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] 

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:

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.

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

[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.

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.

Exploring  the Biblical context

The Gospel reading for Pentecost 9 is the last section of Matthew 14. Last week in Another Spin on the Feeding of the Five Thousand, I presented this chapter as three story lines (Herod’s banquet, God’s banquet or the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on the water) juxtaposed by Matthew for maximum effect. This led me to an uncomfortable exploration of the themes of national abundance, scarcity, and failure of courage set within the current US immigration dilemma.

16_Lorenzo_Veneziano,_Christ_Rescuing_Peter_from_Drowning._1370_Staatliche_Museen,_Berlin.The final story line in Matthew 14 concerns the episode of Jesus coming to the disciples who are imperiled in a boat in the midst of a fierce storm. Jesus comes to them across the mountainous waves, walking upon the water. As he does so, he calls to them: do not be afraid. Immediately encouraged by Jesus’ call Peter gets out of the boat and attempts to walk on the water to meet Jesus. At first all goes well as Peter follows his spontaneous impulse, a characteristic that normally gets him into trouble. Then I imagine Peter begins to become self-conscious. As he begins to watch himself doing something his mind tells him he can’t do, he begins to sink. Increasingly aware of the sound of the wind and the height of the waves, he becomes distracted by a sense of his own fragility and vulnerability. As he begins to sink Jesus reaches out and catches him. Imagine Peter’s relief, his utter joy!

Exploring the current context

Following a link from David Lose I came across Brené Brown, who is a vulnerability researcher. She proposes that as a society, we have lost our tolerance for vulnerability. She identifies a number of ways this happens.

The first factor she identifies is the way joy becomes foreboding. Let me give you a personal example of this. In order to spend a few days away we have arranged for a dog sitter to collect Charlie Girl and take her to an organic farm run by the sitter. The sitter has been recommended to me and it is a huge relief to find a good recommendation. As the time for Charlie’s collection comes closer, I awake today with the thought, but what if the dog sitter kidnaps Charlie, after all I don’t know this person?

Brown talks about disappointment becoming a lifestyle attitude. This equates to the old adage, “if you don’t expect then you can never be disappointed”. Yet, this illusion of self-protection relegates us to a perpetual attitude of disappointment. We experience low-grade disconnection, going through the motions of life without vital connection. We are driven by the need to pursue perfection mistakenly thinking this is the pursuit of excellence. Do we not all experience the feeling of never being quite good enough, of things never meeting-up to expectations? Psychologically this is a tool of self-protection from the dangerous feelings of being content or happy. Strange as it may seem, despite consciously telling ourselves how much we yearn to be happy, our fear of joy and of losing our perpetual attitude of disappointment ensures that joy and contentment continue to elude us.

Brown names the rise of religious extremism as a symptom of an equation – faith minus vulnerability = extremism. She comments on the prevalence of our addictions to drugs, food, our indebtedness as symptoms of the denial of vulnerability. Her most telling point, however, is that we cannot numb our fear of vulnerability without also numbing our capacity for joy.

Interpreting between contexts 

This last week I recall a couple of experiences when I had to confront my own ambivalent experience of vulnerability. The first involved a visit to an elderly parishioner in assisted living. This woman has a disease process that involves an increasing paralysis of her body, which has now robbed her of speech. Seeing her made me fearful of being in such a state of utter vulnerability. In the course of administering Holy Communion to her, I offered some reflections on living within the experience of limitation. At the conclusion, with some difficulty she indicated towards the back of her 1928 Book of Common Prayer. As she spelled out some letters on her alphabet card, I realized she was asking me to read something she had written on the blank inner side of the back cover. As I read, I began to realize that she was not asking me to read this to comfort her, but to comfort me. Somehow she had intuited my discomfort with her level of vulnerability and wanted me to read her own reflection on her situation.

The focus of my reflection was upon the frustrations of living within the severe limitations she appeared, to me, to experience. By contrast her reflections, noted in her prayer book, were full of the joyful trust and a sense of being utterly sustained by God. I had offered her an image that was like the disciples who remaining in the sinking boat, valiantly continue bailing-out the waters crashing over the sides. Whereas, for her, her vulnerability had become a way for her to walk on the waters and to reach out and be met by the loving Christ saying to her: do not fear. My companion in this encounter did not share my fears of falling out of a capacity for an active engagement with life. She felt Christ’s embrace catching her and bearing her up in an attitude of joyful gratitude.

My second experience concerns my responsibility to administer the generous discretionary funds that are available for the crisis support of members of the congregation. The problem is that I don’t get to administer the funds for the benefit of parishioners. In an upper middle class parish made up of predominantly professional or entrepreneurial members, schooled in the American creeds of autonomous individuality and the virtue of financial independence, to admit to a need for financial help to meet and unforeseen crisis involves a painful admission of vulnerability. As Brené Brown notes, for many of us vulnerability equates with weakness.

Instead of the discretionary funds being administered for the benefit of the members of the congregation, they are more often distributed to strangers who wander into the Church office. Usually, these are people who have developed a capacity for skillful and manipulative exploitation of their vulnerability. Much of my ministry has been at the sharp end of dealing with people with what psychiatry calls personality disorders. A personality disordered person fills the interpersonal space with a level of chaos and disturbance that makes it hard for them to live constructively or enjoy stable relationships with others. I am, therefore, far from a fresh-faced pastoral rookie, not easily persuaded by hard luck stories.

My general assumption is that these supplicants are scamming me. They are persons who have honed manipulation and the parading of their vulnerability into a survival life-skill. Yet, the gratuitous generosity of God requires me in good conscience to give people the benefit of the doubt until proven wrong. This last Friday afternoon, I was able to confirm my suspicion that I was being scammed.

The long and short of this experience was through skillful sleuthing around I managed to find proof the person in question was scamming me. You might expect my exposé to have produced a sense of satisfaction. On the contrary, the discovery exposed me to feelings of having been foolish and stupid. I felt incompetent in the exercise of my pastoral duty. A voice inside my head remonstrated with me for having been such a gullible pushover.

Yet, the truth of the matter was that faced with simply not knowing whether what I was being told was true or not, I had actually primed the pump in such a manner as to be able to follow how the person claiming assistance to buy medication actually spent the money. The actual circumstances of how I did this are a little too demeaning for the ego of a Cardinal Rector to admit to. Yet, I am left with the question, why was I left feeling so stupid?

Revisiting connections

In the parables of Jesus, we find a picture of God as gratuitously, and to our mind recklessly generous. The challenge for me in pastoral ministry is to take risks and to become vulnerable. This means at times becoming vulnerable to the possibility of being duped. My belief and experience of God as gratuitously, and recklessly, generous requires this of me. Yet, my ego as the consummate pastoral and psychospiritual professional hates becoming vulnerable. Because although I know better, and my spiritual experience confirms the truth of what I know, it’s hard to shake the habit of equating the experience of vulnerability with being weak, foolish, and ultimately, incompetent. For won’t every marginal person in Providence now hear that the Rector of St Martin’s is a pushover?

Most of us live in fear of becoming vulnerable because we equate being vulnerable with being dependent as in my first pastoral vignette, and, or feeling weak as in the second – fearing that our vulnerability as a weakness will open us up to exploitation.

Could our experience of life be enhanced by breaking the mental link between weakness and vulnerability? The disciples being tossed about in the boat is an image for me of negotiating the winds and heavy seas that come upon us in life from time-to-time. There can be little doubt that the world can be a rough place. We have only to look to events unfolding in many places in our world to see this to be self-evident. In our attempt to deny our vulnerability we become the victims to the illusion that we are actually in control of our lives. That if we only do the right thing, not rock the boat, and not take risks, we can avoid the storms of life. The corollary of this is that if we find ourselves being tossed in some rough weather then it’s because of our own fault, our own foolishness.

Life is not an exercise of painting by numbers, where by following the instructions we always use the right color and never paint over the lines. It’s not like a game of hopscotch – successfully jumping from square to square avoiding treading on the lines. The price we pay for numbing our vulnerability is to become alienated from, and fearful of feelings of contentment and joy. We find we are only comfortable when we are able to turn every situation into a problem.

Peter’s impulse on seeing the Lord coming toward them through the storm is to get out of the boat and take a risk. It’s only when he becomes aware of doing something that his mind tells him he can’t do, that he begins to sink. As he does the Lord catches him. So too, will Christ catch us and bear us up, if we let him.

Brené Brown’s solution to our personal and societal denial of vulnerability is echoed by the Christian Faith. It is to live lives of contentment through practicing over and over again the spiritual discipline of gratitude. My prayer is that within the community of St Martin’s we may deepen our practice of becoming vulnerable, one to another. To this end I commend to you a spiritual practice.

Recommendations for practice

End each day with an examination of the events of the day in a spirit of non- recrimination, non-judgment, watching for signs of rumination, i.e. rehearsing what we should have done, should have said, but didn’t. Then awaken to each new day reciting our chorus of thanksgivings, or at the very least noting how long it takes for us to do so.

Another Spin on the Feeding of the Five Thousand

imagesHaving spent two weeks on Paul’s message in the 8th Chapter of Romans, I feel a need to come back to Mathew’s Gospel as my focus. It’s hard to avoid commenting on the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It’s one of three Gospel stories that somehow everyone knows. It’s the only miracle story to appear in all four gospels, though each Evangelist applies his own spin to it. I say it’s hard to avoid, because for me, it’s one of three really famous Gospel stories that have embedded in popular consciousness. There is the parable of the Good Samaritan and there is the parable of Prodigal Son. I always want to rename the parable of the Prodigal Son as the parable of the Gratuitous Father because it says far more about the father than the wayward son. All three parables have something to say about God as a God of gratuitous actions.

I am curious about the word gratuitous. I am finding a need to rehabilitate it in my own imagination. The word gratuitous, I associate with bad things – gratuitous cruelty, gratuitous violence. The word has two distinct, yet linked meanings. The first meaning is: something uncalled for, something that is inexplicable, something lacking good reason. So the word associates for me with actions that seem to us inexplicable. The second meaning of gratuitous associates to good actions, e.g. he gave his time free of charge, or she freely offered me the use of her car. The link between the two meanings lies in the notion of actions that are inexplicable actions, freely chosen. Why do some people do such cruel and violent things to others? Why would someone give freely when there is no obligation to do so, or when there doesn’t seem to be any obvious benefit for them doing so? Both cruelty and generosity are gratuitous because both seem inexplicable.

Yesterday, I enjoyed a conversation with a soul-friend because it was the first opportunity we had, had to catch-up with one another since my leaving Phoenix. As we came towards the end of our conversation I asked her why she thought the members of the Tea Party were so opposed to allowing the refugee children on our southern border to enter the country? My mentioning the Tea Party was, of course, somewhat teasing, as my friend is a person who is both socially progressive and fiscally conservative. Clearly, the reason I like to tease her is that at some level I am infected with that insufferable liberal trait of thinking I have a monopoly on compassion. Her answer was that it wasn’t just the Tea Party who opposed the entry of the children, and I am sure she is correct about that. The Congress has just adjourned leaving the Executive branch of government to grapple with this painful national dilemma. My friend countered with: its hard but we need law and if you have a solution to this situation, then please share it with me, because I do not know what the answer is? 

It goes without saying, that I have no solution. Sending them back seems bad, yet, taking them into our already overwhelmed and overstretched public welfare and education systems, seems also a bad decision.

As a foreigner, but one who has had the skills, resources, and the institutional support to negotiate the complex processes of legal immigration,  I feel a particular solidarity with those who don’t possess what is needed to negotiate legal channels. As a foreigner, I also recognize that the immigration debate exposes a wound that is particularly raw for Americans. Like the US, the UK, the country I am most familiar with faces similar challenges, as do all the countries of the European Union.

For other countries often the central question is: at what price is our compassion? However, because of its particular history and current complexion as a nation of immigrants, the US uniquely faces the challenges of an unprecedented worldwide movement of populations. The American poet Emma Lazarus (1849–87), composed a sonnet in 1883 she entitled The New Colossus. In 1903, the poem was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet’s final stanza reads:

Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

These words, engraved upon a bronze plaque in the Statue of Liberty, have over the course of the early 20th Century become etched upon the American psyche. Herein, lies the particular American, immigration dilemma. These words remain etched upon the psyche of a nation that no longer feels it has the confidence to remain faithful to them. Words of hope have become words of guilty rebuke.

Immigration and class mobility are two regions straddling the fault-line separating the traditional national mindset of unlimited abundance and the growing fear of scarcity that has already dramatically eroded a culture of national self-confidence. Waves of seismic energy radiate outwards from this fault line, seriously damaging the foundations and superstructure of the melting pot culture and its body politic.

A national psyche rooted in a soul-vision of America as a refuge for the oppressed and a land of opportunity for the self-motivated has historically gone hand–in-glove with a nation ever-expanding to fill-up it’s vast landmass and develop its resources. Since 1945 this dream as been fuelled by the US economic and military preeminence in the world. Historically, the national dream of manifest destiny and the economic imperatives of nation building, dovetailed. The lines of this history can be seen at every turn in a state like Rhode Island, a patchwork of ethnic identities flourishing within a concept of common cause and the common good, fuelled and sustained within a framework of economic opportunity.

Alas, because of globalization economics no longer dovetail with the American Dream. The agencies of the national religion of capitalism, which had been assumed existed to serve the American Dream, have either abandoned these shores or walled themselves into unassailable transnational ghettos, from which they pursue policies designed to increase the wealth of Wall St at the expense of Main St. The result has been a shattering of national confidence in the assumptions of easy abundance as everyone hunkers down in a landscape devastated by fears of scarcity. In a landscape of scarcity notions like compassion for the outsider become the first in a long list of moral casualties, along with a belief in common cause and commitment to the common good – a recognition that ultimately my flourishing is limited, if it is at the expense of yours.

Matthew 14

In chapter 14, Matthew arranges three powerful juxtapositions. He opens with the death of John the Baptist during an evening of gratuitous (there’s that word again) abundance. Herod’s party has become for us emblematic for excess and depravity, both marks of unaccountable and parasitic, privilege. The chapter’s middle section concerns Jesus’ reaction to John’s death. In distress he escapes into the desert, only to be followed by the crowds –some 5000 men, plus women and children – note only men are counted in the Old and New Testaments. Here Matthew recounts the memory of Jesus performing a miracle in feeding 5000 people (a symbolic figure representing the organization of the Israelites into groups of 5000 recorded in Exodus) with two fishes and five loaves, the very antithesis of Herod’s abundance. The chapter closes with Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm. Jesus is not only a miracle worker who demonstrates abundance in the midst of scarcity, he asserts his authority over the very elements of wind, sea, and darkness. Even in the face of such assertions of authority, such a promise of assurance that all is well, Peter’s courage and confidence fail him. For Matthew these sections are theologically connected, though he doesn’t explain exactly how he understands the connections between them, it is reasonable to assume that the feeding of the five thousand is, in some sense, a prefiguring of the community meal of the Eucharist.

Two kinds of banquet

Matthew seems to present us with two different kinds of banquet. There is Herod’s banquet of excessive abundance. Here we see the powerful and the privileged’s callous disregard as an expression of the hardening effect of excess on their hearts.  This is an image of moral scarcity amidst material over-abundance. Next, Matthew presents Jesus’ banquet, set amidst the scarcity of landscape and provision. Here the very scarcity in which the peoples lives were lived leads to a discovery of a kind of abundance that invites hearts to open in the face the surprise experience that there is enough for all.

Receiving the parable

What can the parable of the Feeding of the Five Thousand mean for us? While not wishing to tie its meaning-down, it speaks directly to our national failure of confidence. We no longer trust to our own ability to self-generate a culture of abundance and therefore humbled, we cower before our fears of scarcity. The shift in the relationship between the American Dream and the economic winds of change reveal that it’s not the newfound limitations on material prosperity we need to worry about. Other nations have found that a return to a belief in common cause and practices that support the common good are effective responses to limitation of material resources. Our concern should be with the loss of our moral confidence as a nation. The chasm left by the loss of moral confidence is filled with our fear. Fear stifles our ability to work together, to imagine our way out of the box. Loss of confidence and impoverishment of imagination pose the real dangers for the American Dream. After all, as I was mentioning in a very different context last week, reality isn’t real, its only the way you see, or don’t see the world.

What we are failing to see is that we are generating our own fears as a result of our worldview. We mourn the loss of easy, self-generated abundance and perceive scarcity as something imposed on us from beyond our control. This is an illusion. So too is the resulting fear that we need to keep immigrants out because there are not enough jobs for citizens. Abundance is fuelled by the dreams, creativity and hard work of immigrants; just look back several generations in any American family to see how this works. A prosperous middle class with spending power and strong civic-minded priorities likewise fuels abundance. We have forgotten that abundance is found in the midst of material limitation where a society’s imagination is unleashed to solve problems through people working together. America’s enjoyment of easy, seemingly limitless abundance is an anomaly in the long march of Western Civilization. European – Western progress was fuelled not by the enjoyment of an easy material abundance, but by the imaginative technologies that arose to meet needs in the face of natural and material limitations.

The problems on our southern border and the larger problem of worldwide population migration will not be addressed with easy, one-step solutions. Part of the solution lies in the development of new kind of national confidence, no longer resting on an expectation of easy abundance and success, but a renewed confidence fed by imaginative courage and gratuitous (there’s that word again) action.

Gratuitous intention and action

Remember the first definition of gratuitous means: something uncalled for, something that is inexplicable, something lacking good reason. Remember gratuitous also means: giving freely when there is no obligation to do so, or when there doesn’t seem to be any obvious benefit in so acting. Now let’s locate these definitions within our own intentions and actions. Gratuitous means challenging our intentions and actions when driven only from the narrow perspective of protecting our own self-interests. Our own sense of narrow self-interest is a prison that saps our courage and makes our gratuitousness cruel and not generous. If you doubt my assertion simply open your eyes and look around. As you do so, don’t forget to look within.

Two approaches

Matthew 14 highlights two approaches to living. It’s clear to most of us that we are no longer living in the world of Herod’s party, party, party banquet. Can we move from a national mindset addicted to excessive abundance, driven by the need to feed our insatiable appetite without regard to the effects on other nations and peoples[1]? The second and more difficult question is: can we begin to shape our world guided by the banquet Jesus shows us that we could enjoy? Or will we, like Peter climbing out of the boat, find our courage and confidence in God, failing us?

[1] We can’t forget that a sizable component to solving the plight of Central American refugees from violence and poverty lies in a more imaginative response to our epidemic use and abuse of narcotics. Out abuse of narcotics fuels the wide scale corruption and gratuitous violence eroding stable civic and economic life from the Mexican border south.

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