Monthly Archives: March 2012

Matthew 9 – The Parable of the Under-Prepared Sunday School Teacher

In this chapter Jesus harshly criticizes Sunday School teachers who put off their preparation until too late in the week to organize a thoughtful blog post. "You brood of vipers," he curses them "you will be cast into outer darkness where there will be no study Bible footnotes to rely on and the pericopes for the week will lack obvious and intriguing political consequences. Woe to you for conversation will languish!" 

Here in the outer darkness we have seven pericopes that communicate a sense of growing tension surrounding Jesus' ministry. "Growing tension," that's what the footnotes say! Okay, seriously, just a few thoughts to prime the pump:

1. Notice that Jesus healed the paralyzed man on "their" faith, the faith of his friends. Also note that the key question in the story concerns authority. Why would that be?

2. Tax collectors are interesting. They paid a flat fee to the Romans in exchange for permission to extort as much out of the population as possible. They were essentially a legalized form of the mafia. You can see why they were so despised. Naturally, we find Jesus hanging out with them. He even dines with them. He cites Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." No other Gospel uses this text. It's interesting to think about Jesus' own death if sacrifice is not what God wants.

3. Verses 14-17 address a question about why John's disciples fast while Jesus' feast. Take a look at 11:1-19 for more comparison of John and Jesus. Remember that John and Jesus both died at the hands of a tyrant. As the Jesus movement grew, John's disciples would surely have had questions about whether the new movement was something their leader would have endorsed. Should they join forces or not? Matthew makes a case here that he hopes will persuade them.

4. The story of the woman with the issue of blood interrupts the story of healing the ruler's daughter. In this instance, Matthew follows Mark's practice of folding one story into another. The phrase "of the synagogue" in verse 18 is not in the Greek. What difference does it make? The issue of blood would have made the woman ritually impure. Healing her also restored her to her community. With healthcare workers I always like to note that Jesus could have healed her anonymously. She only needed to touch the fringe of his garment, but he chose to stop and take time to recognize her. Healing was personal for Jesus. Also the "fringe of his cloak" probably refers to the tassels on the prayer shawl that every observant Jewish man would have worn.

5. Through the end of the chapter we learn that Jesus continues to heal, that word begins to sperad, and that tensions continue to grow. We end with the note that the "laborers are few" and pick up in chapter ten with a newly commissioned set of laborers who go out into the fields ready for the harvest.

See you Sunday.

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Reflections on Faith and Sexual Identity – Ethical Perspectives

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Matthew 8 – Where did Legion Go?

This chapter contains a fascinating example of how the meaning of a pericope changes between synoptic Gospels. Remember that Matthew and Luke are based on the Gospel of Mark, plus a collections of sayings that scholars call “Q.” That means that it is not surprising to find stories in common between the three Gospels. What is surprising — and telling — is when we find something changed. At the end of chapter 8, we find a story about pigs that Matthew has changed, and that change tells us a lot.

Let’s start at the beginning of the chapter. We’ll get to the pigs soon enough.

Three Healing Pericopes

The first pericope, 8.1-4, tells the story of the healing of a leper. What does Jesus tell him to do? Going to a priest and making an offering means that the leper was Jewish, and Jesus is following his own command from the Sermon on the Mount about keeping the law. But, look at the second pericope, 8.5-13. The Centurion wouldn’t have been Jewish, and yet Matthew tells us that he displayed faith that “no one in Israel” had. Why do you think Matthew places these two stories side by side? (They are separated by two chapters in Luke.) Think about Matthew’s audience. Think about the growing presence of Gentiles in the church. What is Matthew up to?

There’s an interesting, possibly disturbing, thing about the Centurion’s servant. The Centurion refers to his pais, his “boy.” The NRSV translates this “servant,” but the term usually meant more than that. The normal term for a slave is doulos. That’s the term used in verse 9. A pais, a “boy” slave was often, maybe even usually, a sex slave who had been taken from his home after a battle, castrated, and put into the service of a wealthy Roman. Remember the Ethiopian eunuch from the book of Acts? He was probably a pais who had grown up and whose master had found other uses for him. Kind of changes the story, doesn’t it?

The third pericope, 8.14-17, extends Jesus’ healing ministry to “all who were sick” and interprets it as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53.4. Isaiah 53.4 is part of the fourth “servant song.” These are sections of Isaiah that may originally have formed a separate literary unit, which were later woven into the portions of Isaiah that were composed after the exile. Remember that part of Isaiah was written in the eighth century, before the fall of Israel, and part of it was written in the late sixth century after the exile was over. The “Servant Song” portrays Israel as a nation called upon by God to suffer violence in order to bring light to all the nations. Matthew interprets this song to refer not to the entire nation, but to Jesus as an individual who suffers for all humankind.


8.18-27 comments on the rigorous nature of discipleship (“let the dead bury their own dead”) and suggests a Christology, a theory about who Matthew believes Jesus to be. We’ve already seen that Jesus is the new Moses, a great teacher, an interpreter of the law. Here Matthew claims more for Jesus. He is the “Son of Man,” a figure understood in second temple Judaism to be one who would act with power to restore the cosmos.

The pericope that tells of the calming of the storm (23-27) claims even more. Here Jesus is the one who commands the winds and sea. Who can do that? See Psalm 89.9 for the answer. So, who exactly is Matthew claiming Jesus to be?


Okay, now we get to those pigs. This is fascinating! First thing: Jesus had crossed over the sea of Galilee and was in the region of the Decapolis, ten Gentile cities. The very fact that these people kept pigs tells you that they were not Jewish. The story comes from Mark and gets repeated in Luke in largely the same form, except that the pigs fall into a lake instead of the sea. 

Take a look at Mark 5.1-13. Note that a legion was about the size of an occupying army. In Mark, when Jesus drowns the occupying army in the sea, doesn’t that remind you of how God drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea? Mark was written in the midst of a Jewish revolution. What do you think the story signified to people in Mark’s time?

Okay, now go back to Matthew. What is the demon named? Ah, no name. So here, Jesus simply casts some demons into some swine who take a flying leap. Remember that in Matthew’s time the revolution was over, horribly crushed. Remember that Matthew has already told us not to resist with violence (5.38-42). He’ll also tell us that Jesus is not a political leader. Given his context, it makes sense for Matthew to delete the name of the demon, doesn’t it? If there is no promise that God will overthrow the Romans just like the Egyptians were cast into the sea, then what does this story mean in Matthew? I’ll be eager to hear your theories on Sunday.

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Christianity in Cuba – March 18

On Sunday, March 18 we will join the plenary adult Sunday School class to hear Rev. Reinerio Arce speak on the topic of Christianity in Cuba. We’ll gather again as a class on March 25 to discuss Matthew 8 and 9.

The Reverend Reinerio Arce to preach

Sunday, March 18
Preaching at 8:30 & 11:00 a.m. 
Speaking at 9:40 a.m.

The Reverend Reinerio Arce Valentin, president of the Matazas Theological Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba and the former moderator of the Presbyterian/Reformed Church of Cuba, will be our guest preacher on Sunday, March 18. In addition to preaching, he will be available for a more informal discussion about the Presbyterian Church in Cuba and the role of theological education throughout the church there.

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Have you ever wondered why I leave such a long period of silence at the beginning of our opening prayer in Sunday School? “What the heck is she waiting for?” you might wonder. The answer is simple: I’m waiting for God. 

I learned this from Elijah. Do you remember the story where Elijah encounters God at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19: 1-18)?  Elijah was running away from Jezebel’s death threat against him after he had bested her prophets in a barbeque contest (and you thought Memphians took their barbeque seriously!). He fled to the desert, contemplated suicide, and then hauled himself to Horeb after an angel gave him water and honeycakes. *When he arrives at the mountain, Elijah experiences an earthquake, a strong wind, and a consuming fire, but God is not in any of these.  At long last, Elijah hears “the sound of sheer silence,” and knowing that this silence signals the transforming presence of God, he covers his face with his mantle and steps out to the entrance of the cave to meet his God.  Ultimately, God does speak to Elijah, but only after preparing him through silence.  First Elijah must remember that God is not a creature, not even a creature like the powerful forces of nature.  Elijah must experience the profound otherness of God – an otherness that cannot be contained and manipulated for human ends through human speech.  The silence confounds Elijah’s natural impulse to let speech stand in for God and to order God to his own purposes.  It is in the silence that God effects a theocentric reversal of perspective for Elijah.  Elijah does not find God; God finds Elijah. 

The silence before worship [or a Sunday School prayer] functions in a similar way for us.  It effects a theocentric reversal of perspective.  In our fallenness and fragmentation, we often come to worship seeking a god to do our bidding; but in the silence preceding worship, God finds us, and in finding us, re-locates us within God’s broader purposes for creation.  In silence, we remember that we do not provide the ultimate meaning and purpose of creation, and we rediscover ground for hope in the knowledge that genuine human flourishing arises from locating ourselves within the limits set for us by God whose purposes we serve.  

Speech is sometimes a form of control.  It can involve a kind of cognitive mastery of one’s environment.  There is power in naming, and perhaps this is why God refuses to give us a singular name by which we might call on God.  Because giving up speech involves giving up this power, we are often uncomfortable with silence and seek to fill it, if not with sound, then at least with familiar thought.  We want to use silent time “efficiently,” making mental notes of what we need to do after worship or thinking through some problem we want to bring to God in prayer.  But the silence before worship is not designed for us to focus on ourselves, our needs, our wants, or our list of things to do.  It is designed to reorient our religious affections theocentrically.  Silence can become the occasion for quieting the constant stream of self-talk that fills our heads.  Silence can become the occasion for de-centering ourselves so that we are open to feeling the presence of God in our lives.#

So there you have it. I’m waiting for God. This Sunday, I hope you’ll wait with me.

*The section of this blog post until the pound sign (#) is lifted from Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections, which Matt and I wrote several years ago. 


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Sermon on the Mount – Chapter 7 – How Not To End A Sermon

Did the title of this post just criticize Jesus’s homiletical technique? I prefer to think of it as a critique of Matthew’s editorial choices! Chapter seven is a sort of mishmash of pericopes. It’s like ending a sermon by saying “oh, and here’s a bunch of other stuff I wanted to say even though it doesn’t really fit the theme of the sermon.” Note to any preacher wannabes: This is not a good way to end a sermon. Jesus can do it if wants because he’s God incarnate. You are not. Matthew can do it because he’s trying to preserve every last thing he knows about what God incarnate said. You are not. 

You remember what a pericope is, right? A pericope is a stand-alone unit of text. Think about the parables. They are independent stories whose meaning doesn’t necessarily depend on where they are placed within the larger story. Pericopes were probably originally part of an oral traditon. In the beginning Christians didn’t have written scriptures — except for the Jewish Bible, of course — they just told stories about Jesus. Say, did you hear that one about how Jesus wiggled his way out of answering that tough question about paying taxes? Do you know the story about how Jesus healed the blind man? Did you know that Jesus said “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged”? 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke make use of many common pericopes, and Matthew and Luke have even more in common (that’s the Q source), but they move them around in the story to different locations in order to communicate different things. These differences often tell us a lot about the different audiences for the three evangelists. 

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount we find a collection of sayings pericopes — pericopes that contain something Jesus said (as opposed to something he did, something that happened to him, or a narrative about a conversation). 

In chapter seven we find sayings about judgment (1-5), holiness (6), assurance that the needs of the community will be met (7-11), a summary of the law (12 – more on this later), the strenuous character of Christian life (13-14), a warning about false prophets (15-20) and those who do not live the strenuous life (21-23), and an admonition to hear and act on the words of Jesus (24-27).

Notice that the middle sayings are all related to the high demands of the law. Remember that in the first century there are other prominent evangelists who disagree with Matthew about how the law functions for Christians. Luke understands the law differently. Paul explicitly disagrees with this view. Matthew may well think of them as those who say “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name,” but who did not keep the law.

Finally in verses 28 and 29 the sermon comes to an end. Note two things about this ending. First, “the crowds were astounded.” What crowds? At the beginning of the sermon Jesus saw the crowds and went up the mountain with just his disciples. Did the crowds follow them up and gather while Jesus preached? That would be very different from what happened to Moses when he went up the mountain. Do you think Matthew means to say something about that? Or, did Matthew just forget that the crowds weren’t there two chapters ago? 


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