Monday, May 10, 2010


Matthew 17-19

Chapter seventeen opens with Jesus, Peter, James and John on a high mountain, where he was "transfigured before them," and they saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus and heard "a voice from the cloud" say "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" As they later walked down, Jesus told them that they mustn't tell anyone what they had seen "until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead," and indicated that John the Baptist had been the second coming of Elijah. When they were back in the crowd, he drove a demon out of a boy and told the disciples that they had failed to do it because "you have so little faith." He also told them that he would be betrayed and killed, and raised "to life" "on the third day." In Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to them for the tax, and Jesus told Peter to go throw his line into the lake, and to open the mouth of the first fish that he caught "and you will find a four drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours."

In chapter eighteen, Jesus tells the disciples that "whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" and that "if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell." He uses the parable of the lost sheep to describe God's unwillingness that "any of these little ones should be lost." He tells them how to deal with a brother who "sins against you," giving him chances to repent and that "if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector," and then shares the parable of the unmerciful servant to show how God will treat those who are not forgiving.

In chapter nineteen, the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce, and told them that "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard," and that "anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." Again, he told his disciples that "the kingdom of heaven belongs to" little children. A rich young man asked Jesus what he had to do to get eternal life, and, after confirming that he kept the commandments, Jesus told him to "sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me," which saddened him, and he went away. Jesus told his disciples that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," and they asked "who then can be saved?" Jesus told them, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

Thoughts, questions, issues

  • I confess that the story of Jesus' transfiguration, complete with the presence of Moses and Elijah, reads more like pure theology than history. But all three of the synoptics have it, so it's clear that the apostles believed it.
  • I suspect that most of us, in chapter nineteen, read about the "rich young man" and focus on the word "rich." What strikes me today is the exchange where Jesus tells him, essentially, to follow the commandments and the law, and he replies that he has done so all of his life. So rather than think of him as "rich," I think we need to think of him as "pious." This is an observer of the law, a pious Jew, who has done everything that God commanded. Jesus tells him, in effect, "that's not good enough." This certainly isn't the first time - think back to the Sermon on the Mount, which consists, in several places, of "you have been told...but I tell you..." Jesus has been clear in all of his teaching that just following the law isn't enough. But here, there's an actual face put to it, an individual who has followed the commandments, and Jesus tells him specifically that it's not good enough.
  • Which of us cannot sympathize with the "rich young man?" Which of us would in fact be willing to give up everything? It's just as hard for us whether we're "rich" in our society or "poor." We all have worldly possessions to which we become attached, that we would never give up without great inducement. Indeed, if we were honest, we'd thank God daily that Jesus isn't here to demand it of us in person, because it's a lot easier to pretend that it doesn't apply to us when it's directed to a specific someone else.
  • I have heard/read many possible explanations for Jesus' comments about a camel passing through the eye of the needle. Among the plausible sounding:
    • The "camel" is a large rope made of camel hair. Impossible to pass through the eye of a needle.
    • The "eye of the needle" is a small city gate big enough for a man, through which it might be possible, though very difficult, to squeeze a camel.
    • Literal camel, literal eye of needle. Clearly impossible.
    While there may or may not be cultural or linguistic reasons to accept any of those hypotheses, I've seen nothing that makes me think it really requires that kind of analysis. It is clear, from the disciples' reaction ("who then can be saved?"), that what Jesus said, whatever the specific meanings of the object and the opening, was an impossible task. We cannot "earn" our way into heaven. It is only through the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross that we can make our way into the presence.

Psalms 54

This is a prayer of David, a psalm of praise and supplication. He pleads for help - "Save me, O God...Hear my prayer, O God..." - and praises the Lord at the same time - "the Lord is the one who sustains your faithfulness destroy them...I will praise your name, O LORD, for it is good..."

Psalm 54
For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A maskil of David. When the Ziphites had gone to Saul and said, "Is not David hiding among us?"
1 Save me, O God, by your name;
vindicate me by your might.

2 Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.

3 Strangers are attacking me;
ruthless men seek my life—
men without regard for God.

4 Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.

5 Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.

6 I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
I will praise your name, O LORD,
for it is good.

7 For he has delivered me from all my troubles,
and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.

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