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.

The version of the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark’s gospel – and Mark’s context – is skipped in the Revised Common Lectionary readings.  The Elves do allow us to realize that Mark brackets the death of John the Baptist with Jesus’ sending the disciples out with instructions to do the work of the Kingdom, and their return.  Matthew’s context is very different.  After the death of J the B, Jesus takes a break in “an isolated place.”  When the crowds of people find him, Matthew reports, he “took pity on them and healed their sick”; then comes the story of the mass picnic lifted wholesale from Mark, followed by Jesus catching up with the disciples who have set out on the lake ahead of him by walking on the water.  Mark says the disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus walking on the water because they didn’t get it about the loaves and the fish.  Matthew has Peter meet Jesus on the lake, lose his nerve, and sink.

What was it they didn’t get about the loaves in Mark?– the sharing: “You feed them.” The writer of Mark’s gospel opines that the disciples were deliberately obstinate, purposely didn’t get the point.  Perhaps they don’t want to realize that it is up to them to restore God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion.  In Matthew it’s about trusting God’s power as experienced in God’s Anointed One.  After witnessing the distribution of loaves and fishes to 5,000 people, Peter steps out of the boat, tries to insinuate himself into a miracle, and loses his nerve.  “You don’t have enough trust!”  Jesus says, “Why did you hesitate?”  The writer of Luke’s gospel doesn’t bother with walking on the water.  His Jesus goes straight to the bottom line: “Who do you say that I am?” he asks, and Peter replies, “God’s Anointed.”  By the time the story got told by the writer of John’s gospel Mark’s do-it-yourself participation in the kingdom and Matthew’s trust in God’s Covenant were completely buried by the requirement to believe the story.

How many bazillions of sermons have concentrated on the metaphor of Jesus and Peter walking on the water?  Peter, the impetuous disciple, jumps over the side of the boat and walks toward the Lord.  All is well until he realizes where he is.  “He who hesitates is lost,” says the aphorism.

“I was sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise once more
But the master of the sea heard my despairing cry
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I
Love lifted me . . . when nothing else would help, Love lifted me!”

But where is the distributive justice-compassion in this concern for salvation from sin?  It’s all about “me”; and you can be saved too – just accept Jesus.  Jesus will save us from wrong-doing, bad thoughts, sex (married or not), temptation to lie, cheat, steal, murder, dishonor our parents and the sabbath rest.  Contemporary Christian traditionalists have given the nod to pop psychology and include self-doubt in the list of “sins” the love of Jesus has the power to lift us from.

Harold Camping says that the rapture described in 1 Thessalonias 4 will occur on May 21, 2011, and that God will destroy the entire Universe on October 21, 2011.  Unlike John the Baptist and Jesus, Camping offers no chance for salvation.  John the Baptist said, “Change your ways because Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in!  You spawn of Satan!  Who warned you to flee from the impending doom?  Well then, start producing fruit suitable for a change of heart. . . . Even now the axe is aimed at the root of the trees.  So every tree not producing choice fruit gets cut down and tossed into the fire” (Matthew 3:2; 3:7b-10).  In Luke’s report of John the Baptist, when the people asked him what to do he told them: “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”  Tax and toll collectors were told “Charge nothing above the official rates.”  Soldiers were told, “No more shakedowns!  No more frame-ups either!  And be satisfied with your pay” (Luke 3:10-14).  In his encounter with the “rich young ruler,” who claimed he had followed all the commandments but still wasn’t certain of gaining eternal life, Luke’s Jesus says, “Sell everything you have and distribute the proceeds among the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  And then come, follow me!”  But unfortunately, “when he heard this, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich” (Luke 18:18-23).

As always, the rich, would-be rulers claim that the “government” has no business providing food stamps, medicaid, housing assistance, Head Start, education grants, or any of the other so-called “entitlements” that those who are not rich need to survive.  But don’t worry, the collaborating television evangelists and Christian lecture circuit riders tell the desperate, if you believe that Jesus died to save you from sin, he will extend his hand to you and you too can find the magic: the job, the lottery ticket, the miracle.  Caught in an ironic non-sequitur, post-modern, 21st century “believers” in Jesus’ sacrificial death and miraculous return from the dead continue to miss the point.  One has to wonder whether this is due to obstinance, as the writer of Mark’s gospel surmised, or – as Matthew charged – to a profound lack of trust in the very one they cling to as they sink beneath the waves.

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