Monthly Archives: February 2020

The Suburbs of Hell

Mauricio Garcia Vega “Visita al infierno’ shared by artist under Creative Commons 3.0

All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!” Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

“Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

What if the existentialists were wrong seeing in others eyes the mirror that condemns themselves?
That their self-directed focus loosed the bonds of the compassion experienced in community
Their desire to liberate themselves from the plight of humanity became their own chains
Which they forged like Marley in Dickens’ Christmas Carol when their neighbor no longer mattered
Their revelation became the great unseeing of their place within the covenant of the commonwealth
Where they looked at the unenlightened with disdain seeking to isolate themselves in their suffering
As they moved into the suburbs of hell to discover what one slowly but inexorably uncovers
That the mirror that condemns oneself is the looking glass of one’s own crafting they gaze into
Discovering in their loneliness that hell is a dungeon of one’s own mind that they are locked within
And the only key to salvation, though it goes against every practice they’ve embraced, every dogma
Is the other people they feared would see them as they are and would deem them unlovable

Perhaps they, like the denizens of C.S. Lewis’ vision, looked with disgust and moved themselves
Further and further away from the city, further away from the possibility of looking into another’s eye
As they move further and further into the wilderness to build their utopias in their grey worlds
Building the walls higher around their stately grounds along roads that no one travels
Locking themselves inside their places of paranoia and safety, hoarding their treasure like dragons
And still Amazon delivers to these unmapped places all the possessions which come to possess
Houses full of unopened boxes with smiles upon the side for people who no longer smile
“I think therefore I am” proclaimed their apostle Descartes as they declared the world outside false
No need for the flames of the lake of fire nor demonic torturers and devilish prison wardens
They in their own self-flagellation willingly wield the red-hot pokers unwilling to accept forgiveness
Remaining locked inside their self-imposed sentence of solitary confinement for unknown offenses

The Vision

Creek babbling through Benvoulin wetlands in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, Capture from video shared by Extemporalist under Creative Commons 1.0

The Vision

The stream burbled patiently singing its tune
As the sun shone in a ray through the break in the trees
While dragonflies danced and frogs played
In the early summer’s warmth of this peaceful place
My secret place where others rarely enter
A space to commune with the undisturbed world
To delight in the slow and steady rhythm of the creator
Where every mote of dust reflects magic and light
And heaven and earth are not so far apart
This thin space where sometimes epiphanies occurs

Into this peaceful space emerges a hawk, proud and strong
Soaring in to rest upon the branch an ancient oak tree
And it watches me watching it with knowing eyes
A herald of the mystery that awaits unveiling in that space
Rustling through the underbrush another unexpected guest
Emerging with his royal blue head from the undergrowth
Strutting into this magical place with his myriad eyes
As he quickly expands his tailfeathers in proud display
Looking imperially at the human who happens to be
In this space where creation came to play in delight
To dance in the joy of the creator’s masterwork

As nature continued to roll back her curtain of majesty
Rolling out her green carpet to await the celebration
Out of the mystery steps lady wisdom cloaked in green
With her escorts, a stag on her left and a wolf on her right
The frogs cease their croaking chorus
Dragonflies circle to land on the cat lilies
The peacock bows his proud blues head
the hawk swoops down to land upon her shoulder
While I stand transfixed by this moment of mystery
All watch as she brings forth an egg from her cloak
Which she cradles in her hands like the greatest treasure
As the creation watches this miracle of new birth

Somehow, I know to look away not to look unmediated
At the divine drama unfolding in this beautiful place
But from the reflection of the stream I see her lay
The dormant egg into a thick blanket of green grass
And from the bed of green emerges red, yellow, blue and orange
As nature’s nest burns and yet remains unconsumed
And I wonder if I, like Moses, stand on sacred ground
As the new chick emerges with a cry of victory
From fire and light and ash the new phoenix emerges
Spreading its wings towards the waiting sky
Looking to its dominion among the heavens

Before it flies away from this place it scooped
By the woman’s gentle hands and they share a second
As all the earth bows in this moment of mystery
Wolf and stag bend low, peacock and hawk
Even the trees themselves seem to stoop
As creation lifts its joyous song and the resurrection
The revelation that magic has not left the creation
And I, on behalf of humanity lie upon the verdant ground
In wonder and awe as a witness of this sight

As quickly as it was revealed it is concealed
Nature closes her curtain and the world returns
To the chorus of frogs and the dance of dragonflies
The woman and her escorts are gone
Back behind the shroud of the ancient trees of the forest
The phoenix disappears into the heavens
Shining as radiant and dazzling as the beaming sun
Yet, I remain stunned at this dream, this vision
Wondering at what I have seen as the memories fade
And so, I grab my pen and write furiously
Trying to capture the essence of the epiphany
Of the magic and mystery at work in the world
Masked but to those who sit in the thin spaces
Where heaven and earth are not so far apart

Matthew 12: 46-50 Redefining Community

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 12: 46-50

Parallel Mark 3: 31-35; Luke 8: 19-21

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Central to one’s understanding of identity throughout the ancient world was the family and not merely the nuclear family of father and mother, brothers and sisters. There is a reason that one of the ten commandments is dedicated to honoring the familial bonds and relationships and why Matthew spends seventeen verses at the beginning of the gospel narrating the genealogy of Jesus. Yet, within Judaism, there is always a higher calling to follow God than one’s family. This is particularly highlighted in the Abraham narrative which begins with Abram (later renamed Abraham) being separated from his family:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. Genesis 12: 1-2

Even the bond between father and the long-awaited son Isaac is to be secondary to Abraham’s commitment to the LORD his God.

He (God) said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22: 2

Throughout Matthew’s gospel we have seen Jesus insisting that following him is more central than one’s commitment to family. In fact the arrival of Jesus may bring conflict within those relationships: a disciple is to follow Jesus rather than burying his father (8: 18-22), family members may betray other family members over conflicting views of Jesus (10: 21-22) and the presence of Jesus will create strife within families but the followers of Jesus are to love Jesus more than familial relationships. (10: 35-37) The people hearing Matthew’s gospel may understand these broken familial relationships at a personal level, but here they also hear Jesus elevating them above the level of his own earthly family. If they have given up their family, the community of those gathered around Jesus has become their new brothers and sisters.

Others will attempt to define Jesus from his family relations:

“Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” Matthew 13: 55-56

And while the community of family is important for Matthew it cannot be central, only Jesus can occupy that position. Jesus is not opposed to families, many of his miracles are requested by family members and one of his conflicts with the Pharisees and scribes will center around keeping the commandment to honor father and mother (Matthew 15: 1-20). Yet, Jesus also occupies a place that previously only the God of Israel could occupy. He is one who can ask those who follow him to be willing to leave family behind so that they can be blessing to the nations.  After the rich young man has gone away grieving his unwillingness to give up his possessions to follow Jesus, Peter asks: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” and Jesus’ answer in addition to their positions judging Israel includes “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 hundred-fold, and will inherit eternal life” (19: 29)

Many Christians in Matthew’s time and beyond have experienced broken families and have needed the community of disciples to be mother and brothers and sisters. Here Jesus also embraces this community of disciples above those family relationships which cared for him. Jesus is creating a new family, a new Israel and like God’s call to Abram, there are times where Jesus’ call means leaving previously central relationships behind, but it also involves the formation of a new family network to support and care for one another.

Book of Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is probably one of the latest books written in the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament as many Christians known the first portion of their scriptures, and was also one of the books that many ancient and modern people have wondered how it fits in the Bible. These reflections from 2016 walk through this short book of wisdom in both Jewish adn Christian scriptures. Ecclesiastes wanders boldly into the absurdity and senselessness of the world of the Teacher, Qohelet (the word that is translated the Teacher or in other translations the preacher and how I will refer to the author throughout these reflections). It is not only in our time where disillusionment can creep in and mocks any sentimental religiosity or easy answers. Perhaps the entirety of this short work is vanity, perhaps it is wisdom or foolishness, for many it will be unsatisfying and for others it will be a voice singing in the choir of those willing to peer honestly into the unresolved questions of a world that often seems devoid of any cosmic wisdom or justice. Below are links to my reflections on the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 1: Chasing After the Wind
Ecclesiastes 2: The Quest for Meaning
Ecclesiastes 3: Approaching Time Wisely
Ecclesiastes 4: The Things that Steal our Peace
Ecclesiastes 5: the Gift of Mortality Before God and in the World
Ecclesiastes 6: The Illusiveness of Joy
Ecclesiastes 7: The Lonely Path of the Seeker
Ecclesiastes 8: Wisdom in an Uncertain World
Ecclesiastes 9: Staring into the Abyss and Finding Peace
Ecclesiastes 10: Wisdom, Life and the King
Ecclesiastes 11: Proverbs for Life in an Uncertain World
Ecclesiastes 12: The End of Wisdom


The Book of Esther

This is a compilation of my work on the book of Esther, the second book of scripture I worked through in 2013. It represents an early stage in my finding my voice in this medium but it is relatively easy book of scripture to approach and is well loved in both Jewish and Christian traditions.

Let the Party Begin: Esther 1: 1-12
If You Make A Decision While Drunk, Make Sure You Have Good Advisers: Esther 1: 13-21
Reality TV in the Ancient World: Esther 2: 1-11
Long Live the Queen: Esther 2: 12-18
Rumors of Assassination: Esther 2: 19-23
From Insult to Genocide: Esther 3: 1-6
Rolling the Dice: Esther 3: 7-11
Bureaucracy and Collusion: Esther 3: 12-15
Waiting on the World to Change: Esther 4: 1-8
The Weight of the World on Her Shoulders: Esther 4: 9-17
A Game of Thrones: Esther 5: 1-8
Of Gallows and Egos: Esther 5: 9-14
The World is About to Turn: Esther 6: 1-14
Endgame: Esther 7: 1-6
Mechanisms of Execution: Esther 7: 7-10
Dueling Edicts: Esther 8: 1-8
Bureaucracy in Action: Esther 8: 9-14
Mordecai’s Rise: Esther 8: 15-17
Horror or Celebration in Susa: Esther 9: 1-9
The Horror Concludes: Esther 9: 11-19
The Practice Forms the Faith: Esther 9: 20-32
The Final Chapter: Esther 10: 1-3

A Young Girl in an Unfair World: A Sermon on Esther
Esther’s Crown: A Poem

Matthew 12: 22-45 The Spirit of God in an Age of Unclean Spirits

Jonah By Unknown – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection: entry 453683, Public Domain,

Matthew 12: 22-45

Parallel Mark 3: 22-35, 8: 11-12; Luke 11: 14-15, 17-23, 12: 10, 6: 43-45, 11: 16, 29-32, 24-26

22 Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. 23 All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” 25 He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? 27 If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 29 Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

This is a long section to address in one section, but the interconnectedness of the narrative and pronouncements are tightly intertwined to prepare us to again understand the authority of the one whose teaching Matthew wants us to hear. This conflict which initiates around the presence of unclean spirits in this generation not only invites us to consider the spirit that Jesus is working through but also how the followers of the Pharisees have been unable to deal with the deeper spiritual problem of an ‘evil generation.’ There is no place of neutrality in this conflict between the present evil age and the approaching kingdom of heaven, and to misunderstand the signs of the kingdom of heaven’s advent is where blasphemy lies. John the Baptist, Jonah, Nineveh, the queen of the South and even the followers of the Pharisees are called as witnesses to the nature of the one who stands in their presence announcing the binding of the strong man in his house.

The healing which begins this section once again sets the stage for another conflict over authority between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. Their accusation of Jesus casting out demons by the authority of Beelzebul, ruler of demons, echoes Jesus’ warning to his disciples in Matthew 10: 25 that “if they call the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they align those of his household.” Within the crowd they wonder if Jesus might be the ‘Son of David,’ the hoped for royal figure to reignite the hope of the Davidic line. Jesus’ demonstrated ability to bring healing to those afflicted by the evil spirits of this age places him as one with power to bring about changes for those in this generation. The Pharisees response to Jesus’ power is to link it with the power that is enslaving those of this generation, Jesus is in league with the demons themselves, it is all some sort of demonic trick to lead the chosen people astray. Jesus is accused of being a sorcerer or magician who by alliance with unholy powers is threatening the unity of the holy people.

Jesus’ answer to these Pharisees argues that their accusation is absurd and again invites them to see that instead of being aligned with the evil spirits his work is evidence of the Holy Spirit. If there is infighting in the demonic kingdom of Satan or Beelzebul then they are weakened by that infighting and the forces oppressing this evil generation can be easily swept away, but all evidence instead says that they are firmly entrenched against God’s kingdom. In a statement that can be read a couple ways Jesus tosses the question back to the Pharisees, “If I cast out by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers (literally the sons of you (implied Pharisees) cast them out?” Perhaps there are other exorcists of the Pharisees who have been able to bring relief to some of the people, and people would look to those with religious authority to deal with all manners of affliction, but I think it is more likely that this points to the ineffectiveness of the Pharisees followers in addressing the manifestations of the demonic in their midst. Jesus may, instead of pointing to the existence of successful Pharisaic exorcists, be pointing to their impotence in the midst of the forces they face and how their attempts to create an ordered world have only made a more attractive homes for the demonic forces to end their sojourn and to make their home. Jesus has demonstrated that he has the power to heal and to liberate those enslaved by the forces at work in this generation and now is the time to plunder the house of the strong man.

The lack of success of the Pharisees against the forces of this time testifies against them while it points to the Spirit of God at work in Jesus’ ministry as the Son of Man. There is space for misunderstanding who the Son of Man is and how exactly Jesus and the Lord the God of Israel are connected, but to judge the work of casting out demons, healing the blind and lame, of setting the captives free as the work of demonic spirits rather than the divine Spirit is to misunderstand the kingdom of God completely. Just as these Pharisees consider Jesus’ ministry a danger to the unity of the people, Jesus views their resistance to the kingdom of God as that which scatters the lost sheep of Israel. To remain committed to the way things are is to be remain aligned against the kingdom of God. Jesus’ harsh words about ‘this evil generation’ are intended to bring about repentance so that even these Pharisees and scribes might turn towards God’s approaching kingdom.

The conflict also points, again, to another side of the identity of Jesus. Jesus in addition to the titles Son of David and Son of Man we now have a stronger linkage with the Spirit of God being active in Jesus and as a demonstration of the kingdom of God’s presence. Somehow in the presence of Jesus the Spirit of God is active and the kingdom of God is present as demonstrated by the actions of healing and exorcism. Yet, many of these Pharisees will remain unable to discern in Jesus the presence of God’s kingdom or the activity of the Spirit of God. In the spirit of the quotation from Isaiah 42 in the previous section, the Gentiles will be the ones who will see and judge the faithfulness of this generation. Like the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15: 21-28 who will show great faith in Jesus while these Pharisees show no faith even though the works in their presence should have demonstrated which Spirit Jesus was acting in and the power of the kingdom of God.

Jesus then follows this response with words that echo John the Baptist’s earlier condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see him at the Jordan in Matthew 3: 7-10. Both John and Jesus have called the people to repentance and both have been resisted by both religious and political leaders. I do think one key to understanding the accusation of these Pharisees as a ‘brood of vipers’ and ‘bad trees that bear bad fruit’ is their alignment with the forces at work in this time. They are unable to speak good and do good because they are too deeply rooted in the soil of the way things are. They are too heavily invested in protecting their power in the current order to embrace the approach of the new power of the kingdom of God. Instead of recognizing and out of the storehouse of the good bringing forth additional good words and fruit in the presence of Jesus they have only their own storehouses of scarcity to bring forth the words they speak and the lack of action against the demonic forces at work in their world. Yet, there is a time where their words and actions will be judged as either righteous or in need of judgment.

Jesus wants not only some legalistic moral perfection, but instead the law is interpreted in light of a merciful righteousness. One’s speech and actions flow out of one’s heart and the wise community of disciples has sunk their roots deep into the practices of mercy to yield this desired fruit. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there will be the imperative to act towards those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek and hungering and thirsting for righteousness as well as those who are oppressed by those spirits which are aligned against the kingdom of God. Some of those aligned against God’s kingdom may act piously but not righteously. The Pharisees are accused of “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on others.” (Matthew 23: 4) while Jesus invites others to take his yoke which is “easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 30). Jesus continues to act to lift the burdens of the oppressed of this time, while the Pharisees are accused of only making their burdens heavier.

Ironically, after the healing, Jesus is asked for a sign. Jesus responds with the ‘sign of Jonah’ where he will lie in the earth for three days, like Jonah lied in sea creature for three days while God waited for his repentance. One the one hand, the story of Jonah is the classic story of the outsiders (Gentiles) understanding and repenting while the insider (Jonah) remains unrepentant unable to embrace the mercy and forgiveness of God. On the other hand, the story of Jonah is a story of divine patience where God refuses to give up on God’s recalcitrant and unforgiving servant. One greater than the prophet Jonah who could made the people of Nineveh is here, so perhaps there is still an opportunity for the recalcitrant people of the lost people of Israel and even for these Pharisees. Perhaps they too can be transplanted into good soil and the brood of vipers can become those whose merciful storehouses can be opened those in the community around them who need their fruits of mercy.

Just as Nineveh who repented at the proclamation of Jonah will judge this generation so too will the queen of South, or queen of Sheba, who came seeking the wisdom of Solomon in 1 Kings 10 judge those unable to perceive the wisdom of God.  The introduction of the queen of Sheba probably raised eyebrows. One reason is highlighted by Anna Case-Winters, “It is somewhat surprising in the patriarchal culture to present a woman as judging in the divine court, and a foreign woman at that.” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 171)  Yet, Matthew highlighted foreign women who in the genealogy who made a place for themselves in the story of God and also shortly we will see a foreign woman demonstrate great faith unlike those here. Like the Ninevites who understood the opportunity of repentance in the proclamation of Jonah, or the queen of Sheba who recognized wisdom in Solomon these women will stand in contrast to these Pharisees and scribes who fail to recognize Jesus’ proclamation, power or wisdom.

The neat orderly world of the Pharisees where there are people who are beyond the reach of mercy and the violent peace of Rome is accommodated makes for a place where the demonic can play. The spirits, even if they are cast out find their previous hosts even more welcoming in the light of these practices. Ultimately the practices of the Pharisees have proved unable to prevent the pillaging of the people of God prior to the approach of one greater than Jonah, Solomon, or David who acts with the power of the Spirit of God. Continuing the practices that have allowed the current order, which is opposed to the kingdom of God, to flourish will not bring about the repentance of this generation or the exile of the demonic forces which oppress it. Only one who can bind the strongman, who can overpower the well-entrenched devilish forces at work in the world, can bring salvation to the lost sheep of Israel and hope to the Gentiles. We are invited to ponder the identity of the one who works with the authority of the Holy Spirit and who embodies the kingdom of God, but more than merely pondering the identity we are called to recognize the power that is at work in the actions of the Son of Man and to respond with repentance while sinking one’s roots deep into his merciful practices of righteousness.

Hungry Ghosts

By Unknown – Tokyo National Museum, Emuseum, Public Domain,

These insatiable spirits prowl on the edges of our vision
Consuming the gifts left for them but remaining unsatisfied
You can open the storehouse of your treasures in offering
But these hungry ghosts will always leave with wails of despair
And if you let them, they will invite you to join them in their cries
To see the scarcity where once abundance filled the table
To be consumed by comparison between yourself and others
Becoming a haunted and gaunt person whose joy has left them
Locked into their spiritual plane of hoarding and isolation
Where others become those whose happiness you must haunt
And you are only a shadow of man or woman of generosity

But these ghosts that haunt the edges of your happiness aren’t dead
Like emotional vampires they seek those whose joy they can drain
For they believe that in draining the life of others than can return
Resurrected in the act of dogging another’s actions for the moment
Living off the sacrifice of another’s ego, creating another hungry ghost
But their curse is to remain unsatisfied, consumed by their greed
Seeking that which can never satisfy, spending on that which is not food
Seeking life in the paths of death, seeking happiness in their gluttony
Show them kindness, but never look for their thankfulness
For these hungry ghosts are never satisfied, though their bellies burst
And don’t dwell in their haunts, don’t heed their haunted cries
Lest you too take up their ungrateful calls and their mournful cry

Matthew 12: 15-21 Embodying Israel for the Sake of the Nations

Isaiah From the Knesset Menorah Jerusalem

Matthew 12: 15-21

Parallel Mark 3: 7-12; Luke 6: 17-19

15 When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, 16 and he ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19 He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 20 He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. 21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Jesus is rejected by one portion of Israel and embraced by another. While the group of Pharisees we encountered at the beginning of this chapter are seeking to destroy him, the crowds follow him. Matthew responds to this complicated reception by the lost sheep of Israel by reference to Isaiah 42, one of the ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah as a key to understanding the mixed reception by his own people. The New Testament spends a lot of time dwelling on the rejection by many in Judea and Galilee while the nations seem to embody faith in surprising ways. Jesus, and those around him, continue to take on the vocation of Israel to be a light to the nations.

Isaiah 42: 1-4, which is quoted by Matthew, is one of the servant songs in Isaiah[1]. These ‘songs’ are named because they all refer to a ‘servant’ of the LORD who is tasked with proclaiming the LORD’s judgment and justice not only to Israel but to the nations. Many Christians have heard within the language of the servant songs a foreshadowing of the ministry of Jesus and while particularly in the songs classically called servant songs by Christians are used by the writers of the New Testament to describe the ministry of Christ we often miss what the majority of the references to the servant of the LORD in this section of Isaiah are: references to Israel. When you look at Isaiah 41-53 most references to the servant are explicitly to Israel:

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend. (41: 8)

But now hear, O Jacob, my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! (44:1)

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you though you do not know me.  (45:4)

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (48: 20)

Some of the references, like 42: 1-4, 49: 1-6 and 52: 13 – 53: 12 may refer to the prophet or another individual figure, but they also reference one whose work is the work of Israel. I would argue that with the adoption of the language of the ‘servant’ who is proclaiming justice to the Gentiles that Jesus and how he is healing them Is embodying the vocation of Israel as the light to the nations.

The quotation of Isaiah 42 also takes us back to the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3: 17 where the voice from heaven declares these words “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The textual linkage while not exact is closer than most English translations indicate. The word translated ‘servant’ here is again child in Greek (in the Hebrew for Isaiah 42: 1 it is servant/slave but in both Matthew and the Greek Septuagint the word is child[2]).  Again Jesus’ identity is joined to the identity of Israel and his work of healing while charging the crowds not to reveal him is interpreted in light of the servant of the LORD who proclaims hope and justice to the nations.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel we have seen that the hope Jesus embodies is not limited to the people of Israel and that the representatives of the nations will often demonstrate a faith not seen in Israel. This trajectory will climax at the end of the gospel where the disciples are commissioned to make disciples of all nations (same word translated nations is Gentiles here). In the pluriform manner of attempting to capture through titles, scripture and narrative we have Jesus embodying the vocation of Israel for the sake of the nations as another facet of understanding the identity and importance of Jesus.

If Jesus and his followers take on the identity and vocation of Israel throughout the gospel, then what happens to Israel? This is a question that Matthew does allude to towards the end of the gospel in a surprising way (in a way often misunderstood by Christian interpreters). Without dwelling at length here about the overall perspective of this reading of Matthew, I can say that the embodiment of Israel’s vocation by Jesus, the events at the last supper and crucifixion, and the commission of his disciples to the nations do not represent a rejection of Israel for Matthew. Matthew who has spent more time than any other gospel writer attempting to understand Jesus’ ministry in light of the law and prophets would not easily abandon God’s chosen people. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t spend the time in reflection of Paul in Romans 9-11, but I do think there are some parallel thoughts when Paul reflects:

So I ask, have they (Israel) stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! Romans 11: 11-12

If in the embodiment of Israel’s vocation by Jesus will bring the Gentiles hope and justice then we can also trust that God will not forget Israel, God’s servant the beloved or Jacob the chosen, the offspring of Abraham the friend of God.

[1] The classical list of the ‘Servant Songs of Isaiah’ includes four poems from Isaiah: 42: 1-4; 46: 1-6; 50: 4-7; 52: 13-53:12 and sometimes 61: 1-3 which are classically used by Christians as references to Christ. I would argue that looking at the language of Isaiah 41-53 that, for reasons that will become clear above, that the servant songs actually include most of the poetry of these twelve chapters in Isaiah.

[2] The Greek pais typical meaning is child, it can mean servant in terms of subordinate but when possible I’ve gone with the most direct translation of terms.

Matthew 12: 1-14 One Greater than David, Temple or Sabbath

Close up view of Wheat, shared by user Bluemoose on Wiki Commons under Creative Commons 2.0

Matthew 12: 1-14

Parallel Mark 2: 23-3: 6; Luke 6: 1-11

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

9 He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

These stories of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees that make up most of chapter twelve of Matthew point to two intertwining questions of the identity and authority of Jesus and what the nature of righteousness in this kingdom Jesus proclaims will look like. Matthew has used titles, quotations and allusions to scripture, narrative and now comparison to highlight aspects of the identity of Jesus and no single title or idea seems to completely capture the identity of Jesus in his gospel. A large part of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees we meet in the gospel center around how his identity and interpretation of the practice of the law come into conflict with their own practices and their restriction of certain authority to the God of Israel. Jesus’ actions to this group of Pharisees represent a violation of their understanding of their covenant with the God of Israel and jeopardize, in their view, their vocation to be a priestly people.

Before we examine the identity that Matthew’s gospel wants to highlight for Jesus and understand why he would argue for ‘mercy and not sacrifice’ it is important to understand the worldview of the Pharisees as they are presented here. Many scholars would argue that the picture of the Pharisees in the gospels is a polemic characterization, which is true, and the views expressed by the Pharisees as represented in the gospels probably may not accurately depict the understanding of that entire group. Yet, I do think that within these conflict stories we do see two distinct understandings of righteousness and the covenant expectations of the people emerging which I think highlight why the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders in Galilee and Judah emerged.  Unfortunately, the way of thinking which most people in the West for the last several centuries have been trained in obscures the important communal portion of identity which is central to understanding why these controversies exist.

Most modern people think of decisions of faith as an individual decision made by a rational (or sometimes irrational) person in a world where spirituality is a part of our private life. This is not the world of the gospels for either Jesus or his opponents. The nations of Israel considered itself set apart to be ‘a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ (Exodus 19: 6) Its identity depended upon its maintaining the laws, practices, commandments and statutes of their God. Its history of prosperity and famine, independence, exile and renewal is tied to a theological reading of history which is dependent on the covenant faithfulness of their kings and by extension the people. Their protection from the forces at work in the world: the demonic forces of oppression, the uncontrollable (but divine or demonically impacted) forces of nature like storms and earthquakes and the rise and fall of empires (and the destruction of war, the gift of peace or the occupation of a foreign invader) all depend upon God’s favor. In a worldview where the community’s collective practice of being a priestly nation and a holy people are the only way of accessing the security their God promised to provide, the type of changes to practice that Jesus was doing are not minor unless he has the authority to speak on behalf of the God of Israel. Charles Taylor’s description of a ‘heretic’ in pre-Reformation Europe is far closer to the experience of people in Jesus’ time than our own modern understanding:

Villagers who hold out, or even denounce the common rites, put the efficacy of these rites in danger, and hence pose a menace to everyone. (Taylor, 2007, p. 42)

If you want to understand why Jesus’ actions of allowing his disciples to eat on the Sabbath or healing on the Sabbath would provoke, to a modern mind, the disproportionate response of conspiring how to destroy Jesus you need to examine the threat he posed, in the eyes of this group of Pharisees, to the identity of the people of the villages he passed through as a holy people and a priestly nation. These practices, which may seem rigid and legalistic to us, provided for these Pharisees an important part of their connection to their God.

One of the dangers that people of faith face is placing their trust in the wrong things, constructing their identity around practices which lose their connection to the broader understanding of why those practices exist. The Hebrew prophets had often called the people of Israel back to a focus on the God of Israel and the justice that was the intention of the law with its commandments, practices and statutes. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, like the Hebrew prophets, shows little interest in a piety that is disconnected from a merciful interpretation of righteousness. For Matthew, not only have the Pharisees that Jesus encounters lost the connection between their practices and righteousness (understood through the lens of mercy) but they also fail to perceive that Jesus has the authority to declare what the proper practice of sabbath looks like.

In the first controversy occurs as Jesus and his disciples go out into the waiting harvest and are ironically passing through a wheat field at harvest time. The disciples of Jesus pick grain to eat from a field which they are passing through causing the controversy. At stake is an understanding of the commandment on sabbath:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave; or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock. (Deuteronomy 5: 12-14)

Within this understanding of sabbath going out to harvest your field on the sabbath would of course be forbidden because it would involve work. We might quickly think that the little bit of labor the disciples do to address their hunger a small thing but for these Pharisees it is not, for them the sanctity of sabbath is at risk. Jesus’ response takes us back to three pieces of scripture, the first is from 1 Samuel 21:

David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” David said to the priest Ahimelech, “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place.  Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.”  The priest answered David, “I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread — provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.”  David answered the priest, “Indeed women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. 1 Samuel 21: 1-6

David is fleeing King Saul, who intends to kill him, and in departing is allowed by the priest to eat the bread of the presence set out each day for the LORD which only the priests were supposed to eat. There is a narrative precedence in the person of David for violating holiness so that he may do what is necessary in his predicament. The second piece of scripture references the practices of the priest in setting out the bread (that David and his companions ate) as well as incense on sabbath:

Every sabbath day Aaron shall set them in order before the LORD regularly as a commitment of the people of Israel, as a covenant forever. They (the bread) shall be for Aaron and his descendants, who shall eat them in a holy place, for they are most holy portions for him from the offerings by fire to the LORD, a perpetual due. Leviticus 24: 8-9

The final piece of scripture is the second time Matthew has quoted Hosea 6:6 (previously quoted in Matthew 9: 13 in the context of eating with sinners and tax collectors after the call of Matthew) which points to the central idea of mercy in Jesus’ conception of righteousness. Jesus in his dialogue with these Pharisees uses scripture to highlight a different understanding of righteous practice but he also in two stunning statements points to his own authority to make these declarations. By implication of the David story he is greater than David, but then he says plainly he is greater than the temple and lord of the sabbath. His identity as the Son of Man gives him precedence over the sabbath, just as David’s flight allowed him and his companions to eat the bread of the presence, but one greater than the temple is standing before these Pharisees who probably believe that two of their central pillars of religious identity are being violated. If Jesus is not lord of the sabbath and greater than the temple then he is a danger to the people who needs to be eliminated, but those hearing this narrative are invited to ponder the identity of one who is master of sabbath and greater than the temple.

Christ Heals the Man with Paralyzed Hand, Byzantine Mosaic in the Cathedral of Monreale

The second controversy involves healing on the sabbath and whether that involves work. The question of whether it is permitted to heal on sabbath is asked to categorize Jesus’ actions as no longer remaining within the bounds of righteousness as they practice it. Jesus replies with a situation which implies an understanding of scripture where competing practices are to be answered in an interpretation shaped by practices of mercy. The command of scripture is now placed next to the command on acting on behalf of the neighbor’s fallen animal:

You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall lift it up and help it. (Deuteronomy 22: 4)

Simply because the animal is now the individuals who sees it does not indicate that the seeing one is required to let the animal suffer because it is sabbath and it is their animal rather than their neighbor’s. Jesus’ answer implies that the hearer will know that the proper response is to act on behalf of the animal and by moving from an animal of lesser importance to a human being of greater importance that one is expected to help on the sabbath when one sees another suffering. In Jesus’ merciful understanding of righteousness, it is not only permitted to do good to one in need of healing on the sabbath it is expected. Jesus claims the authority to properly interpret what sabbath is about, but we have already heard him claim to be lord of the sabbath and greater than the temple. His work of mercy is what the God of Israel desires instead of sacrifice and his ability to relieve the suffering of this man on the sabbath is another sign of the kingdom of heaven’s approach in his ministry. These claims appear blasphemous to the Pharisees he is in conflict with and they feel he is a danger to the people’s relationship with their God and so they conspire to destroy him. In Jesus’ view they have aligned themselves against the approach of the kingdom of heaven, in their view he is a menace to everyone.

Bleeding Words

Captain Jay Ruffins, 17th Century Quills from Rufus King Manor museum in Jamaica, Queens shared under Creative Commons 4.0 Share Alike

Forgive the words that bleed out from this pen
For the ink that forms them is a torturous mixture
Of a wounded heart’s flow mixed with the saline
Of the river of tears which flow to the sea of grief
And the trembling hands which wield the implement
Shake as they attempt to record the wounds of the world
And like so much spilled blood it rushes like streams
To poison the wells of joy that once nourished

Perhaps like the prophets’ words later generations may see
That these harsh words were the fertilizer for some new growth
Where those who mourn may be comforted as the tears dry
And the poet’s heart is lovingly knit back together by time
Then perhaps the words will be the creative words of spring
But now those words are an unknown language strange to the ear
Words whose syllables have no meaning to the grieving soul
Who must drink of the putrid waters of their own well

For everything there is a time, a time to bleed and a time to heal
And I must speak the words of that bubble up from the well of the soul
Where the light of life seems a tremulous flame in the squall
Where the cold of winter penetrates into the marrow of the bones
And where the slow tick of the clock marks the passage of pain
While I wait for the pen to slowly run out of this tortured ink
For the rivers to dry up as the sun reemerges from its dormancy
Longing for the language whose sounds my tongue cannot form
Joyously drinking from the sweet waters of newly dug wells