Monday, September 25, 2017

But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment


 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire.  Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leaven your gift there before the altar, and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny."

- Matthew 5:21-26

We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount, beginning in Matthew chapter 5.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught:  "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire."  My study bible says that this formula (but I say to you) which Jesus will repeat in the Sermon is a statement of total, divine authority (7:29).  As the Creator of man and the Author of the Law, Christ can speak with this authority.  While there is anger which is not sinful (see Psalm 4:4, Mark 3:5), the type of anger Jesus forbids here is sinful anger, which He identifies with murder.   The council is the supreme legal body of the Jews.  Hell (in Greek, Gehenna/γέενναν; see 10:28) is the final condition of sinners who resist God's grace, my study bible tells us.

"Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leaven your gift there before the altar, and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."  Peace with other believers is a requirement for worship (Mark 11:25).  In liturgical practice, the fellowship or "kiss of peace" at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer is given as a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness, which prepares the faithful to offer the holy gifts at the altar (1 Corinthians 16:20; 1 Peter 5:14).

"Agree with your adverary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny."  Luke puts this teaching in the context of the end of the age (Luke 12:57-59).  But here it is in the context of reconciliation that surrounds the Liturgy.  Both represent the proper attitude before Christ, who is the Judge.  Delay in reconciliation, my study bible says, allows for the spread of animosity and other evils (Ephesians 4:26-27).

Let us take note of the Judge who speaks in today's reading.  But I say to you, my study bible tells us, is a formula which indicates total, divine authority.  Jesus also evokes the authority of the Council, the Sanhedrin, when He indicates a kind of insult that is given (Raca, from Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus' time, indicates empty-headedness).  "You fool!" is from the Greek μωρός, from which we derive the English word "moron."  (In modern Greek, this word is used for "baby," perhaps connected linguistically by indicating  a lack of full development of the brain.)  At any rate, the word is used as a diminishment of a person, rendering them not fully equal or capable or of a stature that would call for recognition.  Jesus' words seem to indicate that as we decide that another is of lesser significance or importance, and need not be taken as deserving of respect due to persons our equals, then we begin to endanger our own standing in the eyes of the Judge who is above all.  His words call for reconciliation, a proactive way of practicing not simply repentance, but making amends for "debts" or "trespasses" (see Matthew 6:8-15).  This sort of reconciliation is linked to the terms diminishing others, because it is a way of recognizing equality before the Judge.  To be reconciled before the time for reckoning and judgment is strong counsel here by Christ, the sternest possible warning.  How we treat one another becomes not merely an outward "show" but a matter of the heart, and true personal repentance, an inner work.  To shut another person down, to slander them and thereby render them socially without stature or respect -- to render them unable to give their own testimony, so to speak -- is akin to murder in Jesus' estimation, and so it is.   Jesus calls on us to be aware of our own ways of thinking, and to do something about it.  He is not satisfied with an outward following of the rules, the letter of the law, but calls us to true repentance and personal change.  Later He will teach that it is those things that come out of the mouth that defile a person, and that they come from the heart (see Matthew 15:17-20).  Have you spoken of a person in ways that diminish their stature as a human being?  What is it that denies a person their own integrity?  Let us understand that Jesus isn't denying justice, the idea that there is a verdict of true or false, innocent or guilty, right or wrong in a trial.  But what He is addressing is the relationships we have with one another, true righteousness which supersedes other aspects of disagreement and lays the foundation for good judgment.  How do we live that righteous life to which He calls us?  


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill


 "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

- Matthew 5:17-20

 We have been reading chapter 5 of Matthew's Gospel, which begins the Sermon on the Mount.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught, "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.  You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill."  Jesus fulfills the Law in Himself and in His words, and in His actions.  My study bible explains that this happens through His performing God's will in all its fullness (3:15); by transgressing none of the precepts of the Law (John 8:46, 14:30); in declaring the perfect fulfillment of the Law, which He is about to deliver in this Sermon; and by granting righteousness -- the goal of the Law -- to us (Romans 3:31, 8:3-4, 10:4).  Christ fulfills the Prophets by both being and carrying out what they foretold.

"For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled."  In the original Greek, assuredly is "amen/αμην."  It means "truly," or "confirmed," or "so be it."  It is used by Jesus as a solemn affirmation, a type of an oath.  His use of this word at the beginning of certain proclamations (as opposed to at the end) is both unique and authoritative.  He declares that His words are affirmed even before they are spoken.  A jot (iota/ιωτα in the Greek) is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet.  A tittle is the smallest stroke in certain Hebrew letters.  So Jesus is affirming the whole of the Law as the foundation of His teaching.  My study bible adds that all is fulfilled refers to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

"Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."  My study bible tells us that righteousness according to the Law is a unified whole.  The observance of all the least commandments is to observe the whole Law -- and the violation of the least commandment is considered a violation of the whole Law.

"For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."  Righteousness that leads to salvation must exceed that of the Pharisees because of their emphasis on outward or works-based righteousness.  Here Jesus returns to His theme:  the kingdom of heaven and what it is like.  The righteousness of salvation, my study bible says, is the communion of the heart, soul, mind, and body in Jesus Christ.

So what is the kingdom of heaven like?  How do we enter it? What does it have to do with the Law and the Prophets?  Jesus speaks of Himself as One who has not come to build, or extend, or to reform, but rather to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  Fulfillment is related to concepts of the "end," in the sense that the fullness of something is its absolute, its totality, its ultimate end point or full flowering.  In this case, the Law and the Prophets are entirely related to the concepts of the living kingdom of heaven that Jesus brings and preaches.  All of the blessings given in the Beatitudes, the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, are about the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the fullness of not just a way of life but also the presence of a spiritual reality, a kingdom in which we dwell and which dwells also in us.  It is the fulfillment of the promise of all that has come before in Jewish spiritual history.  What we ought to bear in mind is that Christ, as Truth, brings a kingdom with Him, spiritual in nature, one in which we "live and move and have our being," which St. Paul says in Acts 17 (verse 28).  In fact, we would do well to read the full passage of St. Paul's preaching to the Athenians (vv. 16-34).  In order to understand that while salvation is of the Jews, and Jewish spiritual history gives us preparation for the Messiah, the Christ, we may also take the message from Paul's preaching that as Truth, He is also the fulfillment of the good and true and beautiful that has come before in the Hellenistic world.  The ancients saw Christianity in this way when they chose to build churches where temples to pagan gods stood, as fulfillment.  It seems to me that we must continue to understand Christ this way, as fulfillment, as the Alpha and Omega.  What we know in our lives as true can only be further extended, developed, and fulfilled in Christ, made more fully manifest, opening our eyes to new things we had not anticipated but are nevertheless also true and good and beautiful.  The kingdom of heaven is a living reality, both within us and among us, as the Greek implies in Luke 17:20-21.  Its reality, and its flowering, are contained in those blessings that Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes, things that not only make our lives full of true substance and beauty and goodness, but also continue to build fruit in the world and in us as we live and bloom and produce fruit in His grace.  To do so is to live a life of true repentance, a change that fulfills and manifests through our growth in what He brings to us as persons who seek His righteousness.  How do you dwell in that Kingdom?  How does it live in you?  How is His fulfillment always and continually at work in your life and your world?




Friday, September 22, 2017

You are the salt of the earth


 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.

"You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."

- Matthew 5:11-16

Yesterday we read that, seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.  Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

"Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."  Those who suffer persecution for the sake of their faith in Christ walk the same road as did the prophets, saints, and martyrs.  In Greek, the word translated as be exceedingly glad means to "leap exceedingly with joy."  (See Acts 5:40-41.)

"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men."  Jesus gives two metaphors for the disciples and their role in society:  salt and light.  Because of its preservative powers, its necessity for life, and its ability to give flavor, salt had both religious and sacrificial significance (Leviticus 2:13; see also Numbers 18:19, 2 Chronicles 13:5).  Furthermore, to eat salt with someone meant to be bound together in loyalty.  My study bible says that as the salt of the earth, Christians are preservers of God's covenant and give true flavor to the world.  We may wonder how salt may lose its flavor, but we must consider that in ancient times, salt was found with the presence of other minerals.  Humidity could indeed leech the particular mineral that constitutes salt (and gives "saltiness") out of the compound.

"You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."  God is the true and uncreated Light, says my study bible.  In the Old Testament light is symbolic of God (Isaiah 60:1-3), the divine Law (Psalm 119:105), and Israel in contrast to all other nations.   Psalm 36:9 declares, "In Your light, we see light."  In the New Testament, the Son of God is called "light" (John 1:4-9; 8:12; 1 John 1:5).  Light is something we need for clear vision and also for life itself.  Faith relies on the divine light, and believers become "sons of light" (John 12:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:5) who shine in a perverse world, my study bible says (Philippians 2:15).

When we think about Jesus' images of salt and light -- images of covenant, of wisdom, of God's love and truth -- we should think about the earlier part of this Sermon, the Beatitudes (see above, yesterday's reading).  That is because the qualities of the Kingdom are embodied in its blessings, which are conferred upon us in ways that are timeless and are unable to be taken away by others without our consent.  To be capable of manifesting and becoming people who carry those qualities of blessedness is to be peacemakers, to be pure in heart, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, meek (or gentle), to desire righteousness to the point of a willingness to be persecuted for it, and to be poor in spirit (true humility).  All of these qualities are not only the blessings of the Kingdom for those who choose and willingly become participants in it through faith, but they are blessings for the whole of the world, for communities, for families, for neighbors.  To embody these qualities is to "have salt" -- the capacity for covenant and loyalty, the ability to stick to something with one's word and faith, to be entrusted with something.  It is to shine a light, to show a better way, to live as one with such qualities even in a darkened world.  It is to bring something of true goodness to those who may not experience it otherwise.  A willingness to sacrifice even well-being for the sake of God's love and its presence in the world in terms of how one relates to neighbor and all of creation is to bring both salt and light into the world and into the lives of others.  Where all are willing to fight to the death for the sake of power or selfishness, one person who sacrifices personally for a true inward peace, or for the righteousness of helping one who is weaker, shines as a light and flavorful salt for something good that must be preserved.  To hold to a covenant is to preserve within oneself the bonds of love God calls us to hold within our hearts, to be loyal, and true to the things that make all the difference in a world that is either going to be a wilderness or truly "civilized."   This applies to every modern circumstance one can think of, whether it is what passes for political discourse or within a family in which love is sorely lacking.  It really doesn't matter what situation one describes; it also applies to online behavior out here in the world of the internet and social media.  We are responsible for something, we have loyalty to it; we hold and preserve its salt, we shine its light.  Where do you go with that?


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven


 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.  Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

- Matthew 5:1-10

Yesterday we read that Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets.  He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.  And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.  Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them.  Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan

And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.  Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: . . .  In the Old Testament, my study bible says, there were only a select few who were chosen to hear God directly (see Exodus 19:3-13).  But here, in the Sermon on the Mount, God Incarnate is speaking to the multitudes face to face.  The mountain, a note explains, is a place where divine action enters human history, the place where God reveals Himself to man (17:1; Genesis 22:2; Exodus 3:1, 19:2; 1 Kings 18:20).  To be seated is the traditional Jewish position for teaching with authority.  There were some early Christian preachers (for example, St. John Chrysostom) who sat while the people stood.  Matthew mentioning that Jesus opened his mouth is an emphasis that this teaching is "one way."  Jesus has come to speak with authority (7:29), and the disciples aren't there for discussion, nor are they there for debate; they are to listen.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  To be blessed in this context is to experience a heavenly, spiritual exaltation rather than earthly happiness or prosperity.  Let us note here that so far in our readings both John the Baptist and Jesus have preached in ministry that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand."   In today's reading, the Beatitudes give us a taste of that Kingdom and its particular blessedness.  In Hebrew, my study bible tells us, "poor" means both (1) the materially poor and (2) the faithful among God's people.  The poor in spirit are those who have the heart of the poor; that is, the same attitude as the poor, and are totally dependent upon God.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  Those who mourn are those who sorrow over the sufferings of this life (9:23), the sufferings of others (John 11:35), the state of the world (Luke 11:35), and their own sins (Luke 7:36-38).  All such people are comforted by the power of God both in this world and in the age to come, my study bible tells us.  Holy sorrow is part of the ongoing process of repentance (3:2, 4:17), conversion, and virtuous action; it is the firstfruit of infinite joy.  It is to be distinguished from ungodly sorrow, which is a sadness that leads to despair (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  Meekness here does not mean weakness.  It is an attitude of being content with both honor and dishonor, says my study bible.  It is an imitation of Christ, who said, "Learn from Me, for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart" (11:29).  To be meek in this condition here is to be God-controlled, having mastery over passions, especially anger.  Meekness isn't passive weakness; it is rather strength (particularly God's strength) which is directed and under control, and tempered with charity and mercy.  The earth that the meek will inherit isn't power nor is it possession in the world, but rather the new earth, which is everlasting (Revelation 21:1).

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who see the presence of God and God's Kingdom as the most important thing in life.  They have a desperate craving for what is right before God, which is comparable to a starving person's craving for food (see 6:33).  This is the righteousness given by God; that is, the relatedness that the love of God teaches and confers.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."  Mercy, according to my study bible, is love set in motion, expressed in action.  God's mercy in taking our sufferings on Himself in order to grant us His Kingdom sets us free from captivity to the evil one.  In view of God's mercy to all, we in turn are to be merciful to all.  This is a promise given by Christ; it is also repeated in other forms as a warning (Matthew 6:14-15; James 2:13).

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."  To be "pure" is to be unmixed with anything else.  It is the opposite of "duplicitous."  The pure in heart are those completely devoted to the worship and service of God, and who accept no compromise.  My study bible says that with the aid of the Holy Spirit, those who achieve purity practice all virtue, have no conscious evil in themselves, and live in temperance.  This level of spirituality, it tells us, is attained by few, but all may strive for it.  A note reads, "When the soul's only desire is God, and a person's will holds to this desire, then that person will indeed see God everywhere." 

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."  As Christ is the source of peace, He found no price sufficient for peace other than the shedding of His own blood.  In doing so, He reveals Himself to be our Reconciler, the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6; Ephesians 2:14-16).  This peace is given by the Holy Spirit to those who imitate Christ.  Therefore, peacemakers are those who share God's peace with those around them, by imitating Christ's sacrificial love and participating in His work.  By God's grace, peacemakers become sons of God themselves. 

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  Children of God, my study bible says, uphold truth, refuse to compromise with the ways of the world, and give themselves to no other (6:24, 33; see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Like Jesus, they will be persecuted for righteousness' sake (see John 15:18-20).  Christ's kingdom is the crown that awaits the righteous.

Jesus has been preaching the gospel of the Kingdom; and in yesterday's text we were told that already great multitudes follow Him from all regions of Israel:  Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.  In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches us about the Kingdom, and its particular forms of blessedness, what it is to live in this living Kingdom that is within us and among us.  It's important to remember that there aren't any limits on this participation in the Kingdom of heaven.  Rather, we grow in it; the Beatitudes teach us our proper direction, what it is we struggle for, how we go forward in our faith, and they teach us the blessedness and blessings of this Kingdom.  It is a life of virtue, and one of growth in that virtue, by the grace and help given to us to do so.  Let us note that "mourning" also includes repentance, the things we leave behind as we move forward into this Kingdom.  Our road also includes sacrifices that are built into it, a way of leaving "worldly" ways behind, just as He did, and as He taught us also to take up our own crosses in following Him (Matthew 16:24-26).  To live in this Kingdom is to adapt to a way of life, a struggle, a growth, which is full of inner power which creates tangible results, although this growth happens without our understanding -- we merely experience its fruits.  In chapter 13, Jesus will give us a series of parables describing what this Kingdom is like, so important is this message to His ministry.  It is worth examining each one of them, as well as others included in other Gospels.  They all illustrate the nature of this Kingdom in which we are invited and may fully grow in participation.  But as one may guess from this passage in today's reading, the kingdom of heaven is all about experience, the struggle to live His way and to participate in the grace and presence of that Kingdom which He has brought to us.  To experience this Kingdom is to live it; it is to love God with all one's heart and soul and mind and strength, and to do so is to find these blessings and live them in this world, thus in effect loving neighbor as oneself.  It is a lifelong task, one in which we grow and learn, and have our times for stumbling and repentance, for discarding the old and welcoming the challenge of the new.  But in all things, and through each day, He is always with us.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan


 And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets.  He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.

And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.  Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them.  Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. 

- Matthew 4:18-25

Yesterday we read that when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:  "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,/By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,/Galilee of the Gentiles:  The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,/And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death/Light has dawned."  From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

 And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets.  He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.  These first disciples have already heard the preaching of John the Baptist, and so they are prepared to accept Christ immediately.  Although they are illiterate and they are unlearned in religion, these "people of the land" called by Jesus will be revealed at Pentecost to be the wisest of all.

And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.  Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them.  Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.  My study bible calls our attention to the fact that the crowds do not swarm Jesus when He commands repentance (see yesterday's reading, above, verse 17).  It is only when He begins to heal and work miracles that great multitudes followed Him.  This shows that people don't really understand the true nature of His Kingdom.  It also shows that Christ has given concession, according to commentary by Theophylact, "to give credibility to what He teaches" among the fickle multitudes. 

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."  This is the message with which Jesus began His ministry (yesterday's reading), and it's also the message that John the Baptist was preaching.  As noted in yesterday's commentary, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand" will also be the instructed message to preach when Jesus sends out the disciples on their first apostolic mission (10:7).  As my study bible notes, the crucial question here isn't necessarily that the Kingdom is at hand, but rather just what that Kingdom is or what it is like.  For those who expect an immediate material manifestation of heavenly life, it's not to be.  The healing of diseases and the torments of people are signs of the presence of that Kingdom, that it is present with Jesus.  The miracles that Jesus will produce are also signs of the presence of the Kingdom.  But these things do not constitute the full reality of that Kingdom.  That Kingdom is dependent on our own capacity to be temples of God, to carry it within us (Luke 17:20-21).  As discussed in yesterday's commentary, to repent means to change one's mind, to turn around -- and this is still required for the acceptance of the presence of the Kingdom of God and our participation in it.  We find different ways of relating to one another in that Kingdom, we find ways of learning love, of participating in and sharing the love of God with others.  It is a full reorientation of our spiritual life, and it feeds the soul; it gives meaning to life and it will repair things within us that are damaged by the ills of the world, all the forms of selfishness we may encounter and suffer from.  All of this requires a great change of mind, a way of looking at things which doesn't simply judge by immediate tangible results we can measure.  But the healing and relief from affliction that accompanies Jesus is powerful, and draws people to this Kingdom.  He gives an orientation to disease that isn't about punishment but rather about what it is to be really healthy, to live within the reality of the presence of God in our lives.  By the time He sends out the disciples on their first mission (and so they become apostles), however, we can read that He will teach them that they are sent "out as sheep in the midst of wolves," and that they must therefore "be wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (10:16).  The reaction of the world to this Kingdom is a hostile one, also a sign of the need for repentance in order to truly accept it.  How do we approach the love of God?  What characterizes, for you, the presence of this Kingdom that is within you?  Have you had experience with healing?  In Twelve Step programs, there is the need for recognition of and dependence upon a Higher Power to help heal.  For some, this is controversial and it is rejected.  But if we study the Twelve Steps, we see a program that is geared for repentance, for change of mind.  One can apply these steps to any problem in life, regardless of whether or not it involves nominally addictive behavior.  The first step is an admission of powerlessness over certain problems or situations.  Nowhere is this more true than over conditions of childhood that may have done harm, or abusive relationships of any type.  To admit that we are not in full control over every aspect of our lives (or other people's choices) is to admit that we have a need for guidance and for love to teach us how to negotiate our lives and find the necessary values for life.  Jesus' teachings begin and end with the fullness of such teachings:  we are taught that we need an ongoing openness to change of mind, and that the presence of the Kingdom of God is what is truly necessary -- the real good news.   It is within that presence that we find the transcendence we need, the healing we need, the love of the One who knows all hearts, and the wise advice we need for our lives.  To live "as wise as serpents and harmless and doves" is good guidance; to understand and seek His wisdom is prudent and wise.  It is our true Shepherd we need; let us be grateful for the gift of His Kingdom, even in the midst of an imperfect world.  These men in today's reading whom Jesus first calls are not the most wise and learned, but they are those who can accept the Kingdom and respond to His call immediately.  To become fishers of men, they will go through their own forms of repentance and change; the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost will again create transformation.  It is the basic love of God that begins our response to the call, that cushions our orientation to the Kingdom in the knowledge of God's love for us.





Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light

 
 Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:
"The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles:
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death
Light has dawned."
From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

- Matthew 4:12-17

Yesterday we read that after His baptism by John the Baptist,  Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.  Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down.  For it is written:  'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up,/Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"  Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"  Again,  the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."    Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan!  for it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only shall you serve.'"  Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:  "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,/By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: . . ."  My study bible tells us that Galilee of the Gentiles indicates that many non-Jews lived in the region of Galilee.  As it had a mixed population, it wasn't considered a genuinely Jewish land, although many Gentile residents had converted to Judaism during the Maccabean period.  Many of the Jews there had been influenced by the Greek culture and its customs, and so they were generally considered to be second-class citizens by the Jews of Judea.

"The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,/And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death/Light has dawned."  Darkness in a Scriptural context means ungodliness.  Here it is representative of the Gentiles' unawareness of God, and the Jews being under the shadow of the Old Covenant.  To sit in darkness, my study bible says, means to be overcome by spiritual ignorance.  The great light is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Matthew quotes from Isaiah 9:1-2.

 From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."  Jesus' first word of preaching, just like that of John the Baptist, is "Repent" (see Matthew 3:1-2).  The kingdom of heaven is indeed at hand, because it is present wherever Christ is.

Here is the great good news:  The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  When Jesus sends out the disciples on their first apostolic mission, He will teach them to preach the same thing, telling them, "As you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matthew 10:7).  We witness a kind of handing off, a passing down, of this message of the presence of the kingdom of heaven.  And so, we have to ask ourselves what this truly means.  To repent, as we noted in the earlier reading regarding the Baptist's preaching, is to do an about-face.  In Greek (μετανοια/metanoia) literally means to change one's mind, and it is a lifetime process of Christian movement in a spiritual journey.  Our own baptism simply begins the journey, and we move into the life of that kingdom with time, should we internally accept and cooperate with the work of the Spirit.  To be in the presence of that Kingdom is to live the life that Christ invites us into.  It is His presence, as my study bible says, that makes the kingdom of heaven at hand.  This is an understanding that required a type of repentance in its time which Jesus teaches to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well in John's Gospel:  "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).  Those who expected the kingdom of God to manifest as material kingdom, ruled by a worldly messiah, would have to "change their minds," to repent, to understand and accept the word of Christ, this knowledge that the kingdom of heaven was truly at hand -- but not in the way they expected it.   And here is the example of repentance:  it means to discard an old way of thinking for the life and the truth that God gives to us.  We make room, so to speak, through this change.  We grow and we discern.   This is the lifetime project of repentance, a kind of transition that happens as we are willing to adapt and discard the things that just don't fit in with the truth of that Kingdom.  Wherever Christ is present, there is that Kingdom.   Where One of the Holy Trinity is, so is the Trinity, and so to worship in spirit and in truth is to know that the presence of the gift of the Spirit is to be graced with the presence of the Kingdom as well.  It is Jesus who will teach the Pharisees, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you" (see Luke 17:20-21).  To accept His words would require of them a repentance, an about-face, a change of mind.  We have to open our own hearts and minds to this presence, to accept it, and to make all changes as accommodations to its teachings, its life and its truth in our lives.  So Repent is the first word.  We need to make room for this holy work, the presence of this kingdom of heaven in our lives, our hearts, our minds, our ways of thinking and being.  Where Christ is, so is this Kingdom.  Where we share the love of Christ, where we act in the name of Christ, so dwells this Kingdom as well (see Matthew 10:42).  We let the light into us, in order to dispel the darkness, and we share that light with others by living the life He teaches us to live -- by doing this work of metanoia, of change of mind, and allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit (just as He did in going to the wilderness to face temptation; see yesterday's reading above).  Christ will teach that in bringing this Kingdom into the world, He brings division and even hardship and struggle for His disciples, those who would carry this Kingdom within themselves.  But our own struggle to discard ways of seeing and being that occlude our sight, our own darkness and ignorance, is no less a part of the work of faith and growth into the life of that Kingdom.  To see a great light is to sometimes be dazzled by it, even temporarily blinded.  To accommodate this Kingdom, the presence of Christ, is to live in His light, to make it a growing part of ourselves, and to allow it to cast out our own darkness.  Don't be surprised at the changes that might bring!




Monday, September 18, 2017

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God


Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.  Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But He answered and said, "It is written,
'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down.  For it is written:
'He shall give His angels charge over you,'
and,
'In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus said to him, "It is written again,
'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"

Again,  the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."    Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan!  for it is written,
'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only shall you serve.'"
Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

- Matthew 4:1-11

On Saturday, we read that Jesus came from Galilee to John the Baptist at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"  But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed Him.  When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.   To be tempted, my study bible says, is to be tested in fundamental areas of faith.  As in Mark's Gospel, the Spirit leads -- or rather, literally in the Greek, "throws" -- Jesus into the wilderness after His baptism, so that He is tested by a struggle with the devil.  We remember that we who are baptized in Christ are also aided by the Holy Spirit, and so need not be defeated by temptations.  A note reminds us that the wilderness is a battleground, an image of the world.  It is both the dwelling place of the demons and a source of divine tranquility and victory.

And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.  A traditional reading of this text gives us Jesus reversing Israel's falling to temptation in the wilderness.  The Israelites were tested for forty years in the wilderness.  They were proven disobedient and disloyal.  God humbled them by first allowing them to go hungry and then feeding them with manna, teaching dependence upon God (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).  Here, Jesus is tested for forty days, but He doesn't sin.  All of His answers to Satan are from Deuteronomy, and all of them call for loyalty to God.   Jesus fasted to overcome temptation, which gives us an example of our own power and limitations in the face of temptation.  The hunger of His flesh doesn't control Him; rather, he is the one who controls His flesh.  Christ's fast for forty days is the foundation of the traditional forty-day Lenten fast before Holy Week.

Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"  Here the tempter challenges the Lord's relationship to the Father.  If You are the Son of God is a way to call into question the declaration of the Father's voice at Baptism (see Saturday's reading, above).  The impulse presented by the devil to Jesus is to act independently and to detach Himself from the will of the Father.  In Christ's divine nature, He shares one will with the Father and the Holy Spirit --- He can do nothing of Himself (John 5:30), separate from the Father.  But in His humanity, Jesus possesses free will and must always choose to remain obedient to the divine will of the Father.  By rejecting this first temptation, Jesus is rejecting an earthly kingdom, and He shows us not to pursue earthly comfort in the "food which perishes" (John 6:27), my study bible notes.   It says that while Adam disregarded the divine word in order to pursue the passions of the body (Genesis 3), here the New Adam (Christ) conquers all temptation by the divine word, which gives human nature the power to conquer Satan.

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down.  For it is written:  'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up,/Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"  Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"  The holy city is Jerusalem.  As Jesus has defeated him by using Scripture in the first temptation, Satan tries to use Scripture to put God's power of protection to the test (see also 2 Peter 1:19-21).  My study bible explains about our own lives that trials and temptations come on their own; we should never choose to intentionally expose ourselves to danger in order to test or prove God's protection.  To do so is to tempt the LORD.

Again,  the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."    Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan!  for it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only shall you serve.'" Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.  The kingdom of God isn't about earthly power and possessions.  In this test, Jesus is being asked to choose worldly power over the kingdom of God.  The devil is called the "ruler of this world" (John 12:31),  and also "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4) my study bible says, because the whole world is in his power (1 John 5:19).  Jesus refuses the road of earthly glory, which would lead Him away from His suffering and death for the redemption of the world. 

My study bible mentions, in the last note mentioned above, that in rejecting earthly glory, Jesus determines His road to the Cross, "His suffering and death for the redemption of the world."  This forty-day fast in the wilderness would mark the model for the early Christian monastics (and indeed remains the model for ascetic practice),  a movement which began in the deserts of Egypt in the immediate centuries after Christ.  To enter into the wilderness was to face temptation, to do spiritual battle, to live a calling to God that demanded every aspect of one's choices and being in dedication to the Lord.  Our modern spiritual struggles are no less significant and important, and no less mirrored in today's reading.  Jesus faces temptations that involve His security, His dependency upon God alone, and the social struggle for recognition and validation in the eyes of the world.  In a modern context, we might plainly see how such struggles shape our own kinds of temptations.  Where does our own security come from?  On what do we base our impulses for it?  Dependence upon God is not a modern image of the rugged individual nor of the great genius with his or her own personal "superpower" nor natural talents or intelligence who may beat the world in a game of competition.  To face up to the image we present to the world is to take on the great challenge of true personal identity.  Do we find our own worth and value given to us in our faith and in our communion with God, or is it based on what the world will tell us about ourselves -- our own reflection in the eyes of others (similar to the Greek myth of Narcissus)?  These are just a tiny handful of reflections of the temptations in today's reading.  I'm certain if one thinks about them, they reflect all kinds of powerful ways in which we as individuals may be tempted every single day.  In modern life, we find that quite famous and successful people, who seem to have the world by a string, are depressed and suicidal.  Where does self-worth come from?  Where does joy?  Where does meaning?  Each of these questions is reflected in today's reading, and emphasizes the strength and power and dependency upon God in the struggle of living our lives with a kind of dignity or inward strength that transcends a "worldly" sense of where we are and who we are.  Modern images pervade our lives in ways our ancestors could not have imagined, and technology focuses us more than ever on what is happening "out there" and our place in the images in the eyes of others.  And yet, depression and even suicidal impulse seem to accompany and correlate directly to social media use among the young, according to some modern studies.  (Some results suggest it is the type of interaction or internet use that determines the outcome, which tells us once again the role that choice and refusal of temptation plays in our well-being.  It is not a bad idea to combine restriction of social media into a type of "fast," as many are choosing to do.)   In today's reading, Christ faces head on the temptations the world will offer us, the types of temptations we all face in varied and myriad and individual forms in our lives.  As far away as the text may seem with its images from 2,000 years ago, we may frequently find ourselves in a wilderness of our own, without the support of those who'd remind us of God's love, in an environment in which survival of the fittest seems to be the only demand or restriction, in a life where we're shown dazzling images of the things everybody else seems to get -- reflected in the lies and temptations of the devil for worldly kingdoms.  We may even find ourselves subject to misleading interpretations of Scripture that point us in the wrong direction, away from a more time-honored approach that has given value to generations of people.  What we know from Christ is the importance of facing the fact that everything isn't going to come to us by following a magical sort of thinking, that life offers to us struggles of our own.  We need our dependency upon God in ways that run subtly and deeply beneath the surface of the images life will show to us.  We always need timeless values to help us, and God's love -- in which we may participate and share with one another -- really is the measure of all things. It is the well-being of all human beings that most concerns Jesus.  In the image of the Cross, He teaches us each to take up our own, and that the struggle against the dictates of the world and for the love of God is real and transcendent and lasting.  Most of all, we need to know that we have the help that ministers to us as did Jesus in the wilderness, and to call upon that help in our lives.



Saturday, September 16, 2017

Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness


 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"  But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed Him.  When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

- Matthew 3:13-17

 Yesterday we read that in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:  "The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  'Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.'"  Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

  Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"  But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed Him.  My study bible tells us that Jesus doesn't need purification.  But by undergoing baptism, He makes the purification of humanity His own; He washes away humanity's sin, grants regeneration, and reveals the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  Thereby, His baptism is necessary for the fulfillment of God's righteous plan of salvation.  Gregory of Nyssa writes, "Jesus enters the filthy, sinful waters of the world and when He comes out, brings up and purifies the entire world with Him."  We notice John's humility; he only baptizes Jesus when Christ commands "permit it to be so now," and He pronounces it "fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."

 When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."  My study bible reminds us that at the first creation, the Spirit of God hovered over the water (Genesis 1:2).  Here, the Holy Spirit comes in the form of a dove to anoint the Messiah, the Son of God, at the beginning of the new creation.  In this baptism which "fulfills all righteousness," Jesus is revealed as the eternal Son of God.  The Holy Spirit has always rested upon Him.  The quotation of the voice of the Father is from Psalm 2:7:  "You are My Son,/Today I have begotten You."  The baptism of Christ becomes a revelation of the Holy Trinity:  the Father speaks, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Incarnate Son is baptized.  In the ancient Church this was celebrated together with Nativity on the feast day of Epiphany.  Epiphany means manifestation or revelation;  this event is also called Theophany (which means a manifestation of God).  It is celebrated on January 6th, both commemorating this day and pointing to the age to come.

Jesus' baptism begins His public ministry.  It is for that reason that the ancient Church coupled the celebration of His birth with Epiphany; both are births.  But just as a pregnancy lasts nine months, and by the time a baby is born, it is the fulfillment of what we know has been generating in the mother's womb, so Christ's baptism is not really "just" a beginning.  It is a manifestation, as its name implies.   It is a fulfillment.  It is God "filling out" and taking shape and making more substantial to us the reality of God's work in the world, God's presence in creation.   In revealing or manifesting the Trinity, we are given a deeper and fuller perception of God.  These are not just abstract and far away concepts, ideas set out by philosophers.  They are rather manifest, made tangible, audible, seen as images.  The reality of God forms and shapes God in our world for us to grasp and to come to know, more than we knew before.  This is the movement of the Incarnation, and it is the fullness of the movement of God in the world, who has come to us that we might better know God.  We will know God's love, and Jesus will leave us with the command to "love one another as I have loved you."  The fullness and shape and manifestation of God comes to us as part of the whole spiritual history of God at work in the world, and so that we may participate more fully and deeply in God, becoming "like God."  We will be invited to participate in the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ, an ongoing and ever-fulfilling promise.  The baptism of Jesus meets us with the spirit of the Gospels, the fulfillment of promise, the fullness of God given to us, shaping and giving us depth in the understanding that God is a Person with whom we are engaged in relationship, the three Persons in One giving us an image of just how deeply communion goes.  This manifestation happens in a natural way, understood by those who can receive it, and giving us its fruit as we are given our own baptisms which produce spiritual fruit through the time of our own lives.  This promise of manifestation is also given to us in order to more fully form and shape and give dimension to the persons we can become, as we too participate in the "fulfillment of all righteousness" (John 3:5-8). 




Friday, September 15, 2017

He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire


 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.'"

Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

- Matthew 3:1-12

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him."  When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt I called My Son."

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:  "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."  Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead."  Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.  And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.  And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:  "The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  'Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.'"  The wilderness of Judea, says my study bible, is the barren region which descends from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.  This preparation for the ministry of the Savior begins with the call of John the Baptist to repent.  In Greek, the word for repentance, μετανοια/metanoia, literally means "change of mind."   Faith is always accompanied by repentance, which is a total about face.  The word indicates a turn around.  My study bible says that repentance is a radical change of one's spirit, mind, thought, and heart, a complete reorientation of the whole of one's life.  It is the necessary first step in the way of the LORD.  John is asking for a whole new orientation, a turnaround to the point of view of what it means to await directly the advent of the Messiah.  This repentance is accompanied by the confession of sins and the act of baptism, and is to be followed by a life filled with the fruits worthy of such a change.  John quotes from Isaiah 40:3.

Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.  John dresses in accordance with his ascetic life.  His was one that conformed to the Jewish sects such as the Essenes, who lived in the wilderness and whose purpose was to prepare for the coming Kingdom of God.  He also dresses in ways that suggest a prophet, particularly Elijah (2 Kings 1:8).  The early Church's monastic movement was patterned after John's manner of life.  Confession of sins, my study bible tells us, is essential to baptism under both the Old Covenant and the New.  John's baptism, however, is a sign of repentance and the forgiveness of sins only.  It does not confer the power of total regeneration nor adoption as a child of God as does Christian baptism; baptism with the Spirit awaits Christ, as John indicates in later verses.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"  John addresses the leadership of the temple.  The Sadducees were members of the high-priestly and landowning class who controlled the temple and the internal political affairs of the Jews.  They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and had no messianic hope beyond the present life.  The Pharisees were a lay religious movement.  They focused on the study of Law and on strict observance of its regulations.  They did believe in the resurrection of the dead, and cherished a messianic hope.  But they taught that righteousness is attained on the strength of one's works according to the Law, and that the Messiah would be merely a glorious man, as my study bible puts it.  John's title for these rules, brood of vipers, will later be used by Jesus (12:34; 23:33).  It is indicative of their deception and malice, and is meant to openly suggest being under the influence of Satan.  John openly addresses a kind of spiritual blindness he is emphasizing in his remarks to them; this is another indication in the text that the leadership is unaware of what is coming, the great events unfolding of the Kingdom of God, even that they are unaware of the judgment of God.

"Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." My study bible suggests that repentance, confession, and baptism lead to fruits worthy of repentance, a way of life that is consistent with the Kingdom of God (see Galatians 5:22-25).  It notes that if a fruitful life does not follow, sacramental acts and spiritual disciplines are useless.  John's warning that from these stones (Hebrew 'ebanim) God can raise of up children (Hebrew banim) is a play on words.  God won't admit fruitless children into His house, but will adopt other children from the Gentiles. 

"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."  Christ baptizes in the fire of the Holy Spirit.  That is, the power and grace of God which is divinely poured out on all believers at baptism.  We note also the mention of fire in the verse above in this same context; the work or energies of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by fire, not only create and build fruit, but also purify.   In John's culture, a slave would be the one to carry the sandals of the king.  John here declares himself lower than a slave of Jesus.  His inability to carry the sandals of Christ also has another meaning.  Carrying another person's sandal once meant taking someone else's responsibility (Ruth 4:7).  Here John shows that he could not have carried the responsibility that Christ carries; and that the Law could not redeem the world as Christ has come to do.

John's powerful figure and "fiery" rhetoric make a huge impact in his world.  John is clearly widely regarded as a holy man; even the leadership come out from Jerusalem to be baptized by him.  He wears clothes suggestive of the prophet Elijah, who was prophesied to return before the Messiah (Jesus Himself will say that John was Elijah returned in spirit; see Matthew 11:13-14, Malachi 4:5-6).  Jesus' first disciples will come from among those of John the Baptist.  His figure will cut a lasting impact in Christianity.  Jesus will later say of him, "Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11).  He still stands as the greatest among the prophets.   He fulfills a prophet's function as Forerunner, the one who foresees the coming of Christ and the Kingdom.  This was in a time when many in Israel awaited the coming Kingdom.  For centuries, wars and occupations and shifting alliances with the great powers surrounding Israel and fighting one another had dominated its history.  Now under Roman occupation, people awaited a Deliverer.  John is the one who foresees the Christ, and prepares the people for Him.  He is the one who sees things in proper perspective, and who knows of the great gift of the Holy Spirit.  He knows the difference that it will make, and the difference between the baptism he can perform and that which Christ will bring.  Do we appreciate the difference?  Do we value this gift?  Are we like the ruling religious classes here, complacent with our roles and satisfied with following the rules?  Do we know the true Spirit of our Church, that fire of love that is God's?   Do we pray for the gift of the fruits of the Spirit, are we aware of His work and fire in our lives, pruning, shaping, purifying, rebirthing, regenerating?  Let us be like John, and keep his vision in our minds and hearts.



Thursday, September 14, 2017

A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children


 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him."  When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt I called My Son."

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more."

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead."  Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.  And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.  And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

- Matthew 2:13-23

Yesterday we read that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him."  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:  'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.'"  Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also."  When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.  And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.  And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him."  When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt I called My Son."   Egypt is the place where Israel once took refuge.  My study bible says that as Joseph of the Old Testament once saved God's people by bringing them to Egypt (Genesis 39-47), now Christ's stepfather Joseph finds safety for the Savior in Egypt.  It is likely that the gifts of the magi paid for this journey.  "Out of Egypt I called My Son" (Hosea 11:1) refers first to Israel being brought out of captivity.  In the Old Testament, "son" can refer to the whole nation of Israel; Jesus fulfills this calling as the true Son of God by coming out of Egypt, His life in some sense bearing His people.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:  "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."   Herod the Great was known as a cruel ruler even in times when rulers were routinely ruthless.  Here Herod's cruelty was prefigured by Pharoah, who in an attempt to destroy the power of Israel, my study bible says, commanded the death of all the newborn Jewish boys (Exodus 1:16, 22).  Jeremiah the prophet records the people of Jerusalem being led away into exile (Jeremiah 31:15).  On their way to captivity, the people passed Ramah near Bethelehem, where Jacob's wife Rachel was buried.  In Jeremiah's prophecy, he saw Rachel, moved with compassion from the grave, for the fate that had befallen her descendants ("her children").  Here Rachel is once again weeping for her children.  My study bible notes that this shows the saints in heaven have awareness and compassion for those yet on earth.  The slaughtered children (called the Holy Innocents) have been historically regarded as saints and martyrs in the Church.  Just as Rachel was told that her children would return from exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 31:16-17), so Jesus will also return from exile in Egypt.

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead."  Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.  And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.  And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."  Herod the Great died in 4 BC, according to historical records.  The date of Christ's birth by tradition begins the way we count years; our current AD (Anno Domini, or "year of the Lord" in Latin) or CE (Common Era) calendar is therefore off by four years.  My study bible says that Augustus Caesar banished Archelaus for his cruelty in AD 6.  This cruelty was revealed as a warning to Joseph in a dream; hence he detours to Nazareth in Galilee.  Galilee was governed at this time by Herod Antipas, another son of Herod the Great.  Herod Antipas is the one who will have John the Baptist killed, and will also confer with Pilate at the sentencing of Jesus.  The prophecy that is referred to here ("He shall be called a Nazarene") is difficult to identify.  It has historically been taken as a reference to the rod (Hebrew neser) in Isaiah 11:1, and to the Nazirite (Hebrew Nazir) of Judges 13:5.  It is possible that Matthew is alluding to passages in which the Messiah was despised, since Nazareth did not have a good reputation (John 1:46). 

And here we have the beginning of the life of the Messiah, the King, the one who is both human and divine, the baby boy Jesus who is also Lord.  It really doesn't sound like the story of the birth of a king as we might imagine the splendor and glory that should accompany the birth of a king!  It is an extraordinary story just taken from that one perspective, with the accompanying difficulties and dangers that set about this boy and His parents right from the start of His life.  The cruelty of kings and rulers accompanies His birth; exile and danger govern the lives of the parents and where they can live with Him in their care. Their reliance is on God; Joseph, His father or worldly guardian, is given intuitions in dreams, and warned about where they cannot go.  When Herod is dead, Joseph is given another dream that they may return to Israel.  He is warned that they cannot return to Bethlehem in Judea, so they turn to Galilee.  Everything about the beginning of this young boy's life is fraught with danger and menace, right from the start.  Even the wise men (in yesterday's reading, above) were threatened by Herod and were also warned in a dream not to return to him.  The parents do all they can to care for this special child, whom they clearly already know is special.  Again, reliance on God has told them so.  Everything in their lives -- right from the start -- is governed by faith.  These two, Joseph and Mary, are remarkable parents to Christ the baby.  From the start, they accept their roles and what it means for them.  Let us note that the truth about this birth must remain confined.  They do not shout about it from the rooftops.  The wise men come from the East, for they know Christ has been born -- and this is the one way that Herod became aware of the birth and aware of the Christ.  The religious rulers know nothing about the fulfillment of the prophecy of His birth.  With the danger present, moving into exile and coming to settle in a town that is not his own, Joseph clearly must keep this secret, just as he resolved, when he found that Mary was pregnant, that he would not make a public example of her, as he was a very just man (Matthew 1:19).  These parents live by their faith.  They do not have the "courage" that might come from a great public reception, or popular following or belief, or any of the comforts that might accompany such a tremendous occurrence.  They have their faith.  Sometimes our own faith lives demand that we keep something quiet.  We do not seek the fanfare of the world for an act or an achievement.  We keep quiet about even a blessing we may have received.  Life for Jesus will not be a simple affair of public acclaim, nor an easy one "fit for a king," as we might think in our imaginations.  It will not be "magical" as we think of magic in some popular understanding.  This, instead, is a life of faith.  It is one filled with the glory and blessings of God that will be shared with the world, but it demands quiet, and discipline, faith, and love.  These are the conditions we find with this Child.  Let us remember that as God may nurture our own faith lives, humility is the greatest asset.  We don't expect magic, but we do have faith and love.