Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 25-26

The thing I'm noticing as I read these last few chapters of Matthew is a feeling, and it's a little claustrophobic, a little intrusive. At the beginning of Matthew, the story starts at a point (Nazareth) and expands across the whole region, following Jesus and the disciples as they travel. Now it's starting to zoom back in, the scope of the story is getting smaller. In chapter 26 especially things get intense and start to happen quickly; I feel like a lens has zoomed in on Jesus and I'm noticing lots of small details.

Another thing I sense about these chapters is a call to loyalty: are you in or are you out? It's time to make up your mind. Are you ready to go, with plenty of oil (25:1-13)? Do you know what to do (25:14-30)? Have you learned what I've been teaching you, and have you been practicing it (25:31-46)? Saying you believe is not enough; Jesus has come to make the world new, to transform God's people and the very way we live together--does it appear that you are being transformed?

Chapter 26 continues episodes of dis/loyalty: The Roman establishment (chief priests, elders, high priest--although they are Jewish religious officials, they are also pawns of Rome) is not loyal; a nameless woman who anoints Jesus is; Judas is not; Peter swears he will be; Jesus himself is not sure about the whole thing.

Q: Is there a difference between loyalty and faithfulness when it comes to our relationship with God? If so, what's the difference? Is one more important than the other?

Notice the sequence of events in this chapter, and the sense that we are "zooming in" on the climax of the story. In one chapter, the plot to arrest Jesus gets formed (v. 4), a woman anoints him in an acceptance of his death (6-13), Judas agrees to betray (14), they celebrate Passover and the shift to communion is commanded (26-29), the disciples declare their loyalty, they go to Gethsemane, take a nap while Jesus prays, Judas kisses him, he's arrested, he heals an ear, the disciples flee, Jesus is interviewed by Caiaphas and the elders and convicted, and Peter denies him. Wow. There is no time for reflecting on events; only for reporting them.

The church year sets a rhythm for us to feel the story in this way. At this time, from Pentecost to Advent, we are in "ordinary time". We hear stories of what Jesus was doing in his "ordinary time". They are slower, stretching out over these lazy months, allowing us to keep pace with him. But in Lent, and particularly Holy Week and the "triduum" (three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) there's this intense focus on just a few hours of Jesus' life, and death. We zoom in on this story, the way the story zooms in for us. We have been taught to focus on "Jesus died for our sins", but there's so much more to the story. What about the disciples and their loyalty, or lack thereof? What about the Romans, and the deals made between the government and the religious establishment? And most importantly, what about the rest of the story? For me, the important piece is not why Jesus died (for my sins, or because of the Romans); but that God did not let that death be the end of Jesus' influence, reign, and presence in creation. But, this isn't supposed to be a sermon, and we haven't got to that part yet... so tune in again next week.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 23-24

As you continue your reading in Matthew, are you getting a sense of Jesus demonstrating and contrasting what IS faithful and what is not? Jesus redefines, in some ways, what it means to be faithful or obedient, what it means to keep the law.
In ch. 23, for example, Jesus rages against the “scribes and Pharisees”, who probably cannot be faulted in their observance of the law, in a technical sense. Jesus knows that the law is given to provide a framework within which God’s justice is practiced in God’s creation for God’s people. The piety of the scribes and Pharisees (some, not all, of them) has been reduced down to a mere following of the letter of the law, without meaning. The law has become an end in itself for them, not a means to the greater goal of justice. And so Jesus chastises them with this list of seven “Woe!”s , and almost makes fun of their religious accessories (phylacteries and fringes)—which he may himself wear.

Q: can you think of an example of “official religion” or the institution following a practice or declaring a decree that makes it less credible, and consequently, makes God less credible? How do we know where the line is between “variety of religious expression” and unfaithfulness that may discredit religion/God? Whose responsibility is it to monitor that line or to call those who cross it to account?

Vs. 37-39 Jesus’ lament to the city, “Jersualem, Jerusalem!”, conjures in me Jonah’s question when he is sent to Ninevah: “why would you want me to go there? They won’t listen.” And here we see a feminine image of God: the mother hen who gathers the chicks safely under her wing. Yet Jerusalem has been the stray, chirping around unprotected, thinking itself invincible.

As we near the end of this gospel, we enter into what I think of as “the last chance”—there’s more for Jesus to teach and more for them to learn, and he’s trying to cram it all in. His speeches get longer and he moves around less. He uses many metaphors to talk about the change to come, and refers to Hebrew stories and scripture.

It is interesting to remember that the gospel of Matthew was probably written down between 50-60 c.e., and the temple was destroyed in 70 c.e. As Roman oppression increased to the point of revolt, the people increased their hope that Messiah would come and deliver them. They probably “saw”or witnessed many who seemed trustworthy but turned out to be false. They felt the pain of those birth pangs, of hoping with all their being for deliverance from their situation, for a new day that God would usher in. The language here is very strong and very full; these are real images and some of these things are happening right around them.

Q: these are some of the more frightening images of how the kingdom of God breaks in. Do you find them compelling? Helpful? Do they make you want to “straighten up your act” or give up? In what tone do you hear Jesus saying them: warning, frightened, matter-of-fact? Do you find yourself “making the cut” but worrying about others who might not? Will the coming of the Son of Man be a good thing, or maybe not?

Keep in mind the larger context of the gospel of Matthew: he is demonstrating to a Jewish audience that Jesus is Jewish enough to qualify as the Messiah. In a time of rebuilding the community--literally, after the revolt--he is advocating that the Way of Jesus is the best way to be religious. Remember when we read just a paragraph at a time, it's easy to misunderstand or misinterpret the point of the whole story.