Fifth Sunday After Pentecost July 5, 2020 Traditional Worship Service

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
July 5, 2020 Traditional Worship Service

Confession and Forgiveness
We are gathered in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Amen
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen

Greeting:
L: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
C: And also with you.

Prayer of the Day
You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
A reading from Zechariah 9

9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
The word of the Lord.

Psalm: Psalm 145:8-14

8The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9LORD, you are good to all, and your compassion is over all your works. 10All your works shall praise you, O LORD, and your faithful ones shall bless you. 11They shall tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your power, 12that all people may know of your power and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. 13Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; your dominion endures throughout all ages. You, LORD, are faithful in all your words, and loving in all your works. 14The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up those who are bowed down.

Second Reading: Romans 7:15-25a

A reading from Romans 7

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25aThanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The word of the Lord.

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Holy Gospel according to Matthew, the 11th chapter.

[Jesus spoke to the crowd saying:] 16“To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The gospel of the Lord.

Sermon ………………………….…..………………..……………………….……..Pastor Neil

Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION
Assisting Minister
Let us pray: Loving God, we lift up this world that you love. Renew your creation and give wisdom to all your people who share in your responsibility to care for the world. Give wisdom to the leaders of nations, states, and cities to care for your people and the world. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of peace, where there is conflict bring a just peace where all people can flourish. Protect and bless those whose calling involves protecting and guarding our freedoms, including: Ben, Bo, Cal, Christian, Clayton, Dillan, Haden, Lindsey, Luke, Michael, Richard, Spencer, Steve, Sydney, Tyler B. and Tyler G. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Healing God, give us your strength as we care for those in need. We lift up before you today: Clarity in safety procedures for reopening schools and those who are in at high risk for Covid 19 as things begin to reopen, The unemployed, Alex, Bob D., Bob S., Carol, Cathy, Christa, Cliff, Craig, Darryl, Dave, Ella, Faith, Jeff, Jerry, Jeremy, John, Judy, Julie, Lee, Maija, Marie, Matt, Maureen, Nancy, Patrick, Pete, Rebecca, Robert, Sal, Sue, Vim and Wendy. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord, we pray for the ministries of the ELCA and the Northern Texas – Northern Louisiana Synod, we also lift up in prayer today: Lord of Life Lutheran Church, Glenn Heights, NT-NL Coaches and Congregations on LEAD Journey. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Leader: In trust and hope, we commend to you, O Lord, all for whom we pray. Amen.

Highlights/Sharing of the Peace
Offering (offering can either be mailed to Rejoice (12000 Independence Pkwy, Frisco TX 75035 or there is the opportunity for electronic giving on the website http://www.rejoicefrisco.com)

Instructions for Communion
Words of Institution
Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer
A: Let us pray. Lord Jesus, in this sacrament you strengthen us with the saving power of your death and resurrection. May these gifts of your body and blood create in us the fruits of your redemption and grace in our lives, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Blessing

DiscipleLife
L: As God has claimed us as his own in Christ,
we seek to follow Christ with these marks of DiscipleLife:
▪Praying Daily
▪Worshiping Weekly
▪Studying the Bible
▪Serving Others
▪Building Spiritual Friendships
▪Giving to God and our Neighbors in Need
▪Engaging God’s Mission

Dismissal: Go in peace, serve our resurrected Lord. Thanks be to God! Alleluia!

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Matthew 18: 12-14 The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Lamb By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1377638

Matthew 18: 12-14

Parallel Luke 15: 3-7

12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

This short little parable is placed here in the midst of the discussion of the community Christ is imagining for those who will follow him and it demonstrates the continuing concern for the little ones who may be ‘scandalized’ and lost to the community. Both Matthew and Luke use this brief illustration of a flock of sheep with one missing whom the master of the sheep seeks out and rejoices over, but their placement of this parable within the context of the gospel and the structure of the surrounding text are used to illustrate different points. In Luke’s gospel, this parable is the first of three familiar parables which answer the accusation that Jesus, “eats with sinners and tax collectors” and through stories of a lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son Jesus points to the joy in heaven over a sinner repenting and a child returning home. In Matthew’s gospel the primary issue is the finding of one lost to the community and it is set within parables and teaching about reconciliation and it is paired with two different parables about unforgiving servants and ungrateful workers.[1]  For Luke this parable is used to explain to outsiders the inclusive nature of the community of Christ, in Matthew the parable reminds insiders of their continual need to seek out those led astray and to welcome them home with forgiveness and rejoicing.

In the parable a person has a hundred sheep. It is important that the person is not labeled as a shepherd in the original Greek but is ‘a certain person’ having 100 sheep. The person is not merely the ‘caretaker’ of someone else’s flock but they both own and are present with the flock.  Most translations tidy up the parable to indicate that the missing sheep has ‘gone astray’ but the Greek plano has the primary meaning of being led astray or deceived, this is language unique but important to Matthew’s narration of this parable, especially sandwiched between a discussion of those who ‘scandalize’ the little ones by their actions and the upcoming discussions on forgiveness and reconciliation. The sheep has not merely wandered off, but has actively been deceived or mislead to be away from the remainder of the 99. Likewise the action of the owner of the flock is not merely leaving the ninety nine on the mountain, but the Greek aphimi has the connotation of abandoning and the act of leaving behind the majority of one’s sheep to search for the lost one who might be found would not be a normal action for a person caring for a flock but this again demonstrates the point of the parable, that the one rejoiced over in the kingdom of heaven is the little one who was lost and regained.

Even though the owner of the sheep in the parable values the restoration of the lost one, in Matthew’s relation of this parable there is no guarantee that the lost one is regained. While Luke’s parables states ‘when’ the owner finds the sheep, Matthew says ‘if’ leaving the possibility that even with the owner’s search the led astray sheep may not be recovered, just as an corrected member may not accept correction in the following section. Matthew’s placement of this parable within a discussion of relations between members in the church and the continual emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness can realistically acknowledge the danger that a little one can be led astray by the actions of those inside or beyond the community, but the hope is always for restoration. The lost little one restored is the source of joy of the owner and the will of the heavenly Father.

Amy-Jill Levine points to a midrashic text which has an interesting resonance to this parable. In Exodus Rabbah, Moses is shown as a paradigm of what it means to care for a flock. The story in Exodus Rabbah states:

The Holy One tested Moses by means of the flock, as our rabbis explained: when Moses rabbenu (Moses our teacher) was tending Jethro’s flock in the wilderness, a lamb scampered off, and Moses followed it, until it approached a shelter under a rock. As the lamb reached the shelter, it came upon a pool of water and stopped to drink. When Moses caught up with it, he said, “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he hoisted the lamb on his shoulders and started walking back with it. The Holy One then said, “Because you showed such compassion in tending the flock of a mortal, as you live, you shall become the shepherd of Israel, the flock that is mine.” (Levine, 2014, pp. 43-44)

Matthew’s placement of this parable in the context of discussions of the community that will be shaped by the message of Jesus, the ekklesia (often translated church) indicates the stance of compassion that God has for those who have been led astray. This also should is to shape the response of those called to participation in this community and the compassion they are to have for the little ones who are led astray. When possible they are to be restored and that restoration is to be greeted with joy. Restoration may not always be possible, but the owner of the flock is willing to leave behind the majority to seek the sheep who is missing. Leaders in this ekklesia are to model the compassion of Moses in the parable above and the compassion for the little ones who trust in him that Jesus shows throughout his teaching. If the owner of the flock will abandon the herd to search for the lost one, those who shepherd the flock are called to practice this type of care for those they guide. Throughout Matthew’s gospel and throughout most of scripture there is always an opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. Sometimes the led astray little one may need to repent and sometimes the individual or community that allowed a stumbling block to be placed before the little one will need to repent so they can participate in the joy over the reconciliation between the lost little one and the remainder of the flock.

[1] As mentioned in the previous sections I view Matthew 18: 1-20:28 as a unit structurally. Many scholars end this unit at 19:1 with “When Jesus had finished saying these things…” but I view the section beginning and ending with questions of ‘the greatest in the kingdom’ and it also includes Matthew’s (and Mark’s and Luke’s) normal pattern of groups of three parables which center around a common theme.

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The Wisdom of Myth

Adrift by Locopelli at deviantart.com

In our modern arrogance we wanted to demythologize the world
Science and rationality became our new gods, but now they served us
Creation became merely resources for consumption turned to capital
Capitalism became the religion of the new age, money became meaning
Wisdom was abandoned for data and people became means to profit

Yet, I continue to seek the wisdom of myth, the reason of religion
Returning to the songs passed through the ages that taught us to sing
The yearning of our ancestors for a story that tells where we came from
That gives us a frame to understand who we are in relation to the world
Common stories that give meaning, that bear some ancient knowledge

Were the myths misused in the past to divide and to destroy, yes
Just as science, rationality and capitalism have all been used to enslave
And there is no going back to some imagined past before our postmodern age
Perhaps in listening again not only to these stories and the world they imagine
But also, to the society they tried to form and the wonder the inspired

How creatures of creation came to understand their place in a world of magic
A porous world where the divine and the demonic were not far from the surface
A world saturated by meaning through the stories that shaped the people
Perhaps they were merely the ruminations of old men or the tales of women
The ravings of a misunderstood prophet or the songs of kings and queens

And though it is the path overgrown with weeds, I still try to traverse
This quest for wisdom in the myths of our ancestors, the sense in the stories
Which might help me to use the data and science of our time in ways humane
To see the creation beyond the consumption, the people behind the profit
To seek a society where my children can know both knowledge and wisdom
Myth and math, story and science, money and meaning, and so I seek

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Matthew 18: 1-10 A Community of Little Ones

By Carl Bloch – The Athenaeum: Home – info – pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25991809

Matthew 18: 1-10

 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

6 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!

8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.[1]

The fourth block of teaching in Matthew continues to explore what embodying the way of Jesus in community will look like. I view the contours of this block of teaching different than many who comment on this section both in its length and in what is being communicated. Most scholars end this block of teaching with the seam at the beginning of Chapter 19, “When Jesus had finished these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.” The scholars who end the block of teaching at 19:1 are paying attention to a pattern in Matthew’s gospel (see 7:28, 11:1, and 13:53) where it is announced that Jesus has finished his teaching or parables, and while there is a distinct ending and transition in the previous cases, thematically and structurally I believe Matthew wants us to hear Matthew 18:1-20:28 as a unit: It begins and ends with a question of greatness, it allows the normal pattern of three in parables to be joined together, and it centers around questions of how the community of Christ is to live in relations to one another.

Just as the people of Israel were to be an alternative to the community which was built upon the practices of slavery and the acquisition of power by the great ones in Egypt, Babylon and Rome, so the community of Jesus’ followers is a countercultural community where the leaders are like humble children. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven will be like the least and the very question of greatness is a danger to the unity of the community. The disciples are still learning the ways of the kingdom of heaven and unlearning the ways that the kingdoms of the world have taught them. Jesus continues to teach them the type of life they are to embody for this new community of the kingdom of heaven.

The use of a child as a visual illustration in this teaching is instructive in several manners. First, it indicates that there were already children present in close proximity to Jesus and that they felt welcome being in close proximity to him. Children in both the ancient world and the modern world are often excluded from the working world of men for fear they will be underfoot. In the ancient world children began to have value when they could be ‘little adults’ adding value to the work of the family. Being a child becomes a metaphor for being a part of the kingdom of heaven, but also for being a disciple and I do think the thematic use of ‘little one’ and the frequent reference to the disciples as ‘little faith ones’ is intentional. The child is welcomed not for the value that they can bring to the kingdom of heaven, they are not like the rich young man we will meet in the next chapter who has resources to bring into the community, but the welcoming of the humble child is an act of grace. The disciples are to learn the humility of the child who is placed in their midst not for the benefit of the adults in the circle, but purely as a witness to the type of community of hospitality that the kingdom of heaven is.

In a previous block of teaching Jesus linked showing hospitality to little ones when he stated, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (10:42) The community of Jesus is to be a community of hospitality, and now the act of welcoming a little one is tied to welcoming Jesus. The same practice of welcoming a righteous person or a prophet is extended not only to disciples, but to the little ones who the disciples are to model themselves after. The opposite of the greatest (Greek meizon) is the little one (Greek micron) and the disciples instead of striving to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are to learn the logic of this kingdom where the first are last and the last are first. They are to be an alternative to the communities where power and authority is lorded over others, instead they are a community where humble little ones are valued and cherished and placed in the center of the community.

Being a disciple of Jesus is not merely about learning the right things. Throughout the gospel we have heard Jesus instruct those who listen that the practice of righteousness is critical. While I have argued against a type of moralistic perfectionism in reading Matthew, I do think we need to understand Jesus’ call for a community that authentically practices a merciful reading of the law. As we come to Jesus’ words about placing a ‘stumbling block’ it is important to address to two aspects of the Greek scandlise which stands behind this. This is the word that is at the root of the English word scandal, and there is a call for those within the community not to scandalize the ‘little ones.’ The type of community that Jesus teaching points towards is undercut by those who either use their authority for self-glorification, who misuse those who are vulnerable (women, children, those who are either politically or economically vulnerable), or whose actions do not embody the values of the kingdom of heaven. Many throughout history have been ‘scandalized’ by leaders or members of the church whose actions did not embody they vision of Christ. But the other aspect of scandalize is the placing of a barrier towards inclusion. There are many groups who have been excluded from participation in the church, and the history of the community of Christ is full of times where the boundaries of the community had to be removed to embody the vision Jesus handed on to the disciples who followed him.

Ironically, there may be times where a member’s actions towards others in the community necessitate their removal from the community. This will be a theme throughout chapter eighteen, but one’s actions in relation to the community do have implications both to one’s relationship to the community and to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses hyperbolic language here, and throughout the gospel, to underline the importance of practicing righteousness. When one’s actions scandalize or exclude a ‘little one’ it is a matter of life or death in the community and for one’s standing in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus does expect God to judge the world and those who exclude, the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel does take the side of the ‘little ones’ who are vulnerable to those who claim the status of greatness, who scandalize, exclude or practice hypocrisy. Even though the practice of hanging a millstone (literally the millstone of a donkey, a stone large enough that it needs a pack animal to turn) and casting a person into the sea to ‘sleep with the fishes’ would be understood in both ancient and modern contexts, I disagree with Warren Carter’s assertion that, “Again Jesus bullies disciples into obedience with a threat that imitates imperial practices.” (Carter, 2005, p. 364) Jesus does use graphic language to communicate with the disciples the importance of their embodiment of these teachings: a millstone around the neck, cutting off a hand or foot or tearing out an eye. As I stated when addressing this language in 5:29-30, this language is probably not intended individualistically or literally. Regardless the disciples are not the ones who will give the sentence of death by drowning or casting a person into Gehenna, but they will be the ones who have to teach and maintain the practices and, when necessary, the boundaries of the community. There may be times where the community, after attempting to correct a member, has to cast them away from the community but there is also the continual desire for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Anytime we talk about ‘eternal fire’ or the ‘Hell of fire’ we enter into a discussion that carries a lot of baggage for Christians. I engage this topic in a fuller way when I discussed Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell and while it is impossible to completely free ourselves of the long history of thinking about the concepts of punishment beyond this life, I do think we need to be cautioned before we import these ideas into Matthew’s gospel. Jesus does believe that God does judge those who stand in opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Our conceptions about ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal damnation’ while pulled from Jesus’ words about ‘the life of the new age’ or ‘entering into the age of fire’ or our conceptions of ‘hell’ based on Jesus’ use of the place ‘Gehenna’ have heaped upon the original concepts 2,000 years’ of poetic imagination, hellfire preaching, and fear. Jesus does present people with a choice, to choose the way of the kingdom of heaven which is life, or to choose the way opposed to the kingdom which means judgment, but the details of the judgment are only pointed to metaphorically. Yet, the way one treats the ‘little ones’ is critical for the community because the ‘little ones’ are critical to God. The plight of the ‘little ones’ is continually placed before God in heaven and the hope of the followers of Jesus, like the hope of the Jewish people, is that God would judge on behalf of the ‘little ones’ who are vulnerable with righteousness. Ultimately for the followers of Jesus the questions of God’s judgment are not in their control. They may have to bind or loose actions and individuals in the community, but any punishment beyond life is in God’s hands. In our individualistic way of reading scripture we have often reduced passages like this to compliance out of fear for the salvation of one’s soul, but my hope is that learning to read these passages in light of the community can open us for the joy of practicing the righteousness of God in a community which practices hospitality towards the ‘little ones,’  protects and honors them, has the courage to correct members who are not practicing righteousness and even to ‘cut them off’ when necessary for the life of the community. Yet, even when one is ‘cut off’ there is always the hope of repentance and reconciliation. The community of Jesus, the church, may find itself continually removing boundaries which keep the ‘little ones’ out of the community and struggling with scandals which endanger the ‘little ones’ as it awaits God’s judgment of the world in righteousness.

 

 

[1] Verse 11 is omitted in most modern translations and is probably a later insertion into the text. The text of verse 11 would be For the Son of Man came to save the lost.

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A Conversation Between Pastor Neil White and Pastor Chris King on Racism, Faith and Hope

This is a conversation that I made available for both my congregation and the Frisco Interfaith Alliance between myself and Pastor Chris King. As a white pastor and leader of a primarily white congregation I felt it was important to begin with listening in this moment.

 

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Matthew 17: 24-27 Something is Fishy with these Taxes

A Corinthian Stater By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=510397

Matthew 17: 24-27

24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

Throughout Matthew’s gospel we have heard of the approaching kingdom of heaven, and yet the disciples and Christians across the generations have needed to negotiate their participation in the earthly society they are a part of when their citizenship is in heaven. The paying of taxes is a reality that people of Jesus’ world, Matthew’s church, and modern Christians share and there are times when one may live in a society that either oppresses Christians and Jews (since the first followers of Jesus were Jewish) or embodies a set of values which contradict the values of the disciples of Jesus. We will see shortly that Jesus will be in conflict with the temple and its leadership, but the hearers in Matthew’s church probably heard this reading reflecting two different contexts: the context of Jesus’ life where the temple exists and collects tribute for support and the context of their own time where the temple is destroyed and there is a tax Jewish people are required to pay after their defeat in the Jewish war and the destruction of the temple.

Peter has continued to be the person who speaks on behalf of the disciples and he is the one approached the collectors of the ‘two drachma’ and is asked ‘Does your teacher not fulfill the two drachma?’ As mentioned above, in Jesus’ time there would be a tax or contribution that supported the temple in Jerusalem but after 70 C.E. and the conclusion of the Jewish War the temple was destroyed and Emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on Jews to pay annually and the tax was used to build the temple to Jupiter Capitolinus. (Carter, 2001, p. 135) Jesus may have had issues with the temple establishment but the payment of taxes to a occupying empire to construct a temple to a different God may have been a contentious subject for many devout Jews. How does one maintain allegiance to the kingdom of God in the midst of the Roman empire? Does one pay this tax or does one resist? How does one render to God what is God’s, to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to the temple what belongs to the temple? Are the followers of Jesus to resist or to hand over these taxes?

As Peter enters the home, Jesus uses the moment to frame the ‘two drachma’ tax within the framework of understanding one’s position in relation to the temple (and by extension in Matthew’s time Rome) as being connected to one’s identity in the kingdom of heaven. At the beginning of this chapter, in the transfiguration, we were reminded of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and using the reasoning of the world Jesus invites the question whether the sons of kings pay the taxes or whether others pay these taxes. Jesus invites Peter to use the logic of the world around him to see that Jesus’ relation to God in the world’s logic would exempt him from paying taxes to the temple. As we heard in 12:6, one greater than the temple is here and the sons (children NRSV) but while Jesus may not be subordinate to the temple, he provides for the tax to be paid. Like Paul in Romans 12: 18, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” In order not to give offense (again the Greek scandalizo is behind this term) Jesus provides another way and again demonstrates who he is in relation to the creation.

We have seen Jesus provide food for multitudes by making provisions for thousands with a little bread and fish (14: 13-21, 15: 32-39) and demonstrate his mastery over the sea (8: 23-27, 14: 22-33) so perhaps this strange little story where Jesus has one of his fishers of men return to their original vocation as a fisherman casting a line into the sea may not be so strange as it initially appears . While there may be something fishy about the coin pulled from the mouth of a fish, but the master of the fish and the sea is the creator and not Caesar. God provides a stater, a coin about three times the size of a drachma, for the payment to be given. We are not told if this is a gold or silver stater which would either be worth far more than the tax for a gold stater or slightly less than the tax for two people for a silver (based on weight) but ultimately what is provided is enough and a way is found to navigate the demands of earthly authorities while affirming the ultimate sovereignty of God and the position of Jesus as Son of God. Peter, and by extension the disciples, are also invited into participating in the benefits of the children of God but will also forgo their own rights for the sake of peace or to not give offence.[1] One can find ways to grant to temple or Caesar what they claim without impinging on God’s ultimate claim on the followers of Christ and all of creation.

Each of the gospels, the letters of Paul and other epistle writers and Revelation all deal with navigating one’s faithfulness to Christ within the world of the Roman empire. These texts give us examples to follow as we try to faithfully navigate our own time. Many of the authors in the New Testament illustrate this third way between resistance and submission which allows one to understand one’s privileges as a child of God while acting in a way that does not provide offense. As I reflect on this passage I remember an experience Eberhard Bethge shares about a time he shared with Dietrich Bonhoeffer June 17, 1940

While we were enjoying the sun, there suddenly boomed out from the café loudspeakers the fanfare signal for a special announcement: the message was that France had surrendered. The people round about the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs. With outstretched arm they sang ‘Deutschland, Deutschland űber alles.’ We had stood up too. Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. ‘Raise your arm! Are you crazy?’  he whispered to me, and later: ‘We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!” (Bethge, 2000, p. 681)

Jesus will have plenty of conflicts with Pharisees, Sadducees, and the chief priests in Jerusalem, but he also seeks peace where possible. Part of the struggle for followers of Jesus is navigating when they can conform to the societies in which they live without compromising their allegiance to Christ and when they must prophetically resist. When it comes to the question of taxes for the temple or Rome, Jesus shows a way to render the tax without losing one’s identity as a child of God.

[1] A gold stater would cover the ‘two drachma’ tax for all the disciples and this may be what Matthew intends theologically but it is not explicit in the text.

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Matthew 17: 22-23 The Way of the Cross part 2

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 17: 22-23

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.

Matthew, like Mark, loves patterns of threes which is a frequently seen characteristic of literature written for to be heard primarily rather than read. This is the second and shortest of the three predictions of the passion in the gospel and they all either precede misunderstandings by the disciples about what it means to be followers of Jesus. In the first prediction Peter will rebuke Jesus and need to be told what discipleship will mean (16: 21-28), in this prediction there is an intermediary scene before the disciples ask who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (18:1-5) and the final prediction will be followed by the mother of James and John asking for places of honor in the kingdom (20: 17-28). The disciples show some understanding of this brief statement as they gather in Galilee, but until the resurrection they will continue to perceive only a portion of Jesus’ identity and path.

There is no location for the impending betrayal of ‘the Son of Man into the hands of men[1] unlike the previous prediction where Jerusalem is both their destination and where Jesus will encounter suffering. This statement of Jesus’ death in heard by the disciples and they understand that Jesus’ use of the title Son of Man is a reference to himself and they grasp enough to be greatly distressed about his upcoming betrayal and death. They are unable to understand his message about the resurrection. Even Peter, James and John who heard that the Son of Man was to suffer while coming down the mountain, even after experiencing the transfiguration of Jesus and the overwhelming presence of God on the mountain, share with the rest of the disciples the inability to consider the resurrection after three days as a possibility. Those hearing this narration are being prepared to make sense of the upcoming crucifixion and resurrection and this foreshadowing helps upcoming generations of disciples to make sense of the seeming senselessness of the cross and to anticipate the amazement of the resurrection.

[1] The Greek word anthropos lies behind the Man in Son of Man and human in human hands. The NRSV is correct in the translation of the term as Son of Man and humanity but it misses the world play between the two terms in Greek and how the betrayal of the ‘son of humanity’ is accomplished by ‘human hands.’

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Matthew 17: 14-20 A Little Faith is Enough

By © Ralph Hammann – Wikimedia Commons – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39699229

Matthew 17: 14-20

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

This is another scene in Matthew where the common interpretation of the scene involves Jesus berating his disciples and where I am going to suggest a significantly different reading. Translation into English involves several assumptions and the prevailing assumption of Jesus’ dismissive nature of his disciples continues to be seen here. Perhaps Jesus humiliates his disciples in front of the crowd and in private out of frustration, or perhaps, as my reading will suggest, his frustration resides in the forces that resist him and his response to his disciples is one of encouragement. Throughout this reading I’ve highlighted areas where Jesus may be pushing his disciples to claim the authority they have as his disciples over the powers that oppose the approaching kingdom of heaven, and these ‘little faith ones’ even without Peter, James and John present, attempt to help this father who brings his son to them. Like Peter stepping out of the boat, perhaps these disciples are continuing to make strides to approach Jesus in faith.

Comparing Mark’s narration of this scene to Matthew’s one can see both Matthew’s excision of details from the story but some very important, to Matthew’s narration, additions which are centered around this private discussion with the disciples about faith. The exorcism of the spirit which causes the man’s son to have convulsions, in Matthew, sets the scene for the contrast between the generation without faith and these little faith ones who may not realize that they are able to move mountains. They may feel that their only skill is to make a place for Jesus, but they are invited to listen to Jesus sharing with them what their little faith can do.

This scene comes after Jesus descends the mountain with Peter, James and John after the Transfiguration, and they come from their isolation to the crowd and the troubles down below. Matthew does not include Mark’s note that the scribes were arguing with the disciples in the crowd but instead immediately presents us with a father pleading to Jesus on behalf of his son. Interestingly in this scene there is only one person waiting for healing from Jesus in the crowd and perhaps the disciples have been able to heal others, but regardless we are confronted with a man who comes and kneels before Jesus, addressing him as Lord and asking on behalf of his child. In Matthew, this man’s address to Jesus places him with others like the centurion and the Canaanite who appeal to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and we expect that his appeal will be heard and acted upon. Unlike Mark where the man calls Jesus ‘teacher’ and has to ask Jesus to ‘help me with my unbelief’ in Matthew we are given every indication that this father is open to what Jesus is able to do and the presence of God’s healing power in him. In Matthew’s telling the father is not the faithless one, instead he has faith in a generation without faith. He comes to Jesus’ disciples initially and when they are not powerful enough. He refuses to be satisfied until he comes to the source and Jesus heals his son.

Most modern translations render the son’s condition as epilepsy, but that assigns a modern understanding to a term that is literally ‘moon seeking’ or the more familiar but misunderstood ‘moonstruck.’ The Greek goddess of the moon, Selene, was often associated with madness and sending demons on those who dishonored her and while ‘moonstruck’ in English is often associated with being in an irrational state due to falling in love, this ‘moonstruck’ one is possessed by a spirit, at least in the understanding of the time, which causes its host to lose control and fall into fire or water injuring itself. In a porous world where spirits, both good and evil, are able to act upon those a person, like Jesus, where the power of God’s spirit resides is where one can turn for aid for those afflicted.

Many scholars hear Jesus’ answer to the father as the first condemnation of the disciples in this scene, which I find intriguing because Jesus’ complaint is literally ‘O generation of no faith and distortion.’ Especially when you look at the other times Jesus mentions the ‘generation’ he is never referring to his disciples[1] one could argue that he is referring to either the Pharisees, scribes and those who oppose him or to the resistance to the kingdom of heaven in general but I believe if Matthew wanted us to know Jesus was frustrated with his disciples inability to handle the father’s appeal in his absence he would have directed that frustration at the disciples instead of the generation where sons are bound by a spirit that makes them lose control of their body and endanger themselves and others. Jesus’ frustration is either directed at the resistance to the kingdom of heaven or the delay in that kingdom’s realization among the disciples, the crowd and ultimately the nations. Jesus acts quickly in this instance rebuking the demon and the child is healed ‘from that hour’ which the NRSV’s ‘instantly’ captures the time aspect of but not the continuing future movement of the phrase. This child will not be like others in this generation where a demon is cast out, presumably by the exorcists of this age, and the demon returns with seven more and takes up residence making the child worse off than before. (12: 43-45)

When the disciples approach Jesus on their own and ask, ‘by what means (dia) were we are not powerful enough to cast it out?’ most interpreters assume Jesus chastises the disciples for their lack of faith. I’ve argued throughout this reading for a more charitable reading of oligopistos and its derived terms as ‘little faith ones’[2] where Jesus uses this as a term of encouragement and endearment rather than the typically harsh “you of little faith.” This term always is used for disciples and again Jesus here modifies the usage slightly to “by means of[3] (dia) the little faith (oligopistian) of you.” Perhaps instead of Jesus saying that their little faith is smaller than a mustard seed and that is why they are unable to do incredible things, Jesus here tells the disciples their little faith is all they need to handle this spirit or to say to the mountain Jesus just descended to depart and the mountain will depart, and nothing they are not powerful enough for. The Greek dunami (to be powerful, able) sits behind the father’s statemt of the disciples’ initial inability, their question of their insufficient power and Jesus encouragement that they have all the power they need. If they can command mountains to depart they can command a spirit in a moon-seeking child to come out. Instead of criticizing the disciples for their inability, perhaps Jesus is preparing them for the great things they will do in the future when they are sent out to proclaim the kingdom of heaven’s approach to all the nations and to teach them what they have learned from Jesus.

[1] Matthew 11: 16; 12: 39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 23:36; 24:34

[2] See my comments on Matthew 6: 19-34; 8: 23-27; 14: 22-33 and 16: 1-12.

[3] NRSV and many translations render dia as because but it is a term of agency or means here and should be rendered either through or by means of. Most translations assume this is a direct answer to the disciples question and that the ‘why’ in English needs a ‘because’ in English. In Greek it is more a question “by what means…’ ‘by this means…’

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Matthew 17: 1-13 The Transfiguration of Jesus

Carl Bloch, The Transfiguration of Jesus (1865)

Matthew 17: 1-13

Parallel Mark 9: 2-10; Luke 9: 28-36

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

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Mountains in Matthew’s gospel are places of revelation, and this vision where Jesus is transfigured before the disciples continues the trend of giving insight into Jesus’ identity. The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain to test his identity (4:8); the Sermon on the Mount puts has several echoes of Moses on the mountain and shows Jesus relation to the law; Jesus prays on a mountain prior to walking the water, saving Peter and being worshipped by the disciples (14: 29); and great crowds meet Jesus at a mountain and he feeds them (15: 32-39). In this scene which evokes multiple scriptural resonances we are again confronted with the identity of Jesus and asked to reconsider the meaning of what it means for Jesus to be the Son, the Beloved one.

Peter, James, and John are set aside as a select group within the disciples who are allowed to be present for this moment of revelation, but they are also ordered to keep this vision secret until after the resurrection. We are not given any insight into why these three disciples are selected to ascend the mountain with Jesus, but they will be the group within the disciples that are present for some of the critical moments, but they will not prove to be the ideal observers and participants in these moments. As Stanley Hauerwas notes,

Jesus will also ask Peter, James and John to be with him in Gethsemane, but there, when he is in agony, they will find it hard to be present with him (Matt. 26: 36-46). Their need to be touched will continue. (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 156)

Peter, James and John share common characteristics with all the disciples: they are not people who have easy insight into the identity of Jesus, they are ‘little faith ones’ who need to journey behind Jesus and ask questions to understand. Yet, they are precisely the people that Jesus invites to share these moments that reveal who Jesus is and the faith and understanding they have makes them open to these revelations in a way that the scribes have not been.

The primary echo of scripture in this scene is Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai. In Exodus 24, Moses takes with him Aaron, Nadab and Abihu along with seventy elders who see God, but then Moses goes up into the cloud and waits for six days before God calls and speaks to Moses. The time marker at the beginning of the transfiguration story, along with the three named disciples and the overshadowing cloud all echo the experience of God in this scene, but remarkably Peter, James and John are invited to come all the way up to this place where the presence of God overwhelms them. We also hear that Moses is changed by his time in the presence of God and that his face was shining, and the people reacted to this change with fear. (Exodus 34: 29-35) The scene may place Jesus in resonance with Moses, but the introduction of both Moses and Elijah into the scene speaking with Jesus and the note that Jesus’ face is shining like the sun and his garments are literally ‘white as the light’ while Moses and Elijah are not described in a similar way places Jesus above both of these two exemplars of the faithful ones of God.

Peter’s ‘enthusiastic error’ to desire to construct a tent or tabernacle for Jesus, Moses and Elijah to become a fixed dwelling place for Jesus, the law and the prophets (Hays, 2016, p. 352) is a continual temptation for the generations that will follow Peter in confessing Jesus as Christ/Messiah, son of the living God. Matthew certainly dedicates more space to confession of who Jesus is, to understanding his identity in relation to the law and the prophets, but confession without following behind tends to lead the disciples to misunderstanding the content of Jesus’ identity and what it means for them. The multiple ways in which Matthew reveals the connection between Jesus and the God of Israel may be difficult for the disciples, both original and modern, to grasp but we are invited to be in the place of awe and wonder where heaven and earth come together to not only reveal the identity of Jesus, but the proper response. In the presence of the ‘sound from the cloud’ the disciples’ response is one of fear and to fall on the ground, while Jesus’ encouragement to them will be not to fear and to rise up.

Peter is silenced by the presence of God in a manner that would be familiar to those who know the way God appears in the Exodus narrative. God descends on the mountain as a cloud and a sound that is described in ways that emulate both thunder and a volcano speaks the words that Moses, the elders and the people of Israel hear. In this scene the bright cloud descends upon Peter, James, John along with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and the ‘sound from the cloud’ (the NRSV’s rendering of phone as voice instead of sound is understandable but doesn’t capture the overwhelming and terrifying nature of the scene’s echo of the LORD speaking in Exodus. The disciples’ action of being silent, fearful, and reverent are appropriate when they realize they are in the presence of the God of Israel, but in the midst of this theophany (encounter with God) they hear the voice of God declaring not only Jesus’ identity as “my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” but also the correct response to Jesus, “hear him.”

The words which come from the bright cloud are rich in resonance both within Matthew’s story, but also within the language of scripture. In Jesus’ baptism the ‘sound from the heavens’ declares Jesus as ‘my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and we now have this direct revelation from God a second time of this exact identity. The Son of God title comes directly from the mouth of God and from the mouth of those directly opposed to God’s work in bringing in the kingdom of heaven (see my discussion on the title Son of God here). Additionally, there are two significant resonances in scripture in this title declared from the cloud. The first is from Genesis 22 where God commands Abraham:

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

This scene which is pivotal in the book of Genesis because it places the covenant between Abraham and the LORD at risk, the LORD is asking Abraham to offer up the long-awaited promise of God back to God, after God has bound Godself to this promise. Hearing the echo of this scene may help those with attentive ears to be prepared for Jesus’ journey to a different mountain where the Son of Man will suffer at the hands of men. The other echo an attentive ear may hear is Isaiah 42:1

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

The additional imperative to “hear him” also echoes Deuteronomy 18: 15:

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet[1]

These echoes point to Jesus being a prophet like Moses, the suffering servant of Isaiah, and the beloved son of the speaker, like Isaac to Abraham all within this divine pronouncement from the cloud. Jesus radiates with the same brightness as the terrifying and bright cloud where the presence of God approaches, and the scene is overwhelming for Peter, James, and John who bow their faces to the ground and are fearing exceedingly.

The disciples have been commanded to hear Jesus and after touching them, an observation unique to Matthew’s narration of this story, the disciples are invited to ‘rise up’ and to ‘not fear.’ Upon rising up they see only Jesus, no longer transfigured, inviting them to continue their journey down the mountain. They are commanded to remain speechless about this vision until the Son of Man ‘rises up’ from the dead, and only then can they tell what happened on the mountain. They were never to stay there for long, they were invited to see and hear and wonder in new ways who this one they follow is and to continue to hear him while they can. The disciples may be speechless about what happened on the mountain, but they have enough understanding to ask for clarification about the expectation of Elijah’s coming.

The scribes who study the scriptures have enough insight to know that the scriptures point to Elijah’s coming, but without faith that is open to God’s emissaries at work they are unable to interpret the meaning of John the Baptist or Jesus within God’s action. These disciples have enough faith to understand once things are explained to them. Both John the Baptist and Jesus will suffer at the hands of those who have eyes but cannot see or ears that do not hear. The word here for ‘suffer’ is pascha, the word we get Paschal (like the Paschal lamb of Passover). Peter, James, and John hear an extra reminder that Jesus’ path will be one that will involve suffering at the hands of those unable to see as they journey down the mountain to the crowd and disciples waiting below.

[1] In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the words are ‘hear him’ (autou akousesthe) the same verb used in Matthew.

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Matthew 16: 21-28 The Way of the Cross Part 1

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 16: 21-28

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Titles in Matthew’s gospel, while important and demonstrating some understanding of who Jesus is, can only take us so far. In the previous section we have the titles Son of Man, Messiah/Christ and son of the living God all applied to Jesus, as well as the prophetic identity assigned to Jesus by the crowds. But these titles only have meaning in the context of how Jesus will inhabit these titles: Jesus will be prophetic but is not limited to how John, Jeremiah or Elijah enacted that identity; Jesus will be Messiah/Christ/King but not in the way that Peter or many others expect; and Matthew continues to hint that the title Son of God and Son of Man reflect more than just one divinely appointed. People of great faith, like the Canaanite woman or the centurion may have unique insights into what Jesus’ presence means for their situation, but for those called to be disciples one can only understand Jesus’ identity in relation to his teaching and actions as they continue to follow his path.

The focus now turns to Jerusalem. Although the next couple chapters involve actions and teaching in Galilee, it becomes a farewell tour of places and locations where much of the ministry of Jesus has occurred, because now for the first time Jesus indicates Jerusalem as the final destination of his ministry. Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, and it is natural that the Messiah of the Jewish people should go to Jerusalem and take up the seat once occupied by David. Yet, Jesus does not describe the journey to Jerusalem as a coronation but rather a road of great suffering and death. This first of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering and death in Jerusalem drastically changes the triumphal scene of Peter’s confession. Even though we hear Jesus’ state he will rise after three days it isn’t surprising that this is not understood by his disciples any better than the sign of Jonah was understood by the Pharisees and Sadducees.

M. Eugene Boring insightfully recognized that Peter’s action of taking Jesus aside and rebuking him could be read as Peter misunderstanding what Messiahship meant to Jesus, personal love for the person of Jesus and wanting to spare him from suffering or both. (NIB VIII: 349) What Peter intends as a blessing, the Greek ileos is better translated ‘God be merciful’ rather than ‘God forbid’, asking God not to bring this suffering upon Jesus becomes instead a stumbling block. Words of mercy intended to protect God’s anointed instead become words of temptation to pull the chosen one from what is necessary. Peter may misunderstand, but his words evoke compassion for Jesus.

Yet, even these words of blessing can become twisted to attempt to alter the way that Jesus embodies the identity of Messiah and Son of God and to become a stumbling block (scandalon). The title of Satan returns us to the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4: 1-11, where the devil attempts to test Jesus’ identity as Son of God. The devil’s temptations to avoid suffering, to give a sign and to take up worldly power all seem at odds with this necessary path to Jerusalem where the only sign is the sign of Jonah and suffering will come from those who wield religious and political power. Satan as a title for the devil originates with ‘the satan’ which is used as a title in Job 1-2 for ‘the accuser.’ Now Peter, albeit unintentionally, occupies the role of accusing Jesus of misunderstanding his place. Now Jesus turns to Peter to correct him.

There is a contrast between Jesus’ dismissal of the devil in 4:10 and his words to Peter in 16:23. In both cases Jesus tells the tempting one to go away (hupage) but here Jesus adds a location “behind me.”  Peter is called to occupy the position of following Jesus as one who learns rather than being dismissed like the devil or left behind like Pharisees and Sadducees. Peter will have to learn that his understanding of divine and human things are incorrect and that God’s way will be learned by following this Messiah who moves towards the suffering and death rather than towards human conceptions of power and glory.

Jesus’ words to his followers about denying themselves, taking up their cross and following were challenging to his initial followers but perhaps even more so in our culture that avoids suffering at all costs. Leszak Kolakowsky’s description of our culture as “a culture of analgesics” where we are “entertaining ourselves to death” by our endless distractions (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 211) rings true. The modern world presents many ways to numb and distract ourselves away from our callings and to present us with alternatives to a life that is difficult but ultimately worth dedicating ourselves to. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in a Detroit speech in 1963 that, “I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live” resonates with this calling of the men and women who follow the path of Jesus to be willing to take up their own crosses, deny the distractions and stumbling blocks and well meaning friends who try to change their paths and to place their life in the service of something worth living and dying for.

In a culture of revenge, where violence is repaid with more violence, Jesus calls his disciples to a way of life that ‘turns the other cheek and loves one’s enemies.’ We, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, are called into a discipleship which walks the path that Jesus walks. The crosses we bear may be different, the suffering we endure may be unique to our position and our time, but we do this as part of a community of people who desire to follow Jesus. There may be times where those who are among us, often for well intentioned reasons, place a stumbling block before us or who point us to the myriad of distractions and numbing agents that are a part of our culture. There may be times where the tempter attempts to turn us away from the path that leads to the cross.  The word the NRSV translates as life is psuche which is normally rendered ‘soul.’ The Hebrew people didn’t have a concept of a ‘detachable’ soul which goes into the afterlife, but the ‘soul’ was the very essence of what one’s life. The concept of selling one’s ‘soul’ in Hebrew would be to betray the life one is called to live instead of being a transaction where one damned one’s immortal life.

Ultimately there is a hope beyond the present that this life of discipleship yearns towards, some experience of the kingdom of heaven’s infiltration into the earth. Jesus’ words about the coming of God to reward those who choose this life of denial to find their lives embodies a hope for God’s action to overturn the injustice of the world. In Jűrgen Moltmann’s memorable phrase, “A theology of the cross without the resurrection is hell itself.” (Moltmann, 1981, pp. 41-42) This path of suffering without hope would merely be some masochistic philosophy and this suffering should produce not only a hope, but in Paul’s words a ‘hope that does not disappoint us.’ (Romans 5:6) The path which involves taking up ones cross involves a hope that the follower will share in the glory of the Son of Man coming in his glory. How Jesus’ early disciples heard the promise that some of those standing there would not taste death before Jesus came in his kingdom could relate to the Transfiguration, paradoxically the cross, or the resurrection, but as those who still attempt to follow the path of the crucified Lord we also hope in our own way to experience both moments of insight into the glory of God and some future realization of the kingdom of heaven.

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