God’s gathered community has transcended human limits that confine the spirit and bind soul of the world. God has called the Church to freedom. The Church has been liberated from earth and world and has become the sacred center of redemption. It is from this center that the Church loves, and to this center that the Church welcomes all. The Church looks at the way God deals with the world. God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” God does not impose division on people. God does not divide what God has made whole. God’s grace is given to everyone equally, and from this the disciples, the Church draws its own strength to treat persons in their wholeness. The Church’s own unity and wholeness, granted out of the divine unity and wholeness, is the condition in which its members live. It is only and precisely to such persons that Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word for perfect is “teleios.” This word does not describe God; rather, it is what God really is. Perfect does not refer to ethical purity or moral righteousness. It has nothing to do with morality or ethics. Nor is it some form of psychological self-actualization. The human being cannot achieve this state. Perfect refers to the complete, undivided unity that is the divine. Out of this primal unity came the original word, “Let there be!” Out of this sustaining unity came the call, “Follow me!” Out of this redeeming unity came the grace, “Blessed are you.” Out of this abiding unity came, “But I say to you.” And now out of the complete and undivided unity that is the divine flow undivided love and undivided grace. Love and grace by their nature cannot be divided. Love is only and always love in its undivided totality. Grace is only and always grace in its undivided wholeness. That wholeness and unity is what Jesus grants when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – TO FOLLOW MORE THAN TO LEAD


SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – TO FOLLOW MORE THAN TO LEAD  Matthew 5:21-37

“(Ah little recks the laborer, / How near his work is holding him to God, / The loving Laborer through space and time.) / After all not to create only, or found only, / But to bring perhaps from afar what is already founded, / To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free, / To fill the gross the torpid bulk with vital religious fire, / Not to repel or destroy so much as accept,, fuse, rehabilitate, / To obey as well as command, to follow more than to lead, / These also are the lessons of our New World, / While how little New after all, how much the Old, Old World!” Walt Whitman: Song of the Exposition   

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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. 23. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24. leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33. “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34. But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35. or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36.And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” (Exodus 20:13; Deut. 5:17;) 22. “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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.” This verse is unique to Matthew. Matthew gives an insight into his understanding of the law here. There are different levels of penalties to be paid for offenses against the law. And there are different agencies responsible for imposing penalties. For murder, there is judgment, apparently from the highest level. Anger also is penalized from the highest level. One kind of insult sends the offender to the the Sanhedrin; another kind of insult sends the offender to “the hell of fire.” Just as all the Beatitudes were gathered into the first one before being separated out one by one, so also here, all the antithetical ideas that follow are taken up into “You shall not murder.” One by one they will be separated out by Matthew, but their meanings will always be related to the commandment not to kill. When the divine is betrayed, something dies within the betrayer. But all of this needs further examination to uncover hidden meanings in the text. In the Gospel of Matthew, nothing is ever just what it seems.

To commit murder is to bring death upon someone and hence to deprive someone of life. The earth releases the voice of Abel’s blood to cry out and accuse his brother. Gen. 4:10. Murder is a counter-divine disruption within the human family. It fragments what the Lord has made whole. It denies existence to the other. It brings about an end to life that is not sanctioned by the divine. It consigns to the earth what the divine has raised from the earth. The murderer ultimately seizes or usurps divine power, for only the divine determines life and death. Job 1:21 states, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” To bring death upon someone is to remove someone from the presence of the divine, and in doing so to deprive the divine itself of its power to make alive. The murderer is justly deserving of the most serious punishment. The judgment mentioned here is divine judgment; the word also refers to the eschatological judgment that pertains to God alone.

With his “But I say to you” Jesus offers three antithetical views to this commandment. (vs.22) First, anyone who is angry with a brother or sister is also liable to divine judgment. There is no distinction here; the same word for judgment is used. Anger, divine wrath is rightly wielded exclusively by the divine. One who usurps this wrath deprives the divine of what rightly belongs to it and consequently this places one under divine judgment. The human aspect of anger must be allowed into the discussion. Anger is not an affect like all other affects; anger is a division of the human spirit, whereby it is no longer anchored; anger is a temporal seizure of the soul that deprives the human being of its inner harmony and tranquility without which it no longer knows itself. It abandons itself and displaces itself from its inner world, becoming essentially a homeless spirit. From this inner displacement, anger manifests in its outer world by desiring the destruction of the other. That is why anger is like unto murder. It seeks to deny the other its own existence. That is why it receives a harsh word from Jesus.

Jesus states a second antithetical idea, that insulting (raka) a brother or sister brings one before the Sanhedrin. The word “raka” is found only here in the New Testament. It must have been selected with purpose. The insult is derogatory; it means that someone is “empty-headed” in the sense of foolish and without understanding. The insult intends to exclude one from participation in the community. At the same time, it implies that the insulter is better, and more deserving. (Reminds me of the person who takes the highest seat!) The insult introduces into the community a comparison between members. Comparison by its very nature divides. This suggests that such a person is totally undeserving of the divine. The insult deprives one of the love of neighbor which is commanded in the law, and for this reason the one who utters this insult is brought before the Sanhedrin. It is not known what penalty or punishment is given.

Jesus issues a third antithetical idea, that one who says to another “you fool” is deserving of the fire of hell. The word for fool is “moros” and has many implications. Its casual meaning is foolish or stupid. However, in this context it is difficult to give an assessment of its inner meaning. The translation “you fool” originates in a Syrian context and is the accepted version. Its meaning is closely related to that of “raka.” The pronouncement is much more serious than a derogatory comment. It implies exclusion. It declares that someone does not belong among the wise and discerning. It heaps dishonor upon that person, and in doing so heaps dishonor upon the Christian community. Was the situation in Matthew’s community so dire that he had to borrow foreign words, “raka” and “moros” to speak to them? Whether these words were addressed to specific persons who knew their deeper meanings is not known. The word “fool” is used elsewhere, in a different sense, such as the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-14, and the parable of the two builders in 7:24-27. Both these parables refer to eschatological judgment. The person who calls another “you fool” and deserves the fire of hell is also related to eschatological judgment.

These are three serious pronouncements of Jesus. I assume that they have a particular context out of which they arose, and that context has to be the early Christian church. I have pointed out in other recent postings that there were many conflicts within the emerging church. Certainly, there were people who were extremely angry when their beliefs were not honored. I interpret the “brother or sister” of verse 22 as members of the Christian community. The disputes must have been very heated at times, and name-calling and condemnation became issues that had to be addressed. My view has been that the Sermon on the Mount is the proclamation of Jesus of the salvation that has arrived in his person, and it is from this perspective that I have interpreted it. When Jesus says, “But I say to you,” he is offering something new. He himself is the new commandment for the new aeon. He is the commandment of love, not of law. He is the commandment of grace, not of judgment. Yet here he warns of divine judgment that awaits those who bring it upon themselves. I take the word “say” to mean that the word of Jesus transcends the law and all that has gone before. There is no difference between who Jesus is and what Jesus says. There is no division in Jesus. The word of Jesus, the word which is Jesus himself, is now the word that determines the nature of the church. It is his word that forms the foundation to which the church is called and upon which the church always stands. Jesus in these verses is pronouncing judgment upon those who are causing division with the Christian community. To divide the body of Jesus is nothing short of murder and is deserving of the divine judgment that awaits those who do so at the end of the ages. To divide the divine is to bring about a rupture of the whole, to deprive it of its own existence, of its right to exist. It is to disrupt creation itself and initiate the apocalyptic woes that were predicted, up to and including the fire of hell. To divide the Christian community is nothing short of dividing the divine who is the content and foundation of its faith and existence.

Jesus counteracts this with his proclamation. His “but I say to you” is a call to unity; to see in Jesus himself the point of unity for the church. Jesus is calling people to faith in himself, to enter into relationship with him and in this way bring unity to the church. Outside of Jesus, the wrath of God prevails as divine judgment. “But I say to you” is another way of saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is an eschatological summons to a life of grace. Jesus is speaking of the arrival of the new aeon within himself. He, himself, is the new age, and his “but I say to you” is his call to the church to see in him the redemption that has arrived. “But I say to you” is another way of saying, “follow me.” It acknowledges that what is new has arrived and true discipleship, true faith in Jesus is the only true response. “But I say to you” is another way of saying “blessed are you,” for only Jesus can utter these words, and the only response is to claim the blessing. Who is the “I” who says, “but I say unto you?” This I is none other than the divine who uttered the Commandments of the law “to those of ancient times.” This I is the one who teaches with authority. This is Jesus himself.

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24. leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” These two verses are unique to Matthew in this form. (Mark 11:25 – “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your father in heaven may also forgive your trespass.”) The “brother or sister” who “has something against you” is not summoned to reconciliation. The aggrieved one is called on to forgive them. To offer a gift at the altar is an act of reconciliation with the divine. This offering is not accepted if it is not preceded reconciliation within the community of faith. The Lord’s Prayer attests to this. I believe that verses 23-24 describe a worship context. Members of the congregation are admonished to be reconciled one with another before offering gifts at the altar. Matthew is trying to overcome the conflicts and at the same time to bring about reconciliation in the congregation. Once again, the call for reconciliation does indicate that there were divisions among the members of the congregation. The following verse also indicates the same, but it takes the conflict to a different level, and outside the congregation, which is something that Matthew wanted to avoid.

“Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26.Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” This verse is an illustration of how the problems in verse 22 are dealt with legally. Matthew’s version is different from Q and Luke. (Luke 12:57-59 and Q – “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”) Matthew found this material in earlier sources and included it in the Sermon on the Mount, and in 18:23-35. He must have done this for a particular reason. I am suggesting that he found this material useful in addressing the internal problems of the congregation. He is doing his best to keep the problems of the church within the church, rather than turn to secular authorities for solutions. He advocates personal solutions, forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than legal solutions. The congregation as the called and gathered community of faith must demonstrate its fundamental unity in its actions.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (Exodus 20:14; Deut. 5:18) 28. Jesus offers another antithetical statement. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is unique to Matthew. The issue of divorce and adultery is also addressed in 19:1-9. Adultery was prevalent in the society within which the early church emerged. Those who became a part of the Christian community were expected to conform to a new and different way of relating to one another. Jesus holds the commandment not to commit adultery with utmost seriousness, as the discussion in 19:1-9 discloses. Adultery is not only a physical act. It is a betrayal that results in the innocent being spiritually and emotionally wounded. It undermines faith in the other; it dislodges trust from the foundation of marriage; it defiles the purity of love and turns joy into sadness; it robs the future of hope. It is an emotional reaching beyond oneself desiring another for one’s personal lust. In New Testament anthropology, “kardia,” heart, describes the whole person. Lust in the heart discloses adultery as tearing apart the whole person and by doing this, adultery essentially is also the rupture of the marriage union, the breaking apart of the whole. The adulterer defies the divine command which has as its ultimate purpose the unity of husband and wife as the foundation of family. Matthew has already made unity within the congregation a theme of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus sees marital fidelity as absolute, binding equally on husband and wife. Of interest here is that Jesus does not suggest a punishment as in the three antitheses discussed above. However, verses 29-30 point in the direction of serious consequences. The eye with which one looks upon a woman with lust is the eye that causes one to sin. 29. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Matthew’s version is shorter than Mark’s. (Mark 9:43-48 – “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; for it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”) Matthew is suggesting that the adulterer is deserving of the fire of hell. By applying this penalty from another context in the earliest Christian church, Matthew is showing just how seriously he treats adultery.

In the following verse, Matthew again takes up the discussion of divorce and adultery. 31. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” (Deut. 24:1-4). This is peculiar to Matthew. 32. Jesus offers this antithetical statement. “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18 and Q – “And anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from a woman commits adultery.”) Matthew’s version is different from Q and Luke. Matthew adds, “except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.” He admits that there is a legitimate ground for divorce. Apart from this, the woman is caused to commit adultery. He says nothing of the man who divorces her. It seems that the sin is that he causes her to commit adultery, but he, himself, has not sinned. On the other hand, a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery, but nothing is said of the woman in this marriage. Matthew found this verse in Q and develops it in light of his own understanding of the law.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’(Lev.19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deut. 23:21). 34. Jesus offers this antithetical statement. “But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35. or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Verses 33-37are peculiar to Matthew and have no parallel anywhere. Swearing an oath was a normal part of daily life in the time of Jesus. In these verses, Jesus makes it clear that he completely rejects all swearing. Swearing by anything is the same as swearing by the Lord, for everything belongs to the Lord. In his day, using the name of the Lord in an oath indicated that someone would keep the oath faithfully. Jesus says even that is no longer permitted. The kingdom of heaven has come near, therefore a different attitude must prevail. Life in the kingdom of heaven must be radically truthful. Consequently, there was no longer any need for oaths. One is to approach an agreement either to accept it, “yes,” or to reject it, “no.” There were no other alternatives.

The kingdom of heaven is a radical rejection of the past. Those who have accepted the call to discipleship in the Christian community believe that the hope they had carried in their hearts are now fulfilled. This is the faith that sustains Matthew’s community

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FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: THE BUILDINGS OF SYMMETRY


FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: THE BUILDINGS OF SYMMETRY Matthew 5:13-20

“the light does not absolve or condemn, / it is neither just nor unjust, / the light with invisible hands constructs / the buildings of symmetry;The light goes off through a path of reflections / and comes back to itself: / a hand that invents itself, an eye / that see itself in its own inventions. Light is time thinking about itself.” Octavio Paz: Sight and Touch. 

  1. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In Matthew 5:1, the Sermon on the Mount begins. After seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain; his disciples came to him. “Then he began to speak, and taught them.” Matthew makes it clear that the Sermon on the Mount was addressed to the disciples of Jesus. This was clearly evident in the Beatitudes, which immediately preceded this present section under discussion. The Sermon on the Mount projects outwards. Here outwards means all around, up and down, in and out. Neither dimension nor direction is alien to its call. It addresses eyes and ears and touch. It speaks to the sensitivities of conscience and discretion. When it is verbal it defies words; when it is silent it defies sound. It is harmony for the soul; it is symmetry for the spirit. The Sermon on the Mount in its entirety is only one verb: Listen!  And if one listens deep into the silence, one hears the echo: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” Deut. 6:4.

  1. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” The first part of the statement, “You are the salt of the earth” is unique to Matthew. It is his own creation. The second part must have circulated in different forms in the early church. Luke quotes Q and is probably the oldest form of the statement that is extant. Mark knew the statement, but in another form. Q has: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” Luke 14: 34-35: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” Mark 9:49-50: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

There are many things that are said about salt in the Bible, but in the present context, the focus is on its saltiness. There is a general agreement here that saltiness is the essence of salt. It is what makes salt salt. Once this essence is lost, the salt is not good for anything. Matthew is saying that the disciples are the salt of the earth. It is not that they are just salt; they are the salt of the earth. For Matthew, the earth is first of all the promised land which shall be restored to Israel; the earth is also the sacred and profane ground out of which arises those to whom he speaks. The earth itself owes something to the disciples without which even the earth is then not what it is meant to be. The holiness of the disciples refreshes the holiness of the earth. That upon which Moses stood was holy ground. Exodus 3:5. The disciples are to shake the dust off their feet if a town does not receive them. Matt. 10:14. Where holiness is not received, judgment prevails. In the apocalyptic view of Jesus, the new aeon has arrived and the old has passed away. The disciples are the first in the new aeon. They were selected by Jesus; they were called by Jesus. He who initiates the new aeon also initiates his disciples. This is something new upon the earth. Into their hands is given the care of the earth. The disciples as salt of the earth purify, preserve, protect the earth. It is to them that the dominion of the new earth is safeguarded.

If the disciples, followers of Jesus, lose what is essential to them, they will be useless also, and the earth will not be safeguarded by them. But just what is essential to discipleship? And why is it important not to lose it? The disciples are the original “initiates” of the kingdom of heaven. They are, in essence, what constitute the kingdom of heaven. Where the disciples are, that is where the kingdom of heaven is to be found. To be a disciple is to be an invitation. Discipleship is the gateway into the kingdom of heaven. They demonstrate unconditional commitment to Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. Their faith may fail them at times; their courage may fail them at times; they may be over-enthusiastic or underwhelming at times; they will complain among themselves and they will seek special privileges at times; but they never stop following Jesus. The essence of discipleship is following Jesus. Discipleship is not a choice; it is a gift. One does not follow Jesus because one has chosen to do so; one follows Jesus because the divine has foreknown, foreordained, and called one to this life. Romans 8:28-30. Jesus knew ahead of time those into whose hands he would consign the earth. Both the calling and the consignment are divine gifts.

This is what Christian discipleship is: one follows him upon whom one’s eyes are fastened; to whom one’s ears are attuned; to whom one’s heart is surrendered; in whom one’s soul is anchored; by whom one’s spirit is quickened, and upon whom one’s mind is stayed. To follow Jesus is to set one’s sight upon the cross: to be the suffering of the oppressed; to be the poverty of the poor; to be the sin of the condemned; to be the illness of the sick; to be the despair of the hopeless; to be the death of the dying; but also, to be the hope of the hopeful and to be the joy of the redeemed. The Apostle Paul gives a spirited defense of this in II Cor. 4:7-12; and 6:3-10. This is the saltiness of which Jesus speaks. If they lose this divine gift, they place the earth in danger. This is certainly impossible to accomplish, if following Jesus were only a human activity rather than a divine gift. And let us not forget that the Lutheran view is that the Sermon on the Mount is an impossible possibility were it not for the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Lest we forget, the Sermon on the Mount is not morality, and it is not ethics. The Sermon on the Mount is the proclamation by Jesus of the salvation which has dawned in his person. One responds to proclamation by hearing. “Let those who have ears to hear listen!

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” These two sentences are unique to Matthew. The disciples are the light of the world. Light never looks at itself. It never sees itself. Light shines, that is its essence. It illuminates everything so that each thing may be seen in its proper place. Light has the power to assign belonging that each thing may participate in its rightful place in the harmony for which it longs. A city set on a hill has to be seen, that is the reason for the city being elevated to sight and vision. Similarly, the light has to be seen. Light does not only illuminate. Light has purpose. In Genesis 1:14-18, the sun bestows light upon the day and the moon bestows light upon the night. They shed light upon the earth. In both cases, their light is meant as a boundary to darkness. Their light sets a limit beyond which darkness cannot go. It is not so with world.

The disciples are the light of the world. Their light does not set boundaries; it removes boundaries, all that separate and divide human beings. The light of the disciples opens up a way into the world. It discloses what world is. The world of which the disciples are the light is nothing less than a miracle. It is not created; it comes into being with the appearance of human beings. World arrives simultaneously with humans; it arises of itself to receive humans and to offer security for the arising of the human community wherein ultimately salvation will dawn with its own light. Consequently, world does not refer to a particular place. It has nothing to do with place or space. For this reason, the light of sun and moon cannot penetrate the world. World does not exist as earth does. World refers to the manner in which its inhabitants participate with one another. World is how human beings engage one another; it is transcendentally relational. At the same time world does not describe some kind of internalized human existence. Human beings live together as more than a collection of individuals. Human beings live together purposefully. World defines that shared purpose that has as its unique goal the preservation of humanity from danger and extinction. World refers to the shared hope that humanity can rise above itself and be the city on a hill that cannot be hid. World stands for resolute defiance of death and oblivion. The disciples as light of the world illuminate all this and more.

The disciples are the salt of the earth. They are the light of the world. Matthew presents the disciples in this comprehensive manner to set the stage for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. In what is to come we will witness a dialogue between earth and world in which the kingdom of heaven will be disclosed in its full radiance.

Verses 15-16 are illustrations of the lighting that pertains to discipleship. They are the practical application of catechesis and exhortation that speak to all followers of Jesus. It is still clear, however, that light illuminates. Light enlightens. The same idea was in circulation prior to Matthew as Q, Mark and Luke make clear. Verse 15 clearly comes from the early tradition. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Q has: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.” Luke 8:16: “No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light.” And Luke 11:33: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.” Mark4:21: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on a lampstand?” Mark must have known a different version, but the idea is still the same.

What is the social or political background for such a statement? In the context of persecution, is it possible that early Christians were afraid to have lighted lamps in their homes, for fear of being identified in some way? Or perhaps targeted in some way? Was Q already a statement of defiance? Matthew has already spoken in verse 10-11 of persecution “on my account” and it is likely that such persecutions lasted into the time of the writing of his gospel. If he is encouraging the followers of Jesus to light their lamps, is it possible that Matthew was advocating resistance to authorities? I do not believe that Matthew is using the light in a casual manner. The word must have a particular meaning. Lighting a lamp is in effect resisting darkness. Q and Luke state that the placing of the lamp on the lampstand was that “those who enter may see the light.” This is the earliest version: that someone enters somewhere and sees the light. Matthew’s version is different; it is to give “light to all in the house.” This suggests that there is already a gathering in the house. Is this a veiled reference to the early Christian community at worship? (There is a scene in Acts 20 where Paul is at worship with others “on the first day of the week,” and Acts 20:8 reports, “There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting.” In this meeting, Paul spoke with the worshipers until dawn. I do not claim that this has any bearing on what Matthew says). However, Matthew 5:16 may provide some insight. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” This last exhortation is unique to Matthew. It must have a special purpose. If this were a worship context, it would make sense that the gathering would “give glory to your Father in heaven.” I interpret “your good works” here from the context of verse 10, where the disciples are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Good works would then be nothing other than righteousness, a very significant word for Matthew. The meaning then would be: do not hide your righteousness, for it is your righteousness that glorifies your Father in heaven. I have never considered righteousness as a term of defiance and resistance to persecution. Here, it seems to be the logical conclusion of my reflections. This calls for more exploration; but that must wait.

Matthew is proclaiming that the young church must stand firm and show itself as it is, inspite of the risks, danger and death that it will face. The church as light must always remain as God’s miracle to which all are called to rest and redemption. Matt. 11:28-30. This is Matthew’s message to the early church.

Matthew turns his attention to another theme: the law and the prophets. Even though the law is important for Matthew, he uses the word sparingly, only eight times. The law and the prophets have guided the people of Israel. The law and prophets are also light that enlightens. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105. Whatever its radiance, Jesus affirms it. Jesus says in 5:17. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This verse is unique to Matthew. Whatever light there is, Jesus is intent upon magnifying it. “A dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Isa. 42:3. Matthew quotes the same in 12:20. Again he says in 5:18. “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Luke quotes Q, and is probably the more original. Q has: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” Luke 16:17: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter of the law to be dropped.” Luke 21:33 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus has come to fulfill all ancient predictions.

Matthew presents at least fourteen identifiable prediction and fulfilment episodes: 8 Isaiah. 2 Jeremiah. 1 Micah. 1 Hosea. 2 somewhat ambiguous: 1:22 (Isaiah 7:14 – prophet not named). 2:5 (Micah 5:2- prophet unnamed). 2:15 (Hosea 11:1 – prophet unnamed). 2:17 (Jeremiah 31:15 – prophet named). 2:23 (Isaiah 11:1 – prophet not named. Similarity of “Nazarene” and “branch”). 3:3 (Isaiah 40:3 – prophet named). 4:15 ((Isaiah 9:1-2- prophet named). 8:17 (Isaiah 53:3 – prophet named). 12:17 (Isaiah 42:1-4 – prophet named). 13:14 (Isaiah 69:9-10 – prophet named). 13:35 (Psalm 78:2 – the prophet is Asaph, 2 Chronicles 29:30). 21:4 (Isaiah 62:11 – prophet not named). 26:56 (Reference to fulfilment of prophecy). 27:9 (a collation of Zechariah 11:12 and Jeremiah 18:1-3 – Jeremiah is named).

When Matthew speaks of the law and the prophets, he does not imply two different sources, but means the entirety of scripture that was handed down. Matthew might have known this form of the saying from a different source. He has an interest in the accomplishment of the law and the prophets. What does it mean that Jesus will fulfill the law? For Jesus, the whole law (all the law and the prophets, which is the entire scripture) consists of the love of God and the love of neighbor. Mt.22:36-40. Jesus did not come to bring an end to the law, but to demonstrate by his life what it is to fulfill the law by loving God and neighbor. This is also Paul’s view in Romans 13:8-10. All that the law has required, complete and unconditional obedience to God, and complete dependence upon God’s mercy, are now taken up into the person of the Jesus. When Jesus says, “Follow me!” to the disciples, this is a clear example that following him is fulfilling the law because his word is now the whole content of the law. In his call and in their immediate response, the disciples receive absolution and grace, and that is the fulfilling of the whole law. When he says “Blessed are you” to the disciples the whole law becomes grace because his word is grace itself, and is the fulfilling of the whole law. He fulfills the whole law because eats with prostitutes and sinners, and that is a clear act of forgiveness and restoration. By his touch he heals the untouchable and shows that his love knows no boundary, and thus fulfills the whole law. When he feeds the multitudes with miraculous loaves and fish he shows that he calls them to partake of himself, and thus fulfills the whole law. When he shows mercy to the sick, the dying, the oppressed, he is himself the mercy that they receive, and thus he fulfills the law. He takes the whole law into himself, becomes what the law essentially is, and thereby assures that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of the law will pass until all is accomplished.” He in whom eternity resides bears the sacred law: love of God, love of neighbor, for all eternity.

Matthew is confident that Jesus is the eschatological prophet who has come to fulfill ancient prophecies. He is confident that Jesus is the Emmanuel of God who has given new hope to the suffering. He not only instructs his congregation; he also warns them, as in 5:18. Unlike the Apostle Paul, Matthew still has a lofty view of the law. He will not abandon it. And he admonishes those under his care not do so. Verse 19. “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is unique to Matthew. What condition prevailed in his church that inspired him to make this statement? If I take the statement as it is, then something like this emerges: (a) there were some members breaking the commandments; (b) they were teaching others to break the commandments. This implies that there was disagreement and conflict in his community. Diverse beliefs were debated. There is evidence that very early disputes arose between the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus. The incompatibility between the church leaders in Jerusalem and Paul was obvious. The letters of Paul contain detailed evidence of internal hostilities in the churches. The confrontations between Jesus (the early church) and the Jewish community are well attested.

Thus, it is not unreasonable to suppose that behind Matthew 5:19 there is indicated a dispute within the congregation. This would provide a good reason for his warning. Beside trying to make peace, he was trying to instill in them a particular point of view of the nature of discipleship. His concern reaches as far as membership in the kingdom of heaven. He feared that those who broke the law and encouraged others to do the same would be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. At the same time he tried to show that those who kept the commandments and taught others were certain to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He himself is being a peacemaker. Matthew has an inclusive and universalistic view of salvation. He teaches that the redemption that arrives with the eschatological prophet is available to all, and he seeks to make all ready to receive it. Discipleship is readiness. Discipleship is alertness. Discipleship is watchfulness. In a way, he is not only teaching, he is at the same time recruiting others to join him. He elevates the urgency to rise above their differences in verse 20. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is unique to Matthew.

When Jesus tells the people “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” he is not referring to an abundance of righteousness, for that itself is inconceivable. The scribes and Pharisees discover their righteousness in the law. In Matthew, such legal righteousness must be transcended, and it is righteousness through discipleship, following Jesus, that is uncovered in the word “exceeds.” It is only through following by faith that one submits to the will of God. Righteousness is the gift that God bestows upon those who submit themselves in faith. As an eschatological gift, it grants disciples entrance into the kingdom of heaven. For this reason, one must “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  Righteousness as God’s gift means that righteousness is another name for the grace that redeems. This is vividly stated in Ephesians 2:8. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

 

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