Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves


Detail, apse mosaic, 12th cent., Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, Italy

 "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.  Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.  You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.  But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak.  For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.  Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a  father his child; and the children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.  And you will be hated by all for My name's sake.  But he who endures to the end will be saved.  When they persecute you in this city, flee to another.  For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes."

- Matthew 10:16-23

Yesterday we read about Jesus sending out the twelve.  He commanded them, saying:  "Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans.  But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'  Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons.  Freely you have received, freely give.  Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.  Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out.  And when you go into a household, greet it.  If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it.  But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  And whosoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet.  Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!"

 "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.  Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves."  My study bible says that Jesus instructs the disciples to be wise as serpents so that they might not be unnecessarily wounded, and also so that they can take all advantage of the spread of the gospel.  He also tells them that they must be as harmless as doves, so that they shouldn't retaliate against those who do them wrong, and remain blameless in their witness of the gospel.

"But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.  You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.  But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak.  For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.  Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a  father his child; and the children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.  And you will be hated by all for My name's sake.  But he who endures to the end will be saved.  When they persecute you in this city, flee to another."  This is a warning about the "wolves," and the conditions they will meet in the world, the hostility of those who cannot accept word of this Kingdom among them.  It is the first time in the Gospel (aside from the promise of John the Baptist, 3:11) that we have heard about the Holy Spirit and the Spirit's work in the world and among us.  The Spirit of your Father will speak in you, and what to speak will be given by the Spirit,  Christ promises, when they are delivered up and challenged.  Let us note the persecutions.  The alliance and affiliation with the Kingdom cuts so deep that not only are family relationships split up, they are murderous, betrayal of the most extreme kind:  brother will deliver up brother to death, a father his child; children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.  And they, His disciples, will be hated by all for My name's sake.   This is the depth of response of rage among those who reject the Kingdom.   And here is the watchword for those who would follow Christ:  he who endures to the end will be saved.

"When they persecute you in this city, flee to another.  For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes."  Let us note Christ's commanded response to rejection:  when they persecute you in this city, flee to another.   He does not command retaliation and endless fighting, but rather a search for more fertile ground, a better harvest among others among the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" who will want what they offer.   My study bible says that persecution must not cause the disciple to quit, but simply to move forward in one's mission.  According to commentary of St. John Chrysostom, before the Son of Man comes is not a reference to the Second Coming.  It means that before the disciples could visit all the cities in Palestine, Christ would rejoin them -- thereby more quickly ending the hostility they would encounter.

Jesus sends out His apostles, knowing that they are like sheep in the midst of wolves.  What kind of ministry is this?  What kind of risks are they taking?  Moreover, long before the persecutions of the Roman Empire would start -- with which we associate the early Church of the following centuries -- He teaches them that they will be delivered up by their own closest relations in this world.  We also have to understand the notions of justice that prevailed at this time in the world.  While the Romans certainly had courts, laws, and proceedings, and while the Mosaic Law held sway among the Jews, for the most part -- generally speaking -- one had to rely on relations and clan for help in times of trouble.  Frequently justice depended upon it when one was wronged or wrongfully charged.  (Even today, with all the safeguards that centuries of concern built into modern justice systems, we know that worldly justice is not perfect.)  Therefore, the kind of betrayal and deathly hostility that Jesus outlines here is truly frightening, almost unthinkable.  And yet, the power of the Kingdom cuts so deeply into the core of who we are that this is the level at which split and division will happen.  Those who respond with anger and hostility will do so in ways that will shock and reveal what hasn't been seen before.  Although Jesus teaches them to offer their peace to all, a little further along in this chapter Jesus will teach that He didn't come to bring peace on earth; rather He's come not to bring peace, but a sword (10:34), and He will emphasize the family divisions that will ensue.  And yet, we're not to think of any of this in material military terms.  If we're "soldiers for the Lord," and if we are engaged in a particular kind of battle in this world (even one that is unseen), there are particular rules of engagement involved here.  They're to simply move on to another town when they are rejected anyplace.  They're not to fear if they're betrayed to councils and judges, institutions and courts, even governors and kings, where they can face terrible penalties.  Rather, they are to trust that the Spirit of their Father will give them something to say, a testimony, a truth to utter -- as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.  Now that is indeed interesting, because Christ is sending out the Twelve on their first mission only to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel."  And yet, their mission -- their testimony, even under persecution -- will have its impact among the Gentiles and the "great ones" of the world.  As sheep in the midst of wolves, we rely on the protection of God, the power of God, the holiness of God to guide our way.  These Twelve are asked to go out into a world in which Jesus testifies that "you will be hated by all for My name's sake."  But what's the real key here to discipleship?  Jesus teaches, "But he who endures to the end will be saved."   As disciples, we are soldiers engaged in a particular kind of battle, one that is to a great extent totally unseen, regardless of persecutions and hostility, injustice and cruelties, unreasonable hatred, rage, and envy.  In this battle, we struggle not for material gain or with conventional weapons, but in a test of endurance in His truth and in His word, wearing the badge only of His name.  We seek reliance upon His truth and His word, and the work of the Spirit within us and among us.  Today, we might not face the same persecutions of the past (although in some parts of the world, our sisters and brothers surely do.)  In our own lives, even the most comfortable of material lives, we may find our own challenges if we are truly His sheep.  We might be shocked to discover that we are among wolves when issues of choice and conscience rise up for us in our lives of discipleship.  As His disciples, we, like the Twelve, are faced with the choice to grow increasingly dependent upon God, rather than the institutions of the world.  This is the sword He brings to us, and the power of His name, His truth, His word.







Monday, October 14, 2019

And as you go, preach, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand"


Christ and the twelve disciples as True Vine and branches, 16th century, Byzantine Museum, Athens, Greece
 These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying:  "Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans.  But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'  Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons.  Freely you have received, freely give.  Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.  Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out.  And when you go into a household, greet it.  If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it.  But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  And whosoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet.  Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!"

- Matthew 10:5-15

On Saturday we read that Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.  But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.  Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."  And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.  Now the names of the twelve apostles are these:  first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.

These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying:  "Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans.  But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'  Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons.  Freely you have received, freely give.  Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food."  My study bible comments that the disciples' mission is like Christ's.  He sends them out to preach, and to heal.  So, in this sense, by investing them with His power, and sending them out with these instructions, He is extending His ministry.  My study bible also asks us to take note that Jesus sends them only to the Jews.  It says that Jesus' earthly ministry was focused on the Jews (15:24) so that, after the Resurrection, they could not blame the disciples for going "to uncircumcised men" (Acts 11:3).  Note also that Christ prepares the disciples to be single-minded in their mission to preach and heal.  Here reminds them that His power is free; that it is a gift from God.  He also instructs them to carry no money, so that they cannot be accused of greed, as well as learning dependence upon God (see also 8:20).

"Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out.  And when you go into a household, greet it.  If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it.  But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  And whosoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet.  Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!"    My study bible says that the greeting of peace that Christ commissions His servants to give is the same peace that was proclaimed by the prophets (Isaiah 52:7), and which He offers to His disciples (John 14:27, 20:19), and which will be revealed as the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  This peace remains today offered to the faithful in worship services, with the words, "Peace be to all."

One thing we can say about this ministry that is extended to the disciples:  it is characterized in all of the instructions of Christ as humble.  Each direction He gives commands humble behavior in their ministry.  They first of all must focus on "the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  It's a kind of setting of boundaries and proper focus.  Jesus limits their mission to the first people among whom they need to go, and they are not to expand past these "lost sheep," to call them back to God.  It is a way of saying that the grand and great harvests of faithful that will come later in all the world are not to distract them now from those who need them so deeply.  These "lost sheep" are the same, in fact, which the Gospel told us were scattered and weary, like sheep having no shepherd (in Saturday's reading, above).  This is humble in its focus, not grandiose, and not too widely drawn.  They must be aware of the limits set upon them in this ministry.  It is only their work itself that is to speak for them and for Christ's ministry which they represent in the world.  They are to preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' "  They are to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons."  Jesus reminds them of the nature of this kingdom, when He instructs them,  "Freely you have received, freely give."   This kingdom does not represent itself to the world with silver and gold, in adorned chariots and with great armies of cavalry.  It is free of charge, and its great gifts and pearls are the product of grace.  Its emissaries are not ostentatious, nor do they seek to impress with material goods, gorgeous clothing, nor even largess with which to buy food.  They don't go out into the world as do other kingdoms, conquering.  Instead, their mission is the opposite:  they bring the peace of the Lord with them, and this is what they offer.  Let us note also that this peace is either received or rejected.  There is no sense here of an automatic reception or even that everybody will want what they offer.  This is a particular kind of peace, for a particular kind of people who are attuned to it and want it.  Like the swine-keepers and townspeople who begged Christ to leave from their region, what Jesus offers (and now through the disciples) is not necessarily what everyone wants.  It carries its own message with it, its own way of life, its humility, its impact.  Let us note that humility does not mean without power and without effects.  Jesus proclaims to the disciples regarding those who refuse this their ministry, "when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet.  Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!"  This mission and ministry carries its own way of being in the world, and it is in accordance with a kingdom that is not of this world.  There is no fanfare and there are no trumpets announcing their entrance.  There is only the ministry and the work they do, the things they preach.  And there is a kind of peace that will pass by unnoticed if one is not attuned nor receptive to it.  The kingdoms of the world conquer with weapons -- from the great armies of Caesar, to the powerful armies and economies of today.  But Christ's kingdom asks us if we value something entirely different; that is, something that we need a different kind of sensitivity and attunement to value.  We can live in this world, and in a certain sense, we can even be "of" this world, functioning within and understanding its workings.  But He still takes us out of this world if we are His followers.  We ask for and live for and seek to share His peace, we nurture within us and cherish His joy, we desperately need His grace and are aware of that need.  He does not ask us to reject the material or the world; He is both human and divine for a reason.  And yet, the humility He teaches tells us of what is truly needful, at our deepest core, and what must guide the whole of our lives as stewards of whatever God gives us.   We, as His followers, must cherish what comes first.  How do you extend Christ's mission through discipleship?  What comes first?  How does humility regulate your life, even your ambitions and prospects for what Christ asks of you?  How do you nurture His peace and joy within?



Saturday, October 12, 2019

The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest


Vincent van Gogh, Green Field, 1889, National Gallery of Prague

 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.  But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.  Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."

And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.  Now the names of the twelve apostles are these:  first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.

- Matthew 9:35-10:4

Yesterday we read that when Jesus left the home of the ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, "Son of David, have mercy on us!"  And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him.  And Jesus said to them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?"  They said to Him, "Yes, Lord."  Then He touched their eyes, saying, "According to your faith let it be to you."  And their eyes were opened.  And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, "See that no one knows it."  But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.  As they went out, behold, they brought to Him a man, mute and demon-possessed.  And when the demon was cast out, the mute spoke.  And the multitudes marveled, saying, "It was never seen like this in Israel!"  But the Pharisees said, "He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons."

 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.  But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.  This phrase, like sheep having no shepherd, is a very significant one for the Gospels, and for the ministry of Jesus.  Mark uses it when Jesus begins ministering to the people He feeds in the wilderness (Mark 6:34), and we know, of course, that Jesus will call Himself the true Shepherd (see John 10).  The phrase is drawn from the Old Testament (Numbers 27:17; 3 Kings 22:17; Ezekiel 34:5).  My study bible comments in the context of our recent readings in Matthew, in which He's referred to Himself as Physician to the sick, that Jesus does not condemn sinners but instead sees them as lost sheep, who need to be found and brought home.  Compassion, it notes, means "suffering with."   If the people are like sheep without a shepherd, then it is the leadership which has failed them, and this is therefore an accusation against them.  Religious leaders have the duty of shepherds, but instead they have behaved as wolves (see, for example, 23:4).

Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."  My study bible suggests that the harvest gives us an image of those who are ready to accept the Kingdom.  It says that Christ is both the Sower and the Lord of the harvest.  Christ's disciples are sent not to sow, but to reap what He had sown by the prophets (see also John 4:35-38).  My study bible also notes that how many are sent to harvest is less important than with what power they go into the harvest (see the following verses in today's reading).

And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.  Now the names of the twelve apostles are these:  first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.   My study bible notes that the terms disciples and apostles are used interchangeably for the twelve.  The Greek word for disciple means "learner," and the word from which we derive apostle means "one sent out" (as on a mission).  Jesus gave them power to do specific things, while Christ's works are done through His own power.   My study bible also notes  that the names of the Twelve are not the same in all lists, as many people had more than one name.  Here in Matthew, their names are given in pairs, which suggests which ones traveled together on their first "missionary journey, " as Mark tells us that they were sent out two by two (Mark 6:7).   This list of the Twelve is reported in all three Synoptic Gospels; in each case Judas is listed as the one who betrayed Christ.

What does it mean to be a good shepherd to the people?  If Christ thinks of us as sheep -- some of whom are lost -- then what does that say about religious leadership in general?  A shepherd leads the people and protects them from predators.  So what is a good shepherd in this context?  First of all, a shepherd puts himself on the line for the sake of the well-being of the sheep.  He cares for his sheep.  In John's Gospel, Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep" (John 10:11-13).  Once again, in a deep sense, we continue to see the conflict between serving God and serving mammon, as a good shepherd is contrasted with hirelings, and with wolves.  A hireling works for money, and has no love for the sheep.  He will not put his life on the line.  A wolf is merely predatory, and takes advantage of opportunity to prey on the vulnerable and weak or helpless.  In John 10, Jesus goes on to say, "I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:12-16).  A good shepherd has a relationship of love to his sheep.  Moreover, the sheep are intimately known by name, and they know their shepherd.  This is a connection that can only come from the real trust present where love is.  And that becomes our bottom line in our faith.  Who do you trust with your life?  Whose word do you trust to guide you?  Where is the safe place to put that trust?  In the Greek of the Gospels, the word for "faith" has as its root the word that means trust.  We live in a world that sometimes seems to be filled with predators who are supposed to be in positions of responsibility.  But in the context of our faith, we read about the One who has compassion for the sheep who really do need a shepherd.  Christ has come into the world as Incarnate Son, but we can't minimize His willingness -- even as fully human being -- to go to the end, to His utmost, for the sheep.  This is love that cannot be minimized.  We can't simply ascribe it to His divine origin, and we can't minimize the voluntary nature of that love, nor the sacrifice He will make as a human being for that love.  And it is in this voluntary love that we find the deepest roots of our faith, what it means, and what Jesus teaches.  That is because Christ consistently suggests to us that a true love of God -- putting love of God first in our hearts -- will render us loving volunteers as well.  He expresses this is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), especially as He teaches, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).   In the Sermon on the Mount, He has taught us, "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (see this reading).  In the Jewish tradition, there already existed the teaching, "Do not do to others what you don't want them to do to you."  But Jesus changes this by turning it into an affirmative, pro-active choice for expressing love and mercy, in the context of the love we already know from God (see especially 22:36-40).   In a certain sense, He asks each of us to step up to the plate when opportunity presents itself for us to also follow Him, and be "good shepherds."  This is what it means to be a laborer for the harvest.  Christ's response to this deep need is to invest His disciples with the power to cast out demons, and to heal, and also to send them out to preach the good news of the gospel.   Do you know someone who needs some guidance?  Is there someone who needs a little protection?  Do you know a person who's helpless and needs some assistance?  Or do we respond by being predators, or taking advantage?  Do you know those who are weary and scattered?  What does it mean to you to have compassion?  There are times when even a smile becomes a way to help, and to give support and love.  A friend of mine recently shared this story about a man who seems to have become a voluntary example in his job, turning it into so much more by being a shepherd to some little ones, and being much more than a hireling.  Christ urges His disciples to become leaders by doing so.  Let us consider our Good Shepherd, and how He calls on us to step up and be His disciples, laborers for the harvest, and to use the power of love which we're given through faith.










Friday, October 11, 2019

And the multitudes marveled, saying, "It was never seen like this in Israel!"


Christ healing the two blind men, mosaic, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century

 When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, "Son of David, have mercy on us!"  And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him.  And Jesus said to them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?"  They said to Him, "Yes, Lord."  Then He touched their eyes, saying, "According to your faith let it be to you."  And their eyes were opened.  And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, "See that no one knows it."  But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.  As they went out, behold, they brought to Him a man, mute and demon-possessed.  And when the demon was cast out, the mute spoke.  And the multitudes marveled, saying, "It was never seen like this in Israel!"  But the Pharisees said, "He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons."

- Matthew 9:27-34

Yesterday we read that, while Jesus was speaking to the disciples of John the Baptist,  a ruler of the local synagogue at Capernaum came and worshiped Him, saying, "My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her and she will live."  So Jesus arose and followed him, and so did His disciples.  And suddenly, a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment.  For she said to herself, "If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well."  But Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, "Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well."  And the woman was made well from that hour.  When Jesus came into the ruler's house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing, He said to them, "Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when the crowd was put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.  And the report of this went out into all that land.

 When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, "Son of David, have mercy on us!"  And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him.  And Jesus said to them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?"  They said to Him, "Yes, Lord."  Then He touched their eyes, saying, "According to your faith let it be to you."  And their eyes were opened.  And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, "See that no one knows it."  But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.  As they went out, behold, they brought to Him a man, mute and demon-possessed.  And when the demon was cast out, the mute spoke.  My study bible cites the prophesy of Isaiah here.  According to Isaiah, the messianic age is signified when "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear" (Isaiah 35:5).  In that light, these particular healings are another sign that Jesus is the Messiah that Israel has looked toward.  This is also signaled in the title by which the blind men address Jesus, Son of David.  My study bible notes that they are expressing their faith that this is so. 

  And the multitudes marveled, saying, "It was never seen like this in Israel!"  But the Pharisees said, "He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons."  The crowds marveled that something new and distinctive has come to Israel in Christ's ministry.  As on other occasions, the Pharisees respond when the crowds take notice (see, for example, Mark 11:18).  They respond that Christ uses demonic power to carry out His exorcisms.  My study bible says that to cast out demons by the ruler of demons is impossible.  The devil's aim is to consolidate power, not to destroy it.  Moreover, Jesus cleansed lepers, raised the dead, and remitted sins.  None of these works would be possible for demons.

Today's reading, as occurs elsewhere in the Gospels, displays a typical human response to something new and distinctively good.  Let us note first that Christ does things which are stupendous, even defined in the prophesy of Isaiah as the work of the Messiah.  The people of Israel have awaited such a time and such a ministry, in which "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear."  But with the notice of the people, who marvel at what is being seen for the first time, the authorities react.  There is a threat to their hierarchy, their power.  What is uppermost, then, becomes not these stupendous healings, not these marvel-inducing things of good news and great importance.  What becomes more important is who owns this ministry of Jesus.   That is, under whose authority are these things being done?  If Christ were one of them, we might presume, then that could be all to the good, as far as the Pharisees are concerned.  But Christ is critical of the leadership, and entirely independent of them.  He is not a product of a rabbinical school or a faction of the ruling Council.  He has come up from a rather unnoticeable town in Galilee, His followers are mostly uneducated "people of the land," even tax collectors like the author of this Gospel.  Jesus' ministry is, by the standards of the Pharisees, scandalous.  (Nevertheless, there are those among them who will come to faith in Christ, such as Nicodemus.)  But for the majority of the Pharisees, to marvel as do the people at Jesus' healings, to consider them good news, is simply unthinkable.  And so, a different explanation is necessary for so marvelous tidings of momentous healings:  Jesus must be working with demonic power.  An absurd accusation becomes a way to resort to criticism when marvelous things happen.  In fact, what we would say about this is that something so stupendous, so longed for and awaited by the people throughout their history is being swept under the rug by the very people whose work it is to know it, to proclaim it, to see it.  It's as if the Pharisees are telling the people that there is really nothing to see here -- and that in fact what Jesus is doing is actually bad, or evil.  It is a pattern that happens in which the blessings of the divine, which are purely grace and love, become commodities over which human beings will battle for control.  Is the love of God something we monetize?  Is the grace of God a commodity that belongs to one person or another?  By whose authority, indeed, does Jesus do what He does?  There seems, in fact, to be only one "price" (if you will) by which the marvelous things Jesus produces happen, and He names it over and over again.  He called it in yesterday's reading, openly before the people, when He declared to the woman with the blood flow, "Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well."  He declares it in today's reading when He tells the blind men, "According to your faith let it be to you."  The one thing necessary, at least on the part of human beings, is simply faith.  It is faith that makes the connection with the divine, that enables Christ to do the great works He does among the people (see 13:58, Mark 6:5-6).  In a sense, then, we could say that the declaration of the Pharisees that Christ works through demonic power is designed to attack faith -- the very thing that enables His grace to work among the people for their benefit.  It is this kind of human struggle that results from choosing mammon first over God:  instead of being glad for the marvelous things that are happening, all that results is a fight over who controls what, whose power and authority is involved.  This is the result of seeing these marvelous works as commodities, products that belong to one side or another, one person or another.  It is to fail to understand grace and to fail to understand faith and holiness.  God works by God's rules, not human authority and hierarchy.  If God chooses to work through the weak and the small, as so often is the case in Scripture, then that teaches us something.  It is the opposite of material-mindedness, the ideas of "mammon."   When we fail to understand this, then we fail to understand faith -- and we are not ever going to be able to find the understanding of what Jesus' ministry is all about, and where He is coming from.  The material mindset keeps the Pharisees from rejoicing at what is happening among the people, and sharing in God's glory with Christ, the same way it kept those who lost their swine from rejoicing at the healing of the demoniacs.  When our faith brings us joy in the midst of sorrow, or delight even when circumstances may seem less than perfect, this is a puzzle to those who are incapable of grasping the nature of faith and its working by grace, the intangibles that are at work within us and among us in Christ.  Let us consider joy today.  For what are we grateful?  Where does our delight come from?  How are we capable of joy even when we mourn?  Of love when so much seems lost?  Of kindness even in the face of hostility?  We are to dwell in the Kingdom, which lives through faith, for which Christ will go to the Cross to show us His way.  Let us pray that He keeps us in His joy at all times.



Thursday, October 10, 2019

Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well


Christ healing the woman with the blood flow, fresco, Catacombs of Rome, c. 300

 While He spoke these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshiped Him, saying, "My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her and she will live."  So Jesus arose and followed him, and so did His disciples.  And suddenly, a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment.  For she said to herself, "If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well."  But Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, "Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well."  And the woman was made well from that hour.  When Jesus came into the ruler's house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing, He said to them, "Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when the crowd was put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.  And the report of this went out into all that land.

- Matthew 9:18-26

Yesterday we read that, as Jesus passed on from the healing of the paralytic, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office.  And He said to him, "Follow Me."  So he arose and followed Him.  Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  When Jesus heard that, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  But go and learn what this means:  'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'  For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."  Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?"  And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.  No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.  Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined.  But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

 While He spoke these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshiped Him, saying, "My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her and she will live."  So Jesus arose and followed him, and so did His disciples.  And suddenly, a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment.  For she said to herself, "If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well."  But Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, "Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well."  And the woman was made well from that hour.  When Jesus came into the ruler's house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing, He said to them, "Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when the crowd was put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.  And the report of this went out into all that land.  My study bible comments on this passage, in which we read of a sort of healing within a healing, that authority over life and death is in the hand of God alone (Deuteronomy 32:39, 1 Samuel 2:6).  As Christ is of one essence with the Father, He has this authority (John 5:21).  In addition, the healing of the woman with the blood flow demonstrates Christ's power to cleanse and heal (see 8:1-4).  In the Old Testament, a hemorrhage caused ceremonial defilement, which in turn would impose religious and social restrictions, as contact with blood was strictly prohibited (Leviticus 15:25).  But this woman, although counting herself unclean, approaches Jesus secretly and with great faith.  My study bible says that Jesus brings her good cheer because of her faith, and at the same time, He also corrects her:  she could not hide her touch from Him, nor is she excluded from Him because of her illness.  He also exhibits her faith to everyone as exemplary, so that they might imitate her. 

In this story of two women, one a very young woman (Luke's Gospel tells us that she is about twelve years old) and the other an older woman, who has suffered from a flow of blood for twelve years.  The younger one has already died, while the older has had a symbolic loss of life for twelve years.  The picture we're given is of the suffering of the world and ever-present death, into which Jesus comes as Incarnate Son.   We've just read in yesterday's reading (above) that Jesus calls Himself a physician, one who has come to heal, to give correction and restoration.  In yesterday's reading, that referred to notorious sinners such as tax collectors, who were despised by the community.  In today's reading, Jesus continues to break taboos in order to heal, and to heal through faith.  The older woman should not be in community according to the requirement of the law regarding blood and contact.  Yet it is through her faith that she seeks to touch Jesus.  Rather than being chastised or cast out from the crowd, Jesus praises her for her faith in front of the crowd, and she is rewarded with healing.  Jesus puts it explicitly:  "Your faith has made you well."  Faith -- living and active and making that connection with Creator in the person of Christ -- trumps the rest.  The intent of the Law is God's love and mercy, the creation of community, and that is fulfilled in Christ.  Jairus' daughter is already dead, and so the crowd which have gathered to mourn and wail ridicule Christ.  But, putting the people aside, and counseling her parents to have faith (see Luke's version), Jesus once more defies the crowds, so to speak, takes the girl by the hand, and she rises.  As healer, Jesus breaks all the taboos of the society, defying expectations and breaking barriers.  Just as He crossed over the Sea of Galilee to heal the demon-possessed men who lived among the tombs (see Monday's reading), Jesus goes where He needs to go to bring healing where there is faith.  In today's reading He breaks the barriers of the society in at least two ways:  by allowing the woman to touch Him and be healed (and praising her in turn), and by defying the certainty of death among the crowd and giving hope to the parents of the girl.  Let us note that in both cases, the opinions of the crowd count for nothing and are misguided, apt to change at every turn.  Jesus also displays a sense in which He has time for everything.  Although the case of the young girl is apparently urgent (in Matthew's version, she has just died), He makes time for the woman with the blood flow, and in order to praise her and tell her to be of good cheer.  It gives us an understanding that with Christ, we are in the world of faith, which is not limited by space or time in the same sense that the worldly is.  Here, it is the working and healing of God that defines its reality, and not our own expectations.  There is also an affirmation of what was taught in yesterday's reading, above, that for this new ministry which is manifest in the world through the Incarnation, "new wineskins" which can expand are necessary.  In other words, the intervention of God has changed and expanded God's mercy among us, and we need to open our eyes to what is present in the manifestation of Christ among us.  The old rules and law are temporary and imperfect; now God -- in Christ's Incarnation -- has brought a deeper fullness of faith among us, God's presence at work, and we all need to open our eyes to the new priorities and realities that come with it.  Taboos are broken, and healing defies expectations.  It is important to understand that in this context faith is revolutionary, even -- in a sense -- subversive.  The woman should not be in the crowd, and she should not be touching anyone.  The noisy crowd around the girl ridicules Christ, so that He must act to put them outside.  Faith breaks boundaries, defies expectations, and takes us outside of what is considered to be "acceptable" in the norms of the world.  We're not speaking in a purely political or philosophical context, but one based on the workings of faith.  This is because of the connection that faith makes with God, with the divine, which is beyond definition and circumscription by the worldly, no matter how well-intentioned or honored by tradition.  It is important to understand that it is the workings of faith that make the difference here; without faith, the touching of Christ's garment would have made no difference at all.  Moreover, it is important to know that faith will lead us somewhere, take us on a journey of its own.  Let us consider in what ways our own faith will defy our expectations and take us beyond our norms in the name of healing and restoration.  Do you have an impossible situation?  Are there expectations placed upon you which your faith is asking you to reconsider?  Let us note that even Jesus is continually challenged by the realities and social understanding of the world around Him, and yet He's here to bring something new that cannot be contained by the structures and expectations of the crowds.  So it is with our faith which is an encounter with Him, and which will challenge us in surprising ways for the courage to follow.



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick

St. Matthew.  Painted miniature, Gospel head-piece.  Illuminated Armenian Gospels with Eusebian canons, 1609.  Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

 As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office.  And He said to him, "Follow Me."  So he arose and followed Him.  Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  When Jesus heard that, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  But go and learn what this means:  'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'  For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?"  And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.  No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.  Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined.  But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

- Matthew 9:9-17

Yesterday we read that, after Christ's healing of the demon-possessed men, Jesus got into a boat, crossed over the Sea of Galilee, and came to His own city of Capernaum, the site of His Galilean ministry "headquarters."  Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed.  When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you."  And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, "This Man blasphemes!"  But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts?  For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk'?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins" -- then He said to the paralytic, "Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house."  And he arose and departed to his house.  Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

 As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office.  And He said to him, "Follow Me."  So he arose and followed Him.  Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  When Jesus heard that, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  But go and learn what this means:  'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'  For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."   Mark's Gospel tells us that Matthew is also called Levi (Mark 2:14).  My study bible explains that Roman overlords assigned specific areas to Jewish tax collectors.  In turn, these tax collectors (such as Matthew/Levi) were free to collect extra revenues for their own profit, backed by the might of the Roman state.  Because of their collaboration with the occupying Romans, their fraud, and their corruption, other Jews to hate them and to consider them unclean (11:19), my study bible says.   We can understand, then, how shocking it is that Jesus dines with them and also accepts a tax collector as a disciple ("Follow Me"), and therefore the offended response of the Pharisees.  But this gives rise to the occasion upon which Christ can define His surprising ministry:  "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."  His answer frames His ministry as movement for healing of all kinds:  Christ goes where the need of the physician is greatest.  My study bible says that "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (as Jesus quotes from Hosea 6:6) is not a rejection of sacrifice per se.  Rather it shows that mercy is the higher priority (see Psalm 51).   In this case, Jesus makes it clear that repentance is a form of healing, and is part and parcel of God's mercy.

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?"  And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast."  In Jewish traditional practice, fasting was done twice a week, on Monday and Thursday  (Luke 18:12).  Additionally, there were regularly-declared public fasts or others were occasionally proclaimed (2 Chronicles 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Esther 4:16; Joel 2:15), particularly on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:31-34) and in times of mourning (Zechariah 7:5, 8:19).  But Jesus contrasts fasting with the wedding feast of the day of the Messiah.  This is a time of joy and gladness, and the Incarnation is the time when the Bridegroom is with His friends.  So Jesus declares in this passage.  My study bible says that for Christians, fasting is not gloomy but desirable, and calls it a bright sadness, because by fasting we gain self-control and prepare ourselves for the Wedding Feast (Christ's return). 

"No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.  Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined.  But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."   My study bible explains that the old garment and old wineskins stand for the Old Covenant and the Law.  In this perspective, as Christ presents them here, they are viewed as imperfect and temporary.  The new wineskins are the New Covenant and those in Christ, and in particular the healing ministry He characterizes by referring to Himself as Physician, and the joy of the friends of the Bridegroom through the Incarnation.  My study bible explains also that the new wine is the Holy Spirit dwelling within renewed people, who can't be constrained by the old precepts of the Law, which cannot expand to hold what is new.

In today's reading, it's important to understand that Christ presents His ministry as that of a physician.  He's come to heal.  Therefore He goes to the ones who transgress the Law in order to bring repentance to them.  Moreover, He is the Bridegroom, the One whose wedding feast brings joy to the people.  This also is a picture of healing, as the wedding feast is the union of Creator and God's people, a supremely longed-for restoration of true community and harmony, and a return to the life meant to be good as given by God.  So what is healing for us?  How is it related to repentance?  If we're thinking in a highly legalistic way, there aren't going to be a lot of gray areas.  If one thinks in terms of transgression and failure, we can get stuck in limited thinking that fails to consider that repentance, in the context of the grace which Christ brings,  is able to heal and restore right-relationship and community.  Let us keep in mind that "right-relationship" can be among the community, between ourselves and God, and even an internal disposition to the things which are truly good for us, the true "natural" state for which we were created to begin with.  Repentance can work to build such a state in us, and it can work on a continual kind of basis -- and especially through prayer -- to help to heal us in ways we wouldn't expect through merely worldly considerations or expectations.  How does one heal, for example, abuse which has fractured or disfigured an understanding of what love is?  How can God as Physician step in and remedy what has been broken in community?  If we take the example of the Jewish tax collectors of this Roman period, they are seen as breaking community by acting as predators for outside, occupying forces.  Therefore, they could remain on the outside, or through the "intervention" of the Incarnation, they can come to a repentance and forgiveness of sins so that they may be restored to community, and participate as those who may be restored to right relationship through repentance.  There is the exercise of medicine at work, a corrective effort which means restoration in the eyes of God.  This requires the capacity to expand, to see what is possible, to allow for repentance to do its work.  But it also asks us to admit that as human beings we can be healed.  A tax collector can be restored to community through divine help, even to repentance which does not come from punitive measures but rather from a change of heart, the work of a kind of love (or mercy) that can reach where the worldly can't go.  My study bible calls the "new wine" the Holy Spirit, whose energies in us can bring surprising change which can't easily be explained through worldly experience.  Anyone with a deepening life of prayer, for example, may testify to the kind of love encountered that expands our own worldly experience of love to include potentials we may not have been given within a worldly family life.  So even a tax collector, used to extorting with the help of the Roman state, can come to terms with a justice that must be practiced for true community, and find a new way to live within the community of Christ.  It calls us to wonder about the ways in which we, too, need to expand our understanding of potential and possibility within the healing ministry of Christ the Physician in our own lives and communities, as we see new ailments (or old ailments in new forms) through rejection of the good.  Where do you need restoration and healing?  How do you find a way to a better life in the community of the friends of the Bridegroom, the entire communion of saints and the Body of Christ?  Are there examples that help us expand to see a better way, with the new wine and the new wineskins that will make room for new potentials?  These are the questions to ask ourselves.  And it is important to remind ourselves that they are continually expanding.  What we may think is impossible to solve becomes possible with God, and with faith.  We simply need to make room for our own "change of mind" to find Christ's way to do it.  We will always be asked to stretch.  The new wine continually expands, and so do the wineskins.    This is something we need to keep in mind through the whole of our lives, as the way of our faith may bring us new surprises, and call on us to encompass new possibilities all along the way.   So important is the idea of expansion that Christ's example of new wine and its enzymatic action isn't the only metaphor he'll give for the work of the Spirit.  He will also use leaven, as a positive image, to teach us about the work of God in us (Matthew 13:33)  Let us endeavor to find His way through all things, especially when we feel we're stuck, or we've come to a "dead end," or an impossible hurdle or impasse.    For Christ our Physician there is no such thing, if we seek His way.





Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men


Christ healing the paralytic at Capernaum,  Chora Monastery Church, Constantinople, 1315-1320
 So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.  Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed.  When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you."  And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, "This Man blasphemes!"  But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts?  For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk'?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins" -- then He said to the paralytic, "Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house."  And he arose and departed to his house.  Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men. 

- Matthew 9:1-8

Yesterday we read that when Jesus had come to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way.  And suddenly they cried out, saying, "What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God?  Have You come here to torment us before the time?"  Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding.  So the demons begged Him, saying, "If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine."  And He said to them, "Go."  So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine.  And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water.  Then those who kept them fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men.  And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus.  And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region.

So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.  Jesus, with His disciples, crossed over the Sea of Galilee to return to Capernaum.  His own city is His ministry's headquarters, where Peter  has a family home.

Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed.  When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you."  And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, "This Man blasphemes!"  But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts?  For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk'?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins" -- then He said to the paralytic, "Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house."  And he arose and departed to his house.  Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.    There are two things which stand out immediately in this story.  First of all, Jesus is brought a paralytic lying on a bed, seemingly the moment He returns to Capernaum.  We understand that by now Christ is well-known for His healings and all come to Him (particularly in this city).  Second, the scribes also attend to what Jesus is doing, meaning He has now earned their scrutiny as well, as He has become that well-known.  Third, Jesus quite consciously acts in a way to openly challenge the thinking of the scribes (and to reveal that He is aware of their thoughts).  Finally, the fact that there are multitudes that saw it testifies to how well-known He has become, and how openly He is displaying His authority.  My study bible comments that the healing of the paralytic shows us that faith is an indispensable condition for salvation.   The story also gives us, importantly, the understanding that faith is both collective and personal.  It's the faith of the paralytic's friends that help him in his healing.  There are also three signs of Christ's divinity shown here:  He knows the secrets of hearts (see 1 Samuel 16:7, 2 Chronicles 6:30);  He forgives sins, which is a power that belongs to God alone; and He heals by the power of His word.  Let us note also how the crowds marveled and glorified God, as God had given such power to men.  It is another aspect of the Incarnation, as in this sense, the Incarnation of Christ also glorifies humankind.

The mechanisms of the workings of faith are mysterious and intriguing, particularly as how faith works on both an individual and collective (or community) level, as shown in today's reading.   It's important to know that faith works not just one way or the other, but both ways.  Faith works as a kind of network, hidden behind the scenes.  It works directly between creature and Creator, and it also works as a network between human beings, although mediated and energized through Creator.  We can pray for other people, we can pray for ourselves, we can invoke and ask for the prayers of specific others, or collectively within the Church.  It is a network that functions so long as there is a willing voice.  It seems that the slightest opening of the door to faith will result in a far greater outcome than can ever be expected -- as Jesus' illustration of the mustard seed would indicate to us.  It is important to understand this flexibility of faith to work in different ways and on different levels, because in our lives each of us will have different needs at different times.  There will be times when an entire community is affected by particular problems which need to be addressed in prayer.  At those times, communal prayer isn't simply appropriate but perhaps the most beneficial to the members of the community as individuals -- as problems are addressed within that sense of community for each.  In other words, the times when communal prayer teaches us that we are not alone in our struggles can be fundamentally important as part of our own healing in faith.  There are other times when individual prayer is needful and effective, in the sense in which Jesus taught us to pray by going into our room and closing the door, and speaking in secret to our Father who sees in secret (6:6).   This is an intimate level at which prayer works, and the fact that Jesus includes it as a directive in the Sermon on the Mount tells us explicitly how essential this level of faith is to us, especially when we practice prayer.  In Church we pray collectively for those who have passed; in Requiem services we ask the entire Church to pray for our loved ones.  We also collectively invoke the prayers of saints, even as we honor their memory.  In the history of the Church, we are always encouraged to pray for those who have passed -- which teaches us that prayer reaches where nothing else at our disposal can.  So each of us also can do the same on an individual and private level.  Today's reading teaches us the power of the prayers of those who are able to help us, and their effectiveness when we cannot help ourselves, or even if, for some reason, we are unable to pray.  Whatever the circumstances, the Scripture seems to tell us, faith is effective.  All it takes is initiative, both collective and individual.  Whatever the circumstances, we are encouraged to be creative with our prayers, and flexible -- to know that our Father in heaven awaits our call, and that help is at hand.  In these very important ways, the power of prayer is given to us in an unlimited sense.  It calls on us to remember that "with God all things are possible" (19:26).  In today's reading, the crowds glorify God, who "had given such power to men."  While we are not all Christ, all of us have access to prayer and therefore to Christ, and to Father and the Spirit.  God makes this very communion with us possible, and our faith is the one thing necessary.  Let us think, also, about the power expressed in today's reading.  Do the people marvel at the power to heal paralysis, or to forgive sins?  Perhaps, indeed, the answer is simply both, as Jesus would seem to indicate.  In the understanding of the Church, paralysis itself is seen as a kind of analogy to sin.  When we struggle with sin, we are "stuck" somewhere, seemingly unable to move forward in our journey of faith.  Let us remember that prayer helps us to heal from all kinds of ailments, both seen and unseen.  If we need forgiveness, or help with our capacity to forgive others, it awaits simply our faith at work through prayer, on any level.  This is a power He has given to all of us.  It heals us as individuals, even as we are healed also in community.