Saturday, December 08, 2007

Enter Apostles (stage right)

I mentioned last time that we would get to finally meet the twelve this week. Let's do that shall we...

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 (NKJV)

Matthew sets up the next phase of Jesus ministry with a common literary device - repetition. (Compare verse 9:35 with Matt. 4:23) This has a dual function for the storyteller; it not only catches the listeners attention thus marking a change in the direction of the narrative, but it connects the soon to be launched ministry of the apostles with the early days of Jesus' ministry. This will help reinforce in the listeners mind that what the apostles are about to engage in, is not some creation of their own, but rather an extension of their master's own work.

This is also re-enforced by the choice of the word 'apostles' (meaning 'sent ones') to describe the twelve. It sets these men aside from the rest of Jesus' disciples, an unnumbered crowd of followers some of whom have fallen by the wayside, others will still be around for His death and resurrection. But these twelve are the inner circle, the ones in whom Jesus will invest himself personally.

It should also be noted that his calling of the twelve would seem to be in response to his own prayer request. I can picture in my mind as the crowd heard Jesus lament the lack of workers in the harvest, that quite a number of the collected throng would brashly call out, "I'll go!" and "Pick me!" Was it from such an enthusiastic group that Jesus added to the five we have seen him call personally?

If so, it is an interesting group to be sure. I remember a war film from my youth where military prisoners and ne'er-do-wells were conscripted for a suicide mission. It was called "The Dirty Dozen", and by 1st century social standards the name might apply to this motley crew as well. First in the list we have two sets of brothers, fisherman all. Ranked only slightly higher than shepherds (because fish smell better than sheep I guess) they were hardly regarded as scholarly types. Just look at the reaction to them by the Pharisees in the early chapters of the book of Acts.

Many of them we know little about before their encounter with Jesus, but one pair is particularly interesting - Simon the Cananite and Matthew the tax collector. Many translations call him 'Simon the Zealot' and to be sure the two terms are almost synonymous as the vast majority of the Zealots were indeed Cananites; but regardless of what you called them, they were without doubt the portion of society whose hatred for all things Roman knew no bounds. Imagine, for a moment, his reaction when he discovers a tax collector among the followers of this remarkable rabbi. Before Simon met Jesus he would have considered Matthew the worst traitor possible (I wrote on Matthew's calling here), considering him a Roman lapdog at best. I have often wondered how long it took these two to settle their differences and become brothers under the Son.

And so our compound character "The Apostle's/Disciples" has now arrived on stage, twelve individuals who for the purpose of the Gospel Story act as one. They will, in the remaining chapters, give us some insight into the deeper reactions of the common man to Jesus' works and teaching.

Apostles Exit (stage left)

In the classical Greek theatre of Jesus' day, when an actor exited the stage on the same side from which he entered (they were all male back then) it signified a return from whence they came, back to the old life and the old ways. To exit by the other side of the stage was symbolic of moving on to new things, to new adventures. So it is with our little troupe of apostles. No sooner do they come on stage when they are directed off again - in a direction they themselves have never taken before.

These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.
Matthew 10:5-10 (NKJV)

Since they first encountered Him they have marveled at the things Jesus has done and said; now they are sent out into the world to do the very same things themselves. Can you hear them swallow as they try to deal with the lumps in their throats as he says these words? "You want us to do what? Heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead!!!"

That Jesus entrusts them with this mission is indicative of how far they have come in a short period of time. They have not yet graduated, this too will be a learning experience; it is kind of a co-op semester in kingdom expansion.

And yet, there is an odd limitation. Odd in that when so many of the encounters we have seen so far have been with Gentiles who showed remarkable faith, the apostles are warned not to go to them on this trip; not even to the Samaritans. They are to limit their activities to those cities and towns populated exclusively by the Jews, to the 'Lost sheep of Israel."

I'm pretty sure upon hearing this, the more "fundamentalist" of Matthew's congregation would have jumped on it, and reiterated their belief that salvation is for the Jews alone, or at least that Gentiles must become Jews before they can become Christians. But Matthew, I'm also sure, doesn't take the bait. He knows full well that there is a divine order, "to the Jew first, then to the Gentile."

But where they are going and what they are going to do when they get there is not all Jesus has to say. There are five main teaching discourses in Matthew's gospel. In this second one he gives the apostles a 'manual for missions' if you will. A set of rules and guidelines for while they are away. We will look at it in detail next time. Until then...



Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bursting Wineskins

A day or two ago I was pleased to be afforded the chance to watch a talented actor (Rob Gray - no relation) and a gifted author/director (Deb Briggs) work on a scene from "The Missing Piece/Peace." (For details on this play please click on the link at right.) It is interesting for me to watch as the two individuals work in concert to explore the reality of the character. This sounds a little odd when talking about a totally fictitious person, but if a character is to be believed by the audience then there must, in fact, be an underlying reality to everything the character says and does.

It is helpful to me to watch this process happen in others because as a story teller I find myself often alone in this process, having to play, in my mind at least, both actor and director. What makes this process even more interesting, is that as a storyteller I am in fact neither actor nor director, rather a third entity altogether that is unique unto itself. Part one, part the other, but at the same time neither. It is the paradox of the storytellers art.

What has this to do with the Kingdom Gospel? Let's find out.

When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.” And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, “See that no one knows it. ” But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country. As they went out, behold, they brought to Him a man, mute and demon-possessed. And when the demon was cast out, the mute spoke. And the multitudes marveled, saying, “It was never seen like this in Israel!” But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons.” (Matt. 9:27-34 NKJV)

Again we see people who come to Jesus having come to the conclusion, by whatever means, that He is the solution to their problem. Their opinion of him is reflected in the titles they use to address him.

"Son of David" is in fact a subversive statement to be sure. In the first century Hebrew mindset it can mean one of two things - rightful heir to the throne of Israel, or promised Messiah come to deliver Israel from their oppressors. Some would argue that they are one and the same, others believe there may, in fact, be two saviours of Israel; regardless, in either case to ascribe this title to Jesus is to challenge the authority of Herod, and of Rome.

"Lord" is less subversive, but no less telling. Again Jesus' authority is recognized; recognized in a fashion that acknowledges his power of things ordinary men cannot influence. The blind men have followed Him for an unspecified time, all the way to His home in Capernaum. There, not content to wait outside, they come in where Jesus, perhaps seeking to confirm their usage of the title, asks them plainly, "Do you believe I can do this?" And once again it is their faith that makes them well.

Here too we see the reactions of the two great witness to these events. The crowds respond with hyperbole, "Never has anything like this ever happened in Israel!" Well, the fact is, lots of things like this have happened in Israel before, they have simply never witnessed it for themselves. What was for most of them a legend, perhaps even a fable, has now become reality before their very eyes. It is somewhat akin to waking up on Christmas morning to discover the real Santa Claus asleep in your LazyBoy®. The Pharisees, predictably, go on the defensive, casting doubt on the miracles by suggesting they are accomplished not by the spirit of the living God, but by the machinations of His long time enemy. For them the carpenter/rabbi who at first was a mere curiosity has now become a viable threat to their position.

Which brings us back to the subject of my opening - character development. In these last two chapters we have seen these two characters steadily gaining depth. The crowd/multitudes are assuming their role as the friends/supporters of Jesus; the townspeople who were at first suspicious of the new stranger who has come to town are quickly warming up to him. The scribes/priests/Pharisees have taken the first steps to being identified as the black-hatted villains. This is about as far as their development is likely to go. As I mentioned a year ago when we started this journey (I warned you it would be a long process) I mentioned that the crowds and the religious leaders are flat characters. They are there to fulfill their roles, but never become truly rounded.

I mentioned another group in that article as well - stock characters; and in these last two chapters we have seen a number of them. And while these characters have left the story almost as quickly as they came, they have performed a vital function to the narrative. They have demonstrated quite clearly the truth of Jesus' words to the disciples of John the Baptist. "Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst..."

The touching of the leper, the faith of the centurion, the calming of the sea, the freeing of the demoniacs, the forgiving of the paralytic, the calling of the tax gatherer, the raising of the dead girl, the touch of a menstruating woman, the blind men following what they cannot see but by faith, the mute given back his voice - bursting wineskins - all of them!

In each case Jesus tears down another barrier to the Kingdom of God, corrects a misguided view of the Law of Moses, shifts another paradigm until it rightly lines up with the will of the Father. By reaching out to these outcasts of Hebrew society He makes it plain for all to see that there is no place in the kingdom of heaven for the alienation of strangers, the devaluing of women, or the dehumanization of the "unclean." The wineskins have indeed burst and the new wine of the kingdom flows freely for anyone who has the stomach for it.

But there is still one character we have not mentioned.

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.” (Matt. 9:35-37)

Up until now Jesus' disciples have been many and diverse. Some have fallen, others are still unsure. But the semi-rounded compound character that is the twelve has not yet come into existence. This character we will meet next time. Until then...


Photo credit: Large wineskins and a water barrel, palestine early 1900s - courtesy dghall

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Your Faith has Made You Well

Sorry for the delay (see last post). Let's get back to it shall we....

During dinner with Matthew and his friends, Jesus' relaxation is interrupted by the business of the Kingdom...

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 NKJV)

Mark and Luke tell us that this "ruler" is the leader of the local synagogue (likely in Capernaum) named Jarius. That he also kneels before Jesus is of no small significance. It's hard for us in Western culture to fully appreciate the nuances of interaction between classes. As leader of the synagogue Jarius would be a man accustomed to other people showing him such deference; for him to kneel would be an uncharacteristic recognition of Jesus' divine authority. Of note also is his statement of faith. To this point Jesus has not performed a resurrection miracle, so Jarius' belief in the power of Jesus touch is an extrapolation - "If he can do what we've seen him do then he can also raise the dead." As has always been His habit, Jesus responds to faith.

On the way the call that interrupted Jesus relaxation is itself interrupted. Again Matthew wants us to understand that it is the faith of the individual that is key to Jesus' response. Our faith cannot heal, but it is the impetus that stirs the power of God into action. In this case the woman reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus' garment. In the New American Standard Bible (NASB) the word 'hem' is more literally translated "fringe". (Personal Note: The NASB is more literal yes, probably one of the most accurate of the modern translations. I consider it a great study aid, but for storytelling purposes it's not quite as readable as other versions.)

Some scholars rightly point out that this refers to the tzitzit, tassels that Jewish men were required to wear as a reminder of God's law by the Law of Moses. However, many incorrectly make a connection between this garment, or the prayer shawl, and God's healing power. The prayer shawl is a reminder for the individual, and a symbol of the temple but nothing in scripture gives it any more importance than that. To believe there is a connection to God's power turns the tassels into some kind of mystical talisman rather than the simple reminder they were intended by God to be. The power to heal comes from Jesus' himself and the divinity He shares with the Father. The tassels do however, show us once again that Jesus honoured the Law of Moses. He did not ignore it but rather strove to demonstrate its true meaning.

This does mean however, that there might well have been some connection in the mind of this woman. Being Jewish she would have held in her mind some kind of connection between the tzittzit and the God of Moses; it might be why she chose to touch this particular portion of Jesus clothing. But all that is beside the point; regardless of why she chose to touch the fact remains she was taking a chance. Her condition rendered her unclean according to the Law. She was an outcast, forbidden to have contact with any other human being. The act of touching Jesus would have rendered him unclean; this should have been enough to keep her from even thinking of touching him.

Here then, is the true demonstration of her faith. She not only believed that Jesus could heal her, but that the power within him was able to overcome her uncleanliness. Maybe she witnessed the healing of the leper, maybe she only heard of it. But she knew in her heart she could not contaminate the Son of David, that the spiritual power of this rabbi could only travel one way - outward. This is the faith Jesus recognizes when he turns to her and says,“Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well.”

Again the faith is hers, the power is Christ's.

So it is with the ruler's daughter, but here we learn something else as well. When Jesus arrives the flutes and the wailing are in full swing. In first century Palestine flutes and professional wailers were as common as flowers and organ music is today. Gundry and Carson observe that "Even the poorest families hired at least two flute players and one female wailer for funerals" (Gundry, 175); and the noisy crowd was "made up of friends mourning, not in the hushed whispers characteristic of our Western funerals, but in loud outbursts of grief and wailing augmented by cries of hired mourners" (Carson, 231). Given this was the daughter of a synagogue "ruler" it's safe to assume the "crowd" was substantial.

This actually explains a few things. When Jesus makes the declaration that the child is only asleep, He is ridiculed by those in attendance. It seems to me that the family, following Jarius' lead, would find some hope in these words. The fact that Jesus' was ridiculed is confirmation that most of those present were professional mourners with no emotional investment in the situation. It also explains why he ushers them out of the room. I don't think it's so much that He doesn't want an audience as He doesn't need the nay-sayers looking over His shoulder.

I also find Jesus' statement that 'The girl is not dead, but sleeping,' an interesting one. Throughout his letters to the churches the apostle Paul uses this same term for those who have died while waiting for Christ to return. Is Jesus offering comfort, as the worldly might claim, reassuring the crowd that everything is alright? Or is He making comment on the nature of death? Could it be that He is, in His subtle way, pointing out that death is but a transitory thing for all of us? That one day we will all awaken from the grave to face the Lord and account for the way we have lived our lives? Personally, I think so.

Until next time.. Shalom

Image : Raising of Jairus Daughter 1871. Vasiliy Polenov

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Bright Light shines no more.

I had fully intended to write the next episode of 'Exploring the Kingdom Gospel" this week, but then something unexpected happened. Late Wednesday night a man walked out of a local bar, got into his truck and drove off. Because he was drunk, instead of taking the on-ramp to Hwy 6 south, he took the off ramp and wound up driving south in the North-bound lanes. A few minutes later he drove head on into a car, killing the driver. That driver was a wonderful young woman named Anna Graham.

I first met Anna about a year ago. Her uncle asked me to work on a production of "Death of a Salesman" that he was directing for Guelph Little Theatre. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and Anna was no small part of it. Anna, along with Anthony "Pooch" Brown, was designing the lighting for the production. You didn't have to watch her work for long to know that this woman not only knew w
hat she was doing, she enjoyed it immensely and had a real gift for creativity. You also didn't have to watch for long to see just how proud her uncle, my friend Lloyd, was of her.

And now she's gone!

As you scan the status lines of her friends on Facebook you can see the range of emotions. One person "is sad", another "is numb", one more is "trying to come to terms." The most vocal of the lot is "Really mad....and hurt...and not understanding why this life has to be so f**kin unfair!!!
" (the asterisks are mine). I know how he feels. I felt the same way when James died a year ago (I wrote about it here.). But somehow, I don't feel the same pain about Anna, not the same way.

I know part of the reason is the simple fact Anna and I weren't as close as James and I were. It's no reflection on Anna; we worked together on 'Salesman' and then went ou
r separate ways, her to her circle and me to mine. Most of the pain I feel is for her uncle Lloyd. Him I do consider a friend, and as both actor/director and human being, have a great deal of respect and admiration for the man. I can only imagine what he is going through. He's never far from my thoughts.

But the biggest difference in this case is there was some good to be found in Jame
's death. He had been sick for a long time. In many ways his passing was a relief. His suffering is over and the spiritual part of me can at least begin to wrap my head around the idea that God decided it was for the best.

But in Anna's case this logic does not apply. The hard cold fact is Anna died because someone couldn't find anything better to do with a Wednesday night than get drunk watching naked women dance on stage
. And even that might not matter except he then compounded things by making the selfish decision to drive himself home, and no one, not the bartender, not the servers, not his friends, nor the big burly guy at the door took the necessary steps to stop him. Anna is gone because human beings made selfish and wrong choices! Plain and simple!

Do I sound like I'm ranting? Of course I am. I'm angry! Because the simple fact is THIS IS WHY WE NEED GOD!!

Every day on the news and in other media I hear people trying to tell me how out
moded a concept God is. How human beings don't need some invisible being in the sky, they are quite capable of conducting their own affairs. Morality is a flexible concept and changes from day to day, what's good for you is bad for me, etc. etc. etc. Religion is no longer required because we can run our own affairs quite nicely thank you.

But the fact is, human beings, generally speaking, as a species, are no where near smart enough, wise enough, deep enough or insightful enough to be their own moral compass. When push comes to shove each of us, left to our own devices, will make a decision based not o
n the common good, or the welfare of others, but on our selfish wants and desires. The only hope for us is to have a moral guide that comes from outside of ourselves. A culture of accountability which holds us personally responsible for our actions on a level above and beyond the human trappings of law and order. This is the role religion fulfills.

And before you get started on the evils of organized religion, let me say it's not the institution of religion I'm talking about. Rather it is the ground level, day-to-day belief that God is watching, and that someday we will have to face Him one-on-one and He will say, "Explain it to me again why you were a complete and total moron" - or words to that effec
t. For thousands of years the love for and fear of God has kept human beings from acting out of selfish motives and inspired us to think twice before we act, even if the only reason is the slim possibility that if we don't behave we might find ourselves spending eternity roasting on a spit over a lava-fed barbecue. Though personally I have always suspected the lake of fire in Revelation is a metaphor for something far worse.

I know - I'm preaching. I'm taking advantage of Anna's death to get on my soapbox and call down fire and brimstone. Well, I make no apologies for it. I'm not trying to be comforting, I'm trying to stop this kind of thing from happening the only way I know how.

I know full well that if it were not for the work of God in my life, I could well be that same moron getting drunk watching naked women dance. Or possibly something much worse. This is why Jesus came to earth as a child and sacrificed himself as a man - to save us from ourselves. To give us an option other than hopelessly trying to be our own moral compass. He is God's response to our insistance on doing things our own way.

The hard cold fact is that this world is the way it is because human beings, collect
ively and individually, have said "Sorry God, we don't need you any more. We are totally capable of making our own decisions. We are the captains of our own fates. Thanks for all your help in the past - we'll take it from here." And like it or not - this fractured, faulty, unfair world we live in is the result. I don't like it either, but that's the way it is.

The good news is this; when we said that, God responded by saying, "Fine. Have it your way. But when it all falls apart, when the unfairness of it all gets to you and you just can't take it any more - please, please, PLEASE! Come crying back to Me and I promise - I WILL HELP YOU GET THROUGH IT!"

Good-bye Anna.

Shalom everyone.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Using or Receiving?

If you watch enough news video from the Middle East, you will eventually see an interesting custom play out. Some people, immediately after speaking a particular name (often George Bush) will emphatically spit on the ground before they continue with their sentence. The thinking behind this custom is: This person is so vile and repugnant to me I want to get the bad taste left by saying their name out of my mouth immediately. It is a most vile comment on an individual, reserved only for those for whom the individual feels the greatest hatred.

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 9:9)

It doesn't take a lot of research to discover that, in Jesus' day, this spitting custom was widely practiced whenever anyone said the word nagas or in Greek telones - tax-collector! Only lepers were given a wider swath than the tax-collector. This was largely due to the fact that most tax-collectors were regarded as traitors, Jews who, for financial reasons (they got a commission on the money they collected), decided to cooperate with the Roman occupiers of Israel. In the first century Jewish mindset, the only thing more remarkable than Jesus asking Matthew to follow him is the fact that Matthew left his tax booth and followed!

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.” - (Matthew 9:10-13 NKJV)

The Pharisees, as usual, have a valid point to make when they ask why Jesus is keeping company with people who engage in sin as part of their lifestyle, even their livelihood. The Old Testament admonition not to follow the crowd into evil (Exodus 23:2 ) and the declaration that "sinners will not stand in the congregation of the righteous" (Psalm 45:6-7 ) were, in their minds, validation for creating a social barrier between the two groups. This is the danger of legalism in Christian practice.

Righteous practices are supposed to be expressions of the love for and of God that resides within us. But all too often they can become an end in themselves, with no foundation in love or even faith, but rather just an expression of our own self importance as we strive to prove to ourselves and others that we are more religious. It was this trap the Pharisees had fallen into.

Jesus however, sought to turn this idea on its head. He fully understood that the righteousness and justice of God is not complete unless it also incorporates His love and compassion. This Son of David, who had never sinned in his life, never-the-less understood the cry of David's repentant heart when he declared "Restore to me the joy of your salvation... Then I will teach transgressors of your ways, and sinners will return to you." (Psalm 51:12-13 )

What appeals to me most about this exchange though, is the subtlety of his comment. I'm sure his declaration that the righteous would have no need of his ministry would have massaged the egos of the Pharisees. I can picture them thinking to themselves, " Oh! All right then, that makes sense. We are righteous and good in God's eyes, so it's no wonder he ignores us and talks to them. They certainly do need someone to show them the error of their ways. But it is a lost cause however, so better him than me." The irony is, of course, Jesus didn't consider them righteous at all. Jesus understood that the lowliest sinners who throws themselves upon the mercy of God is closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than the self-declared righteous will ever be.

This is the point behind his quotation of Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." The Pharisees considered their interpretation of the scriptures as being a sacrifice that all people should make to demonstrate their obedience to God. Their zero-tolerance philosophy served only to make themselves look good; it did nothing to draw those who had fallen by the wayside back into the embrace of God's love. Jesus' ministry is not about keeping people out of the Kingdom, it is about welcoming them in.

And while it doesn't seem so on the surface, Jesus words to John's disciples are part of this same exchange.

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 9:14-17 NKJV)

Have you ever noticed that in this question John's disciples group themselves in with the Pharisees? "We and the Pharisees fast often.." A strange comment from the disciples of a prophet who had challenged the validity of the Pharisees repentance. (Luke 3:7-9 ) It demonstrates just how ingrained the idea of pious acts equating with righteousness was in their culture. With the metaphors of the cloth and the wineskins, Jesus tries to help them understand that if the Kingdom that is coming is going to take hold, then the old way of thinking about the Word of God must be set aside. His words must be examined with fresh spiritual eyes, better enabling them to see the truth of God for what it really is rather than for what they had been told it was for generations.

In his essay An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis makes an interesting observation about the nature of reading. He observes that there are two kinds of reading. In the first kind we read a book so that we can "use" it. We are looking to endorse or enhance our own existing world view. The second is when we read a book to "receive" the message that the author is trying to convey. As an avid cyclist I like his explanation of the difference...

"The one [receiving]... is like being taken for a bicycle ride by a man who may know the roads we have never yet explored. The other [using] is like adding one of those little motor attachments to our own bicycle and then going for one of our familiar rides."

This is what happens to all too many of us when it comes to the Word of God. It happened to the Pharisees. They "used" the Law of Moses to their own ends, interpreting it to shore the social/political structure they thought was best for them and for Israel. Jesus recognized that, in truth, it was good for neither and sought to teach people how to "receive" the Word once again by receiving Him - the Word made flesh.

I challenge you, dear readers, to examine your own hearts and ask yourself, "Do I believe what the Holy Scriptures say? or do I believe what I have been told they say?" Ask yourself, and be as honest as you can be, "When I read the Holy Scriptures, am I looking to "receive" the message God has for me, or to "use" it to support my own theology?"

Until next time... Shalom.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Treat the Disease, Not Just the Symptoms

A while back a close friend of mine was having trouble with his vision. A trip to the opthamologist revealed that he was suffering from iritis, basically an inflammation of the iris. Further investigation however, revealed that the real problem was not in his eye, it was in his back. He also had what is known as Ankylosing Spondylitis, a member of the arthritis family of conditions that causes inflammation of the vertebrae. It was complications from this condition that was causing the iritis.

All too easily in medicine, and other areas of life, we can find ourselves treating just the symptoms and not the real disease. Jesus finds himself facing the same situation in Capernaum.

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 NKJV)

One of the hardest concepts to explain when discussing the Gospel Kingdom is the nature of sin. We are fundamentally uncomfortable with the notion that there may be a connection between how we behave and the illnesses that rack our bodies. Occasionally we can live with the idea if we can make some sort of clinical connection. Smoking is a sin, and smoking is why my lungs are full of tar and a hundred other chemical compounds that have turned my lungs coal black, and that is why I have lung cancer; therefore, sin caused me to have cancer. It's a nice tidy clinical line that fits comfortably into our theology. The idea however, that lying on my tax return might somehow be connected to the brain tumour in the back of my head doesn't fit so comfortably.

And well it shouldn't, because it isn't connected, not that way. For generations the people of Israel, like Job's companions, believed that illness was a curse brought on the individual as a direct result of sin. But in John 9:1-5 Jesus corrects this misconception of sin and disease in the minds of the scribes and pharisees. There is indeed a connection between sin and disease, but it is not one of simple cause and effect. It is more properly likened to a polluted environment.

The link between AIDS and HIV has long been understood. HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) pollutes the human body making it susceptible to all kinds of conditions including AIDS. People don't die from HIV; they often don't even die from AIDS so much as they die from something else AIDS removed their ability to resist. But HIV, the virus lurking deep in the body's systems is the real culprit.

So it is with sin. Sin is like a virus that has infected all of creation. It does not directly cause disease and illness, but it has so corrupted God's creation that they not only exist but thrive. Sin is the reason nature turns on itself and ravages the land with storms and droughts. Sin is the reason as soon as medical science cures one condition it mutates and infects the population all over again. Sin is the reason plagues of insects and other vermin ravage the landscape destroying crops and forests turning paradise into a desert.

God did not intend things to be this way; His plan was for nature to exist in total harmony, disease free, with the lion and the lamb sharing the same garden as humankind, naked and unashamed. But sin changed all that. Because of sin people act out of selfish desire instead of mutual compassion and destroy the very thing they desire most - relationships, with their family, their friends, with God. Once again, sin did not create these things but so changed creation that death and destruction could not be resisted for long.

This then is the reason for Jesus words to the scribes whose thoughts accused him of blasphemy. Not to draw a line between the man's paralysis and his sin, but to demonstrate that he can heal the body because he has the power to cleanse the world of sin itself.

"Which is it easier to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' or 'Arise and walk'?" On the face of it, it's an absurd question. To heal a limb is to drain the pond in my backyard, to deal with the impact of sin on a fallen world is to try and drain the Atlantic Ocean. But not for the Son of Man - there's that phrase again. For the one who stood before the Ancient of Days and received dominion over the Kingdom of God the two acts are, in fact, one and the same. Jesus does not just deal with the symptom of disease, but with the virus/sin that lies at its root.

"Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men... if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many." (Romans 5:12 - 15 NIV)

Until next time... Shalom.

Exploring the kingdom Gospel - episode 19

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Other Kingdom

Last time we looked at why Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee; now let's consider what happened when he did.

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 the 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?” Matt 8:23-27

As always, let's start by setting some context. The Hebrew attitude towards the sea is best described as a love/hate relationship. It was viewed at one and the same time as a source of life and death. While they were grateful for the food provided by the sea and recognized that Genesis declared life was first brought forth as the Spirit of God moved upon the face of 'the Deep', they also regarded it as being the place where Sheol (Hell) was located.

All through the psalms and the prophets the 'Deep' is regarded as a place of abandonment. It is the place where the soul sinks when God has forsaken those who have forsaken him. Consider Psalm 69...

But I pray to you, O LORD, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.

Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters.

Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up or the pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O LORD, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. (vs 13-16)

So great was this association between the sea and the depths of Hell that many fisherman and sea-faring types never even learned how to swim. To do so would be to set their souls at even greater risk than they endured in a boat. With this in mind, let's continue on the western shore....

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. Matt 8:28-34

On the surface these two events seem to be separate, but spiritually they deal with the same forces.

The Sea of Galilee has a reputation for being a quick tempered bit of water, due in part to the fact it lies 600 feet below sea level. Storms come up quickly and unannounced and with great ferocity. It is also quite deep and when a ship is lost it is rarely discovered again. When you add in the reputation of the sea as being the entrance to Sheol, then the concern of the disciples is fully understandable. What is not so readily understood is what they expected of Jesus when they awaked him that night.

Consider, first that Jesus was able to sleep through all this. Such I would suggest is the sleep of the innocent, with no guilt or fear to disturb it. In Mark's account the disciples mistake this supernatural calm for uncaring. But what, one wonders, did the disciples expect Jesus to do about the storm? Their response to his actions would indicate that they were surprised he was able to end it, so what was it they expected of him?

"Lord, save us! We are perishing," is the cry. But save them from what? If they expected him to do something about the storm, then why did they marvel so when he accomplished it? Could it be they simply did not want to die alone? How often do we, when faced with inevitable consequences turn to family and friends as if we expect them to solve the problem, knowing full well there is nothing they can do, simply because we need to face the inevitable with someone? We need to be held, we need to have someone tell us everything is going to be all right even when it isn't. I suspect the disciples of Jesus were no different. Afraid of the worst, they sought comfort from their teacher.

But instead of comfort, they get rebuke! He calls them men of 'little faith' and then, once again, he does the unexpected. After rebuking his disciples for their lack of faith, he rebukes the wind and the waves, possibly for disturbing his sleep. I know, it sounds flippant, but it is how I've always imagined this scene because of the word 'rebuke'. If the winds and waves had remained calm, the disciples wouldn't have panicked and prepared to face the end, and Jesus would have slept undisturbed through the entire crossing.

But what's really important is that in the minds of the disciples on board that boat they have not only been saved from death, they have been saved from the depths of Sheol. They have avoided being confined to the underworld. It matters not whether theologically their perception is accurate, what matters is that likely that was the way they saw it.

Now, on to the Gadarene graveyard. Here Jesus meets two men (other gospels say there was only one, but that is beside the point) and we see the demons challenge Jesus asking him why he wants to hassle them before the appointed time. Many commentaries have been written on Jesus' interplay with the demons. I won't belabour that point here, but I do want to consider the imagery found in what happens to the demons after they are transferred to the herd of pigs. They run down the hill in a mad frenzy and throw themselves into the sea.

What significance would this have for the disciples gathered around him? Think about it for a moment. The sea is the gateway to the underworld, demons are the denizens of that world. In the minds of the disciples and the others gathered there that day Jesus has just sent the demons back where they came from! Jesus in the course of a night and a day clearly demonstrated that the kingdom of God will not just supplant the kingdom of men on this earth, but it will conquer the kingdom of darkness as well.

This was new! Miracle workers have come and gone before; even false prophets had managed to give sight to the blind and deal with the odd fever or two; but to exert power over hell itself. To be able to control the storm is to challenge the powers of darkness that roused the waters to begin with; to strike fear in the heart of the demons and not only cast them out of a possessed man but to send them packing back to the depths from which they came; this was unprecedented. Not even Moses was credited with this much power, and he had stood in the very presence of God.

This then is the significance behind Jesus' excursion to the eastern shore, to demonstrate clearly that the authority of the Kingdom of Heaven extends everywhere, even over the kingdom of darkness. Sheol in all it's terror cannot stand in the face of the authority God had given to Jesus. The Son of Man is the embodiment of the 23rd Psalm, "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." Rather, evil fears him.

But demons and storms are just the beginning; there are greater manifestations of evil in the world. And Jesus will deal with it as well, as we shall see in our next episode when he travels back to his home town of Capernaum.


Photo: Slopes near Kursi, likely site of the swine incident.

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 18

Saturday, October 13, 2007

To Get to the Other Side

Why did Jesus cross the Sea of Galilee? To get to the other side? Maybe, but I think He also had something else in mind.

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.” Matthew 8:18-22

Some of you may think I'm being flippant with the title and opening line of this episode, but in actual fact this was the first question I asked myself when I read this section of Matthew's gospel. Why did Jesus cross the Sea of Galilee? What was there on the eastern shore that attracted him so much? The answer is found in the encounter he has with two young men.

The first to approach Jesus is a scribe, a person who is versed in the law of Moses, by some accounts - a lawyer. His declaration to Jesus upon his approach is, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." The teacher/student relationship was very different in Jesus' day than what we think of today. As I mentioned when we looked at the healing of Peter's mother-in-law, it was not unusual for a teacher to visit or even live with one of his students. In some schools the situation was reversed, the students would take up residence in their teachers home and learn from them day in and day out.

It is likely the scribe had this in mind when he approached Jesus. He might well have been expecting to gain a living situation that would allow him to spend his days in debate and discussion, living off the generosity of the sponsors who customarily supported a respected teacher. He would benefit from his teacher's contacts and earn a place in society based on the reputation gained by being the student of a renowned rabbi.

But Jesus responds with a remarkable declaration, "The Son of Man has no where to lay his head." In other words, "If you are looking for a relaxing life of scholarship, debating with the elders at the temple and impressing younger scribes with your knowledge and wisdom, you've come to the wrong place." Jesus is not that kind of teacher. He will spend very little time at his home base in Capernaum; he has a message to deliver and rather than wait for Israel to come to him, He is going to Israel.

But there is a more subtle message in his words as well. This is the first time Jesus uses the phrase "Son of Man." He will refer to himself this way 32 times in the Kingdom Gospel. If the scribe was paying attention he might of remembered the use of the phrase in Psalm 8 or even in the book of Daniel. The question is, did he pick up on the reference?

"I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed." Daniel 7:13-14

Behind the scribe, another man, already counted among those regarded as disciples, has a request to make, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." To which Jesus responds, "Let the dead bury their own dead." Scholars usually comment on Jesus' statement either by declaring the young man wanted to procrastinate, or by saying that Jesus was referring to the spiritually dead. But I would like to offer another idea.

This is not a simple request to show up for the funeral. Laying one's parents to rest was a solemn responsibility, it was also considered to be an act of great piety. This was because in order to bury the deceased one had to touch the dead body, and this rendered the individual unclean for a period of seven days (Numbers 19:11). Thus a person who volunteered to bury the dead was seen as making a sacrifice, ostracizing themselves from Jewish society for seven days in order to pay honour to the departed. The high degree of importance this act of piety (good works) held among the Jewish people can be observed in the apocryphal book of Tobias.

With this in mind, Jesus' statement now takes on another connotation. The young disciple, as did many of his day, believed that acts of piety were required to enter into God's kingdom. He sought not to procrastinate, but rather to fulfill his obligations under a salvation of works mentality. But Jesus indicates that works, here represented by the act of piety, do not lead to the kingdom of God, but rather to a spiritual dead end. If he seeks the kingdom, it is accessible only through the Son of Man, though the grace of God, manifested in the man Jesus.

In his responses to these two people, Jesus makes it plain that in order to enter into the fulness of the kingdom of God there are choices to be made. We must decide if we can face a life of uncertainty, never entirely sure where God will lead us next. We must also decide what our priorities are; will we keep with the traditions, hoping to one day earn our way by acts of piety, or will we follow after the Son of Man, even if that means abandoning obligations and belief systems we once held dear.

This then is why Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee. Seeing the great multitude he had to begin the process of separating the serious seeker from the casual on-looker. So he orders the crowd to cross to the eastern shore knowing that only the serious would make the effort. He knew that like these two men there would be many who had to face the decision to follow or be held back by the traditions to which they so earnestly clung.

It is interesting to note that we are not told how the men responded to Jesus' challenge. We are not told if they followed or returned to the lives they knew. But then again, it is not important. The important decisions are not the ones made by the scribe and the disciple; the important decisions are the ones we will make as we face these self-same challenges in our struggle to attain the Kingdom of Heaven.

Until next time... Shalom

Photo credit:

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Healing of a Woman

We have seen two examples of those who recognized Jesus' authority - a leper and a centurion. Now let's look at the third in our trio - a woman.

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 him. 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.” Matt. 8:14-17

In true storyteller fashion, let's look at the setting first. We are in Peter's house in Capernaum. Since there is no mention of Peter's invitation for Jesus to come and dine with his family, it is not a stretch to believe that Jesus has been here before, and often. It was not uncommon for a teacher to frequent the homes of their students, and some have even suggested that Jesus might have lived with Peter and his extended family. We can't be sure, of course, but such a thing would not be out of step with the customs of the time.

Another clue to his familiarity with the people involved is his response to Peter's mother-in-law. In the previous two incidents Jesus is requested to deal with the afflictions of the leper and the centurion's servant. In this case however, he simply acts. He walks in, sees the need and without a word to anyone, he touches her and she is healed. No intercession is required; it is as if his ministering to her is a forgone conclusion.

Nevertheless, she is still a woman, and for an unrelated Jewish male to reach out and touch a woman (unless he is dragging her off to be stoned) is a rare thing. Like lepers and Gentiles, women existed at the fringes of Jewish society, though admittedly their circle was a little closer to the centre than the Gentile centurion, who would have been more welcome than the leper. Even within their own families there were rules as to which men with whom they could and could not interact. Outside the family ties, the restrictions were even worse. Jesus' actions demonstrate that the woman's relationship with him, with this Son of David, supersedes all other relationships. He is here to heal her and mere custom will not prevent that from happening.

Interesting too, is her response to his touch. The leper recognized Jesus' authority but was unsure of His willingness to help a leper; keeping his distance while at the same time holding onto hope. The centurion sees things more clearly. He has no doubts about Jesus' ability to command, so much so he does not require the physical connection for his faith to bear fruit. But this woman, who is healed without intersession, without preamble, responds to Jesus' authority in the deepest way possible - she serves him.

There are some who will tell you that her servitude is a trademark of her position in society, that this woman is so beaten down she has been conditioned to serve. But I think not. In Mark's account of this event the language is such that one might draw that conclusion; "she served them," a generic plurality that could easily be taken to refer to all the males present. But Matthew's language is more precise, "she arose and served him." This man is her son-in-law's teacher. She has heard his words, she has seen his character, and now she has felt the power in his touch. For those who live in close contact with the Son of David, service is the only fitting response.

And so she serves, and she opens her home to those who would find what she has found - healing. Well into the night they come; the sick, the demon-possessed, all those that society is ill-equipped to deal with. In these three incidents Jesus puts into action the fundamental truths he spoke forth on the hillside. The kingdom of God is not restricted to those who fit the pattern. The kingdom is offered to all who are in need. The leper, the Gentile, the woman -- the outcast, the stranger, the marginalized; these are the ones for whom the Kingdom of God was created.

On a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands, familiar words are carved...

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Many nations have sought to emulate the kingdom of God here on earth, with varying degrees of success. Most have failed to do so because the Kingdom of God is not a kingdom in time and space, it is a kingdom that lives in the hearts of those who would be its citizens.

And make no mistake, while one cannot earn that citizenship, there is a price to be paid if one seeks to fulfill it. As those who approach Jesus in our next installment will learn.


Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 16.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Man Under Authority

Last time we looked at Jesus' encounter with the leprous man. It was actually the first in a trio of encounters that we are witness to in the period immediately following his midrash on the Mount. We now examine the second of these:

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. Matthew 8:5-13 (NKJV)

Jesus now returns to what has become his home town since his ministry began. I find it interesting that he chooses to live not in an exclusively Jewish community but in one with a mixture of cultures. Capernaum (formerly Kefar Nachum, "Nahum's hamlet") was a town that had been extensively rebuilt by the Romans. It was a garrison town, an administrative centre, and a customs station; a far more central location than the mountain village of Nazareth. Given the Roman tendency to use local labour in their construction, it is possible that Joseph the carpenter worked in Capernaum from time to time, maybe even bringing young Jesus with him.

Among the structures built under Roman direction is a synagogue; built, we are told by Luke, by the very centurion who approaches Jesus in this passage. Pictured at right is a 4th century synagogue in the ruins of Capernaum that stands on the same site as that synagogue. (This has been confirmed by Franciscan archaeologists who found the remains of a 1st century synagogue underneath it.) The centurion, it would seem, has experienced something that happens to many soldiers stationed in foreign lands. He has developed an appreciation for the local people, maybe even a love for them and their culture. He has found enough of a home here to be moved to invest in its spiritual well-being by erecting this place of worship for them. And they, Luke says, have developed something of a love for him.

In the light of this, it may be not quite so surprising that when his beloved servant falls ill, beyond the help of Roman medicine, that he turns to this remarkable Jewish rabbi. What is surprising however, is his recognition of Jesus' authority. A man keenly aware of his own place in the hierarchy of things, he instantly recognizes that Jesus, not unlike himself, not only answers to a higher power, but speaks for that power in the same breath. As surely as he knows the orders he gives his own men will be carried out, because his words bear all the authority of the Roman Empire, he knows what this rabbi commands will happen.

Like the leper before him, this man is a product of his circumstances. Finding himself in the military, possibly not even of his own accord, he has learned a lesson in humility that few people comprehend - humility is as much about knowing what you can control as it is about what you can't. He sees in Jesus a man who takes no more credit than he is due, who fully acknowledges his power and authority come from the Father. But at the same time he sees that Jesus wields the authority he has been given with absolute confidence; there is no doubt in Jesus' mind about his mission and what he is to accomplish. It is this authority the centurion understands and to which he readily submits.

And it is this man, this humble centurion, this Gentile, who catches Jesus unawares. This Jesus, who knows the hearts of the pharisees, who sees into the life of the woman at the well, marvels at the humility of this centurion, so much so that he credits it to him as faith.

I am reminded of the words of the writer of Hebrews, who tells us that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness. How do we know Abraham had faith? Becaus
e, we are told, he submitted himself to the authority of God and did not withhold his only son Issac. In short, he obeyed. Like Abraham, this centurion submits to the authority of Jesus, and in so doing demonstrates that while salvation is won by faith alone, faith has its roots in obedience, in submission to the authority of the Kingdom of God.

The result - healing - "as you have believed, so let it be done to you." But also, for those watching these events unfold - a warning. Don't think that just because you were born a Jew that your place in the Kingdom is assured. Others, from outside the tradition, will actually gain entrance before many who think of themselves as privileged. It is a warning to which many in the church should also pay heed.

A leper, and a centurion; one more member of the trio remains to be heard from - next time.


Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 15.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jesus and the Leper

In the movie Philadelphia, Andrew (played by Tom Hanks) who is stricken with AIDS says, "Look. I'm no different from everyone else who has this disease: I'm not guilty, I'm not innocent. I'm just trying to survive."

This same line could well have been delivered by the man whom Jesus meets in the next passage of Matthew's gospel. Having finished his sermon Jesus goes out into the towns and villages of Judea to continue spreading His message, "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

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.” Matthew 8:1-4 (NKJV)

As usual, there is more here than meets the 21st century eye. This man was a leper - unclean. The word holds a connotation that we can only imagine. In Jesus' day such people we not just openly shunned, they were feared. Mothers with babies took them up in their arms and ran, others covered their faces for fear of contamination, full-grown men ran in terror, while others would throw stones to drive the lepers from their midst.

The storyteller in me wonders how this man managed to get so close to Jesus. It is likely he took advantage of the pressing crowd, their attention focused on the remarkable teacher, each of them vying for his attention to the point where they were oblivious to the others around them. I picture him standing near some bushes at the back of the crowd listening to this man as he delivered his midrash, hearing words that held out some vague hope that this was no ordinary rabbi.

As he approaches he bends low touching his head to the ground in front of Jesus. We can infer this from the verb 'worship' used to describe the lepers approach. His words confirm the inference as he makes it clear he understands that all the authority lies with the teacher, "Lord, if you are willing..." His fate is not his to control, the disease took that from him. Other people told him he was a leper, other people told him he could no longer live with his family or even sleep in the towns and villages; ever since the disease came upon him, his fate, indeed his very survival has lain in the hands of other people. Leprosy has taught him humility in a way nothing else could.

And so he comes to Jesus, humble, broken by the hand that life has dealt him. And yet, there is a spark of hope. A spark fanned into life by the words he heard on the hillside. No doubt he's heard others make grandiose claims of prophet-hood before, no one would blame him for a small voice of doubt echoing in the back of his mind. Still he comes, not really knowing what to expect, and he gets the unexpected. Jesus touches him.

I tell you a truth; though the scriptures do not record it, at the moment that Jesus touched the leper the crowd gathered around him, large or small, would have gasped and recoiled as one man. Fear and shock would have grasped them by the throat and stolen their breath away. For two reasons: one - Jesus, this rabbi of unimagined authority and eloquence, has broken the law of Moses, two - and this is the more shocking - would now be considered unclean - as much an outcast as the leper himself.

Leviticus 5 makes it clear that in this act Jesus takes on the sin and guilt that made this man unclean to begin with. For all his words of the coming of the Gospel Kingdom he has now performed the one act that would prevent that kingdom from ever coming to fruition. No one would ever follow a leper in search of spiritual fulfillment, Yehweh would never chose a man carrying the guilt of sin to usher in His kingdom. In this one moment Jesus has seemingly undone everything his midrash hoped to accomplish. And in the next moment the unexpected happens again.

The laws of physics tell us that heat only travels in one direction, from its source to a place where it does not exist. Heat moves from the warm place to the cold place, cold does not move the other way. In Jesus' world the laws of spiritual physics work the same way. The curse only moves in one direction, from the unclean to afflict the clean. And yet, miraculously, when Jesus touches the leper the forces of nature themselves are turned on their heads and cleanliness moves in to displace that which is unclean. The lesions that covered the man's face, arms and hands fade from view, leaving only clean, healthy skin in their place. The revulsion of the crowd is halted in mid-gasp leaving them staring in a state of utter amazement.

Shocked, amazed, elated, the former leper himself stands there not knowing what to do next. So Jesus tells 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 rabbi who moments ago broke the law of Moses, tearing the fabric of reality in the process, now tells this man to honour that same law. His words on the hillside come back to our consciousness, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." (Matt. 5:17)

The priests, the pharisees, and the scribes, all desired the same thing as did Jesus; to see the kingdom of Yehweh manifested in reality on earth. But these three groups took a very different view of how that might come to pass than the Galilean preacher. While they focused on Leviticus 13, and how those who are unclean should be cast out of the Kingdom, Jesus sought to fulfill the promise of Leviticus 14, and see the unclean made whole and reconciled back into the kingdom. Where their approach brings condemnation, Jesus brings life!

All through the Midrash on the Hillside Jesus turned conventional thinking about the Law and God's kingdom on its head, seeking to fulfill its spirit and intent, rather than just focus on observing the letter of the law. This first encounter with Jesus among the people demonstrates that his physical ministry will be no different.

Until next time ... Shalom.

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 14
Photo credit: MSNBC

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Golden Rule - Matthew 7:12-29

In the Kingdom of Id the Golden Rule states, "He who has the Gold Makes the rules!". In the Gospel Kingdom things are a little different.

Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (New King James Version)

With this oft-quoted phrase we reach the end of the "Kingdom Midrash", the Sermon on the Mount. We know it is the beginning of Jesus summation by the presence of one simple word - therefore. In the tradition of this rabbinic teaching style, we can take this one word to mean "keeping everything I have just said in mind, consider this... do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

For the last three chapters Jesus has been seeking to turn the world on its head. Time after time he has taken the basic truths of past teachers of the Torah and revolutionized their meaning by taking things up to the next level. Should we assume he is doing any less here? What then does it mean, this simple, seemingly obvious phrase that so many take for granted.

If we are to treat others as we would expect to be treated, then maybe the question we first need to ask is how do we expect to be treated? Jesus has been telling us that we are citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom. That the restoration of earth as God had intended it to be is not in some far off distant future but is happening right here where we are, right now. If then we are members of that kingdom and the Kingdom is at hand, then it would follow that we are being called to treat those around us as if they too are part of the kingdom and the full restoration of the earth is a reality, for on the spiritual plane - it is!

Little wonder then that Jesus follows this call with the following advice...

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. Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

For to truly treat everyone around us in such a manner will prove hard work indeed - straight forward, but hard. Hardest of all it means that we can no longer just write off those we don't agree with as being beyond hope because the spirit of God does not reside within them, for we are called to treat them as ourselves! To treat them as we would those who are anointed of God for a higher calling. Jesus has taught us that no one in the kingdom is to be written off, that even the least of us is to be held in high regard because of the price that has been paid for their redemption. Such treatment leaves no room for judgment, no room for abandonment, only room for love and understanding as we ourselves would desire to be loved and understood.

And if this is the case, then the Golden Rule also calls for us to be extremely careful in the choosing of our leaders...

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 thorn bushes 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.

A number of years ago a good friend of mine invited a pair of young Mormon gentlemen into his home when they arrived at his door. I fully expected him to set about fully dissecting their theology and leaving them in a heap. He didn't. Instead he listened to what they had to say, answered their questions truthfully, asked a few of his own and warmly invited them back to enjoy his hospitality any time they chose. After they left I asked him why he didn't show them the error of their ways. His reply was, "Because that wouldn't be very loving." That was not what he would want them to do to him.

I have come to understand that this more than anything else defines Christian leadership. It is not about who can one-up the opponents of the kingdom, racking up points on the debating scoreboard. It's not about name calling, and branding as 'evil' any who disagree with God's moral code. It is about who can best follow Christ's example, winning over the enemies of the kingdom with love and compassion; giving this simple phrase more than just lip service.

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!’

Those who honour Christ with their mouths only will discover all too soon the true meaning of these words. And even in this we cannot allow ourselves to depart from the narrow path. If we were less than genuine in our walk what would we want the response of others to be? Ponder this for more than a moment and it becomes apparent why Jesus said judgment is God's purview and God's alone. We are not equipped to properly handle the task. Only those without sin can cast the first stone.

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.

The word appears again... "bearing all this in mind", consider these two men. The solid foundation of the Christian life is found in one place and one place only - obedience. The love of Christ, that is, grace alone has bought for us our citizenship in the Gospel Kingdom, but life in the kingdom finds fulfillment in obedience; "he who hears these sayings of mine, and does them."

The Kingdom Midrash is complete. Jesus walks down the mount leaving behind him a people stunned not so much by the content of his words, but by their impact. They are astonished by the authenticity of his voice and manner, the authority with which he speaks. His wonders and miracles do not factor into their response, because there have not yet been any signs and wonders. But that is about to change.

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 14

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Distraction of Timidity

First my apologies to those of you who have been wondering where I've been. Though in the middle of a series I simply felt the need to take a break, so I took the summer off. I hope you can forgive me. But the breaks over, time to get back to work. If you would like a reminder of where we left off you'll find the last article here. Now let's get to it.

In the last article we examined the first two of three distractions to faith found in the closing passages of the "The Sermon on the Mount." Jesus tells the people of one more thing that will hamper our spiritual lives - timidity; specifically the drawback of timid prayer.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! - Matt. 7:7-11 NKJV

In the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" there is a scene where King Arthur (played by the late Graham Chapman) receives a vision of God. Immediately he hides his face and God questions him on it. The exchange goes like this...

GOD: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don't grovel! If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.
ARTHUR: Sorry--
GOD: And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it's "sorry this" and "forgive me that" and "I'm not worthy". What are you doing now!?
ARTHUR: I'm averting my eyes, oh Lord.
GOD: Well, don't. It's like those miserable Psalms-- they're so depressing. Now knock it off!
ARTHUR: Yes, Lord.

Irreverence and editorial comment on the Psalms aside, the movie actually makes the same point as Jesus. The prevailing view of God in Jesus' day was that of a punitive overseer just looking for a reason to withdraw his blessing and start handing out the curses. Sackcloth and ashes, a traditional sign of repentance and grief, became the standard garb required to get God's attention and the better one's groveling, the more likely one was to be heard. Lost on the scholars of the day was the example of Moses and Abraham, who boldly not only made their requests known but actually had the audacity to call God out when they had questions about his decisions. They lived out the offer God later makes in Isaiah 1:18 - "Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool." (NKJV)

Jesus flies in the face of common opinion which said that such boldness was reserved for only those with a special calling from God. Instead of the overseer, Jesus portrays God as a loving Father who, like any earthly father, knows and understands the needs of his children and will readily provide them. In the Gospel Kingdom such boldness is not just for the prophets and priests, but for everyone, because we are all priests in the heavenly kingdom. Once again Jesus turns conventional thinking about God on its head.

But this is not all that he does. He also, in three rhythmic and succinct phrases, captures three distinct moods or attitudes of prayer. Ask - seek - knock; receive - find - open.

Words beyond number have been written over the years about the materialistic nature of modern prayer. Worship leaders express concern over the idea that every public prayer experience ends up a shopping list of things we want from God. And to be sure, in the context of corporate worship, there is a definite need for more prayer that seeks only to exalt, lift up and bless the Lord God for He alone is worthy of our praises. But in the privacy of the heart, in the intimacy of the gathering of two or three in his name, Jesus calls us to be bold and ASK. When we do He says, we shall receive. There is no timidity, no second guessing of our motives. If we know what it is we need - ask for it.

But some times we don't know. Sometimes we only know that we are in need. We lack the wisdom to specify what it is we would like God to do for us. When this is the case, Jesus calls to boldly SEEK the Lord's face. This is the time when, like Moses and Abraham, we can question God about what it is that He is doing in our lives. Not out of impudence, or arrogance, but in the bold surety of a child seeking to understand. "With all thy getting, get understanding" says the proverb (4:7), and where better to seek understanding than at the throne of God Himself.

On still other occasions we come to God in desperation. We feel distant from God, shut out. Left alone in the night with no one to protect us from the wolves that howl at the moon or the shadows that lurk in the doorways. In my mind it conjures up the image of the woman on the porch in the horror movie, pounding on the door of the farm house, begging to be let in before it's too late. Prayer becomes a desperate cry for salvation, a calling out for refuge from circumstances that would destroy us. But Jesus would have us know that we are never without a safe refuge. We have only to KNOCK on the door of the house of the Lord, knowing that when we knock in such desperation the door will always be opened in time.

Such timidity in our prayers comes from the mistaken belief that we are in control when we pray. Like the spells cast by the boy-wizard Harry Potter, if we can just get the words right and hold our tongue just so while we wave the wand called prayer then God will be obliged to give us what we desire. We don't think this way consciously of course (well, most of us anyway) but never-the-less there is still an attitude that the effectiveness of prayer depends on how we do it.

Boldness in prayer comes from the understanding that it isn't about us at all! Answers to prayer are God's and God's alone to bestow. He gives to each and every one according to His will, knowing what we need before we even ask it. And yet He still desires that we ask, because like a loving father he delights in the sound of our voices calling out to Him. Nothing develops the parent/child relationship more than just talking together and it is no less so with our heavenly Father.

Like a child secure in the knowledge that his/her father loves them and will never let them come to harm, we can ask whatever we will without fear, knowing that if we ask amiss he will not push us away, but will draw us into His embrace and help us to understand why what we want isn't best for us. But like a little child, we often won't truly understand until we get older!

Until next time... shalom!

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 13