Tag Archives: Hope

Matthew 24: 32-52 Three Parables on Living in Readiness

Mountain Fig Tree in Zibad, By Maahmaah – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21625760

Matthew 24: 32-52

Parallel: Mark 13: 28-32; Luke 21: 29-33, 17:26-36, 12:39-40

32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that heis near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. 51 He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

These three parables, which Mark only shares the first and Luke has the remaining two scattered throughout the gospel, show Matthew’s careful organization of material in a memorable format using his typical pattern of three. These three parables prepare us for the final three parables in chapter twenty-five. Yet, most English readers wouldn’t think of these small images as parable. It is helpful to know that the original Greek of the opening verse of this section begins “But from the fig tree learn the parable (parabole).” We have already encountered a fig tree as an object lesson in Matthew 21: 18-22, and Jesus again uses a familiar image which is associated with Israel to make a point about living a life ready for the coming of the kingdom of heaven and the return of the Son of Man. Like much of Matthew, these phrases are exceptionally packed with meaning. Previously the fig tree did not produce fruit at the appointed time, but now the fig tree’s preparation for summer provides a metaphor for the nearness of the Son of Man, his presence at the door.[1] There is perhaps a double sense of fulfillment in these images, both at the crucifixion/resurrection and at the expected arrival of God’s kingdom, and perhaps the first sense is the fulfillment that this generation will experience.

Matthew’s weaving in of Jesus as ‘Emmanuel’ continues to appear throughout the gospel in unexpected ways. Even though both Mark and Luke share the sentence, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away the boldness of this statement should cause us to ask who could make a statement like this and have it be true? The sense is heightened when one hears the echo from Isaiah:

The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass, The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40: 7-8)

As Richard B. Hays can insightfully state:

Christian interpreters lulled by familiarity with Matthew’s Gospel may not fully appreciate the theological boldness of the Christological assertations made at every turn by Matthew. But there can be no doubt that the word spoken by Jesus in Matthew 24:35 can be true only if it really is “the word of God,” only if the speaker who says “my words will not pass away” is in fact the God of Israel, God with us. (Hays 2016, 169-170)

Matthew has used a large number of titles, metaphors, narratives and teachings to help us discern with the eyes of faith who is near, at the very door, and whose words we are holding onto as we watch the seasons turn. Even in the midst of the impermanence of the individual disciples and the incompleteness of their faith stands the unending faithfulness of the words of the God who is ‘with them’ in Jesus.

Yet, even with being able to discern the nearness of the coming[2] Son of Man, the discernment of a day or hour remains not only outside the purview of the disciples but also the celestial beings that serve the heavenly Father and even Jesus does not know the time when the kingdom of heaven will arrive in its fullness. In contrast to many Christian groups throughout history who have attempted to divine from piecing together portions of scripture to provide a roadmap for the coming of the Son of Man and the advent of God’s kingdom, the second parable points to the sign of Noah.  The flood[3] had no signs of its coming which anyone, other than Noah and his family, had received. As David Garland can rightly state, “Unlike the ample warnings portending the destruction of Jerusalem, the final cataclysm will be as sudden and unforeseen as the one that overtook the generation of Noah.” (Garland 2001, 245) It is perhaps ironic that one of the verses taken out of context in many who expect a rapture comes in the midst of this parable where two are in a field or grinding meal and one is taken and one is left where, as mentioned earlier, in that theology to be ‘taken’ is a good things and to be ‘left’ is bad. The word for ‘taken’ [4] can have the connotation of taking into custody or arresting especially when contrasted with the word translated ‘left’[5] has the connotation of letting go or forgiving. Within both the imagery of the flood of Noah’s time and the image of the advancing kingdom of God and the imagery of a military advance the hope for any bystander would be to not be apprehended and imprisoned as an enemy of the new kingdom.

Within each of these three parables (the fig tree, the flood/cataclysm, and the slave put in charge by the house master) there is the theme of delay, and this theme will carry over into the upcoming parables of Matthew 25. Ultimately the followers of Christ in both Matthew’s time and our own have to navigate living between the times and between competing kingdoms. Their life in the present is to reflect their hope for the future. They trust that the Herods and the Caesars will not reign forever. There is a common tale about Martin Luther’s response when asked what he would do if Christ returned tomorrow, Luther in this story reportedly responded, “I would plant a tree.” Although it is likely that Luther never said this, it points to an orientation towards living life the right way today with the probability that Christ will not return tomorrow but the hope that Christ does.

I think the NRSV and other translations miss the proper breaks of these parables, and there is a sense that they flow one from another, but I believe that it makes sense to group verses 43-51 as the final parable dealing with the ‘housemaster’[6] and his slave put in charge of the household. Admittedly the metaphor changes from a thief breaking into he ‘housemaster’s’ property to the master returning to find the slave responsible for overseeing the household abusing the property, but the central focus on the household remains consistent. Just as the ‘housemaster’ does not know the time[7] the thief is coming, nor do the disciples or the slave in the parable know[8] the hour or day of the coming of the Son of Man. Those hearing this parable are to choose the path of the wise and faithful slave who manage ‘the household’[9] rather than the path of the wicked slave who ‘says to himself’[10]my master is delayed and then abuses the household and abides with drunkards. Matthew is not afraid to use the threat of punishment and the loss of one’s position as a motivation for ethical behavior.

Sometimes fiction can help illuminate a parable. Professor Alan Jacobs in an August 13, 2020 Trinity Forum Conversation proposed an illustration using the character of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings as the “Gandalf option” for thinking about one’s role as a follower of Christ. He points to a scene in The Return of the King where Gandalf confronts Denethor, the steward of Gondor. Denethor, thinking in terms of control, believe Gandalf is coming to claim power from him, and Gandalf after much patience responds:

Denethor, my lord steward, you need to understand something. The rule of no realm is mine, neither Gondor nor anywhere else. It’s not what I do. I’m not here to rule. I am here to try to nourish and to care for all the good things I find in the world…When I come across something that is alive and capable of bearing beauty, then I want to nurture that, and that is my call…If anything survives that can flower and bear fruit in the days after, then my work will not have been in vain. For I am also a steward.

I searched the Lord of the Rings for this, and although Gandalf does touch on some of these points this may be like the Luther quote above, illustrative even if not from the source mentioned. Like Alan Jacobs, I l find these insightful to the slave’s role when they are placed in charge of the household awaiting the master’s return. They are not to rule over, but to serve, to nurture beauty and life and try to keep the household fruitful to hand over to the rightful king. They pay attention to the season they work in, but they go about their work waiting for their master’s return but not being discouraged when the master is delayed. They are too busy caring for the master’s household in the interim.


[1] The Greek thura, it is helpful to translate this door or opening, especially since its other use in Matthew will be at the tomb (27:60)

[2] Greek parousia

[3] Literally cataclysm, Greek kataklusmos

[4] Greek paralambano

[5] Greek aphimi

[6] This is the Greek oikodespotes which links us to the parables in 20:1-16 and 21:33-46, also used in 10:25

[7] Literally which watch in the night (phulake)

[8] The disciples in 44 find the Son of Man coming at an hour ‘that they are not thinking’ (ou dokeite) while the slave’s master returns ‘in a day which they did not look for (prosdoka-same verb with preposition pros added to the front)

[9] Translating this ‘other slaves’ as many translations do misses the connection to the housemaster and the larger responsibility than merely caring for the other ‘slaves.’ This ‘slave’ is charged with caring for the property, the animals, and perhaps even children in the ‘housemasters’ absence.

[10] Literally ‘being in the heart of him’ the heart in Hebrew thought is the organ of will

Matthew 24: 1-28 Hope in the Midst of Suffering

Section of the Arch of Titus showing the Spoils of Jerusalem

Matthew 24: 1-28

Parallel Mark 13:1-28; Luke 17:5-24,37b

As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be faminesand earthquakes in various places: 8 all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

9 “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. 10 Then many will fall away,and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this good newsof the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.

15 “So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), 16 then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 17 the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; 18 the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 19 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. 21 For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’or ‘There he is!’ — do not believe it. 24 For false messiahsand false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Among Christians in the United States, this chapter which is sometimes called the ‘little apocalypse’ has become difficult to hear for two opposing reasons. The first reason is the way this, and other texts in both the New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures often labeled apocalyptic have been used and obsessed over in various Christian theologies and groups which focus on the return or coming (Greek parousia) of Christ and the advent of God’s kingdom almost like a script out of a horror movie where a vengeful God inflicts God’s wrath on all who oppose God’s will. While there is a grain of truth in this perspective when it comes to God’s judgment, it is helpful to remember that the grain of truth has often been overwhelmed by a barn full of chaff laid upon it in many modern Christian theologies. The second struggle is that the enlightenment has regarded the apocalyptic as an embarrassment and has often attempted to distance itself from the concept of God’s intervention in the world. It is important to realize that what we often transform into fear was the hope of the early followers of Jesus, they longed for Christ’s return and expected it and were willing to endure the struggles of their time to proclaim what they felt was a gospel of hope. This message also helped the early church endure the loss of several key symbols to the Jewish worldview and to see the suffering of the present as the painful but ultimately life-giving birth pangs of God’s new kingdom emerging in the midst of the world.

The temple was a focal point of the Jewish people in Judea and beyond. The temple in Jerusalem takes up a large amount of the city’s overall footprint and as N.T. Wright can state helpfully,

Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there. It was not so much a city with a temple in it; more like a temple with a small city round it. (Wright 1992, 225)

Matthew is not explicit that with Jesus departing the temple that the presence of God has left the temple, but with Matthew’s Emmanuel theology which permeates the gospel it may be implied in this scene. The temple, for all the grandeur of its reconstruction, will soon for not only the Christians but also for the rest of the Jewish people, will be displaced as a central symbol of their faith with its destruction. The coming destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, which occurs in the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, will cause a crisis which forces both the Jewish people and the early followers of Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, to reexamine their faith in terms of a new central place where God will meet them. For the followers of Jesus, one greater than the temple is currently among them and for Matthew’s community they await his return.

One of the consistent struggles of the disciples throughout the gospel is attempting to understand Jesus’ message in light of the traditional symbols and paradigms the learned. They are still ‘little faith ones’ which see in part, trust in part but still are struggling to let go of the beliefs and practices they learned over a lifetime. They see the temple primarily as a structure dedicated to God’s service, and so the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem seem like the opposite of what to expect after the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. Just like Jeremiah’s message which often fell on deaf ears before the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by Babylon, only to be remembered as the people reconstructed their identity in exile, these words of Jesus which at the time seemed strange, provided meaning, and hope in a future where the followers of Jesus are scattered among the nations. At a time when the Roman empire seems to be consumed by struggles for power, and when the early Christians themselves may be beginning to experience exclusion from their identity with the Jewish people and persecution among the nations these words encourage them to persevere.

Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of heaven has prepared his followers to expect God’s intervention in the world, and there are others in Judaism of the time who also expected God’s intervention in various ways. We know the Essenes and the Pharisees expected God to intervene in history to deliver Israel from its enslavement to foreign powers and (in the Essenes case) unfaithful shepherds leading in the temple. Jewish hope was not for an ending of the world, as is present in popular culture and several late Christian movements, but rather for a reordering of the world around God’s reign through Israel. When the disciples ask about Jesus’ coming (parousia) at the end of the eon (suntelias tou aionos)[1] they are not asking about the end of the world but the advent of God’s kingdom which will replace the kingdoms of Herod or the empire of Caesar. The idea of Christ’s return is probably imagined in imagery similar to a celebration after one of King David’s victories. The other source of imagery would be the celebrations of imperial might by Caesar, but these would be considered only a parody of the expected victorious celebration of the advent of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Yet, Jesus does not answer the disciples with signs of his coming to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven but instead gives warnings about events, false prophets and false messiahs/Christs which will lead people to trust in the wrong things.

Jesus warns his disciples “See (blepete) that no one leads you astray.” While the NRSV’s use of beware does capture the sense of warning, the disciples are to take an active role in ensuring that they do not follow false prophets and false Christs. It is helpful to remember that Christ and Messiah are the same term, ultimately meaning anointed king, in Greek and Hebrew respectively rather than a part of Jesus’ name. Others will come claiming the same title that Peter has previously applied to Jesus, and they will gather followers. It is helpful to know that in the decades after Jesus’ death there would be those making the claim to be the ‘king of the Jews’ who would lead the people of Judea in multiple uprisings against Rome (not only the Jewish War of 66-70 which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, but also the 115-117 Jewish revolts in Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus and the 133-135 rebellion of Bar-Kochba). This was a violent time for the Jewish people, and these followers of Jesus were not to follow these claimants who are attempting to establish God’s kingdom by force. Jesus’ followers are not to look for certain events which herald the advent of God’s kingdom on earth but to continue in their mission of teaching and proclamation to all nations. As Richard B. Hays can state, “The reality of the final judgment is crucial for Matthew, but not its timing.” (Hays 1996, 104) If these followers of Christ seek meaning in the midst of the struggle that is coming it can be read in the feminine imagery of ‘birth pangs’ that must occur before the advent of the new kingdom, or new creation in Paul’s language[2].

The suffering of these followers of Jesus in the midst of wars and rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes in to be expected. As Jesus could tell them in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5:10) now they are told they will face ‘oppression’[3] and some will be killed. Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, indicates that this oppression will come from the nations[4] instead of perhaps their own people which may be assumed in Mark and Luke and this may reflect the situation of Matthew’s community being away from Judea and experiencing persecution primarily from sources outside the Jewish people. Even among the community of Jesus followers some may be ‘caused to stumble,’[5] and others will ‘hand over,’[6] and hate will enter into these communities formed around loving God and one’s neighbor. In addition to false Christs there will be false prophets who tell people a message that did not come from God. The identity of the community is at stake here. Anna Case-Winters helpfully illustrates:

Lawlessness will afflict them and “the love of many will grow cold (v.12). This latter is perhaps the most serious threat for Matthew. Lawlessness (Greek anomia) is the ultimate crisis for a community centered around Torah. For love to “grow cold” signifies the loss of the very heart of Torah, which is love of God and neighbor. (Case-Winters 2015, 271)

The crisis of oppression, death, stumbling, betrayal, and hate threaten to extinguish[7] the love that the community is grounded in. But those who endure to the completion[8] will not be left on their own. This scene anticipates the great commission with its promise of both the authority and presence of Christ as well as the commission to take this gospel to all nations. As David Garland can helpfully state,

the church is not to circle the wagons until the danger passes but is to engage in active mission. In spite of the trauma, the community’s responsibility to love and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom remains in force. (Garland 2001, 242)

Matthew, who has been intent throughout the gospel in helping the reader understand scripture, adds the citation of Daniel to the comment about the ‘blasphemy’[9] standing in the holy place so the reader might find:

Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate. Daniel 11:31

Daniel, which most scholars would say is pointing to Antiochus IV Epiphanes a Seleucid king who persecuted the Jewish people leading to the Maccabean revolt, is now read in light of the actions of the Romans conquering the temple and removing the holy items for their victory parade in Rome. Instead of being drawn into this conflict with the empire of Rome, those followers of Christ in Judea are to flee. The war, which will continue beyond 70 as the imperial forces continue to quell their rebellious Jewish province, will indeed bring great suffering for the people of Judea. Ironically, these warnings to flee throughout this chapter are misread drastically by some later Christians into talking about a ‘rapture’ where the hope is to be the one taken but to the original hearers they would understand this as a warning to prepare to flee on short notice. They may need to flee without packing, without re-entering the house or taking additional garments.[10] Into this time of great affliction (thlipsis) those claiming authority as leaders, or those who claim the authority to interpret God’s will as prophets will come claiming to create meaning out of the suffering, but they are telling a false story. These false prophets and false Christs, who most likely portrayed themselves as being the saviors of Israel from her oppressors, were probably an attractive alternative to the message of Matthew’s community and the gospel they proclaimed. Yet, they are warned not to go out seeking these leaders and prophets.

To the early community of Jesus followers these warnings probably were intended to keep them away from the revolutionary movements gaining strength in Judea, Galilee and beyond. Matthew’s closing line that Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles[11]will gather may refer to the massing of Roman standards (eagles) gathered around Jerusalem. Although I believe Warren Carter rightly discerns the echo of Rome in this verse, I believe he misinterprets the direction of the verse. Carter indicates that the verse indicates a judgment on Rome and the corpse is the Roman army, (Carter 2001, 87-88) but I believe the plainer reading in the context is to avoid Judea and Jerusalem in revolt where the legions assemble to wage war against the revolt. The corpse may refer to the crucifixion, to the temple (especially in the context of this chapter) or to Jerusalem, but the geographical location would be understood.

In a passage like this one, especially where I have covered a lot of historical ground, it is perhaps more difficult to allow it to speak to the church today, yet I believe there is no way to separate Christianity from the apocalyptic portions of its scriptures.  Every time one prays the Lord’s Prayer asking for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, one is praying for God’s intervention to bring about God’s promised new eon. Yet, throughout the gospel and throughout history there have been forces which are opposed to God’s reign and the changes that will bring. What may be perceived as a blessing to the poor in spirit, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness and the others mentioned in the beatitudes may be experienced as a woe to those who have become invested in the maintaining of the current order or who may want to bring about God’s order in their own terms. This chapter, even as it has been frequently misused in modern times, holds a key insight for the way of Christ: it is a way of hope even as one endures suffering. The Christians were not zealots who attempted to bring about God’s order by driving out the Gentiles from the promised land, rather they were those sent into the nations bearing witness to the gospel of peace. They meet violence by turning the other cheek, the learn to find blessing even when they are oppressed, and they find meaning amidst the times of affliction and tribulation by trusting in God’s hearing of their prayers and acting on them. This is a hope that would be at home in the psalms and the prophets and has sustained Christians for millennia. It is a hope that has sustained non-violent groups through the years and as I write this the lyrics of “We Shall Overcome,” used in the civil rights movement but has its origins in Charles Tindley’s adaptation of the 19th Century Spiritual “No More Auction Block for Me.” Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome one day, and that overcoming comes when God changes the world bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.  Until that day we work, and we wait, and we suffer, and we hope. We hold fast to what we have received and are alert for false prophets and false messiahs which proclaim cheap and easy paths to claiming God’s kingdom


[1] We again encounter the common Matthew word telos, here with the prefix sun attached to it, meaning completion, consummation, end. I think the older word eon is helpful, since it is both a direct transliteration of the Greek aion but also does not have some of the baggage of ‘the end of the age’ in Christian parlance.

[2] Paul can also use the imagery of labor pains of the creation giving birth to something new in Romans 8:18-25

[3] This is the Greek word thlipsis which occurs twice in this passage meaning ‘oppression, affliction, or tribulation’

[4] Ethnos can also be translated Gentiles.

[5] This is a passive form Scandalizo, where we get the English scandalize from, which has the connotation of stumbling. Has been used frequently in Matthew.

[6] Paradidomi is an important word in all the gospels which means both betray, but more literally to hand over (presumably into another’s custody)

[7] The Greek Psucho can mean grow cold or extinguish. I think the future indicative tense leads to the more absolute reading, especially when paired with lawlessness.

[8] Telos again used as a term of completion in verses 13 and 14.

[9] Bdelugma-blasphemy, abomination, detestable thing. NRSV ‘desolating sacrilege’

[10] Imation, which is translated a coat by the NRSV, means garments or clothing in general.

[11] Aetoi can be translated vultures, as the NRSV does, but it often refers to eagles

Lost Dreams

Child by fabii from http://www.deviantart.com/art/child-61251692

Sometimes I imagine you running through some unending shopping mall

Realizing that somewhere along the trip you lost hold of me in the crowd

Perhaps you stopped to gaze at some curiosity in a shop window for a moment

And I was gone, moved on by the crush of the crowd’s unending, unfeeling flow

Tears streaming down your cheeks for the companion no longer there

As both our futures were severed by forces beyond our control

 

Like a parent who came to a new country seeking hope for their family

Only to find that family ripped asunder at the border, children caged

Fighting bureaucrats and their cold, unfeeling mountains of paperwork

Fanning the embers of hope for some eventual reunification

Only to find out that you are gone, given to a new family to foster

Just a dream who has hopefully found a new father to be cherished by

 

Some part of me won’t accept that dreams die when reality shatters them

When life moves on, when circumstances change, when new dreams are born

Something makes me hope that they find a new heart that beats with theirs

Someone who cherishes them the way that I did as they grew and changed

That they have a future beyond the fracture, and that they find joy and love

That you may be the dream that another person raises up for the world to see

Barren Seeds

A close picture of soil in my gardenl

The soil was turned, the weeds and rocks removed
Seeds placed at the proper depth and thoroughly watered
So many have cast their seeds into the waiting earth
Seeing the germination, the growth and the eventual fruition
The earth giving birth to another healthy harvest

Sometimes after germination pests come and root in the garden
Floods and winds damage the plants or drought dries the roots
Struggling against the elements to shield the tender shoots
Yet, what can be done when plants miscarry before they can emerge?
The seeds rotting in the dirt, disintegrating in nature’s womb

Perhaps they are dust, and like the sower who sows, to dust they return
Some unknown problem with seed or soil, parasite or pest
Birds may have come to consume the seed on the ground
Rodent may have rooted in the fecund earth for the precious seed
Sun may have baked the seeds and made the ground infertile

With the termination of the germination the ground lies barren
The hopes reserved for this season are buried in the earth
Never to rise again. For the season’s seeds have been sown
The storehouse sits empty and the store shelves are bare
Until a new season emerges when new seeds can be sown
When the soil is turned again, and the seed placed lovingly inside

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.

 

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.

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

Bleeding Words

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

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

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

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

New Growth

Vincent Van Gogh, Tree Roots, (1890)

 

Water washes away the sins of the night, pushing them downward to the gutters
Running back through the storm sewers and into the rivers and eventually into the sea
Where they sink down, deeper and deeper, into the abyss where no light shines
Blood is thicker than water, so in the deluge of the summer monsoon it sinks
As the rain washes away the chains that bind and the relations which smother
Allowing the newly baptized child to walk through the renewing waters as a new thing

Perhaps the blood will wash deep into the earth, passing on its life to the fecund ground
Reaching down towards hell with its roots, or perhaps rising towards heaven in the trees
Or perhaps doing both at once connecting the hell of the past and the reborn hope
Forming a perpetual reminder of the journey from darkness to light, from seed to sapling
That even new growth comes from the ground fertilized by the struggles we lived through
That only the killing frost of winter can prepare the earth for the new growth of spring

Death and life, bound together like the elements of ground and air and water and fire
Dying and rising, sin and salvation, blood, breath, water, new hope and long departed dreams
The past may no longer be seen, may have washed away in the rain and still it remains
Flowing through our veins, the blood of our forefathers and the sweat of our children
The earth gives its silent testimony of the blood it has ingested and the tears it drank
In the flowers, leaves and grass which cover it like a blanket, its bright quilt of resurrection

Psalm 40 Experienced Faithfulness and the Hope of Deliverance

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

Psalm 40

<To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.>
1 I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.
4 Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
11 Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
12 For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me.
13 Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me.
14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt.
15 Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
16 But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the LORD!”
17 As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.

Any deliverance we may experience during our life is provisional. That doesn’t mean that the deliverance is insignificant or unimportant, merely that there will be future crises that we encounter in our lives. The experience of God’s faithfulness and the answer to one’s prayer does not grant us a life exempt from future struggles or conflict. Yet, these experiences of God’s faithfulness can give shape to the prayers that we state when we encounter a new crisis. Our history with God’s actions on our behalf teach us to trust that God does hear our prayer and respond and gives us a hope for deliverance in the future as we endure what hardships may come.

Psalm 40 moves from praise for a past time of salvation into a prayer in a moment of crisis. Some people have broken the psalm into two pieces and dealt with it as two distinct psalms, especially since verses 13-17 comprise the entirety of Psalm 70. Yet, here they are joined into one psalm and there is wisdom in the way Psalm 40 flows. The movement from the experience of faithfulness to praise to finding oneself needing to callon God’s deliverance is a movement that is frequent in the life of faith.

The psalm begins with recollection. The petitioner remembers a time when they waited on the LORD’s deliverance and their waiting was recognized. They were drawn out of a metaphorical pit and miry bog and placed in a secure place. God was their rock and a foundation which proved trustworthy to rely upon and to build their life around. Their response to this deliverance was one of praise, of singing and or testifying to others in the community what they LORD had done for them.

As the praise of the psalmist continues they can proclaim that ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ is the one who makes the LORD their trust. Earlier the path of happiness was for those who do not follow the wicked and delight in the law of God (Psalm 1) or for those whose sin has been forgiven (Psalm 32) and now the path of happiness is for those who trust in the LORD instead of any other object of faith. Instead of trusting in their own strength or turning aside to follow other gods the faithful one finds peace and happiness in relying on their God. Their trust has been rewarded by seeing the wondrous deeds towards the faithful community in the past and they remind themselves of the blessings they have received. The path of the ‘happy’ one is a path of gratitude for the continued provision of God throughout their life and in the life of their community.

What the psalmist believes their LORD desires is a life that is lived according to the covenant rather than sacrifice and offering. Like the prophets (see for example 1 Samuel 15: 22; Isaiah 1: 12-17; Hosea 6:6 and Amos 5: 21-24), here the psalmist recounts that the LORD desires more than merely right worship. The God of the psalms is not swayed by lavish sacrifices or offerings or worship. No sacrifice meets what God truly wants for God’s people. Instead it is a life lived in trust, praise and obedience that is desired by God. While worship, sacrifice and offering are all a part of this life they are not sufficient.

Interpretations vary on the ‘scroll of the book of the law’ in verse seven. I read this as a way of talking about a life that conforms to God’s law. Perhaps the person brings in a scroll of either a narrative of the way in which God rescued them, or the psalm itself becomes the offering, or the scroll is an accounting of how the individual has lived in accordance with God’s will. As Rolf Jacobson can state

“the psalmist delights in doing what God truly does find acceptable. And what God delights in is a life that conforms itself to God’s teaching (tôr; see comment on Ps. 1:2)—a life so conformed to God’s teaching that the torah is alive deep (betôk mēāy) a person.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 379)

Like Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and Ezekiel 36: 26-28 we have within this psalm a heart that has the covenant imprinted on it.  Their experience of living the law, of trusting in the LORD, and knowing the benefit of the LORD’s protection and provision form the content of their witness to the community of faith. Their life and their song become tied together into a public act of worship the God who has heard them.

Yet, the faithful life is not exempted from strife and trials and within this psalm the texture changes as the psalmist is again in a place where they need to call upon the LORD’s salvation. In the past they have called, and God has answered and here again they lift their cry for God’s mercy, steadfast love and faithfulness. Evils and iniquities have somehow occluded the psalmist’s ability to see God’s action on their behalf. Those who desire their hurt may be those actively working against them or seeking to profit from their misfortune or they may simply be those who take pleasure in another person’s suffering. But the psalmist prays out of the position of trusting in God’s deliverance, a trust that has been validated in the past. They are poor and needy, they are vulnerable and yet they trust that God sees their turmoil and hears their cry. They recounted waiting patiently in the past for the LORD’s deliverance and now they are in the space of waiting again. They ask for God to act quickly to restore them to the place where once again they can testify to God’s deliverance and how God has again set their feet upon the rock instead of being caught in the pit or the miry bog.