A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost: August 20, 2017: Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:

15:11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

15:13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.

15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

15:15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”

15:16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?

15:17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

15:18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

15:19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

15:20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

15:22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

15:23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

15:26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

15:27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

A Question or Two:

  • That which goes into the sewer doesn’t make a person unclean?  Really?
  • Why does Jesus call the mother a dog?  What would your mother say if you did that?
  • The mother said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  How did she hold her head when she said this?  How did she hold her shoulders?  Try a few different possibilities.

Some Longer Reflections:

There hadn’t been Canaanites in centuries.

Read that sentence again.  There had not been people who were properly called “Canaanites” for centuries.  So why does the storyteller refer to the woman in this scene as a “Canaanite?”

Do not answer this question too quickly.

This is a question to contemplate, not to dispose of with a snap answer.

Why does the storyteller have Jesus interact with a Canaanite?  In the parallel version of this scene in the gospel of Mark, Jesus meets a Syro-Phoenician woman, not a Canaanite.  That identification marks her as an inheritor of political, social, and economic power from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, that enemy of the Jewish people remembered for his cruelty (described in the books of Maccabees).  That identification makes Mark’s story a confrontation with a well-remembered historic enemy.  The scene in Mark is marked by sharp conflict (though it is often obscured by translators): Jesus’ words to the mother when he relents are best read as harsh (“For saying this, Go!”), and when the mother finds the daughter, she is “thrown on the bed, the demon gone.”  Why is she “thrown” (and why do translators cover this up)?  There is no answer.

But in Matthew, the scene is harsher at the beginning.  Jesus wants nothing to do with the mother, and she follows after him, shouting.  Jesus does not answer her at all, and his actions make him look like one of the Ultra-Orthodox (in any faith group) who angrily refuses any kind of contact with a woman, especially a foreigner.  The disciples are no better.  They are at least trying to drink the Ultra-Orthodox Kool-aid.

But at the end of the scene, Jesus is quite amazed, and genuinely changed.  “Great is your faith!”, he says.  He had no idea!  “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  His sharpness is gone.  He is converted.

And the woman is called a Canaanite.

That means that she is being identified as one of the people marked for extermination in the book of Joshua, who shares a name with Jesus, by the way.  At the beginning of the scene, Yehoshua (Jesus) adopts the stance of his namesake from the distant past.  At the end, he is different.

So, what is going on here?

Maybe the storyteller is giving us a glimpse of a rigid Jesus, Ultra-Orthodox in his inclinations, who is changed.  If so, this scene is a foreshadowing of what I think happens in Matthew’s whole story.  For my developed argument for this interpretive line, see my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (The Pilgrim Press).

Of course I like this possibility.

But I think that there is even more here.

The storyteller is calling into the story, not just a mother, but also a memory, a remembrance, even.  The storyteller is staging a remembrance of the slaughter carried out by Joshua when they invaded the land.  This is not idly done.  This remembrance makes this a scene of historic repentance: the Canaanites are shown to be capable of real faithfulness, and as such, should not have been slaughtered.  The entrance to the Land of Promise (this remembrance implies) ought not to have been accomplished through genocidal slaughter, and the argument for that slaughter (they will lead you away from true faithfulness) is revealed to be false, at best mistaken, and more likely ignorant and inexcusable.

If that is what the storyteller is doing, this scene offers a pointed reflection.  I live in South Dakota (a state that carries the name of the people who lived in harmony with this land before European-Americans arrived and dispossessed them.  I live not very far from the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.  I have friends who teach at, or graduated from, universities that were constructed, in part, by the labor of people who were held as slaves, again by European-Americans.

What would it take for those of us who are descended from those European-Americans (for starters) to engage in a similar act of remembrance?  What would it take for us to say, with Jesus, “Great is your faithfulness!”

That’s a good question, I think.

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday After Pentecost: August 13, 2017: Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew 14:22-33
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

14:32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

14:33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus walk on the water?
  • Why does Peter want to do that, too?
  • Are their reasons the same?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are lots of hooks in this scene, lots of hooks on which you could hang a sermon.

I will look at only one of them.

A dear friend, a gifted pastor and a strong preacher, drew my attention to this hook some years ago.  If you see Pastor Steve Martens, thank him.

Some basics:

  1. Jesus is alone.  That is a little odd.  He dismissed the crowds, and apparently the disciples took off with them.  Really?
  2. The disciples are in a boat.  They have been in a boat before: at least a few of them fished for a living.  Paul Minear, now years ago, pointed out that boats are used as symbols for the Church.  If he was correct, then this is a story for a Church that is battered by the waves.  This is not an unheard-of situation.
  3. Jesus comes to them walking on the sea.  The sea is a regular symbol for the dangerous chaos that hides under all systems of apparent order and safety.  It can break out at any time.  Jesus appears to be master of chaos, so masterful that he can stroll on its surface, easily and calmly.
  4. Peter gets out of the boat.

Here is where my friend and teacher, Steve Martens, asked a powerful question.  We were reading this scene together with other members of a text study group we belong to.  We were noticing the standard readings of the scene that give Peter credit for daring to get out of the boat, and then laugh at him (perhaps with a twinge of recognition) when he feels fear and begins to sink.  We even noted that when Jesus shifted his name from Simon to Peter he got it just right: Peter = Rock, as in “sinks like a ….”

Then Steve asked his question: Wouldn’t it have been better for Peter to stay in the boat and row?  Did Peter fail his test of faithfulness, not when he “noticed the strong wind,” but when he asked to be Master of Chaos, just like Jesus?

This is, to my ear, a great question.

Standard readings of this scene do not think so.  I was reading one just this morning, and it was stirring, inspiring, even.  The interpreter was encouraging his readers to step out of the boat and discover their inner “Wave Walker.”  This hidden inner identity was set parallel to that of Clark Kent.

Who doesn’t want to be Super(wo)man?

My friend’s question suggests a question in reply: Wouldn’t it have been better if Peter hadn’t wanted to be Superman?

Go carefully here.

Standard interpretations are attractive because they take their energy from the recognition that life batters us with chaos over and over, and sometimes we get knocked out of the boat.  When that happens, it is life-saving to discover that the God who can overcome chaos can catch us and lift us up from the waves that have overwhelmed us.  This interpretation takes seriously the impact of chaos on regular human life, and offers a picture of God as rescuer and “very present help in time of trouble.”

My friend wouldn’t quibble with any of that.

He just wants to know why Peter thought it was a good idea to get out of the boat in the first place.

It is set up as a ID check to determine whether the Wave Walker is Jesus or a ghost.  Okay.  But wouldn’t it have been better for Peter to ask for a different identifying sign?  “Lord, if it is you, bail the water out of the boat.”  “Lord, if it is you, slow this wind down a little,”  “Lord, if it is you, tell me the name of my mother-in-law.”

Instead, Peter asks to walk on the water.  Why?

Maybe he wanted to save ferry fare on the Sea of Galilee in the future (as suggested by the Arrogant Worms in their rather remarkable song, “Jesus Brother, Bob”).

Maybe he wanted to be the best water walker among the disciples.  It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that followers of Jesus argued about who was the bestest disciple.

Or maybe he wanted to have control over chaos.

This last possibility deserves careful reflection.

Human beings do not have control over chaos, though we spend a great deal of time and energy searching for such control.  And our search has yielded helpful results.  The polio vaccine, sulfa drugs, antibiotics, even aqueducts and railroads and airplanes, all give human beings stability and control over life that we did not once have.  And we are searching for cures for diseases that have hunted us and haunted our history.

So maybe Peter was asking to be the person who finds a cure for ALS.

Or, maybe he was just wanting an exemption from risk and danger.

There is a difference.

The first possibility makes Peter a pioneer.  The second shows him seeking a privileged advantage over the rest of us.

And maybe that is the real problem.

Current discussions of privilege might be exactly the right context in which to think about Peter’s request.  If this is about privilege and advantage, Peter can fulfill his responsibilities to his colleagues who are still rowing by telling them that all they have to do is get out of the boat.  Imagine the scene: Peter stands on the waves, wind whipping his hair.  He looks strong and heroic and his face is lit from above by steady lightning.  He calls back to the frightened disciples: “I got out of the boat.  You can, too.  All you have to do is take action on your own behalf.  Anyone can do it, if they just apply themselves.”  He might add, just for effect: “It’s like when I was stopped by the police for having a broken taillight.  I was respectful, and all I got was a warning.  That’s all there is to it.”  He could even say: “If you were as great a businessman as I am, tremendously successful, you could have had a millionaire father, too.  Losers!”

If that was what Peter was up to, he reveals a profound misunderstanding of the world.  That is not how things really work, not in the real world.

In the real world, what we mostly need is people who keep on rowing.  Maybe that was Jesus’ point when he told Peter to get out of the boat.  Maybe Jesus knew that Peter would see the wind and sink.  At that moment, Jesus gets to decisively demonstrate his identity: “Lord, save me,” cries Peter.  And Jesus pulls him up out of the chaos.  That is his essential act, then and now.

Notice that the storm does not cease when Jesus saves Peter.  The storm ceases when Jesus gets into the boat, which seems to have been his destination in the first place.

Maybe if Peter had stayed at his oar, the storm would have stopped sooner.

A Provocation: Ninth Sunday After Pentecost: August 6, 2017: Matthew 14:13-21

Matthew 14:13-21
14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

14:17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

14:18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

14:20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

A Question or Two:

  • Why did the crowd not make provision for meals?
  • What does that do to the feeling of this story?

Some Longer Reflections:

A short note: the disciples have confidence in the ability of the people in the crowd to take care of the,selves.  They advise sending them into the towns around the area to look for food.  The disciples expect that the crowd has resources, both monetary and logan sticks, that will allow them to find food, and they further image me that the people in the surrounding towns can be counted on to be hospitable and generous.

This is important to notice.  They don’t sit around whining and waiting for miracles when there are problems to be solved  I admire such directness and practicality.  And I respect the faith that lies behind it.  The disciples expect that things can be made to work  I think that they usually are correct.

Another thing to notice: jesus does not (in Matthew’s telling of this story)  express concern about the crowds ability, or their infirmity, or the scarcity of resources.  He just tells the disciples to feed the crowd themselves.

Think carefully about this.  Is Jesus staging a demonstration miracle so that the crowd (or the disciples?) would see that he had extraordinary power?  Some interpreters take this line, but it seems to me that, if that were the point, Jesus would have said, “I will give them something to eat.”  He does not.  He says, “You feed them.”

Does Jesus want to throw the disciples into an impossible situation so that they realize, without Jesus having to say it, that hei s a Grade A miracle worker?  I suppose this is possible, bough I’m pretty sure that I won’t like the theology that emerges from such a passive-aggressive beginning.

I do not know why Jesus says and does what he does.

But I think that the disciples’ response is interesting.  Their first words are, “We have nothing….”  some commentators seem to have read no further, and make fun of the disciples’ idea that they have nothing when they are in the company of the Messiah, for Pete’s sake.

Dont go there.

What I notice these days is that the disciples say, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

The most important word just might be “but.”

The disciples have a clear view of their actual resources, limited though they might be.  What they have, they know they have.

It turns out that this was enough.  It turns out that there was a great deal left over.

And it was the disciples who passed the food out. And it was the disciples who picked up the scraps.

This matters.  From the way the story is told, I have to assume that, if you asked a person in the crowd what just happened, she would say that the disciples gave them food.  And Jesus healed people and blessed the food.  But the disciples fed the crowd.

Which is exactly what Jesus said they should do.

I suppose there is a sermon sitting there, waiting for you to ask her to dance.  I suppose so.

But what I notice right now is that neither Jesus nor the storyteller scolds the disciples for knowing the exact staste of their resources.  They knew what they had, and they knew what they didn’t have.  They trusted the people in the crowd to be able to feed themselves, and they also trusted Jesus when he told them to start handing out the food.

And it was enough.  More than enough, in fact.

That is worth thinking about.

A Provocation: Eighth Sunday After Pentecost: July 30, 2017: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
13:31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;

13:32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

13:33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

13:45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;

13:46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

13:47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;

13:48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

13:49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous

13:50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”

13:52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus insist on telling stories?
  • Why do these stories offer life and death, acceptance and rejection, at the same time to the same people?
  • No, really, WHY?

Some Longer Reflections:

Just for clarity: no mustard on earth becomes a tree.  Mustard is an annual plant, a forb, if you are being particular.  In some few cases and places it grows very large, but it is never mistaken for a tree.  The storyteller here is emphasizing the expansive (even explosive) growth of this plant.  As my father, the Vocational Agriculture teacher, used to say, “It is impossible to have a little mustard in a field.”

Just for clarity: it is not yeast (at least not Red Star packaged yeast), but leaven that is being talked about here.  Leaven was understood to be a mystery.  In particular, it was a mystery belonging to women, since women baked bread in many ancient cultures, and men were amazed at (and ignorant of) how they made bread rise.

That means that the Reign of God is, in these two parables, likened to growing, living things, one of which is explicitly the purview of women.

And, just for the sake of clarity and complication, both of these images are images of corruption.

Mustard was not planted by Jewish farmers in the ancient world.  It was religiously illegal to do so, and not because of “silly religious superstitions.”  A main point of Torah observance, then and now, is to provide an image of the orderly way God loves the world, an image that becomes more necessary the crazier the world becomes.  Mustard destroys order and grows out of control.  Jews cooked with mustard, but they did not plant it in the ancient world because of the importance of offering exhausted pagans the hope that love and order and rationality were still possible, no matter how wild and uncontrollable the world has become.

And yeast is the same.  Throughout biblical narrative, yeast is consistently understood as a metaphor for corruption.  That is one reason that all leaven bread is removed from Jewish houses in preparation for Passover.  That is the reason that Jesus tells the disciples to “beware the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees.”  The storyteller makes the disciples misunderstand that statement as a reference to actual bread, but this is just a joke at the expense of the disciples.  The real point, as every audience would have known, was that even faithful efforts at purity can become a kind of corruption.  When religious observance goes sour, it turns people into nasty legalists.  Jesus was NOT charging that all attempts at Torah observance are sinful and self-centered.  Jesus is saying that even good-hearted faithfulness can go sour, and when it does it can even make a good person into a rat.  When a Pharisee goes sour, the result is a rigid religious rat.

In the ancient world, in fact, the image of the way leaven works to transform bread dough is a common cliché: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” people would say, meaning exactly what we mean when we say, “One bad apple….”

So, the Reign of God is like a bad apple?

That is exactly what Jesus just said.

If you have ever been the target of aggressive “evangelism” you probably already agree with Jesus.  People who begin by assuming that you need to become a whole lot more like them before God will love you are already beginning to rot, says Jesus.

That’s easy.

Too easy.

I think Jesus works with a sharper knife than that.

Even our best theology carries in it its own form of corruption:

  • The notion of a messiah offers hope by refusing to justify common abuses of power.  But it also threatens to bless violent revolution.
  • The notion that God created the world and all its workings to be good, exceedingly good, teaches us to trust life to carry solutions to even the deepest problems hidden in its depths.  But it also trains people to practice quiet submission when vigorous protest is necessary.

The list goes on.  The parable requires us to learn to analyze every promise until we see the problem lying latent in it.  The parable also trains us to believe that every problem carries a promise in its depths.

 

“Have you understood all this?,” asks Jesus.  The disciples responded in chorus: “Yes,” they said.

I am not so sure of my understanding.

 

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday After Pentecost: July 23, 2017: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
13:24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;

13:25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.

13:26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

13:27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’

13:28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’

13:29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.

13:30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

13:36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”

13:37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;

13:38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,

13:39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.

13:40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.

13:41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,

13:42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

A Question or Two:

  • Why in the world did the slaves think it would be a good idea to stomp all over the newly sprouted field pulling weeds?

Some Longer Reflections:

First off, I think Martin Bell was correct.  Bell read this parable in 1968, and heard the anger in the notion that some people are wheat and some people are weeds.  Bell urged his readers to understand themselves as the field and to recognize that both wheat and weeds grow in us.  The customary reading of this parable (even when it is urged on us by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew) sets us to work spying out enemies wherever they might hide.  If you look hard enough for enemies, you will always find them.  Bell’s reading sets us to work examining ourselves, wondering (for one thing) why it is that we are so sure that we are surrounded by enemies.

This is a salutary exercise, better than the one handed us by the customary reading of this parable.

It is difficult, though, to avoid angry, divisive readings of this parable.

That is partly because of the way Matthew’s story is structured.  For the long version of this analysis, please take a look at my commentary on Matthew, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  A quick sketch: Matthew begins his story with the slaughter (by Herod) of the toddlers of Bethlehem, all of whom are Jesus’ relatives.  The storyteller is remarkably honest.  The story not only narrates the genocidal murder of little kids, it also portrays the effect of surviving the slaughter on Jesus, who was Herod’s target.  What is the effect?  The same as it is on any survivor: he exhibits a strong tendency toward black-and-white thinking, with the good people being welcomed into the Father’s open arms and the bad people being consigned to the outer darkness where the fire never goes out and men wail and gnash their teeth.  Matthew thus paints a picture of Jesus unlike that painted by the other gospels.  But the key to this storytelling strategy is that Jesus holds this harsh persona until he is raised from the dead, and then he changes and no longer condemns those followers who doubt him.

It is a long argument.  You can read it all in the Matthew commentary.

What matters for now is that those scenes (like this one) that make harsh and angry divisions are rolled back at the climax of the story.  Until then, they function to draw out into the open those Christians who love to be angry with those whose faith is less strenuous.

There are plenty of such people, and not just inside the Christian faith.  There are plenty of such people even outside of any faith.

There is something in us that loves to scold other people.

People on the Left scold people on the Right.  People on the Right ridicule the “snowflakes” on the Left.  People who drive a Prius (as I do) make fun of people who drive big-butt trucks capable of towing a combine even though they live in the suburbs.  People who drive big-butt trucks snicker at the idea that saving fuel is all that important.  Vegans are appalled at the compromises made by occasional vegetarians, who look down their noses at carnivores, who remind everyone who will listen that “the West wasn’t won on salad,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

It goes on.  You have heard it.  We all have done it.  It contributes to eruptions of road rage and to the kinds of I-dare-you-to-challenge-me driving that leads to the eruptions.  It leads to the kind of video the NRA issued early in the summer that proposed using the “clenched fist of truth” (whatever that means) against Them (who seem to be anyone who is opposed to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia).

This parable provides an occasion to reflect on how we seem to need to be angry with each other.  And the parable (angry as it is) provides also a suggestion: when the slaves ask for permission to go out and rip out everything that looks like a weed, the farmer tells them not to be stupid.  Ripping up weeds will also rip up crops.  He’s right: rash anger never makes things better.  Even when Jesus seems to encourage it.

 

 

A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: July 16, 2017: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

13:2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.

13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.

13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.

13:6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

13:7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

13:9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

13:18 “Hear then the parable of the sower.

13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.

13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;

13:21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.

13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.

13:23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

A Question or Two:

  • Couldn’t Jesus find a better field in which to plant seed?

Some Longer Reflections:

The words reveal that the sower knew what he was doing.

The seeds that landed in unfortunate locations did not land there because of professional sloppiness.  The sower sowed seed.  In fact, you probably ought to write that (in English): the seeder seeded seed, and the seed fell where it fell.

Why does this matter?  It matters because this parable is deeply realistic.  Every real farmer knows that every field is a mixed bag.  Some parts are boggy and will dry slowly in a wet spring.  Other parts are sandy and crops will wither in years of sparse rainfall.  Some areas are rocky, and some are eroded and some are ideal soil.  Real farmers know that real fields offer mixed conditions.  So does real life.  This parable knows that, too.

Real farmers plant the crop anyway.  And most years, it pays off.  That is one of the practical points made by this parable.  If the sower waits for perfect conditions and guaranteed success before risking the seed on the field, nothing will ever grow.  This is true if we are talking about actual seed or about the “word of the kingdom.”

But the parable knows something more than that.

The parable knows that the yields promised are crazy impossible.  If we assume that the crop being sown is wheat (a reasonable assumption shared by many interpreters), it is worth knowing that ancient wheat normally had twelve to fourteen seeds in each head.  If a seed tillered (grew more than one stalk from a single seed), it would normally not produce more than three seed heads, generally fewer.  That means that even thirty-fold yield is abnormal (though occasionally possible), but sixty- and hundred-fold yields are completely impossible.

This impossibility could just be storytelling hyperbole: simply an intensification of the part of the story that you are supposed to notice and reflect on.

If so, this is a story that says, “Dare to risk.  Plant the seed.”

That is a good point.  It intensifies the practical point of the parable.  Farmers know to plant the crop even in the face of real risks.  Perhaps the hyperbole is simply emphasizing this point.

But the harvests that are impossibly large suggest something else, as well.

Read 2 Baruch sometime.  In the midst of a soaring  apocryphal apocalypse, we are given a glimpse of a world turned right-side-up: a sower is sowing, and has to step lively because the harvesters are following close behind.  The idea is that when Creation is set free from bondage to futility, soil and seed get to do what they have always wanted to do: produce life.  As soon as seed touches soil, both rejoice and collaborate to erupt in life.  The stalk of grain races up from the soil, and the seed head explodes from the stalk.  Reapers have to hurry behind sowers because Creation was always meant to flourish, to erupt in unstoppable life, not to be “regulated by death” (to recall Albert Camus’ picture of the world in The Plague).  This parable presents a picture of a world set free from death and futility.  This is more than practical encouragement.  It is a promise of a new aeon that erupts out of the career and teaching of Jesus, God’s messiah who is turning the world right-side-up.

“Let anyone with ears listen!,” says Jesus.  That means that it does not require magical powers or supernatural insight to understand that the world is rising from death.  All it takes is ears.  Everyone has ’em.  (And for people whose ears do not work, one of the signs of the world turning right is the restoration of mobility, sight, and hearing for everyone.)

There is one more little element to notice in this scene.

When Jesus explains and expands the story he told, he tells his hearers that it is the “evil one” who comes along and snatches away the seed that was sown.  This is a workable (and common) translation of πονηρὸς, but the word implies not so much malice as pointlessness.  I translate it (usually) as “the worthless one.”  I like that translation here.  The one described as πονηρὸς is snatching up the seed before it has any chance to grow.  Every group of which I have ever been a part has had at least one person like this.  They know ahead of time that nothing will work.  They snatch up hope before it has a chance to ripen.  They prevent (if they can) any action at all, thus guaranteeing that NOTHING AT ALL will happen, good or bad.  I call that sort of activity worthless.  The parable appears to agree.

Let anyone with ears listen.

 

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: July 9, 2017: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
11:16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

11:17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;

11:19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

11:25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

11:28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why was Jesus a friend of the non-observant?
  • Why does that matter?

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing to think about, and perhaps the most important, is what a yoke is used for.  My father’s generation knew about yokes from common experience.  My generation does not, for the most part, because we have no occasion to use them in daily life and work.

A yoke is what you use to make it possible for oxen to pull a heavy load.  A well-made yoke is fitted to the individual oxen, shaped so that it does not chafe and rub the skin raw, designed so that the weight is borne by the animals’ shoulders.  And it probably matters that oxen were yoked in pairs.  Pulling heavy loads was a task shared by two animals accustomed to each other using a yoke that was particularly suited to each of them.  That is what it means to say that a yoke is “easy.”  A more practical translation might be “serviceable:” a well-shaped yoke let oxen be as strong as they could possibly be, and also protected them from injuries that would weaken them.  Imagine the effect of a yoke that rubbed the skin raw and left bleeding, oozing sores just where the weight of work would be borne.  A wounded ox could pull little or no weight, and that doesn’t even consider the ethics of damaging a living being.  As I hear it, my grandfather had particularly harsh words for people who mistreated their draft animals, harsh words that, as I hear it, he never otherwise used.

The second thing to think about, also important, is that an ox yoke was a common metaphor in the ancient world (and still today) for the Torah.

The implications of this metaphor are illuminating.

For one thing, it implies that Torah observance (“taking on the yoke of Torah”) makes a person able to pull her weight.  Life requires us to pull weights heavier than we might have imagined, and Torah is pictured as a help in meeting such demands.  But notice that Jesus’ use of the image takes special note of the need for the yoke to be properly shaped to individual creatures.

This suggests two important things.

First, Torah as taught by Jesus (notice that he explicitly links yoke-bearing and learning in this scene) is serviceable and well-shaped to the human condition.  Don’t take this as a Law v. Gospel, Judaism v. Christianity contrast.  It is not that.  Jesus is Jewish, and his words about a well-shaped pattern of Torah observance fit with what other Torah-teachers have said, both in the ancient world and now.  Jesus is addressing the same question that rabbis always address: What ways of being faithful are most life-giving, most “serviceable,” most helpful in carrying out the tasks that life hands human beings?  This is the question that leads to answers like, “Do unto others…,” which is found in Jesus’ teaching and in the teaching of other rabbis of his time.  It is a question that lies parallel to another well-known question: “Who, then, is my neighbor?”  Or, “What does the LORD require of you?” (see Micah 6:8).

Second, this suggests that there are forms of religious observance that are NOT well-suited to human being.  Every community of faith that I have studied, and every form of faithfulness, has within it twisted versions of hyper-religion that are dangerous.  Jesus seems to know this.  When he says that his yoke is serviceable, he implies that others chafe, rub you raw, and injure you.

He is right.

One diagnostic sign of such forms of faithfulness shows itself in the expectation that “real” faith has to strenuous and even painful.  “No Pain, No Gain” theologies are always abusive.  They rub people the wrong way, and their practitioners are taught that the oozing sores that result are the marks of real faith, the necessary signs of “cross-bearing.”  Sometimes the sores are the result of what is called the “mortification of the flesh.”  Other times the hyper-religious are simply trying to mortify anyone who is not as hyper-religious as they are.

There are other interesting implications of Jesus’ use of the yoke metaphor.  For instance, it might imply that Torah observance (and religious practice in general) must be shaped differently for different people.  There OUGHT to be Conservative Jews in the world and there also MUST be Reform Jews.  We need Methodists AND Lutherans.  We might even need Two-Seeds-In-The-Spirit-Hardshell-Baptists.”  And we need Muslims.  And Buddhists.  And we need people who are simply DONE with religious practice, especially when what they are actually done with is religious abuse carried out by those who insist that religion has to hurt to be real.

And, this metaphor makes it clear that human life is a shared task.  We pull our load together.  And the yoke of religious observance is intended to increase human strength, to make us better able to carry the human load that the Creation needs us to carry.

That is worth thinking about.

 

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: July 2, 2017: Matthew 10:40-42

Matthew 10:40-42
10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

10:41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;

10:42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

A Question or Two:

  • What is a prophet’s reward?
  • What is a righteous person’s reward?

Some Longer Reflections:

Again a scene about welcome.  This time the welcome is shared, distributed.

This is also a scene about reward, which is tied to welcome, and therefore is shared and distributed as is welcome.

It makes sense that those sent out are linked with those who sent them, whether it’s the disciples or Jesus, all are linked to God.  Notice, therefore, that all parties in this scene are part of the project of turning the world right-side-up.  God sent Jesus, and that means that the Messiah’s project is tied to the act of original Creation.  Jesus sent the disciples out, and that means that anyone properly called a disciple is an agent of messiahship, a partner in righting the world.  And anyone who extends hospitality to such a person is directly welcoming messiahship into the world.  This little verse is establishing a web of allies in a dangerous world.  Matthew’s narrative world opens itself with a genocidal murder: Herod, the stooge of Rome, slaughters all the toddlers in and around Bethlehem in an effort to kill Jesus (the one sent by God).  The world ruled by Rome is a vicious and dangerous world, but even in this world there is web of allies, says Jesus, and these allies welcome each other and welcome God’s efforts to turn the world right-side-up.

Not many are prophets, but hospitality to a prophet brings a reward.  A “righteous person” is someone who observes Torah thoroughly and well.  Observing Torah is an act of welcoming the reign of God into the world; it echoes the act of welcoming Shabbat into a Jewish home.  Shabbat comes like a queen to every observant Jewish home and brings with it a glimpse of all of God’s promises.  Welcoming a person who observes Torah brings with it the same glimpse, the same reward.

The web of allies is wide.  Even in Matthew’s violent world, allies are everywhere.  And the key to all of it is hospitality.  The key is welcoming the righting of the world.

How will the world be turned right-side-up?  I still do not know.

But the matter of offering a simple cup of water to a little one probably offers a clue.  It’s not a matter of accomplishing stupendous deeds of apocalyptic importance.  The key to our responsibility as Christ-ians, as partners in messiahship, lies in tending to the needs of those who cannot defend themselves, or even get themselves a cup of water.  I suppose that affordable health care counts as a cup of water.

A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: June 25, 2017: Matthew 10:24-39

Matthew 10:24-39
10:24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;

10:25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

10:32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;

10:33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

10:34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

10:35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

10:36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;

10:38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

A Question or Two:

  • What are “many sparrows” worth?
  • What is the exchange rate for sparrows?
  • How does that transfer to mallard ducks?

Some Longer Reflections:

First of all, what is all this about being “worthy?”  The Greek word is ἄξιος.  That’s just the regular word for worthy. It does sort imply, in Greek as in English, that this is a matter of worth and value, not just eligibility.  This makes the linkage with crucifixion strange, of course. The only people who could be crucified were those who had no worth, of who had to be identified as having no worth. So jesus’ remark has a bitter, humorous, ironic bite: you’ve got to be a useless no-account like me to be worth anything.  So it’s a little like the old Jefferson Airplane song:

We are forces of chaos and anarchy;

Everything they say we are, we are.

The humor is essential, especially in this scene with so much potential for anger and violent action.

The sparrows.  The matter of being worth crucifixion.  Even the bit about parents and children.  The humor is bitter, to be sure, especially in this last instance, but it is crucial to catch it, because if you don’t, you will read this as a “hate your parents” project, and that makes the Jesus movement into the most frightening sort of cult.  But seen from the point of view of people that Rome kept crucifying, the bitter humor might make sense.  Nobody’s parents raised them for such an outcome.  Follow God’s promise to turn the world right-side-up and the Empire will crucify you.  And no one would call that loving your parents.  Nor would anyone call that caring for your children.

Except parents who are also caught up in turning the world right-side-up.

And except children who need a world where the cynical worst possibilities aren’t the only options.

That is the promise and the danger of this scene.

That is the promise and the danger of believing that Jesus is the Messiah.  If the world is in the process of being turned right-side-up, the sacrifice is worth it.  But if not, then this whole project is only a religious diversion from the cynical work that we ought to be doing.

I have to admit that the cynicism is attractive.

This week a jury acquitted the police officer who killed Philando Castile.  I was not on the jury.  I do not have access to the evidence or the arguments that led to that verdict.  But I (along with many others) have followed the trial and have paid attention to the ways that basic racism leads to triggers being pulled.  It is a fair bet that if I had been driving the car with a broken brake light, I would not have been shot.  It appears that you have to have dark skin to be (quoting another incident that contributes to cynicism) a “big, bad dude.”

The reasons to quit hoping and pick up cynicism are many, and pretty convincing.  The current president pays taxes and follows laws “only when you make me,” to paraphrase a moment from one of the pre-election debates.  Maybe it IS smart to avoid paying taxes.  And maybe the only way to resist the resurgence of fascism is to mount violent attacks on white supremacist marches.  And maybe the next time a bunch of testosterone-addled white guys feel the need to carry weapons into local coffee shops, just to dare anyone to challenge them and their “Second Amendment remedies,” maybe we need to challenge them right back.  Maybe they’re right and the world is only safe for people who are armed.  And maybe….

You know how it goes from here.

The thing is, the cynical violence of the moment calls for such wondering.  If the world is NOT being turned right-side-up, then the cynics are right, maybe especially the ones with guns.

So we have some decisions to make.

This is a violent moment in our history.

If when we call for calm and rational discussion we are mostly just saying that things aren’t THAT bad, we are not really calling for peace, just for quiet.  And for a maintenance of the status quo.  Which means that we are glad to have someone else engage in violence to protect our comfort.  That’s not pacifism, or peace-making.  It is, simply, privilege protecting itself.

If, on the other hand, we actually believe that some basic systems are broken, that racism is no longer tolerable, that the natural environment needs defending, then this implies vigorous, uncompromising action.  Some of that action will be violent.  All of it will be disruptive.  None of it will allow us simply to wait, and hope, and be patient.

There is another option.

Probably there are several others.  We will have to discover if we actually believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  Is the resurrection real, and is the world in the process of being reborn to new, more abundant life?

Not “spiritually” but actually.

If that is the actual situation, it is all over for the status quo.  Patience is at an end.  Privilege is a luxury we cannot afford.

The same goes for cynicism, however.  If the Christian faith is not simply a favorite narcotic of a post-war society that longed for calm and respectability, then this is a moment for real change, real disruption.

Cynicism is easier, too much easier.  Violence is finally only destructive and desperate.

I do not know if I dare to believe that God is turning the world right.

That remains to be seen, I guess.  But there is one thing that caught my eye in this scene, something that I had not considered before.

Jesus says that There is “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”  I have sometimes wondered what this might mean, but my wondering was casual at best.  But over the past year I have found myself wrestling with the role that cynical secrecy plays in our life together.  Sexual abusers smile, secure in their public role, with the secret of their actions covered by a blanket of social conventions, the least or which is the idea the “boys will be boys.” A presidential candidate brags that he could shoot someone on State Street and not lose political support.  The True Believers would only dismiss any evidence or even any inquiry as “fake news” that is part of a “witch hunt.”  Faced with health care realities that require us to honestly look for ways to protect workers and families from medically induced bankruptcy, politicians spend their considerable energy and resources looking for ways to convince the electorate that the most important issue is whether the solution to our shared health care conundrum will raise their taxes.

In a society where secrets protect injustice, Jesus’s words offer what looks to me like the key item of faith for Christians (and probably Muslims and Jews, too).  Is honest revelation finally something we can count on?  It is, but only if the world is in fact being turned right-side-up.

And I do not know if I dare to believe that right now.  Maybe I’ll start with trusting that God has counted the hairs on my head.  And the hairs on Philando Castile’s head.  And the hairs on the heads of soldiers who can came home haunted by PTSD.  And the hairs on the heads of police officers who go off to work not knowing what they will meet.

A Provocation: Second Sunday After Pentecost: June 18, 2017: Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
9:35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

9:37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;

9:38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

10:2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;

10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;

10:4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

10:5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,

10:6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

10:7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’

10:8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

10:9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,

10:10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

10:11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.

10:12 As you enter the house, greet it.

10:13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.

10:14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.

10:15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

10:16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

10:17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues;

10:18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

10:19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;

10:20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

10:21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;

10:22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

10:23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

A Question or Two:

  • Sodom and Gomorrah refused hospitality to vulnerable people.  Why is this so serious?
  • Who is vulnerable?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus goes about teaching, proclaiming, and curing.  He sends his disciples out to proclaim and heal.  If you look at the list of things that are to be healed, it is clear that “proclaiming the kingdom” is closely tied to real, active concern for everything that affects human life.  These are not abstract “religious” tasks, they take on the things that restrain human flourishing.

This comes especially clear in the list of things that Jesus is doing.  The last item in the list is translated as “sickness,” which is a suitable translation.  But the word is μαλακίαν, a word that refers to vulnerability.  It might be better translated as “infirmity,” but only if you stop to think about it a little.  The word has a long history in English.  If you are old and infirm, you might indeed be subject to infirmities, for which you would be sent to the infirmary.  The word implies that healthy people are firm, and sick people are infirm.  Healthy people can stand up for themselves, and sick people need help to stand up at all.  Healthy people are able to resist disease (and other things), but sick people are vulnerable.

We do not like being vulnerable.  This can be a nasty world if you have a pre-existing condition.

A little over a year ago I found myself in the midst of some dangerous health adventures.  Heart stuff.  Lung stuff.  Nasty stuff, some of it.  I remember the day that I discovered that if I walked to chapel on campus at 10:00 (a distance of about 100 yards, one way, involving descending and then ascending two flights of stairs) I would be too out-of-breath to teach at 11:00.  This was an unpleasant discovery.  Attending chapel has been a regular part of the rhythm of my work for my whole time at Augustana University, now 27 years.  Fortunately, friends in the Nursing Department lent me a wheelchair for the semester, so I could go to chapel if I found someone to push me.  Again fortunately, Augustana is filled with people willing to help with tasks like that.

And I found myself hating the idea of having to ask.

I disliked being “infirm” more than I might have guessed I would.  And I really disliked the attention that rolling into chapel in a chair brought.  I generally slip into the back row, right side.  In a wheelchair with a helpful pusher there is no slipping in anywhere.  People felt bad for me.  I didn’t like that much.  My “infirmity” brought with it a loss of my ability to vanish into the ordinary crowd.

By the time my health issues were sorted out I had a new appreciation of why Jesus might spend his time curing infirmity.  Yes, please.

But our dislike of infirmity, of having to ask for help, makes Jesus’ instructions to his disciples interesting.  He tells them:

Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…

 

That means that he sends them out vulnerable, as infirm as the people they are to cure.  They aren’t naked, but they aren’t wearing shoes.  And they have no money.  If they are to survive, they will have to ask for help.

I wonder why this is so important?