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

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