Saturday, May 28, 2016

Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field


 Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house.  And His disciples came to Him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field."  He answered and said to them:  "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.  The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one.  The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels.  Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.  The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire.  There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

- Matthew 13:36-43

 In yesterday's reading, Jesus gave more parables to the crowds. (Chapter 13 of Matthew's Gospel introduces us to Jesus' use of parables, beginning with the parable of the Sower, and then the Wheat the Tares).  Jesus taught,  "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches."  Another parable He spoke to them:  "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened."  All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:  "I will open My mouth in parables;  I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world."

Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house.  And His disciples came to Him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field."  He answered and said to them:  "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.  The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one.  The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels.  Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.  The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire.  There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"  Just as with the parable of the Sower, Jesus explains in private to His disciples the parable of the tares of the field (also called the Wheat and the Tares, and given in Thursday's reading).  Jesus explains in terms of Judgment, and the end of the age.  If we look closely at the timeline of the Gospel, we see Jesus' teachings giving us a picture of how His kingdom works since the time it became clear that He will be rejected by the religious leadership.  His Kingdom is one in which we are united in faith; not by nation or people or ancestry.  He has taught that "whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother," giving spiritual kinship as definition of real community.  Here, He teaches about the "weeds and the tares" growing together:  those who belong to this community and those who do not, and are in fact 'sown by the enemy' -- those who are "sons" of the one who works against this kingdom.  In our present state, all grow together.  Jesus has taken pains in the parable to say that to root up one may be to root up the other, and my study bible has commented that the Church does not condemn its nominal members nor judges those outside the Church for this reason:  Judgment belongs to God, and comes at the end of the age -- that is, beyond the time in which we now live.  His teachings give us the picture of community and kinship, but also what constitutes "outside" status and yet resembles the "insiders" and how all live together in the present time.

Judgment becomes important at this stage of Jesus' ministry, because it is clear how He is going to be rejected.  There will be those who follow in faith, and those who do not.  This is the state of our world, and the time in which we currently live -- a time initiated by His ministry and Incarnation in the world.  It is a picture in which distinctions remain somewhat hidden and blurry:  heresy and sophistry resemble spiritual truth, just as the tares are a wild plant that resemble the wheat in the parable.  His parable gives us a picture not only of the world in which we live, in which spiritual struggle is taking place behind the scenes of what we see and know, but also tells us that we bear a kind of responsibility for our part in this struggle.  That responsibility becomes a focus on our own inner life of guarding the heart, searching for truth, knowing ourselves, and also a focus on growth and awareness.  Clearly, responsibility for Judgment is in God's hands, and comes at the end of the age.  So our focus has to be on being good stewards and disciples, bearing the good fruit that features in so much of His teaching in recent readings.  In His examples in yesterday's reading -- of the mustard seed that grows into a large tree, and the leaven that works its way into the whole of the meal -- Jesus gives us pictures of what that growth and that work of faith is really like.  He teaches us about the workings of the Kingdom within us and among us.  He gives us a picture of the "world" He is introducing, the ways of the Kingdom, and how we must understand ourselves in the world if we are to follow in His faith.  Heresy will be among us, sophistry will proliferate and filter into our lives.  But our job is the job of faith, the work of faith, and it becomes up to us to learn what that is from what He teaches.  This is the picture He's given us in His ministry, and we go forward to learn more from Him through the Gospel and our future readings.  The parables give us truth couched in riddles, so to speak, in images from every day life, and it's up to us to desire what they hold for our understanding -- just as the disciples ask Him to explain.  The world works in a way similar to the parables:  hidden in our daily life is the struggle for spiritual truth, for hearts and minds.  If we pay attention, we take that seriously, for that is the working of our faith within us, the struggle He invites us into.   The fire that burns or illuminates is the same fire.  When Jesus teaches, "Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father," He is both expressing that illumination, and also a time of revelation, when the truth that has been hidden but present all along becomes manifest and clear to all.  "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"





Friday, May 27, 2016

I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world


 Another parable He put forth to them, saying:  "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches."  Another parable He spoke to them:  "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened."

All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:
"I will open My mouth in parables;
I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world."

- Matthew 13:31-35

In yesterday's reading, Jesus gave a new parable to the crowd, the parable of the Wheat and the Tares.  (The lectionary skipped over the parable of the Sower, and Jesus' private explanation to His disciples;  see Matthew 13:1-23.)  Jesus taught,  "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way.  But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared.  So the servants of the owner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then does it have tares?  He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.'  The servants said to him, 'Do you want us then to go and gather them up?'  But he said, 'No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn."'"

 Another parable He put forth to them, saying:  "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches."  Another parable He spoke to them:  "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened."   My study bible suggests that the mustard seed and the leaven represent the disciples.  According to commentary by Theophylact, they began as just a few men, but "soon encompassed the whole earth."  These images can also stand for faith entering a person's soul, causing an inward growth of virtue.  The soul may become godlike and can receive even angels.   Three measures of meal would be approximately equivalent to 4.5 gallons.

All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:  "I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world."  See Psalm 78:2.   After teaching the parable of the Sower, Jesus explained to His disciples why He has begun preaching to the crowds in parables.  He said, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.  Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand."

Through His parables, Jesus tells truths about the Kingdom.  The parables are a revelation "hidden in plain sight."  It's a way of teaching that emphasizes what He's looking for in His disciples.  He's looking for those capable of faith, of seeing and hearing spiritually.  He says to them, "But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear;  for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it."  These are the ones capable of seeing and hearing Him, of listening and desiring what He offers.  And I think that, once again, we have to consider the aspect of gratitude in terms of faith.  Can we recognize value and worth in what Christ is offering?  Jesus speaks in parables because the pearls He offers are for those who will truly value and cherish them, those who truly desire "things kept secret from the foundation of the world."   Here is the great secret of the Kingdom:  that it works like a mustard seed (and He will also use mustard seed as an image of faith), to grow all kinds of unexpected things.  We may become like that tree which can shelter even "birds of the air" (akin to angels) which can nest in its branches.  Angels are messengers, and this may be interpreted as our growth in the knowledge of "things kept secret from the foundation of the world."   We see the parallel in the second image of the leaven, used here as a positive image of the influence of a small taste of the Kingdom which eventually permeates the greater amount.  Jesus uses images of this mysterious ingredient, this small amount of faith that opens up a great abundance, a largeness of life, tremendous and unexpected growth.  And the whole process is mysterious; it's not something we can engineer or manufacture or replicate.  It's this mustard seed of cooperation -- our faith and His kingdom -- that opens up this great spring of growth that keeps giving and will not stop until its work is full.  But we have to truly value and want what this is.   So much of the world seems incapable of valuing the things of the Spirit that grow in us and among us, even recognizing its fruits which we have come to count on in our lives and culture.  Jesus gives us such an emphasis on truth and love; His story teaches us about the imperfect justice of mankind and the great value of human beings.  The fruits of His ministry are incalculable to our world, and yet so many not merely take this for granted, but fail to understand the roots of the things rare and precious that we hold dear:  concepts like personal freedom, or the value of mercy.  But the Kingdom will not stop its gifts nor its growth for those who love what is offered, those capable of seeing and hearing.  He doesn't ask us for much, and what He offers is infinite and unending.  It takes ears to hear and eyes to see what mysteriously remains hidden in plain sight, but available to all.







Thursday, May 26, 2016

Let both grow together until the harvest


 Another parable He put forth to them, saying:  "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way.  But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared.  So the servants of the owner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then does it have tares?  He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.'  The servants said to him, 'Do you want us then to go and gather them up?'  But he said, 'No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn."'"

- Matthew 13:24-30

Yesterday, we read Jesus' words to the Pharisees, as He continued to rebuke them for their blasphemy of the Spirit (Tuesday's reading), after they accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub.   (See Wednesday's reading also for the substance of His rebuke to them.)   He said, "When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none.  Then he says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.'  And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.  Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.  So shall it also be with this wicked generation."  While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him.  Then one said to Him "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You."  But He answered and said to the one who told Him, "Who is My mother and who are My brothers?"  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother."

The lectionary skips over Matthew 13:1-23, as Jesus introduces preaching in parables into His ministry.  In this passage, Jesus tells the crowds the parable of the Sower, also explaining in private to His disciples the meaning of the parable and why He has begun preaching in this style.   He gives us the understanding that the struggle for faith is an individual one;  He is the sower who sows the seeds, but faith depends on the "ground" within us upon which those seeds fall.  Parables are "word-pictures," taking images from every day life and giving people truths about spiritual life.  As we can see from yesterday's reading, above, Jesus speaks of the heart and the condition of the heart.  Parables teach truths hidden in stories; for some, spiritual mysteries may be revealed, for others it is not so.  Everything depends on the condition of the inner ground of the heart.  The parable of the Sower tells us of the things which get in the way of the progress of our faith, giving us universal examples of the things which may hold us back or help.  It's a turning point in the ministry, along with His rejection by the Pharisees and His statement that "whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother."

 Another parable He put forth to them, saying:  "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way.  But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared.  So the servants of the owner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then does it have tares?  He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.'  The servants said to him, 'Do you want us then to go and gather them up?'  But he said, 'No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn."'"  This parable builds on the parable of the Sower.  But here Jesus shifts the attention from the condition of the heart of the listener to the enemy who has sown his seed among the seed of Christ.  My study bible says that as falsehood came after truth and false prophets came after true prophets, so the Antichrist will come after Christ.  Tares are a kind of wild plant (a weed) that closely resembles wheat; so the devils fashions lies and sophistries which resemble the truth.  My study bible says that as the devil sows while men slept indicates that heresy and lies creep in when people are apathetic.  It adds that this parable explains why the Church does not condemn nominal members, nor does it judge those outside the Church (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).  Just as the wheat would be destroyed in weeding out the tares, so also many who might ultimately find salvation would ultimately be lost if they would to be condemned before Christ's judgment.  We are reminded, in a certain sense, that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus preached that God "makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (5:45).

Jesus is really introducing a new way of thinking here.  Salvation and faith are not about which "people" one nominally belongs to, which nation one is a part of.  His faith is to go out to all of the world, and His community -- even His kin, His family -- will be those consisting of "whoever does the will of My Father in heaven."  He makes it clear also that there will be enemies of His truth, enemies of this faith, even enemies in the spiritual realm, influencing the journey of faith.  These weeds or tares will be another obstacle to faith, the sophistries that will abound even as His truth is preached.  And this is the condition of our lives and of the world for which we must be prepared and which we must accept as part of the journey, part of our lives.  In the view that Jesus gives us, there is no such thing as a worldly place that is "pure," in the sense that there will be no struggle against heresy and sophistry, the things which are spiritually misleading.  It is a clear indication that our jobs are not to judge everyone else nor to in some ways eliminate those who think differently, but rather an emphasis on our own capacity and responsibility in a world that offers us struggles and obstacles, in which there are forces that wage a kind of spiritual battle for human hearts and minds.  It also reminds us of Judgment, which comes at the end of the age -- not our jobs, but God's.  It emphasizes the focus on care of the heart, on our own struggles to discern truth from falsehood, and the importance of teaching as given by the example of Christ Himself:  fearless in teaching the truth, but not working through manipulation.  What is essential here is our notion of purity; we're not going to live in a pure or perfect world.  What we do seek is "purity of heart" -- a love of God in our depths, and a constant work at our faith which is a journey, the journey of a lifetime.  Christ calls from us awareness, self-consciousness, a work at discernment, remaining awake and alert for the Master's return.  This is the setting of the world, and our place, our job, in it.  We're to be good servants and stewards, nurturing and guarding our hearts and minds and helping others to do so through that struggle for faith.   In that struggle, we always have His love and and presence with us, His Helper the Spirit, our prayers to the Father.







Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The last state of that man is worse than the first


 "When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none.  Then he says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.'  And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.  Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.  So shall it also be with this wicked generation."

While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him.  Then one said to Him "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You."  But He answered and said to the one who told Him, "Who is My mother and who are My brothers?"  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother."

- Matthew 12:43-50

In yesterday's reading, Jesus continued His reply the Pharisees after they claimed His signs and healings were the result of demonic activity.  He said,  "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.  Brood of vipers!  How can you, being evil, speak good things?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.  But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.  For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."  Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You."  But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.  The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here."

 "When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none.  Then he says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.'  And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.  Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.  So shall it also be with this wicked generation."  My study bible tells us that when the Israelites were delivered out of Egypt, they didn't repent of their impure ways, and an unclean spirit took up residence in their hearts (see Deuteronomy 31:20; Psalm 106:34-39).  Thus, it teaches, we guard our hearts.  Unless there is a full repentance and the Holy Spirit dwells in a  person, an expelled demon will return with others and reoccupy its abode.  What it seems that Jesus is teaching us, especially as continuation of yesterday's reading, is that without repentance and a real "guarding of the heart" -- a deliberate practice of self-awareness -- we're on a trajectory.  We don't stay neutral and in one place.  We're either going in one direction or another, and therefore what remains in deliberate error or sin becomes worse.  It's an argument about consciousness.  Jesus will teach a similar principle when He tells the Pharisees (in 23:15), "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves."   Seven is frequently used as a number symbolic of completeness.  What Jesus is discussing here is a pattern and growth of personal corruption.

While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him.  Then one said to Him "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You."  But He answered and said to the one who told Him, "Who is My mother and who are My brothers?"  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother."  Christ's family, says my study bible, haven't yet understood His identity and His mission.  He points to a spiritual family based on obedience to the will of My Father.  In this we're reminded of the prayer He's given us in the Sermon on the Mount, in which we pray to God the Father, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  Jesus' brothers are extended family; "brothers" is still a common way to refer to cousins or stepbrothers in the Middle East.

Importantly, in today's reading, Jesus claims kinship with "whoever does the will of My Father in heaven."   It's an important principle.  Here Jesus specifically applies it to members of His own family, but we can see the point in the continuation of His teachings and rebuke to the Pharisees in the past two readings.  He has warned them that they will be judged by foreigners, the non-Jews who heard God's word and obeyed or cherished what they were given although not prepared by the whole spiritual history of Israel, the people of God.  He mentioned those at Nineveh who repented at Jonah's preaching, and the queen of the South who came to hear the wisdom God gave to Solomon.  He's challenging the ways in which we see kinship and blood relationship and community, and telling us about community based on something other than flesh and blood.  Those who stray far from God stray outside of that kinship and family.  He's looking for disciples, those who will 'work the work of faith.'  A sincere prayer that "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is the prayer of one in this family, in His family.   Jesus underscores the importance of our understanding of this point when He preaches about the unclean spirit that brings seven more with it back to the same place; even though it is in order, it's not really enough.  Repentance asks for a kind of commitment, a particular direction of service to something, an active faith so that we go in another direction.  It seems that our failure to understand repentance and commitment, how faith works, is a failure to understand a part of our nature as human beings.  We're always serving something, whether we realize it or not.  We're made for worship, and we can turn anything into an idol.  The real nature of our minds and hearts requires consciousness, self-awareness, deliberate choice.  Neither Jesus nor God the Father acts to coerce without our internal assent, and this practice of "guarding the heart" is part of that assent, that desire to accept God's love.  This is active faith.  It's not just about following certain rules; each is made to manifest and grow in the love of God and image of God in the depth of faith.  Every saint is a unique and full personality.  As Jesus has taught, "Wisdom is justified by her children."  But we remember His words from yesterday's reading, as He gives us the 'flipside':  "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit."  And today, His warning is more dire: without this work at making the tree and its fruit good, it may be on the way to being seven times worse.  Our choice here is what is essential, and in teaching about who are His brother and sister and mother, He gives us the crucial choice.







Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit


 "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.  Brood of vipers!  How can you, being evil, speak good things?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.  But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.  For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You."  But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.  The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here."

- Matthew 12:33-42

Yesterday, we read that a man was brought to Jesus who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw.  And all the multitudes were amazed and said, "Could this be the Son of David?"  Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, "This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons."  But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them:  "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself.  How then will his kingdom stand?  And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?  Therefore they shall be your judges.  But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.  Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?  And then he will plunder his house.  He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.  Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.  Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come."

 "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.  Brood of vipers!  How can you, being evil, speak good things?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.  But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.  For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."  Jesus calls these men of the Pharisees "brood of vipers," as John the Baptist also referred to members of the leadership (Pharisees and Sadducees) who came to be baptized by him, when he said to them, "Brood of vipers!  Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?" (see 3:7-12).  Brood means "offspring," and the term refers to their deception and malice -- and also indicates a Satanic influence.  We may contrast this with 'wisdom's children' referenced by Jesus when He spoke of both Himself and John the Baptist.   Here in this context the term brood of vipers gives us something important to think about, as these are the men who have just accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of "Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons."  John also connected their 'inner hearts' with the image of trees, warning them to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" and that "even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees."  John added, "Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

How can you, being evil, speak good things?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.  But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.  For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."   My study bible points out to us that the heart in Scripture refers to the center of consciousness, the seat of the intellect and the will, and the place from which spiritual life proceeds.  God's grace, permeating the heart, has the effect of mastering the body and guiding actions and thoughts.  But on the other hand, when malice and evil capture the heart, a person becomes full of darkness and spiritual confusion.  Jesus expands on the image of trees and fruit (see paragraph above)  to teach the importance of the words we use as part of spiritual discipline.  Not for the first time, we hear His emphasis on language; it was also an important teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus likened name-calling to murder and also taught to "let your 'yes' be 'yes' and 'no,'  'no'"  (5:21-22, 37).

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You."  But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.  The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here."   Again, Jesus uses the language of the prophets in His terminology describing these men who demand a sign in order to have faith.  Adulterous generation echoes the illustration used for Israel by the prophets when Israel was unfaithful to God -- see Jeremiah 2; Hosea 2:2-13.  And once again, the importance of Judgment is evoked.  There are those foreigners -- who lacked the spiritual preparation of Israel -- who repented at the preaching of the prophet Jonah (the Ninevites), and the queen of the South who came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, which was given by God.  But these men, the religious leaders of Israel, demand a sign as proof of Christ's authority and identity, despite the fact that those Gentiles understood the wisdom of God that was presented to them.   So much depends on what we are prepared to know and to understand, and where we fail to heed the wisdom we're already given.   Jesus alludes to the sign of Jonah, three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, as the one sign they will be given.  Yet, clearly, from His words He suspects they will fail to read that sign as well (His death and Resurrection after three days).  In the Judgement, all rise and live at the same time:  this generation will be compared to those who, with far less benefit from grace and God's revelation, did not fail to recognize that wisdom was being given to them.

The question, "What did he know and when did he know it?" may be characterized as part of a legal proceeding, generally conveying an impression of deciding liability.  That is, responsibility for a particular failure to prevent a crime from taking place.  Here, we could apply the question as Jesus' implication against these men.  They know better.  They are experts in Scripture, which they study even down to the most minute details, and argue as their daily process of work and authority.  But, as Jesus will say of them later on in Matthew's Gospel, "they strain out a gnat and swallow a camel" (23:24).  They are so busy looking for and finding minutiae to condemn that they will miss entirely what is happening in their midst; but this is down to hardness of heart -- and they are responsible for what they already know and are failing to acknowledge.   Matthew's Gospel will report that even Pilate recognized that Jesus was handed over because of envy.  Over and over again, Jesus will emphasize that responsibility comes with having been already exposed to something, given the grace of revelation, and the preparation of the prophets.  These men who are supposed to be the spiritual leadership of Israel are the ones educated and steeped in Scripture, who are more fully aware than the common people of the spiritual history of the people of God.  He emphasizes here that even every idle word will be counted at Judgment.  We are responsible for what we choose, what we already understand, and what we fail to grasp simply through hard-heartedness, selfishness, a refusal to see.  And these men have engaged in a typical psychological game of projection:  they claim He must work by the power of demons, but in fact it is they who work against God, siding with evil against God's work in the world, blaspheming the Spirit (see yesterday's reading).  We have to ask ourselves why the Gospel story is revealed to us in this particular way, and why Jesus' life is given to us in this form as the story unfolds.  It is a story of betrayal on so many levels, but mostly that betrayal comes down to a deliberate hardness of heart.  That is, the failure of human beings to uphold responsibility for what has been given to them -- and to do so out of a sense of claimed superiority, protection of one's coveted place, of selfishness.  God's love will always try to stretch us into the place of God's beloved -- the persons we're created to be, the capacities we're capable of manifesting.  This happens through revelation of wisdom, and our positive response within ourselves.  Jesus' work of faith that He presents to us as holy work is just that:  the job of faith given to us, to grow in the image we're given, to stretch with the wisdom given and revealed to us.  We are to grow beyond our own limitations and the worldly concerns of competition among ourselves that stand in the way of the call of Christ to the heart to expand.  So often we seem to focus on fixing everybody else or the problems that are beyond ourselves, but Jesus teaches that, on the contrary, "sufficient to the day is the evil thereof" (Matthew 6:34).  We always have problems right before us that we need to work on, and we are called to work on our own faith and our own growth before we can help anybody else (Matthew 7:3-4).   Projection takes place when our own blindness refuses to see where we need the work to make the tree good, so to speak, to heed the warnings we're given in wisdom.  If we are to take Scripture seriously, then, it is we who look to the example of betrayal we're given, and ask in prayer where God would lead us and lead our hearts.  This the job of faith.  It is right in front of us, and that is what we don't want to miss.











Monday, May 23, 2016

Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come


 Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw.  And all the multitudes were amazed and said, "Could this be the Son of David?"  Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, "This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons."  But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them:  "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself.  How then will his kingdom stand?  And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?  Therefore they shall be your judges.  But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.  Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?  And then he will plunder his house.  He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.  Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.  Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come."

- Matthew 12:22-32

On Saturday, we read that after a confrontation with the Pharisees over healing on the Sabbath, the Pharisees began to plot against Jesus.  But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there.  And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all.  Yet He warned them not to make Him known, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:  "Behold!  My Servant whom I have chosen, My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!  I will put My Spirit upon Him, and He will declare justice to the Gentiles.  He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.  A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth justice to victory; and in His name Gentiles will trust."

 Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw.  And all the multitudes were amazed and said, "Could this be the Son of David?"  The healing of a blind and mute man was not just a stupendous event, it was prophesied as a sign of the Messiah.  Therefore the multitudes ask, "Could this be the Son of David?"

Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, "This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons."  But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them:  "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself.  How then will his kingdom stand?  And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?  Therefore they shall be your judges.  But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.  Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?  And then he will plunder his house."  Beelzebub or Baal was a god worshiped by the Philistines  (see (2 Kings 1:2-16).   This form of the name may have been a deliberate mispronunciation by the Jews to mean prince "of the dung heap" or lord of the "the flies."  Here, he is called ruler of the demons.   Jesus responds by pointing out the lack of sense in the accusation against Him:  Would Satan cast out Satan?  How then would his kingdom stand?  Moreover, since there were exorcists in Jewish tradition, Jesus asks,  by what power do they cast out demons?  Therefore they are witnesses against the Pharisees' accusation.   Here is a great caution to them:  If he casts out demons by the Spirit of God, then they must conclude that surely the kingdom of God has come among them.  Only a stronger man (Christ, the Son, with the power of the Holy Spirit) could first bind the strong man (Beelzebub).  My study bible says that the impossibility of demons fighting against themselves illustrates the Pharisees irrational pride and envy in their opposition to Jesus.

"He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.  Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.  Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come."   Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is blasphemy against the divine activity of the Spirit -- a blasphemy against pure goodness, says my study bible.  A sin against the Son of Man is more easily forgiven because the Jews did not know much about Christ, it explains.  But the divine activity of the Spirit is already known, particularly to the Pharisees, from the Old Testament Scriptures.  Therefore blasphemy against the work of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven because it comes from a willful hardness of heart and refusal to accept God's mercy.  My study bible goes on to state that "the Fathers are clear that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not an 'unforgivable sin'; nor does Jesus ever call this sin 'unforgivable.'  St. John Chrysostom teaches that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would be forgivable if a person were to repent of it.  Jesus makes this declaration knowing that those who blaspheme the Spirit are calling pure, divine goodness 'evil,' and are beyond repentance by their own choice."

Here Jesus names the work of the Holy Spirit, countering the accusation that He works by the power of the demons, or  "Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons."  What we have to see, first of all, is that this warning issued to these men is made from love and mercy.  They still have time to repent.  Their accusation is vile, made from the motives of envy and pride of their places in the religious life of the people.  But it goes beyond merely that, and into blasphemy, not because they accuse Him, but because they blaspheme the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is the signs themselves, the healing which they attribute to evil spiritual forces, that tell the truth and bear witness to the work of the Spirit, which they refuse to recognize.  It is, as my study bible says, a deliberate kind of hardness of heart to attribute such signs to the work of evil.  Thereby it becomes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  It's a good warning, and an important one.  It goes back to a sort of failure of gratitude, this inability or refusal to accept and acknowledge the work of God in one's midst, the great spiritual blessing of this gift of mercy and grace.  Such a refusal can only be made from self-centered motives, and in fact an inappropriate fear of God, a fear of losing materially and so a refusal to gain spiritually.  But in this the leadership fails to lead the people; these are the religious authorities, experts in Scripture and the Law, but in the blind preoccupation with their own places threatened by Christ's "mighty works," they do their worst rather than upholding their true responsibility as religious leaders.  What we need to understand is that the mistakes of these men also may be our own mistakes in our lives, and that this warning stands for everyone -- but especially for those who think they "know better" or have been exposed to the love and mercy of God.  It is exceptionally important that we understand love to understand Jesus and what He is teaching here.  We may look at the saints of the Church to understand they weren't always our definition of "perfect."  Jesus' words about the criticisms of both He and John the Baptist apply here:  John they said was too ascetic, and He's labeled in an opposite way:  a winebibber and glutton.  But "wisdom is justified by her children."  If love is at work in the power of the Holy Spirit, then a receptiveness to mercy -- the opposite of hard-heartedness -- is what it takes to know it.  To degrade and portray such work as evil is blasphemy. Let us look for the power of the Spirit at work in our lives.  The Holy Spirit may be present in the "works" of people around us as well.  Let us look to our own judgment, and remember the words of these men, and pray for our own receptivity to the goodness of God at work in our world, the kingdom present among us.  Perhaps what is called evil may just be our fear of recognizing the need for change.






Saturday, May 21, 2016

A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth justice to victory


 But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there.  And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all.  Yet He warned them not to make Him known, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:
"Behold!  My Servant whom I have chosen,
My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel nor cry out,
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench,
Till He sends forth justice to victory;
And in His name Gentiles will trust."
 - Matthew 12:15-21

Yesterday we read that Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath.  And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!"  But He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry and those who were with him:  how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?  Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?  Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.  But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.  For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."  Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue.  And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand.  And they asked Him, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" -- that they might accuse Him.  Then He said to them, "What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?  Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep?  Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."  Then He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand."  And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other.  Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.

But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there.  And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all.  Yet He warned them not to make Him known, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:  "Behold!  My Servant whom I have chosen, My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!  I will put My Spirit upon Him, and He will declare justice to the Gentiles.  He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.  A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth justice to victory; And in His name Gentiles will trust."  My study bible points out that our Lord's refusal to fully disclose His identity as Messiah is foreseen by Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4).  The reasons for secrecy include:  (1)  the growing hostility of the Jewish leaders, as we read in yesterday's reading, above; (2) the people's conception of the Messiah as an earthly, political leader, which is a mistaken understanding; (3) Christ's desire to evoke a genuine faith that is not based solely on marvelous signs.   The Servant of Isaiah refers first to Christ, and by extension to all those who follow Him.  In these verses, Isaiah clearly foresees the mission to the Gentiles after Pentecost (see 42:4, Septuagint).

We've clearly reached a turning point in the Gospel story of Jesus' mission, and Jesus knows it.  The hostility of the leadership is setting the course for what is to happen.  His lament in Wednesday's reading, "Woe to you, Chorazin!  Woe to you, Bethsaida! . . . And you, Capernaum . . .," makes it clear what He is witnessing as these  have failed to grasp His message and to turn in repentance.  The mission will go to the Gentiles, as foreseen in Isaiah's prophecy.  We can't really imagine the disappointment in Jesus, but we can understand how His mind works:  His mission is the will of the Father.  He accepts what He needs to accept, even rejection by those He's come to in His mission of salvation.  Going forward, He knows that the leadership is plotting against Him.  While we can't put ourselves in the place of the Messiah, we can understand His example.  He doesn't work through coercion; this isn't a mission in which He will force the world to choose His way -- even if He knows they risk their own true loss for doing so.  But it seems to me that where He does set an incredible example for us is in acceptance.  The "Serenity Prayer" written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and now widely used in twelve-step programs, asks, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."  I find that it is hard work to "accept the things I cannot change," and in this Jesus sets us His great example.  Prayer is certainly always the 'punctuation,' we might say, of His ministry.  It's His 'go to' place in which He seeks direction at every turn.  One cannot help but believe that prayer is also the means by which acceptance comes, in order to chart the course of life.  We observe Jesus:  He teaches, He tells the truth, He heals and helps those who come to Him.  He brings a Kingdom into the world for those who will accept it.  But even Jesus doesn't 'fix' people, unless they want His help.  And even then, there are those who turn away because they cannot accept, even with the best of intentions, what He has to teach them.  See, for example, the story of the rich young ruler, whom Jesus loved, as Mark's Gospel teaches.  It is Jesus' love that forms and shapes and helps to make us into the creatures we're created to be, made in God's image.  But we have to accept that love, and Jesus does not force anyone to do so.  He must accept rejection, and follow where the Father's injunctions lead Him in His mission of salvation.  In this, our lives would be best shaped by Him and His example, as part of His Way for us, as His disciples.  It is part of the way in which we each must bear our own crosses, like Him, and the wisdom that He reveals to us.  We, too, turn in prayer for the way beyond, and perhaps to a "new life" we're led toward that we could not expect, when we must accept the things we cannot change.  He is Servant, and so must we learn what that is for each of us.