The Secret Code: Revealed to Infants: 4th Sunday in Lent

Matthew 11:20-30; Jonah; Genesis 18:16-33; Genesis 19:1-28

In a report by Luke and Matthew, and skipped by the Elves in both instances, Jesus condemns cities in Galilee for not changing their ways after he had performed miracles: “Damn you, Chorazin! Damn you, Bethsaida! . . . And you, Capernaum . . . you’ll go to Hell. . . .” Matthew’s Jesus promises that those cities will be overturned, just like Sodom and Gomorrah, “Because if the miracles had been done in Tyre and Sidon they would have sat in sackcloth and ashes and changed their ways long ago,” like the ancient gentile Ninevites in the satrical story of the prophet Jonah.

The Jesus Seminar scholars were “almost unanimous in their opinion that [these oracles of condemnation] were created by a later Christian prophet in Galilee speaking in the spirit and the name of Jesus . . . These condemnations probably reflect the frustration of Christian prophets following the failure of missions . . . .” The Five Gospels, p. 181.  But suppose we take them at face value?  What is Matthew’s Jesus suggesting?…

Go and Tell John: Third Sunday in Lent

Galatians 1:1-3:5; Matthew 11:1-19

The Elves skip Matthew 11:1, 11:12-15, and 11:20-24; they put 11:2-11 on the Third Sunday in Advent.  Then they pair Matthew 11: 16-19 and 25-30 with Romans 7:15-25a, which is a typical non-sequitur that happens in mid-July.  All this cherry-picking may reinforce Christian dogma, but it hardly contributes to an understanding of who Jesus was, what he taught, and what it all may have meant to 1st century followers.  This is especially the case when Paul’s letters are considered after the gospel reading in Christian liturgy.  The result is that Paul’s insights and arguments get interpreted in the light of the gospel writers instead of the other way around.

Indeed, there is some question whether Paul should be considered in conjunction with the evangelists at all.  As Burton Mack points out in The Lost Gospel of Q, an altogether different mythos developed from what he calls the “Christ Congregations,” which were organized around the interpretation put forth by the Apostle Paul in the seven letters that were actually his.  The Q tradition of sayings and stories did not combine with Paul’s mystical ideas about the crucified and risen Anointed One until the writer of Mark pulled it all together 30 years after Paul disappeared on his way to Rome.

Suppose we consider not what seems to be confirmation of 4th century Christian dogma, but what might be similar subject matter in the gospels and in Paul’s letters.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul scolds them for listening to some other kind of teaching and abandoning what they heard from him.  (This seems to be a recurring problem for Paul:  If it weren’t for an apparent report from “Chloe’s people,” Paul may have not realized he was losing control of the Corinthian community until too late.)  He seems to be obsessed with proving to the Galatians that he has the credentials for presenting himself as an “envoy” of God’s “world-transforming news.” That means, a royal messenger representing God’s imperial rule, not Caesar’s, and God’s counter-cultural covenant, not Caesar’s peace through war.…

Counter the Culture: 2nd Sunday in Lent

Romans 12; Matthew 10:37-11:1

The Elves won’t get around to considering specific verses from Romans 12 until late summer (propers 16 and 17), and then they are paired with Matthew 16: 13-28 (considered in last week’s blog, along with Philemon and Romans 6.  So far as scholarship has been able to determine, Paul either did not know about the sayings of Jesus that were orally preserved by the Q people, or if he did, he did not quote them directly.  Paul was the contemporary of Jesus and the first followers who mourned his death and did their best to make sense of it.  The gospel writers presented their interpretations 20, 50, possibly as long as 125 years after Paul (according to some scholars concerning Luke/Acts and John).  When Paul’s pastoral letters are considered first, what the gospel writers created may be heard as an echo of Paul’s insight into an oral tradition.…

Think Globally, Act Locally: First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 10:24-36; Philemon; Romans 6

Matthew’s Jesus says, “Students are not above their masters . . .; there is nothing veiled that will not be unveiled . . . do not fear those that kill the body but not the soul; even the hairs on your head are numbered; I came not to bring peace but a sword . . . mother against daughter; a person’s enemies are members of the same household.”

Matthew’s message seems to be, “do not be afraid” of those who criticize or threaten bodily harm.  Trust God, and don’t hide your message out of fear of those who kill the body.  Instead, Matthew’s Jesus says, announce the good news from the rooftops.  Everyone who proclaims the message will be recognized and protected by God, even in the face of the possibility of death.  These words are a call to action.  They hold far more power than the church tradition imagines, especially if considered after Paul’s radical illustration of equality in the letter to the slave-owner Philemon, and Paul’s astounding argument in Romans 6.  We do not know if the writer of Matthew’s Gospel had Paul’s letters in front of him, or if he knew of Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death.  But when Paul’s point in Philemon and Romans 6 is considered in the light of the new translation by scholars Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and the late Daryl D. Schmidt (SV), than the radicality behind the words Matthew gives to Jesus becomes apparent.…

Living Out the Covenant Part II: 9th Sunday in Epiphany

Matthew 10:1-23; Romans 5:1-8

While the Revised Common Lectionary follows its own esoteric pattern, the end of the season of the Epiphany seems an appropriate time to remember the conditions under which Jesus’ messengers were sent out with the news that the kingdom of God has now been revealed.  Scholars are divided over whether Jesus ever actually made any rules about sandals, staff, food, or money.  The rules differ among Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  They were likely made up by various groups who attempted to live the same way they thought Jesus and his followers had originally lived: as itinerant beggars.

The Elves pair this portion of Matthew with Romans 5:1-8. As pointed out before, the traditional interpretation of this pairing is that the persecution Matthew’s Jesus is warning about is to be welcomed with the forbearance of martyrs.  After all, Paul says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (NRSV).  Suffering is redemptive, tradition tells us.  The more Jesus suffered, the more love was poured out for the salvation of sinners.  It is a short dogmatic leap to substitutionary atonement, and the worst excesses of religious abuse, from Proverbs 13:24 to the Inquisition.

Petty sin is not the subject here.  The restoration of God’s Covenant for distributive justice-compassion is the subject.  Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ mission came 40 to 50 years after Paul’s letter to his friends in Rome, which lays out the argument against the corrupting seduction of power codified in the law, and for the liberation from that corruption for all who agree to the covenant.  Matthew is attempting to show the practicalities once that theory is understood.…