Debt, Lies, and Fantasy Land: Proper 14, Year A

Matthew 20:20-34

The Elves deal with chapters 21-29 of Matthew’s gospel starting at the end of September, and ending with the “Reign of Christ” on the Sunday before Advent.  Past commentary on these chapters and their accompanying lectionary readings focus on Parousia – the Coming of the Lord – and the relevance of that metaphor to post-modern exiles from Christian traditional belief.  Portions of these chapters are skipped by the Elves because Matthew lifted Mark’s story nearly word-for-word, and Mark is considered the definitive gospel.

Matthew 20:20-23 is one of those skipped passages.  It differs from Mark’s version in two details.  In Matthew’s scene, Jesus has just explained to the disciples that once they reach Jerusalem, he will be sentenced to death, tortured, killed, and raised on the third day.  In Mark’s version, James and John react to this horrifying news by demanding that once he has been raised to God’s heaven, Jesus designate one to sit on his right hand and one on his left – the places of honor, in ancient royal protocol.  In Matthew’s version, the disciples are not so crass.  Instead of making the request themselves, Matthew has their mother do it.  Matthew’s Jesus then says, “You have no idea what you’re asking for.  Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  He omits the reference to baptism that Mark’s Jesus adds: “[Can you] undergo the baptism that I am undergoing?” Of course they answer, “Yes we can!”  Cue the famous hymn by Earl Marlatt (1926) set to music composed in 1924 by Harry Mason. The romantic piety approaches the insufferable.

But Jesus says, you’ll be drinking the same cup, all right, but the place of honor in heaven goes only to “those for whom it’s been reserved by my Father.”  Like most believers, the disciples take it for granted that they are the ones for whom the honor has been reserved.  The scene has become a platitude for reward in an afterlife, not a paradigm shift that transforms life here and now.  Matthew may have had the conniving Moms take the heat for their sons’ shameless self-promotion, but the disciples are just as clueless as they were in Mark’s version of the story. With the next narrative breath comes a fight among the disciples, which Jesus settles by reminding them all that “whoever wants to be ‘number one’ is to be your slave.  After all, the son of Adam didn’t come to be served but to serve, even to give his life as a ransom for many.”

For most of the past eight months, the U.S. Congress has been convulsed over raising the national debt limit, deficit spending, taxes, and – last but by no means least – the 2012 election.  Pollsters have been working overtime trying to gauge where the actual people stand regarding taxing the rich, increased short-term government spending to help the economy, and the 2012 election.  How many people are actually talked to in order to arrive at the numbers is hard to pin down.  But my guess would be that the majority of people in the country are far more concerned about having, keeping, and finding a job; health care issues; mortgages; and the price of food and gasoline than they are in the take-no-prisoners political warfare raging in Washington, D.C.

Other than some apologetic explanations about why Christians especially should be concerned with social justice (povertyimmigration, disaster relief), religious organizations and church leaders have not challenged the political agenda of the Tea Party and its fundamentalist Christian right-wing enthusiasts. Perhaps it is understandable.  Our Social Security checks may or may not arrive; Medicare providers are looking at even less reimbursement, which means more of our doctors and nursing homes and hospitals will decline to treat Medicare patients.  Unemployment insurance will soon be a thing of the past.  The kids keep growing out of their shoes.  Prices are spiraling out of control.  Who wants to come to church and hear all that negativity?  Politics – and what we might do about all these problems – is left at the church door, except for the prayer list.  But that has gotten too long with all the names of friends and neighbors who need help.

The disciples didn’t want to hear about what was waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem, and for them later.  Who wants to hear about the impossibility of the struggle for distributive justice-compassion? “What do you want?” Jesus asks.  They don’t ask for courage in the struggle.  They ask for pie in the sky.  When Jesus says there are no guarantees, they assume that applies to everyone else, not themselves.  The kicker, of course, is that the “son of Adam” came not to be served, but to “give his life as a ransom for many.”

Is that the cup we’re expected to drink?  You can’t be serious.  What kind of comfort is that?  No, no, tell us about sitting on the right hand of God in the glorious golden light accompanied by God’s Elect – and of course all who believe the story are the Elect.  Or, if they are Calvinists, at least they live as though they are.

The end of Matthew 20 is a actually a parable.

        As they were leaving Jericho, a huge crowd followed him.  There were two blind men, sitting on the side of the road.  When they learned that Jesus was coming toward them, they started yelling, “Have mercy on us, son of David.”  The crowd tried to get them to shut up, but they shouted all the louder.  Jesus stops and calls out to them “What do you want me to do for you?”  They said to him, “Master, open our eyes.” Then Jesus took pity on them, touched their eyes, and right away they regained their sight and followed him.  The Five Gospels, p. 227.

Taken alone, outside the context of the preceding story, this appears to be yet another healing miracle.  These are not disciples, hanging around Jesus all day, thinking they are entitled to glory.  They are bystanders who only want to have their eyes be opened.  But the blind men regained their sight, as though they had it once and lost it, just as the disciples’ asked for honor, after losing sight of the nature of God’s Covenant, which overturns the normal: the master is the slave; the last is first.  All it takes to make the transition is to open the eyes of the blind.

One of the 20th century masters of Arthurian fantasy, legend, and ritual magic was Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Glastonbury Tor, at the top of Innis Witrin, also contains Avalon, the mythic realm that guards the Sovereignty of ancient Britain.  Avalon is separated from its real-world counterpart by impenetrable mists.  Only initiates who know the spells can pass between those worlds.  But the joke (or the secret) discovered by the priestess who ultimately becomes the legendary Lady of the Lake, is that there is no separation between the worlds.  The separation is an illusion.  “She knew, even before the mists began to part, what she had done.  It was like the moment when she had emerged once from a tangled wood, certain that she was going in the wrong direction, and then, between one step and the next, felt the shift in her head and known her way” (Lady of Avalon, Viking Press, 1997, p. 382).

Like Avalon, the Realm of God is not a separate dimension of time and space; both are attitudes of mind.  Jesus reminded the disciples of the reversal of spirit that holds sway under God’s Covenant: the last are first; the slave is the master; even the Savior sent by God did not come to be served, but to give up his life as a ransom in the unending struggle for distributive justice-compassion.  They regained their sight and followed him.

One step and the paradigm shifts.  That’s all it takes.  Why is it so hard to do?

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