Clean Hands at the Corporate Buffet: 6th Sunday in Eastertide

Matthew 15:1-20

The first 9 verses of Matthew 15, taking Jesus and his disciples to task for not washing before eating, are not included in the readings for Year A, probably because they were lifted wholesale from Mark, and are read in Mark’s Year B.  But Matthew’s context is very different from Mark’s. The writer of Mark considers this encounter with the Pharisees as one of the five great controversies that distinguished the kingdom of God revealed by Jesus from the old Mosaic covenant that had become corrupt.  As a parable about Jesus, the clean hands controversy in Mark illustrates who Jesus was, and how those who would be followers might participate in God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion.  In every instance, Mark’s Jesus is showing us a radical inclusiveness in sharing the essentials for human survival:  healing, and eating.  That he surrounds stories of eating with stories of healing implies that without wholeness, there is no sustenance. Matthew, however, is looking to overthrow Mosaic law, not reclaim it.  He equates the Pharisees with plants that are not planted by “my heavenly Father,” which will be rooted out.  He calls them the blind who lead the blind, both of whom fall into the ditch.  Again, Mark’s invitation to participate in the kingdom of God that is readily available to all is contrasted by Matthew’s call for apocalyptic judgment against hypocrites who subvert the covenant.…

Assuming the World Has Not Ended: 5th Sunday in Eastertide

Matthew 14

Matthew has lifted Mark’s story about the daughter of Herodias (the illegitimate wife of Herod Antipas’ brother) who was paid for her dance at her grandfather’s birthday party with the head of John the Baptist delivered on a platter.  She was not given a name in any of the Gospel accounts, but Josephus says her name was Salome.  The somewhat incestuous relationships among the members of Herod Antipas’ household are as follows: Herod Antipas (who presided over Jesus’ death in the Gospel accounts) was the son of Herod the Great (who presided over Jesus’ birth in the Gospel accounts); Herodias was the daughter of Herod and the granddaughter of Herod the Great.  At some point, Herodias divorced her husband and married Philip, the brother of Herod Antipas – so, Herodias married her Uncle.  This was frowned upon by John the Baptist, who apparently made the mistake of publicly criticizing the marriage.  According to Jewish custom, it was the obligation of a widow’s husband’s brother to marry her; it was not kosher to jump the shark.  In retaliation for speaking truth to power, Herod Antipas threw John into prison.  Salome, the daughter of Herodias and her first husband, engineered the execution of John the Baptist, but instead of presenting his head to Herod Antipas at the party, she presented it to her mother Herodias.

The implications of this for politics in 1st century Palestine are infinitely interesting, not to mention 21st century presidential politics in the United States.  The scandalous birthday party has been dealt with in novels and plays and operas since at least the 19th century (Flaubert, Wilde, Richard Straus).  Mark and Matthew use the story to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Herod Antipas hears the stories about Jesus’ miracles, and assumes that J the B has been resurrected.  All this is prelude to the miracle of the feeding of 5,000 and Peter’s famous walk on the surface of the sea of Galilee.…

A New World Order: 4th Sunday in Eastertide

Matthew 13; Mark 4; 2 Corinthians 5

The collection of parables in Matthew 13 is the third of the great discourses Matthew collated and put into a particular context, and then attributed to Jesus.  The Jesus Seminar scholars have determined that all seven of the parables are found in Thomas, and the writer/evangelist has also fleshed out his particular point of view with sayings from the Q collection.  The Five Gospels, p. 190.  To compare with Mark, see blog.06.07.09; and blog.06.14.09.  These earlier commentaries from Year B include the Revised Common Lectionary readings.

Matthew is most concerned with insiders who know the secrets that will reveal the kingdom of God versus outsiders, who – no matter how obvious Jesus might make the story – are closed minded and hard hearted, and are unable to get it.  In 13:11-17, Matthew’s Jesus is clear: “You [followers/disciples] have been given the privilege of knowing the secrets of Heaven’s imperial rule, but that privilege has not been granted to anyone else.”  He then transplants the saying about “those who have more will get more, and those who have less will lose what they have” from the economic context of the parable of the money in trust, which is how it appears in Mark and Luke, and later in Matthew’s own gospel (25:29).  Here he tells the disciples that they have indeed been given the secret, inside knowledge that no one else has.  Further, he says, to those who have this privilege, more knowledge and understanding will be given, while those who do not have the inside track will be deprived of even the little bits of wisdom that they may have been able to acquire.

Matthew is using the collection of parables as a way of describing the nature of God’s imperial rule – or conditions that will or could pertain in the realm/kingdom of God.  The first part of the discourse focuses on the metaphor of the sower and the seed.  …

Whatever Happened to “Love your Enemies”? 3rd Sunday in Eastertide Year A

Matthew 12:38-50; Jeremiah 22:1-9

The Elves skip all of Matthew 12.  Most of it is covered in readings from Mark and Luke, which are read in their respective years.  However, the end of chapter 12, which Matthew borrowed from Mark and Q, and which does appear also in Luke, contains a curious combination of a diatribe from Jesus about “an evil and immoral generation” (totally ignored by the Elves) and Jesus’ apparent rejection of his family in favor of “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven,” normally covered in proper 5, Year B.  Due to the vagaries of the timing of Easter, proper 5 can be superseded by Pentecost (Trinity Sunday), which means the controversy about exactly who is Jesus’ family is seldom considered.

For the third Sunday of the Easter season, Matthew 12:38-42 seems to be relevant.  Some Pharisees and scholars (Matthew’s favorite foils) ask Jesus for a sign.  Because this scene follows Matthew’s version of the “Beelzebul controversy” i.e., Jesus must be using demons to drive out demons; and that his critics’ own words will come back to haunt them – the critics are apparently still demanding proof that Jesus works through God’s power.  An exasperated Jesus puts on his apocalyptic judgment hat and blasts this “evil and immoral generation.”  He tells them that “no sign will be given, except the sign of Jonah the prophet.”  He then suggests that the proof will come when – just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights – the “son of Adam will be in the bowels of the earth for three days and three nights.”

Matthew’s Jesus throws the Pharisees’ hypocrisy right back in their faces: That “evil and immoral generation” claims to believe in resurrection, but not in Jesus’ resurrection.  “At judgment time,” he says, “the citizens of Nineveh will come back to life along with this generation and condemn it, because they had a change of heart in response to Jonah’s message.  Yet take note: what is right here is greater than Jonah.  At judgment time, the queen of the south will be brought back to life along with this generation, and she will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom.  Yet take note: what is right here is greater than Solomon.”  So, Matthew’s Jesus is saying, “you scholars and Pharisees have heard someone greater than Jonah, but you haven’t had a change of heart, like the people of Nineveh did; and what’s worse, you don’t have the sense of a queen of the south to honor a wisdom that is greater than Solomon’s.”  He then adds insult to injury in 12:43-45, comparing “this evil and immoral generation” with an “unclean spirit” that returns to its host after having been exorcised, with “seven other spirits more vile than itself, who enter and settle in there.”…