Archive for August, 2017

Pentecost 11A, 2017 Matthew 16:21-27

The Sayings; ‘An Invitation To Be Creative’

Last week we explored the sources and place of the biblical writings in the life of faith and today as promised we will touch on the sayings which I claimed are the most authentic writings as history and thus can claim that they are the voice print of Jesus from which the Christian or Jesus Way developed. The first thing we need to recognize is that the sayings fragments of Jesus and the stories from that time were about the reality of life as if living in that time. They did not have any other purpose that making it better for the hearer.

I would also suggest along with others that this is the purpose of the gospel story we heard this morning be it for a different time and different audience. Matthew is a storyteller, and a storyteller’s imagination is necessary to the life of religion. This is a claim that imagination is important when approaching the scriptures, both in terms of searching for the historical context and the interpretation of the writings we have we shall take a brief look as promised at the sayings.

We acknowledged last week that our bewilderment and frustration is a result of Jesus having so little to say by way of explicit direction for getting on in the world. The fact is that Jesus chose not to be explicit, but rather to indulge in hyperbole, irony, and metaphor. And we presume he did this so that he could be more lucid in teaching his listeners to live wisely and judiciously. Insofar as Jesus’ teachings are to be honoured as the ground rules for a Christian ethic, reinterpretation, manipulation, supplementation seem not only to be permitted but actually required. We also acknowledged last week that nothing we have in early Christian literature goes directly from Jesus’ mouth to the evangelists’ ears! Everything that Jesus is credited with saying by all the writings is hearsay!

The current critical understanding of the Jesus tradition is as follows: The best we can tell is that the conclusion to Jesus’ brief public career occurred sometime between 26 and 36 CE. Some things he said during his public career were remembered by his earliest companions, and repeated to others after the crucifixion. These remembered words were later repeated around the Mediterranean basin and interpreted in new social settings and languages to still others. In the transmission the sayings were applied to a wide range of social and cultural contexts, which were different from the original context in which Jesus first uttered them. This period of oral tradition, is the social context in which the Jesus traditions (i.e., stories about Jesus and sayings attributed to Jesus) existed in living memory; it lasted well over a generation before being reduced to writing in the latter part of the first century, even though the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition survived into the second century. In the process of transmitting these traditions orally they were inevitably changed as they were performed in different languages and under different cultural situations. When trying to get a handle on just what these sayings went through in this oral period we can say that there are a few implications and some of them are as follows; Remember this is over approximately two generations.

  1. The first is that no sequential account of Jesus’ life was preserved.
  2. The second is that things were remembered because they were significant for faith.
  3. The third is that different explanations were given to the same saying or story.
  4. Subsequently;
    • The distinction between the original tradition and its later explanations becomes blurred.
    • The transmitted traditions were modified to suit the later social contexts on the basis of the languages and cultural environments in which they were performed.
    • Some things later attributed to Jesus did not originate with Jesus.
    • Sayings and stories orally performed tend to be reduced to a memorable core.

If these conclusions, reached by the many scholars who have analyzed the circumstances of the Jesus traditions in the oral period, are accurate, then we have little choice other than to wrestle with the reliability of the Jesus tradition as we have it preserved in the early Christian gospels, and this on top of what we know happened to the stories in the centuries nearer to our time.

We won’t have time to unravel any sayings today but I want to focus on the method of approach to the sayings, the first of which is what is known as Form Criticism. In other words; studying the forms of oral literature and their development. We also need to remember that it was only at the beginning of the last century that Hebrew Bible scholars began investigating the formal aspects of the Hebrew language. They recognized that in particular the book of Genesis consisted of small units of religious folk traditions having a lengthy oral history before being committed to writing. They analyzed the evolution of these oral units over time tracing them to a purported original social setting in the life of the Israelite community that produced them.

It may or may not be possible to sort out earlier oral forms from later oral forms when beginning with a written tradition and projecting backward over numerous years, but there is no denying the traditional aspects of the literature and its recognizable formal character, which is also found elsewhere in the ancient world. For example, Hermann Gunkel, the first scholar treating the book of Genesis to this kind of analysis, described the stories in Genesis as folk legends about the progenitors (i.e., the patriarchs) of the people of Israel. New Testament scholars eventually began applying the same approach to the gospels. They had the same goals as Hebrew Bible scholars which was to determine the original form of a piece of narrative, a dominical saying or a parable. In the process we learn to distinguish secondary additions and forms, and these in turn lead to important results for the history of the tradition.”

The earliest scholars to apply the methods and insights of Form Criticism to the gospels did not reach the same conclusions on either the formal identification of the traditional units in the gospels or the social contexts out of which they arose. They began from opposite ends of the form-critical process and as is logical came out with different answers. One approach begins by reconstructing the history of the synoptic tradition from a study of the community and its needs; and the other begins with the analysis of the particular elements of the tradition. Their answers were not opposed to each other, but rather engaged in mutually complementary and corrective work. They were engaged in the same enterprise, but their designations for the forms of the tradition were quite different. Subsequently however form-critical scholars have, in the main, been more influenced by the formal characteristics of the Jesus tradition. What we have quite a bit of, is the analysis of the traditional forms of language in early Christian literature— that is to say, the written forms of literature in the synoptic gospels. This is because we can only imagine the oral state of the form, which no longer exists. What is significant for us today is that every study of the gospels written from a critical perspective includes a short section on sayings attributed to Jesus from the perspective of oral tradition.

The work of the Jesus Seminar, upon which I depend falls into this same category of critical study. The seminar’s final five-year report on the sayings of Jesus found that 18% of everything attributed to Jesus in the first and second centuries following his public career passed the critical tests, and hence were considered to be sayings originating with a Galilean pundit for the imperial rule of God. It is from that 18% that we will look at one or two later in the month.

Before that we need to get more of a handle on what a saying might be and the first thing we note is that a description of a saying is in itself complex. Of the Language of Jesus all we have is some sayings and the first description is that a saying is a Quip: in other words a short memorable statement that can be amusing, strange, curious, eccentric, ironic, or, on occasion, sarcastic (i.e. a gibe). And when we talk about a saying we are looking for Hyperbole: In other words a statement that is extravagantly exaggerated. It presents something as greater or less, better or worse, or more intense than it actually is. We are also looking for ambiguity: in other words a condition in which something is capable of being understood in more than one way; it is equivocal, obscure, imprecise, and hence difficult to understand. We are looking for humor: in other words having a light or comic character which strikes one as amusing. We are looking for wisdom: in other words, sound judgment; having the quality of discerning what is true or right. We are looking for summary: in other words a brief abstract or compendium on a particular theme. We are looking for idiom: in other words a characteristic way of speaking that is peculiar to a particular person. We are looking for an Aphorism: in other words we are looking for a terse statement of a principle or precept usually unclear on its surface. We are looking for a Proverb: a brief distillation of community or traditional wisdom that is instantly clear on its surface. We are also looking for Paradox: a statement seemingly self-contradictory or absurd on its surface, but in reality possibly expressing a valuable insight. We are looking for a Pundit: an authority who announces opinions, judgments, conclusions in an authoritative manner. And we are also looking for a Quibble: an ambiguous or unclear statement to avoid a direct answer; an equivocation.

All of the above raises the question: how could any statement characterized by humour, hyperbole, ambiguity, and paradox contain a wisdom for practical living that can be orally passed on with some degree of precision, and that can also be easily accessible to the average person? The obvious answer is: it cannot. Essentially, the critical residue of the tradition originating with Jesus is largely enigmatic if one intends to forge from it a guide for daily living. Taken as a whole the, the Jesus tradition reveals Jesus to be, in Robert Funk’s words, a laconic sage (a wise man of few words), or perhaps a comic savant (one who embeds wisdom in humour). Over all it has to be said that lengthy speeches by Jesus (as opposed to the brief saying and short story) were not preserved in the oral period because of the difficulty of mentally retaining the speech and passing it on without condensing it.

We find that the sayings of Jesus most probably originating with him do not reveal him to be: an apocalyptic prophet who announced the end of the present world and the beginning of a new world, or a crucified redeemer who came to die for the sins of the world, or a religious mystic concerned primarily about personal union with God, or the founder of a universal religious institution, or even a moral teacher. In his terse quips Jesus strikes one like a provocative social critic and to judge from the stories he told, Jesus was a person of considerable native intelligence and a creative story teller who, was far more interested in life in this world than in the end of the world and an afterlife. It should never be forgotten that his idiom did not reflect Christian concerns, but rather consists of a wry perspective on the agrarian world of the Judean state religion in which he lived.

To judge from his discourse, Jesus was not religious in a traditional sense. He clearly believed in God, but, to judge from the vestiges of his discourse, he did not engage liberally in God-talk. His actual words dealt more with lower class village life in the early Roman Empire than it did with a philosophical probing of the Judean state religion, or in setting out a specific code of conduct for daily life— rather, he dealt generally in sweeping unrealistic challenges to daily life rather than in positing narrow legal rules to be followed as a code of conduct, and he leaves vague the practical decision as to how his ideas should be incorporated into daily life.

His sayings would have provoked questions with no definitive answers and his stories would have raised issues with no stated solutions. He did not engage auditors head-on with propositions and discursive arguments that led to their resolution. And thus, we are left with secular stories and brief challenging sayings, which leave auditors, and now readers, considering what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus leaves it up to the auditor— to his or her imagination and ingenuity, to make practical sense of his sayings. Today readers must struggle with the vestiges of his discourse first in terms of a first-century Palestinian setting, in which Jesus speaks to his fellow Israelites, in order to evaluate how a particular saying of Jesus may have resonated in the ancient Mediterranean world. Then readers must ponder what his words might mean for values and behaviour in the twenty-first century. A second important step here is to realize that the “meaning” of a saying is not the same under all circumstances. There is no one final irrevocable meaning to a saying for all time and every place that will be suitable as an explanation for a saying of Jesus, for “meanings” change with the “life baggage” individuals bring to the saying and with the circumstances in which the saying is considered. Meaning is individually constructed. Within certain parameters there is no one right or wrong explanation, and a range of plausible responses is always possible. The importance of this claim is its challenge to a faith dependent upon belief as a noun as opposed to a faith based on trust in human/divine co-creativity.

Matthew takes several stories well known in his small community, and borrows from Mark, and reshapes the story of Jesus needing to go to Jerusalem, into a teaching moment for his community. What we have here is Matthew looking back over some 50 to 60 years or so, on past events or stories, rather than looking forward to some expected future event. This is a primary concern of all the written material we have so while we can only ever work with story fragments, we have to presume that Jesus’ vision of God or the sacred, of wisdom beyond convention, of the central traditions or stories of Israel’s heritage, and his sensitivity to the poor and marginalised, struck his hearers as truly radical and for some, very risky. New imaginative thinking always is, and because of all of this ‘political’ stuff, Jesus died on a Roman cross. Not because of some preordained cosmic Divine Plan or Purpose which required his execution as a so-called act of redemption through blood. But because he was unwilling to compromise his vision of a possible re-imagined world. Reactors try to tighten their personal worldviews around them to protect themselves. Actors allow their lives to have spaces in them, and to greet life as ‘invitation’ rather than as ‘plan’. We are left with ‘an invitation’… in spite of the present economic circumstances or political arguments and/or grandstanding, an invitation to create our world, our community, our congregation, differently. Theology is always an ongoing activity of fresh, imaginative, and the re-construction of our understanding of the world and of God, and of human life in the world and under God.

Notes: Cupitt, D. 1995.  What is a Story? GtB: London. SCM.

Hedrick, Charles W.. The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (p. 86). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’

Posted: August 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 12A

Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10            Matthew 16: 13-20

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’

I never had the good fortune to learn languages at school but I am told that the French language has a very small number of words in comparison to English and that the various subtleties of meaning come from body language. The British, it is claimed were generally more reserved in temperament, need more words. Whereas ….The French, being perhaps more demonstrative in temperament, needed less words… And leaping ahead to today we see that one of the interesting things about Internet communication is that there are various sets of characters which are used to express, in shorthand, the spirit in which something is said. We see that a full colon followed by a dash, followed by a closing bracket, makes up a smiling face. This suggests that the preceding statement is meant to be funny not serious. But if the colon is replaced with a semicolon, this denotes a ‘wink’ – whatever a wink denotes! This is apparently the Internet way of making meaning: the spirit in which something is ‘said’.

Why that introduction? Well I suspect that when we approach the translations of the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures we need to consider that it is not just a matter of substituting a word in English for a word in Greek because there are interpretive and cultural differences involved in both the texts and the translators that colour the meanings given to the words used. Just taking one example, we see that in the Hebrew text of Isaiah from which Matthew quotes to undergird his story of the birth of Jesus there is no word let alone concept of virginity. It is only in the Greek that the understanding of virgin is present. Likewise, the Bible is not a scientific textbook.  Bishop Jack Spong writes: “Jesus could not have imagined such an idea as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity… Concepts commonplace today in the world of physics, subatomic physics, astrophysics, and cosmology would have drawn from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to say nothing of the author of the Book of Genesis, nothing except blank stares of incredulity” (Spong 1991:25).

To claim the Bible is the inerrant and authoritative word of God for all time has very little justification. Like the question of whether or not to pull down all the confederate statues that support slavery in American history is not too dissimilar from the veneration of the Bible as a Holy Bible. Why because many of us have been taught that its content is a message from God that is set in concrete.  Untouchable and the only spiritual resource. If that is the case then I guess I need to be fired and banished from the Ministry or listened to very carefully. I have been struggling lately with just what we are saying about the Bible by carrying it in and out prior to and after our services. In that simple ritual we venerate the bible and confirm many of the magic notions about it. If it is Holy, what does that mean? The reality is that it isn’t a message book. Neither is it ‘untouchable’ or holy. It is rather a very human collection of writings assembled over 1,000 years or more. And as Spong says; those who want to insist otherwise, are putting the Bible in jeopardy, and becoming, even if unwittingly, “accomplices in bringing about the death of the Christianity they so deeply love” (Spong 1991:32).

And let’s be clear also. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the Bible seriously because we should.  And when we do take the Bible seriously, a question we need to bring to every story is: “What do you make of it? not What is the meaning of the story?  You and I bring the meaning to it.  It’s not there without us reading it and getting something out of it.  We are the context in which it will be figured out and lived, if it’s worth it. This is the freedom the storytellers of our readings have and they use that freedom all the time.

Now you might be saying well if that’s the case why bother with the scriptures at all? But again that is not the only approach one can take. The scriptures are still examples of how people approached and recorded what they believed to be important. The importance was however not dependent upon a so called absolute truth or a single account of recorded fact. What we have is much richer than just a single verifiable factual account. We already know this because we have huge interpretation differences in the four Gospels of the biblical canon and the reason for the differences is that none of what we have is an original nor an eye witness account of the life of Jesus. In fact historians know very little about the personal life of an average peasant in Roman Palestine in the first half of the first century of the Common Era let alone the peasant life of the man we know as Jesus. Archaeology reveals physical aspects of the setting in which they lived out their lives and archaeologists must use artifacts and imagination to sketch out in very broad outline aspects of peasant life, but the peasant as a real flesh and blood human being remains elusive. All that remains are places and things to be pondered and interpreted. No narrative descriptions of day-to-day activities of peasant life and those of the still lower classes in the Roman province of Palestine exist. Such sources do not even exist for peasant life in the whole of the Roman Empire, where a great deal can be known about the private lives of people of means.

According to the earliest sources we have, Jesus was a first-century man from the region of Galilee, which was a part of the broader geographical area known in the Greco-Roman world as Judea. The people who populated the area were generally known by outsiders as Judeans. Jesus was the heir of the ancient Israelite religion, which in his day was associated primarily with the “land of [Judea], Jerusalem and the temple, and the cult and law as practiced there.” He belonged to the elusive impoverished classes of the greater Palestine area, and except for the early Christian gospels would have suffered the fate of oblivion, as did others of the impoverished classes of that period. We do not know for certain when he was born, his course of life, what he looked like, or where he was buried.

We have no personal information about him in contemporary documents originating in the period in which we think he lived. The earliest information we have as to his personal history is inadvertently provided by a first-century man who described himself as the apostle of Jesus. Only six personal features from the life of Jesus are mentioned by Paul, the apostle. Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4: 4)— meaning that he was a human being who was born into a social context under the authority of the Torah of the Israelite people. The names of his parents are not mentioned, which suggests they were likely unknown.

Paul’s description of the birth of Jesus does not use incarnation language such as is found in Matthew, Luke, and John. He does however in his need to hold Jesus as special indicate that Jesus is a descendant of the legendary Israelite King David (Rom 1: 3). This is suspect as an unprovable ascription of faith and Paul is using confessional language anyway. Paul also knew an apostle named James, whom he described as “the brother of the Lord” (Gal 1: 19). Again this is suspect in that in the undisputed Pauline letters the word “brother” (ἀδελφός) always refers to a religious connection (i.e., a “spiritual brother”), whereas here Paul seems to have resorted to a familial relationship to distinguish this James from another James. Paul mentions only three incidents from the life of Jesus and his failure to mention others suggests that he does not know anything like a sketch of the life course or even a career of Jesus.

According to Paul, Jesus ate a meal “on the night he was delivered over” (1 Cor 11: 23– 25). The clearly liturgical language he uses in describing the bread and the cup makes it doubtful that he knows this event independently of early practice when followers of Jesus gather. He further knows that Jesus was both crucified (Gal 3: 1) and buried (1 Cor 15: But the lack of detail does not instill any confidence that Paul has any independent information apart from what has come to him through the kerygma of the early followers gatherings. Four narratives emerge in the latter half of the first century (70– 90) purporting to describe the public career of Jesus and with these texts began the attempts to explain the origins of the church’s message. Mark, the earliest of the four writings about a generation after the death of Jesus, begins the narrative this way: “Beginning of the gospel about Jesus, the Anointed” (Mark 1: 1). What follows in Mark’s narrative is a brief abridgement of the public career of Jesus, containing examples of things Jesus said and did, things said about him, and things done to him.

The same is true for the other three gospels. Basically all four gospels are aiming to explain who this mysterious figure is that is preserved in the gospel message preached by the church (cf. 1 Cor 15: 3– 9; Acts 2: 22– 24). Only one author of the four gave a reason for writing a narrative about Jesus; Luke’s reason for writing a gospel was so that his patron would “know the truth about the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1: 4).

All four accounts, all the gospels, describe the content of that “truth” differently, and they had no primary historical sources uninfluenced by religious faith on which to draw. Scholars theorize that the basic sources used by all four are derived from a generation of oral tradition about Jesus passed along by word of mouth; this oral tradition depicts him through the eyes of faith as bigger than life. As a result, the gospels themselves belong more to the category of “evangelistic tract” or propaganda literature than they do to disinterested historical narrative. The church’s canonical gospels are not the ultimate authoritative historical descriptions of Jesus; rather they should be conceived as among the very first attempts at fleshing out the kerygma about Jesus of Nazareth on whom the church based its message, aiming, as it were, at clarifying the origins of the church.

Who do you say I am? Takes on a richer background I suggest, as the interesting feature of these four narratives is their portrayal of situations in which the contemporaries of Jesus were perplexed as to how to regard him. For example, in the synoptic gospels there are several pronouncement stories, which can be anecdotes of identity. They are comprised of a brief setting, confusion over the identity of Jesus, and conclude with a pronouncement saying. The evangelists also include other brief descriptions of reactions to Jesus in longer narrative units where people are perplexed as to his identity. Certainly these latter descriptions are novelistic and intended to heighten the mystery surrounding Jesus. But they have the added effect of introducing uncertainty into the narratives as to how Jesus should be understood. The four canonical gospels suggest that mystery had always surrounded him. In Mark’s gospel, for example, we have Jesus as both crazy and possessed, as well as common or mundane as carpenter, son of Mary, and regional as Jesus of Nazareth. He is given some are titles of community respect asteacher, 9: 17; rabbi, 9: 5; prophet, 6: 4; lord/ sir, 7: 28, 11: 3; son of David, 10: 43– 4815), and political titles (king of the Judeans, 15: 2; king of Israel, 15: 32) or enigmatic as son of man, 9: 9). The religious appellations, including those suggesting that Jesus has some special relationship to God, are not explained or clarified further in Mark (son of God, 3: 11; holy one of God, 1: 24; son of the most high God, 5: 7; the Anointed, 8: 29; the Anointed, son of the Blessed, 14: 61; a son of God, 15: 39).

Of all these Jesus is portrayed as applying only the title “son of man” to himself, and interestingly accepting the appellation of the Anointed, son of the blessed. This is the reason I have chosen to use the anointed in our community prayer. Rightly or wrongly it seemed to describe someone who was a special human being in history but not God.

The result over all this defining stuff is a confusing portrait of the protagonist of Mark’s gospel. How should a reader of Mark’s gospel describe Jesus? Is he an unschooled peasant with enough native ability to be regarded as a teacher or rabbi? Should he be included among the prophets of Israel? Did he have political aspirations? How should a reader regard the religious appellations used in Mark in the light of the other designations that seem to cast Jesus as a common man with unusual gifts (cf. Mark 2: 7)? Matthew and Luke have appellations much the same as Mark, which might prompt a similar confusion as to the identity of Jesus were it not for their birth narratives (Matt 1: 18– 2: 23; Luke 1: 5— 2: 52) that influences readers to see Jesus as a divine emissary, although they never clarify how humanity and divinity are united in the man from Galilee.

Matthew goes so far as to identify him with Lady Wisdom herself (Matt 11: 16– 19). On the other hand, the status of Jesus in the Gospel of John is heightened to the point of portraying him as a divine agent in human guise (John 1: 1– 18; 20: 28; cf. Phil 2: 5– 11).

Using these admittedly confessional narratives, as well as noncanonical sources, modern historians have been engaged for over 200 years aiming to develop a historical understanding of Jesus of Nazareth with mixed results. They have been quite successful in understanding and describing the nature of the sources, but have not been as successful in developing a historical description of Jesus that commands the general agreement of New Testament scholarship.

This means that views about Jesus of Nazareth at the end of the twentieth century have become numerous and quite different from one another. Marcus Borg has summarized at least six distinct ways of viewing Jesus as human being that have appeared in major studies. Borg elaborates further in his book but according to E. P. Sanders, “Jesus was an eschatological prophet standing in the tradition of Jewish restoration theology.” Burton Mack characterizes Jesus as a ‘Cynic sage’ or ‘Cynic teacher,’ more Hellenistic than Jewish, in a thoroughly Hellenized Galilee.” Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza regards “Jesus as a wisdom prophet and founder of a Jewish renewal movement with a socially radical vision and praxis.” Borg’s own view is that Jesus “was a charismatic healer or ‘holy person,’ a subversive sage who undermined conventional wisdom and taught an alternative wisdom, a social prophet, and initiator of a movement the purpose of which was the revitalization of Israel.” John Dominic Crossan argues that “Jesus was a Jewish Cynic peasant with an alternative social vision.” Bart Ehrman describes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who expected the end of the old world and the establishment of a new world order on earth.

Today; given the nature of the sources with which scholars must work almost any view of Jesus is possible. The most common up to date study draws on the critical eight-year sifting of the sayings of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar, and this present study aims at describing Jesus simply on the basis of those sayings that have the highest claim to have originated with him. A description of Jesus based on his sayings alone will naturally vary depending on the sayings identified as having the highest claim to have originated with him. Nevertheless, the most reasonable place to begin a study of Jesus’ ideas and character based on his own words is with the sharpest critical sifting of the sayings tradition. This study identifies a range of historical valuations of the entire data base of sayings attributed to Jesus. The “voiceprint” that emerges from such a study casts him in a rather different light from the majority of lives of Jesus published at the end of the twentieth century. The question; ‘who do you say I am?’ takes on another part of its journey. Amen.

Notes: Funk, R. W. 2002.  A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Spong, J. S. 1991.  Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco. Vosper, G. 2008.  With or Without God. Why the Way we Live is more Important that What we Believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins.

Hedrick, Charles W.. The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (p. 2). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

An Alternative to Revenge

Posted: August 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

An Alternative to Revenge

Genesis 45: 1-15,   Matthew 15: 21-28

Over the last two weeks we have been following the story of Joseph and we have been focusing on the blessing that comes after the struggle, and the consequences of the blessing being communal, collective and systemic in nature. We are all interconnected and so our blessing affects others and ultimately changes the world. Today we revisit the story reminding ourselves that his story speaks of hatred, kidnapping, plots to commit murder, being sold into slavery… In reminding ourselves we are not surprised that with all these things happening to somebody, that it would be logical in most cases to see an opportunity for an act of vengeance against those responsible for causing one’s problems. In Genesis 45, Joseph is finally in a position where he could get revenge on his brothers for everything they have done to him…. The position is that they urgently need Joseph, but Joseph certainly does not need them! The Pharaoh’s dream of famine has become a reality and, thanks to Joseph’s interpretation of this dream, Egypt has an abundance of grain. But rather than seize this golden opportunity to take revenge on his brothers, Joseph, instead, chooses to provide for them and their families in their time of need.

Despite having been treated like dirt and subjected to a catalogue of pain and suffering, Joseph chooses to receive his brothers, embrace them and forgive them. Here in Genesis 45, we are presented with the culmination of Joseph’s rags to riches story as well as a powerful example of forgiveness. We also read of how God used the despicable actions of Joseph’s brothers to pave a way for Joseph’s involvement in the birth of the nation of Israel. If we read on to Genesis 50, we learn that Joseph understands now that his brothers’ actions were ‘intended to harm him, but God intended it for good to accomplish what then being done, the saving of many lives’ (Gen 50:20).

Today we also read from Matthew where we learn of what has been called, The Scandal of the Gospels, “The Pharisees and the Canaanite Woman,” Some lectionaries give the option of including the story of the Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees before his encounter with the Canaanite woman. In that story Jesus says offensive things to the Pharisees, too, but we don’t generally blink an eye at that anymore. For Jesus’ original audience it would have been the other way around: they would have been very uncomfortable with the offensive things Jesus said to the Pharisees, and they wouldn’t have blinked an eye at what he said to the Canaanite woman. The thing is that when we read these two stories together we find quite a contrast: The Pharisees are offended; the Canaanite woman is not offended. The stark contrast is revelatory, for the opposite of offense is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offense…. The central issue is offense versus faith. And it is posed in a highly offensive way: pious and law-abiding Pharisees lack faith, and a Gentile dog has great faith. What Jesus said to John the Baptist’s disciples in Matthew 11:6 broods over this narrative as a kind of suspended challenge to the characters in the text and to readers of the text: ‘Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ (p. 19)

To gauge the seriousness of this we note that Matthew uses the same word ‘Skandalon’ or as we have said “offense” 19 out of all occurrences with a heavy concentration of it in the middle section. Brian D McLaren in a section from his book ‘Everything Must Change, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope’ makes a similar suggestion. In the section ‘A Radical Assessment of Jesus and the chapter entitled ‘Joining the Peace Insurgency’ he brings in this troubling story of Jesus and the “Canaanite” woman, to undertake the postmodern task of recovering the anti-imperialist readings of the Bible. He begins this piece by saying that, we are in the early stages of a radical reassessment of Jesus. More and more of us realize how religious communities can be complicit with imperial narratives and edit their version of Jesus to fit their narrative. Just look at the colour of Jesus skin in most western images. More and more of us understand Jesus’ life and message as being centered on the articulation and demonstration of a radically different framing story. Most of us now believe that the Jesus story is one that critiques and exposes the imperial narrative as dangerous to itself and others. One could even say that the popularity of facebook and all social media are examples of an attack on empire. More and more of us are discovering a fresh vision of a Jesus who seems less moody, irrational, and bipolar, and more consistent, focused, courageous, subversive, and brilliant. Along with the knowing less about him historically comes the more detail of his message.

Obviously, in this emerging reading phrases like “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), : “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), and “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) are deeply significant. But in this alternative reading, many other stories of Jesus take on a powerful new luminosity as well, charged with mystery and wonder and dynamism in stark contrast to imperial narratives and counternarratives. It is no longer good enough to accept the simple ideologically driven narrative. We know more keenly that life is not like that. It is complex and fluid and subject to perception at the time.

A prime example would be Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28), which has been read provocatively by Grant LeMarquand. (pp. 154-55) where he says that the key to seeing that Matthew might be doing something different here is that he changes Mark’s “Syro-Phoenician” woman to a “Canaanite” woman, which is an anachronistic term in the first century, like calling a modern Norwegian person a Viking. But “Canaanite” fits well to the time of Joshua and his conquest of the Promised Land.

Is Matthew’s Jesus reconstituting that conquest? McLaren has an engaging reading of 15:21-28 itself, but the overall clue as to reconstituting conquest appears through what comes next in Matthew’s story of Jesus: healing of Gentile crowds (Matthew tells us they are Gentiles by remarking that “they praised the God of Israel”; Matt. 15:31) and then a repeat of the miraculous feeding. In the first feeding with Jews (14:13-21), there is a hint of reconstitution by the gathering of twelve baskets leftover, for the twelve tribes of Israel.

In the second feeding with Gentiles (15:32-38), there are seven baskets leftover. If we look for a similar symbolism of reconstitution, we might look to the time of the “Canaanites.” As the people of Israel stand poised for conquest of that land, Moses says to them: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)


In the first encounter with the seven nations of “Canaanites,” they are to show no mercy. But Matthew’s Jesus has come to teach them something different, to learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (with Matthew’s Jesus twice quoting Hosea 6:6 in Matt. 9:13 and 12:7). McLaren concludes: “If Jesus’ first feeding miracle and its twelve-basket surplus suggest a reconstitution of the twelve tribes being led through the wilderness with a new kind of manna, then this second feeding miracle suggests a new kind of conquest — not with swords and spears, but with bread and fish; not to destroy, but to serve and heal. Here, Jesus seizes the old narrative, shakes it, turns it inside out, and offers a new story that reframes a future radically different from the past. (p. 158)

This reconstituting relationships with Gentiles begins with the encounter with the “Canaanite” woman, who seems to remind Jesus of what the promise to Abraham and Sarah is really all about. She doesn’t begrudge Jesus the fact of his mission with his own people who have lost their way (Jesus himself calling them “lost sheep”). But she knows that if he is successful with his own people in helping them to find their way again, that she will at least receive scraps from their table. For the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and Sarah is not for Jews to be blessed for their own sake but that they might become a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3). One might also see this as the suggestion by McLaren that the task is to move beyond believing the faith as a way to the afterlife and move to practicing the faith in ways that make a difference in the here and now.

We might also note here is that the Matthew 15 Jesus is reconstituting Joshua’s conquest of Canaan with healing and food for the hungry instead of militaristic genocide. Jesus and Joshua are the same name, the latter translated into English directly from the original Hebrew and the former filtered through the Greek translation. In short, Matthew 15 is a contrast between the conquering styles of these two Joshua’s. Grammatically, it is said we can see this reading as the subjective reading of the genitive where Jesus is the conqueror. But there is also the objective reading where Jesus is the conquered. In fact, it may be that it is not just the woman who is converted, but Jesus himself. In the midst of his testing of this woman, Jesus’ attitude appears to shift. She is at first a non-entity; she is ignored. Next she is addressed, but Jesus’ words to her are simply an explanation of her exclusion (‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ 15:24). Finally, Jesus hears the faith behind her plea, grants her request, and heals her daughter (15:28). It appears that Jesus has been turned; he has been confronted with and has learned the meaning of his own teaching concerning ‘mercy’ The story of the Canaanite woman is a story of Jesus’ own “conversion.” In this narrative the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.

Is this an either/or? Do we have to choose between a Jesus who knowingly goes into Gentile land as a different kind of conqueror than the Joshua of roughly fourteen centuries earlier, thus playing games with Canaanite woman whom he foreknows to have faith? Or is the choice a Jesus who is taught a lesson by this Canaanite woman and then puts it to use right away in Gentile territory? Or is there a third choice that is not about reading it as either active or passive, as inflicting violence or suffering violence, but rather about actively choosing to suffer violence rather than inflict it, (as in ‘turning the other cheek’).

“The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus” isn’t simply between Jesus as either the conqueror or the conquered. The distinctive third option would be both: Jesus is first and foremost a conqueror by purposefully letting himself be ‘conquered’. So, yes, Jesus does enter into the conversation foreknowing that this woman’s faith is up to the test. But instead of flaunting this foreknowledge, or intuition, he lets himself look like an abuser. He lets the tables be turned so that, in an act of faith (not violence), “the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite,”. The ultimate turning of the tables — a “subversion from within,” is to subvert the entire process of conquering by letting oneself be conquered. And, as with the cross and resurrection, this conquering immediately shows itself as the power to heal and nourish in the subsequent episodes of Matthew 15 — namely, the power of God’s merciful love.

What happens here is that our experience of God is reconstituted. Instead of a god who shows no mercy through the first Joshua, we meet a God of mercy through a new Joshua, who shows forth that mercy, first of all, through the willingness to suffer violence rather than inflict it, and then, second of all, as the true power of life itself, rather than of death — namely, through the power to heal the sick and nourish a crowd.

Matthew’s version of this story makes a confession: Our ancestors, led by Moses and Joshua, believed God sent them into the world in conquest, to show no mercy to their enemies, to defeat and kill them. But now, following Christ, we hear God giving us a higher mission. Now we believe God sends us into the world in compassion, to show mercy, to heal, to feed, to nurture and protect life rather than take it.

Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past, and it is still all too common in the present. How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent? We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us toward a better vision of kindness, reconciliation, and peace for our future and for our children’s future.

Matthew’s calling the woman a Canaanite was an anachronism that recalled Israel’s historical relationship with this people, in much the same way that calling a contemporary Danish woman a Viking would invoke ten centuries of history for us. Jesus would have grown up absorbing his people’s tradition that the Canaanites were the worst of enemies, enemies to be exterminated by the likes of Joshua, enemies who were periodic oppressors of Israel in the period of the Judges. Worst of all, Canaanites were dangerous because they tempted the Israelites to forsake their God in favor of their idols and sacrificial practices. Mark gave the woman the more up-to-date designation of a Syrophoenician. This meant she was a member of the oppressing class of the Roman Empire, which made victims of the Jews. Starting from early childhood, Jesus would have taken in this adversarial relationship before he knew what had possessed him. With this cultural inheritance, it is understandable, if not commendable, that Jesus would speak harshly to a Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman who came to him for help. Many commentators try to get out of this difficulty by suggesting that Jesus was just testing the woman. That is possible but I would like to follow up the ramifications of accepting the plain sense of this story.

The Canaanite woman’s retort is justly famous for its cleverness and humility, qualities that make her words subversive. Jesus seems as amazed by her faith as he is by the faith of the centurion who asked him to heal his servant. (Mt. 8:10) That the woman asked for the deliverance of a daughter possessed by a demon may have aroused Jesus’ sympathy. The Gerasene Demoniac had shown Jesus how a dysfunctional culture can possess a person and need to be exorcized. That this woman wanted her daughter delivered of the demon possessing her own culture would alert Jesus of the need to eject the demon of hatred of the Canaanites that had possessed his own culture. This understanding of the story has Jesus modeling the ability and willingness to overcome an ancestral enmity by listening deeply to the reality of a person in need so that she ceases to be an enemy. We desperately need to learn to follow this kind of example offered by Jesus today. Especially it seems when we perceive that we are on the brink of a third world war. What is all this violence if not the attempt to impose empire on one another. Is there not another way? Amen.


‘A New Perspective’

Posted: August 8, 2017 in Uncategorized

‘A New Perspective’

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28       Matthew 14:22-33

Last week’s readings were about the blessing found beyond personal suffering. The claim that even the most disastrous person circumstances are overcome by God’s blessing. This week’s readings take this a further step in that they are about God’s safekeeping of fallible, wayward, and mortal humanity. Here is the presence of God’s grace for the collective, the community and the nation, in fact for humanity in the big picture. At the individual level God responds to all who call upon God. God in fact desires to save persons in distress; in this we can trust or have faith. This week however we need to ponder the circuitous routes of salvation or wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered – violence still takes the lives of innocents, often through the machinations of religious zealots; young children still die of cancer; homes are still foreclosed forcing families to depend on the mercy of strangers; and pleas for rescue from domestic violence still go unnoticed. In the bigger picture these can be discarded as just a biological reality or a human animalistic reality but I want to explore this bigger picture, seeking a third way that is in the collective, in the humanity picture because I think this trust or faith takes on a new dimension there.

We are again reminded of Jacob and his family in this week’s Hebraic scripture reading. We are again reminded of this dysfunctional family, headed by a narcissistic parent. Perhaps, Jacob can’t help it; but the child of his later years is his favourite. He treats him with greater affection and gives him more opportunities to shine and grow than his brothers, and they are rightfully angry. Perhaps, Jacob sees himself in his youngest son; and Joseph has an intuitive sense that mirrors his father’s experiences of the Holy and a cocky attitude that mirrors his own youthful self-confidence. Some of Josephs later arrogance highlights this. To make matters worse, Joseph knows he is the favourite, and lacks the maturity to filter his dream-sharing as they relate to his brothers.

The brothers conspire to kill the favoured son. But, they don’t go through with it, instead selling him into slavery which appears preferable to killing him. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that God’s aim in any given situation is the “best for that impasse” and this “best” may not always be very good. Contextually, sometimes our level of previous choices, spiritual maturity and ethical understanding limits our possible courses of action. Sometimes no truly ‘good’ decision is possible; simply the least damaging one. This again highlights the application of individualism to all things. Sometimes it doesn’t fit, and we need another dimension. Justice for the individual is sometimes in conflict with justice for the collective.

Jacob survives and eventually saves his family. He grows through his experiences and overcomes his alienation. “In all things God works for good,” as Paul notes in Romans 8. God was moving through this less than optimal decision to bring forth future decisions and actions by Jacob, such that what his brothers aimed for as revenge or an act of evil evil, God turned to good. (Genesis 50:20) While not agreeing to the interventionist God assumptions we can recognize the evolutional reality here.

When we go to Psalm 105 from our lectionary readings we find it is a hymn to God’s deliverance of Israel. God is at work in the details of lives, large and small, to secure people’s well-being. God’s rescue and ongoing inspiration of Joseph enabled the Israelites to flourish in the centuries ahead. Simplistically we can say God chooses all, but works in each person’s life to realize God’s Shalom in our world. Here again we have the inference that the part of the individual has a collective element to it. We are never alone even when we think we are. Our revenge has consequences that are not simply a solely focused outcome. The act is always consequentially far reaching. God’s Shalom is not just ours.

To add to this from our Romans readings we recall the saying that; “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” We know that this passage has led to a variety of interpretations, some of which implied that God only loved some of God’s children, predestined others to damnation, or that those who don’t explicitly believe are left out of God’s plan and will suffer the consequences of divine abandonment. The passage raises many possible interpretations, inclusive and exclusive in nature. It can and has been viewed primarily as a doctrinal litmus test, defining those who are in or out, but it can be viewed more inclusively, if taken in its fullest context, the salvation of both Jew and Gentile. It can be interpreted holistically to embrace the confession of our lives as well as our words and this lifts it from just a reasoned basis.

While we can’t fully ascertain Paul’s exact intention, the passage seems to say that salvation and wholeness are for all people and all nations and not exclusive to religious and ethnic Jews. This is a radical statement that challenges any parochial images of God or divine favoritism because it claims that God favours all people. Moreover, all who call upon God will be saved. Any who ask for divine help, even if they lack words or theology, will be welcomed into God’s realm. This again is an expansion of the individual call and the promise.

Again, this is also the claim like that which Paul makes; that faith and action go together. As the Quakers say, “let your life speak.” Our lives are our testimonies to our faith. Apart from love, doctrine is lifeless; faith without works is dead; doctrine without welcome is destructive. We might also say yes and when we confess our faith in our daily living we change the world. When we do good, wonders happen that are not personal or limited to just who we are but rather they change nations directions, they transform communities and it doesn’t even stop there.

This week’s gospel begins with Jesus at prayer. Here we have action leading to contemplation in the rhythm of faith and personal well-being. After transforming – by what means we don’t know – after transforming, which appears as an act of the individual’s effort, something new emerges, something huge takes place, a few loaves and fish become a banquet and a day of preaching and teaching, Jesus then retires to a quiet place to commune with God. It is important and true that our worship involves the private aspects of faith but it also requires the public connection. We need to gather as a community and to reach out to the world; we also need to be still and listen for God’s voice in stillness, in the still small voice, as well as maelstrom of daily events.

From silence Jesus goes into action, riding the waves to meet his followers. Once again, they are afraid of the storm. Jesus reassures them that all will be well, inspiring Peter to jump out of the boat. As long as Peter looks to Jesus, he can walk on water. The moment he is overcome by fear, he sinks. When he cries out, seeking salvation, Jesus rescues him, without judgment or recrimination. “Help” or “Save me” are sometimes triggers to the all-important vulnerability that keeps us true and faith-filled. Today’s readings invite us to look to God for our salvation, deliverance, and wholeness. Here again this is more than belief. more than a therapy of comfort. It is not about blindly accepting an idea and moving on. When we keep our eyes on the human Jesus, we gain perspective on life and see the storms and trials of life in terms of the collective and communal movements in our lives and not expect the impossible infallibility of our individualistic efforts. We are never alone. In traditional language, our prayers touch the heart of God, and receive God’s response in the midst of life’s often challenging and difficult moments. Opening to our God gives us an understanding of the nature of reality and a way of approaching that reality especially in situations we cannot change.

I want to summarize what I think I am arguing for by getting a bit technical because as always, I want to try to place my argument in the realm of philosophy and science as well as the biblical story. I try this because I am convinced that all things must gel for us to be on the right path. Or in other words all thinking needs to be inclusive of the whole or at least critiqued by it. I want to quote something from Peter Todd’s book The Individuation of God because I think it helps with a picture of the cosmic, complete co-creative relationship between God and Man. And it provides I think the argument that consciousness in a collective form is as Todd puts it the organizing principle. To help with this it might be seen that Teilhard de Chardin saw this clearly when he saw that evolution has become both conscious of itself and directed, manifesting the very self-organizing mechanisms that sustain its upward and forward movement.

An example of this perhaps is that when someone like a friend of St David’s loves the old brick building so much as to pour copious amounts of energy or dollars into saving it, it is not just about the building. It is not just limited to the way in which each brick clings to another. There is a symbolic meaning that is encoded in the structure as a whole that transcends any understanding of the composition of the bricks and mortar. Thats why the ‘must be saved’ becomes the ‘will be saved’. It is a historical and theological belief encoded as information in its structure. A friend of St David’s might be deluded when it comes to their theological justification but they are not unconscious. As Pribam puts it ‘Through consciousness we become related to each other and to the biological and physical universe and just as gravity relates material bodies so consciousness relates sentient bodies.

Just to leap off again, this suggests to me that the whole seemingly frightening world of artificial intelligence, of robots that think and play like humans is not knew. It is merely another manifestation of this God, human relationship, even if perhaps there is still some way to go to understand what our being human really is. And to go back to an earlier sermon and my suggestion about the so-called demise of the church and of religion as just a further evolution of this God man relationship, engaging in a more collective realm like that of the collective consciousness.

To suggest another example to hopefully explain what I mean we might suggest that this more than the individual, this sense of a collective consciousness is sadly challenged by the heritage people who just want to save a building because it has aesthetic merit, not because that is bad but rather because it is a limited approach. It is an attempt to cling to classic physics and ideas that are no longer adequate treatment of the phenomena of what we understand life and consciousness to be today. In fact to do this in a post quantum mechanical era such indulgences are both scientifically slothful and deceitful, because quantum laws demand an internalist understanding of matter and in particular life and Biosystems. In other words what we know about the place of buildings in human life is distorted when we only see bricks and mortar.

Like the blessing Jacob receives beyond all his behaviour and his view of life there is a collective dimension, a collective consciousness, where no one is alone, no one is abandoned, no one is isolated but rather interdependent, interrelated and this is a place of co-creation, a place where science and religion are one, and as Todd might say a place where there is the individuation of God and I would argue a place where we are at one with our God. Amen.

Dark Struggles, Divine Blessings:

Genesis 32:22–31     Matthew 14:13–21

Jacob was a man on the run. Deep-seated family hostilities characterized Jacob’s entire life. Jacob and his fraternal twin Esau grew up hating each other and he also swindled Esau of his family birthright, which entitled him to a double share of the family inheritance. Later, he and Rebekkah lied and connived to swindle the family blessing from his blind and dying father. When Esau threatened to murder him, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in Haran, the very place his grandfather Abraham had departed. Jacob married his cousins Rachel and Leah, and eventually fathered thirteen children with them and their two slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah. But it doesn’t end there.

Sick of his father-in-law’s manipulations, Jacob fled Laban, only to encounter his long lost and embittered brother Esau. Jacob the consummate deal-maker, concocted a bribe and sent a caravan of gifts along with his women and children across the river Jabbok. Perhaps that would pacify his brother’s murderous threats? Physically exhausted and deeply anxious about Esau, alone in the desert wilderness, shorn of all his considerable worldly possessions, powerless to control his fate, Jacob collapsed into a deep sleep on the banks of the Jabbok River. With Laban behind him and Esau before him, he was too spent to struggle any longer.

But only then did his real struggle begin. Fleeing his family history had been bad enough; wrestling with God Himself was a different matter altogether. During that long, lonesome night an angelic stranger visited Jacob. They wrestled throughout the night until daybreak, at which point the stranger crippled Jacob with a blow to his hip that disabled him with a limp for the rest of his life. By then Jacob knew what had happened: “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” he says. (Genesis 32:30). In the process, Jacob the Deceiver, for such is the meaning of “Jacob,” received a new name, Israel, which likely means “He struggles with God.” Most important and unlikely of all, at the conclusion of that riverbank struggle, we read that God “blessed him there” (Genesis 32:29).

In our culture at large, the myths of success, achievement, and certainty, live large. We celebrate wealth, power, strength, bravado, confidence, prestige and victory, beginning with sport at all levels, schools at certain deciles and jobs of prestige and income levels. Our first job, our first home. We abhor and fear weakness, failure, struggle, and doubt. One homeless person can create a reaction based in fear far greater than someone who rents a hovel. At least they are trying to better themselves we say of the renter as if it is somehow better status to live in a hovel than it is to live on the street. Even though we know that a measure of vulnerability, fear, discouragement and depression accompany most normal lives, we construe these extreme examples of life as signs of failure or even a lack of faith. In real life, naieve optimism and the rosy rhetoric about the state of achievement are a recipe for disappointment and discouragement. Sooner or later reality catches up with most of us. There but for the grace of God go I we say, as a way of countering the fact that the myth of achievement is fragile and suspect.

The Jacob story jerks us back to reality as well. Frederick Buechner characterizes Jacob’s divine encounter at Jabbok as the “magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” Similarly, in her book Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope, the Benedictine nun and writer Joan Chittister uses the Jacob story as a paradigm for a “spirituality of struggle.” In Jacob’s story she identifies eight elements of our human struggle — change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring. Did not Paul himself describe being “harassed at every turn — conflicts without, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5)? But God does not leave us there, says Chittister, and in each human struggle there is a corresponding divine gift available to us — conversion, independence, faith, courage, surrender, limitations, endurance, and transformation. “Jacob does what all of us must do,” writes Chittister, “if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.”

The end result of the nocturnal struggle for this cheater and liar was God’s blessing: “God blessed Jacob there” (32:29). When you read further in Jacob’s story these twin themes of dark struggles accompanied by divine blessing continue to be intertwined. His daughter Dinah was raped. Two of his sons, Reuben and Judah, committed incest. As if to mimic his own parents who favored him over his twin brother Esau, Jacob played favorites with his own son Joseph, sewing seeds of fraternal enmity for all. And yet, God renewed the covenant with him. “God appeared to him again and blessed him” (35:9). Late in life he reminisced, “God almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there He blessed me” (48:3).


Contrary to cultural propaganda about the place of achievement, the human struggle is never easy, and certainly not the struggle with God. But the struggle is never devoid of divine presence and blessing. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis reminds us that the divine-human struggle is neither tidy nor tame, but it is still one we can live with confidence. Susan and Lucy ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to describe Aslan (Lewis’s representation of Jesus). They ask if Aslan is a man. Mr. Beaver replies. “Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion– the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Jacob’s struggle at Jabbok reminds us of this truth, that God is good, but not safe. We may well struggle with God through the night, but by daybreak God only intends to bless us.

And to leap to our new testament reading we first need to resist the temptation to call Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand a miracle. Not as a way of theologically skirting around miracles because there are in fact everyday miracles in life, but rather as a way of not missing the others in the text.

While we can debate whether Jesus suspended the natural order to feed the five thousand or whether his example merely prompted the crowd to share what it already had, these weren’t the concerns of the earliest Christians. Rather the wonders Jesus performed were, as John is most consistently adamant about, always signs of the character of the God whose presence Jesus seems to bear.

Which is what brings us to the first of two miracles described in this story that are anything but pedestrian: the point isn’t what Jesus does, but why. Because the character of the God Jesus reveals and represents is captured in a single word, “compassion.” Matthew says that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him he had compassion on them. And so he healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.

Notice, before going further in the story, the context of this scene. It begins with the transitional line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” The thing Jesus just heard about was John the Baptist’s murder by King Herod at a feast. The juxtaposition couldn’t be more ironic, or powerful. One moment Matthew invites us to focus on one more episode from the “lifestyles of the rich and shameless” and in the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick, and hungry crowds looking for relief. Matthew is indicating by these contrasting scenes just what kind of God Jesus represents.

In the first century, gods aren’t normally supposed to care about people like the crowds. The gods of the ancient philosophers, for instance, were considered dispassionate and so were regularly referred to by cozy names like “the Unmoved Mover” or “First Cause.” At the other end of the spectrum, the gods of the Greek and Roman empires were notorious for using humans as playthings and for ordering the world to their whims. At best, gods were supposed to take the side of the rich and powerful, to stand with people like Herod and his well-fed party guests, sanctioning their exploitation of the poor and even the bloody murder of a truth-teller like John. They were definitely not known for siding with the oppressed, the ordinary, the downtrodden, or the hungry. The prosperity gospel has been around a long time it seems.

And yet that’s what happens here, as Jesus renews, embodies, and fulfills the consistent call of the God of Israel to feed the hungry. We recall that this was no minor endeavour, as what we now call “food scarcity” wasn’t only known in the ancient world, it was rampant. And so the disciples’ suggestion that these hordes of people go buy food isn’t just unrealistic – they are, after all, out in a deserted place – it’s ridiculous…and even a little insulting, as the folks making up these desperate crowds probably didn’t have money to buy food in the first place. And so Jesus tells his disciples to get over their callous self-concern and feed them themselves.

Which brings us to the second miracle of the story: Jesus uses the disciples, even when they would rather look after themselves, to tend the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. Using words and actions foreshadowing the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial skepticism, or doubt, or self-preoccupation, the disciples are caught up in Jesus words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what they have and participate in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples, that is, to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.

And that miracle continues. When a university trained high achiever turns down a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When a church makes the wrenchingly difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, miracles abound. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.

Because the real wonder of these two stories is that goodness and compassion, continue: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the shallow youth, the deceiver, the consummate deal maker, the manipulator, the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to care for them. The wrestling with God is necessary as it depicts the reality of life and the nature of the wrestling depicts the severity of life’s wrestle, yet such wrestling also reveals the miracles of living. The opportunities for compassion, and love. Amen.