Tag Archives: Little Faith Ones

Matthew 17: 14-20 A Little Faith is Enough

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

Matthew 17: 14-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 16: 1-12 Demanding a Sign or Needing Instruction

By Unknown – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection: entry 453683, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32908844

Matthew 16: 1-12

Parallels Mark 8: 11-2; Luke 12: 54-56, 12:1, 11:29

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” 8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? 9 Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” 12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

The Pharisees, the Sadducees and the disciples all fail to understand Jesus in this passage, but there is a critical difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees whom Jesus leaves and the disciples whom Jesus teaches: the openness to the work that has been done by Jesus already. While the Pharisees and Sadducees in the narrative demand a new sign from the heavens the disciples are reminded of the acts of power and the teaching of Jesus to correct their misunderstanding. It seems a little faith can make a lot of difference in the relationship between Jesus and those who approach, and yet even the faithless will not be left without a sign. But the sign which is given will not be a sign easily accepted by the religious leaders who are in conflict with Jesus or the disciples attempting to follow him where he leads. This scene marks a transition in the narrative as the focus intensifies on the disciples and their journey to understanding who Jesus is and what being a faithful one of his followers will mean for their own lives.

The scene begins, presumably in the region of Magadan, with Jesus separated from his disciples and approached by the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees have been in conflict with Jesus throughout the previous eight chapters but this is the first introduction of the Sadducees since their encounter with John the Baptist in Matthew 3. The Pharisees and Sadducees may have been competing for positions of authority and prominence among the Jewish people and they did have theological differences but both groups find themselves in conflict with John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus seems to have little use for the representatives of these groups other than to confront the way they impede the advance of the kingdom of heaven and lead others astray.

The Pharisees and Sadducees come to test Jesus, and the word for test (Greek piarazo) alludes to the temptation of Jesus where the tempter (Greek piarazon) attempts to challenge Jesus’ identity and one of Jesus’ responses is to quote Deuteronomy 6:17 “Do not put the LORD you God to the test (Greek ekpiarazopiarazo with he prefix ek attached).  The Pharisees and scribes already asked for a sign in 12: 38-42 and received the same answer, no sign except the sign of Jonah, but even more recently Jesus said to his disciples, about the Pharisees, “Every plant that my Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides to the blind.” (15: 13-14) We expect the Pharisees and Sadducees to be unsatisfied with Jesus, but it is worth slowing down to attend to the answer Jesus gives in this scene. Jesus takes their demand from a sign from heaven and shows they are looking for the wrong thing, the signs of the times have been all around them. Most English translations obscure the play on words going on when the Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign from the heaven (Greek ouranos) and Jesus replies with the accepted wisdom the “It will be fair weather, for the heavens (ouranos) are brilliant red in the evening, or it will be storms because the heavens (ouranos) are gloomy and brilliant red in the morning. They know how to interpret the face of the heavens (prosopon tou ouranos) but are not able to know the signs of the time. (kaipos-appointed time) They are looking to the heavens, but as Jesus said in 12: 40, the sign of the times they will receive will be, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” The sign they seek will not be in the heavens, but in the earth. They fail to see in all the things Jesus has done the presence of the kingdom of heaven among them, and so Jesus leaves them to attend to the disciples who are open to learning.

The disciples enter the scene unaware of the previous conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and we are given the key to their misunderstanding of Jesus in their failure to take bread with them to this new location. When Jesus says, “See and attend to (that) from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” Most English translations smooth this out to make the focus the ‘yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ missing the crucial preposition apo which means from, but this also misses why the disciples may think of bread which is made out of leaven folded into flour. While the kingdom of heaven may be like a woman who fold leaven into three measures of flour, (13:33) what is resulting from the actions of the Pharisees and Sadducees is, in Jesus’ view, decidedly not the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wants his disciples to see and attend to what results from the Pharisees and Sadducees, but they begin discussing the lack of bread they have.

Most English translations of Matthew tend to make Jesus sound angry and judgmental towards his disciples (try to read Jesus’ response to the disciples in a kind manner, it is difficult in English) but the Greek which the scriptures are translated from leaves open a much softer reading. Those who have followed this reading to this point will be familiar with my translation of oligopistoi/oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’[1] but the harshness of the NRSV and other’s translations carries throughout Jesus response. I would modify this to:

And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “Why are you discussing among yourselves not having bread little faith ones? You don’t understand yet, but rather remember the five bread for the five thousand and how many baskets (of pieces of bread) you received. Or rather the seven bread and the four thousand and how many large baskets (of pieces of bread) you received. How do you not understand (now) that not about bread I spoke to you? But attend to (the things) from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.[2]

Perhaps, rather than berating the disciples for their misunderstanding of what was said, Jesus interprets for them what he said as he has done with multiple parables previously. The disciples may be ‘little faith ones’ but that ‘little faith’ will enable them to understand, at least in part, who Jesus is and be willing to accept correction when they become stumbling blocks. This faith will allow them to see what has been revealed by the Father in Heaven. As Jesus said earlier, “you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (11: 25) Now the Pharisees and Sadducees in our narrative are the ‘wise and intelligent’ who cannot see while the disciples, the little faith ones, are the infants who have truth revealed to them.

[1] This term always refers to the disciples of Jesus and occurs in 6:30, 8:26. 14:31, and 17:20 in addition to here.

[2] The punctuation included in NA28 indicates questions in the middle sentences, but like English, a line of questions can be statements leading up to a final question. Otherwise the translation stays pretty literal to the Greek (insertions for context shown in parenthesis.

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)

Faith in Matthew’s Gospel

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

 

Faith, believing, and unbelief are frequently used terms in Matthew, all originating with the Greek pistis. When modern people use terms like faith or belief they typically are referring to some type of cognitive assent-I believe certain things to be true, but the frequent usage of faith related terms in Matthew indicates definitions closer openness or trust than some type of cognitive assent to certain beliefs. There is a certain elasticity to how Matthew employs these terms but when we think about faith in Matthew it is not belief in the dogmatic sense.

As I’ve alluded to several times while discussing portions of Matthew that we view the world differently than the people that Matthew’s gospel is written to. I still find one of the more helpful ways to think of this difference comes from the philosopher Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age where he differentiates between our ‘disenchanted’ world and the ‘enchanted’ world of our ancestors. Most ancient cultures, and the readers of Matthew’s gospel certainly fit within this characterization, believed there were times, places and individuals where the spiritual side of reality permeated their reality. Divine and demonic forces were actively at work in the world and responsible for sickness, famine, war, acts of nature and could be at work for or against the individual living in this enchanted world. Demons might cause a person to be mute or have a seizure, they might cause a storm to come upon the sea or the crops to fail. God or another deity might bring a bountiful harvest or hold back the rains as a judgment on the lack of ‘faithfulness’ of the chosen people. Ritual, when done by the priests, or magic, when done by others, often tapped into these people, times, and places where the spiritual world drew close to our own.

The gospel of Matthew is written from the perspective that the spiritual realm of the LORD the God of Israel, the Kingdom of Heaven, has now drawn near and turning towards the approaching Kingdom of Heaven is the proper response. (Matthew 4: 17) Although this is a minimalistic way of putting things, in Jesus we have a person where the spiritual side of reality associated with the God of Israel is able to act upon the earth and against the demonic forces that enslave, the sin that condemns and the lack of holiness that excludes. Faith or belief in Matthew’s gospel seems to reflect an openness or an awareness of this reality that some have while others do not. Some, like the centurion and the Canaanite woman, seem to perceive this reality in Jesus without having the background of the Jewish scriptures and practices, but instead use their own frameworks to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus means.

A special usage of this term, oligopistoi, what I’ve translated ‘little faith ones’ is always used in relation to Jesus’ disciples. They may not demonstrate the moments of clarity or openness that those coming to Jesus requesting a healing or exorcism may, but their faith is enough to recognize the call that Jesus extends to them. Traditionally translators and commentators have viewed ‘little faith’ as a criticism but Jesus, even asked to increase the disciples’ faith in Matthew 17: 20 (after they were unable to exorcize the demon of the son the father brings to them) tells that if they have ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’ they can command mountains to move. Being a ‘little faith one’ is not a crisis, for indeed these little faith ones will be sent out with the authority to heal and cast out demons and carry out the mission in chapter ten as emissaries of the kingdom and workers in the harvest. Jesus seems to be indicating that those with a small amount of faith can still do incredible things. As Mark Allan Powell can state,

So, Jesus seems to be saying, the amount of faith is not what’s important; you just need to know what to do with the faith you have. Quit worrying about whether you have enough faith and start asking, “Which mountains does God want me to move?” (Powell, 2004, p. 112)

Jesus may be able to expound about people like the Canaanite woman or the centurion that they have ‘great’ faith (in contrast to the little faith of the disciples) and they may simply have a greater openness to what God is doing in the world. This is not limited to Jesus’ time. There are many who are outside of organized religion who demonstrate a greater openness to God’s action than those who have been shaped by congregations. That doesn’t mean that faith and understanding cannot coexist, merely that they are not the same thing. I do think when Matthew invites the disciples who come to hear his gospel into the world of Jesus, he is also trying to invite us into a world where God’s kingdom is active and present, where in Jesus we meet the ‘God who is with us’ and to invite us, whether our faith is great or little, to hear about the people whose faith enabled them to see in Jesus the opportunity for God’s healing, forgiveness, and even resurrection.

Matthew 8: 23-27 What Sort of Man is This part 1

Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm (1633)

Matthew 8: 23-27

Parallels Mark 4: 35-41, Luke 8: 22-25

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

Matthew weaves a tightly connected narrative that uses placement and word choice to give us several clues to give us insight into who Jesus is and what following him will mean for the chosen disciples. Immediately after a brief interruption where a scribe and a disciple come seeking to follow with stated or unstated conditions where language gives us clues that the scribe probably does not follow, but the disciple likely does we are brought back into a trio of confrontations which give us insight into the power that Jesus’ wields and encourage us to wonder with his disciples, “What sort of man is this?” The scene transitions quickly with Jesus getting into the boat (presumably of the boats of the four fishermen called in Matthew 4: 18-22) and his disciples follow him including, presumably, the disciple who asked Jesus previously for leave to bury his father.

Jesus has among his disciples several who are familiar with the Sea of Galilee because it was the place where they worked as fishermen. Boats at this time are small compared to sea faring ships of modern times, but the storm is literally a ‘great shaking that occurred on the sea.’  The story in both the Markan and Matthean version of this narrative is tied to the story that follows with the Gedarene demoniacs and the original hearers may have understood the storm as demonic and attempting to prevent Jesus from crossing to the other side. In our modern language we can refer to storms as an ‘act of God’ but in the spiritually porous worldview of our ancestors in the faith, spiritual forces both good and evil were actively at work in their world in not only disease but also in weather events like storms or famine. Additionally, at both the crucifixion and the resurrection in Matthew the same word that is the ‘great shaking on the sea’ (seismos) is used for the earthquake in Matthew 27 and 28. There is additional resonance with he crucifixion as the word for sleep here can have the same figurative usage we have in English when we say someone has ‘fallen asleep’ as a way of speaking about death and the word for waking (both by the disciples and Jesus getting up, various forms of the Greek egeipoo) is the same word used for rising up when talking about the resurrection in Matthew 27 and 28.

Another resonance within this story would be the story of Jonah, where Jonah (like Jesus) is asleep in the hull of a small boat while a great storm is overwhelming the small craft. While Jonah’s sleeping through the storm on a sea faring (therefore more robust vessel) is more plausible than the small boat that Jesus was on, but there does seem to be a literary connection with the basic narrative of the stories:

    • Departure by boat
    • a violent storm at sea
    • a sleeping main character
    • badly frightened sailors
    • a miraculous stilling related to the main character
    • a marveling response by the sailors (Marcus, 2000, p. 337)

The literary resonance with the Jonah shines an interesting light upon the question the disciples ask of “who is this.” In Jonah’s narrative the one who provides the great calm upon the waters is the God of Israel, while here Jesus ‘rebukes’ the wind and sea (the word rebuke can be used to silence another person but also can be used in casting out a demon, ex. Matthew 17: 18) and there becomes a great calm. The ‘great shaking’ of the storm and the ‘great calm’ of the sea after the storm are connected and yet whatever the source of the ‘great shaking’ the one who by rebuking the wind and sea brings about the great calm is greater.

Sea of Galilee Boat or “Jesus Boat” in the Yidal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar, Tiberias Israel Ancient fishing boat from 1st Century AD. Boat is 27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide.

Unique to Matthew’s telling of this narrative is the disciples’ plea to Jesus, “Lord, save us!” This pairing of Lord and save also resonates with the language of the Hebrew scriptures in relation to the LORD the God of Israel saving the people (2 Kings 19: 19; Psalms 6:4, 55: 16, 106: 47, 109: 26; 116:4, 118:25, 143:9; Isaiah 36:8, 37:20, 38: 28; Jeremiah 30:11). Matthew again invites us to consider who is Jesus in relation to the LORD the God of Israel. Instead of using direct quotations, like earlier in the narrative, now Matthew narrates the story in a manner that alludes to several times in Israel’s story where the LORD acted and allusively invites us into the position of the little faith ones in the boat with Jesus who are asking, “Who then is this that event the wind and the sea are obedient/subject to him?”

As mentioned above when commenting on Matthew 6:30 the translation of oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’ goes to the heart of my struggle with the way that Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is perceived. While “you of little faith” is a correct translation, it is impossible to say this without it being heard as an insult which I do not think is the intention in Matthew. I am going against the grain of the way this term has been read, but the ‘little faith ones’ are always Jesus’ disciples who are caught between the ‘great shakings’ of the storms and the ‘great peace.’ This phrase can be translated harshly as, “why are you cowardly—you of little faith?” but my reading of this is much gentler, spoken not in the commanding voice that rebuked the wind and sea but a softer, more compassionate, “why are you afraid my little faith ones?” Jesus never goes out and calls the ‘great faith ones’ but instead intentionally sticks with these little faith ones and never offers to increase their faith. The little faith ones are the ones who seems to respond in wonder to what Jesus is doing and can be in the place to ask, “who then is this.” Others who we will soon meet in the story will have answers to this question, but as little faith ones we are invited to be astonished and wonder what sort of man Jesus is and how he might be related to the LORD the God of Israel.

Matthew 6: 19-34 Wealth, Anxiety and Righteousness

Evelyn De Morgan, The Worship of Mammon (1909)

Matthew 6: 19-34

Parallel Luke 12: 33-34, Luke 11: 34-36, Luke 16: 13, Luke 12: 22-32

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Following three practices of righteousness (acts of mercy or giving alms, prayer and fasting) we encounter a set of interconnecting proverbs connecting the relationship of the disciple to wealth and the anxiety encountered around possessions. From the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve seen an emphasis on possessions, giving to those who beg and not refusing those who want to borrow and doing acts of mercy in this kingdom of heaven where the poor in spirit can be blessed. This kingdom of God that the disciple is to seek depends upon the abundance of God’s provisions rather than the disciple’s ability to accumulate wealth, power and property to secure their own future. Their treasure rests with the God they serve and their trust in God’s provision frees them from the anxiety produced by the cares of the world and the lures of wealth.

Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment where the disciple is to, “fear, love and trust God above all things” (Luther, 1978, p. 13) taps into the same wisdom as these sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. Love and trust in God are bound together and placing trust in something other than God, like wealth, interferes not only with the trust in God but also the disciples’ ability to love God. If the kingdom of heaven is approaching, like the Sermon on the Mount assumes and Jesus’ practice of sharing the table anticipates, then images like the image of the banquet in Isaiah 55 probably shape the imagination of Jesus’ hearers. As Isaiah can state:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Isaiah 55:1-2

I’m convinced that the great idol in the United States is security. People are told to attempt to secure the future for their retirement, for their health, and entire industries are engaged in helping people achieve this illusory security they seek. Yet this displacement of joy and happiness to a future time, or the inability to secure one’s own security is a source of anxiety for many people. The accumulation of wealth on earth can provide moments of happiness and treasures and wealth are not bad things, unless they are placed in a position of prominence where they become the meaning of our life, the thing that we serve. Yet, there is a note of hope in this passage because how we use our wealth can help lead us to the life we desire to live. As Mark Allan Powell can state,

Jesus does not want us to give from the heart. He wants us to give according to where we believe our hearts should be, to give according to where we hope our hearts will someday be. Give of your treasure and let your heart catch up. (Powell, 2004, p. 140)

The proverb about the eye being the lamp of the body may seem out of place in between two proverbs talking about treasures or wealth, but when paired with the other two proverbs (and the longer saying about anxiety and possessions) we can see the orientation of the eye towards wealth or possessions is the darkness spoken of here. The culminative effect of this group of sayings is to encourage the disciple to make the wise choice of looking (or seeking) first for the kingdom of God. In contrast to the kingdom of God which is light, seeking the ways of this world is the unwise way of darkness.

Jesus is calling his disciples to trust in God and not to have divided loyalties. As he will later share in the Parable of the Sower those who are ensnared by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth will choke the word that has been sowed among them and make them yield nothing. (Matthew 13: 22) One can trust in wealth or one can trust in God. The NRSV translates mammon as wealth, and while this is correct it misses the way in which the text personifies wealth into an entity which is able to possess and demand allegiance. Mammon becomes an alternative, and an attractive one for many people, to trusting in God to provide security.

After these three proverbs which point to the wisdom of trusting and serving God rather than attempting to secure our own security by hoarding or serving ‘wealth’ we are told therefore not to be anxious about our life and the things we need.  The Greek merimnao which is translated worry by the NRSV has the meaning of anxiety or even obsession about the object of concern. (Allen, 2013, p. 77)  Food, drink and clothing can become objects of this anxiety when one begins to adopt the worldview of providing one’s own security and provision. God takes care of the birds of the air, the grass of the field and the righteous will be provided for as well. In a world which seeks to ensnare the righteous in its snares and the lure of mammon the disciple of God is called to trust that God has given them enough, that God will provide daily bread and drink and clothing. They are to be different than the nations, to embody a different relationship with the fruit of their labor. The disciples do not abandon sowing or working, but instead this sowing and working is a part of their life before God instead of their own struggle to secure their own future. The future will bring worries of its own, but the God who is faithful today will also be faithful in the future. They live seeking righteousness knowing that they will be filled with the bread and drink of the banquet of God’s kingdom. They seek the security and wealth of the kingdom of God even though they may be the poor in spirit or those persecuted for righteousness sake.

One final translation note that I think is important to hearing Matthew in a less judgmental way. In verse thirty we have the first use of the Greek word oligopistos which is almost universally translated ‘You of little faith’ which is a proper English rendering of this adjective which always appears in the second person form (mostly plural but once as a singular form because it is addressing Peter). This term occurs four additional times throughout Matthew[1], always addressing either a disciple or disciples. My struggle with the traditional translation is the statement, ‘You of little faith’ in English implies a biting and condescending tone. The more I’ve listened to Matthew’s gospel, the more I’ve read this term as ‘little faith ones,’ a term of endearment or compassion. Instead of upbraiding the disciples who are listening for not having enough faith or trusting enough, perhaps Jesus here, and throughout the gospel is encouraging his little faith ones who are gathered around him, encountering the struggle of seeking the kingdom of God while the snares of the world are still present.

A part of this translation of oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’ goes to the heart of my struggle with the way the Sermon on the Mount is often presented. If Jesus is the embodiment of the judgmental God who is setting an unrealistic perfectionistic standard, then being derided as ‘You of little faith’ makes sense within this context. Yet, I am an heir of the Lutheran reformation which began with one man’s search for a gracious God, and I know that informs my view of Jesus who we meet in the scriptures. It is a part of my search for a way of reading the Sermon in a way that goes beyond an individualistic and moralistically perfectionist reading. I understand this reading is going against the grain of established scholarship, but it is also done for the little faith ones, like myself, who go to the scriptures seeking wisdom and seek the kingdom while still struggling with: the anxieties of the world, having both treasures and hearts in the right place, having eyes turned toward the kingdom of heaven and feeling the pull of two opposing masters.

[1] Matthew 8: 23-26; 14: 28-31; 16: 5-10; 17: 18-20