Matthew 15: 21-28 Woman Great is Your Faith

Matthew 15: 21-28

Parallel Mark 7: 24-30

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Insiders, like the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, are scandalized by Jesus and their inability to perceive and understand what Jesus places them in the position of Chorazin and Bethsaida (11:21-22) who had every reason to see and turn toward Jesus. Yet, as Jesus continues his harvest among the lost sheep of the house of Israel, outsiders like the Magi, the centurion and now this Canaanite woman are those who perceive and understand who Jesus is and what he is able to do. Many commentators and preachers seem to get caught up in this moment where Jesus seems to, in Sharon Ringe’s memorable words, “be caught with his compassion down.” (Ringe, 1985, p. 69) While Jesus initial lack of response and later challenge to this Canaanite woman may be unexpected to many readers of the gospels, Matthew uses this scene both to challenge existing prejudgments about what this ministry to the lost sheep of Israel truly entails and contrasts her faith to what has been seen in Israel.

Jesus withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon, an area already mentioned as an area prejudged by many to be a place of unrighteousness, but who Jesus mentions favorably in comparison to Chorazin and Bethsaida who have seen many acts of power and have not repented. This coastal area which is on the boundary of Galilee and the Gentile world have a complicated relationship with the people of Israel. During the time of David and Solomon there is a favorable trading relationship between Tyre and Israel until the King of Tyre views the cities and land he receives in return for the resources and labor he sends Israel as unacceptable (1 Kings 9: 10-14). In Psalm 45, which is composed for the a royal wedding, describes the people of Tyre seeking the new bride’s favor: “The people of Tyre will seek your favor, the richest of all people with all kinds of wealth.” (Psalm 45: 12-13, see also Zechariah 9: 2-3 on the wealth of Tyre and Sidon) Yet, perhaps because of their wealth from trading, Tyre and Sidon are frequently castigated by the prophets (most notable the Oracle concerning Tyre in Isaiah 23, the proclamation against Tyre in Ezekiel 26, but see also Jeremiah 47:4, Ezekiel 38, 39, Joel 3:4, and Amos 1: 9-10). Hearers of this story of Jesus traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon with a Jewish background have a long history with the region of Tyre and Sidon to prejudice their view of what might occur there, but also may question why Jesus and his disciples would withdraw to an area like this.

In addition to the judgments hearers of this story might make about the region we also have the brief introduction of the woman who calls out to Jesus which invites another set of possible judgments. Instead of Mark’s categorization of the woman more neutrally as a ‘Syrophoenician’ woman, Matthew uses the term ‘Canaanite.’ While both Canaanite and Syrophoenician can refer to the same people, within Israel’s story the Canaanites are those who opposed Israel. This animosity is recorded, for example, in the curse of Noah in Genesis 9: 25-27 where Canaan, the grandson of Noah, is cursed while his uncle Shem (the ancestor of Abraham and eventually Israel) is blessed:

Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.”

The Canaanites were the people who opposed the Israelites in their occupation of the promised land in Joshua, and they were considered a threat to lead the people of Israel away from their faith in the LORD, the God of Israel. For example, in Psalm 106:

They did not destroy the peoples as the LORD commanded them, but they mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. (Psalm 106: 34-38)

In addition to the territory and the people the woman is labeled being a part of we have the additional note that she comes loudly appealing to Jesus alone. What makes this strange in the ancient world is that it would normally be a man who would appeal to Jesus, and so we also wonder if the father of the daughter is absent from the picture. We don’t have enough information to know the reason the mother appeals to Jesus instead of the father, but the absence of information is the place where prejudices fill in the blank. Yet in stories where women boldly seek what they need in the gospels: the widow who appeals to the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), the Samaritan woman who has no husband (John 4) or the woman with a flow of blood (Matthew 9: 20-22), their needs are fulfilled.

There is one more woman from this region that we should be aware of who may help prepare us for the story, and that is the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. Zarephath is in the region of Tyre and Sidon and it is to this widow that the LORD sends Elijah, and Elijah later raises her son. Luke highlights this story in Luke 4: 25-26 when Jesus is rejected in his hometown. While Matthew never mentions this story, an attentive hearer may wonder if something like Elijah’s miracle is a possibility here. This is also reinforced by the way Matthew uses titles for Jesus. Here the woman refers to Jesus as Lord (three times and indirectly a fourth) and Son of David, and in Matthew those who address Jesus as Lord indicate both that the person has faith and that a positive response can be expected.

One of my intents in this reading is to uncover alternate possibilities to how we might hear these narratives that are masked by the translation into English. The dominant reading of this passage is that Jesus in prejudgment against this woman intends to deny her request initially and is only later convinced that because of her great faith that her request is worthy of his attention. Slowing the narrative down I believe there is more nuance than we often hear. The initial response is not given by Jesus but by the disciples and their response is literally “Release her (Greek Apoluso ), that one crying out behind us.” The translation of ‘send her away’ indicates one possible meaning of ‘release her’ but it can also indicate a desire to release her from what troubles her (thereby granting her request). This is also the same word in Greek that the disciples use when they ask Jesus to release the crowd in the previous chapter before the feeding of the five thousand men (14: 15, again the NRSV ‘send the (crowds) away’) which may give us an inkling to Jesus’ eventual response.  Jesus initial response is not to the woman but to the disciples and his response in a wooden (close to the Greek text without smoothing into English syntax) translation would be “Not I was sent if not into the sheep of the ruined/lost/perished (Greek apolulota which sounds similar to apoluso but comes from a different root) house of Israel.” Jesus has invited his disciples into the question of the boundaries of the house of Israel and who he was sent to but perhaps he has also opened the window for them to be the one who heals the woman’s daughter.[1] One of the underlying themes in Matthew’s gospel has been the permeability of the boundaries of this house of Israel and the way in which others, particularly women, have boldly made a place for themselves within those boundaries.

This Canaanite woman refuses to allow her fate to rest in the disciple’s discernment but instead comes, worships and pleads “Lord, come to my aid.” The word translated by the NRSV as ‘knelt’ is the Greek proskuneo, which literally means to prostrate oneself before and is often associated with worshipping. Matthew uses this word more than Mark and Luke combined and the usage is almost always associated with worship. Most recently this word was used in relation to the disciples’ response to Jesus after his walking on water, saving Peter and calming the wind in 14:33.[2] This linkage is made stronger by the similar appeal made by this woman to Peter’s appeal in that scene.[3] This woman has by her actions placed herself in the position of Peter and the rest of the disciples in both worshipping Jesus and appealing directly to him for aid.

Jesus’ direct response to the woman often receives the most attention in this section and while we may want to jump to a transformed world there “there is no Jew or Greek or Canaanite, male or female” to modify slightly Galatians 3:26, Jesus, his disciples, and the early church all operated in a world of boundaries and barriers. But in his previous encounter with a Gentile asking for aid, who also addressed him as lord, Jesus also challenged that petitioner about the rightness of his request. In Matthew 8:7 when the Centurion comes and appeals on behalf of his child, Jesus responds “Am I to come and cure him?”[4] Jesus issues a challenge based on these boundaries between the lost sheep of Israel and the Gentiles. Jesus has come to the children, and while the children perhaps have been invited to cast some of the bread on the floor is that Jesus’ role? Again, those commenting on this passage can become caught in the parable with children and dogs and the perceived insult to this woman. It may well be that Jesus is playing on a common trope of the Gentiles being dogs, but this parable or challenge also provides a way for the woman to reimagine a way forward that perhaps the disciples have missed.

There is another parable told in Luke’s gospel where Jesus uses dogs as a character in a parable or image, and that is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I bring this parable up because I think it can shed some light on our scene. The dogs in Luke’s parable lick the sores of Lazarus as he lays at the gate of the rich man. Amy Jill-Levine in relation to this parable can state helpfully:

Dogs are not a source of uncleanness—that is not the image Jesus’ audience would take from the description of Lazarus. Rather, they would realize the dogs provided him with his only comfort. The dogs realized what the rich man did not—that people in pain need help. (Levine, 2014, p. 281)

There are numerous examples professor Levine lists in Deuterocanonical literature and the Mishnah of dogs owned by Jewish households as pets, and it is helpful to realize that Jesus also uses that illustration here. The dogs mentioned are not invaders to the household but are the dogs of the lord of the household. The challenge provides the key for the faithful one to reimagine the household of faith in a new way, the parable’s openness to interpretation allows for the children of Israel’s bread to feed the Gentiles.

Unlike the disciples, the little faith ones, who often have to ask Jesus to clarify the interpretation of the parables to them; this woman of great faith is not only able to understand but to recast the parable. She sees the key and opens the vast storehouse of treasure or the door to the great feast where many measures of flour have prepared a great feast and she is only asking for that which falls to the floor. To heal her daughter is no great thing in the abundance of the kingdom of heaven, and to release her daughter is no more than crumbs falling from the table of her lord.

Matthew’s gospel makes note of the woman’s faith as great (a feature unique to Matthew’s narration of this scene). Only two people in Matthew’s gospel are lifted up for faith that is extraordinary, and both are Gentiles, the centurion and the Canaanite. They have a greater openness to the potential for healing in the presence of God’s reign in Jesus, even though they are not a part of the children of Israel. Yet, Matthew’s gospel began with a genealogy which highlighted non-Israelite women making a place for themselves in the people of God, with magi observing in the heavens a star which led them to seek out and worship the child Jesus, and now these two of extraordinary faith who see the healing of their children as a minor matter for one who exercises God’s power over demons and sickness. Perhaps it is the imperative to seek healing for one’s own child which makes hoping for the incredible seem possible. Perhaps it is simply an openness to the ways that God is at work in this person of Jesus and the community around him. Perhaps it is that they are able to make sense of who Jesus is through their own experience of the world. Yet, they are those who see and understand and make a place for themselves and others at the banquet of the Lord. As Jesus could say after granting the centurion’s request, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (8:11)

[1] As mentioned the previous time that the disciples told Jesus to ‘release’ someone (the crowds) Jesus invited them to be the solution by feeding them.

[2] Matthew other uses of proskuneo (to prostrate, worship)include The Magi ‘paying homage’ 2:2, 8, 11; the women and disciples at the resurrection worshipping Jesus 28: 9, 17 and the temptation narrative where ultimately instead of worshipping Satan, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 where one is to worship the Lord only.

[3] Peter in 14:30 cries out “Lord, save me!” and the woman cries out, appropriate to her situation, “Lord, come the aid of me!”

[4] NRSV and most English translations miss that the Greek syntax indicates a question and the centurion’s answer takes the boundary and creatively creates a new possibility for faithful action.

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Matthew 15: 1-20 Piety and Righteousness Revisited

James Tissot, The Blind in the Ditch (1886-1894)

Matthew 15: 1-20

Parallel Mark 7: 1-23; Luke 11: 37-41; 6: 39

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. 6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

8 ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'”

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes, as presented here, have different points of reference as they enter this argument. The Pharisees in the gospel have had a growing list of complaints about the practices of Jesus and his disciples: they eat with the wrong people (9:11), they do not fast (9:14), they pluck grain on Sabbath when they are hungry (12:2), Jesus heals on Sabbath (12:10), in our current passage they don’t wash their hands before eating and in future readings will come questions of paying taxes to the Temple (17:24) and the emperor (22:17) (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 197) All of these visible practices which are not wrong or evil and may even be life giving in the right context (I’m writing on this passage on washing hands before eating in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic) also become ways of judging the righteousness of others or practicing one’s piety before others. These conflicts resonate strongly with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount which I will discuss below, but also highlight the difference between piety and righteousness.

The Pharisees and scribes that come to engage Jesus’ practices now come from Jerusalem, and this is the first time we have indication, since the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Judea, Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan came to Jesus, (4:25) that Judea and Jerusalem and their authorities are aware of Jesus’ ministry predominantly in Galilee. Jesus’ practices, or at least the practices of his disciples in this instance, do not fit within the frame of what holiness practiced by visible actions that demonstrate one’s faithfulness, one’s piety, according to the practices of these Pharisees and scribes. There is a lack of openness to the works that Jesus is doing because they do not fit within the expectations of these leaders who have come to challenge the worker of the acts of power and the teacher of a different understanding of the relationship between the law and the tradition.

Jesus has very little interest in piety, and this is one of the reasons that most English translations of Matthew 6 of dikaisune as piety instead of righteousness misunderstand what Jesus is attempting to state. Jesus in Matthew 6: 1 stated, “Beware of practicing your righteousness (not piety) before others in order to be seen by them;” because the very practices that Jesus is being judged for here are the things that fail to produce changed hearts. Pietas (often translated piety from Latin) was an important Roman concept which the orator and statesman Cicero describes as that, “which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.” Jesus’ understanding of righteousness is not limited to ‘doing one’s duty’, particularly as it is viewed by others. Central to the language of the Sermon on the Mount were these practices of righteousness done in a way not to call attention to the individual’s practices. The actions of the community of the faithful may be visible, but the individual practices of the disciple will not be. Jesus may not look like he and his disciples are ‘doing their duty’ as viewed by the Pharisees but Jesus does not view them as faithful guides for how a community should practice righteousness.

The practice of washing hands comes from places in the law like Exodus 30: 19-21 (priests washing before entering the tent of meeting), Leviticus 15: 11 (washing after a bodily discharge) and Deuteronomy 21: 6 (where washing absolves the leaders of a community of responsibility an unsolved murder). The tradition of the elders mentioned here would be an expansion of the practices outlined in the law which only become troubling when they become standards for judging the holiness or acceptability of others. Jesus’ response goes directly back to the commandment and the justifications, often religious, that people might use to not fulfill their covenant responsibility to others. As I mentioned in the discussion of the commandment on honoring parents in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, this commandment is not primarily about young children being obedient to parents but instead older children continuing to honor, respect, and care for elderly relatives. If this practice of dedicating wealth and property to the temple or to the priests in order to abandon one’s responsibility to a family member occurred, it would be masking unrighteousness in the appearance of socially respectable piety.

Jesus may bring about divisions in families and may call his followers to ‘let the dead bury their own dead’ or declare those who do the will of his Father in heaven are his ‘brother and sister and mother.’ But it is important for Matthew to continue to link Jesus as the fulfillment of the intent of the law. Jesus never declares that families do not have value and that family connections are not to be honored; they are simply not ultimate. The Pharisees who would practice this ‘dedication of one’s resources to God’ through the temple or the Pharisees, in lieu of caring for family probably felt they were making the same argument. Eyes opened to faith can see what is at the center of practicing righteousness and how faithfulness to Jesus takes a higher place than loyalty to temple or a religious community. The inability to distinguish between piety and righteousness leaves these Pharisees and scribes as blind guides leading the blind.

Hypocrites is a word that Matthew uses more than the rest of scripture, but its use here connects us both with its usage in the Sermon on the Mount (6:2, 6:5. 6:16, 7:5)  and Matthew’s frequent use of the term in the conflicts with the Pharisees in Jerusalem (22:18; 23: 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24: 51).  As I mentioned when discussing 7:5, when righteousness becomes reduced to piety to demonstrate our own faithfulness or righteousness, we become like the one blind to the log in their own eye while trying to remove the splinter from another’s eye. Our expectations of what piety should look like allow us to pre-judge (where the term prejudice comes from) others and may make us blind to the ways our own practices may lead others astray.

Jesus, like the prophets before him, continually had to remind people that religious practices were not enough. Anna Case-Winters, picking up on the language of the Isaiah quotation, cleverly calls attention to reality that ‘lip-service” is not enough. A heart oriented on God and the way of life God calls God’s people to live is far more central and allows the right intentions to flow out of the mouth and to proceed from one’s hands (washed or unwashed). The Pharisees are scandalized (took offense, NRSV) according to the disciples but Jesus remains unconcerned by their judgments. He views them similarly to the weeds sewn among the wheat (13: 24-30) and as those who in their blindness are leading others in blindness. Like the Pharisees in John 9 who cannot accept the blind man who can now see and become spiritually blind, these Pharisees remain unable to see and participate with the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven’s work and presence in Jesus. Their prejudgment of Jesus makes them unable to properly see the road they are walking down which leads them and others who follow them into a pit.

The Pharisees are not the only ones who have trouble seeing and understanding what Jesus is saying, even the disciples have to ask for clarification. Peter, on behalf of the other disciples presumably, asks for clarification and Jesus explains that it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out of a person that defiles. A clean heart is more important than washed hands, and the actions which destroy community cause far greater harm than the practices of how or what one eats. Yet, Matthew also does not include Mark’s note in the parallel story that “Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19b) Matthew does not discard all the practices that the Jewish people practiced, and many in Matthew’s community may have refrained from eating foods traditionally declared unclean like pork or shellfish. But Matthew also does not allow these practices to give the disciples permission to prejudge others who practice their righteousness in a different way. There will be surprisingly faithful ones among those who were once considered Gentile dogs.

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Matthew 14: 34-36 To Know Christ is to Know His Benefits

Jesus Healing the Blind From 12th Century Basilica Catedrale di Santa Maria Nouva di Monreale in Sicily.

Matthew 14: 34-36

Parallels Mark 6: 53-56

34 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, 36 and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

This short little transition may not seem to add much to Matthew’s narration, but Matthew (like most ancient writers) does not waste words. Even small additions to the narrative can point to important links and serve a structural point in oral storytelling. Matthew follows the pattern of Mark’s narration and slightly reduces the length of Mark’s narration, but Matthew’s decision to keep these transitional stories of healing is revealing.

The reformer Philip Melanchthon famously said, “To know Christ is to know his benefits.” As we compare this scene in Matthew to others in the gospel, I think this is a helpful frame to see some of the structure that underlays Matthew’s narration. At the end of the previous chapter (13: 54-58) the people of Jesus’ hometown knew Jesus’ family but they were unable to accept the wisdom he brought or to have faith in his ability to bring God’s kingdom to them and there were very few healings done there. In contrast in Gennesaret, which is close to Capernaum where Jesus has done many acts of power, the people come and they send word to the neighboring places to bring the ones who need healing. These demonstrations of the power of Jesus play an important part of understanding who Jesus is and a receptiveness to these acts point to the nature of faith and prepare the disciple to hear Jesus’ teaching. Matthew used a scene of healing many to prepare the reader to hear the Sermon on the Mount, (4: 23-25) and a description of the healing serves as an demonstration to John the Baptist’s disciples sent to inquire if Jesus is the one they are expecting. (11: 4-6) The neglecting of these demonstrations of power by Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum have placed themselves below Tyre, Sidon and Gomorrah in the coming judgment (11: 20-24). The two other brief insertions of healing are both preceded by a miracle for an outsider (the healing of the Centurion’s servant/child before 8:14-17 and the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter prior to 15: 29-31—both possessing faith not seen in Israel). Structurally both this passage and 15: 29-31 are also bracketed by feeding miracles which also highlight Matthew’s organization (and by extension Mark’s organization since they share the structure of these chapters). One additional linkage that Matthew highlights is the healing of the woman with the flow of blood (9:20-22) who touches the fringe of his garment and hears that ‘her faith has made you well.’

These short readings highlight one of the primary ways that Matthew’s gospel wants us to understand what faith in Jesus looks like. Faith is an openness to the kingdom of heaven’s power at work in Christ, and to amend slightly Melanchthon’s wording: to know Christ is to remain open to his benefits or works. The crowd at Nazareth knows Christ primarily according to his family and are not open to his wisdom or works, the Pharisees, the scribes and soon the Sadducees in the narrative will judge Jesus’ works by their expectation of what the works should be, but those of faith are open to the works as they appear. They

trust that even the fringe of his garment, if touched, can heal/save (the Greek sozo translated healing means both) them completely.

 

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Fortune

The Prophet (nogard86 at deviantart.com)

Fortune

Ascend all you augurs and astrologers in agony but not antipathy
Beings banished at the behest of barons and bureaucrats beyond
Chance the chanting of your cadence clear into crystalline caves
Divining the design of destiny; you dabble and daub and deliberate
Echoing Elohim or Eros or the Ennead, earth and energy enervated
Fulfilled filter for future fortunes, fool fount of the fates
Grasping for grace, grappling with gods;griping, grousing gazer
Haruspex of Helen, hold hard the heel of Hermes, ye harbingers of hell
Inspiration or Justification, Karma or Kairos come at last
Magus, medium, medicine man, necromancer, obfuscator, ovate
Plundered prophet promising to prevail in profusely promulgated prayer
Recalling in a rasp revelation released or read rapturously
Scanned in the stars as you stand, stumbled upon softly is the surge of sea
Totem trying to thrive, timing the turning of the tarot or tea leaves
Universal venture of wanting, ye xenophiles yearning for zen

This was a challenge for the Common Language Project: had to be less than thirty lines and use the following thirty words without change to tense or form: agony, ascend, behest, cadence, chance, clear, crystalline, daub, design, destiny, echoing, filter, fool, fulfilled, grace, heel, last, plundered, prevail, rasp, revelation, scanned, stand, stumbled, surge, thrive, timing, totem, trying and venture. An enjoyable afternoon challenge.

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Matthew 14: 22-33 Little Faith One

Extract of Herbert Boeckl’s fresco “Saint Peter’s rescue from the Lake Galilee” inside the cathedral of Maria Sall, Carinthia, Austria

Matthew 14: 22-33

Parallels Mark 6: 45-52; John 6: 16-21

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This is the story within Matthew that initiated some of my questions about the way that Matthew’s gospel had been translated and interpreted. This well known story with Matthew’s unique addition of Peter coming to Jesus upon the water is a common image on stained glass windows and paintings in churches, and while it is often an image of hope: of Jesus who rescues those sinking in the stormy waters. Yet, it also is often paired with a condemnation of Peter who doubts in the face of the strong wind. I never anticipated my discomfort with the traditional translation of ‘you of little faith’ in this scene becoming this project which became a much larger examination of the gospel as a whole and its history of interpretation, but often one question leads to many others.

Normally when Matthew takes a story present in Mark (assuming Mark as the first of the gospels written) he shortens it to quickly move us to the instruction by Jesus, which comprises many of the additions in Matthew’s gospel, but here Matthew adds and entire scene of Peter getting out of the boat and coming to Jesus. One of the things to pay attention to when there are parallel narrations of an event is the places where an author introduces new or unique elements because they often give critical insights into what the gospel writer wants to express about who Jesus is and the nature of following him. Matthew has structurally placed this narrative in roughly the middle of the gospel and almost doubled the length that Mark (and John) dedicate to this story. It is also worth remembering that this is the second time Jesus has done the incredible upon the sea and there are unique aspects in both stories in Matthew’s careful narration that invite us to hear this story and the story of Jesus calming the storm in Matthew 8: 23-27 together.

Jesus compels the disciples to get into the boat, presumably a boat owned by one of the disciples, and after the feeding of the 5,000 remains to dismiss the crowds. The Greek enagkasen is more forceful than the NRSV’s translation of ‘made’, Jesus compels or forces the disciples to embark on the boat and sends them on their own into the waters to travel to the other side while he dismisses the crowds. Jesus goes up a mountain to be alone in prayer, but in this time the situation of those on the boat changes. The disciples in Matthew 8: 23-27 felt alone in the midst of the storm while Jesus slept, but now they are isolated from Jesus as the wind become hostile towards them and the boat is tormented under the waves. The wind and waves become, in the narration, active entities working against the disciples on the sea and from evening until the fourth watch of night, traditionally 3 am-6 am, the disciples struggle on their own against the elements. I think it is helpful to notice in this narration that there is a significant time of struggle for the disciples and it takes time for Jesus to move from the mountain where he is praying to the shore and across the many stadia (great distance in the NRSV) that the disciples are out upon the sea.

In Mark’s narration of this story Jesus intends to pass the disciples by, which may be an allusion to God passing by Moses to reveal who he is, but Matthew removes this highlighting the destination of Jesus being these ones on the boat. There are plenty of hints that Matthew shares with Mark, and some unique to Matthew, that point to the identity of Jesus, but Matthew has the boat squarely in Jesus direction of movement as the disciple see him approaching. In the midst of struggling against the wind and waves for hours and seeing what they perceive is a phantom or a ghost (Greek phantasma) their response is to cry out in fear. Jesus’ response to ‘be of good courage, I am, fear not’ is crafted to again alert the reader that more is happening than meets the eye. The initial command to ‘be of good courage’ or ‘take heart’ is a normal response to the cry of fear, but the next two statements are theologically rich. I am (NRSV it is I) is the same language that John’s gospel uses in all the I am sayings (I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the way, the truth, and the life, etc.)  and Jesus declaration that ‘I am’ in John 18: 6 causes the soldiers step back and fall to the ground when arresting Jesus. The phrase ‘I am’ recalls the name of God in Exodus 3:14 and while it can simply be the first person pronoun with the being verb in normal speech, in scriptures this frequently causes the hearer to ask about the person’s relationship to the LORD the God of Israel. In addition, this linked with the command ‘Fear not’ or as it is commonly rendered ‘do not be afraid’[1] is also commonly associated with a divine message either from an angel or directly from God.  As we wondered in Matthew 8, ‘what sort of man is this?’ we are now again directed to wonder about the identity of the one approaching his disciples upon the water. The wind and the waves are unable to prevent this one who proclaims ‘I am, fear not’ from approaching.

Matthew is the only gospel who includes the story of Peter approaching Jesus on the water, and this is where Peter begins to stand out among the disciples and be a major actor in the narrative. In the coming chapters Peter will become the one out of the twelve who speaks and acts in answer to Jesus questions and will become the one who represents in many ways the community. Peter moves down from the boat and towards Jesus upon the water, but he sees the strong wind which has been against the boat and he begins to sink. The word translated sink (Greek katapontizesthai) can also mean drown, so Peter in this narrative is experiencing true peril in the midst of his fear as he cries out “Lord, save me.” Just as the disciples in Matthew 8 cried out ‘Lord save us’ as they were in the windstorm on the sea, now Peter echoes this rich phrase with resonance between Israel and the people of God (see comments on 8:25) to Jesus as he finds himself overwhelmed by the wind, waves and water. Immediately Jesus responds by extending his hand and taking hold of him.

This is the third of five uses of oligopistos (NRSV ‘you of little faith’) in Matthew’s gospel, a phrase always used in relation to those following Jesus. Rendering this term ‘you of little faith’ while correct adds a negative connotation that doesn’t need to be there (try saying ‘you of little faith’ without it sounding judgmental) and I do believe that ‘little faith one’ is a better translation. Jesus in this narrative has moved directly toward the boat, told the disciples to be of good courage because of his presence, and told Peter to come to him in the midst of the wind and waves. I know I am pushing against the interpretive tradition of this phrase, but I do believe that Jesus is fond of his ‘little faith ones’ and in this particular story of Peter. Instead of castigating Peter for experiencing doubt, perhaps he is reassuring Peter (and ‘little faith ones’ throughout the ages) that he indeed is ‘God with us’ in the midst of the storm. This is reinforced by the use of the word diatazo here which is only used one other time in Matthew’s gospel, on the mountain in Galilee after the resurrection where the disciples doubt is paired with the encouragement “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[2] Like the disciples on the mountain, who even in their doubt worship, so the disciples here worship saying “You are the Son of God.” As I mentioned when discussing the Son of’ titles for Jesus the Son of God title has relationship to the identity of Jesus being the Davidic King, but Matthew also pushes the boundaries of that title to include something greater in relation to the God of Israel. For Matthew, Jesus is one who is worthy of worship by the disciples, like the God of Israel.[3] The wind and the waves which threaten the disciples are stopped by his presence and we are invited beyond the wondering of ‘what sort of man is this’ the disciples voiced when Jesus calmed the storm before to the stance of worship this one who meets his little faith ones in their doubts and trouble and saves them.

[1] Anna Case-Winters notes that this is the fourth of seven significant texts with the message “do not be afraid” (1:20; 8:26; 10: 31; 14: 27; 17: 7; 28:5; 28:10). Note that all of these except 10:31 are in some manner a theophany (angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph in a dream, the two water narratives, the transfiguration and the resurrection. (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 194)

[2] Matthew 21: 21 in the NRSV “if you have faith and do not doubt” is the other place doubt occurs in English in the gospel, but the Greek word behind it is different: diakrino

[3] This is reinforced when you realize that Matthew uses proskuneo (to prostrate, worship) more than Mark and Luke combined and when you look at the thirteen times it is used (The Magi ‘paying homage’ 2:2, 8, 11; the women and disciples at the resurrection worshipping Jesus 28: 9, 17 and the temptation narrative where ultimately instead of worshipping Satan, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 where one is to worship the Lord only. (Hays, 2016, p. 396 n. 52)

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Matthew 14: 13-21 Bread in the Wilderness

Mosaic at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee

Matthew 14: 13-21

Parallels: Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10b-17; John 6: 1-15

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The rejection in Nazareth and the death of John the Baptist puts both Jesus and the crowds in motion and they both arrive in the wilderness. Jesus and his disciples get into a boat and come to an uninhabited place along the sea, and the crowds abandon the towns to follow him on foot. Matthew shortened version of this story (if Mark’s narration is the original) continues to invite the followers of Jesus to reflect upon his identity by echoing other portions of both Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ life and scriptures. The feeding of the five thousand men, plus women and children, is unique among the miracle stories of Jesus because it is the only one included in all four gospel accounts.

The wilderness was where John the Baptist began his story, where Jesus was baptized and where Jesus was tempted. People once came into the wilderness to see John the Baptist instead of Herod (see comments on 11: 7-15), but now the come seeking Jesus. Jesus has compassion on this large crowd and begins to heal those who are sick. Matthew drops Mark’s allusion to Ezekiel 34 where the crowd is like sheep without a shepherd, but the contrast with the compassion Jesus shows towards the crowd and the fear Herod Antipas shows highlights the contrast in relations between these ‘kings of Israel.’ Matthew also drops the teaching of the crowds, but since Jesus teaching the crowds in parables comprises the previous chapter this is not necessary to Matthew’s narration. Now in the absence of John the Baptist and instead of Herod Antipas, the large crowd journeys over land to meet Jesus in this wilderness place.

The defining story of the Hebrew people is the Exodus and central to the people’s journey through the wilderness is the provision of bread by God on that journey. In this wilderness the people are now fed by Jesus, he becomes the one who makes an excessive amount of bread in the wilderness. Like the woman who folded the yeast into three measures of flour (13: 33) he prepares a feast to this great crowd. This story also resonates with the final meal that Jesus will share with his disciples where again he will bless and break bread to be distributed (26:26-30). Matthew, following Mark’s structure, will have Jesus do two feedings of large crowds in the wilderness. (15: 32-39) In both feeding stories the disciples of Jesus in addition to distributing the bread are also invited to wonder about the one who can provide an abundant feast where all are satisfied in a wilderness place. Like God providing for the people in the Exodus or promising a great feast on the mountain of the Lord (Isaiah 25: 6-9) we are invited to consider who Jesus is in relation to God. He is more than a prophet like John the Baptist and more than a king like Herod even if those in his homeland cannot recognize it.

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The Air is Heavy

 

The air is heavy as it fills my lungs with its leaden weight
For in this springtime of the year in addition to the pollen,
The heavy perfume of the earth reawakening from its slumber
The emergence of wildflowers and bees and leave on the trees
Comes the weight of our fears over the death of the world we know
While the rest of creation emerges from its wintry hibernation
We confine ourselves to our modern caves repaying sabbaths missed
While the bird songs fill the morning light, we sing a dirge
Like children caught between dance and death we are unsatisfied
And we grieve the world transformed in ways we didn’t forsee

The air is heavy as the alveoli slowly force it back into the sky above
Breathing out the pain and the sadness, the life and the death
As each lobe automatically works to push the moist carbon dioxide
Through the bronchi and trachea to be expelled out of the mouth
Carrying on its respiration a heavy prayer for some lighter air
When we gathered in great numbers to sing and dance and jump
Sitting at the banquet table eating rich food and drinking well aged wine
Eating the marrow of life and drinking the wine strained clear
Never thinking that death could swallow this up so quickly
And the shroud would lie over so many people from so many nations

The air that bears the unweighable virus can seem so heavy
As we try to launch our saline filled cries up into the heavens
Waiting behind the high fortifications of our walls for the day
When we can open the gates in joyous celebration and lightness
For the air is no longer heavy and we can breathe freely again
For the shroud has been removed and death is swallowed up
And prayers are finally answered as tears are wiped away
The city’s life which has been placed in a coma awakens
As our lungs fill with the warm but lighter air of summer

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