Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves


 "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 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 that Jesus sent out His chosen twelve 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.  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 copper in your moneybelts, 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 whoever 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 that they might see all true opportunity in the spread of the gospel.  To be as harmless as doves is to not retaliate against those who do them wrong, and be 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."  Jesus warns the apostles (as they are being sent on their first mission) in a way that speaks to all subsequent missionary work.  He warns about why they need to be shrewd (wise as serpents).  They will face persecution, and also testify to the Gentiles, who rule as governors and kings.  It's quite important to note the words here:  it is "the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you."  This is the Holy Spirit, who "proceeds from the Father" and who together "with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified."

"Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and 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."  Here we are given the levels of persecution that will be experienced, even brother delivering brother to death, and a father his child, or children their parents.  We should not be surprised at what history will reveal.  But the important word here is endurance; He wishes for His disciples to endure to the end.

"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."  My study bible notes here that persecution must not cause a disciple to quit, but merely to move forward in one's mission.  According to St. John Chrysostom, before the Son of Man comes isn't a reference to the Second Coming.  But it merely means that before the disciples could visit all the cities in Palestine, Christ would rejoin them, and thereby more quickly ending the hostility they would encounter.

Jesus tells His disciples to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves."  He warns them that they are being sent out by Him "as sheep in the midst of wolves."  We may think that in our daily lives such dire warnings and advice is not applicable.  But one might be surprised how this advice stands us in good stead.  To be faithful to Christ may often mean we're at odds with those around us in one way and another.  Our opinions may differ; we may disagree about how to approach a problem, or how we treat others.  Whatever it is, these words still hold true.  To be as "wise as serpents" is an interesting phrase.  In this case, the word for "wise" indicates a type of forbearance.  It means to be prudent, to measure one's actions before taking them, to be reticent in some sense, not impulsive.  The word for "serpents" is exactly what one would expect it to be.  Usually this is used in a negative sense, to indicate the devil or Satan.  But Jesus doesn't speak of evil here; He's telling His own disciples that they need to be equally savvy about their circumstances, not naive.  We are to be the intelligent, rational sheep, and to know what we are about.   The word for "harmless" (in the phrase "harmless as doves") means simple, unmixed, sincere.  We can't go into things with mixed motives or hidden agendas, for these surely will simply be used against us.  This is another kind of caution about the need for self-knowledge, and the rigorous application and practice of repentance, of being aware of our own flaws or weaknesses.  Thinking about the terms that Jesus uses, and His included warnings about dire persecutions to come, takes us into an understanding that His faith isn't for those who wish for an easy life, or to live in a kind of abstract fantasy.  Rather, it's a faith that asks of us a rigorous understanding of reality, of precisely what is and what isn't, where we can go and where we can't -- and a strong self-awareness and discipline that serve the Kingdom and its message.  This isn't a faith for those who live in denial of the problems of the world, but rather for those who believe precisely because its salvific impact is so precious and necessary, as is its message of love.  We must note also the type of salvation that is implied here:  human beings are capable of bearing even the Spirit of the Father and the words given by the Spirit as testimony.  Salvation isn't merely an abstract notion, but works even to illuminate the nature of human beings, and teach us what we are capable of being and becoming.  The discipline implied here is for all who will follow, in communion and individually.  The commitment necessary is another kind of comment on the rigors and transcendence such "rational sheep" are capable of.  We think of those whom He's sending out, practically none of whom have particularly exalted education or social standing.  But what is asked of them is deep and powerful.  What is promised elevates all of us.  We are each invited to participate in this Kingdom and this ongoing work of the harvest.











Monday, October 16, 2017

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


 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.  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 copper in your moneybelts, 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 whoever 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 Israel.  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 copper in your moneybelts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food."  The disciples' mission is similar to Christ's mission.  They are to preach and to heal.  These are laborers for the harvest (see Saturday's reading, above) with whom He shares His power and mission.  My study bible notes that Jesus sends them only to the Jews.  Jesus' earthly ministry was focused on the Jews (15:24) as this is fitting "to fulfill all righteousness" (3:15).  After the Resurrection, the disciples won't be blamed for going "to uncircumcised men" (Acts 11:3).   Jesus prepares His apostles to be single-minded in their mission to preach and to heal, my study bible says.  He reminds them that His power is free; that it is a gift from God ("Freely you have received; freely give").   He also instructs them to carry no money, so they won't be accused of greed, and so they will learn dependence upon God.   The primary character of this mission is humility.  To bring the kingdom of heaven near is also to live righteousness.

"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."  This same greeting of peace that is commanded by Christ of His servants is the same peace proclaimed by the prophets (Isaiah 52:7).  It is the same peace later offered to the disciples (John 14:27; 20:19), and that will be revealed as the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  And today, Christ's peace is offered in the celebration of the liturgy with the words, "Peace be to all."

"And whoever 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!"   The rebuke of the disciples to those who do not wish to hear or receive them is simply to shake off the dust from their feet.  Jesus' words about Judgment and righteousness give us an idea of how this power works.   St. Paul's teaching on kindness to enemies is illumined here (Romans 12:20-21; see also Proverbs 25:21-22).

What does it mean to live righteousness?  Or to proclaim that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand"?  The text clearly tells us that Jesus shares His power with the disciples to cleanse and to heal and to cast out demons.  But this power alone is not enough.  They are to go with humility. Whatever home first receives them, they are to stay there and not "trade up" for better lodgings.  They don't impress anyone with outward show of wealth or might.  There is no military accompanying this mission to declare the presence of this Kingdom.  They have lived with Christ throughout His mission so far; now they are to go out and live what they have learned.  They are to be dependent upon God.  We understand with Matthew's Gospel that this is a mission to the Jews of Israel, to seek out those whom Jesus calls "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." In Saturday's reading (see above), we read that He had compassion on the multitude, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.  Here is His response to the needs of the people.  His ministry evolves to meet what comes to Him in the form of need.  That ministry continues today, and should respond to the need that is found in people.  But this need isn't simply for food and drink and clothing.  It is far more than that.  It is a need that is fulfilled through a promise of participation in a Kingdom.  This is also a reality that is within us and among us.  It is a mystical presence, and its character and being is love (1 John 4:8).  It is a mistake to consider that meeting the material needs of human beings alone is the mission of the Messiah, or the ongoing mission of the Church.  There is more to this Kingdom that feeds people in ways necessary for soul and spirit.  There is food that meets us and heals in an interior way that cannot be reached simply with an outward donation, but must be received in the heart.  And this we also offer as part of the Kingdom to others, and it is present with us in a mystical way which can be shared through faith.  All along in the Gospel, Jesus' healings have involved the presence of faith, either in those receiving the healing or their loved ones and friends.  Too often we wish to abstract the reality of this presence of the Kingdom, and assume that it is present only in its signs.  The things we do because we are motivated by faith in it do not constitute the whole of its root nor its power.  Let us recall that we are a part of something that serves us with love as we in turn serve by practicing love.  There is a power in it we can't name nor quantify.  We can't predict how it will work.  And, as today's reading reminds us, there is also a peace in it.  This is a peace Jesus will say is given to us "not as the world gives" (John 14:27).  This is accompanied by a joy that is also a gift of Christ (John 15:11).   When we decide that we can limit and name the whole of the power of this Kingdom, to make it purely material or simply what we can see, we fail to grasp its infinite ongoing creativity and the ways that it can work within us to heal ailments no one can see.  Let us consider the reality of the Kingdom in which we are invited to participate and which can live and grow in us and through us.  It is also a great mystery that holds the infinite promise of God's love.







Saturday, October 14, 2017

When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd


 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 two blind men followed Jesus, 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 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.  It's interesting to note Jesus' behavior, and the shape of His ministry.  He has just been accused by the Pharisees of exorcism (and subsequent healing) by the power of demons.  In this instance, rather than acknowledging or responding to their accusations, the text tells us that He simply went about to all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease.  This is His response, to assert the reality of the presence of the Kingdom by manifesting its promises in Himself and His ministry.  He lives what He is here to do and to be:   teaching, preaching, and healing.

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."  My study bible notes here that Jesus does not condemn sinners.  Rather, He sees them as lost sheep who are to be found and brought home.  Compassion, it says, means "suffering with."  The illustration of sheep having no shepherd is drawn from the Old Testament (Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Ezekiel 34:5).  This is an accusation against the religious leadership who are charged with the duty of shepherds, but have behaved like wolves.  When Jesus prays about the harvest, it suggests to us the clear abundance of people ready to accept the Kingdom.  He is both the Sower and the Lord of the harvest, my study bible tells us.  His own disciples are not sent to sow, but rather to reap what He, as Lord, had already sown by the prophets.  My study bible says that how many are sent to the harvest is less important than with what power they go into the harvest (see the verse that follows).

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.   Jesus responds to the needs He finds in ministry, and "sends out laborers into His harvest."  The words disciples and apostles are frequently used interchangeably for the twelve.  The word disciple means "learner."  An apostle is one who is "sent out."  Jesus shares His power with His laborers, investing it in them to carry out this work.  He gives them power, while the works done by Him were performed by His own power.  The names of the twelve vary in different lists, as many people had more than one name.  The names here in Matthew's Gospel are given in pairs, perhaps suggesting which individuals traveled with one another on this first missionary journey.  Mark reports that they were sent out two by two (Mark 6:7).

In yesterday's reading, we read that the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons (exorcism), and hence healing,  by the power of demons.  But here in today's reading, we see in response the continual expansion of Jesus' mission.  He teaches in the synagogues, preaches the gospel of the Kingdom, and heals sickness and disease.  He lives the work He is here to do, the ministry He is meant to live.  He is Messiah not by declaration or proclamation or the formal recognition, but rather simply by fulfilling the role that is His:  preaching, teaching, healing.  He proclaims the Kingdom in all of these ways.  But something even more astonishing is happening in the spread of this ministry.  He who heals and performs miraculous signs by His own power has chosen twelve with whom He will share and thus further distribute that power.  This is the harvest:  those who go out to find the sheep and bring them to their shepherd.  Let us note how this comes about:  Jesus is moved with compassion for the multitudes, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.  Modern human beings don't like to think of themselves as sheep, moreover as sheep having no shepherd.  We tend to be conditioned to think of ourselves as our own masters, autonomous, independently making our way and deciding what we believe and follow.  Jesus uses sheep as a metaphor to teach us that, in fact, we're not all-knowing.  When we make choices, we don't necessarily have all the information we need in order to know what a good choice is.  Adulthood, and much experience, should teach us that, if we are paying attention.  Responsibilities come with choices which we are often ill-prepared to make with full assurance.  We can't peer into the future.  What sounds like a fantastic idea easily turns out to be a foolish one.  Life is not simply a place where good planning fixes all ills.  Rather, it's a continual learning curve.   We hopefully learn from mistakes, but there is always something new to learn.  To consider oneself a rational sheep is to put into perspective the fact that we will always need a kind of guidance in life.  We are those who learn and absorb from what is around us -- but we need to find the soft place to fall, the true guidance that stands us in good stead, a kind of wisdom that can lead and teach and heal.  When we recognize who we are and what our needs are, then we can come to terms with our need for this Shepherd.  We are not absolute autonomous beings possessing infinite wisdom.  Rather, we are dependent upon so many things.  Our societies are not made of isolated individuals with no connection with one another; rather we depend upon relationships and we need to choose wisely how to navigate them, and how to choose whom we follow and with whom we partner and associate.  To consider oneself a rational sheep is to know that good leadership is essential for all of us, and that discernment rests upon good teaching in the first place.  In this sense, we turn to Christ.  He is wisdom; and as Lord, He has sent the prophets beforehand to teach.  As Lord, He establishes His Kingdom to show us the way, to offer us a place in which to dwell that paradoxically dwells within us and among us. This place, the Kingdom He proclaims, teaches us what love is and gives us love's guidance for a good life and true community when we live it.  If God is love, then this is the Shepherd we seek, who offers us love in action as leadership.  But first we need to understand what and who we are, so that we know what and Who we need.  When we find ourselves to be weary and scattered, let us consider the place to which we need to turn.





Friday, October 13, 2017

It was never seen like this in Israel!


 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 demons." 

- Matthew 9:27-34

Yesterday we read that a ruler of the synagogue came and worshiped Jesus, 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.  When we read Matthew's Gospel, we must understand its orientation toward Jews; that is, it is written as if intended for a Jewish audience.  In this light, we look to Isaiah.  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).  My study bible tells us that these healings are a sign that Jesus is the awaited Messiah, as is the use of the title Son of David by the blind men, who express their faith in this truth.  That they go into the house shows us that Jesus, at this point in His ministry, does not want this revealed but nevertheless heals based on the faith of the blind.

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 demons."   This charge will be repeated in Matthew's Gospel, and Jesus will refute it (see Matthew 12:24-30).  To cast out demons by the ruler of demons is not possible.  The aim of the devil, as Jesus will later express in chapter 12,  is to consolidate power, not destroy it.  Furthermore, Jesus has cleansed lepers, raised the dead, and remitted sins.  These are works that demons could not perform.

Today's verses tell us a story about the Messiah, in the fulfillment of prophesy.  Jesus fulfills the prophesy of Isaiah who explicitly gives conditions which will mark the time of the Messiah.  But there is a lot more here to take note of.  To give sight to the blind is a great metaphor for "light" in all its meanings -- the spiritual light of showing what is what, of exposing what's false, and giving people the freedom to truly see.  It's important that, like all the other healing stories we've read so far in Matthew's Gospel,  this comes with faith.  Jesus' one question to these blind men is, ""Do you believe that I am able to do this?"  They respond to Him affirmatively, and call Him "Lord," another reference to the Messiah and the Davidic lineage of the Messiah.  Jesus heals by touch once again, and tells them, "According to your faith let it be to you."  Then the text tells us that "their eyes were opened," another metaphor for true sight, spiritual perception, the understanding of truth and the lifting of lies.  Jesus' next healing is that of a mute, whose lack of speech is due to demonic possession.  We can infer clearly what the demonic does here, which is always destructive.  In this case, this man is unable to express himself, He's fettered and muzzled, kept a kind of prisoner in his inability to speak.  The restoration of his speech is a parallel to Jesus' identity as redeemer and liberator, who "sets the captives free," also as declared by Isaiah.  Finally come the charges from the Pharisees, that Jesus casts out demons by the power of the ruler of the demons.  Jesus makes no reply to them at this time.  His ministry is still revealing His identity through its signs and the things He does, but He does not openly declare Himself.  The introduction of accusations of sorcery brings us into a new territory, where people are going to have to make a choice, and where faith will play a decisive role.  Jesus has already warned His followers, in the Sermon on the Mount, to be aware of "wolves in sheep's clothing," "false prophets."  But He has said that it is by their fruits that they will know them.  (See Matthew 7:15-20).  Jesus lives up to His own standard, producing fruits that teach us about Him and His identity.  The question becomes, therefore, who is able to discern, to read the fruits of the tree?  We come to a moment where the conflict between the religious leadership and Jesus is ready to split wide open, and where competing claims will assert themselves.  Jesus will elaborate in later passages on such accusations, saying that blasphemy against the Spirit is the one claim that will stand to be answered for.  In that context, He will repeat what He's said about the fruits of the tree (see Matthew 12:31-33).  But Jesus' ministry teaches us that the ways the Spirit works is to unfold truth through signs, through "fruits" that are produced, and these "fruits" tell us something.  (See also Galatians 5:22-23.)  It is similar with our own lives.  The fruits that are produced by the choices we make, the things we do, the faith we follow and its internal work, teach us about what road we're on, good or bad.  Jesus allows His ministry to speak for Himself.  He does not wear His holiness on His sleeve, so to speak.  He has railed against the hypocrisy of some of the religious leadership, declaring morality that is for show is just that.  Instead, Jesus lives the truth.   At this point, He even tries to tell those whom He's healed not to speak of the stupendous signs that He is the Messiah.  He sets the example for our lives, practicing what He's preached in the Sermon on the Mount (see this reading).  Jesus' identity as Son and Savior is not proven by the opinions of others.  Rather, He simply lives as the One He is.  The fullness of His life and ministry is in the will of the Father, and the work of Father, Son, and Spirit.  The faith response of others is in the place of the heart of each.  So it should be with our lives.  Let us note that regardless of what we actually do, people can claim all kinds of opinions and accusations about motive and the hidden heart.  Who we are, and what we are, is judged by God, not determined by the opinions of others.  The real question is how we live our faith, and express identity as faithful in the choices we make to live God's will as best we can, most firmly rooted in the depth of "secret" prayer.  Let us endeavor to find the integrity He teaches us, and the strength of grace whereby we may live such a life.




Thursday, October 12, 2017

If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well


 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 where He healed the paralytic (and disputed with some scribes), 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 notes here that authority over life and death is in the hand of God alone (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6).  Being of one essence with the Father, Jesus has this authority (John 5:21).  The healing of this woman demonstrates Christ's power to clean and to heal (see also this reading from chapter 8, in which He cleansed a leper).  In the Old Testament, hemorrhage such as the affliction suffered by this woman caused ceremonial defilement.  This necessarily imposed religious and social restrictions (as did leprosy), because contact with blood was strictly prohibited (Leviticus 15:25).   But this suffering woman, because she accounts herself unclean, approaches Jesus secretly -- and with great with.  Jesus brings her good cheer because of her faith.  He also corrects her thinking, because she could not hide her touch from Him -- and neither is she excluded from Him because of her illness.  The final correction in thinking comes because He exhibits her faith to all, so each might imitate her.

There are several things to note that are happening in this reading.  First of all, if we look at yesterday's reading, above,  we note that Jesus has just come from a head-to-head dispute with some Pharisees because He eats with sinners (tax collectors and others).  In the reading before that He disputed with some scribes over His power to forgive sins, and made a display of His stupendous healing power.   There is a continuity here, as in today's reading, before a ruler of a synagogue (who venerates Him in a form of prostration by kneeling or bowing before Him, translated as "worshiped"), Jesus praises a woman who is unclean according to religious law but has secretly touched Him in faith.  Each of these episodes signals to the leadership (present in the form of scribes, Pharisees, and this ruler of the synagogue -- identified elsewhere as Jairus) that Christ is indeed present with "new wine," so to speak.  The events challenge their thinking about who Jesus is and what He can do.  He has described His mission (in chapter 5, during the Sermon on the Mount) as coming not to destroy, but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  Each of these events in recent readings teaches us what it means to "exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees," and to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  They are challenges to the understanding of the leadership who are present in various personae, and they also establish Jesus' identity as Messiah who is both human and divine.  The entirely surprising response of Jesus to this woman must have been astounding to all the crowd.  As the ruler of the synagogue is present and desperately urging Him to go to his daughter who "has just died," we can imagine the impact on Jairus.  Finally, in microcosm we see the tumultuous nature of Jesus' healing work, in that it turns upside-down the expectations of the people.  Jairus' house is filled with those who mourn.  There are flute players and a whole crowd of noisy wailers.  When Jesus tells them that the girl is merely sleeping, they ridicule Him.   We already know the importance of faith to healing, even in the friends or relatives of those who cannot ask for help themselves.  Here Jesus first takes action by having the loudly wailing (and ridiculing) crowd put outside. Again, He heals by touch, taking the little girl's hand so that she rises from where she sleeps.  Once again, as we noted in yesterday's reading and commentary, there is an image here prefiguring the Resurrection power of Christ which will become the central key to His identity as Lord (and thereby the fulfillment, or telos, meaning "end" in Greek), of the Law and the Prophets.  What we have is a hint of the understanding of the Church about Christ Himself as the central focal point of all of  Scripture.  In this identity as the One who is "the Resurrection and the life" (John 11:25), Jesus is the fullness by which all else is measured, and the light by which all of Scripture and spiritual history becomes viewed.  These glimmerings of what will be more fully expressed later teach us so, as they taught our forbears to view all of Scripture and the life of the Church and spiritual life to come.  To be the fulfillment is to be the telos, the absolute, the perfection of something.  His life shines the light of meaning for all else and becomes the standard by which we know and understand faith and the work of God in the world.  If Resurrection is present with Him, so our faith can bring us glimmers and meanings of this power.  Perhaps we, too, need a kind of resurrection in our lives, in any circumstance, as part of the healing of old wounds or deep traumas.  We call on Him in faith, knowing that He has displayed already His healing power that overcomes all obstacles and reaches where the world ridicules and loudly proclaims failure.  Let us remember His work that astonishes all expectations, and seek His way for us, even if we have to put "the crowd" outside to do so -- and change the way we think.



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

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


 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 casting out demons from two men on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus 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.

 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.  Matthew, the author of our Gospel, is also called Levi (Mark 2:14).  My study bible explains that Roman overlords assigned specific areas to Jewish tax collectors.  These tax collectors were free to collect extra revenues for their own profit, backed by the military might of the Roman state.  Their collaboration with the occupying Romans, their fraud, and corruption caused other Jews not only to hate them but to consider them unclean (11:19).

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."  Jesus dining with tax collectors and also accepting Matthew as a disciple ("Follow Me") offends the Pharisees.   But Jesus' defense is quite simple.  He goes where the need for the physician is greatest.  "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" is from Hosea 6:6.  My study bible says that this is not a rejection of sacrifice per se, but rather shows that mercy is a higher priority (see Psalm 51).

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."  Typically in Jewish tradition fasting was done twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Monday and Thursday.  In addition to this, public fasts were regularly observed or occasionally proclaimed (2 Chronicles 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; 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 the day of the Messiah was viewed as a wedding feast, a time of great joy and gladness.  Here Jesus is proclaiming that this day is present, and declaring Himself to be the Messiah/bridegroom.  In the tradition of the Church from its earliest times, fasting was continued as a practice -- but transfigured.  It was not seen as gloomy.   It was viewed as desirable, a "bright sadness," because by fasting people were gaining self-control and preparing themselves for the Wedding Feast, a forward-looking understanding.

"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 says that the old garment and old wineskins stand for the Old Covenant and the Law.  In the light of Christ these are viewed as imperfect and temporary.  But the new wineskins are the New Covenant and those in Christ.  The new wine, it says, is the Holy Spirit dwelling within renewed people, who cannot be constrained by the old precepts of the Law.

Jesus' encounter with the Pharisees, and His taking on of Matthew the tax collector as disciple, comes in the context of the recent healing stories in Matthew's Gospel.  Jesus reinforces this understanding when He says, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."  In today's reading, the Gospel gives us glimmers of what is to come in the sense that transfiguration is a repeated hint of the reality that Christ brings into the world.  To be healed is in a sense to be transfigured, brought from one state to another state.  Here the keys are mercy and repentance.  Mercy is the means by which God acts, and also divine action in us.  Repentance is a form of transfiguration, literally meaning "change of mind" in the Greek.  It is what is necessary for the healed state of being.  We also need to read about fasting in this light.  John the Baptist's disciples come and ask about fasting -- and Jesus puts everything into perspective by declaring Himself to be the Bridegroom.  He is the Messiah they await, and the joy of the disciples must be seen in this light.  Jesus also predicts that they will fast "when the bridegroom will be taken away from them."   The early Church would instate the practice of fasting, similarly to the practice that the Jews had on Mondays and Thursdays, but the Church would establish it for Wednesdays and Fridays (commemorating the day of Jesus' betrayal and the day He died on the Cross, the times "when the Bridegroom was taken away" from His friends).  But as hinted at in the repeated understanding in today's reading, this was a transfigured fasting practice, one that looked forward once again to the joy of unification, the wedding feast, and the return of the Bridegroom to the Church, His Bride.  The practice is meant, in a nutshell, for healing and health -- learning to abstain not simply from food but rather from sin, and coming to know our capacity for self-mastery and making choices, such as happens in repentance.  Finally Jesus gives us the great analogy for transfiguration:  the wine.  Its enzymatic action is seen similarly to the work of the Holy Spirit.   New wine -- the "harvest" of His ministry -- must be put into new wineskins, those that will grow and expand with the action of fermentation, the process of the transfiguring internal work that we don't see but yet we come to observe its effects.    This is another mirror of healing -- the mysterious process that takes place internally, but gives us signs externally of its effects.  All of these things are glimmers, facets of the light that will grow through this ministry to bring our understanding of Christ as the One who transforms, transfigures, where ultimately the power of the Cross will even transfigure death.  How we become that wine is something we can't control or name, but rather something that works within us, with which we cooperate through faith and acceptance.  We may not know even how we come to change; but we can observe the fruits of this work in our own transfiguration and capacities for the fruits of the Spirit.  Let us remember who we are as the new wine, and the journey of growth and expansion and repentance we are on, the health of the Physician who is always making all things new.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you"


 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 and the disciples 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.  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.  Here is yet another incident of healing; we can compare it and add it to those in this reading from Friday.  Each comes in its own way.  My study bible says that this healing of the paralytic teaches us that faith is an indispensable condition for salvation.  And we note that faith is collective as well as personal.  This story tell s that the faith of the paralytic's friends helped in his healing.  My study bible points out three signs of Jesus' divinity in today's reading.  First, He knows the secrets of hearts (see 1 Samuel 16:7; 2 Chronicles 6:30).  Second, He forgives sins, which is a power that belongs to God alone.  Finally, He heals by the power of His word (as in the case of the centurion's servant in the earlier reading).

Today's reading teaches us something about the power of prayer.  We see the influence on Christ because of the connection made by the power of faith in this paralyzed man's friends.  Not only that, but the first -- and really controversial -- element of this story is the forgiveness of sins.  It is the power of God's forgiveness that is given here in response to the faith of this man's friends (we note the text tells us this happens "when He saw their faith").   It's quite moving to think about what this teaches us about prayer.  Paralysis is frequently seen in traditional commentary as a parallel to sin.  We get "stuck" in places, unable to move forward in some sense.  Our behavior includes a pattern we repeat that may be destructive or unhealthful.  We learn ways to behave that aren't necessarily good for us or others.  Perhaps they come out of selfishness or convenience or attempts at manipulation.  It can be extremely hard to truly change.  Patterns of addiction fall into such a picture, complex as they are.  Even those for whom repentance is difficult or impossible can be prayed for.  By the tradition of the Church, it is the prayers of others that avail those in hell.  In the Orthodox tradition, hell is rather a state of mind than a place.  The same fire of God's love that inflames the saints is the fire that scorches when we can't unburden ourselves of sin, things we need to cast off or give up that obstruct that love.  (See this reading for Jesus' images of casting away habits that cause sin in our lives.)    Faith is such a powerful connection to Christ that even the faith of community can sustain and help where an individual cannot help themselves. Today's reading gives us a perfect analogy to that.  Sometimes prayer is all we can do, when we are dependent upon others to help resolve what is seemingly an insoluble situation or circumstance.  That is also a case of being "stuck" -- relationships between individuals, within families, and whole communities can also resemble a kind of paralysis of sin, selfish or self-centered behavior that damages and abuses relationship.   The Gospels teach us that the power of prayer and faith can reach into all of these circumstances, giving us a capacity for practicing love even when face to face communication is not possible nor available.  It's the connection that we make to God's love that links to ways of the heart, hidden means we don't necessarily know, or surprising opportunities for change and growth we can't foresee.   It is faith that makes this connection to Christ, bringing the possibility of healing even where other communication is broken or unavailable.  What do you need to pray about today?  Are there those you can help with prayer and love?  Even for the seemingly unreachable or hopeless situation, prayer remains a way we can practice and live our faith in God's love.  Let us note we can turn to others for help with our prayer -- "friends" here is plural.  This is what faith community is for.  And within the living tradition of the communion of saints, we always have help with prayer, even when we think we're alone with our problem.  Everything may not turn out as we hope.  Healing is also a question of acceptance and the heart of each person.  Christ's intervention always -- as in today's reading -- creates a time of choice.  But healing comes to us nevertheless in the love and righteousness which is always open to us, the participation in this kingdom He brings with His word and presence.






Monday, October 9, 2017

What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God?


 When He had come to the other side, 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. 

- Matthew 8:28-34

On Saturday we read that when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side.  Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go."  And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."  Then another of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."  But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead."  Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.  And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves.  But He was asleep.  Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, "Lord, save us!  We are perishing!"  But He said to them, "Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?"  Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  So the men marveled, saying, "Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?"

 When He had come to the other side, 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.   My study bible says that the demons, recognizing Jesus as the Son of God, are surprised that their power is being terminated before the time of the last judgment.  Although the malice of the demons is great, they can do nothing against the will of God, and thus can only enter the swine at Christ's command.   The immediate destruction of the herd shows the men were protected by God's care -- otherwise they would have been destroyed by the demonic influence.   This story reinforces that swineherding wasn't lawful for the Jews, and shows the incomparable value of human beings, whose salvation, my study bible tells us, is worth every sacrifice.  This story appears also in Luke and in Mark, but in Matthew's version there are two possessed men.

One way we could read the stories of these demon-possessed men is to say that they are among Gentiles raising swine, but indications are (as in this story in other Gospels) that the swineherders are apostate Jews -- those raising swine are influenced by Gentiles and doing so for profit, and against Jewish law.  We can see the preferences of the people in their fear of Jesus.  Regardless of the miraculous healing of these men and the exorcism of the demons, they care more about the lost swine and beg Jesus to leave their region.  Jesus has told His disciples to set sail from the "home country" they've so far been in through Jesus' ministry, to this faraway place on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  They pass through a storm that frightens even the seasoned fishermen aboard, and land in this strange place where the demon-possessed men live in the tombs and among the swine.  Why has Jesus come here, away from the multitudes who seek Him in Capernaum?  One might say that He has deliberately sought out these afflicted men.  It gives us a sense of His parable of the shepherd, who would leave 99 sheep in order to seek out the one who is lost (Matthew 18:12-14).  While this isn't necessarily what a real shepherd of Palestine would do (leaving the flock alone), it's repeatedly shone in Christ's behavior.  He will go the ends of the world for His sheep; in the other versions of this story, the healed man becomes a kind of early witness for Christ in the Decapolis (this region of mixed Gentiles and Jews).  The story is also a portrayal of Christ as fulfillment of the Law, as the healing He does creates a separation among these people:  they must choose between the righteousness of Christ (and the healing of human beings) and the money they lose when the swine are killed.  As the people from the city choose the latter and beg Christ to leave, it tells us even about the place of believers in isolation:  Christ is still there for them, regardless of the surroundings or afflictions that plague them.  This is His level of compassion, His love, His reaching for those who need and want Him, who recognize that love and deeply desire it.   One facet of meaning from today's passage is the character of Christ who has condescended to become one of us in order to heal us, and out of love for us.  Like the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep, He comes to us no matter what the obstacles, no matter how obscure, unimportant, or "out of the way" we might be.  How do we reconcile that love with our standards of what love is and can do?  He teaches His followers to go and do likewise, as all the disciples have been brought with Him to this strange and far-away place.  Seemingly "God-forsaken," Jesus proves that no place and no one in the world is truly so.  He creates "life in the tombs" in another parallel to what we know of His life and resurrecting power.  Let us note the personal nature of the stories of the Gospels; somehow Christ has come to this place and particularly to these men.   His is not an impersonal faceless charity.  Our own lives may provide us with opportunities to practice love as we encounter others in the most personal sense.    But we need to cultivate the heart and discernment of Christ, perhaps, to truly see them and practice what His life teaches.









Saturday, October 7, 2017

Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?


 And when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side.  Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go."  And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."  Then another of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."  But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.  And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves.  But He was asleep.  Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, "Lord, save us!  We are perishing!"  But He said to them, "Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?"  Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  So the men marveled, saying, "Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?" 

- Matthew 8:18-27

Yesterday we read that when Jesus had come down from the mountain, after preaching the Sermon on the Mount, great multitudes followed Him.  And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean."  Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, "I am willing; be cleansed."  Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  And Jesus said to him, "See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."  Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented."  And Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him."  The centurion answered and said, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.  But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.  For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me.  And I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."  When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!  And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness.  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you."  And his servant was healed that same hour.  Now when Jesus had come into Peter's house, He saw his wife's mother lying sick with a fever.  So He touched her hand, and the fever left her.  And she arose and served them.  When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed.  And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:  "He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses."

And when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side.  Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go."  And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."  Then another of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."  But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead."  The term Son of Man refers to the Messiah and is found in Daniel 7:13.  It expression both Jesus' humanity and His divinity.  Here He uses it to refer to His human condition.  In 25:31-33 it describes His divine authority in His Resurrected state.  Jesus begins to describe the state of detachment He experiences and also commands.  He doesn't negate the command to honor parents, but rather is repeating the depth of the message about putting the things of the Kingdom first, as highest priority.  Those who ignore such priority, my study bible says, are spiritually dead

 Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.  And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves.  But He was asleep.  Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, "Lord, save us!  We are perishing!"  But He said to them, "Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?"  Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  So the men marveled, saying, "Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?"  In yesterday's reading, we read about varied healings that happened immediately after we were given the Sermon on the Mount.  Here another sign that Jesus is Messiah and is divine is given to us:  His mastery over creation.  Commands to natural forces such as sea and waves can only be given by God (Job 38:8-11; Psalm 65:5-6, 106:9). But again, we have clear signs of Jesus' full humanity; as a human being, he needs rest and was asleep.  In His Incarnation, my study bible points out, He assumed all the natural actions of the flesh, of which sleep is one.  The image of Christ and His disciples in a boat is traditionally used to illustrate the Church.  God both permits storms and delivers us through them, my study bible says, so that we can see God's protection more clearly.  Christ's rebuke of the storm is also an illustration of His calming the tempests in the human soul, and so is also related to His healing capacity for all of us.

What does it mean to really heal?  In some sense, everything that Jesus does is healing, and for each of us -- all of humanity.  In the personal sense, we find images in each of His actions that tell us about what is good for us, what heals.  In His teachings to those who would be His followers, He tells them of the necessary steps for each of us to really put the Kingdom first, to rearrange our priorities.  According to St. Paul,  "the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).  What this means is that even our deepest assumptions, learned in our closest ties in the world, we may be challenged.  Things come up for questioning, and we may have that "sword" of the word of God reaching down to separate what we thought was inseparable, asserting its own priorities and values in our lives.  This is a demand for detachment, which Jesus' own human life mirrors in its realities:  "the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."   Jesus' own actions are those that teach us about not seeking the crowd, nor fame, but finding who we are in a deeper and more detached place.  He flees the multitudes with His disciples.  Even the terrifying storm is a good analogy to understanding the difficulties with which we may struggle when we put these priorities into action.  Cultivating a kind of detachment creates potentially "terrifying" scenaria whereby our own senses of security and attachment come up to dissuade us from taking steps to cultivate new values by following His teachings.  Breaking free from the crowd, from the way things have always been done, from the ways we've been taught to think, isn't a simple nor easy matter.  The long tradition of fasting and prayer takes us away from the crowds in order to more closely cement our own internal souls with the word of God and the ways God will pull us out of the conventionally "worldly."  Everything here is for our understanding of what is healthful and good, recipes for growth and personal maturity through spiritual teaching and discipline.  While the world will debate and argue and seek to conquer through all kinds of manipulation, we take time to find Christ's word for us, how we are to go forward, and how He teaches us to find His calm and the center of who we truly need to be.  This is a recipe not only for individuals but for the good of the community.  That kind of maturity can be a life-saver for others lost in a sea of selfish demands and competing interests.  This maturity and growth is a love meant to be shared with others -- but found by putting the Kingdom first, and doing all we need in order to do so.  Those who can rise above a situation are often the only ones to truly help with ills that plague us.  But to do that, we need to clearly understand what to leave behind.   It's faith that gives us strength for the journey, in the confidence and trust we can find in Him.




Friday, October 6, 2017

He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses


 When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him.  And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean."  Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, "I am willing; be cleansed."  Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  And Jesus said to him, "See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."

Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented."  And Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him."  The centurion answered and said, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.  But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.  For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me.  And I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."  When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!  And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness.  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you."  And his servant was healed that same hour.

Now when Jesus had come into Peter's house, He saw his wife's mother lying sick with a fever.  So He touched her hand, and the fever left her.  And she arose and served them.  When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed.  And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:
"He Himself took our infirmities
And bore our sicknesses."

- Matthew 8:1-17

 We have just finished reading through the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5 - 7.  Yesterday's was the last reading in chapter 7, giving us Jesus' culmination of the Sermon.  He taught:  "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?'  And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'  Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock:  and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.  But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand:  and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell.  And great was its fall."  And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him.  And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean."  Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, "I am willing; be cleansed."  Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  And Jesus said to him, "See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."  The biblical law concerning leprosy is in Leviticus 13 and 14Deuteronomy 24:8 gives instructions for the purification of lepers and and leprous houses, which was a duty that the priests carried out.  My study bible says that leprosy was considered a direct punishment for sins, and as lepers were unclean, they were not permitted to live in the community or to worship in synagogues or the temple.  To touch the unclean was forbidden (Leviticus 7:21).  But Jesus touched the leper, showing both compassion and also that He is not subject to the Law but over it.  My study bible says, "To the clean, nothing is unclean."

Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented."  And Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him."  The centurion answered and said, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.  But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.  For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me.  And I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."  When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!  And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness.  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you."  And his servant was healed that same hour.    This is a remarkable story for a number of reasons.  The first is that this is a Roman Gentile, a centurion who is a commander in the Roman occupying military.  The second is that this man, a commander of the colonial forces, calls Jesus, a Jew, Lord.  The response by Jesus, "I will come," has also been interpreted as a question by many Greek scholars:  "Shall I come?"   Jesus' response is tied to the story of the leper.  It means that Jesus is ready to deal graciously with this Gentile and even to enter into his house -- which would make Him unclean in the eyes of the Jews.   The centurion then repeatedly calls Jesus Lord, in a statement frequently quoted in liturgical texts as an ideal expression of humility:  "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof."  The text also tells us that Jesus marveled at the faith of the centurion.  That Jesus marvels happens only twice in all the Gospels:  once at the unbelief in His hometown of Nazareth (Mark 6:6), and here at the belief of this foreigner.  We should take note that throughout the Gospels, Jesus heals in a number of ways.  In the previous verses, He heals a leper by touch.  Here, He needs neither to be present nor in direct contact with the one whom He heals -- but all is facilitated by faith.  Finally, Jesus nullifies all ideas of ethnic superiority, and teaches more about the nature of the Kingdom and its righteousness.  The rejected sons of the kingdom are both the Jews who deny Christ and those raised in the Church who do not live their faith.  Outer darkness and weeping and gnashing are descriptions of the state of the unrighteous dead in Sheol (Hades) in the Jewish tradition.  They are common expressions in Matthew (13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30), and they also occur in Luke (Luke 13:28). 

Now when Jesus had come into Peter's house, He saw his wife's mother lying sick with a fever.  So He touched her hand, and the fever left her.  And she arose and served them.  When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed.  And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:  "He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses."   In this passage and also in 1 Corinthians 9:5 we have indications that Peter was married.  Note again the diversity of healing miracles.  Here He heals again by touch, in verse 13 (above, in the case of the centurion's servant) He healed with a word.  This healing is immediate and complete, while others are gradual (Mark 8:22-25) or they require the cooperation of the person healed or even loved ones (Luke 8:54-55).  As the quotation in our final verse for today indicates, all of Christ's miracles are manifestations of His redemption of ailing humanity.

Just after the Sermon on the Mount, we are given several healings by Jesus.  We remember in context that these healings are signs of the Kingdom, and signs of Jesus' identity.  It's important that the ways these healings are done are varied.  That shows us something about Jesus and the true identity of the "God-man."  His power and His authority exists in many dimensions.  He doesn't have any walls or barriers that keep Him from exercising that authority and power.  He doesn't even need to to be present to effect a healing.  What does in fact make a difference, though, is the faith either in the one being healed or in those who bring him or her to healing, both loved ones and friends.  His healing restores people to their places in the community.  Peter's mother-in-law goes back to her honored place in the household, serving those who serve Christ.  The centurion's servant, who is "dreadfully tormented" is healed at the very hour at which Jesus tells him, "Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you."   The healed leper is restored to community via Jesus' healing and His instruction to "go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."  Let us note the role of witness the former leper can now play.  The quotation from Isaiah gives us another flavor of the authority and blessedness in serving, as it describes Christ Himself in His condescension and service to humankind:   "He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses."  Each of these things tells us about Christ, and gives us an outward picture of the righteousness of the Kingdom expressed through Jesus' words and actions and teachings.  Let us note not only His compassion but the radical equality before God and God's love and favor.   Not only that, but God's viewpoint, as it does through the Old and New Testaments, will stand our worldly certainties on their heads, for "many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness."  The great connection  that makes all the difference here is faith.  It invites us into communion, into participation in the Kingdom, and there are no barriers to that faith except in our hearts and our capacity for it.  But even the smallest opening begins the journey.  Sometimes it's an opening only God sees, even unknown to ourselves.






Thursday, October 5, 2017

Whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock


 "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?'  And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'

"Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock:  and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.  But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand:  and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell.  And great was its fall."

And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

- Matthew 7:22-29

We have been reading through the Sermon on the Mount, which began in chapter 5 with the Beatitudes.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught:  "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.  Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them.  Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven."

 "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?'  And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'"  Here, Jesus is proclaiming Himself Judge, a role that belongs only to God.  He makes it clear -- and this stands all the events of the Gospels in the true light in which we read them -- that doing wonders is not enough for entrance into this Kingdom.  What counts is the righteousness that He teaches -- the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven.  This is the entire theme of the Sermon on the Mount.

"Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock:  and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.  But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand:  and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell.  And great was its fall."    We note that Jesus speaks of whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them . . .."   My study bible says that hearing the gospel alone is not enough; salvation isn't based on haring alone nor on faith alone, but also on doing the these sayings of Christ.  The emphasis on both hearing and doing is important. It confers a responsibility that comes with hearing.   Jesus' emphasis on the security of this rock gives us a sense of the confidence we can take in hearing and doing His teachings.  To hear and fail to do what He teaches is foolishly risk everything; this is clearly said in context of Judgment.  But the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is also something we live, and which blesses us in daily life.  To fail to understand or recognize the quality of those blessings is also foolish.  They sustain us through the rain, floods, and winds of life.

And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.  This is something that we read in various places and contexts in the Gospels.  Jesus' authority comes of Himself and His identity, not in citing, for example, other famous rabbis, as do the scribes.  He has His own authority.

What can we say about confidence and assurance, which Jesus gives us in the image of the rock upon which we build our houses?  He is teaching us that we may have security in hearing and doing His teachings.  In a world that seems to be increasingly unstable, or filled with unpredictability, Jesus' words take on a deeper connection to our own needs for true security.   Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with the  blessings of the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven, enumerated for us in The Beatitudes.  These are inward treasures, the blessings of righteousness, and the type of spiritual fruit that He desires for His followers.  He seems to close here with a reminder that these are the things in which we can truly take confidence in our lives.  They are the things that see us through the difficulties and insecurities and uncertainties in life.  Many of His sayings in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew's Gospel) teach us about prudence and wisdom, and the importance of discernment.   Many of the teachings involve an active love, a way of living that does not ridicule or belittle others, that does not return violence with vengeance, that refrains from an external focus and the manipulation of hypocrisy.  He emphasizes the inner core of what it means to be a truly and fully living human being, not a person who lives for appearance or the purely material.  (He will later compare the emptiness of religious hypocrites to whited sepulchres.)  It is the values that He teaches in which we can take true security, because they are what persist and endure even when the going is tough.  It is His values that we can trust in, because they are built not only on the authority of God who is love, but on the surety of that which is not shaken when threatened, and which transcends every trend.  We fall back on truth when challenged; we repent toward a better knowledge and understanding and practice of what He teaches when we fall down or stumble.  In Him we can trust, and what a difference that makes to the quality of life itself -- not only for us as individuals but also for our extended communities.