Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 9 & 10

In the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7, Jesus teaches—a lot of information. In chapter 8, he is on the move, and here in chapters 9-10 he continues moving about the countryside, covering a lot of territory (by walking, remember!) and doing a wide variety of things.

The main things that are happening in these chapters are healing and calling of the disciples. In both of these things, there is a distinction, a setting apart: the kinds of things Jesus does in his ministry are different from what religious leaders have traditionally done, different from what the scribes and Pharisees do.

1. Jesus is a healer, and a very comprehensive one. Jesus heals leprosy, fever, paralysis, demon possession, hemorrhage, blindness, muteness, those near death, and “every disease and every sickness”. Without medical training or equipment, Jesus can make people whole with just a word and a touch.

Q: Do you think this catalog of Jesus’ healing feats is meant to convince us that God can cure the same things among us? Or does it show us the breadth of God’s care, how deep and broad is the arena in which God does wonders?

Many of these stories include an aspect of spiritual or communal healing that we may miss, in addition to the physical healing. Skin conditions and ailments involving blood were violations of purity laws in Jewish culture, which resulted in the ostracizing of those who suffered them. By restoring the skin or healing the wound or condition, Jesus also repaired the social and legal gap, enabling the person to return to community, including living among family, working in their trade, and participating in worship.

Q: How has Jesus healed you, physically, spiritually, or emotionally?

2. Jesus gathers people to work with him, and seems to be fairly lax in his standards. He does not invite the scribes and Pharisees--religious leaders—to do religious work with him. He invites ordinary people to be holy together, to be God’s presence in the world however they can do that. The fishermen bring what they know (those nets and boats get used a lot!), the tax collector brings what he knows, they learn together and do more things. But they aren’t just squeezing this work in on the side—Jesus sets them apart for a specific purpose, to follow him, not only where he goes but HOW he lives, works, moves, interacts in the world.

Q: What would Jesus ask you to “bring along” for ministry?

The “setting apart” is quickly noticed: the disciples and Jesus are criticized for doing things their own way. They don’t wash right, they don’t eat with the right people, they don’t follow the rules; they’re not very popular but they are very noticeable. In chapter 10, Jesus begins to warn them that the going will get rough, but it’s time to get going, nonetheless.

Q: What things do you do because of your faith that are not popular or are misunderstood by others?

Q: What “rules” does our church/tradition have that are more a hindrance than a help for God’s mission?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 5 & 6, part 3

This section continues a pattern from 5:17-38 where Jesus radicalizes the law. Yet this section also represents a shift as Jesus turns from the internal relationships of the alternative community toward how the community will relate to others, especially hostile others. Jesus turns the community toward the abusive others and suggests strategies that will break the cycles of violence perpetuated by their enemies while asserting the community’s own dignity as children of God.
The title of this section is Holy Resisting, not Spineless Acquiescing! Walter Wink has done some fine work on the meaning of these instructions.# Jesus assumes in this section that his audience consists of those being harmed whether by being struck, sued, or forced by someone else. How might they respond to the violence being perpetrated against them?
The first issue involves being struck. The law had allowed “an eye for an eye”. This allowance did not originally serve as a rallying cry for vengeance as it does today. This law placed limits on retribution. An eye for an eye meant one could not, for example, take another’s life for striking out their eye. Punishment could be commensurate with the offense and no more. But Jesus radicalizes this command as he has with the others. Jesus suggests responses to Roman violence. Acts of violence carry symbolic value that sometimes surpasses the physical pain involved. Slapping someone less powerful with the back of the hand would not hurt physically as much as a fist to the cheek would, but it carried a psychological element that put “lesser” people in their place. Jesus describes someone who is backslapped since they are struck on the right cheek in a culture that only used the right hand in public interaction [since the left had unclean functions.] When Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek”, he calls for a situation where one stands up to one’s enemy and requires him to stop the violence or to at least strike one as “an equal” [right hand fist or slap to the left cheek.].
We too assign different meaning to different acts of violence. We respond differently to a parent who spanks her five year old than we would to one who punches her. When I ask a male student if he would rather receive a knock out punch at a campus party or have an enemy take him over the knee and spank him in front of everyone, his answer is clear. Though the physical pain is less, the shame carried in the spanking makes the punch preferable. Likewise in Jesus’ day violent acts could carry shame. In one legal code that Wink describes, an unprovoked punch by one of equal status is subject to a fine of four days worth of wages; but a slap levies a fine that costs 200 days’ wages and a backslap even twice that amount! Jesus says that in an undesirable situation where someone, probably a soldier, tries to put people in their place, they should stand up and reassert their dignity without themselves resorting to violence.
Jesus raises a similar strategy in two other cases. If someone rich enough to loan money takes them to court demanding their last resort collateral [their coat] then they should let that person know how destitute he leaves them by handing over every stitch of clothing that they have on! He must see how he robs them of everything. If a soldier conscripts them to carries his pack to the Roman limit of one mile, then keep carrying it a second mile so that the soldier must beg for it back or suffer the wrath of his superiors who know that the populace can only be abused so far before they begin to rebel. [Soldiers who forced peasants beyond the official limits might suffer loss of pay, food, or rank. Most often they would be publicly whipped.]
In each of these examples Jesus describes ways to challenge the way things run by refusing to accept that which seeks to humiliate! The alternative community refuses to accept their dishonoring by the powerful, knowing that God has declared them blessed! But they also do not take up weapons of retaliation. They offer holy resistance rather than violent resistance.
The remainder of this section speaks of the need to love enemies. The faithful resisters will respect the humanity of their abusers and not stoop to their level. Jesus demands that their love move beyond the community in solidarity. They must have respectful regard of all people without discrimination since God is perfectly consistent in caring for all people. The justice that they hungered and thirsted for is this greater justice for all people. In their quest to care they must be perfectly consistent, like God, in caring for all!

Bible Study: Matthew 5 & 6, part 2

Holy Reconciling: Matthew 5:17-37

Having offered his followers an identity very different than the one offered by the Roman appraisal of them, Jesus turns to the practices that he expects for the community gathered around this alternative vision. Jesus reaches into the law and the prophets to find the model for godly living. He has not come to set aside even a stroke of the law but has come to fulfill it (Mt 5:18). Yet this does not mean that things will continue as they have been operating. Jesus becomes the authoritative interpreter who will teach them righteousness or justice that surpasses the practices of the religious establishment (Mt 5:20).

Jesus is aware that those who have lived their lives under violent powers will be tempted to use the same violence toward others. Having been threatened, they may turn to people in their own community with threats; having been insulted by the powerful, they may use their power to degrade others. Jesus interprets the law radically identifying God’s intent: they are not to will harm for anyone in their community. At this point, the concern focuses on internal relationships, that is, how members of the community will treat their “brother or sister” (Mt 5:22). Murder is not only carried out by the sword. Abusive anger and scathing insults directed against other members of the community violate God’s command for life.

Worship also is to take place within the context of whole relationships. If a member has offended another, he must go and seek reconciliation with her before offering gifts to God. Right relationship with God should be sought within the context of right relationships with others in the community of faith. Gifts are offered to God only after one has pursued reconciliation with the parties that one has harmed. Thus worship and our offerings to God cannot be used to justify unjust and broken relationships. Followers of this new way must seek out reconciliation with those whom they have harmed before they find themselves morally bankrupt in the presence of a judge. To nurture old animosities rather than to seek healing with another again locks up people in prisons of their own making.

Jesus continues his mapping of communal relationships and his reinterpreting and radicalizing of the law. In each case he interprets prohibitions in light of their disintegrating effects on communal life. Adultery is not only about sleeping with those who are not one’s marriage partners; it is about making others into objects of one’s own fantasies. The use of others to satisfy one’s own base needs makes them into objects rather than people to relate to as fellow children of God. Such attitudes lead to hell and havoc for the community. Jesus calls for people to remove from themselves all that violates their integrity. He desires whole people holistically seeking the Empire of God. Hungering lustfully over others takes away from the hunger and thirst for justice on their behalf. Similarly, the practice of dismissing or divorcing the person whom one has pledged to care for leads to a break down of community. People are not objects to be disposed of based on personal whims.

Finally, Jesus challenges the interpretation of the law that suggests that one must speak truth when an oath is taken; but, that, therefore one may lie at other times. Integrity–that is the whole, single-minded focus–requires that one’s word be consistently dependable. When one utters “yes” then the meaning is always “yes”; when one declares “no” the meaning will always be a clear “no”.

In this section Jesus has offered his radical interpretation of the law that provides the grounds for healthy community living. Within the community of faith people are not to replicate the control and violence that they suffer in the broader world. They are to use words to build each other up rather than to tear each other down. They are to own up to the harm they have caused others and seek reconciliation with them. They are to treat each other with respect and not make objects of others. They are to care for each other for the long haul and not dispose of each other when conflicts arise. They are to live with integrity, totally dedicated to following their hunger for justice so that unrighteousness does not derail this utterly essential quest for wellbeing for all.

Bible Study: Matthew 5 & 6

Hey, folks, I'm at camp this week, so we're having a guest Bible study leader: Phil Ruge-Jones. He already wrote a study on this portion of Matthew, so I'm shamelessly pilfering it (with his permission). Thanks!

Holy Blessings: Matthew 5:1-18

As the Sermon on the Mount begins, Jesus, like Moses, reveals God’s will to his followers amidst mountain scenery. He explains God’s way of perceiving the world, focusing on all those who had suffered under Roman occupation. He begins his sermon not with imperatives of how they should act, but with a gracious declaration of that which Rome is unable to see–they are beloved children of God. Jesus blesses those beleaguered followers. Jesus declares various groups of people blessed. And in the hearing of his word, they know themselves to be blessed. Before Jesus starts telling them how to live, he gives them a sure and secure identity. You are blessed! Their new way of life begins by receiving the respect and gracious regard that God offers. Just as Jesus’ ministry began with God’s declaration, “This is my Son…”, their action will flow out of the solid, new identity that God offers them as a community. “You-all who are poor in spirit” are blessed “in the Empire of Heaven.”

The crowds who hear him say these words have already experienced the blessing of his healing power. This is what drew them to follow him (See Mt 4:24-25a). We can be sure that these people were poor by any standards we normally use. The vast majority of people in Jesus’ time lived from day to day. Subsistence rather than blessedness was the norm. Yet Jesus tenderly speaks them into a new realm.

The word repeated throughout this opening is “blessed” and this word brings about what it declares. People understand themselves as blessed in the very hearing of the word. Jesus declares that the poor in spirit, those at the bottom of Rome’s priorities, are central in God’s Empire. Likewise those who know tears now will rejoice. Also those who are meek, not the power players, will inherit the land. The first groups named are described in terms of what has been done to them–they have been left poor, grieving, and robbed of pride. This has created a longing for a different kind of world, a world Jesus is opening up to them through the word he speaks.

Jesus then blesses those who define their lives along alternative lines. To use the moving image of Gandhi, they have become the
change that they long to see in the world. Although they have been beaten down, their spirit is not destroyed. They hunger for the world made new in justice and righteousness. They act with mercy and single-hearted focus; they seek peace in the midst of the violence. Jesus is no idealist here. He understands that such a commitment is costly. They will be persecuted for their quest to create an alternative to the violence. Those who do not desire change will accuse the peacemakers of every manner of evil. Yet Jesus blesses them along with all the prophets whose ways they now follow.

Finally using images of salt and light Jesus again declares them into a new reality. He still is not commanding them to do something more. He is celebrating whom God has made them as a people. “You all are salt” “You all are light”. From the community of blessed peacemakers, from the community of those who have grieved and yet hope without bitterness, the light will shine forth.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bible study, June 12 Matthew 3-4

Well, since last week, Jesus has totally grown to adulthood. We find him here on the banks of the Jordan River with John the Baptizer, introduced, of course, by a quote from scripture. Already in John's fiery speech we have the comparison between the religious establishment (Pharisees and Sadducees)and the new Way of Jesus.
Q: What expectations do you have for the religious establishment? How do you respond when they disappoint you?

John proclaims not to be worthy to carry Jesus' sandals, yet Jesus comes to be baptized by John.
Q: Is there a difference in motivation or theology between what John, the people, and Jesus think about baptism? Do the details of Jesus' baptism change the way you think about your own baptism?

Jesus is immediately taken from the river to the wilderness (quite a contrast of images right there!) for the purpose, it seems, of being tempted by the devil.
Q: What or who is the devil? How does that work in your theological thinking?
Note: the devil uses Hebrew scripture to tempt Jesus! This is a good example of scripture being used against God's purposes rather than for them.

Jesus relocates his home base (again, according to scripture) and begins to preach John's sermon (3:2 + 4:17) of repentance. "Repent" means to return, to come back to the way of life God had established with these (Hebrew) people in the covenant with Israel. It isn't necessarily feeling sorry or bad about something, although having strayed away from the covenant is reason to feel sorry. Repent is an active verb; not just a feeling, but "change your ways!", turn and go this way, God's way, not that way.
Q: does the sermon "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" sound different from Jesus' mouth than it did from John's?

Jesus chooses some disciples, not based so much on a job description he needed to fill, but he asked them to bring what they knew and what they had and go with him, using those gifts in some way they'd figure out later.
Q: (you know it's coming!) Has God surprised you by using a gift of yours in some way you never connected with faithfulness, spirituality, or religion?

In one sentence Jesus does more than we will accomplish in our lifetimes. Look at all the verbs in v. 23: went, teaching, proclaiming, curing. Look on a map and see the territory he's covering. Read the list (v. 24) of healings. This is easy to overlook, but the magnitude is impressive. No wonder he has such a following already.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bible study: June 5 Matthew 1-2

During the summer we'll be reading a "community book", the gospel of Matthew. Each week we'll read 2 chapters, and the preaching text during worship will be a pericope from those 2 chapters. So, chapters 1 and 2 for this week; here we go!

Matthew begins with a rather long genealogy; a lot of "begats" if you're reading King James Version (which I don't particularly recommend, unless it's your favorite and you're familiar with it). DO NOT SKIP the genealogy! You don't have to take in every name there, but read it to get a feel of the rhythm of the language and the weight, in importance, of the one to whom this genealogy leads: Jesus, the Messiah of God.

Q: How many generations back can you name in your family tree?
Q: Notice the names of the 4 women in this genealogy, when lineage was traced through fathers. What is the significance of these 4 women? Do you know "the rest of" their stories?

Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience at a time of upheaval and uncertainty in his world. His "slant" is almost a persuasive argument about why Judaism-pointing-to-Jesus is the best religious stance to take at this time. He's trying to establish the credibility of Jesus by showing us this fine line of Jewish leaders and heroes from whom Jesus is descended. You will notice throughout the book that Matthew is concerned with how the Jewish leaders act (scribes and Pharisees) contrasted with the New Way in Jesus.

Next is the birth narrative, verses 18-25.
Q: how is this different from what you think you know about the Christmas story? Who's missing? Note: Notice the angel in this story, and dreams; these are the first of many angels and dreams in Matthew.
Note: Notice, in v. 23, the quotation from Hebrew scripture; another way of establishing Jesus, and his new Way, as legitimately located in the Jewish tradition.
Q: What is the significance of JOSEPH being the one who names the child?

Chapter 2 brings us our first bad guy: Herod. Historically, Herod ruled from 37-4 BCE, which requires an adjustment in our "dating" of Jesus' birth. He was part of the Roman machine, loyal to himself and to the Empire; certainly wouldn't stand for a coup, even if the perpetrator was a newborn infant.
Q: what's different in this part of the story from what you know of the Christmas story? Why do you think Matthew does not include the registration in Bethlehem, angels, shepherds?
Q: what is the significance of "wise men from the East" traveling to see Jesus?

Another angel, another dream, and they are sent, ironically, to Egypt for safety. Remember the Jewish audience here; their minds would immediately return to Moses fleeing Egypt because of oppression; now they return to Egypt because of oppression. Rome is the new Egypt, Herod the new Pharaoh.

The slaughter of the innocents is a troubling episode, power and paranoia taken to extremes. Although there is no secular historical recording of the event, it is consistent with Herod's behavior of killing those he perceived to be a threat to him; and it stands here in the gospel of Matthew.
Q: why does Matthew keep this awful story?
Q: what are we, as people of faith, supposed to learn from it about God's saving activity?
Q: how do you feel about Jesus being saved when others were killed?

Notice there are 5 quotations from the Hebrew scriptures in these first 2 chapters.