Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees! 7th Sunday in Eastertide

Matthew 15:21-39; 16:1-12; Acts 1:6-14

This section of Matthew seems to be dealing with bread, belief, signs, and wonders.  Chapter 15:21-28 features Matthew’s version of Mark’s vignette of the Canaanite woman whom Jesus at first declines to pay any attention to at all.  She is a foreigner.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus sneers, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs.”  But she dishes right back: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”  This is one of those difficult passages that fly in the face of what we assume Jesus was like – and indeed it does contradict who Jesus was.  Matthew is trying to claim Jesus for Jerusalem, not the pagan outsiders.

But that point is a diversion.  Matthew follows the exchange with the Canaanite woman with a variation on the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (again, straight from Mark, but without Mark’s context).  Right after threatening to ignore the foreigner’s need for bread and healing, he is afraid those “lost sheep” might collapse on the road, so – illustrating what might have been the shared ritual meal of the early Jesus movement – Matthew’s Jesus once again takes “seven loaves and a few fish,” gives thanks, and breaks them into pieces for distribution to the crowd.  Alakazam!  Everyone gets more than enough to eat and they pick up seven baskets of leftover scraps.  Not counting the women and children (of course), this crowd numbered 4,000.

Then Jesus takes a boat to Magadan, where the Pharisees and Sadducees try again to get him to give them a sign.  Having just performed the second miraculous feeding of a huge crowd of people, which the Jewish leadership apparently refused to accept, he tells them again that the only sign they will get is “the sign of Jonah.”  For Matthew that sign means repentance, from rejection to belief, in Jesus’ resurrection.  See Matthew 12:38-40.

After that scene, Matthew returns to the bread motif.  When the disciples join Jesus on the shore, he tells them “Guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  They think he is talking about bread, but they have forgotten to bring any.  In Mark’s version (Mark 8:14-21) Jesus rails at the followers because they continue to miss the point that providing food for two separate crowds was a demonstration of the radicality of God’s covenant where distributive justice holds sway.  Matthew’s purpose is to warn would-be followers of Jesus’ Way to ignore the teachings of traditional Jewish religious leaders, who despite their belief in the resurrection of the dead, refuse to believe that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah.

Once again, we see the contrast between the two Gospel writers: Mark’s story about the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is an extended parable about Jesus and the nature of the kingdom (realm, covenant) of God, and how to participate in it.  Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, Jesus’ teachings as the new law, and his Gospel as a five-part replacement for Torah.  Interpreters of Matthew must be constantly on guard against anti-semitism – the “leaven of the Pharisees and Saducees” that still plagues Christianity today. Simply put, 21st century exiles from the Christian church have a choice between “belief” in an impossible legend and participation in a possible transformation in human life.…

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.…

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.”…

Reclaiming the Victory: Easter Sunday 2011

Matthew 28:1-10; 1st Corinthians 15

Jesus is seriously dead.  None of the rest of it makes any sense otherwise.

Many – if not most – conservative evangelical and fundamentalist “Bible” churches began the week before Palm Sunday to declare on their billboards that “He is Risen.”  It’s a code.  Everyone knows who “He” is (capital “h”), and that “He” rose bodily from a grave.  For literal believers, the Gospel stories of the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are generally ignored.  Jesus makes a triumphant parade through Jerusalem, briefly and passively accepts torture in the place of sinners who really deserve it (the more gruesome the torture, the greater the “love” thus demonstrated), and comes back to eternal life “on the third day” after the crucifixion.  Confrontation with the reality of Jesus’ unjust and appalling death is avoided, and the transformational meaning of the resurrection is lost.

Folks who see Easter as a “season” for candy and new clothes find the Tomb is Empty because it was never occupied to begin with.  …