Thursday, 29 May 2014

Matthew 13: 31-32, 44-52 – The Kingdom of Heaven

If we look closely at the four gospels as stand alone narratives – and by that I mean NOT being read in the light of the theology of Paul not long after Jesus’ death and then the influential theology of Augustine 400 years later, both of which were products of their time but are arguably less relevant to our understanding of the world today – those two passages from Matthew that we’ve just had represent the central core of Jesus’ message. We’ve become so used to the message of sin that came out of the medieval church’s that we miss the fact that it simply isn’t there in Jesus’ ministry. Yes, Jesus uses the word ‘sin’ – which was a word for ‘failure’ in 1C Palestine; but it didn’t have the connotations of an ‘evil taint’ that it later acquired. Often he uses the word as part of the healing process. As he explains in Mark 2:10 it was easier for people at the time to accept healing as part of sins being forgiven that to accept being told just to get up off the floor when you are crippled; and then occasionally he uses the word ‘sin’ in connection with individual people – for example the Samaritan woman with more than one husband. What he does not do is make sin a central part of his mission.

Now let me just step back a moment and deal with the differences between the two main gospel strands because that’s critical when trying to understand Jesus’ overall ministry. Mark’s account is based on Peter’s memories – as attested to by a Greek Bishop Papius who died around the turn of the century; and we know that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark with additional teaching material from a source known as ‘Q’. Mark gives us a synopsis of Jesus’ time in the public eye – with teaching packed around the bullet points; but Papius makes the point that though Mark got all the facts right they weren’t necessarily in the right order. So Mark puts all the Jerusalem stuff together at the end and he makes no attempt to make a working chronology of the story. John on the other hand does. John it is who places parables and saying in a place & time where they could happen – for instance referring to grains of corn at a time when there would have been greenery in the Galilean highlands. It’s John who uses the right word for the rough barley bread eaten by the masses and who uses the correct word for fish in the story of the loaves & fishes – not Icthus as in wriggly thing what swims but Opsarion as in the fish relish or kippers sent down to Jerusalem from Galilee. John gives us a chronology and a detail which make sense; and I for one accept John Robinson’s argument that in John you have not a late ‘dramatised’ account but an early, possibly even THE earliest, account based on an eye witness, and possibly even by the disciple John himself. In fact as far as chronology is concerned the material in Mark and the other Synoptic gospels fit exactly within the overall chronology of John, however they DO provide some of the detailed early teaching in Galilee that John doesn’t cover.

Why is this important? Well because in John we see Jesus’ first public provocation, as in throwing the money lenders out of the temple, in context – as a kind of extension of the ‘fire & brimstone’ message that John was preaching. Then however we see a retreat to Galilee during which the message changes – changed so much that John Baptist later sends a message from prison asking Jesus if he IS the one. It’s as though a very human Jesus has decided on a different approach and it’s one based on the Kingdom of God or Heaven and upon healing. Given that Mark & the others place the temptations in the wilderness soon after Jesus’ baptism by John it’s tempting to see this change of tack as part of Jesus taking stock during his retreat into the wilderness; but anyway we now emerge into Jesus’ teaching in Galilee.

So now we’ve arrived at the core period in Jesus’ ministry when he was trying out new things when the core message is being honed and when he’s trying out new ways to ‘get the ball rolling’ towards the Kingdom of God/Heaven – incidentally the two phrases are synonymous but Matthew is known to be writing to Jews who wouldn’t be comfortable about using the name of God, which is the best explanation of why he substitutes the word ‘heaven’ instead. So it’s here, in this change of tack, that we see a ministry not looking at repentance by looking back to sin & damnation but of looking at repentance by forward to the kind of society Jesus is telling us that God wants for us. It’s a positive rather than a negative message and THIS is why these verses are so important. It tells us everything about the way Jesus framed his ministry and his teaching. We believe that a creator God began a process 13.7 billion years ago with a big bang of all the chemicals needed to sustain life in some form, in the hope/belief of creating sentient life capable of love; and as one such species that makes sense of the idea of ‘being made in the image of God’. Then again by our choice of words – Son of God and Christ – we are using models to describe the indescribable but we mean that by seeing Jesus we see God. Or put better ‘God IS and he/she is as we see in Jesus’. Therefore the life, words & resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth tells us everything we need to know about the nature of God and of what he/she wants for & in his/her creation.

The God as revealed in the person of Jesus is not looking for communities looking to condemn or root out people on the ‘other side of the tracks’. Instead the Father wants, for us his/her children, a society where everyone loves more, cares more, goes the extra step, is open to the hurt & the needy – and in so doing become people who become ever more open to demonstrating or living out the will of God for his/her creation.

Once we accept that fact it both makes life easier and harder. Easier for example as in we no longer have to focus on whether A can be accepted into our community or whether he/she needs to be condemned, converted & reprieved before being part of our body. Easier as in we no longer have to examine the scripture and the traditions of the church to consider whether women can take full equality with men in the life of the Kingdom of Heaven. Easier as in we don’t have to search for minute fragments in the emerging body of what we know as the Old Testament for comments on homosexuality – and there IS hardly anything anyway. But then it becomes harder because we live in a world that’s changing faster than ever: where new understandings of our own history, of our own genetic makeup and of our own biology, all continue to undermine what we’ve been brought up to understand; and above all, where we have to think every situation/scenario through in the light of the Kingdom of God stroke heaven. It’s harder because we have to consider every situation anew in the light of a loving God – and thinking isn’t easy for most of us. Rules are much easier to follow – which is why the medieval church developed so many.

But that’s exactly what Jesus turned away from; and in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we know as the Christ, the Son of God, we know that God doesn’t want us to raise barriers, to bar people, to create ‘thems’ and ‘us’. God wants us to go the extra mile, to demonstrate his/her inclusiveness and to show love to all of creation. We are talking about a God who set his/her seal of approval on eating with outcasts, or mixing with the unsavoury and on bending the rules.

And how does it affect us I hear you ask? Well WE are the people who have to make it happen. WE are the people who can make God’s dream come true. WE are the people who can make the kind of community that God hopes for. How you ask? The answer is ‘by the little things we do’. It might mean standing up to friends to defend the latest group of immigrants the tabloids have decided to demonise. It might mean not bitching about someone (or at least bitching less). It might mean making a little extra effort on behalf of someone we don’t like. It might just mean wasting a little less food; or boiling less water in the kettle at any one time; or even flushing the toilet less often to waste less water. You see it’s up to us to promote the inclusive and loving society that God wants and it’s up to us to demonstrate God care for his/her creation; and we can do that letting every little thing we do contribute to the Kingdom of God. It helps if we recognise that the message of Jesus wasn’t based on sin. It was one of doing what each one of us can to look forward to the Kingdom. We are not defined by what we’ve done wrong but rather by what we CAN do right; and I’d suggest that the criteria by which we measure that is the sum total of love in the world. Love is the be all and end all of God’s aspiration for his/her creation. 

If we look closely at the four gospels as stand alone narratives – and by that I mean NOT being read in the light of the theology of Paul not long after Jesus’ death and then the influential theology of Augustine 400 years later, both of which were products of their time but are arguably less relevant to our understanding of the world today – those two passages from Matthew that we’ve just had represent the central core of Jesus’ message. We’ve become so used to the message of sin that came out of the medieval church’s that we miss the fact that it simply isn’t there in Jesus’ ministry. Yes, Jesus uses the word ‘sin’ – which was a word for ‘failure’ in 1C Palestine; but it didn’t have the connotations of an ‘evil taint’ that it later acquired. Often he uses the word as part of the healing process. As he explains in Mark 2:10 it was easier for people at the time to accept healing as part of sins being forgiven that to accept being told just to get up off the floor when you are crippled; and then occasionally he uses the word ‘sin’ in connection with individual people – for example the Samaritan woman with more than one husband. What he does not do is make sin a central part of his mission.

Now let me just step back a moment and deal with the differences between the two main gospel strands because that’s critical when trying to understand Jesus’ overall ministry. Mark’s account is based on Peter’s memories – as attested to by a Greek Bishop Papius who died around the turn of the century; and we know that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark with additional teaching material from a source known as ‘Q’. Mark gives us a synopsis of Jesus’ time in the public eye – with teaching packed around the bullet points; but Papius makes the point that though Mark got all the facts right they weren’t necessarily in the right order. So Mark puts all the Jerusalem stuff together at the end and he makes no attempt to make a working chronology of the story. John on the other hand does. John it is who places parables and saying in a place & time where they could happen – for instance referring to grains of corn at a time when there would have been greenery in the Galilean highlands. It’s John who uses the right word for the rough barley bread eaten by the masses and who uses the correct word for fish in the story of the loaves & fishes – not Icthus as in wriggly thing what swims but Opsarion as in the fish relish or kippers sent down to Jerusalem from Galilee. John gives us a chronology and a detail which make sense; and I for one accept John Robinson’s argument that in John you have not a late ‘dramatised’ account but an early, possibly even THE earliest, account based on an eye witness, and possibly even by the disciple John himself. In fact as far as chronology is concerned the material in Mark and the other Synoptic gospels fit exactly within the overall chronology of John, however they DO provide some of the detailed early teaching in Galilee that John doesn’t cover.

Why is this important? Well because in John we see Jesus’ first public provocation, as in throwing the money lenders out of the temple, in context – as a kind of extension of the ‘fire & brimstone’ message that John was preaching. Then however we see a retreat to Galilee during which the message changes – changed so much that John Baptist later sends a message from prison asking Jesus if he IS the one. It’s as though a very human Jesus has decided on a different approach and it’s one based on the Kingdom of God or Heaven and upon healing. Given that Mark & the others place the temptations in the wilderness soon after Jesus’ baptism by John it’s tempting to see this change of tack as part of Jesus taking stock during his retreat into the wilderness; but anyway we now emerge into Jesus’ teaching in Galilee.

So now we’ve arrived at the core period in Jesus’ ministry when he was trying out new things when the core message is being honed and when he’s trying out new ways to ‘get the ball rolling’ towards the Kingdom of God/Heaven – incidentally the two phrases are synonymous but Matthew is known to be writing to Jews who wouldn’t be comfortable about using the name of God, which is the best explanation of why he substitutes the word ‘heaven’ instead. So it’s here, in this change of tack, that we see a ministry not looking at repentance by looking back to sin & damnation but of looking at repentance by forward to the kind of society Jesus is telling us that God wants for us. It’s a positive rather than a negative message and THIS is why these verses are so important. It tells us everything about the way Jesus framed his ministry and his teaching. We believe that a creator God began a process 13.7 billion years ago with a big bang of all the chemicals needed to sustain life in some form, in the hope/belief of creating sentient life capable of love; and as one such species that makes sense of the idea of ‘being made in the image of God’. Then again by our choice of words – Son of God and Christ – we are using models to describe the indescribable but we mean that by seeing Jesus we see God. Or put better ‘God IS and he/she is as we see in Jesus’. Therefore the life, words & resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth tells us everything we need to know about the nature of God and of what he/she wants for & in his/her creation.

The God as revealed in the person of Jesus is not looking for communities looking to condemn or root out people on the ‘other side of the tracks’. Instead the Father wants, for us his/her children, a society where everyone loves more, cares more, goes the extra step, is open to the hurt & the needy – and in so doing become people who become ever more open to demonstrating or living out the will of God for his/her creation.

Once we accept that fact it both makes life easier and harder. Easier for example as in we no longer have to focus on whether A can be accepted into our community or whether he/she needs to be condemned, converted & reprieved before being part of our body. Easier as in we no longer have to examine the scripture and the traditions of the church to consider whether women can take full equality with men in the life of the Kingdom of Heaven. Easier as in we don’t have to search for minute fragments in the emerging body of what we know as the Old Testament for comments on homosexuality – and there IS hardly anything anyway. But then it becomes harder because we live in a world that’s changing faster than ever: where new understandings of our own history, of our own genetic makeup and of our own biology, all continue to undermine what we’ve been brought up to understand; and above all, where we have to think every situation/scenario through in the light of the Kingdom of God stroke heaven. It’s harder because we have to consider every situation anew in the light of a loving God – and thinking isn’t easy for most of us. Rules are much easier to follow – which is why the medieval church developed so many.

But that’s exactly what Jesus turned away from; and in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we know as the Christ, the Son of God, we know that God doesn’t want us to raise barriers, to bar people, to create ‘thems’ and ‘us’. God wants us to go the extra mile, to demonstrate his/her inclusiveness and to show love to all of creation. We are talking about a God who set his/her seal of approval on eating with outcasts, or mixing with the unsavoury and on bending the rules.

And how does it affect us I hear you ask? Well WE are the people who have to make it happen. WE are the people who can make God’s dream come true. WE are the people who can make the kind of community that God hopes for. How you ask? The answer is ‘by the little things we do’. It might mean standing up to friends to defend the latest group of immigrants the tabloids have decided to demonise. It might mean not bitching about someone (or at least bitching less). It might mean making a little extra effort on behalf of someone we don’t like. It might just mean wasting a little less food; or boiling less water in the kettle at any one time; or even flushing the toilet less often to waste less water. You see it’s up to us to promote the inclusive and loving society that God wants and it’s up to us to demonstrate God care for his/her creation; and we can do that letting every little thing we do contribute to the Kingdom of God. It helps if we recognise that the message of Jesus wasn’t based on sin. It was one of doing what each one of us can to look forward to the Kingdom. We are not defined by what we’ve done wrong but rather by what we CAN do right; and I’d suggest that the criteria by which we measure that is the sum total of love in the world. Love is the be all and end all of God’s aspiration for his/her creation. 

Categories: Talks & Thoughts