I’m happy to announce the appearance of my new book, How Can Anyone Read the Bible? It’s intended for all sorts of people who want to read the Bible and are perhaps daunted by its size and complexity. It should be helpful, too, to people who have read or heard a fair amount of the Bible already, but want to acquire a better grasp of how the bits they know fit together in such a varied and complex collection of writings. Whether your interest arises from religious faith or intellectual curiosity or some combination of the two, you’ll find some assistance here.
The book is part of a new series from Church Publishing—”Little Books of Guidance”—that offer brief and basic introductions to all sorts of theological and ethical questions. I’m delighted to be part of this new project. The book is dedicated to to all those who have been part of the lively series of monthly scripture studies I have been leading for the past few years at Good Shepherd, Berkeley. They have helped me envisage the larger audience for which I’ve written this book.
The Bible stands as a great classic of religious faith, spiritual teaching, and world literature. But the fact that it was created over a period of about a thousand years and includes many different types of writing and perspectives can make it difficult for readers to orient themselves. This little book aims particularly to help in that process. It has sections on getting started and on the kinds of writings you can expect to find. I also suggests a variety of paths you can follow while getting acquainted with the Bible.
I hope it will prove useful both to individuals and to study groups. And it is on sale at a very good price just now at Cokesbury.
After our detour to look at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we turn back to pick up the narrative in chapter 3 with the ministry of John the Baptist and the story of his baptizing of Jesus.
Who was this John and what is he doing here?
John was a common name in the first century, which makes it worth noting here that John the Baptizer is not the same person as the John who was one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples nor the author (or authors) of the Gospel, Letters, and Revelation of John in the New Testament. He was a religious reformer in his own right, whom early Christians later regarded Jesus’ “Forerunner” (the title they subsequently gave him).
Wasn’t he Jesus’ cousin?
So Luke tells us. If Matthew knew that, he never mentions it. Even though comparing the gospels with each other can be very enlightening, it’s generally a good idea, as we read each one separately, not to supplement one gospel directly out of another. If we let each writer choose what he wants us to hear, we may get a better sense of the message he’s trying to impart.
For Matthew, the important thing seems to be that John fulfilled an ancient prophecy—”the voice of one crying in the wilderness”—and that his message focused on the approaching “Kingdom of Heaven.” He is poised, in other words, between the venerable tradition of Israel’s past and something new that is taking place.
Why the strange dress and food?
It shows that he had made a sharp break with the existing society. He lived off the land and dressed in cheap clothing and stayed on the fringes of civilization. He was an ascetic, who deliberately rejected the usual comforts of home and family. He also separated himself from the social structures of his world by living alone in the relatively deserted countryside along the Jordan River.
But people took notice. What kind of inner, spiritual strength did it take to walk away from all these things that other people treasured? And his message proved very attractive to people who felt themselves trapped in a world that they could neither escape nor find meaning in.
Why the baptizing?
Many religions use physical washing or purifying as a sacramental way of seeking spiritual renewal and nearness to God. In the religion of ancient Israel, it was a duty to cleanse oneself from physical impurities that might render you unworthy of coming close to God. John took that practice and made something new of it. His baptism wasn’t just a washing away of particular forms of impurity, such as menstruation for women or sexual ejaculation for men. It was a way, we could say, of starting one’s relationship with God all over again. People confessed their sins, received the washing, and were on a new footing with God.
John’s choice of the Jordan River for his ministry may have come partly just from its being a relatively deserted area. But it also reminds us that the people of Israel had long ago come into the Promised Land by crossing through the Jordan. John invited people to the Jordan to experience another, equally important personal crossing-over.
He seems to have welcomed most sorts of people. Why does he lash out at the Pharisees and Sadducees?
These two groups were the most influential religious leaders of their time and place and were locked in a struggle as to whose opinions would prove to be of greater weight. (By the time Matthew was writing, after the Jewish War and destruction of Jerusalem, the Sadducees had largely disappeared and only the Pharisees survived.)
John attacks these people savagely, perhaps more savagely than they deserved as individuals. We know of some Pharisees, like the great Rabbi Hillel, who were great saints and wise teachers. It is their role, rather, as figures of religious authority and people of high sacred standing that concerns Matthew, because he sees this as a source of corruption. This is not a narrowly Jewish issue for Matthew; as we’ll come to see, he is concerned that it will affect the Christian community as well as the Jewish one.
But why, then, would John have objected to baptizing Jesus?
Matthew tells us that John saw Jesus as belonging to the new reality that his mission was just bringing into existence. John’s mission was to help people enter the transition from the existing religious status quo to this new reality. And he says to Jesus, in effect, “You belong to the future, not the past. You are outside my commission.” Still, Jesus insists that all righteousness is to be fulfilled. Even as this great newness comes into being, Matthew emphasizes its continuity with all that came before.
Early Christians understood that some people considered John the truly significant figure and may have though of Jesus as a kind of renegade follower. This raises a large question: At what point does the new, even if is it is in continuity with the old, become a violation of the old? This is a problem that can never be answered fully in advance. It must always be an object of prayerful discernment, and will often be a source of controversy, as we find again and again in later Christian history.
Part of what Matthew is telling us about Christian faith here is that there is always a certain edge of uncertainty as we move through time. Jesus affirms his identification with the existing religion. But it will not prove to be enough. Jesus’ new work is confirmed to him by a vision of the heavens opened and the Spirit descending; Matthew doesn’t suggest that any one else saw it. A voice from the sky tells whoever is listening that this is God’s son. But we don’t know who was listening or how they responded—just as we do not always know clearly what we ourselves have heard or how to respond. Weaving old and new together is never an easy or obvious proposition.
Next up: THREE TEMPTATIONS AND THREE MOVES
Christians have always prayed for people in authority, particularly the head of state in whatever place they lived. For centuries, that meant the emperor or king or queen or such like. Since the Revolution, American Christians have prayed for the president. Much of the time, that hasn’t seemed like a problem. If you liked the incumbent, it was kind of like cheering. Even if you didn’t, you still wanted God to aid the president in maintaining the peace and stability of the country.
For many Christians (those at least who actually believe what Jesus said about the importance of loving our neighbors and doing good to those in need) this has become more difficult in the case of the current incumbent. Praying for Mr. Trump may almost seem like praying against the well-being of the country. So I offer some thoughts on the topic.
First, remember that praying for someone is not a way of expressing approval. Praying for any one is a way of laying that person in the hands of God for whatever he or she may need, even if you think that what your object of intercession needs is a swift kick in the pants. To be sure, we assume that God knows better than we do; but prayer does allow us to put our two cents’ worth in.
One way to start, then, is to tell God exactly what you think of Mr. Trump and his policies and even give God some hints as to exactly what you would like God to do to him in recompense for, say, his fostering of white supremacist groups. If you feel your imagination is not up to the task, there are many Psalms—97 is a good example—that can provide some suggestions.
Yes, cursing is one form of intercession, and if that’s how you’re feeling just now, feel free to go right ahead. The Psalmist did. Venting can serve a useful purpose—for a while; and, in any case, there’s no point in covering up how you really feel when you pray since God hears the unspoken prayer as well as the spoken anyway.
Of course, if you take Jesus’ teaching seriously, you’ll be feeling at least a little guilty about this. Telling us to love our neighbors set the bar pretty high; telling us to love our enemies made it uncomfortably exacting and very difficult to fudge. We remember that God loves even the worst of human beings, and there are moments when we all find that a great comfort and reassurance. But must we include Donald Trump? Yes, we must, sooner or later. Loving the Donald doesn’t mean you have to like him or think well of him or excuse him; but it does mean desiring his welfare. And since he is, by the cranky machinery of our constitution, President of the United State, the welfare of the whole nation is in some ways, dependent on his.
The welfare I refer to is not simply physical; it is deeply spiritual. This is no less than a prayer for his salvation. How, then, to pray? We might start with something simple, such as “God, please try to keep him from doing anything that will corrupt or destroy the country he is sworn to lead and protect.” We know, of course, that God doesn’t always save human beings from themselves. But it’s still right to pray that prayer—a prayer that the head of state may at least not destroy the state or abandon its best principles.
We can take this prayer deeper. We can pray that Mr. Trump will begin to notice and understand the true dimensions of his presidential responsibility. More than that, we can pray for the awakening of his soul and spirit. His public record thus far suggests that he has been neglecting the life of the spirit. He managed to convince the Evangelical establishment otherwise before the election, but that didn’t take much since they so much wanted to believe it anyway.
What would I most desire for the President? That he come to some recognition of how much he has taken his wealth and success for granted, of how much he owes to other people and to what he might think of, at first, as sheer luck but might come, over time, to recognize as the undeserved grace of God. In other words, I pray for the kind of conversion that would lead him to a new life.
How can such a thing happen? To some of us, the awareness of God’s love is granted even from our early years. For some, like the Apostle Paul, it takes a blinding vision and a voice, a shattering of soul and spirit that may take many years to come to terms with. For some, it comes through physical suffering. I don’t pray that Mr. Trump suffer. But I do pray that God will use whatever God may find useful in pursuit of this goal.
And, since the Scriptures are quite clear that the greatest of God’s weapons is love, I try, in a still faltering way, to offer to God my love for this sorry man for whom I have so little respect, so much suspicion, so little hope. That love, I hasten to add, includes still opposing him at every wrong turn he takes in whatever small way I can. If God’s love does contrive to get through to him, he will understand that.
Sneaking a look! Really!? Isn’t that taboo for serious readers?
If you’re reading a whodunit, it will certainly spoil the surprise. But, face it, in all likelihood you already know the basic story of Matthew’s Gospel and how it ends. So there’s no need for a spoiler alert here. And taking a peek at the end can be useful, especially when we’re reading a book that, for so many of us, is almost too familiar. This way, we can focus not just on the broad outline of the story, but on some details of what Matthew is particularly interested in. So turn to Matthew 28, which starts at dawn on the first Easter Sunday with two women going to the tomb.
Back to the women, eh?
Yes, they were featured in the opening genealogy, and here they are again. This time, two women named Mary: Mary Magdalene who is mentioned in all four of the New Testament gospels as having gone to the tomb and “the other Mary.” It’s impossible to know who Matthew has in mind here. Mark mentions “James’s Mary” as being at the resurrection scene (16:1). Luke mentions “Clopas’s Mary” (24:10). It could be either of them or someone else, since it was a common name.
Matthew may give us a hint, though. At the death of Jesus on the cross, Mary Magdalene is accompanied by “Mary the mother of James and Joseph”—the names of two of Jesus’ brothers (27:56). After the closing of the tomb, it is Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” who sit by it, keeping watch (27:61). The easiest identification here is that she is the same Mary named a few sentences before. And the same person is probably the “other Mary” of the final chapter, too.
But it seems important to him that there are women here, echoing the women who play such an important role at the beginning of Matthew. If Mary Magdalene is mentioned first that is because she was acknowledged by all early Christians as the discoverer of the empty tomb. The “other” Mary is not made the primary witness, perhaps precisely because she was Jesus’ mother and might have been thought less credible. In any case, an angel appears to them just as happened to Joseph and the Magi earlier on—but this time in broad daylight, not in a dream.
The seal of proof is placed on the angel’s message by the appearance of Jesus himself (28:9-10). And not a man in sight in that overwhelmingly patriarchal world except for Jesus himself! In his opening chapter Matthew was questioning the overwhelmingly male orientation of his culture. Here, the greatest treasure of the gospel is imparted to two women. The male disciples will hear of it only secondarily through them.
Wouldn’t this make the whole resurrection story less credible in that culture?
Undoubtedly. He and his readers lived in a world organized in terms of a kind of moral separation of duties between the sexes. Men carried the public face of the family, women guarded the private world. Men could testify in court, women couldn’t. But Matthew, as we’ll see again and again, has no interest in making things easy. He may or may not have been able to imagine radical change in the culture he knew. We are all bound by cultural norms in ways of which we’re often unaware, and perhaps he would find our modern world as hard to understand as we find his ancient one. But he did insist that women were as much a part of God’s work in the world as men.
Isn’t all this sounding awfully modern?
I understand the concern, and I don’t want to “modernize” Matthew’s Gospel. But keep this thought in mind anyway. The test of it will be to see whether it helps us understand more in Matthew’s Gospel than we could otherwise.
But in the meantime, there’s another part of the story here (28:11-15) that’s understandable in both ancient and modern contexts—the self-protective efforts of the authorities to suppress the truth. After the Resurrection, the authorities in charge of both civil and religious affairs paid the guards at the tomb to lie about what had happened. We will find Matthew attacking this kind of thing often: religion is a good and valuable thing, but the authorities, including the religious authorities, are not always to be trusted. When religion gets entangled with status, it betrays itself.
Christians have a long history of taking this passage and others like it attacks on Judaism. Some modern scholars also read them that way. I think this is a mistake. Matthew attacks the authorities not for their doctrines but for their failure to live up to them. It is a problem equally threatening, in Matthew’s thinking, to the emerging Christian leadership.
But doesn’t he go on to have Jesus commission an authoritative Christian leadership?
The closing passage of the Gospel (28:16-20) is often referred to as the “Great Commission.” Some read it as Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles to be the first bishops of the church. Others take it as Jesus’ authorization of world missions. All very upbeat, right?
Not exactly, the key verse here is, as often, the difficult one that gets ignored: “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” The women believed the angel even before they saw Jesus; some of the male disciples don’t altogether trust the risen Christ himself. There are two problems with religious leaders, it seems: one is that they will sacrifice principle to expedience, the other that they don’t really quite trust God at all.
Right up to the end, Matthew is still throwing his wrench into the works. What are we to do if we can’t trust the authorities of religion, whether Jewish or Christian? He does give us at least a hint here. The disciples are told to teach people to follow everything Jesus commanded them. It’s Jesus’ teaching that can save us from falling into either the self-interest of the priests and elders or the doubts of the disciples. In the meantime, we are to remember that, while both groups are pre-eminently religious, neither is perfect. Need I say that every religious person is potentially included in this indictment?
And, as to our continued reading of Matthew, it should be clear from this peek at the ending that Matthew’s tendency in chapter 1 to set tradition against tradition is not merely his starting point. We should be looking for how it may show up elsewhere.
Next up: EVENTS TURN A CORNER WITH JOHN THE BAPTIST
Why does Matthew have only bits and pieces of the familiar Christmas story?
The story as we tell it each Christmas is a blend of elements from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. It’s possible that each writer had a rather different tradition and simply retold what he knew. But, as we’ve already seen, Matthew has some points to make about the nature of tradition and of God’s work in the world. It’s likely that, in chapter 2, he’s not only repeating what he’s heard, but using these stories to communicate with us about how God accomplishes things in our world.
Who were these “wise men from the East”? And what are they doing in the story?
The people our English translations call “wise men” Matthew calls Magoi. These were not generalized sages, but priests of the Persian religious tradition we call “Zoroastrian.” This religion has taken on a variety of forms, and we can’t be sure precisely what the theology of the Magi was. But since Matthew tells us that they discovered Jesus’ birth by reading the stars. we can assume that they were astronomers and astrologers. The two disciplines were not distinct from each other at the time, and the idea that the heavenly bodies influence events on earth was widely accepted. And Matthew seems quite comfortable here with the possibility that a “science” could bring people to an encounter with Jesus.
The fact that Joseph could claim descent from King David didn’t mean that he was wealthy or prominent; in fact, he and Mary seem to have been people of modest means. There would have been no news reports headed “Heir Born to Davidic Royal Line.” But the Magi saw things in the heavens that, according to their theories, meant a significant change of authority in the Jewish nation. Since most Magi lived in the Persian Empire, their trip meant crossing a heavily fortified border between two mutually hostile powers and poking their noses into the politics of a nation within the rival Roman Empire. They were thus complete strangers—neither Jewish nor Roman—when they came to honor the new child; and they would have been objects of curiosity and probably of some suspicion. But when they reached Judea, they recognized that their astrological knowledge was not sufficient to the task. They had to find out what the local Israelite tradition (yes, tradition again!) said about this new king, and they went to Jerusalem to consult the authorities. But, of course, the existing Jewish king, Herod, had a vested interest in making sure that no new claimant rose to claim his throne. And their visit, as a side-effect, set off a disastrous chain of events leading to the massacre of a large number of young children and forcing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to become refugees.
Ah, there’s another question. What is a grim story like that doing here?
Well, modern Christians don’t like to dwell on it. Our forebears, however, honored the child victims on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), also known as Childermass. And perhaps that feast day is newly relevant in an age when so many children are dying of war and hunger. The same applies to the plight of the Holy Family as refugees, fleeing to—or all places—Egypt. The country where there ancestors had been slaves was willing to be the place that saved their lives.
Both raise the question of how God can tolerate, much less work in the context of such evil. Matthew doesn’t try to answer that question. Maybe he even makes it seem worse when he says that Jeremiah foresaw the horror at Bethlehem (2:17-18); this, too, was in the tradition. And he argues that the prophets predicted that the family would Have to live for a time in Egypt (2:15) and then resettle at Nazareth (2:23). Sufferings is a known part of the tradition. The angels who keep stepping in and out of the picture to encourage, warn, or direct make it clear that God is still at work, even in the midst of all this horror. God doesn’t cause human evils, but God refuses to be excluded from human history by them. God can even create something out of human wrongs, if no better way is to b found.
And are the Magi in the tradition?
No, they’re another kind of problem because they’re not in the tradition. No one predicted them. We’re told nothing of their having any divine or angelic inspiration, except at the end of the story where they’re warned in a dream to sneak out of the country without Herod’s knowing. The point seems to be that they are simply and purely the wrong people to have here as principal celebrants of Jesus’ birth. Their only qualification for being present at this holy occasion (aside from their ability to scrutinize the stars) was their complete lack of qualifications. They’re the wrong ethnicity, the wrong religion, the wrong visitors. But, then, we’ve already seen that Jesus’ genealogy included some people who seemed equally out of place. Matthew is making a point here. The tradition can admit people most of us usually think should be quite firmly excluded from it.
The people who, according to the tradition, should have been celebrating are all missing from this occasion. The Jerusalem sages aren’t interested enough to accompany the Magi to Bethlehem. And Herod actually tries to kill the child. The Magi, by contrast, are drawn to Jesus without any advance qualifications.
The wonderful thing about the story is that, whether you see yourself more as an outsider like them or more as a religious insider, Matthew is saying there is room for you. But in some cases, it may be easier for outsiders to grasp the value and importance of Jesus than for insiders. Perhaps we who are insiders have to rediscover our outsiderness in order to be present at the wonder of Jesus’ birth.
Next up: SNEAKING A LOOK AT THE END OF THE STORY
Matthew doesn’t mean to be simple or completely clear. He prefers to show us puzzles and tie together things we wouldn’t have thought belonged together. He starts off sounding like a traditionalist—and he is. But of a very unusual sort. He knows the tradition itself is messy. Hre are some problems he raises—and some thoughts about what they point us toward:
Why does Matthew begin with something as boring as a genealogy? The first thing Matthew does here is to anchor his narrative securely in the Scriptures that he and his first readers knew and revered (what Christians now call the “Old Testament”). He wants us to understand that his is not a new or independent story, but continues a very old one. And so he starts out with a traditional sort of Israelite genealogy (1:1-17) like the ones you can find in Genesis. The point of such a genealogy is to tell you something about the person whose name concludes it: Who is he? Who are his family? Why is he significant to us?
Okay. We see Abraham, David and a few other famous names. But why the whole list? And why does he divide it into three equal parts?
He wants every link securely in place, But, yes, he also makes a big point of identifying three eras of equal length, covering the ups and downs of ancient Israel’s history. The first era (1:2-6a) runs from the earliest beginnings of the people of Israel through slavery in Egypt and the Exodus to the time that they emerged into the world as a significant regional power. The second era (1:6b-11) begins with the triumphant reign of King David and traces the ups and (more often) downs of his descendants as kings. The third era (1:12-16) begins with the fall of the kingdom and covers the exile in Babylon and the long era of imperial subjection down to Jesus’ birth. Three ages: rise, glory, after-the-fall. Jesus is connected to them all. And being a descendant of Abraham and of David, he is identified as the continuation of their story.
But why are the exact numbers of generations important to him?
Fourteen may not seem meaningful to us. But think of three fourteens as equalling six sevens and you’ll see that Matthew is playing on the six days of creation in Genesis and the six workdays of the Israelite week while seven recalls God’s rest after creating the world and the Sabbath rest that follows the work week. With Jesus, we enter the seventh seven, an era of sabbath. This gives us a hint that Matthew, for all his deep respect for the tradition and his insistence on continuity, also sees change arriving in the figure of Jesus.
And why do these particular women crop up here? More famous women like Sarah and Rebecca get left out.
Yes, this is quite odd. Genealogies were basically father-to-son lists because this is what the ancient Israelite idea of descent focused on. But Matthew has searched out precisely those women in the family history that are most problematic for the whole business of genealogies.
Matthew’s contemporaries were very concerned about purity of Israelite descent, and one strand of thought, which eventually won out, held that only the child of an Israelite mother could be considered an Israelite. Yet, Matthew points out the presence of two Canaanite women in Jesus’ ancestry—Tamar (1:3; cf. Gen. 38) and Rahab (1:5; cf. Josh. 2 and 6:22-25), one Moabite woman—Ruth (1:5; cf. the Book of Ruth), and one woman whose ancestry is unknown but who had been married to a Hittite—Bathsheba (1:1:6; cf. 2 Sam. 11). What’s more, these women were not only non-Israelites, but each had at least some shadow of sexual impropriety attached to her story. Tamar seduced her father-in-law in a way that led to her being accused of prostitution, though she vindicated herself of that charge. Rahab is said to have had a house of prostitution. Ruth actively initiated sexual relations with Boaz in the field. And Bathsheba was forced into adultery by David himself.
Then, when we look at vs. 16, we see that Matthew doesn’t close the crucial final link of the genealogy. Where tradition expects him to say that Joseph was the father of Jesus, he only says that Joseph was “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” (This is quite deliberate, as we’ll see further on in Matthew 1.)
But why would Matthew construct a traditional genealogy only to underline the problems in it?
Matthew’s traditionalism, it seems, is of a different sort from what we usually mean by the term. We tend to mean a perspective that conceives the tradition as clear, perfect, faultless, and essentially closed. Every thing that’s important is already there in the tradition, and no one is to to question it.. Matthew, however, doesn’t work this way. He doesn’t owe allegiance to a single, organized, sanitized version of the scriptural story. He brings the whole story with all its messiness into play. Traditionalism was becoming a smooth-running machine of religion and life in his time, and he throws a monkey wrench into the works. But his monkey wrench is also traditional—forged out of the most traditional of materials. In Matthew we have a traditionalist who, to use modern terms, is both conservative and liberal: conservative in that he believes the tradition is necessary to knowing who we are, liberal in that he knows the tradition is actually very diverse and has always been open to question and interpretation and even development.
So we can’t expect Matthew to write a comfortable sort of story, one that we can cling to without having to question our presuppositions. Whether you think of yourself as liberal or conservative, there will be things you won’t like. If you insist on things being one way or the other, Matthew will say to you, “No, you’re going to have take both together. You can’t find your way in the presence of God without taking account of the experience and insights of your forebears. But you’ll be just as certain to go astray if you think a pre-packaged tradition will settle all your questions and problems.”
So, is Mary following in the steps of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba?
It seems like a shocking notion, especially given later Christians’ veneration of Mary as a more or less perfect person. But, yes, she is indeed in their company. Nor is it bad company in the genealogical sense. They were all ancestors of greatness. Judah himself had to admit that Tamar was more righteous than he. Rahab saved Israelite lives. Ruth is a supreme model of love and faithfulness. Bathsheba, for all her misfortunes, was the mother of the wise Solomon.
Matthew, remember, doesn’t make Joseph Jesus’ father, and he tells an interesting story about that (1:18-25). Joseph realizes Mary is already pregnant and thinks he should break off their engagement. It goes against his grain, since he’s a kindly person, but the tradition expects it. It takes a special revelation to persuade him that God’s work has never fit securely inside narrow definitions of tradition. The angel that appears to him in a dream knows what’s bothering him and doesn’t so much relieve his anxiety as point him toward a broader perspective on God’s work in the world. Mary’s pregnancy is a gift of the Holy Spirit for the redemption of Israel and a fulfillment of prophecy. However unsettling it is, it, too, is part of the tradition, foretold long before by Isaiah. Joseph obeys the angel. And just to make his non-paternity completely clear, Matthew assures us that he didn’t have intercourse with Mary until she had delivered the child that was not his own biological offspring but was nonetheless being entrusted to him as his son.
Wait a minute! Wasn’t Mary a virgin? Luke’s Gospel says that she was. Matthew says nothing directly on the topic, though we can see it as an implication of the angel’s message. But Matthew’s main point seems to be that we have a genealogy here with a number of irregularities, Jesus’ own birth being the climactic instance.
So what is the spiritual point of all this? Or is Matthew just playing games?
From the perspective of Christian faith and life, Matthew’s message thus far is both liberating and alarming. He takes a fairly tidy version of tradition and breaks it open by insisting that we look at the untidy side of that same tradition. God’s work goes forward not in some ideal world, but in the one we actually inhabit.
Happily, what comes next is in the more accessible mode of narrative. Next up: FAMILY WITH NEW BABY VISITED BY PAGAN PRIESTS, HAS TO FLEE.
Preached at Good Shepherd Church, Berkeley
Third Sunday After Pentecost, June 25, 2017
Proper 7A: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matt. 10:28
Some Sundays our readings are (shall I say?) overstocked with things crying out to be preached on. This is definitely one of those days. But since none of us can probably manage to be here all day, I had to choose just one. And the verse that kept blinking at me in neon was the one I just repeated for you: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. As if to say: Don’t be too afraid of dying. There are worse things.
But who do you think this person is “who can destroy both soul and body in hell? Is it God? Is it the devil? Both, over the centuries, have been candidates for the position, each with some reason. God is seen as the judge, the devil as the executioner.
And what is all this about hell, anyway? Didn’t that image of the fiery torture chamber down below disappear along with the rest of the three-decker universe after Copernicus upset the whole cosmic applecart five hundred years ago? I’m pretty sure that a good many Episcopalians would say that they don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe in it, either, if you mean the underground place of torment. But I always think, “I do believe in hell.” Or, rather, I don’t exactly believe in hell because I don’t need to. I’ve seen it and I know that it exists. You can read about it in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq and a whole big handful of other countries pretty much every day in the newspaper. You get glimpses of it all around the world and here at home, too. And, for that matter, I suspect that there are very few people who have survived adolescence who haven’t been there themselves—even if just briefly. Yes, hell exists—in the world around us and in the lives of individuals, too. The place with devils and pitchforks is just an icon of it in case you need help finding it on your computer.
But back to my original question: Who is the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell”? For a long time, from the time of the Black Death onward, Christians have mostly thought of this person as Jesus himself. That’s when depictions of the Last Judgement became popular in Western Christianity. You know the image—perhaps best from Michelangelo’s enormous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, right behind the altar where the worshipper can’t avoid looking at it. And that focus on judgement is one aspect of Medieval religion that the Reformers kept, too. In fact, for some, it became even more central. Christianity, once a religion focused on redemption and hope, became more and more a religion dominated by judgement and fear.
But it doesn’t really work. Jesus does speak here and there about returning in judgement. But you have to do a serious makeover on the Jesus we meet in the Gospels if you want to turn him into that angry figure in Michelangelo’s fresco. It doesn’t really answer the question.
Now, hell is indeed something to be afraid of. We know that already. It’s exactly what disturbs us so in the news nowadays: the anger, the polemics that divide our country—and many others as well; the indifference toward truth; the increasing divide between poor and rich; the ever-increasing numbers of refugees, fleeing from war or from climate change or from tyranny at home. We are living in a world where hell is aggressively active. But it can get worse. Living in it is one thing. But losing our souls to it is another. And that’s what happens when we find ourselves constantly unmoored by it, uncertain, afraid, depressed. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care. I’m not saying we shouldn’t get angry and be active in our resistance. I’m just saying that we are in danger when we lose our sense of rootedness in the love of God and the hope that comes from that.
It’s providential that this text has come up for us on this particular Sunday. This is Pride Month for GLBTQ folk and today is the big celebratory parade across the Bay in San Francisco. Gay Liberation, to use the shorthand term, has deep roots in the past, but the catalytic moment that we commemorate today was an uprising at the Stonewall Bar in New York when some GLBTQ people refused to submit quietly to oppression any more. And the movement was kept going by thousands of other GLBTQ people in all walks of life who decided that they weren’t going to live frightened, divided existences any more.
They were facing up against people who were ready to do them real bodily harm. Some didn’t survive those confrontations. But it was worth doing, because it meant they were reclaiming their souls. Some things, they recognized, are worse than getting killed. Living a life that was, in a way, a constantly improvised fiction meant that they were in danger of losing themselves. Their souls had been hanging in the balance for a long time. They knew how to distinguish those who could kill the body from the one who could destroy both body and soul in hell. And it meant that they weren’t afraid in the way they had been before.
That process still goes on for GLBTQ people. And it’s still not without danger, as events in Orlando reminded us a year or so ago. But people are still recognizing that it is better to keep one’s soul than to give into fear and play it safe and put on a disguise and hide maybe even from yourself.
That same kind of understanding is what kept the early Christian martyrs steady in the face of death. I think of the words of the aged St. Polycarp at his trial in the second century. When the proconsul ordered him to insult Christ, he answered, “For eighty six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” His relationship to Christ was part of who he was. The love of Christ had restored his soul. And he would rather keep his soul than rescue his bodily life by sacrificing the relationship that made him who he was.
Martyrdom is an extreme case. But the value of extreme cases is that they help us see what is at stake in our more everyday circumstances. To have a soul means to have a center, a sense of coherence and continuity that tells me who I am. To some extent, each of us is born with that—or at least the beginnings of it. But it has to grow over time, and it grows especially in the context of our relationships with others—family, friends, neighbors, associates at work, people at church, God. We spend our lives forming our souls in dialogue with God and with the people around us. It takes some attention, even if a lot of it happens quite unconsciously. And sometimes it calls for hard decisions. But above all, it calls for keeping faith with all the good that has created and enriched your life and made you who you are.
We trust God, the source of all good, to go on being God, to go on loving us, even when we don’t particularly deserve it, to sustain us in difficult times, to rejoice with us in times of fulfillment and joy—that’s what gives our souls their center. And that in turn, creates hope because, even when the world is going to hell in a hand basket, God is still God and still loving us and standing with us. And this love itself, of course, is the central thing in all of true Christianity. Christianity isn’t primarily about duty. It isn’t primarily about judgement. Its whole message, in fact, can be summed up in a single short sentence: God is love (1 John 4:8, 14). So don’t get distracted. We have to keep our eye on this above all. The whole universe, ourselves included, exists only because God made it in love. And God does us the astonishing, improbable favor of asking for our love in return.
It’s important to re-emphasize all this just now. It’s easy for us to stay in a state of constant alarm, confusion, fright, and anxiety this year. Our president is a genius at keeping us all off balance. The government as a whole exhibits a willingness to oppress the poor and the marginalized such as we have not seen in my lifetime. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. And that means it’s time to return to what gives life to our souls: the love of God and the answering love God awakens in us.
And don’t think that this is some sort of self-serving retreat. It’s not a matter of turning our backs on the world around us—though I do think we could usefully learn to be less easily taken prisoner by each day’s presidential tweets. No, the centered soul doesn’t retreat, but it does need to bat distractions away. And in hard times like these, we can learn the truth of what St. John wrote: “Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Our fear.
People have learned this in hard circumstances over and over again: martyrs standing before Roman judges, people marching against racial oppression, women breaking the boundaries imposed by misogyny, GLBTQ people coming out of the closet, people today standing up for peace in the face of religious fanaticism and for justice and generosity in the face of a government that’s increasingly a tool of the super-rich. In doing all this, people over the ages have learned the saving of their souls.
And if you can keep your soul, you will find that you can stand up to a great deal of trouble. You can stand up and do your part in hope, not because you’re sure things will turn out the way you would like, but because you know your life will not go to waste, that God is not through working wonders even if they sometimes take longer than we wish.
But what about my original question? Who is “the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell”? I think a part of the answer must be “I am. You are.” We will all die, of course, whether sooner or later. But we have the power to decide whether we shall die with our souls still living. We can kill them—and we are also the ones who, relying on the power of God’s love, can save them.
I’ve just listened to a recent recording of Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony by The Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Nielsen named it “The Inextinguishable” and gave us to understand that, in a very broad way, it’s about the spirit of humanity surviving whatever is thrown at it.
I’ve always liked this symphony since the first time I heard it on a recording by the Cincinnati Symphony long long ago. (I think I’ve heard it only once in a concert hall, I’m sorry to say.) Now, “like” is the wrong word, of course. I don’t exactly like being battered about and whipsawed and overwhelmed by dissonant battles between two sets of timpani. It might be better to say that I’ve always been captured by the piece. It takes command of my attention and never turns it loose.
There are elements of it, to be sure, that are quite pleasing to the ear, even occasionally quite lovely. And I think they’re essential to the work’s power, just as they’re essential to any account of human life. But what makes all the violence of the symphony so riveting—at least to me?
One clue comes from the coincidence that I’m currently re-reading Euripides’ Medea to accompany my friend Nancy through it. She is gamely tangling with the complexities of Attic tragedy, its complex constructions, specialized vocabulary, and allusive style—a challenging job for someone whose first exposure to ancient Greek was in terms of the New Testament. And, I confess, it’s been challenging for me, too. But then it has been more than fifty years since I first read it in an undergraduate Greek course.
But there is something mysteriously powerful about reading Greek tragedy in Greek, something no translation that I have encountered quite manages to convey. The performances of Greek tragedy I’ve seen have also missed it. The problem seems to be that a Greek tragedy starts at such a peak of crisis and emotion that there is no place for modern actors, used to more realist styles, to go from there. The first scene is already fraught and well before the play is over my emotions are exhausted and increasingly unresponsive.
So what makes a Greek tragedy so powerful when read in Greek? I often think one vital component is that the tragic course of events is presented in a poetic speech that was distinct from everyday language and so created a sphere of action that was not itself realistic but aimed at going deeper than realism. In some ways that may sound like modern Surrealism, but it’s not at all the same. It doesn’t replace the everyday world with one full of private symbols (melting watches and so forth); it just gives you, as it were, a different set of eyeglasses with which to view it. Another vital component is the poet’s capacity and willingness to evoke great beauty even in the context of the tragic action. Somehow, in the face of disaster, the poetry manages to give us reminders of beauty, coherence, hope, endurance.
Elder’s interpretation of “The Inextinguishable” is certainly among the best I have heard, possibly the very best. Disparate elements—the struggling charm of the allegretto, the grimness of the adagio, the hopeful theme of the finale, the brutal interruptions, the approach to chaos, the final reassertion of the human will to continue despite it all—all stand alongside one another without apology and therefore interpret one another and limit one another.
Julian Haylock, who wrote the liner notes for this recording describes the ending as “a blaze of E major that, far from being an exultant triumph, sounds as though it is pounding the music into submission.” Actually, in this performance, not quite. “Pounding” suggests desperation. There is a strength in the E major intervention that belies that. Perhaps we should be desperate after so many reminders of human frailty, but we are not. We’ve been reminded that there is something more beneath the surface, that there is a beauty and wonder in human life, even when it is under enormous pressure. The conclusion, as a result, is not merely defiant. It is, as Nielsen christened it, “inextinguishable.”
Truth really has fallen on hard times. It’s partly her own fault for having settled right in the heart of the city, the middle of all our gang warfare. Her sister Wisdom, an introvert if there ever was one, had the foresight to build her house in a quiet part of town where you can have a real conversation over dinner. But Truth, for better or worse, had to be in the thick of things. And every time another horde comes through, burning and pillaging, they throw her out, then patch up the remains of what was once a handsome mansion, and install their own candidate in her place, all tarted out to look like the real mistress of the house.
There are the Positivists, for example, with their motto of “Anything I can’t see for myself doesn’t exist.” And there are the Fundamentalists whose motto seems to be “Anything we didn’t know a hundred years ago can’t possibly be so.” Assertion, said by some to be Truth’s distant cousin, has served both groups by turns. Truth may be homeless at the moment, but at least she doesn’t have to go through Assertion’s misery—essentially a complete personality transplant depending on which mob has control of her dining room this afternoon. It must be wrenching to go from “knowing” skeptic to “devout” believer and back in the twinkling of an eye.
More recently the post-modern crowd has gotten into the fray and installed a very good robotic simulacrum of Truth in the front hall that tells all callers, “There is no Truth.” This enables them, in effect, to claim Truth for themselves while denying her existence at the same time. A nice trick as long as you can compartmentalize effectively enough.
It’s not just the philosophers and theologians, of course. Other mobs have been getting into the fray. Righteous Regulation is one. Having taken on the responsibility of saving us from global warming and all other ills, they tried to enlist Truth as their hit-person. Failing that, they enlisted a person of the same general size and shape, named Single-Mindedness. But she managed to disappear and they finally employed a former member of an East Bloc secret police force to don her outfit and act in her place. He doesn’t look the part but he’s very effective when he says to some hapless farmer or coal miner, “The climate adjusted future has no room for the likes of you!” The Righteous Regulation gang, meanwhile, has taken to wearing earplugs so as not to hear the cries of outrage.
And, of course, Righteous Regulation’s archenemies, members of the Populism Gang, have seized the obvious opportunity to lead an assault and install their imitation Truth, a largish man in what appears to be a wig, in the house. He seems to have taken on a name beginning with T, but is rumored to be the same persona as the ancient goddess the Greeks called “Demagogia.” It must be uncomfortable for him/her, since by now there’s very little left of the structure. But who cares?. Nobody is paying much attention to Truth now anyway and no one cares whether s/he looks much like the original or not.
It does all seem pretty hopeless. But I find myself thinking often of a quite different take on Truth found in a puzzling line from George Herbert’s poem “The Call”:
Come my Way, my Truth, my Life. . . .
such a Truth as ends all strife. . . .
It’s been a long time since Truth had the power to end any strife, much less all. What did Herbert’s Truth have that our Truths don’t?
She has, above all, an intimate link to Love, as the rest of the poem goes on to show. No wonder she’s disappeared from our gang-dominated environment! The Positivists’ Truth exists only to justify sneering at members of other gangs. The Fundamentalists’ Truth is there solely to pass judgement on dirty mis-believing outsiders. Righteous Regulation only wants clear, certain, and inalterable rules—and freedom from having to deal with the troubles they cause. Populism only wants some sense of being in full control again (as if it had ever been).
The only Truth that has a chance of returning to her house and taking up residence again, of shoring up the walls, refurbishing the dining room, and inviting people in for dinner will be a Truth that honors not only the seen but the unseen, not only faith but science, not only science but the people. Then perhaps we’ll be able to agree with one another that Truth still exists, even though our grasp of her meaning will still, as always, be far from perfect.
The only Truth that can match this description will have to be the Truth also known as Love.
Bill Countryman Los Angeles Clergy Conference Sermon May 10, 2017 Readings: Genesis 12:1-4; Ps. 42; Matthew 5:43-48 The scripture readings we've just heard underline how difficult it can be to accept God's call to love: love God and love all our fellow human beings, even our enemies. I don't think I need to do any exegesis. If anything, they're too clear. What I want to say instead, is that this is, after all the basic problem, the basic challenge, and the basic wonder and splendor of all Christian faith and life. To my mind, no one has ever put a finger on it more precisely than a certain predecessor of ours, a seventeenth-century priest with a gift for poetry named George Herbert. And I want to share with you a couple of his poems this morning and say a few words about them. The first is "The Call," which shows up in our hymnal set to a beautiful tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Hymn 487): Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: Such a Way, as gives us breath: Such a Truth, as ends all strife: Such a Life, as killeth death. We recognize Herbert's starting point—Jesus' words in the Gospel of John: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Herbert is inviting Jesus in, and also meditating on what these three terms mean in his life. Perhaps we think of "the Way" as a narrow path of duty and struggle. He seems to think of it as a broad open way where we find space to breathe. Truth in our world has become a bone of contention; he imagines it as a moment of discovery so profound as to leave no room, no desire for strife. And the Life he envisages is not just the physical one we carry inside us, vulnerable to sickness, accident, and death, but a creative power that will ultimately destroy death itself and all its works. The audacity required to invite such powers into your life! But that's what Jesus asks us to do. Herbert continues with another triad of invitations, ones we can easily connect with this Eucharist we are about to receive: Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength: Such a Light, as shows a feast: Such a Feast, as mends in length: Such a Strength, as makes his guest. Here comes a light that will illuminate the whole heart and mind—and reveal what? Not our failures, our sins, our unworthiness, but a banquet laid out for us. And unlike our daily meals, it's a banquet that never grows stale, never leaves us sated, weary, longing for a nap. To the contrary, it "mends in length"; it gets better the longer we sit together. It is the true Christian feast of love. And then, that strange line: Such a strength as makes his guest. What can he mean by that? What could ever make us strong enough to sit at the heavenly banquet, in this life and the life of the age to come? The answer, I think, comes clearer in another of Herbert's best-loved poems, also about a banquet (Love-III). It begins, "Love bade me welcome." And then the trouble starts. The thing that hinders us from Love's banquet is our own reluctance to be loved, humbly and simply. We would be happy to be admired for our goodness, our perfection, our moral worth. But simply to be loved because it is Love itself who has made us and seeks us out? Really, it's too much for us: Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lack’d anything. A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I? Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve. A clever ruse that one! It sounds so humble, so virtuous, so deserving almost, when it is really just a last-ditch effort to escape being loved. And the Love that has given us life and breath, and trust and hope, and the gift to be loved and to love, will not grant us this exemption: You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat. Sooner or later, we must all consent to be loved. And by God's grace this is also how we learn to love God and our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, even—however long it takes—our enemies. For how can we hate all these others whom God loves just as God loves us? And George Herbert summed it all up—the perfect triumph of love—in the final verse of "The Call": Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart: Such a Joy, as none can move: Such a Love, as none can part: Such a Heart, as joys in love. Even so. Come, Lord Jesus!