What are the Weeds in Matt 13:24-30, 36-43?  A Case of Jesus’ Pacifism?

In Matt 13:24-30, 36-43, Jesus tells a parable in which weeds are sown by an enemy in a field which the owner has sown good seed.  The servants notice the problem and suggest they pull out the weeds, but the owner  of the field rejects the suggestion on the basis that doing so would also harm the wheat.  The
disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable, so he does:weeds & wheat

37“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;  38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,  39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 

So, the weeds are the “children of the evil one.”  They will be collected when the Son of Man comes, and thrown into the furnace of fire.

So how do modern interpreters identify the weeds?

The “Jesus Seminar” scholars call this the parable of the “Sabotage of the Weeds” and give it a rating of next to certain that it is not authentically from Jesus on the basis that it

“reflects the concern of a young Christian community attempting to define itself over get against an evil world, a concern not characteristic of Jesus.”  (The five Gospels: what did Jesus really say?” p. 194)

On this reading, the weeds are people, and the people are those “in an evil world” but it is quite hard to know how a young Christian community would have struggled with the temptation to “gather them” in the sense of “uprooting,” that is, eliminating those people.

Hagner (Matthew, Word Biblical Commentary [vol. 33A, p. 395]) identifies the weeds as

“those [people] guilty of lawlessness—the people who belong to the evil one—coexist with the righteous…”

– but again, how could the kingdom people be tempted to uproot them?

Harrington (The Gospel of Matthew, in Sacra Pagina vol. 1, p. 208) says that the setting is the time of Jesus in which some Jews accepted but others rejected Jesus’ message of the kingdom.  The answer for believers is patience in the light of final judgment.  But again, the question is, what were the believers tempted to do with about the rejectors?  In what sense was there a temptation, or even an opportunity to uproot them prior to the eschaton?  Patience is hardly needed advice for people who have no other option.

Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, p. 156) ends his discussion taking the weeds as metaphors for

“whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God…”

which, the parable says, God will eventually deal with.  But on this reading, how could the original question in the parable: “should we uproot them?” with the answer “let them grow” makes any sense as moral advice.

This is a key problem.  If the “weed” people are doing evil things, how is the advice to “let them be as they are” appropriate?  Does this apply to the times of slavery?  If so, the abolitionists were wrong.   The American Civil rights movement?  If so, black people should have just been patient.  Apartheid?  Same.

Similarly, Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins, p 294) identifies the evil weeds as “all causes of sin” saying,

“these causes include anything that diverts or destroys disciples.”

So all of these evils, the parable teaches, should be ignored in the light of future judgment.

 Observations:

1.   Any interpretation of the weeds that identifies them with evil itself or causes of evil suffers from the problem that this parable then teaches dubious morality.  If you see evil, ignore it, because God will judge it in the end.  This is a quietism that no one believes in.  We even want to stop people from being cruel to animals, and how much more motivated should we be to confront evil in every way we can?

2.  Any interpretation which makes the weeds non-human suffers from ignoring Jesus’ explanation.  The weeds are people.  Jesus says, “the weeds are the children of the evil one.”  Yes, Jesus then says that the angels, who uproot these people, will also “collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers” but the weeds are specifically people. But the “all causes of sin” is simply an addition to the people, the “children of the evil one.

3. To uproot them is to eliminate them.   Any interpretation has to say what it would mean for anyone to be tempted to do something to other people that would look like uprooting them.  How and when would either Jesus’ followers or the Christians in Matthew’s community be in a position to even consider such uprooting actions against others?

A Suggestion:

It all makes sense if this is a warning against joint the armed revolt against Rome.  The revolutionary option was alive and embraced by many before, during and after the generation Jesus lived in.   On this reading, the parable says do not join the armed resistance, because doing so would endanger everybody.  The householder says, “29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”  In other words Leave it to God to settle the score with the Romans.

N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) seems to support this in principle saying,

“Jesus’ warnings fit also quite naturally into the wider context of the first century, where Rome, provoked before,  remained a threatening brooding presence….Pilate’s administration was given to sporadic bloody repression; it did not take much political wisdom to extrapolate forwards and to suggest that, if Israel continue to provoke the giant, giant would eventually awake from slumber and smasher to pieces.” p. 324  And, “Jesus had offered the Galilean towns the way of peace. By following him, they would find the God– given golden thread to guide them through the dark labyrinth of the current political aspirations and machinations, and onto vindication is the true people of the Creator and covenant God. If they refused, they were choosing the way that led, inevitably to confrontation with Rome, and so too unavoidable ruin.” p. 330

Jesus was clearly quite concerned about what Wright calls Israel’s “idolatrous nationalism” and its potential to bring down Roman swords on everyone (p. 331).

“Jesus, knowing that Israel has now finally rejected the one road of peace, knows also that within the next generation she will find herself embroiled in  a war she cannot but lose, and lose horribly. It two lestai [criminals] crucified with him are simply a foretaste of the thousands of lestai – brigands, revolutionaries– who will suffer the same fate by the time the next generation is through. Israel’s noble the tragic story is fast becoming a nightmare.” p. 332

In Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 Wright specifically offers the possibility that the weed-pullers were the Jews of his day who wanted to fight the bad guys.

“Did Jesus, perhaps, have an eye here on the revolutionary groups of his day, only too ready to step into God’s field and pull up what looked like weeds? There were many groups, including some of the Pharisees, who were eager to fight against pagans on the one hand and against compromised Jews on the other.”

People may argue about whether or not Jesus was a complete pacifist, but it is certainly clear that he opposed the violent opposition to Rome that was brewing in his day.  He turned out to be right.  In the revolt of 66, estimates are that hundreds of thousands of Jews died.  Josephus claims that well over one million perished, including those who died of starvation during the siege of Jerusalem.  When they attempted to pull out the weeds,  a lot of wheat was lost.

 

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The Jesus Trajectory in John 16:12-15

Illustrating A Trinitarian Theology of Faithful Discipleship

[Jesus speaking:] 12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  13 When the Spirit of truth

Holy Trinity icon
Holy Trinity icon

comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

1.  There is Unbearable truth: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Contexts we live in create boundaries of the bearable.  This is a temporal limitation; “now.”  There will be a day when the “many” truths we still need to be taught become bearable.  (E.g. the disgust emotion looses moral force; breakdown of systems of patriarchy, slavery, reduction of xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and the unmasking of all power claims on behalf of “interested parties” by the post-modern project of de-construction and expose of totalizing meta-narratives of Empire).

2.  There is Much to learn: “many things to say to you”  The end of the NT is not the end of the lesson.  The stated intention of Jesus is to keep teaching, not merely trivial “applications to life” of previously held positions, but includes also “many things” which have been left out of the curriculum on the grounds of having been “unbearable” to the past generations.  “Many things” is open-ended: when could the lessons be considered to have ceased?

3.  The teaching is by the Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”  Jesus accomplishes his ongoing teaching ministry by means of the Spirit.  This includes the Spirit’s activity in the production of New Testament scripture, but there is nothing here that limits the Spirit’s teaching to a future text or book.  Disciples who are addressed by the entire Upper Room Discourse are to expect to be taught by means of the Spirit.  Spirituality, discernment, contemplation are necessary, not just academic theological reflection.  The Spirit baptizes us in to one Body of Christ, and unifies us with each other.   Spiritual truth is not a private affair but is acquired in the process of communal discernment, a project of all of the parts of the body.

4.  The Spirit extends the trajectory that Jesus marked out; it is still the Jesus Trajectory:   “for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  We know God best through Jesus.  The Spirit helps us to see God through Jesus even further than we could see him in prior times because of the “unbearableness” of the “many things” he still had to teach.  The Spirit’s teaching is consistent with Jesus’ teaching, and extends it into previously “unbearable” territory.

 5.  God’s truth is revealed in Jesus:  “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  Jesus provides the lens through which we view God, the world, each other, and everything.  Jesus provides the paradigm of God’s work in the world.  Jesus is the template of God’s activity in the world.  Jesus’ teachings, his lifestyle, his priorities, his values, his practices of spirituality and his path that embraced suffering alongside humanity is the pattern that reveals God’s will and intention for humanity.

Sum:  There are unbearable truths, we sorrowfully but frankly admit.  We have always have and will always have much to learn.  We will learn in community by the Spirit who will lead us further down the Jesus trajectory, consistent with Jesus, working out the implications of Jesus’ teaching into previously “unbearable” territory.  What we will find as the Spirit guides us further down the Jesus-trajectory is God’s will, God’s purposes, God’s intentions for humanity.

Starting points on the Jesus Trajectory:

Of course everything Jesus taught by word, deed and lifestyle is relevant and important.  But these are, for me, foundational starting points:

1.  Jesus’ essential message: “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” or “Change your thinking and behavior in light of the fact that God’s realm is revealed as present and God is in charge.”

2.  Jesus inaugural sermon: the time of Jubilee, liberation has begun in Jesus’ ministry with direct implications for oppressed, suffering, marginalized humanity.  Luke 4

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

3.  The essential teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, which contains the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer;

A.  The Lord’s Prayer teaches the essentials:

  1. Knowing God as Abba “Our Abba in heaven
  2. Honoring God as God, “holy is your name
  3. Submission of the will to God “your kingdom come your will be done on earth as in heaven
  4. A lifestyle of trust and simplicity “give us today our bread for today
  5. The requirement of giving forgiveness, “and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
  6. The reality of evil and the need for vigilance “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
  7. Living in the hope of God’s future bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice, “for yours is the kingdom and power and the glory forever

B.  The Beatitudes teaches the essentials:  (Matthew 5)

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
  3.   “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
  4.   “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
  5.   “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
  6.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
  7.   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

4.  The “Jesus Creed”  Matthew 22

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  38 This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Historical Examples to be celebrated (even if further work still needs to be done):

  • The end of the “divine right of kings” – end to theological justification of social class.
  • The abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement (substantial but incomplete).
  • The emancipation of women in home, workplace and church (substantial but incomplete).
  • The extension of health care and housing on a broad scale in many countries (substantial but incomplete).
  • The end of discrimination against LGBTQ persons (in progress)

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Reflections on the Lectionary text Luke 10:25-37

Journey, way, path of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10

Two different kinds of trips are indicated in Jesus’ parable: the priest is characterized as going “by chance” (κατὰ συγκυρίαν) somewhere, and the following Levite travels “similarly” (ὁμοίως) – also “by chance”?.  The priest is simply “going” (κατέβαινεν) down the path (ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ), and the Levite simply “came to that place” κατὰ τὸν τόπον ἐλθὼν) but both continue on their way – taking pains to avoid contact by walking “on the other side” (ἀντιπαρῆλθεν).

“The path” (LXX:  ὁδὸς, Hebrew: ‏דֶּרֶךְ) is a frequent metaphor in the Old Testament for the way set forth for the people by the Lord himself.

The first question is, can you go down “the path” (ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ) “by chance” or without thought; cavalierly?  If the Old Testament use of the image of “the way, the path” is relevant, then following it, staying on it, not turning away from it, is a matter of great importance – even life and death.  Can one stay on the path of life by traveling “by chance”?
By contrast, the Samaritan was not merely “going” along; rather, he was “on a journey” (ὁδεύων).  Would it be “over-translating” to render this present participle as “was journeying”?  Perhaps the contrast between the two ways of traveling, by chance or by intentional journeying is intentional.
If so, what “journey” was the Samaritan on?  What was he leaving behind, and where was he going?

It is noteworthy that this parable has been preceded by a Q&A from the “lawyer” and Jesus about the way one can guarantee his “inheritance” of “eternal life”.  The answer has been agreed by both the lawyer and Jesus: the great Shema (Dt 6:4), with its command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,”  to which was added  “and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

The shema’s command of total intentional obedience was echoed specifically as a definition of the meaning of walking in “all his ways” in Dt. 10:12 “walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,”.
“Walking in all his ways” was also the criteria by which Israel was told she could remain in the land, frequently called her “inheritance” from the Lord “If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him,  23 then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves.” (Deut. 11:22-28).   The lawyer asked Jesus how to guarantee his “inheritance”, having just cited the shema.  He believed he was on “the path” which would produce the result he longed for.

The question is, can you consider yourself “on the (right) way” without purposeful “journeying” to people in need as the Samaritan did?

Perhaps Jesus’ question “which one of them was a neighbor to him?” could be rendered “which one of them was really “on the way”?

Relevant verses:

Deut. 5:33 You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.

Deut. 8:6 Therefore keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him.

Deut. 10:12   So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,

Deut. 11:22   If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him,  23 then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves.  24 Every place on which you set foot shall be yours; your territory shall extend from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the Western Sea.  25 No one will be able to stand against you; the LORD your God will put the fear and dread of you on all the land on which you set foot, as he promised you. 26   See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse:  27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today;  28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.

Shema “Hear”

Deut. 6:4   Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,  9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Sermon on Lectionary text for Pentecost C, May23, 2010, Genesis 11:1–9, Acts 2:1–21

Acts 2:1–21

“God is really among them”

In our Thursday Bible Study we just finished 1 Corinthians 14.  Paul is helping the church that he founded learn how they should worship together; not everyone had the exact same idea about what was appropriate for worship (imagine that!  We always agree on what is best in worship – right?  No?).

But anyway, after giving them instructions about the way to use the gifts of prophecy and tongues, he makes an intriguing statement: if the church worships as it should, a non-believer should, after seeing and hearing you, must conclude:

God is certainly among you.” (1 Cor 14:26)

There would be an overwhelming sense that this was not a purely human gathering, but rather an uncanny awareness of a Presence in the room – God was there – the Spirit was undeniably among them.

Being Spirit-people, like Jesus

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the fact that now we are Spirit-people!  Just as at Jesus’ baptism, so too at our baptism, we have been given the Spirit of God – in fact there is no such thing as a person who is a Christian who has not received a Spirit-baptism along with the baptism in water (Rom. 8:9).

God is here, with us now, by his present Spirit.  God is here by his Spirit to hear our songs, to listen to our prayers, to strengthen our faith through hearing the word – as we are doing now, and God is present by his Spirit to seal the word in our hearts at the Lord’s Supper.  We are Spirit people: God, by his Spirit, is present.

Spirit like unpredictable fire

God’s Spirit often looks and acts like fire.  He (and we must call him “he” – or “she,” as we do persons; not “it” as we use for impersonal forces) is powerful and unpredictable: which path will he take?  What will he do?  Will it be exactly what he did in the past?  No, if anything is clear from the stories of the Spirit in the book of Acts is that he is always doing the unexpected: coming on unexpected people (like gentiles) in unexpected places (like outside the temple walls – even in private homes) and at unexpected times (like, even before people even have a chance to get baptized) – and never the exact same way twice.

If we have inherited a church-tradition that believes that we always have to do the exact same thing we did before – does that mean we are following the Spirit, or something else – a question we do well to reflect on as Presbyterians.

Spirit like quenchable fire

The Spirit is like fire in another way as well; like fire, the Spirit can be quenched.  It is possible to extinguish the flame and end its effects (1 Thes 5:19).  All Christians have the Spirit of God, but the flame may be smoldering.  As he wrote to his church in Corinth, Paul did not assume people would automatically sense the presence of the Spirit – that was only if they worshipped as he was instructing.  It was equally possible to worship in such an inappropriate manner that people would come in, Paul said, and say, “You people insane!”  (1 Cor. 12:23)

The question is, when people come in our door, what do they sense?  Which do they say: “God is certainly among you” or not?  Do people sense that we are Spirit-people, or that we have quenched the flames?

What is it that would show people that we were in tune with the Spirit?  What would they see that would tell them that what was happening was evidence of the presence of God among us?

To answer that crucial question, we need to hear some stories.

The Tower of Tar

The first story is from Genesis 11.  Once, when the world was much younger than today, everyone spoke the same language.  They were all alike.  They understood each other deeply.  When someone suggested, “Let’s build a tower up to God” everyone pictured the same tower – right down to the bricks and mortar.

They had one goal: to make sure they were able to keep things exactly as they were  – everyone would stay the same – and to make a common name for themselves.  They would build their unity tower all the way up to heaven – where the gods lived, to demonstrate what they had achieved.

Now God gets wind of this, up in heaven, and has to look down to see this puny little thing.  Not only is this thing hopelessly far from the heaven they are trying to reach, but it has no hope of standing.  Their construction technique is as ridiculous as their plan is pretentious.  They planned to mortar their baked bricks together using bitumen – which is tar.  The tower will melt like a stick of Babylonian butter in the Mesopotamian sun.

So, as if God was threatened by them, he comes down to confuse their languages, so now they are not one people, all alike anymore, and they scatter in babbling confusion.

The story of the tower of Babel is of the foolish and failed quest to make a kingdom out of people who were all alike.  We would never do that – right?  Isolate ourselves from people who looked differently, spoke differently, smelled differently, looked at the world differently?  Would we?

Pentecost and languages

The next story we consider is the Pentecost story in Acts 2.  When the fire of the Spirit came down on those people, what were they like – as a group – and what  did the Holy Spirit change?  As they waited in prayer together, the disciples of Jesus all spoke the same language, all had the same ethnic background, all ate the same food, and had the same view of the world.  To them, there were exactly two kinds of people in the world: us, and them; Jews and gentiles.

Then the Spirit came down like an unpredictable fire, and did the utterly unexpected.  The Spirit somehow made it possible for them to preach the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, in such a way that everyone heard them speaking in his own native language.

Now there are not just Jews and Gentiles present, but there are people, from real places:

9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene…  11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.

The miracle of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was this: suddenly it is clear that God’s love is not exclusive, not just for one group, not for people who are all alike.  It is precisely the affirmation of the acceptance of others as “other,” who would stay “other” in their own native languages that meant that God had done something powerful and unexpected.

Babel reversed?

In the story of Babel, it was all about conformity; when the Spirit came, it was all about diversity.  Sometimes we say that Pentecost reversed Babel – but that’s not quite true is it?  The Pentecost miracle of the Spirit was not a new conformity, but a celebration of God’s love extending beyond the limited circle of the disciples and into the whole wide world that had come to Jerusalem that day.

It is not a sign of the living flame of the Spirit of God that people who all look alike, think alike, dress alike can gather at peace an a pretty, air-conditioned room and worship.  But what a witness to the living unpredictable fire of the Spirit among us if we gather as people who are not all cut from the same cloth.

Times of Division

We live in times of deep divisions. Young people hardly speak a language we understand in any depth – and when they do speak, they speak on social networks and by text message, to which most of us are foreigners.

We don’t speak the same cultural language.  Republicans and Democrats are almost unable to agree that that the sun is shining, and the gap between haves and have-nots in our country is wider than it has ever been, and is growing.  And to mention the obvious, all around us are people from different countries whose languages we literally do not speak.

The “grab a brick” reaction

The human reaction is predictable and consistent.  When we feel threatened, we get the bricks out and start building – a tower, a wall, or whatever it takes to protect “our  kind” from threat.  Fear of “the other” drives us – and more fearful of others we are, the more bricks we compile.

It is no sign of the Spirit that people who are alike enjoy being alike together.   But it is a sign that the Spirit has been quenched when Pentecost is nowhere to be seen, and only one language is spoken.

Our mission: be Spirit-people

We are Spirit-people.  Pentecost has come; the Spirit is present here, now!  Let us celebrate Pentecost by celebrating the work of the Spirit among us.  We have a mission to fulfill.  We are here to love God – but not only on the condition that he never does anything new or unexpected, nor on the condition that we love him together with people who are just like us.

We are here to grow in faith – which means growing in our acceptance of the work of the Spirit outside the walls of “our kind of people.”

We are here to share Christ’s love – and yes, that may mean learning to speak languages that feel foreign to us now: the language of the young, the language of the poor, the language of the people in the “wrong” political party, and even the language of the immigrant.

The God that we expect to be present when we need him most, at our bedside, in the hospital, in the crisis, is present by means of his Spirit.  We need him then; let us not quench him now.  Let us fan the flames of the Spirit by our welcome of the stranger.  Then when she comes in the door, she will say:

God is really among you!

Simon, Peter, Hanukkah, Revolution and Jesus: Matthew 16:17-18

Menorah
Menorah

Matthew 16:17-18

17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,

Jesus re-named his lead disciple from Simon to Peter.  The fact that Simon’s parents gave him that name is huge.  The fact that Jesus changed it is even more huge.  Simon was named for a great hero.  The story goes like this: (the Wikipedia pages on this period are on the  money and I’m using some quotes below)

Every year Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah in commemoration of  Jewish independence from the  Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty from 164 BCE to 63 BCE.

Here is how it happened: a Jewish priest named Mattathias, or Matthew, when asked by a Seleucid Greek government representative under King Antiochus IV to offer sacrifice to the Greek gods, not only refused to do so, but killed the Jew who had stepped forward to do so. He then attacked the government official that required the act.

Upon the edict for his arrest, Mattathias (Matthew) took refuge in the wilderness of Judea with his five sons, (including Judah, Simon, and Jonathan) and called upon all Jews to follow him; many did, and they were eventually successful at gaining national independence for nearly 100 years.  Note the names of 3 of his sons: they come up in the Gospels as Judas, Simon and John.

Matthew (Mattathaias)’s son Simon was the one in leadership when the Jews finally won their independence.  It was Simon who had the honor of riding into liberated Jerusalem. Simon assumed the leadership (142 BCE), receiving the double office of High Priest and prince of Israel, the founder of he Hasmonean dynasty.  This is the Simon that Jesus’ disciple was named for.

Apparently, giving your sons the names of your national heros of independence was not uncommon.  Two out of Jesus’ 4 brothers were named for national heroes: Simon and Judas (Matt 13:54-55).  Jesus himself was actually named Joshua in Hebrew, after the successor to Moses who led the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan.

Independence ended 63 years before Jesus was born.  I think it would be safe to say that everyone who was Jewish in Jesus time wished desperately to regain that independence again, this time, from the Romans.  That quest was, after all, exactly the agenda of the Zealot movement.  They wished for it badly enough to name their sons for the heroes of their most recent independence movement.

The quintessential icon of Judaism for most of us is the Menorah which comes from the “Festival of Lights” or Hanukkah, which celebrates Jewish Independence.

All that to say this: Jesus changed the name of Simon, the great hero of Jewish national independence, to Peter, rock, something to build on.  This was not accidental nor trivial.  Everyone in Jesus’ circle of companions would have understood the significance of that change immediately.

Peter confesses Jesus as “Messiah” – a loaded title full of expectations about national liberation (see N.T. Wright on this:  Jesus and the Victory of God, especially p. 481, ff. and 528, ff).

Certainly this name-change was a dramatic act of re-defining what it meant that he was Messiah, Christ.  Jesus was not going to champion the movement for national independence.  For Jesus, the hopes and dreams of Israel were going to come true, but the kingdom was not a new Jewish state.

Wright puts it this way:
Jesus’ redefined notion of Messiahship thus corresponded to his whole kingdom-praxis….  It offered itself as the central answer to other key kingdom-questions.  And it pointed on to a fulfillment of Israel’s destiny which no one had imagined or suspected.  He came, as the representative of the people of YHWH, to bring about an end of exile, the renewal of the covenant, the forgiveness of sins.  To accomplish this, an obvious first-century option for a would-be Messiah would run: go to Jerusalem, fight the battle against the forces of evil, and get yourself enthrouned as the rightful king.  Jess, in facte, adopted precisely this strategy.  But, as he hinted to James and John, he had in mind a different battle, a different throne.”  p. 539

Notes on This week’s Lectionary text – in progress

Ordinary 20 A, Matthew 15:10–20, 21–28

“You Dog!”  – Jesus (in effect) to the Canaanite woman who just wanted her poor daughter healed of her deamons.  This is going to be an interesting week.

If there is one theme that has dominated our poor human specie it is the problem of ethnicity  – in its function as a group boundary marker.  Us and Them has been defined by family, tribe, clan, kinship group since we were primates in the jungle.  We as a specie have demonstrated that there is no action we will not justify and carry out against people we define as “other” – and today the primary way we identify is ethnically.

You may not, if you are North American, Australian, New Zealander, and a very few other places, becuase of your (my) unusually blended nation – but we are in the tiny minority of human beings.  We do the same kind of thing anyway, only our boundary markers are race, rather than ethnicity – but it’s the same thing in the end.  It is a perceived competition for scarce resources and group identity defining the combatants.  There are no new ideas.

So, does Jesus get sucked into this same trap?  What’s going on here?  I’ll be thinking about this passage this week.  Join me.

19th Ordinary, A Matt 14:22-33 Notes

Notes on the Gospel text for this Sunday.

What I’m thinking about:

Locations:

In Space

  1. Mountain – links to “texts” of Moses, Elijah – presence of God (Jesus in prayer there)
  2. In the boat – symbol of the church?  They are there at Jesus’ command, and yet not kept from danger there.
  3. Sea: the quintessential place of danger: from Poseidon and Neptune, to the Canaanite god of the “sea” or yam, to the ancient view of the universe in which the earth was a flat disk sitting precariously suspended just above the waters of chaos in which the chaos monstor(s) lived (hungrily).  Jesus specifically treads the “sea” (not “lake”) – i.e. on evil
  4. “other side” – but not much is made of it, and in this story, they don’t arrive there yet
  5. on the water – that’s where Peter steps and sinks; this is outside the “boat” – Peter engages the struggle over evil that Jesus is demonstrating by willingness to go out of the boat

In Time

  1. Evening, darkening –  time of mysteries – both numinous (Jesus on the Mountain in the dark) and Dangerous (disciples in the boat when it was late)
  2. early morning when Jesus arrived – similar to the time of resurrection and appearances

Actions

  1. Jesus – prayer, communion
  2. Disciples: obediently in the boat, struggle w. storm
  3. Nature: waves battered them; wind against them
  4. Jesus waling on “sea” (Yam) – evil
  5. Peter: asking to join Jesus out of the boat, steps on water, “notices” (becomes aware of) the wind, sinks, cries out “Lord save me” – taking Caesar’s title for Jesus
  6. Terror in disciples’ at the “ghost”
  7. worship of Jesus as Son of God

Key phrases

  1. alone, by himself – Jesus
  2. immediately
  3. storm triad: battered by the waves,  far from the land,  the wind was against them
  4. Jesus’ triad: take courage, it is I (I am), fear not
  5. Peter: “Lord”
  6. Peter “save me”
  7. Jesus: “little faith”
  8. Jesus: “why did you doubt?”
  9. disciples: “you are the Son of God”

Emotion: fear, terror -> ? (worship)

Issues

  • Presence / absence / presence of God (for Jesus and for disciples)
  • obedience and suffering, fear, danger,
  • engagement of evil – Jesus’ victory, Peter’s provisional attempts and failures
  • overwhelming evil; long odds against successful encounter (in or out of the boat, for disciples)
  • Peter – as representative of the Jerusalem church, shown in obedience and doubt, faith and failure of faith
  • ultimate success: the presence of God in the saving hand of Jesus

Notes:

  • Tom Long’s Matthew commentary (WJK) is excellent here.
  • The Social Science Commentary on the Synopitic Gospels (Malina nd Rohrbaugh, Fortress, 2003) is full of insight – espec. on “altered states of consciousness” (visions, dream states, and the Western bias against them).