Lord, don’t give us this day our just deserts.

The artwork I have been using for some time as the banner picture on my blogsite comes from a set of murals in Coit Tower in San Francisco. On a visit a couple of years back I was taken with the utopian feel, so characteristic of social and political art from the early decades of the 20th century. As Fall has approached I have switched the banner from a busy urban street market scene to that of the countryside where we see a romantic image of the rural idyll at harvest time.

In the world of this picture we see clean and suitably attired men and women contentedly working at gathering-in the harvest. To our eyes it’s quite a gendered picture, yet it presents an image of a community working together in pursuit of the common good.

This picture is a depiction of human hope in a period of hopelessness as the long grinding years of the Great Depression wind towards their conclusion. In the darkest of days this picture captures the desire of our collective imagination. This is a dream of full and constructive employment. Men and women working in jobs that sustain order and provide the protection of livelihood. This is a vision of employment that generates the resources not only to meet the daily needs of individuals and their families, but is capable of generating the wealth a society needs for the preservation of social a sense of the common good.

For me, the murals of Coit Tower represent a very early and mid 20th century dream. I note with some sadness that as the 20th century progressed the dream became tarnished and so it now seems not to be a 21st century dream. This is a dream that becomes imaginable only as a result of the Industrial Revolution with its need for mechanized and organized labor.

The scene that unfolds for us in Matthew 20:1-6 represents the predominant picture of employment prospects prior to the Industrial revolution. For most of history the scene from Matthew is the norm. Men whose only resource is the hiring-out of their bodies in manual labor, gather at the break of each day on the off chance that they might be hired through a process of random selection. Being hired meant food on the table that day, not being hired meant hunger.

However, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is, sadly, not a situation consigned to history. It’s a scene that is played out daily in our own time in countless Home Depot parking lots throughout cities like Phoenix, Arizona, and in small agricultural towns throughout Southern California and the South West. Here undocumented migrant workers almost exclusively from Central America, wait under the trees in the searing heat,  in the hope that a building contractor or farm foreman will offer a day’s under-the-radar employment.

At the heart of Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard lies an ancient social tension between justice and love. I mention the plight of undocumented migrant workers only to indicate that in our own time we seem to be no better than our forbears at managing the social tension between justice and love.

Social stability and prosperity requires the exercise of justice. Justice is enshrined for our Western Societies in the concept of the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law sets out, governs, and adjudicates our social relations with one another.

Justice not only governs our external relations, it is also internalized within us in notions of what is fair and equitable. For this reason, we are confronted by the parable of the workers in the vineyard. It actually scandalizes us. We are scandalized by the notion that working all day under the hot sun is worth the same amount of remuneration as working only the last hour before sunset. The parable presents us with a situation we instinctively feel is unfair, unjust, and corrosive of good order in society. This parable presents us with an invitation that is deeply uncomfortable and disconcerting.

Firstly, the parable of the workers in the vineyard invites us to confront the selectivity with which we apply our sense of justice. We do truly, cherish notions of fairness and equity, here presented in the idea of a fair remuneration for a fair days work. Yet, we live in a society where people are not paid fairly or equitably in relation to the amount their labor contributes to the prosperity of an enterprise. We remain blind to the inequities that abound in a society where women routinely earn less than men for the same fair day’s labor. We choose to deny the reality that levels of low pay have an adverse economic effect in a society where the economic engine is dependant on consumer consumption. It seems that most of us content ourselves with limiting the application of our cherished notions of what is fair and what is just to the arenas of our own self interest, and others be dammed.

Secondly, this parable makes us deeply uncomfortable because it presents us with something that makes no sense to us. When faced with the actions of the land owner, I hear in my head the voice of that old tin-can computer in the 1970’s TV program Lost in Space robotendlessly reciting: it does not compute, it does not compute! 

We have journeyed over the summer through Matthew’s narration of the early and middle sections of Jesus’ ministry. Again, and again we have been presented with something that deeply upsets us, namely the reckless generosity of God. It’s bad enough encountering God in the image of a farmer who recklessly scatters the seed at planting. For us, whose thinking is so dominated by notions of economic productivity, the actions of God as the farmer appear as down-right crazy and negligently inefficient. To add insult to injury today we are confronted by the image of God as this landowner who similarly scatters his coin in the same way he scatters his seed. None of this computes in our way of thinking.

In society, and within our own thinking we are engaged in the struggle between justice, on the one hand, and love, on the other. Speaking personally, I don’t like the way the love of God seems to challenge if not obliterate the notions of justice by which I live my life. I don’t like the implications that love trumps just deserts, of love trampling over notions of worthiness and entitlement, proper reward and appropriate punishment. These are notions I hold dear and they support the fantasy that if I live virtuously according to the norms of justice I will be somehow rewarded and protected from the vagaries of chance happenstance. According to this way of thinking misfortune only happens to undeserving people.

The love of God scandalizes the worldview I tenaciously cling to for security. I suspect that the love of God scandalizes all of us. The realization of God as an indiscriminate and reckless lover disturbs our neat ordered little lives. If we allow ourselves to connect with our discomfort, we encounter an invitation to move beyond the way we reconstrict the higher concepts of justice to fit our need for clarity and certainty. Through facing-up to such an invitation we come to see that measured notions of fairness and equity are no substitute for the the generosity of love.

We favor regulated and constricted notions of justice to support us in the illusion that what we have is ours, the fruit of our own toil. We believe in our own virtuous, hard working entitlement. In the image of the generous land owner, God discomforts our secure assumption that we are the hard working laborers who have toiled from dawn to dusk. Do we not seethe with outrage when we see the lazy and the indolent given rewards they have not worked for?

We are disturbed by the reckless generosity of God only if we think we are among the deserving, those who are owed a reward commensurate with our hard work and responsible toil. But, what if our self confident self assertion of our own worthiness means nothing to God? What if it’s you and me that God has us in mind as the needy recipients of his reckless generosity? What then?

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If to Err is Human, So Too is to Forgive

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 18:21-35 is the next episode in a complex narrative that involves three separate, yet intertwined storylines. For me it is of paramount importance to keep the storyline thread in mind to avoid an approach to preaching that tends to treat each week’s gospel reading as if it sits in isolation. Seeing a particular reading in isolation from its location within a deeper and interconnected storyline blinds us the larger narrative, which in this instance Matthew is weaving. Faced with a section of disconnected text, we resort to searching for and finding a particular moral meaning.

Isolated reading

If we take Matthew 18:21-35 in isolation we easily draw the moral that it is always necessary to forgive others the hurts they commit against us. We look for the black and white meaning in the story. Jesus’ response to Peter’s question shows us that forgiveness is not quantitative in the sense that it can be limited to a specific number of times – seven or seventy or seventy times seven – there is no limit to our responsibility to forgive. To reinforce his point Jesus then tells the disciples the story about generous forgiveness and its counterpoint, mean spirited refusal to forgive.

Having established the general moral principle, that we are under an obligation to always forgive, we get caught-up in textual analysis of the passage. We ask who is the king, is he Gentile or Jewish? We note he must be Gentile because the size of the debt being forgiven is so large that it can only amount to a huge tax bill owed to the occupying authority. We note that the size of the debt that the unjust steward refuses to forgive is a relatively small one and could be easily written off without any cost to the steward. We can feel our outrage growing against the unjust steward. Instinctively, we all recoil from the use of power to abuse another. We long for such abuse of power to be called to account and punished. Analyzing the parable story leads to a moral sense of satisfaction when the generous King, on the information of his other outraged servants punishes the unjust steward, by re-imposing the debt and imprisoning and torturing him until he pays.

However, this is a problematic conclusion to reach because the image of the King in this parable seems to be an allegory for God. Our image of the King is an allegory for the image of a generous God. God forgives what we can never repay. Yet, it is given a twist when the generous King-God morphs into a vindictive tyrant who capriciously reneges on his promise. This is a very disconcerting turn of events, because it suggests that what is forgiven by God can easily be unforgiven -if we fail to live-up to the self-modeling God shows us.

So we end up with a clear message that God expects us to forgive one another as we are forgiven – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. If we don’t then the message is, look out!

Frankly, I don’t quite know what to do with this conclusion except to ignore it and go on about my life. If I think about it, which I normally don’t like to do, I notice there are many instances in my relationship with others where I am unwilling to release them from the grievances I harbor against them.

Contextual reading

In the Jesus storyline today’s gospel comes within the context of how the disciples are to behave towards one another. Jesus is not speaking to the crowds now, he is indoors with his disciples talking to them about how they should behave towards one another. This is a teaching about how they are not only to be accountable to  one another- as in, who gets to hold the power, but they are accountable for one another – as in, they have to look-out for one another. In the Matthew storyline, Matthew is weaving Jesus’ teaching into a teaching for his fledgling community. Like Jesus’ teaching of the disciples Matthew’s teaching is for a community that can’t afford to tolerate members harboring grievances against one another. Internal division and bad feeling threaten the survival of a community that is up against it in the world around it.

In both storylines the message is similar- forgive one another or else God will take back God’s forgiveness of you. Both Jesus and Matthew lived in worlds where everyone’s preoccupation was with the life to come, i.e. salvation. This preoccupation reflects a transcendent worldview in which the attention is focused on salvation and the life to come after death. In a transcendent worldview the threat that God will withdraw forgiveness is a very big stick.

By contrast the storyline we live in is one of immanence not transcendence. We live in an immanent worldview where our focus is on the here and now. In our world the reality of death is not looked forward to as entry into something better, it’s feared and denied as the ending of all there is. Our more egalitarian sense of justice recoils against the image of a God as hierarchical judge who has the power to go back on God’s word.

Within our immanent worldview human emotions and feelings are given a level of privilege, inconceivable to people living in a world of transcendence. So we recognize that sometimes we just can’t forgive because we value our feelings of rage and hurt as an authentic response to being hurt. Our psychological approach to the way human emotions work strengthens this trend in us. We all have learned that to deny our feelings only causes trouble down the line. We say things like: I can’t forgive, because I can’t forget.

Our more individualized culture means that we don’t need the same protections provided by being members of a Christian community. If we fall out with one another we just find another community. We have less skin in the game of needing to preserve communal unity. For us forgiveness is not owed only to those inside our community, but to everyone, it seems. Most of us find this an impossible standard to meet.

Reading the text in isolation as a stand-alone moral story leads to the impasse of God’s demand: forgive others, or else! Reading the text within its textual location as well as its divergent storyline contexts leads us to the question of how can God require me to forgive when I can’t forget?

Is forgiving forgetting?

In an age in which we pay careful attention to emotion and the destructive effects of emotional repression, following Jesus teaching on forgiveness challenges us to reflect on the way we cling to memories of past hurts, memories that in effect cherish and keep alive our sense of grievance. To let our cherished grievances go, i.e. to forgive feels like an unreasonable demand.

To forgive in the Greek literally means to send away. When we forgive we send away the feelings the memories of past hurt kept alive as if they happened yesterday. Yet, the difficulty lies in the way our sense of identity has constellated or organized itself around such feelings. Such feelings now create the stories we tell others and ourselves about who we are. To send these feelings away means to place the desire to forgive at the center of intentional living. This is a difficult and painful thing to do!

Let me give a personal example. Most of my life I have harbored a sense of rejection and lack of recognition, which I trace back to my very earliest experience with my parents. I don’t remember this experience, but I know about it because it has shaped a very personal narrative that has helped to explain to myself not only who I am, but also why I am.

For me this early- rooted sense lies not in the world of events. It’s not about what did or did not happen. It’s rooted in a deeper and more complex experience of negotiation between my growing infant-self and my experience of entry into a world that wasn’t ready for me. Although my parents loved me and did the best they could, neither of them was in the fullest sense necessary, were emotionally ready for my arrival in the world.

So much of my life has involved a struggle between this grievance-rooted personal narrative that led me to construct a protective identity as the unrecognized outsider, and my actual experience of life. My actual experience is that I have been, and continue to be significantly recognized and loved by those around me. The struggle is a reflection of the question: when will it be safe enough to send away those early sense memories and the protective identity they support? With the passing of each day I have grown to trust more my experience and to see my perceptions as limiting me in my capacity to live life more abundantly.

One of the saints of our time, the great Desmond TutuTutu comments:

To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being of being human.

To send away  feelings and memories of grievance is possible once we see that our cherished identity as the victim, or the one who has been irreparably damaged by another’s actions, or disadvantaged by circumstance, does not best serve our self interest.

Archbishop Tutu was one of the principle architects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with the task of opening up the dark and painful communal and individual experience of the apartheid years in South Africa. At http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/desmond-tutu-south-africa/ as well as being able to view countless stories of the power of forgiveness to transform lives, we read Archbishop Tutu’s fuller expansion of the process of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not forgetting. The feelings of hurt and rage are real and should not be glossed over. Such feelings are natural. Yet, they must be worked through and not turned into something that continues to imprison us in a state of emotionally suspended animation.  Forgiveness is to  send away our sense of self, dictated only by painful memory. Forgiveness opens us to the reframing of our stories into richer narratives that include an enlarged story of who we really are. As we grow into this larger story, one that more accurately reflects the reality of who we really are, we discover a larger experience of the world around us. In an enlarged story of who we are we discover we are more than a victim of another’s trespass upon us. Low and behold, we discover that our power to love is stronger than our fear and our hate. At times this may feel like a two step forward, one step back kind of process as we struggle to realign long-held attachments to memories and the feelings they perpetuate. 

Retelling of the parable

The parable of the unjust steward is told by Jesus, and recorded by Matthew within the storylines shaped by a worldview where the fear of exclusion from God’s gift of grace reflected a popular cultural understanding of reward and punishment. I wonder, how might Jesus retell this parable differently within our own storyline? I rather suspect that a retelling of this parable might stress the discovery of the miracle of God’s love and forgiveness and how this frees us to attend to our own self interest. This discovery gives us greater confidence in our ability to struggle together within communities of the forgiven and the forgiving – communities where we model for one another the courage of forgiving and the humility of being forgiven.

The process of forgiving is not one we accomplish alone. Each day we are sustained to return to the task through seeing many others all around us doing likewise.

As we live in communities shaped by these practices, we will experience anew what it means to be forgiven — and forgiving. Perhaps then, when the invitation is offered, all of us will come to the table joyfully.  Susan Pendelton Jones http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=593


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The ‘Tao’ of Mutual Accountability

Previously in Matthew

Jesus has been exploring his ministry in the context of travelling about the Galilean countryside. He has been preaching, teaching, healing, miracle working, and getting into hot debate. He has experienced grief at the death of John the Baptist, rejection by his family, neighbors, and the religious authorities. He seems to have had an ah-ha moment on a journey into the neighboring territory of the Phoenicians, where confronted by the demand for healing from a woman of all people, a woman who would not take no for an answer, he grows into an expanded understanding of his ministry. From this point on Jesus’ ministry is no longer only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but to everyone, regardless of race, and we might add gender, class and sexual orientation.

We get a real sense of how Matthew is constructing his Jesus-storyline through this particular sequencing events:

  • Jesus’ ministry in Galilee culminates with the feeding of the 5000. 5000 along with the number 12 have particularly Jewish significance. Matthew is telling us that the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is a Jewish meal.
  • Jesus then journeys into the borderland, by way of walking across the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a storm. On arrival in the region of Tyre and Sidon he is confronted by a foreigner, not just a foreigner but a woman to boot. From this encounter he seems to grow in his self-understanding of God’s purpose for him.
  • Upon his return to Jewish territory Jesus performs a second feeding miracle, the feeding of the 4000. For Matthew this is not a repeat of the earlier story. This is Matthew constructing a new event where the numerical signifiers 4, and 7 indicate that the feeding of the 400o is a Gentile meal.

It’s in the borderland that Jesus discovers the missing piece to his identity. The borderland is a place that is beyond his familiar, Jewish environment. There seems to be a message here for us!

We are at the mid point in Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ ministry. From now-on Jesus’ attention is directed towards Jerusalem. The road to Jerusalem is the road that he now takes and it’s the road to Jerusalem that we are to accompany him on, as we journey from summer to autumn. Accompanying Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is a journey of discovery. Along this road we will discover what it means for us to be his disciples.

Last week I noted Matthew Skinner’s comment, and it bears repeating that:

As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another.  

Today’s episode in Matthew

In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus addresses how his disciples are to behave towards one another as they begin to travel with him on the road to Jerusalem. One might imagine that his comments are particularly addressed to the process by which the disciples will negotiate differences and conflict between them.

If Skinner’s assertion that we belong to one another is to have any meaning then we have to understand Jesus’ teaching on our responsibility for one another, and our individual accountability for one another, especially around issues of difference and potential conflict.

In a culture where Episcopalians have come to treat membership of the Church as another version of our membership of any number of voluntary and nonprofit organizations, the idea that we are responsible for, and accountable to, one another rings alarm bells. No one is going to tell me what to do, we mutter to ourselves and, if I find I don’t like it, then I will just leave, has become our solution of choice when faced with the inevitability of conflict in our social worlds.

I love Rick Morley’s tongue in cheek characterization of so much of our behavior in Christian community in a blog entitled, Before you un-friend [1]:

If another member of the church sins against you…just talk about them behind their back. If another member of the church sins against you…just call a bunch of people in the church to complain about them. You may even want to start a letter-writing campaign against them. If another member of the church sins against you…just send them a nasty email. Copy the clergy. And, while you’re at it, CC the bishop. If another member of the church sins against you…don’t say anything. Just avoid them. Un-friend them on Facebook. And, if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church

Matthew 18: 15-20 has become engrained in our collective unconscious as the epitome of the abusive and oppressive way religious communities treat people. These verses have been used to justify the abuse in religious communities of shunning, which is invariably a form of officially sanctioned scapegoating.

We need have no fear of this happening to us within the Episcopal Church, because most of us don’t give that level of priority to our Church membership. That we might be accountable to one another makes us shudder. This is our collective unconscious fear coming out, a fear from a time when inclusion and exclusion from community carried implications of life or death. Our collective dread is further compounded in our individual experience because ostracism is one of the most painfully reoccurring personal experiences of growing up.

For not to

We don’t particularly care for the experience of being accountable to another person, or group of persons, especially if they seem to be just like us, with no more nor less claim to authority than we possess. We read Matthew within a frame colored by our experience of school days. For most of us being accountable to another leads to a step-by-step process of ratcheting up the pressure that groups use to ensure conformity. Firstly one person confronts you. Then if that does not go so well, and it invariably doesn’t, they come back with an ally. When that doesn’t achieve the desired result a gang of persons, and eventually the whole group or community then ostracizes or expels you, that is, if you haven’t jumped ship, first.

Yet, what happens if we read Matthew within a new frame created by substituting the word to with the word for? In this frame we are no longer accountable to, but become accountable for one another. The image of Jesus communicated to us through the Gospels is never one of him resorting to hierarchical authority. Even in Matthew, who presents us with the most Moses-like image of Jesus, Jesus is presented as having authority, not as being authoritarian. Reading these verses against this larger experience of Jesus leads me to suggest that Jesus is asking his disciples to be responsible for  one another and not to one another. Matthew opens chapter 18 with Jesus talking about the adult abuse of children. The implication follows that if we are not to abuse children then it makes no sense for us to use power as the instrument for abuse of one another.

I take Jesus to mean that within our community life we are to be accountable for one another. This means looking out for one another. Sometimes, looking out for one another involves addressing behaviors that are harmful to relationships between individuals. Sometimes, looking out for one another makes it necessary to challenge one another when if left unchallenged, our behavior endangers the stability of the whole community.

Journeying togetherimages-2

In The Essential Ingredient, David Lose commenting on Matthew 18:15-20 asks:[2]

So what kind of community do we want from our congregation — largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference? 

Sunday September 7th is Homecoming Sunday at St Martin’s in Providence. Unlike anywhere else I’ve been, there is a sheer literality to Homecoming Sunday in the life of Rhode Island Churches, where the custom for many is to make good use of summer weekends for trips to the sea and elsewhere because as all Yankees know- winter is coming! So this is an appropriate time to pose the questions Lose frames above. As we journey together into the mists and mellow fruitfulness of the Fall, what kind of community are we on the way to becoming?

I would like us to be always in the process of becoming a community where relationship rests on a mature capacity to negotiate our differences face-to-face. For me conflict is inevitable in any healthy Christian community. By healthy, I mean a community where people engage with their passion in the task of worshiping together, loving each other and serving the world. Where passions are engaged strong feeling is always in play. I don’t fear strong feeling. My fear is to be part of a community of lukewarm feeling, where difference can be avoided because ultimately, nothing is important enough to fall-out over. Where the personal cost of leaving the community is so inconsequential because if we don’t like St Martin’s there’s always somewhere else to go; though evidence shows that when Episcopalians stop going to one church, we stop going to any church. 

Where two or three agree to gather

Our Gospel pericope (section of verses) ends with Jesus’ enigmatically speaking about agreement and gathering together in his name. Given that this comes at the end of a teaching on mutual accountability, agreement must refer to some form of common accord.

Does this mean that we have to agree with one another before we can gather in his name? Does agreement envision eradication of difference?  Because most Christian traditions stress theological agreement does gather together mean the fruit of theological agreement about what’s true and what is false? My answer to each of these questions is a resounding no!

Shared agreement is not available to Episcopalians. We can be likened to the Jews of the Christian world because the only thing we can agree on is that we don’t agree about much. What this actually means is not that anything goes, but that we are a communion, which is a word that signifies relationship rather than structure. We recognize that the world can be viewed through several difference lenses. We acknowledge that there are broadly speaking, several worldviews possible. We see no reason to pretend that these differences of worldview will not be reflected in our communities. It’s not shared truth, but common worship that holds us together. It’s within a communion of relationships we become accountable, i.e. lookout for one another.

Because of this, and in this way I believe we are able echo Matthew Skinner’s words:images-1

peering into autumn’s transitions, we [find that we] belong to one another

[1] http://www.rickmorley.com/

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/

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Jesus, take the wheel


Matthew Skinner, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St Paul makes a timely comment when he says:

As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another

A recap in the Jesus storyline

Jesus moves from touring the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile lands. Here he has been confronting the generalized suffering of humanity through mighty acts of power and healing. This is the mid point of the Jesus storyline. From here Jesus turns his face towards the road to Jerusalem. He offers the disciples a prequel of what lies ahead. In a nutshell, the way ahead is one of conflict and death. The conflict begins immediately in the heated confrontation between Jesus and Peter.

Peter has rightly intuited Jesus’ identity as Messiah. In my last post: Who do you say that I am?, I explored what it looks like for us to move from a cognitive to an intuitive acceptance of our confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In today’s gospel reading we see that despite Peter’s bold assertion of Jesus’ identity his view of what this means is conditioned and imprisoned within his Jewish cultural and religious worldview. Within this worldview the Messiah is the liberator king who will restore Israel to its rightful place in the world and therefore, Jesus’ words of suffering and death not only make little sense but also seem somewhat scandalous.

Jesus has to disabuse Peter in the strongest of terms – get behind me Satan!  The meaning of the name Satan is a personified reference to the general temptation for any of us to see the world only in worldly-cultural terms. Having rebuked Peter’s mindset Jesus now issues an unambiguous invitation to discipleship:

Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must deny self, take up their cross and follow me! 

Alternative translation of the text

Some of you may be familiar with The Message – which describes itself as a contemporary rendering of the Bible – crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language. I commend to you its interesting translation of Matthew: 24-27:

Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering: embrace it. Follow me and I will show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.

Like a knife, the Message translation, slices away layer by layer our self-protections from the real meaning of Jesus’ call to denial of self. What self-denial means is to recognize that we are not the ones in the driver’s seat. Following Jesus is not about us exercising our free will from a Smörgåsbord of heroic choices.

We are so anesthetized by the traditional Biblical language exhorting self-denial and cross carrying. We pay lip service to it. We also moralize and /or spiritualize its meaning.

We moralize self-denial when we imagine ourselves as heroes personifying the virtues of fortitude, courage, or humility. Or, projecting these virtues into our spiritual heroes we conclude that these heroic virtues are not for the likes of us.

We spiritualize self-denial when we picture ourselves valiantly achieving control over our desires through delayed gratification, or some form of spiritual hair-shirt discipline. We spiritualize self-denial when we imagine it means embracing a life of suffering, a lying-down, inviting others to do their worst to us.

To moralize and or spiritualize self-denial is to individualize it as something we do through our own self-assertion. We imagine that we can triumph over our suffering. I refer anyone who might be interested for an excellent analysis of what Jesus does and does not mean by suffering to take a look at Matthew Skinner’s paper: Denying Self, Bearing a Cross, and Following Jesus: Unpacking the Imperatives of Mark 8:34[1] http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/23-3_Icons_of_Culture/23-3_Skinner.pdf 

A psychological angle on the text

In an attempt to explore Jesus’ invitation to self-denial, to take up our cross and to follow him, I want to draw from my experience in the world of dynamic psychotherapy[2]. Now I want to issue a warning here: undisciplined use of psychological analysis of biblical texts may damage your spiritual health. I am extremely cautious about submitting biblical passages and language to psychological interpretation. Psychological language, in my view, is generally overvalued in our popular discourse because it plays into our craving for explanatory solutions. Despite the Surgeon General’s warning on the bottle of wine about the harmful effects of alcohol, we know we are, nevertheless, going to drink the wine. Therefore, having stated my warning of the dangers of psychological interpretation of biblical language, I want to bring a psychological lens to bear upon the task of intuitively interpreting Jesus’ invitation to self-denial and cross carrying.

In his confession of Jesus as Messiah, Peter embodies the psychological concept of ego. Ego – ‘the I’ -was originally coined by Sigmund Freud to refer to a part of the personality whose function it is to mediate between the demands of our inner and outer worlds[3]. Thus, the ego is always culturally conditioned, as we see in Peter’s Jewish objection to Jesus’ prequel of his suffering.

As it was so for Peter, so it is with us. Through our ego we conform to the values of our world. Our worldly values promote self-assertion in the face of competition in a world of scarcity. They reward self-protection, self-promotion, and dangle before us the ultimate promise of self-fulfillment. Roberto Assagioli, an early follower and later critic of Freud, founder of the school of Psychosynthesis, more aptly termed the ego function as the survival personality – the part of us that ensures our survival in a world of competition between internal and external demands.

The call to self-denialimages-1

Jesus is calling us to disavow the way our cultural and societal formation limits our view of him. One way our culture limits us is through our over- identification with our ego or survival personality. Jesus is asking us to hand-over the direction-setting of our path in life, to God. To do this we have to become deeply countercultural.

My often used phrase: God’s dreaming of us into that which is yet to become known, captures in essence what this looks like. A different road opens up before us. We are now on the road of transformation. As the fear-driven grip of our over-identification with our individualistic ego loosens, this transformation results in us becoming, not only more closely aligned to God, but more connected to one another!

Winning and losing life?

This psychological approach now helps us to see why Jesus goes on to talk about winning and loosing our life. Once again, the translation in The Message cuts through our over-familiarity with the standard text:

What good would it do to get everything you want and to lose you, the real you?

What is the real you?  Psychologically, it goes by many different names depending on whose theoretical system (Freud, Jung, Assagioli) you are working within. A general term might be the real you is the true as opposed to the false you.

The concept of the true-self comes as close and psychology can come to the spiritual language of soul. It’s difficult to directly equate the two because direct equation across completely different discourses is not possible.  Nevertheless let me put it like this.  We have a soul and a personality, and they are not the same although they are interconnected. Jesus is saying that we can win at the ego game, the projection of ourselves according to the values prized by the world, and lose our soul, our sense of who we truly are being dreamed by God, into becoming.

So much of the conflict and violence (physical and systemic) we see in the world around us is caused by our ego-driven (individual and collective) self-assertion. Contrastingly, a direct result of giving up self-assertion enables us to make room in our lives for one-another – in Matthew Skinner’s words quoted above, we come to belong to (one) another. This is the principle upon which all community is based. Be under no illusion, such a giving up of ego imperatives will involve us in real suffering.

Our response to the invitation to discipleship

The popular cultural worldview of ego driven American Christianity is that it’s our individuality that matters. I am saved through my own self-assertion of the right faith formula. I live in right relationship with Jesus because of I possess the moral authority that flows from my personal assertion of faith. I exercise my moral superiority through sitting in judgment of others.

Episcopalians are Christians of the Anglican Tradition. The Anglican Tradition is a transmission of historic (catholic) Christianity that resists the focus on individual self-assertion, a chief characteristic of current culturally driven versions of Christianity. In our historic (catholic) transmission the emphasis is on community and membership within the community of faith.

We are saved through becoming members of the saving community of the Church. As members of the saving community, the spiritual journey is a journey we make in the company of others.

As Anglican Christians, Episcopalians believe that God does not speak to us as individuals, acting alone. As the Early Church Father Tertullian said: one Christian is no Christian. We believe that God encounters us through our membership of the Body of Christ in the world. God becomes knowable to us when we come together in worship at the Eucharist. God speaks to us as a community when we as individuals use our smart phones or tablets, on a daily basis, to plug-into electronic versions of morning and evening prayer. This form of prayer is called common prayer because it is the shared-action-prayer of the redeemed community we call the Church. Our governing authority in the Epsicopal Church is not a Confession of Faith that we all have to sign-up to. It is the Book of Common Prayer, which is a reorganization of the Bible for the purpose of the common worship of the people of God.

When Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, he is not inviting us to embark on a solitary road of personal suffering, heroic or otherwise.  He is inviting us to join together to form his Body in the world. This is the saving community we call Church. We become disciples of Jesus through our baptism into, and life-long participation within the saving and cross-bearing community that is seeking to live in contrast to the individualized, ego-driven perspectives of our society. If you want to know what that looks like then revisit the five baptismal promises all Episcopalians make at every occasion of baptism http: episcopalchurch.org/page/baptismal-covenant

For Jesus, fidelity to God meant taking the path to the Cross. For Matthew and his community, discipleship meant risking persecution by standing together in opposition to the religious value system of Imperial Rome. For us, it is to stand together in opposition to our world’s valuing of isolated, ego-driven individualism.

St Martin’s in Providence is a community on a journey. We affirm each Sunday that we are a community of seekers, in search of that for which we most long. While our longing often remains inarticulate, Matthew: 16-21-26 sheds a little light on an aspect of it, i.e. our desire to find fulfillment in relationships in which we make room for one another.

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering: embrace it. Follow me and I will show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. The Message

Or in the words of Matthew Skinner I opened with:

As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another. 

[1] Mark 8:34 is the equivalent to Matthew 16:24-26

[2] Psychotherapy is the application of psychology to increase an individual’s range of emotional choices in the living of life. Dynamic psychotherapy is a broad designation encompassing a number of schools of depth psychology, which despite theoretical differences all accept that the area of focus in psychotherapy is on uncovering the roots of the dynamics of unconscious emotional conflicts that drive us to repeat the same choices over and over again; choices we are compelled to make even when we consciously realize how poorly they serve us.

[3] The ego’s function is to navigate between the conflict between our inner desire and constraints of the real world. Freud understood our internal world to be governed by what he called the pleasure principle and this comes into sharp conflict with our experience of an external world governed by what he termed the reality principle. The ego’s skilled function in negotiating between the internal world of our desire for pleasure and external worlds of social constraint ensures our survival and self-preservation, and success in the world.


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So Who Do You Say I Am?

Previously, is a word that evokes for me the TV program 24. In 24 each new episode begins with an authoritative baritone voice solemnly intoning Previously on 24. We then see a selection of edited highlights from not only the episode immediately previous to the one we are about to view, but highlights from a number of previous episodes. I have been watching each episode, feeling slightly ridiculous that I should be wasting my time with such predictable rubbish, although I do admire Keifer Sutherland’s incredible energy and tolerance for unspeakable pain. Although the storylines in 24 are far from complex, they are bewilderingly numerous. By beginning each new episode with a recap of the editors selected highlights from previous episodes the program makers are ensuring that we arrive at the correct interpretation of the plot.

Last week, or I might say previous in this pulpit, I suggested that in receiving the Gospel readings week by week requires of us an ability to listen to two parallel storylines, the storyline of Jesus, and the storyline of Matthew and the Matthean Church. As with so much in life, we have to develop bifocal facilities of vision, and in this instance, listening. My main purpose is to address verses 13-16 in this passage but I have to first make a detour from my primary purpose and comment breifly on 17-20.

Over the millennia, Christians have wrangled, often violently, over the meaning of the Jesus storyline in Matthew 16:13-20. These verses provide the Roman Church with direct scriptural authority for the assertion of Papal supremacy. The Magisterium, which is the term used for the teaching authority within the Roman Church does not often resort to the actual letter of scripture as authority for its impetration of the Catholic tradition of Christianity. Yet, here it is in bold black and white. Jesus says: your are Peter (the rock) and on this rock I will build my Church… and I will give you the keys of the kingdom.imgres

The Churches of the Protestant Reformation, who do normally require the black and white words of scripture as authority for teaching go into an amazingly complex avoidance of the direct meaning of these words, because the denial of Papal Supremacy is what it was all about in those far off days of the Reformation. Catholics of the Roman variety love to taunt Episcopalians, who are also catholics, but of the Anglican variety, with: you remember old Henry VIII, who founded your church because he wanted a divorce – dirty old man? The conversation usually deteriorates from there-on.

I don’t want to get into whether Anglicans, and therefore Episcopalians recognize the supremacy of the Pope or not. The short answer is we do. The Bishop of Rome is the successor of the Apostle Peter, and because of this we recognize the special voice, which Tradition has accorded to the chief of the Apostles. Two of the significant titles claimed by the Pope accord with our understanding of his authority. These are: servant of the servants of God, and primus inter pares, translated as first among equals[1]. What we do reject is the politicization over the centuries of papal authority into that of an earthly, temporal prince, with the earthly power to enforce conformity.

If we employ my suggestion that there are always two storylines in the text, a Jesus storyline and an early church – in the form of a particular Evangelist – in this case Matthew storyline then let’s listen bifocally to Matthew 16: 13-20.

The Jesus storyline

Previously in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus after being rejected by his family and deeply hurt by the death of John the Baptist, in an attempt to get some alone time finds himself being pursued by the crowds. At the end of a long day he feeds 5000 of them with the meager rations on hand. After this he’s seen walking on the water in the midst of a storm that threatens to drown his disciples. He returns to the populated areas where he gets into an argument with the Pharisees over the kosher laws, and perhaps smarting from their stinging rejection he sets off for the borderlands where he is challenged by a foreigner and woman to boot. At first he rejects her unreasonable claims on him. Then the most astonishing thing happens. In the face of the woman’s challenge, Jesus seems to experience an expansion in his self-understanding and then rewards the woman for having great faith

Pausing now to catch our breath in this hectic Jack Bower-like series of events we find Jesus has returned to solid Jewish territory, where for the first time one of his disciples, Simon echoing the salutation of the foreign woman recognizes him as Messiah. We breath a sigh of relief because finally, the inside people who should have known who Jesus was all along, now catch up with the understanding that an outsider has already beaten them to. In return for Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus seems to promote him to the status of rock upon which he intends his church to be built and entrusts him with the keys of the Kingdom.

The mention by Jesus of the word church gives us a clue that Jesus probably did not say this, or at least, not as Matthew reports it. Jesus comes to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Building the church does not seem to be part of his understanding of what the arrival of the Kingdom of God means. However, building the church is very much at the heart of what Matthew understands the coming of the Kingdom to mean. The Jesus storyline gives us a chronicle of events, the meaning of which remains indeterminable in the sense of open to interpretation. Therefore we have to switch to the Matthew storyline to continue our exploration of events. 

Matthew’s storyline

Matthew takes the chronicle of Jesus’ events and weaves them into a theological narrative. At the heart if this narrative lie the themes of inclusion and exclusion, of clean and polluted and the sources of defilement, of legitimate and illegitimate authority. These are all the issues of a growing community seeking to promote its own identity in a world that is hostile to it. These are the issues of a fledgling community seeking to weld itself together from Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, hitherto separated by the mutual antagonisms of differences of race and religion.  Matthew reports the feeding of the 5000 and then a few verses on he reports the feeding of the 4000, not as a different eye witness report of the same event, but to indicate the movement of inclusion from the 5000 symbolizing the inclusion of Jews, to the 4000 symbolizing the inclusion of Gentiles, within the same dispensation[2]

Matthew sets Jesus’ return not simply to the Jewish territory of Galilee, but in particular to the city of Caesarea Philippi, that most Roman of cities symbolizing the quisling accommodation of the Herod family to Roman power and Greek culture. In yet another twist in the Matthean theme of insiders and outsiders, the head disciple finally understands Jesus’ identity, and this is set against the backdrop of Imperial Roman power. For Matthew and his community the issue of inclusion and exclusion has moved-on from Jew and Gentile, to a recasting of insiders and outsiders according to whether they can proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the son of the Living God. In this sense, while the antagonism between church and synagogue remains a pesky problem, for Matthew it is Roman Imperial power that symbolizes the ultimate rejection of Jesus. 

The present-age storyline

Imagine Jesus standing before you and asking: who do you say I am?

When I sat on the Bishop of Arizona’s Commission on Ministry, after having interviewed a candidate until we had reduced them to a quivering nervous wreck, I would wait for the coupe de grace when the Bishop would nonchalantly ask the candidate: so who is Jesus for you? In those moments I would pray that the candidate would have the presence of mind to put aside the latest trendily, heretical opinion they’d picked up in the seminary and simply say: Jesus for me is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. 

I whole heartedly echo Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Yet what does this phrase actually mean for me? At the heart of Jesus’ identity lies a profound mystery that I cannot fathom. I am afflicted with the modern suspicion of mystery. My fear is that if something cannot be cognitively understood, can it really exist? 

The history of Christianity reveals the struggle of the human mind to come to some intelligible answer about Jesus’ identity. Brian Stoffregan in his Textweek blog has listed some of the historical responses to the conundrum of Jesus’ identity[3]

Any cursory glance at this list of beliefs, over which early Christians slaughtered each other in droves, reveals how alive and kicking these so-called heresies remain present in our own thinking. 

From cognition to intuition

As I see it, the task is to try to get behind the formulaic words in order to intuitively grasp the implications of believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Cognitively, I can’t begin to grasp how Jesus comes to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God. However, intuitively I experience the power of what is being implied by this confession of faith. I will try to summarize my intuitions:

  1. I empathically connect with the yearning, so full of expectation of Isaiah and the whole of the prophetic tradition of Israel – a yearning for the change that can only accompany the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.
  2. Jesus is the Son of the Living God and this means that Jesus is part of the Trinity. The Trinity offers me an image of God, not as a solitary being, but as a community of persons. This encourages me to seek God within the intimacies of relational and communal experience. Jesus is important to me because he is the bridge between the community of God within the Holy Trinity and our participation in the community with God within our daily expectations of Kingdom of God.
  3. I believe that in Jesus there existed two autonomous natures, one human and one divine. This is a lot for the rational mind to swallow. A review of the heresies shows the temptation has been to either combine these two natures or to deny one or the other. I believe in the two natures of Christ, not because it makes any cognitive sense to me. Even the New Testament is mixed on the question with Paul and Mark seeming to favor a form of adoptionism, i.e. it all happened at Jesus baptism. Matthew and Luke favor different virgin birth stories, while John alone emphasizes the Trinitarian origin of Jesus without further reference to events. Yet, I believe in the two natures in Christ because without this belief the chasm between God and humanity remains unbridged. In the person of Jesus, I believe God builds an unbreakable bridge between creator and creation. Across this bridge a two-way traffic moves as the creator comes to share the experience of the creation, and the creation is invited into the communal life of the creator.
  4. I believe in the identity of Jesus as Son of the Living God because for me the consequences of not doing so are too terrible to contemplate. Robbed of faith I am defenseless against the forces of the nihilistic wilderness. This is my equivalent to Matthew’s Gates of the Underworld. The Nihilistic wilderness is for me symbolized in this statement by Timothy Simpson:

 We live in a cultural moment in which the religious impulse in community life is beating a hasty retreat. Every other month a new poll comes out showing a decline in religious belief, a decline on church attendance, a decline in personal religious practice and so on. Those secular polls are interspersed with bulletins from denominational headquarters about church closures, administrative down-sizing and other acts of retrenchment. We go to meetings of our parish councils and see the bills for shoring up our collapsing physical plants, while absorbing the treasurer’s report of the decline in per capita giving, all this after listening to a reading of the names of those saints—tithers all—who have been raised to the church triumphant since the last meeting. Having no idea how we’re going to make it into next year, we shuffle home from our meetings and watch the evening news, only to be told that there are crazy people chopping off the heads of our fellow Christians in other parts of the world. “How can this go on,” we ask ourselves. Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology. 

  1. My intuitive grasp of Jesus as Son of the Living God liberates me from carrying the burden of my personal failure to live-up to the moral, ethical, and emotional emulation of Jesus as a kind of superior avatar, a super-conscious, enlightened human being, like the Buddha. I am liberated from the pursuit of spiritual excellence through the intuitive knowledge that God meets me where I am, because in Jesus God meets me, and holds me within the experience of the muck and messiness, of the joys and sorrows that characterize my human existence.
  2. I am so relieved that by the sweat of my own brow I do not have to haul myself up, rung by rung, on the ladder to heaven. I am filled with the joy of knowing that God embraces and enfolds me within the Kingdom, where I find my true identity as a child of God.

Any confession of faith is important, not because it suddenly opens our eyes to see and understand God more clearly, but because it opens us to the experience for which we so long, that of being seen, and being loved by God.

[1] It is from primus inter pares, that Anglicans derive our understanding of the role of an archbishop. Except in the case of the Episcopal Church, which mirrors the political structure of the US Constitution, and is led by a Presiding Bishop, an archbishop, who is referred to as a Primate, leads other churches of the World Wide Anglican Communion, referred to as Provinces. This is not a reference to biological genus but to the concept of the archbishop as primus inter pares. An archbishop is accorded a special authority as in the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is rooted in the notion of being the first among equals in the college of bishops. Although not technically an archbishop, the office of Presiding Bishop enshrines this concept.


[2] For a fuller explanation of this got to my sermon blog for last week at http://relationalrealities.com/2014/08/16/tradition-and-transition/

[3] Ebionites Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary. He was the Messiah, but he was not divine. Dynamic Monarchianism or Adoptionism Jesus was a unique man who was divinely energized by the Holy Spirit (at baptism) and called to be the Son of God. That Spirit left just before Jesus died.

Arianism “There was when he was not” = Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father. He was an intermediary between the Creator and the creation. (Today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses have adopted an Arianistic Christology.) Origenism or Subordinationism Christ is a divine being somewhat below the highest divine principle. He derives his existence from the highest divine level.

Nestorianism Jesus is split into two distinct persons: one human and one divine. Mary was not theotokos (“God-bearer”). The divine logos(“Word”) was not involved with human suffering and change. Christ could only be truly human if his humanity was not fused and overcome by the divine nature.

Chacedonian Definition or Orthodoxy (the “right” stuff) Jesus the Christ is one. He has two natures preserved in one prosopon (“person”) and in one hypostasis (“substance”). Both natures are unimpaired, “perfect” consubstantial with God and man. Christ was both pre-existent and born from the Virgin. Christ is eternal and dies on the cross. Monophysitism There is one person, one substance and one nature. The manhood of Christ becomes unimportant. He was God. Modalistic Monarchianism God was revealed at one time under the mode of Father, at another time under the mode of Son, and at another time under the mode of the Holy Spirit. Docetism This view begins with the Greek idea that matter is essentially evil. Jesus was not a real “flesh and blood” human. He just “seemed” to be human. He was a god appearing in human form.



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Tradition and Transition


Human beings cannot live without tradition. We use the word is two distinct ways. We speak of traditions with a small t, to refer to the conventions, by which we interpret Tradition with a capital T in response to the needs of the present time.

Personal recollection

I remember in my seminary days being part of a rather exclusive little group. We considered ourselves not only the arbiters of fine taste, but also the defenders of Tradition. We were rather preoccupied with the protocols governing both the dining hall and the chapel.

Our seminary, or theological college as such places are referred to in the Church of England, was the first of such institutions to be established in the early part of the 19th century as the catholic revival[1] within the C of E sought to introduce a greater degree of spiritual formation into the preparation of men for Holy Orders. Being set up along the lines of a monastery, our community life revolved around the daily rhythms of eating and praying together. Our small group understood instinctively that the traditions governing the dining hall and the chapel shaped the identity and the feel of the community. We used the phrase: as is our ancient custom, to both invent and abolish practices we liked, or disliked.

The memory of this makes me smile with both amusement as well as embarrassment at the seeming pettiness of behaving in this way. Yet, what we were doing was simply trying to appeal to a wider sense of Tradition in order to identify who we thought we were in the here and now. We were reacting against what we felt were the loose and slovenly attitudes that had crept into the Church during the 1960’s, and 70’s. For instance, we were aghast that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, when Principal of the college in the late 1960’s had sold the dining silver and replaced many of the serving dishes with blue Tupperware. We revived or in some cases invented from scratch the customs of what appeared to us to have been a more dignified and tasteful past. In this way we were seeking to redefine the identity of the community we loved.

Reflections on the function of Tradition

Tradition with a capital T communicates and shapes a community’s experience of itself in the present by connecting it to the memory of what it has been in the past. However, Tradition also becomes a divisive thing, when in any society different constituencies in response to the pressures of contemporary issues come into conflict over how to interpret Tradition.

It’s all in the way Tradition is used. Whether we look at the history of the Christian Church or that of the American Republic, we see that conflict centers on how different groups appeal to Tradition either to justify, or criticize current practice.

The Bible supports the institution of slavery, the subordination of women, and the repudiation of homosexuality. Yet Christians have appealed to the teaching of Jesus on the primacy of love, and inclusion on the basis of faith, in order to challenge all three. In each age there is a cause célèbre that epitomizes the tensions of living with Tradition. In the 19th Century it was the abolition of slavery. In the 20th Century it was the emancipation of women. In the 21st Century it is the inclusion of homosexuality and gender identity within the concept of faithful Christian identity, not to mention civil rights. Running through all periods is the continual tension within the Christian body between those who appeal to Tradition in support of the Church as the pillar of society, and those who appeal to Tradition itself as society’s harshest critic.

The US Constitution proclaims that all human beings (men) are created equal. Yet the 14th Amendment was required to iterate that all men included black men. It took the 19th Amendment to extend the vote to women. It required the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to put into fuller practice the Constitution’s bold proclamation.

My central point here is to say that the use of Tradition cuts both ways. It’s all in the interpretive approach. Each of us will have an intellectual and emotional predisposition towards Tradition. Some will want to view received Tradition, as evidence that ancient custom is fixed, coming to us out of the mists from an age before time and consequently beyond the challenge of any particular age. The purpose of my seminary memory was to remind myself that there was a time when I had an emotional need to view Tradition in this way. There are others who believe it to be the responsibility of each generation to interpret Tradition in the light of current circumstances so as to ensure that Tradition is continually renewed and able to speak to the needs of the present time. Paradoxically, this was also what I, and my seminary friends were doing. I suspect we all use a bit of both approaches as it suits, because our intellectual and emotional needs for Tradition are not always in perfect sync.

The Gospel

What is true of our experience seems to be also true for Jesus. In Matthew 15 we see tensions in play that are familiar to us from our own religious and political context. In the Gospels we always have two parallel storylines, side by side. There is the memory of actual events in the ministry of Jesus. Matthew records this collective memory of Jesus in a manner that also speaks directly to the experience of the community for which he is writing. In both storylines, as well as in our own time, we see the age-old struggle between different approaches to living in the tense space between Tradition and the here and now.

Interpretation of Matthew 15: the Jesus storyline

Matthew 15 addresses head-on the tensions in the Matthean community between those who are in and those who out. This largely Jewish Christian community has recently suffered the experience of exclusion from the synagogue. It appears they are also struggling with the issue of the inclusion of Gentile Christians within their community. Matthew, drawing upon the earlier record of Mark’s Gospel presents his community with a picture of the way Jesus challenged the uses of Tradition to justify the practices of inclusion and exclusion.

We see Jesus breaking with Tradition and thereby running afoul of the religious authorities, in this instance represented by the Pharisee Party. In Jesus day there was a major split between the Sadducees and the Pharisees within Second Temple Judaism The Sadducees were the priestly, arch-traditionalist group claiming that the only binding authority lay in the Law as Moses had delivered and recorded in the Torah.

Many Jews felt that this ossification of the Law was an imperfect instrument for addressing contemporary needs. The Pharisees addressed the inadequacies of the written Law by holding that the Oral Tradition of the Prophets was equally authoritative. To this Oral Tradition other ritual purity customs had been added which here are referred to as the tradition of the elders. It’s with these ritual customs that Jesus is taking issue. Religions develop rituals that identify those included and those excluded on the basis of clean and unclean. If you wash before prayer you are spiritually purified, if you don’t you remain unclean.

Jesus counters Pharisee criticism by drawing a different distinction. In place of the distinctions between external purity and external contamination Jesus refocuses the argument on the distinction between internal intention, and external behavior. Jesus echoes a more contemporary psychological understanding that the challenge to living a spiritual life emanates from within our internal world – our attitudes and intentions. Jesus uses the image of the human heart to refer to the internal world. Being right with God is not about what you eat and whether you wash or not before prayer. It’s about intention and the conflict between intention and desire. The list of behaviors he condems could be seen as the symptoms of unresolved internal conflicts between human intentions and desires.

Interpretation of Matthew 15: the Matthean storyline

With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Judaism of Jesus’ day, i.e. the struggle between Sadducee and Pharisee parties is ended. The Sadducee priesthood dies with the Temple and out of the ruins the Pharisee party emerges triumphant in the form of Rabbinic Judaism. Matthew and his community live on the other side of this cataclysmic event.

It seems to me that in Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees, Matthew sees his community’s struggle with the synagogue where the Rabbis, the descendants of the Pharisee movement have expelled the Jewish followers of Jesus. The Christian community is vindicated in no longer following the rituals of the traditions of the elders by the memory of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees.

In verse 21 the focus shifts dramatically as Jesus journeys into the foreign territory of Phoenician Tyre and Sidon. It’s useful to notice that this section places Jesus outside the Jewish heartland. Jesus moves into the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile worlds. In Matthew’s presentation of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, he resurrects the archaic word Canaanite to identify her. Canaanite was a term from earlier Israelite history and would not have been used in Jesus nor Matthew’s time. Matthew’s point is to evoke the age-old nature of the struggle around inclusion and exclusion. The essential theological points in this dramatic action are as follows:

  • For Canaanite Woman read hated foreigner, a mere bitch in the canine sense – dog being a phrase Jews used to refer to foreigners.
  • Yet, she hails Jesus for the first time in the Gospel as Lord (kurios) and recognizes him as Messiah (Son of David). She alone is the first in Matthew’s Gospel to recognize who Jesus is, and she, a foreign bitch to boot.
  • Jesus seems to follow patriarchal social convention. As a man he ignores being addressed by a mere woman in public.
  • She continues to raise a ruckus. The disciples are embarrassed and just want to get rid of her. This is theological code for the spiritual blindness of the so- called insiders.
  • Jesus finally forced to address her rejects her plea because she is not a Jew justifying his response with: it is not right to give Jewish food to foreigners  i.e.dogs.
  • She outwits him by acknowledging her foreign status and offering a metaphor from the dinner table where the dogs scrounged for food that fell from the table. This she protests is reason enough for him should heal her daughter.
  • Matthew indicates no pause in the exchange but one can imagine Jesus being rather stunned by her response. He now calls her a woman of great faith. Nowhere else does Jesus refer to anyone as possessing great faith. The implication here is that great faith is to be found only among those outside, among the excluded.

Commentators debate the psychological movement that takes place in Jesus during this encounter. Traditional commentators stick with the explanation that Jesus’ response is a test for the woman, and she passes. Personally, I am repulsed by the suggestion of Jesus and God continually testing me to see if I pass or fail. Therefore, I favor the more challenging suggestion that here we see Jesus in response to her challenge, learning and growing in his understanding of his mission. This is the moment when Jesus recognizes that his mission is not only to the lost sheep of Israel. In three chapters, 13, 14 and 15, Matthew presents Jesus moving from family and hometown rejection, to rejection by the religious authorities, to encounter with great faith in the Gentile territory. He seems astonished to find recognition here in foreign parts among those considered unclean and outside the dispensation of Israel.

It seems to me that in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, Matthew is exhorting his Jewish Christian Community to move beyond their racial prejudices and embrace the inclusion of Gentile believers.

Although the Gospel reading for Pentecost 10 ends here, Matthew drives home his point by ending the chapter with what looks like a repetition of the feeding of the five thousand from chapter 14. However, he changes the vital elements of what looks like a repetition of the earlier story to show that this is a new story. In the feeding of the five thousand, the number 5000 is a Jewish number representing the division of the Israelites into five cohorts as commanded by Moses. There were twelve baskets, 12 being the number of the Tribes of Israel. The scraps are collected in a kind of basket only used by Jews. At the end of chapter 15 only four thousand are fed, 4000 representing the four corners of the Gentile world. There are seven baskets, 7 representing the 70 Gentile nations. The scraps are collected in a type of basket used all over the Mediterranean world. The banquet of God is now extended to the Gentiles and those who were outside are now brought inside the Kingdom of God.

Conclusions to be drawn

  • Tradition is always evolving and never fixed for all time.
  • Conventions come and go as a means of interpreting and applying the Tradition to the needs of the Christian community in the present age.
  • As human beings, we have a tendency to cling to our conventions. We mistake them for the entirety of the Tradition and not simply the interpretations of a previous generation.
  • The Early Christian community remembered the moment when Jesus transitioned in understanding his mission. They remembered the moment he moved from a mission to Israel, to viewing his mission in the fuller terms of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah calling all nations into the Covenant with God made originally with Abraham.
  • This memory helped the Early Church to embrace the Gentile world paving the way for the inclusion of the likes of you and me into the Old Covenant, now made new.
  • The abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the inclusion of gay and transgendered persons, the confrontation with systems that sustain the abuse of power that advantage the few at the expense of the many are not expressions of the spirit of our secular, humanistic age. They are signs of the People of God growing, painful step, by painful step, into the realization of the Kingdom of God.

[1] Commonly referred to as the Oxford Movement which sought to reinvigorate the Church of England’s spiritual disciplines and practices through returning to its ancient catholic spiritual and liturgical tradition, largely fallen into disuse during the 18th Century church’s championing the intellect and reason both spirits of the Enlightenment.

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