Sunday, August 31, 2014

Praying with filthy hands

St. Chrysostom offers some fascinating insights about Jesus' confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew 15:

Let us learn then what are the things that defile the man; let us learn, and let us flee them. For even in the church we see such a custom prevailing amongst the generality, and men giving diligence to come in clean garments, and to have their hands washed; but how to present a clean soul to God, they make no account.  
And this I say, not forbidding them to wash hands or mouth; but willing men so to wash is meet, not with water only, but instead of water, with all virtues. For the filth of the mouth is evil speaking, blasphemy, reviling, angry words... If then thou art conscious to thyself of uttering none of them, neither of being defiled with this filth, draw near with confidence.  
...For tell me, hadst thou dung on thy hands, and mire, wouldest thou indeed venture to pray? By no means. And yet this were no hurt; but that is ruin. How then art thou reverential in the different things, but in the forbidden remiss? 
What then? should we not pray? saith one.  
We should indeed, but not while defiled, and having upon us mire of that sort. 'What then, if I have been overtaken?' saith one. Cleanse thyself. 'How, and in what way?' Weep, groan, give alms, apologize to him that is affronted, reconcile him to thyself hereby, wipe clean thy tongue, lest thou provoke God more grievously. 
...Having thus adorned ourselves, let us come to our King, and fall at His knees, not with the body only, but also with the mind. Let us consider whom we are approaching, and on whose behalf, and what we would accomplish. We are drawing nigh unto God, whom the seraphim behold and turn away their faces, not bearing His brightness; at sight of whom the earth trembles. We draw nigh unto God, "who dwelleth in the light, which no man can approach unto." And we draw nigh unto Him for deliverance from hell, for remission of sins, for escape from those intolerable punishments, for attaining to the Heavens, and to the good things that are there. Let us, I say, fall down before Him both in body and in mind, that He may raise us up when we are down; let us converse with all gentleness and meekness.1 

1.  St. Chrysostom, Ed. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Volume 10 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publsihers Inc., 1995 reprint], pp. 319-20

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The miracle She achieved

It is constantly assumed, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is----Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved.  
-- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Friday, August 29, 2014

Gehazi walks on water (Matt. 14:22-33)

Matthew chapter fourteen is memorable for its two miracles: Jesus feeding five thousand people, and Jesus walking on water. But Matthew includes something else which no other gospel does: Peter walking on water.

This isn't the only time Peter is singled out and highlighted among the apostles. Later on within the same narrative section Peter is singled out and highlighted for a number of things: his great confession (16:16), Jesus giving him "the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven" (16:19), his awkward rebuke of Jesus (16:22), his request to set up three tents during Jesus' transfiguration (17:4), his confrontation with Jewish tax collectors and Jesus' private instructions to him about not offending them (7:24). All of these particular instances are pointing to something about his influential role as a leader among the apostles and first century Jewish Christians.

As noted in a previous post, Matthew is utilizing the history of John the Baptist and Jesus as types of prophets like those found among the post-Solomonic kingdom. Like the Queen's murderous plot against Elijah for prophesying against her "house," King Herod's wife, Herodias, plots to destroy John for prophesying against her "house" (14:1-12). But after John is murdered according to the Queen's request, Herod thinks Jesus is the resurrected John, and in that sense he is mistaken as an Elijah figure as well. Like Elijah before him, Jesus flees to the wilderness when his life is in danger (Matt. 14:13; 1 King 19:4; the Greek word sometimes translated as "desolate place" in the ESV is also the same word for "wilderness"), and then to a mountain to pray (Matt. 14: 23). This detail is peculiar because the last time a "mountain" was mentioned in Matthew's gospel was back in the Sermon on the Mount, which closely resembles Moses' giving of the Law at Sinai, only it was Jesus giving Torah to Israel in person. And when Elijah flees to the mountain for solitude and prayer, he flees to the same "mount of God" that Moses gave Torah to Israel (1 Kings 19:8). So earlier in Matthew's gospel, Jesus went up a "mountain" as a Moses-figure on the Mount of God, but now Jesus is going up a "mountain" as an Elijah-figure, ascending the same mount of God to plead on behalf of Israel.

In Matthew's narrative, John the Baptist is also regarded as a type of Elijah (Matt 11:7-14; 17:10-13; Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6). This changes things a bit because it aids in portraying Jesus a type of Elisha, Elijah's prophetic successor, as well. Just as Elisha multiplied loaves of bread for his disciples (and interestingly, Elisha is the only prophet in the old testament to perform this miracle: 2 Kings 4:42-44), Jesus feeds five thousand by multiplying loaves of bread. Like Elisha, Jesus also miraculously crosses the waters connected with the Jordan and is met by a school of disciples who "worship" him (Matt. 14:32; 2 Kings 2:14-15 LXX). And when his disciples are in the water, being tormented by the waves surrounding them (14:24),1 Jesus tells them "do not be afraid," which is the same thing Elisha tells his disciples when they are tormented by surrounding armies (2 Kings 6:15-17).

This is where the special focus upon Peter comes into play. Jesus just fed five thousand people and dismissed them (14:22). Afterward we find Jesus crossing the waters alone, and it is at that time we find Peter insisting to cross the waters with him, just like Elisha insisted to cross the waters with Elijah (2 Kings 2). We are not told why Peter wanted to cross the waters with Jesus. We're just told that he wanted to go if Jesus was willing to call him. Here Peter is portrayed as a leader among Israel, a type of Elisha who is willing to take up the mantle of his predecessor, Jesus. As St. Hilary of Poitiers aptly noted about this pericope, "Peter alone, turning away from the others, forsakes the world just as he did the waves of the sea, and sets out to follow the Lord's steps."2

This helps explain much of why Matthew includes this detail, whereas other gospels do not. Matthew does not tell us why Peter doubts after he starts crossing the waters, but he does make sure to let us know that Jesus thought about Peter's doubt: Jesus calls him a "little-faith"! (Some translations say "O you of little faith," but the Greek has Jesus addressing him directly as "little-faith"). Peter's persistence was great, but his faith was as "little" as the fearful disciples found earlier in Matthew's gospel (8:26). Perhaps Peter even thought of himself as an Elisha figure at his tenth step out into the water. Regardless, Matthew's main objective seems to be that Jesus is the greater Elijah of the narrative, and Peter is a chief disciples of his who needs to learn that lesson well. This makes Peter appear more like a Gehazi figure than an Elisha figure, disappointing his Master at a moment when faith is needed most. However, unlike Elijah's curse upon Gehazi's for his little faith, Jesus' reaction is different. Jesus blesses even the little faith that Peter has by stretching out a helping hand at the moment of his fall. And at the moment when Jesus gets into the boat, the tormenting waves stop too, which infers that the storm accompanied Jesus' walk across the waters. Jesus comes to his disciples accompanied with a storm, but the storm is only present because he is present. Likewise the storm is only dispelled because he gets out of the water and in to the boat with his disciples. Jesus comes, not only to help when his disciples fall, but also to reverse the cursed waves that torment his disciples by coming alongside them, getting into the boat with them. 

All of this points to Jesus as the greater Elisha whose power over the waters is greater than the mere parting of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:14). Jesus is the Lord of creation himself whose Spirit hovered over the waters at creation and in Peter's day, and still continues to hover over the face of all deeps in our day. He is the great "I AM"3 who appeared at creation to separate light from darkness, and he's the One who continues to appear as light in the midst of the darkness of night to calm the torments of our life. Jesus is the one who commanded dry land to appear out of the chaotic waters in the beginning and He is the One who brings all of his disciples safely back onto dry land when the chaotic world rages against us. 

All of this came about to Peter for the same reason that the Lord manifests himself in the lives of his disciples today: so that we can go out as his successors with greater faith than his disciples, declaring with even greater fervor than they did, that truly Jesus is the Son of God (Matt 14:33). If Jesus can make a great leader and disciple out of a "little-faith" like Peter, we can be sure that he can make great leaders and disciples out of us who believe a "little" too. But first, we must be willing to go out into the storms of life when Jesus calls. We must be willing to step out of the boat, if that's what Jesus calls us to do.

1.  The words translated in the ESV as "beaten by the waves" literally mean "tormented by the waves" in Greek
2.  St. Hilary of Poitiers, Trans. D. H. Williams, The Fathers of the Church: Commentary on Matthew [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press; 2012], p. 168
3.  Matt. 14:27; the words of Jesus translated in the ESV as "It is I" literally mean "I AM" in Greek

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thanks, Bunyan.

Selfish salvation sees the gospel primarily as a means of satisfying that individual's desires and prayers. It has little to no sense that the gospel is a kingdom of self-denial or really even contains others, and it certainly doesn't "seek first the kingdom of God" (Matt 6:33). Salvation is all about me, me, me. My needs. My heart. My purpose. My prayers. My goals. My personal sins. My place in heaven. It's an exhausting and redundant autobiography. And yet, selfish salvation is the most common expression of Christian faith in our time. Thanks, Bunyan.1

1.  Douglas Jones, Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade The Way Of The Cross [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013] p. 116

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Breaking tradition by breaking bread (Matt. 14:14-16:12)

Photo by Nicholas Nichols

As noted in a previous post, chapters fourteen through seventeen of Matthew's Gospel talk a lot about bread

In 14:14-15:20, Jesus is followed by a great crowd (πολν χλον) to a great lake to feed a great amount of people with, presumably, great tasting bread (5,000+). Jesus then gets in "the boat" (ναβάντων ες τ πλοον), crosses the lake, and is immediately confronted by Jewish authorities who had been asking, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread" (Matt. 15:2, ESV). (Although most English translations don't include the word "bread," including the ESV, the word is actually there in the Greek text: ἄρτον ἐσθίωσιν.) 

A lot of bread was being broken, and so was a lot of Pharisaical tradition.

In the next section (15:21-28) Jesus withdraws to Tyre and Sidon---a distinctively non-Jewish area---and is confronted by a Canaanite woman of great faith. Her faith is, in fact, greater than the Jewish authorities of the previous section. Her faith in Yahweh is so great that she gets excited about bread crumbs. While 5,000 Jews are being stuffed with loaves of bread, this Canaanite woman is satisfied with crumbs from her master's table. Immediately we can see the great contrast that Matthew intended his audience to see. The contrast is between a Canaanite's persistent acceptance of bread crumbs and the Pharisees persistent rejection of entire loaves of bread. The contrast is between a Canaanite's allegiance to the God of Israel--the God of the Bible--and the Pharisee's allegiance to that God as well. While the Pharisees prepare to attack Jesus over washing their hands before eating bread, a Canaanite sees the value of every speck of bread that her master allows to fall on dirty ground.

The Pharisees and scribes were looking for a fight. The Canaanite woman was looking for the Lord, her savior.

This episode is followed by a similar series of events (15:29-16:12) that just occurred, only with a slight twist of emphasis. After Jesus' trip to Tyre and Sidon, Jesus is followed by another great crowd (πολλο χλοι) to the same great lake to feed another great amount of people with, presumably, more great tasting bread (4,000+). The twist this time around is that Jesus is not feeding Jews; instead he seems to be feeding Gentiles. (This may take a few moments to explain, so I'll comment about this shortly.) Afterward Jesus, again, gets into "the boat" (πνέβη ες τ πλοον), crosses the lake, and is immediately confronted by Jewish authorities. Jesus then privately speaks to his disciples, warning them about the "leaven" of the Pharisees and the bread (ἄρτον) they've been feeding the children of Israel. This is neither coincidence, nor is it contrived history; it is a real life series of encounters between Jesus and his enemies. Like the prophets Elijah and Elisha before him, Jesus is gathering together a new school of disciples and preparing the way for another exodus from the land, as the land grows in its apostasy and becomes riper for judgment.

The shocking twist in the midst of this narrative section is Jesus' departure into Tyre & Sidon and his subsequent following of Gentile disciples. As I mentioned a moment ago, this needs more explaining. 

Notice carefully all of the narrative details recorded by Matthew. With the first feeding, Jesus multiplies five loaves. With the second feeding Jesus multiplies seven loaves. In total, that’s twelve loaves, just like the twelve loaves of God’s presence required by Law in the Tabernacle. Jesus was preparing a table of bread in the midst of his enemies and gathering together the people of God on both sides of the sea—the Jews of Galilee (5,000) and the Gentiles of the Decapolis (4,000)—to feast on and with the bread of life. This act of mission in feeding the hungry Gentiles even foreshadows the Eucharistic meal on the night of his betrayal. In 15:36, Jesus gives thanks to God, breaks the bread, and hands it to his disciples, who then in turn distributes the bread to the remaining crowds. The only other time in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus breaks bread and gives thanks is on the night of his betrayal (26:26-29). 

Still not convinced? Consider the following as well.

Throughout Scripture, the numbers five and twelve are associated with Israel, and here it is seen with the feeding of the 5,000. The numbers four and seven are associated with the world and with Gentiles throughout Scripture, and here it is seen with the feeding of 4,000. Also, with the feeding of the 4,000, we find something that is not found among the crowd of 5,000. Just before Jesus multiplies the 4,000 loaves of bread (15:31), Matthew says these new crowds “glorified the God of Israel,” which implies that previously they had not been glorifying the God of Israel because this God was Israel’s, not theirs. This makes perfect sense if these newly acquired crowds are Gentiles. As an additional note to confirm this fact, Mark’s account of this feeding (of 4,000) takes place in “the Decapolis,” east of the Sea of Galilee, which was a well-known Gentile territory.1 

How much more evidence do we need to acknowledge this distinction? 

I'll take one more stab at it, and I'll stick within the larger narrative of Matthew's Gospel too. All throughout Matthew's gospel he uses keywords, all of which are repeated in ways that link previously illustrated events in the Gospel. We find this again in this section. Jesus “sits down” (ἀνακλίνω) to eat bread with the children of Israel (the 5,000 of Matt. 14:19), and the last time this word for “sitting” is used in Matthew’s gospel was with Jesus’ conversation with the Gentile Centurion (8:11-12), saying: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table (ἀνακλίνω) with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” The “sons of the kingdom” at that time were Israelites. However, as we find out later on in Matt. 14, the Israelites who followed Jesus and ate bread with him (the 5,000) are distinct from those “sons” who would be thrown into the outer darkness mentioned in 8:11-12. The "sons" who remain in the Kingdom are those who eat bread with Jesus and his apostles. Only the "sons" who reject table fellowship with Jesus would be cast out. Those Jews who maintained table fellowship with Jesus and His disciples would be constituted part of the new Israel in Christ, and would be included with the Gentiles who would come from east and west to “sit” with the Patriarchs in the Kingdom.

This message of Matthew's gospel has implications for the Christian Church today. For example, with whom does Jesus break bread today? Or, perhaps another way of expressing the same concern is, with whom do Christians break bread today? Do Presbyterian Christians break bread with Lutherans today? If Jesus welcomes them to his table, they should be willing, because it's the Lord's Table spread before them, not a uniquely Presbyterian table or a Lutheran one. Do Baptists break bread with Roman Catholics, or Pentecostals with Episcopalians? Even though Jesus invites them all to his table, through baptism, some of them still come like the Pharisees with freshly washed hands holding a confrontational axe--always ready for a fight; others come persistently and humbly, satisfied even when they only find crumbs on the floor. 

Which of these characterizes the attitude and perception of your church? 

Which of these characterizes your fellowship with the baptized Body of Christ?

Jesus broke tradition by breaking bread, blessing it, giving thanks, and distributing it to great crowds that followed him--crowds of Jews and Gentiles. Christians of all denominations would be wise in breaking their own Pharisaical traditions too, in order to recline at table with Jesus. Even if bread crumbs are all that's left over for some who seek after Jesus, such would be infinitely better than the outcome of those who are filled with the leaven of Pharisees.

1.  I want to extend my thankfulness to John Barach for pointing these details out to me. For those who may be interested, Pastor Barach has a treasure trove of other biblical insights on his blog:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Iconic Polarization

...The trouble with sharp, polarizing moments is that they become iconic. Like martyrdoms ancient and modern, and indeed like civil wars, they generate loyalties and counter loyalties: you must now take such-and-such a line, because otherwise you're a traitor.
-- N. T. Wright, Surprised By Scripture [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2014], p. 5