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