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