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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FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY:  LISTEN TO ONLY ONE


FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY:  LISTEN TO ONLY ONE

Matthew 5: 1-12

“I’ve learned to tell the voices from the echoes / and of all the voices listen to only one.” Antonio Machado: Portrait

The Beatitudes introduce a long section of Matthew’s gospel referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Luke has a version of the Beatitudes that is found in the Q document. It is much shorter, four beatitudes rather than the seven in Matthew. It is likely that Luke’s version represents the beatitudes that were current in the earliest Christian churches. Matthew developed his version on the basis of catechesis and Christology, and for this reason he constructs the Sermon on the Mount as the teaching of Jesus and of the early Christian church. He begins at 5:1 by saying that Jesus taught the people who were gathered there, and he ends at 7:28 by saying that the people were astounded at his teaching because he taught as one having authority. In 4:23, Matthew says that Jesus went through Galilee preaching, teaching and healing. These were the three great functions of Jesus, eschatologically determined. Matthew leaves no doubt that the Sermon on the Mount is the eschatological teaching of Jesus. At the same time he expects the Beatitudes to be heard, not simply read. Someone is speaking, and is saying “blessed” to the listeners. The one who is speaking is none other than Jesus. Behind each Beatitude one hears the revised apocalyptic hope of Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Sermon on the Mount in its entirety is only one verb: Listen!

The Beatitudes consist of a series of “blessed” that defines the eschatological salvation that has arrived in the person of Jesus. What constitutes “blessed?” When Jesus says “blessed” he has something particular in mind. It is not simply a blessing that is pronounced. It describes something that is freely granted but which does not become a possession of the one to whom it is granted. What is granted is something unique because while resting upon the one to whom it is granted, it does not leave the hand of the one who grants it. It is dynamic holiness, a movement of qualitatively different life, into which one is drawn who hears the pronouncement. It is life abiding in the nearness of the divine, and within which one is sheltered from the dangers of the present age. What is essential to “blessed” is the grace of the divine. It is only this grace that can respond to the several conditions of humanity described in the Beatitudes. But this blunt conclusion needs further elaboration. Blessedness allows those upon whom it is pronounced to enter into the grace of the divine that is made ready for them, even as they were antecedently made ready for it. Thus, blessedness opens up a way into the divine. This opening up is what is called revelation; it describes something that was not here before, but has now made its presence known. Here, blessedness is another word for epiphany. The divine, showing forth itself to those chosen, descends upon them as blessing, and they become sacred space in which to receive it as Mary received the blessing of the Holy Spirit. In the human being as sacred space the transcendent grace lays bare the future, because its essence is to create the openness into which that which is new is always arriving.

One thing I have noticed regarding blessedness is that in Genesis there is no declared blessing until the fifth day, when animal life is blessed. Gen. 1:22-23. On the sixth day, human life is blessed. Gen. 1:28. On the seventh day, the day itself is blessed, that is, time is blessed. Gen. 2:3. It is only when life arises out of the earth that a verbal blessing is conferred. There exists an essential relationship between blessing and life. Human life is always an arising; blessing is always a descending. In the second creation story, when the first human being was still in formation, and while it was still lifeless, the Lord “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Gen. 2:7. Is this “breath of life” the same as the “Spirit of God” in Gen. 1:2?  I conclude that it is, and therefore it has consequences for the interpretation of blessing and life. The Spirit of God is what blessing essentially is. In Luke 1:41-42, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’”  This “blessed” child is from the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:35. There is a clear relationship between the Holy Spirit and blessedness. It seems to me that three, “The Spirit of God,” “Blessed” and “Life” all express the same thing, and all have the same meaning. All three are equally descriptive of the dynamic holiness that prevails in the divine and human relationship. The Spirit of God, if I am to interpret Genesis 1:2 in this way, is from the beginning, but not the beginning as time. The Spirit of God is the original source from which creation arises. It is primordial and existed as blessedness before the first divine word was uttered. Consequently, blessedness is itself primordial. It is that from which creation came into being. “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the earth.” Gen.1:2. The Spirit of God was opening up the space for creation to manifest. That which is dynamic holiness was creating a sacred space upon which the divine would soon affirm its goodness. Thus, when one hears “blessed” one simultaneously hears “the Spirit of God” and “Life.”

Matthew begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. There must be a reason for this. Luke has “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.” Lk.9:20. Matthew has “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Mt. 5:3. The difference is clear. Luke writes in the second person, Matthew in the third person, except for the last one in 5:11. Luke has kingdom of God; Matthew has kingdom of heaven. Luke speaks to the poor. Matthew address the poor in spirit. “Spirit” is life. The meaning of the beatitude changes from dealing with the poverty of the poor to a condition of life in which people are lacking in life itself, life lived in the absence of the divine. Very different meanings emerge from the two versions. However, I am focused on Matthew. To the poor in spirit belong the kingdom of heaven. What does this mean? (I have used the following lines in another study). There is a passage in Mark 9:43-47 that can shed light on this. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed….” Again, “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame…” Again, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye….” I have placed emphasis on a particular phrase to show for Mark, “the kingdom of God” is nothing other than “life.” I assume that Matthew found the statement in the Q Document and adapted it to his own catechetical purposes. I assume that he begins the Beatitudes with the statement about the poor in spirit and the kingdom of heaven for a particular purpose. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is his teaching on “life,” and from the outset he wants to be clear that life is always and only a gift from the divine. The Beatitudes provide the foundation upon which Matthew builds his basic catechism.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I believe that “the poor in spirit” is Matthew’s invention. In this phrase he gathers all the other categories of beatitudes, and then one by one he sets them apart. But what can be said or known about the poor in spirit? The poor in spirit is not an anthropological definition of “the poor.” Neither is it a statement about the Holy Spirit. It is about a specific category of people, as is those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Spirit, in that it pertains to human beings, is the activity of willing, the exercise of power, and the capacity to perceive meanings of the outer world in relationship with inner strivings. The poor in spirit are those who are almost completely deficient in spirit. The emphasis here is on spirit. Kierkegaard reminds us that the human being is a spirit, a self, a synthesis. With the disappearance of the synthesis, or any element of it, human being disappears into an inward void, detached, inaccessible, in a state of complete despair. This is existential alienation and abandonment.

Such persons live in complete isolation and loneliness, their suffering is so intense that it can hardly be described. They can neither describe nor name what is lacking, for they are as yet completely unaware that they lack something. What they lack manifests itself in withdrawal, and the state of existence of these persons is withdrawal. The phenomenon of withdrawal is characterized by the taking into oneself one’s entire external world, relationships, modes of being, modes of acting and modes of speaking, rejected by the outer world and confined to an inner world of silence. This internalized state of existence makes them unable to reach beyond themselves, because for them “beyond themselves” does not exist. They have been exiled to an unfathomable land whose geography is probably best described by “here” and “now.” They live in a land of here and now. They have neither past nor future. Nothing impels them, nothing beckons them. They have been abandoned by both history and hope. Their entire existence is enclosed in a rigid small space out of which they have no possibility of emerging or escaping. The poor in spirit completely despairing in their isolated existence are not totally devoid of hope. In their geography of here and now, in their kingdom of the present, the kingdom of this passing world, arrives a promise. This same analysis can be applied to all of the categories of persons described in the Beatitudes. Something awaits them beyond their understanding, beyond their reach, as all of God’s gifts are beyond their understanding and beyond their reach. Their deliverance is sure. To them life eternal has been granted.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The original version that Luke has says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Matthew also changed the original order. The mourning described is not the response to loss or death. For that another word is used. Mourning is an existential condition into which people are thrown by their experience of the retreat of what nourishes them. In this case, they mourn for a lack of access to the divine. The presence of the divine has been withdrawn from them. Those who mourn are aware that the present age is one where suffering is the lot of human beings. This is eschatological suffering, suffering and mourning in view of the complete helplessness which they experience. This is not only the result of sin. Those who mourn feel the burden of sin as oppressive. But they are also now deprived of the presence of the divine, of the enjoyment of life under the rule of God. Their lot is not righteousness but wrath. Their daily suffering is their longing for the divine based on ancient prophecies still unfulfilled. They were promised that “their days of mourning shall be ended.” Isa. 60:20. They were promised “the oil of gladness instead of mourning” Isa. 61:1-3. “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.” Isa. 40:1. They have been deprived of the very hope on which they have based their longing. The sorrow they mourn is what they experience as complete abandonment by God. Their life is one of despair and desperation. Into this situation, Jesus arrives and promises that they will be comforted. However, this eschatological comfort is not one of words. It is the promise that the divine has opened up a way for them, delivering them from their suffering and mourning. To be comforted is to be given life, to be brought under the dominion of the divine, that is, life in the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. The word meek is used only three times in Matthew, at 5:5; 11:29 and 21:5. It has the sense of one who is lowly, who is completely lacking in resources and hence must completely depend upon the divine for everything. One survives by submitting to others. For such persons, their social and political status is oppression. They have nothing; they lack everything. To them is promised the inheritance of the earth. To inherit the earth is for Matthew to enter into the promised land. Matthew always has the history of Israel in mind. Jesus expects Israel to be fully restored. 19:27-28. Here too, I interpret “inherit the earth” as another expression for “the kingdom of heaven.” The meek are those who have surrendered everything, including their lives. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” Mt. 19:29. To inherit the earth and to inherit eternal life is the identical promise.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  The original is “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Matthew’s version gives a completely different meaning. Those who are hungry now lack something quite different from those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are already blessed, while they await the future fulfilling that is promised here. What is lacking in their life, and what they desire above all else, is righteousness. (The following reflection on righteousness was presented earlier and I would like to share it again as it seems relevant in this present context). Righteousness has the character of blessedness. The distribution of the word in the New Testament allows an insight into its use. Mark never uses it. Luke has it once in the gospel, 1:71, and twice in Acts, 13:10; 17:31. John has it twice in 16: 8, 10. It is central to Paul’s theology and is used most often in his letters. The word occurs for the first time in the Bible at Genesis 15:6, where Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. For Matthew, Abraham’s importance in the life of Jesus is crucial. John the Baptist had criticized the Pharisees who came to him for baptism. In the same way Jesus said to them, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 5:20. Later, in comparing his listeners with the Gentiles, Jesus tells them, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 6:33. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus says, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” 21:32

Righteousness is the practice of right conduct; this is its fundamental meaning. It would not be appropriate to see this from the point of view of psychology. Right conduct is not the way one behaves. It is an act of faith, a gift from the divine, as with Abraham, and that is complete and irreversible surrender to the divine. 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 righteousness must be transcended, and it is righteousness through faith that is uncovered in the word “exceeds.” It is only by faith that one submits to the will of God. Righteousness is rightly the gift that God bestows upon those who submit themselves in faith. As an eschatological gift, it grants to believers 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.” I am convinced that in Matthew’s vocabulary which his church understood very well righteousness refers to the entire Passion of Jesus Christ in which by his ultimate submission to God he carried within himself the whole of humanity, the cosmos itself, the long expected salvation, that is, eternal blessedness in the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” That blessing is the context, the condition within which they await the coming of the promise. The blessing has prepared them to receive the righteousness that is on the way. They had to be made ready to receive it. Righteousness as God’s gift that redeems, as the grace that satisfies the hunger and thirst is holy, and only those who are made holy are ready to receive it. Blessedness is what prepares the human being to be the receptacle of grace and grants entrance into the kingdom of heaven. This promise certainly has the sound of the eschatological banquet in the age to come at which the redeemed will participate completely in the life of the divine. It is that life of the divine with which those who hunger and thirst will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. Again it is clear that the merciful already abide in a condition of blessedness while they await the fulfilling of what is promised to them. Mercy expresses a relationship between people. Mercy is not a human attitude. Mercy is embrace of others with complete blindness to every aspect of their life except the need shown. Mercy is entering into the distress of others, sharing the distress, and leading them out if it and into the security of forgiveness. Mercy creates the space for forgiveness to take place. As such mercy is not human action, it is a divine event borne along by hands that bear the mark of nails. Only one who is merciful already has the capacity for mercy. To be merciful is in a prior way to have been filled with mercy, and it is out of this fullness that such a person shares this gift. The merciful have already received this divine gift, and they are promised even more. One needs to explore why the merciful shall receive mercy. What is it for which they must and will receive mercy? I have said before that the Beatitudes are expressions of eschatological salvation that arrives in the person of Jesus. Eschatological salvation is preceded by eschatological judgment. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Mt. 7:1. The people to whom this beatitude is addressed are promised that in the coming judgment, they will receive mercy and hence entrance into the kingdom of heaven where the righteous dwell.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. This beatitude is unique because there is no other instance in which people are promised that they will see God. The purity of which this verse speaks is quite different from cultic purity or cleansing. Such have no part to play in the teaching of the early Christian church. The pure in heart is not an anthropological statement. It contains neither implicit nor explicit definitions of the human being. Purity of heart is not a human achievement. It has neither moral nor ethical connotations. It is in the sacrament of baptism that an individual is absolved, cleansed and made pure. The pure in heart are those who have surrendered their will to the will of the divine in baptism and have thereby entered into the kingdom of heaven. To enter into the kingdom of heaven is to enter into the life of the divine. The pure in heart are called to a life of dynamic holiness without leaving the life in community. They already enjoy the blessedness that sustains their life of holiness. To these people the promise is made that they will see God. This does not mean that the one who dwells in light inaccessible will be seen visibly. It does mean that upon the pure in heart the light of the divine will shine to direct their wills in the time of eschatological salvation. “They shall see God,” which means that an event will occur sometime in the future when the divine will present itself and the pure in heart will have direct access to the divine. Mary Magdalen and the other Mary went to the tomb of Jesus.  They had two encounters, one with an angel and the other with Jesus. In both encounters they were told to go to Galilee and “there they will see me.” Mt. 28:10. To see something is to bring it into presence. In the resurrection, the divine become present and henceforth the pure in heart shall abide in this divine presence.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. This is the only place in the New Testament where the word “peacemakers” is used. Accordingly, its meaning must be determined in the unique way in which it is used. Matthew uses the word “peace only in two places, 10:13 and 10:34. In both places, peace is a gift, but the kind of gift is very different. Peace can be given or taken away. It is used as the opposite of sword in 10:34. The peacemakers are those who have come to bring peace, which means reconciliation among people. The content of peace in the New Testament is eschatological salvation. Peace is the gift of the divine in the new aeon after the defeat of sin and death. It is not the possession of human beings, but is rather the condition within which all creation exists that has been redeemed by the death of Jesus Christ. The peacemakers are thus people who partake in ushering in the time of salvation. They share in the work of Christ after the work of redemption has been completed on the Cross. As Jesus who is the bringer of salvation is the son of God, so also are the peacemakers children of God. Their identity is already contained in their name. In this sense “peacemakers” and “children of God” are one and the same. In the gospel of John they are described as “children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:13. In Romans 8:6, Paul writes “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Clearly, the view in the New Testament is that peace is also life. And as I have shown elsewhere in this study, life is the eschatological gift of salvation. The peacemakers are those who already participate in the blessedness of salvation. Only as redeemed can they be peacemakers because only as redeemed can they be called children of God. This beatitude is definitely addressing the future. Matthew expects a future in which peace will prevail because of the redemption in Jesus Christ. He expects that the present age sill soon pass away and that the kingdom of heaven, divine life, will descend upon a redeemed world.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. Jesus is himself the righteousness of God that has been revealed from heaven. One may easily say that “for righteousness’ sake” is identical to “for my sake,” and the meaning would be unchanged. I have addressed the idea of righteousness above and will not repeat that here. Persecution was a fact of life in the early Christian church. One needs only to refer to the life of the Apostle Paul for an example of this. But there was also social and political persecution in addition to religious persecution. Many of the beatitudes are written to address people who suffered social and political persecution. Matthew is still coding his words to protect those who listen to his teaching.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” This is one of the original four, but Matthew changed it in significant ways. Matthew now uses the second person to address the audience. All along he has presented the Beatitudes in the third person. The original read, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” “On my account” is the only reference in the Beatitudes to Jesus himself. The original version says “on account of the Son of Man.” Matthew is declaring that people in his community are reviled; they are persecuted; they are slandered; they have evil things said of them on account of their faith in Jesus and their commitment to the Christian church.

It is clear from this last Beatitude that Matthew’s teaching is not idealism. He is teaching his church about events that are affecting them every day. The Beatitudes disclose a comprehensive view of life in the early Christian church. Each of them, the original four and the others that Matthew added, sheds light upon one aspect or another of life in the Christian community. But Matthew’s catechesis is not just social analysis. He understands life in the context of suffering. He is aware that what is lacking in many of his listeners is hope. His teaching is also proclamation of the good news in Jesus Christ. The good news of the Beatitudes builds a structure of hope that rises above the daily grind of the people. Hope itself is transcendental; it walks alongside and among the believers; it is divine power against despair; it is what lifts the church into the ever-waiting arms of the divine. What transcends takes a longer view of the future; it can see beyond the present. The Apostle Paul in Romans 8:18-30 gives a moving testimony to this hope. It is this hope that lifted the spirit of Christians in every age. It is the same hope that lifts us up today.

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THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – THEY HAVE TAUGHT ME THE INFINITE


THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – THEY HAVE TAUGHT ME THE INFINITE – Matthew 4:12-23

“My duty moves along with my song: / I am I am not: that is my destiny. / I exist not if I do not attend to the pain / of those who suffer: they are my pains. / For I cannot be without existing for all, / for all who are silent and oppressed, / I come from the people and I sing for them: / my poetry is song and punishment. / I am told: you belong to darkness. / Perhaps, perhaps, but I walk toward the light. / I am the man of bread and fish / and you will not find me among books, / but with women and men: / they have taught me the infinite.”  Pablo Neruda: SO IS MY LIFE

Immediately after the Temptation, Jesus came out of the desert ready to proclaim the good news. He had defeated the devil in the desert. The devil had tried in different ways to get Jesus to surrender his identity, but he who is the word of God used that word to vanquish the evil that sought to destroy him. As a result, Jesus exited the desert, full of the Holy Spirit, and entered upon his ministry as “the Infinite.” Nothing much is known about his time in the desert. It is said that he prayed and fasted. One may assume that in those forty days he must have come to some decision about how to face the challenges that he would have to confront. I have long held that the Temptation in the desert is a pattern that held throughout his life, where his identity and purpose were constantly questioned, doubted and assailed. He was prepared to undertake the perilous journey ahead.

The devil had offered Jesus all the kingdoms of this world. But Jesus knew that this present world is passing away and the new age under the dominion of the divine is about to arrive. This was already signaled by the victory of Jesus in the desert, a sign that the kingdom of the devil had fallen. The present (time and humanity jointly) is called to repentance, to prepare the ground upon which will appear “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus calls for repentance in light of the fact that an event which is not described is imminent, and he names it “the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 13 gives seven parables that tell what the kingdom of heaven is “like,” without saying what it actually is. One thing is certain among the parables: the kingdom of heaven is something for which people surrender completely all that they have and all that they are. Within the parables an invisible, transcendent power prevails. People are invited to receive that power as a gift. The gift is freedom from the suffocating burden of Chronos, life lived in the total absence of the divine. The gift offers entrance into what is Kairos, participation in what is holy and hence transcendent. This is a command and an invitation to leave behind the dominion of sin and enter into the dominion of righteousness. Only Kairos can redeem what Chronos has impounded. Everything is temporal, nothing endures. Not to endure is to die. Within Chronos death holds sway. Chronos holds death over all of humanity like the sword of Damocles. The existential threat of extinction is what characterizes the human condition in the absolute absence of the divine. It is from this existential threat that Jesus comes to free humanity. Jesus who is himself the divine Kairos breaks in upon the human condition, what is called history, and offers that which is eternal. This is the message that he has come to proclaim.

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Mt. 4:17. The call to repentance in view of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven is the eschatological message of Jesus. What is eschatological is no longer historical. The kingdom of heaven is never part of the present historical order of creation. It transcends time and space. It does not have any actual “residents” having no residence upon the earth which always exists within the realm of history; the kingdom of heaven is purely the transcendental presence of the divine out of which come those gifts that transform human beings, grants them righteousness and eternal life. There is a passage in Mark 9:43-47 that can shed light on this. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed….” Again, “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame…” Again, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye….” I have placed emphasis on a particular phrase to show for Mark, “the kingdom of God” is nothing other than “life.” This is the clearest definition that I can find.

“The kingdom of God” is life.

“The kingdom of heaven” is the invisible visibility of divine grace and favor.

“The kingdom of heaven” is the source of miracles, the contrapuntal juxtaposition:

of blindness and sight;

of lameness and walking;

of uncleanness and cleansing;

of deafness and hearing. Mt. 11:5.

“The kingdom of heaven” is the power of deliverance:

from demonic possession;

and from the bonds of death.

“The kingdom of heaven” is the promise of blessedness:

for the poor in spirit;

for those who mourn;

for the meek;

for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;

for the merciful;

for the pure in heart;

for the peacemakers. Mt. 5:3-9.

It is in contrast to the power of this world that holds only death as the future possibility for human beings. The kingdom of heaven is the dimension of the eternal, and only those who are transformed by metanoia have a full share in it. What is the true nature of metanoia? Genuine metanoia is the complete and irreversible transformation of the human being. It transports the human being immediately from this age into the age to come where the kingdom of heaven has already dawned. Consequently, metanoia is not an action taken by the human person, however good that action may be. Metanoia is truly and comprehensively a divine act, the granting of grace that removes the human being from the imminent existential threat of death and grants the human being that new life, described as eternal life, in the kingdom of heaven.  However this divine act of grace does not completely absolve the human from actions that demonstrate that that the transformation has already and finally taken place. There are human needs that must still be met, and so Jesus went about preaching, teaching and healing.

All of this has a history, a beginning. “Now, when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” The gospels have various versions of the arrest and imprisonment and beheading of John. Here in Matthew 4 Jesus returns from forty days in the wilderness and heard that John had been arrested. It appears that at this point, Jesus had not yet begun his ministry. Matthew adopts Mark’s outline of events: the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness, the arrest of John the Baptist, the beginning of ministry of Jesus. By the time John was beheaded, Jesus had already been preaching, teaching and healing.

When Jesus returned from the temptation in the desert he settled in Capernaum which became the center of his ministry. He took this action, according to Matthew, to fulfill prophecy. There are 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).

Isaiah speaks, “The people who sat in darkness / have seen a great light, / and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death / light has dawned.” 4: 15; Isaiah 9:1-2.

Who are these people to whom Isaiah refers? They are the land of Zebulun and the land of Naftali. The prophet had predicted: “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naftali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” Isaiah 9:1-1. Sometime around 722 BCE the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pilesar II and Salmaneser IV among others had defeated Israel and all the tribes were exiled. Two were granted the right to return much later, but Zebulun and Naftali were among the ten that never were given that right, and so were lost in exile forever. They lost their national identity; they lost their name that connected them to their origin; they lost their home, the promised land. Perhaps they remembered other exiles: Adam and Eve and Cain and the rivers that ran through Eden. Eden, Zebulun, Naftali, names that refuse to be forgotten strike at our own yearning to be remembered. The people of Zebulun and Naftali, no longer called by their own name, were the exiles who had been living in the area around the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum. It is to these people that Jesus came with his proclamation. They were once in anguish and contempt. Jesus did not come to Galilee of the Gentiles to convert the Gentiles. As the eschatological preacher, his purpose was to restore to their proper thrones the twelve tribes of Israel, two of which were in his immediate vicinity. Matthew 19:27-29. This often-overlooked passage tells us why Jesus began his ministry by the Sea of Galilee. Similar ideas are expressed in Matthew 10:5-6 where is mentioned “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The message of Jesus is the fulfilment of prophecy; it is an eschatological message, not only that the history of anguish and contempt had come to an end, but that there is now a transformative event dawning for them. His message therefore must address “the people who sat in darkness;” it must assure them that the great light that they have seen has arrived. The message of Jesus must also address “those who sat in the region and shadow of death.” It must assure them that light has indeed dawned. One who sits in darkness needs more than light. Darkness is not simply what is characteristic of night or anguish. Darkness is existence in the total absence of the divine. Darkness is complete isolation and exile. The darkness, the region and shadow of death of the exiles, is what the message of Jesus must address. Of the exile Neruda writes: “Your feet go in circles, and you cross land / and it’s not your land. /Light wakes you up and it’s not your light. / Night comes down, but your stars are missing. / You discover brothers, but they’re not of your blood.” And later he adds: “Exiles! Distance / grows thicker. / We breathe through a wound. / To live is a necessary obligation. / So, a spirit without roots is an injustice. / It rejects the beauty that is offered it. / It searches for its own unfortunate country / and only there knows martyrdom or quiet.” (Neruda: Exile.)  Exile, darkness and death are three words that describe the same thing.

Jesus knows what it is to be an exile. His life is voluntary exile. And as an exile himself he speaks to them. Exile is homelessness. It is being no one, nowhere. Darkness is that namelessness. Darkness is that homelessness. Darkness is not a qualitative variation of light; it is an entity that descends upon humanity with the desire to absorb the soul and defeat the spirit. Darkness intends first, the subjugation, and then the full and complete extinction of all that is human. Darkness is the ultimate counter-divine activity upon the earth. It is its own creation and maintains its presence by regenerating itself. In the beginning “darkness covered the face of the deep,” and then “God separate the light from the darkness.” Genesis 1:4. Only the divine has the power to banish darkness to its own region, “even the darkness is not dark to you;…for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139:12. Darkness arrives always in the footsteps of the divine, always prepared to un-create what the divine creates. Consequently, those who sit in darkness are completely overtaken by it. It is from where emanates the sound of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It is in this context, and to the people of this region, that Jesus begins his proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He is in the territory of Galilee of the Gentiles, and the Sea of Galilee is the backdrop of his summons. Nothing is said of the original audience of this proclamation. But for the exile and the homeless, the promise of a kingdom of heaven is another promised land, a hope realized. Matthew makes clear, by example, the response of those who hear the message. The call of Simon Peter and Andrew, and then of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, is in every respect a call to repentance, because repentance is nothing other than following Jesus unconditionally without the thought of looking back. The call to follow is simultaneously the call to repentance. The four who were called immediately left everything behind them and followed Jesus. He promised them “I will make you fish for people.” He made the four into proclaimers of repentance, harvesters for the kingdom of heaven. They were transformed by the call of Jesus. This indicates the essential nature of metanoia; it is not an activity of human will, nor is it a psychological event. Authentic metanoia is an act of divine will, an act of grace within which those who are called to metanoia are simultaneously transformed. It is the call to metanoia that bestows the transformation, not the response of those who are called, because the word of Jesus is always grace itself. Metanoia is divine grace that transports the hearers immediately into the kingdom of heaven.

This text as a whole cannot exclude the disciples from the prophecy of Isaiah. Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, along with James and John left their life and their livelihood behind. They did not ask a single question of Jesus. They never uttered a single word. It is this silence that is characteristic of those who are in the presence of the divine. The call itself, seen as both command and exhortation, is a divine gift that grants all that is contained in metanoia to those who are addressed by this word. Are these disciples not also “people who sat in darkness?” And have not they now seen, “a great light?” Are these four among “those who sat in the region and shadow of death?” For them, “light has dawned.” This is the approach I take in exploring the text. All are included. The message of Jesus cannot be taken otherwise. However, the emerging church in the time of Matthew had a broader vision for ministry. Matthew indicates the universal trajectory of the proclamation of the early church. It will not be completed until Jesus says,” Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” 28:18. The text as a whole interweaves the vison of Jesus with the vision of the early Christian church.

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” 4:23. This is a summary of the mission of Jesus: teaching, preaching and healing.

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THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – A SINGLE LIMITLESS WORD


THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – A SINGLE LIMITLESS WORD John 1:29-42   “What are you looking for?”

“Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal. / Whoever reads my words is inventing them.” Jorge Luis Borges: Happiness.

“From the unseen horizon / and from the very center of my being, / an infinite voice pronounced these things– / things, not words. This is my feeble translation, / time-bound, of what was a single limitless Word.”  Jorge Luis Borges: Matthew XXV:30 

“What are you looking for?” 1:38. These are the very first words Jesus spoke in the gospel of John. And what are the very last? “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 20:29. Together they constitute “a single limitless Word that is himself. It is he to whom John came to bear witness. 1:7-8. John’s witness was necessary because neither “the world” nor “his own people” accepted Jesus. 1:10-11. I have chosen to investigate this passage from the point of view of verse 38. As early as verse 19 John is presented as one who is there to testify. A committee of priests and Levites had been sent from Jerusalem to Bethany to question John as to his identity. He denied to them that he was the Messiah, or Elijah, or “the prophet,” who appears only here and is otherwise completely unknown. He claimed only to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”  Next, the committee wanted to know why he as baptizing. To this John did not give a direct reason. He claimed only to be one who baptizes with water, while pointing to someone unknown to them, but already standing among them, who will follow him. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This was John’s entire testimony to the committee. He revealed nothing about himself; for his denial is not a revelation. Neither did he reveal anything about Jesus.

The next day, where our passage begins, John saw Jesus coming towards him. Now his testimony is very extensive. “Here’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The title “Lamb of God” is used twice in this scene and never again in the New Testament. The one “who takes away the sin of the world” can be none other than the Messiah long awaited. “Lamb of God” must be a title known to refer to the Messiah, for this is what Andrew said to Simon: he did not say we have found the Lamb of God; he said, “We have found the Messiah.” The word “messias” is used only in chapters 1:41 and 4:25 of this gospel, and nowhere else in the New Testament, which again goes to the uniqueness of this gospel. Because the title is used exclusively here it is not possible to trace it back to its source. The gospel of John stands alone in its uniqueness. There is much in it that is not found elsewhere. Much in chapters 7-11, chapters 13-17, chapters 18-20 are unique to this gospel. The Prologue, 1:1-14 is used here and nowhere else and never occurs again in the gospel, as if it never existed. The Marriage at Cana, 2:1-12 and the Raising of Lazarus, 11:38-44, are two of the miracles that are unique to John. There is a reason for this uniqueness; John presents Jesus differently. For this reason the gospel must be interpreted from within itself. Though much has been made of it, Isaiah 53, especially verse 7, cannot be used as a source for the title because the lamb there was never described as taking away the sin of the world, and was never given any messianic significance. What Isaiah 53 says of the lamb is that the proper attitude in the face of suffering and persecution is silence. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Hab. 2:20. “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” Ps. 62:1. The prophet to whom the revelation of the divine is entrusted understands the silence. Isaiah goes no further than this.

John, the apocalyptic prophet, presents the “Lamb of God” as a completely new title, one especially developed to present the eschatological redeemer.  The title is not simply “Lamb” but more specifically “Lamb of God.” It is likely that in John’s apocalyptic circle the title “Lamb of God” was a hidden reference to the divine itself. It would have been coded language which only the initiates understood and used. That is why Andrew can say “We have found the Messiah.” The Messiah, according to John’s gospel, is the divine who has been incarnated. In verses 1-14 there is a clear identity of the Messiah with the Word of God that existed from the beginning. “The Word was God,” as is also “The Lamb of God,” and the Messiah. When the title “Lamb of God” is examined from its unique use only here in the New Testament, it must be seen to stand uniquely for the divine. John’s gospel is clear on this point. The taking away of the sin of the world is not through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. Such sacrifice plays little role in the gospel. Rather, humanity is redeemed solely by the incarnate Word. The Word of God, that is, the divine itself that brought into being creation is also who brings into being salvation. “The world came into being through him,” 1:10, and “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” 1:12. They were all born “not of blood” that is, not by sacrifice, “but of God.” 1:13. This is the eschatological proclamation of John the Baptist.

But there are still questions. No one else is in the scene, so to whom is John testifying? The use of the word “again” in 1:35 suggests that John was with his disciples. He is bearing testimony to his disciples. Nothing else is said of an audience. “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is ahead of me because he was before me.’” He is pointing directly to Jesus who is coming towards him. His disciples could not have misunderstood this. Historically it is clear that John came ahead of Jesus by approximately six months. “He was before” must have a totally different meaning, outside of history. John is pointing out that the Jesus who is coming towards him is already one who transcends time and history. What transcends time and history must have its home in the realm of the divine. This is something that cannot be known except through revelation. John clarifies this; “The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me.” I interpret “said to me” as a statement of revelation. Something was revealed to John that allows him to say, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” What is it that he saw? “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” And this revelation is not widely shared, but only to his disciples. John can now say, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The revelation to his disciples is now complete; the “Lamb of God” is none other than the “Son of God.” But the work of the prophet is far from complete. His prophecy is that Jesus “might be revealed to Israel.”1:31.  This prophetic task is still to be completed.

Verse 35 continues the event into the next day. Again the location is not known. John was with two of his disciples. He saw Jesus going by, and exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Immediately, “The two disciples heard him say this, and the followed Jesus.” I think the question as to whom John is testifying can now be answered without a doubt. John is testifying about Jesus to his own disciples. He does not have a wider audience. The ones who received his testimony are his own disciples, who immediately leave him and follow Jesus.  In Genesis 3:9, the Lord sought out humanity in Eden, asking, “Where are you?” Humanity’s Eden shall not fade from memory because its origin is also its abode. It will exist as long as there is one human being left who longs for salvation. Eden, which is and has always remained the original holy ground, calls quietly to its children, sometimes out of anguish, often out of compassion. Eden is that which always waits, like a stubborn hope or a starving child, for an answer, an arrival that never arrives. I remember a line from Borges that goes “I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away he doesn’t expect to arrive.” Eden awaits its exiles. Or perhaps, its exiles await Eden.

Two disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” They too have memories of Eden. They want to be with him in his home. The disciples are already aware that he is the Messiah. “Come and see” (i.e., “Come” is imperative, and “see” is future tense, “you will see.”), come and you will see, he said to them. His words contain a command and a promise. And they followed him. Nothing is said of what they saw. Perhaps nothing can be said. I interpret the verb “to see” in this gospel as “to receive an insight.”  Unlike the two disciples we know nothing of the earthly dwelling of Jesus. However, the gospel itself gives us an insight into the transcendent abode of the divine. In 13: 33, 36, Jesus says, “Where I am going you cannot come.” In the next chapter he identifies this destination. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places….I go to prepare a place for you….I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” 14:1-4. Later he prays, “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.” 17:34. In his trial before Pilate, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” 18:36. After the resurrection he tells Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 20:17. The gospel as a whole presents Jesus himself as the dwelling in whom all the faithful will abide. This is no longer history but eschatology. No one can say that this is what the disciples saw when they spent a whole day with Jesus. The central question in this whole passage is the one Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” The two disciples never answered him directly. They ask instead, “Where are you staying?” I interpret this as holding the content of their answer. They are looking for the abode of the Messiah, the dwelling of the transcendent one. Perhaps what they saw is the answer to that question. “What are you looking for?” still remains the central question that precedes Christian piety. One seeks something from Jesus without which one cannot enter upon the path to Christian life.

In verse 39 the verbs are important. “They came.” “They saw.” They remained.” They responded to the command of Jesus, after which they received the promise, and as a consequence, they remained with him the remainder of the day. Only one of the two is identified and he is Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. Nothing is said or known of the other, though throughout the history of interpretation many suggestions have been made. I take the text as it is. The writer or editor identified only one person, and there must have been a particular reason. In many ways the biblical and Christian tradition grants priority to Simon Peter, and this may have played a role in the writer’s thinking. I have seen a pattern in the four gospels that indicates those who “come and see” immediately “go and tell.” This pattern holds not only with the call of the disciples, but also with anyone who encounters Jesus, such as persons in healing stories. It is not said how soon after Andrew left the house, but if they remained with him all day, and they were called at the tenth hour, they might have remained the night. The tenth hour has symbolic significance in both Greek and Hebrew. The meaning cannot be deduced from this context. However, I am content to let the text say “the tenth hour” rather than translate it as 4:00 o’clock, which seems meaningless. If they did remain the night, then Andrew would have gone out early the next day to look for his brother. When he found him, Andrew announced, “We have found the Messiah.” (messias).  (I have pointed out earlier that messias is used only twice in this gospel). The writer translated this as “the Anointed” which leads to the idea that that his audience may not have understood Aramaic. It is curious that later, in 1:45, Philip does not use the word “messias” when he was speaking with Nathanael. He simply said, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael also had his own description of the messias. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 1:49. The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well also spoke of the messias. “I know that the Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” 4:25. Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 4:26. Nowhere else in the New Testament does Jesus say this. A further insight into the use of names is that there are only two places in this gospel where the name “Jesus Christ” is used. The first is at 1:17, “The law was given by Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The other is at 17:3, where Jesus prays, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The writer is extremely careful about the use of these names. The caution is understandable given the disagreements within early Christianity itself, and also in its conflict with Judaism, about who Jesus is.

Andrew did not identify the “we” who had discovered the Messiah, though it is assumed that it was Andrew and the other unnamed disciple. Verse 42 says, “He brought Simon to Jesus.” Perhaps Simon Peter was also seeking the Messiah, and Andrew knew this, so he was happy to share his discovery. Nothing is said of Simon’s reaction throughout the entire episode, and he himself says nothing. The text says that Jesus looked at Simon, and knew him. “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas.” Cephas is Peter. “To be called” is future passive hence the meaning is that in the future Simon will be called Peter. There are a number of occasions in this gospel when Jesus is shown to have knowledge of people and events ahead of time.  In 1:47, he knows Nathanael whom he has never seen. In 4:17-19, he knows about the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob. In chapter 11 he is aware that his friend Lazarus has died, even though he was far away from Bethany. I’m sure the examples can be multiplied. I believe that such knowledge is the content of that “grace and truth” with which he entered the world as the incarnate Son of God. He is the Word that was in the beginning with God and what he knows he knows from the beginning, that is, he who has come to give us eternal life has also come to bring eternal Word. It is the “single limitless Word” that has existed eternally and continues to be revealed wherever he is present and to whomever comes to him.

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BAPTISM OF OUR LORD – THE INTANGIBLE, IMPALPABLE INSTANT


BAPTISM OF OUR LORD – THE INTANGIBLE, IMPALPABLE INSTANT

Matthew 3:13-17

“The spirit descends, /untying tongues, / but it doesn’t speak words: / it speaks flames.Language, lit by a god/ is prophecy/ of flames and a crash/ of burnt syllables: meaningless ash.” Octavio Paz: “To Talk” in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz

“Between after and before, / a parenthesis of stone, / I will be, for an instant that will never return, / the first man and the last. / And as I say it, the intangible, / impalpable instant / opens under my feet/ and closes over me, pure time.” Paz: Little Variation.

The poet Octavio Paz has revealed an image that brings into focus a transcendent occurrence, a thing that flashes as swiftly as a flame, disappears just as swiftly, but not before transfiguring the cosmos. It is “the intangible, impalpable instant” where the cosmos reclaims its original purity, pure time, purely human. In “the intangible, impalpable instant” the cosmos incarnates. And “I will be, for an instant that will never return, the first man and the last.” It is the embrace of Alpha and Omega, the complete completion of redemption.

These are the thoughts that sustain my exploration of the baptism of Jesus. All of the gospels have something to say about the baptism of Jesus. The synoptic gospels are clearly dependent upon Mark’s account in Mark 1:9-11. The gospel of John is as usual quite different, though it does indicate that Jesus was baptized by John. The Q Document which knows of the work of John the Baptist does not have an episode of the baptism of Jesus. However, like it, John the Baptist would have had his origin in the Palestinian community, and his baptism practices would have been a part of the Palestinian community. John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:4. That his baptism drew many is shown in verse 5, for people came from throughout the region and were baptized by him, “confessing their sins.” John’s baptism was different from the ritual purification baths practiced by the Jews. John’s call and his message as reported in Luke 3:1-20 indicates the John’s baptism had both an ethical content, “repentance” and an eschatological content, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John believed that the end was near, that the kingdom of God was imminent, and consequently those who wanted entrance and new life must be baptized. This eschatological understanding of baptism was carried over into the ekklesia, that which was called into being in the fullness of time, the church. Baptism existed in the Christian community prior to the writing of the gospels. Paul, writing much earlier than the gospels, asks the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Rom. 6:3. The congregation in Rome had all been baptized.

Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus is quite different from the other gospels. John was reluctant to baptize him. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Mt. 3:14. What is Matthew doing here? In John 3:30 John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And one verse earlier, “for this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” I’m convinced that Matthew did not know of the gospel of John. However, it is possible that those ideas were current and available to him in other forms. Did John recognize Jesus as the one whom John had predicted would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire? If so, John would have known that Jesus was the promised eschatological Messiah. But there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist had such knowledge. Matthew is constructing a narrative, within which there is a dialogue between John and Jesus, to proclaim something special. Just what it is, is not yet clear.

John tells Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you.” It is a declaration, not a request. I assume that John had already been baptized. Matthew is declaring something about John, about baptism and about Jesus. I believe that Matthew has constructed this piece of narrative as Christian catechesis. To do this he presents the church with a picture that is memorable, graspable, and already common to their culture. They understand his language and imagery of apocalyptic because it was the language and imagery of their congregation. We are far removed from that culture today in the twenty-first century and we must excavate his words to uncover his message. He is teaching his congregation that everyone needs to be baptized by Jesus, but what he means by baptism is something completely different. Each early Christian congregation stood as the geographical center of the reign of God, the eschatological community that had been created and prepared for the arrival of the divine. John the Baptist as the one who was called by God to prepare this sacred center for the arrival of the divine must have understood that. His prophetic baptism was anticipatory: it was repentance; it was confession. John must have been aware of what comes next. Repentance and confession must be followed by absolution. I have said elsewhere that the gospel of Matthew is the gospel of absolution. John himself had received the baptism of repentance, confessing his sins. The “need” he expressed when he said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you,” must be to hear from Jesus himself the word of absolution.  When Matthew teaches his congregation that everyone needs to be baptized by Jesus this is what he means: everyone stands in need of absolution; Jesus is himself the absolution for which they longed.

What is Matthew proclaiming when he has John say, “do you come to me?” By having Jesus present himself for baptism, Matthew is teaching that no one is excluded from submitting to this eschatological sacrament who wants to share in the kingdom of God. This is the simplest answer for a missionary church: everyone who wants to be a part of the redeemed community must submit to baptism. Jesus himself is the example for surrendering to the demand of the divine because Jesus is himself the absolution towards which baptism beckons.

Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” For the moment let things remain as they are. Soon this moment, this instant, will be seen in a different light. When Matthew has Jesus say, “Let it be so now,” he is building his narrative. He is laying the groundwork for an opening to occur whereby what is “now” will be thrown into the light of what is “then.” The words, “Let it be so now,” slows down the narrative. I am helped in my approach here by the Beatitudes. In them we hear an implied “now” and before we realize the impact of the promise the “now” is completely swallowed up in the “then.” However, “now” and “then” have no reference to time or to what is temporal. Matthew is proclaiming “the intangible, implausible moment,” the transcendental emergence of the divine into the light where mortals dwell. Mortals dwell in oblivion of the divine. John the Baptist came proclaiming the imminent arrival of the divine precisely because his hearers were completely unaware that they were living in the absence of the divine. That was his prophetic power: he was revealing that of which they remained oblivious. And here he is, standing in the presence of Jesus who tells him, “Let it be so now.” John, the apocalyptic prophet immediately understands. “Then he consented.” He knows the “now” is nothing other than the punctuation mark signifying the end of the present age. The “then” is the eschatological dawn of the divine that has already arrived among mortals but still hidden except to those already in the kingdom of God. Matthew constructs his narrative in conformity with the apocalyptic faith that informed the Christian community that their hope has been fulfilled.

Jesus says “for it is proper in this way….” This is an extension and emphasis of “let it be so now.” It is fitting that the “now” run its course. Only when the “now” has completed the task for which it was created will it create a clearing for the arrival of the “then.” It is at this point in the dialogue that Matthew begins to reveal the full content of the “then.” I have referred to this as “the eschatological dawn of the divine.” Matthew says it is “to fulfill all righteousness.”  I have pointed out elsewhere that Matthew sees Abraham as the progenitor of Jesus. He is aware of God’s covenant with Abraham, where it is said that “Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Gen. 15:6. Further, God had chosen Abraham and all his family “to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Gen. 18:19. The trajectory from Abraham to Jesus aims towards the completion of the promise to Abraham, that righteousness and justice will be fulfilled. Matthew is saying that when the “now” has completed its course, that is, when the present age has drawn to its close, then “all righteousness” will be fulfilled. He speaks not only of righteousness, but of “all” righteousness that must be fulfilled. Because righteousness is something which is reserved and will only arrive at the end of this present age, it too is an eschatological gift. It is something that will dawn with the arrival of the divine. It has the character of blessedness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Mt. 5:6. For Matthew, it is something that is still expected in the future, but that the future is here in the person of Jesus. Earlier in Matthew 3:8, John the Baptist had said to the Pharisees and Sadducees when the sought his baptism, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” from which I had concluded that John was speaking of the practice of righteousness.  Abraham’s faith was the foundation of the granting of righteousness. Jesus as a descendant of Abraham now approaches John for baptism, and he presents himself with worshipful humility, ready for the fulfilling of all righteousness. Matthew is proclaiming that in Jesus the “then” has arrived, and for this reason “all righteousness” will be fulfilled. Jesus as the eschatological bringer of salvation is the one in whom all righteousness is revealed. This is at the heart of the theological catechesis of Matthew.

I have still not explored the content of righteousness, except to say that it has the character of blessedness. The distribution of the word in the New Testament allows an insight into its use. Mark never uses it. Luke has it once in the gospel, 1:71, and twice in Acts, 13:10; 17:31. John has it twice in 16: 8, 10. It is central to Paul’s theology and is used most often in his letters. The word occurs for the first time in the Bible at Genesis 15:6, where Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. For Matthew, Abraham’s importance in the life of Jesus is crucial. John had criticized the Pharisees who came to him for baptism. In the same way Jesus said to them, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 5:20. Later, in comparing his listeners with the Gentiles, Jesus tells them, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 6:33. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus says, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” 21:32. In addition to this, Matthew uses the word “righteous” 13 times. I conclude that righteousness is critical to understanding the baptism of Jesus.

Righteousness is the practice of right conduct; this is its basic meaning. It would not be appropriate to see this from the point of view of psychology. Right conduct is not the way one behaves. It is an act of faith, a gift from the divine, as with Abraham, and that is complete and irreversible surrender to the divine. 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 righteousness must be transcended, and it is righteousness through faith that is uncovered in the word “exceeds.” It is only by faith that one submits to the will of God. Righteousness is rightly the gift that God bestows upon those who submit themselves in faith. As an eschatological gift, it grants to believers entrance into the kingdom of God. 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.” If we examine what Matthew means by “all” righteousness we may look to Micah 6:2 for a point of departure. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah counsels: surrender your all to the Lord. I am convinced that in Matthew’s vocabulary which his church understood very well the “all” refers to the entire Passion of Jesus Christ in which by his ultimate submission to God he carried within himself the whole of humanity, the cosmos itself, the long expected salvation, that is, eternal blessedness in the kingdom of God.

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”

In his submission to John’s baptism, Jesus enters the flood bearing all of creation within himself, where judgment is pronounced and absolution granted. And rising now into a pure cosmos, he brings forth the new creation, cleansed, redeemed, transfigured. For me, this is “the intangible, impalpable instant” that Octavio Paz poetizes. In this passage Matthew speaks of an “ascending” (anabino) and a “descending.” (katabino).The Greek verbs are important for entering deeper into the meaning that Matthew intends. Would Matthew have been aware of Genesis 28:10-19?

Matthew clearly intends this event as a Christophany. The heavens were opened to Jesus, that is, the transcendental realm of the divine opened up itself to Jesus as he ascended from the water. One gets the picture that heaven itself has arrived to witness the event of the baptism of Jesus. The opening up of the heavens allows “the Spirit of God” to descend upon Jesus. The meeting place of the ascending and the descending, where heaven and earth, divine and human, embrace, (“alighting on him”) is called the horizon. The horizon is that which arrives to our sight “from the distance.” The horizon meets us where we are, and it meets the Christian church where it is. Wherever the church is, there is the meeting place of heaven and earth, there is the horizon. The divine, “the Spirit of God” descends into all that is human, all that is cosmos, and along with Jesus, lifts it into a transcendent eternity that the church later defined as eternal life.

“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Was it John who saw “the Spirit of God” descending? Was it Jesus who saw it? That is not easy to say. An insight may be gained from the way Matthew diverged from Mark on this. In Mark the second person, singular is used, to speak directly to Jesus. In Matthew, the third person, singular is used. The voice from heaven is a standard part of New Testament apocalyptic, where “heaven” is substituted for “God.” The meaning is that the divine itself is speaking. The essential message of apocalyptic is the proclamation of hope for the oppressed. The voice is not addressing Jesus but is disclosing who he is. Jesus is the hope of the oppressed. This indicates that the voice is addressing itself to John the Baptist, and that it was only John who saw “the Spirit of God” descending and alighting upon Jesus. Matthew intends this to be a revelation to John, henceforth to be an eye witness to this Christophany and thereafter to bear witness to it. For this reason the baptism of Jesus must not be seen as some kind of call to Jesus. As a Christophany it intends to reveal Jesus as who he is and as who he has always been, “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  In the baptism of Jesus, “the intangible, impalpable instant,” the divine is presenting itself as the fulfillment of ancient promises, as Mary reminds us, “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Luke 1:55. Zechariah confirms this, “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.” Luke 1:72-73.

Matthew has made this clear to his congregation, and for me, it is a reminder of Genesis 8:22. “As long as the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

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