A rock, some keys, and a binding: clues to the identity of Jesus (Matt 16)

This year, the Revised Common Lectionary is offering us passages each Sunday from the book of origins, the Gospel that we attribute to Matthew. It is a Gospel with some distinctive and interesting elements.

It is only in this Gospel that Jesus commands Peter to offer forgiveness “seventy times seven” (18:22; the parallel version in Luke speaks only of seven times). The special name given to Jesus, “Emmanuel” (God with us), is reported only in Matt 1:23, while the assurance of Jesus’ abiding presence with believers (18:20) and his offer of “rest for your souls” (11:29) are sayings reported only in this Gospel. One of the most often-quoted verses in this Gospel comes right at the end of the gospel, in a text where the supreme missionary charter is set out: “go…and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).

Another distinctive in this book is the text which we find in this coming Sunday’s passage, which has been used to validate the Roman episcopacy as first among equals: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). How intriguing that the same Gospel has been used as the fundamental warrant for the way in which the Church has been structured by Roman Catholics and evangelical missionaries!

The book of origins is unique, amongst the canonical gospels, in indicating the authority which was to be given to Peter, the first leader of this community (16:17–19). Three of the terms used here come from the heritage of Hebrew Scripture. They also function within the contemporary context as sectarian markers, setting apart as distinctive the community in which they author is located—the community for whom the Gospel was written.

First, only in this gospel does Jesus declare to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). The phrase evokes the rock which provides the “sure foundation” (Isa 28:16-17). This language is used by the Dead Sea

sectarians to make similar claims about their fidelity to the Law. Peter (a name meaning ‘rock’) becomes the foundation of the church, put in place by Jesus, who has the authority to make this declaration.

Second, the imagery of the “keys” which Jesus gives to Peter (Matt 16:19) also makes claims about his authority. We find this image in Jewish texts which are dated after 70 CE (2 Baruch 10:18; 3 Baruch 11:1–2; 4 Baruch 4:4); here, the loss of the keys represent the failure of various Jewish priests to perform their duties correctly and faithfully, and thus protect the temple.

With the loss of the keys (which in the texts of 2 and 4 Baruch are thrown up towards heaven, to be taken back by God), comes the loss of authority as leaders of the people. Matthew claims the keys (and presumably the authority to interpret the will of God) for his own community (16:19). Jesus, holder of the keys, hands them over to Peter. The scriptural text which underlies this is Isaiah 22:20–22, which speaks of “the key to the house of David” being given to someone worthy of possessing authority over Jerusalem.

A third set of terms describes the authority that Jesus gives to Peter as an authority to “bind and loose” (16:19; it is subsequently granted to the whole community, 18:18). The Greek terms used by Matthew are equivalent to the terms used by Josephus to denote the authority granted the Pharisees under Salome Alexandra (Jewish War 1.110–111). Once again, Jesus holds this authority, and passes it on to Peter.

These terms are thus considered to be equivalent to the Hebrew terms for “forbid and permit” which are to be found in rabbinic writings, as a way for the rabbis to of claim their authority in leadership. The terms “binding and loosing” clearly referred to the political and legal powers of those in authority.

By reporting that Jesus gives these powers to Peter, and then to the whole community, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is a rival to the authority of the Pharisees, and that the teachers in Matthew’s community possess the authority to challenge the teachings offered in the synagogues.

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The Matthean Jesus uses a number of symbols and terms that were used by the Pharisees and other Jewish groups. Matthew includes them to strengthen his claims about Jesus and to enhance the authority of his community. They are used to demonstrate the validity of the way that the people of this community, followers of The Way, disciples of the Messiah, Jesus, adherents to the details of the Law, over against the teaching about the Law provided by the Pharisees and other teachers of the time.

The Pharisees were scribes who specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. In contrast to the priestly Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.

The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.

Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.

Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes —literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled.

The task of the Pharisees was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees thus held sway in the synagogues, in all the places where dispersed Jews were living. Their interpretations were highly regarded amongst the people. But they stand as the chief sparring partners for Jesus, reflecting the competing claims for authoritative teaching about the Law.

As Matthew writes his Gospel, he intensifies the way that Jesus stands in competition with the Pharisees, and draws on a range of scriptural terms and ideas to underscore the “richness” of the teachings of Jesus.

*****

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/03/come-to-me-take-my-yoke-i-will-give-you-rest-matt-11/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-ahebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

Let anyone with ears, hear! (Matt 13)

Jesus used parables as the chief means of his story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation. We have another parable in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday!

The accounts of Jesus that we have in scripture—Mark’s beginning of the good news of Jesus, Matthew’s book of origins of Jesus, Chosen One, and Luke’s orderly account of the things fulfilled—each contain a number of parables. Even in John’s book of signs, there are some parable-like sections, buried in the midst of the long discourses that this book contains.

This week, the lectionary offers the second parable in Matt 13. Last week, we had the parable of the seeds and the sower (13:3-9) and its interpretation (13:18-23). This week, we will hear the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30) and its interpretation (13:36-43). Then in the following week, we will hear the other five parables in this chapter: the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48)—each one offered without interpretation.

As with last week, so also this week we are given a parable, followed immediately by an interpretation of the parable. I had a spout last week about the way that a later allegorising understanding of the parable has been placed on the lips of Jesus, in this Gospel account. You can read that at https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/

I don’t believe that Jesus would have spoken the words in this interpretation (13:26-43). I think it is a later addition from a tradition that found it hard to leave the parable standing in its own right. Somebody, somewhere, wanted to offer a definitive reading. The same thing happened last week, as the parable of the seeds and the sower was interpreted in a certain way (13:18-23). It has happened again this week, in relation to the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:24-30).

In the parable itself, there is a simple contrast drawn between the weeds and the wheat. That is typical of parables that Jesus told. A number of these parables were short and direct, making a single point and needing little explanation: see the parables of the treasure (13:44) and the pearl (13:45), for instance. This made the parable easy to remember and repeat orally.

These parables are little more than an introduction (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”) and a single image which is used to describe a characteristic of the kingdom (hidden treasure, or fine pearls). The first part of this week’s parable (13:24-26) has this form. It is short and direct.

It starts with the classic introduction, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to …”. It goes on to tell of the good seeds, which grow into wheat, and the bad seeds, which grow into weeds. This part of the parable has a simple contrasting form, like the parable of the good fish and the bad fish caught in the net, as told in the last of the seven parables (13:47-48).

But the parable has a story attached to these weeds among the wheat (13:27-30). So Jesus continues with a little plot development, which brings in a reflection on the human characters who sowed the seeds. In this regard, this is like other parables of Jesus, which are a little more developed; they still make a single point, but it is developed or explained a little more.

The parable of the mustard seed (13:31–32) is a good example of this. This parable uses the same introductory phrase and conveys its main point in an image (mustard seed, 13:31) which is further developed to convey what happens to the mustard seed as it grows and forms “the greatest of shrubs” (13:32).

So the plot of the parable of the wheat and the weeds continues until the punchline is reached. It is not during the growing that any distinction is to be made; it is at the harvest that this distinction is enforced. Wheat that grew from good seeds is to be collected and stored; weeds that grew from bad seeds are to be bundled and burnt (13:28-30).

That much, as a parable, has a clear message: don’t intervene into the process of growing, don’t judge (recalling 7:1), but let the end result of the process of growing be the moment when the judgement occurs. And that taps into a strong interest, throughout the book of origins, for depicting Jesus as the preacher of judgement.

Consistently throughout the book of origins, Jesus is presented as a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28– 30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come at “the end of time”, unless righteous-justice is followed in the present.

In the previous chapter, a quotation from the prophet Isaiah (Isa 42:1-4, at Matt 12:15–21) includes an extended quotation from Isaiah 42, where the servant of the Lord proclaims judgement to the Gentiles and they are said to have hope in his name (presumably because they repent and believe him). This is the function that Jesus, as God’s servant, the Chosen One, carries out. It’s not for us human beings to take on the role of judge. That belongs to God, carried out through his chosen agent, Jesus.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds has an intensity because of its focus and orientation towards this fearsome judgement, executed by Jesus in obedience to the desire of God. The interpretation of the parable defuses the intensity of the parable by fussing about what each element refers to: the Sower is the Son of Man, the good seeds are the children of the kingdom, the bad seeds are the children of the evil one, the enemy is the devil, and so on (13:39).

The interpretation ends with a repetition and expansion of the scene of judgement that ended the parable—but the good seed is not simply stored, it morphs into the righteous in the kingdom, and the bad seed is not burnt as seed, but it becomes the ones who disobeyed the law, burning in the furnace (13:41-43). And there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42; see also 13:50; 22:14; 25:30). So the same punchline holds in this section, as in the parable itself.

Interestingly, the interpretation ends with the same punchline that concluded the parable of the seeds and the sower: “let anyone with ears, listen!” (13:53, cf. 13:9). Jesus continues to press the point. Judgement is inevitable.

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

Parables: the craft of storytelling in the book of origins (Matt 13)

This week, the Gospel passage comes from the book of origins, whose account of Jesus we have been following for much of this current year. The chapter we are reading contains the first of seven parables that Jesus tells. The parable of the seeds and the sower is told in Matt 13:3-9 and an interpretation is then offered at 13:18-23. This interpretation shapes and orients our understanding of what “the seed” means; it directs us to interpret “the seed” as “the word of the kingdom” (13:19).

This is the first of seven parables in this chapter, and one of twenty-four parables in the book of origins. Many of those parables are explicitly identified as parables of the kingdom. After all, the kingdom was the focus of the preaching of Jesus, as is signalled in his opening public proclamation earlier in the book (4:17). (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/)

The kingdom features in the Beatitudes (5:3, 10), the Sermon on the Mount (5:19-20, 6:10, 33, 7:21), and then in many of the teachings of Jesus (such as 8:11-12, 18:3-4, 19:14, 23-24).

Preaching the kingdom was central to the activities of Jesus (9:35) and his followers (10:7) and will remain a key focus until the time when “the end will come” (24:14). And parables formed an important contribution to the ways that Jesus spoke about the kingdom in his teachings.

In this chapter, after the parable of the seeds and the sower, we find another six parables: the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30), the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). Interestingly, every key item in these seven parables is a small, even seemingly insignificant, item: seeds, seeds, yeast, a pearl, and fish.

Later in the Gospel, there are further parables of the kingdom: the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16), the two sons (21:28-32), the wicked tenants (21:33-44), and the wedding banquet (22:2-14). In the final section of Jesus’s teaching the disciples, he tells three further parables of the kingdom: the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46).

1 Understanding Parables

What are we to make of these many parables? Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world. Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears!

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

2 Understanding the Parable of the Seeds and the Sower

The specific parable that we hear in worship this Sunday, the parable of the seeds and the sower, is a particularly provocative parable. It leaves us with various questions. Why was the sower so extravagant in broadcasting the seeds, casting them not only onto fertile ground but also onto rocky ground and into the midst of thorns? Why did the sower not adopt good agricultural practice, culling the thorny plants as they grew, to enable the seeds to grow into healthy plants?

Other questions arise, as well, if we read the parable (13:3-9) without including the interpretation that is offered (13:18-23). That interpretation guides us to see the seeds as representing “the word of the kingdom”, and that understanding seems reasonably evident from the parable in its own right. But what does the path represent? And what about the thorns? And the rocky ground? Or the sun—is it a symbol of something?

The interpretation included in Matthew 13 closes down these questions. Many scholars believe that the interpretation did not actually come from the lips of Jesus, but, rather, was added by the author of the Gospel, drawing on interpretations that had developed over the intervening decades after the lifetime of Jesus. (This assumes, quite reasonably, that the Gospel was written some 30-50 years after the death of Jesus; and also, more controversially, perhaps, that the author was somewhat creative in reporting the actions and words of Jesus.)

One of the reasons for this view is that the interpretation really treats the parable as an allegory, rather than as a mashal-like parable. In an allegory, each and every character and event in the story is regarded as being a symbol for something else beyond the story.

Allegory literally means, “to say something other”; it comes from two Greek words, the verb agoreuo (to speak in the assembly), and the prefix allos (other). Allegories are found in ancient literature; in Greek, from the earliest literature, that of Homer, through to Plato, and on into the writings of people centuries after the time of Jesus. They were commonplace across Greek and Latin literature.

But not so, in Hebrew Scriptures, the tradition from which Jesus regularly drew. Here, there are more often parables, only rarely any fully-developed allegory. And parables are not allegories. A parable is a mashal—a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. And the single point of a parable is given in its punchline: which, in this case, is the enigmatic, “let anyone with ears, hear!” (13:9). If the seed is the word, the demand of this parable is clear: listen!

And yet, as the verses that follow make clear (13:10-17), understanding a parable is a tricky business. Its meaning is not self-evident. As Jesus speaks in parables, “seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen” (13:13, quoting directly from Isaiah 6:9-10). Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation.

The technique of a parable is not to lay everything out in plain form, in straight-forward propositions—but rather to weave a story, to draw the listeners into the story, to invite wondering, to foster creative thinking and thoughtful grappling within the story. Nothing is set in stone. All sorts of possibilities arise, from the narrative of a story that is well-crafted and persuasively-presented. As we imagine that Jesus did in creating and telling his stories in parable form.

3 The Parable of the Seeds and the Sower in the Revised Common Lectionary

So the offering of the interpretation (13:18-23) immediately after the telling of the parable (13:1-9) that the Revised Common Lectionary offers (and that the author of the book of origins includes in this chapter) skews our approach to the parable. It closes off the possibilities of understanding. It limits the range of options for clearly comprehending what Jesus was offering. In my mind, it’s something of a menace.

So here’s the challenge: this Sunday, why not simply read the parable (13:1-9)—and then, STOP. Don’t read the interpretation (13:18-23). Let the parable stand in its own right. Invite your audience to imagine, explore, interpret. Encourage them with the sense that there is “no right answer”, or “no one interpretation”. Invite people to engage in the process that the very first followers of Jesus took part in: “let anyone with ears, listen!” And then invite them to respond. And rejoice in the richness and diversity of understandings that arise!

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).

For a gentle, poetic retelling of the parable from Sarah Agnew, see https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2020/07/falling-seeds.html?m=1

Consideration of issues raised in this blog continues in https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/

Come to me, take my yoke, I will give you rest (Matt 11)

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

The book of origins, the first of four accounts of Jesus in the New Testament (known to us as the Gospel according to Matthew), locates Jesus firmly within his historical context, as a teacher and prophet within Israel. He is the one who has come to renew the covenant, to restore Israel, to instruct them in the ways of righteous-justice. He is the one who brings the Law to fulfilment and establishes the way into the kingdom.

This book has a high view of Jesus within that Jewish context. It positions Jesus as the most authoritative teacher in his community, the one who guides, directs, and inspires those who listen to him.

It is to the words of Jesus that believers are to look for guidance in their lives (7:24–27). In this Gospel, Jesus is the one and only teacher (23:8), the one and only instructor (23:10). Whilst “heaven and earth will pass away”, the words spoken by Jesus will endure (24:35). The last words of Jesus reported in this book are the instructions from Jesus, to his disciples, to go to the nations, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). His teachings stand supreme.

In the lectionary for this coming Sunday, we find a striking passage from Matthew’s Gospel (11:25–30) which depends this understanding of Jesus the Teacher. In this passage, Jesus offers a prayer to God in which he lays claim to this distinct, even unique, place.

The first part of this passage (11:25-27) is often nicknamed “the Johannine Thunderbolt from a Synoptic Sky”, because it seems so out of place in this Gospel; the language used (“Father” and “Son”, amongst other things) invites comparison with the Fourth Gospel, as does the insistence on Jesus as the one who “knows the will of the Father” and thus reveals “the gracious will” of the Father (11:26-27). How these verses found there way into this particular Gospel is an intriguing question. (If you have a compelling answer to this question, I would love to hear it!)

As this prayer continues (11:28-30), Jesus is depicted as laying claim to be the authoritative teacher; his words claim an absolute authority to interpret the Law, which is here portrayed as “the yoke”, a term for the Law which is found in rabbinic writings (Mishnah, Aboth 3:5, Berakoth 2:5; see also 2 Enoch 34:1 and 2 Baruch 41:3).

Jesus here is portrayed as claiming this high authority for himself; his yoke provides a sure understanding of the Law. His language is filled with scriptural words; he speaks in a way that is strongly evocative of certain passages in Sirach concerning Wisdom (Sirach 6:18–33; 24:19–22; 51:23–28). In this book (dating from around 200-250 years before the time of Jesus), Wisdom commands attention (“draw near to me”, “come to me”), offers instruction, commands submission to the yoke of her teaching, and offers rest.

A hymn on the values of Wisdom concludes that book, with the invitation to “acquire wisdom for yourself … put your neck under her yoke and let your souls receive instruction” (Sir 51:25-26). Earlier in the book, this invitation to learn from Wisdom had been issued by Wisdom herself: “come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits” (Sir 24:19).

And in the opening chapters of this book, an extended poem in praise of wisdom includes the invitation to “come to her like one who plots and sows … put your feet into her fetter and your neck into her collar, bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds … come to her with all your soul … search out and seek … when you get hold of her, do not let her go, for at last you will find the rest she gives, and you will be changed into joy for you” (Sir 6:19, 24-28).

The poem continues, “then her fetters will become for you a strong defence and her collar a glorious robe; her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord; you will wear her like a glorious robe and put her on like a splendid crown” (Sir 6:29-31).

So many of these phrases resonate in the words attributed to Jesus in the book of origins (Matt 11:28-30). As he speaks, he claims the authority of Wisdom. His words provide insight, guidance, direction, as do the words of Wisdom in earlier Jewish traditions. Indeed, just a few verses earlier, the voice of Wisdom has been invoked by Jesus as he reflects on the criticisms he has received, as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). The proof of the pudding is in the eating—“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”, is what Jesus responds.

Wisdom appears in the book of Proverbs, where she is portrayed as a teacher of “good advice and sound wisdom” who offers insight and strength (Prov 8:14), leading people along “the way of righteousness, the paths of justice” (8:20). She is also portrayed as the one who worked beside God to bring the created world into being (8:22-31).

Wisdom then appears in later Jewish literature, including Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), always as the teacher, instructing people in God’s ways, instructing and guiding people of faith through their journeys in life.

We have noted in earlier blogs that this Gospel, the book of origins, came into being in a community which found itself in competition with regard to other streams of Judaism. (See the blog posts listed below.) This Gospel, it would seem, seeks to validate the interpretation of scripture promoted by the followers of Jesus over and above other understandings and interpretations of the Law.

Who better to call upon for such validating support than the master exegete, the authoritative teacher, Jesus, the one to whom “all things have been revealed by the heavenly Father”, the one who speaks with the voice of Wisdom herself?

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

“Even the hairs of your head are all counted.” (Matt 10:30)

Who goes around counting the hairs on the heads of people? I don’t, that’s for sure! Although it would be a lot easier for anyone wanting to count my particular head of hair (or not), than for other people.

But God does, according to this week’s Gospel passage. God counts the hairs on our heads. Or so we are told. It’s part of a speech by Jesus when he assures his followers that their lives are of value (Matt 10:28-31).

Now, I think the idea of God taking time to count the number of hairs on the heads of every single person alive today beggars belief. Think about it: 7.8 billion people (that’s 7,800,000,000 people—quite a lot!), each with one head, with approximately 100,000 hairs on each of those head—that’s 7,800,000,000,000,000 hairs to count.

At one hair per second, that’s 248,015,873 years. (Thank goodness for Google!!) 248 million years! And that’s just for the current population. It doesn’t count those who have already lived. Or those who might be alive when those 248 million years of counting have been completed.

Of course, we could reduce the number by arguing that there are some (like me) with much less than 100,000 hairs on their head. But that group is still a small minority amongst the 7.8 billion alive today.

And we could reduce it further by arguing that this speech of Jesus was addressed to believers who were following him—at that time, and then on across the ensuing years up to our time. That reduces the number of hairs to be counted quite a lot. But that is a problematic principle for interpretation: it means we take everything as applicable only to those who were part of the first audience, and not to anyone else later on.

All of which goes to the point I want to make about the words of Jesus in this passage: Exaggeration! Exaggeration is a common rhetorical technique employed by Jesus. Jesus exaggerates on a number of occasions in his teachings. Think about it:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29) Who obeys that command?

Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A speck, yes; a splinter, maybe— but not a log.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh.

For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20). Mountains moving? Perhaps possible in a massive seismic shift event, but not your normal run of the mill happening.

Or the Samaritan woman, who spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (John 4:39). Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point.

“John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5). What, every single person?? Again, exaggeration, overreach, hyperbole. Typical of Jesus—and typical of the Gospel writers.

We do this in our everyday speech: “He’s got tons of money.” (have you weighed it?) “He is older than the hills.” ( were talking geological eras, here) “I’m so hungry I can eat a horse.” (OK, lets not go there.) “His brain is the size of a pea.” (Or there.) “My feet are killing me.” (Says the person who is still alive.)

Get the point? Exaggeration, hyperbole, is a common rhetorical technique. We use it. We find it in scripture. It’s a reminder not to take everything spoken, or written, absolutely literally. That’s a really important principle for interpretation. For this passage—and for everyone time we turn to scripture.

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matt 10:5). The mission of Jesus in the book of origins.

Jesus had a mission to the Gentiles. The mission to the Gentiles was “the fundamental missionary dimension of Jesus’ earthly ministry”—so wrote the guru of modern missiological studies, David Bosch (Transforming Mission, p. 30). And thus, every theology of mission since that paradigm-shifting work of 1991 has echoed this claim as a given fact.

But when we turn to this week’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus instructed his followers: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). What is going on?

This is a very distinctive claim to make. Other New Testament books have a different take—Jesus did engage with Gentiles, even with Samaritans, and did encourage a mission to the wider Gentile world. And plenty of New Testament texts can be pulled out to support this claim.

Not in this Gospel, however. Jesus does not go amongst Gentiles. Or Samaritans. Just as the disciples of Jesus are entirely drawn from Jewish people in Matthew’s Gospel, so also Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus’ mission is “only to the lost sheep of Israel”—that is, exclusively to the Jewish people.

Elizabeth and I have had many conversations about this aspect of the Gospel according to Matthew. She has undertaken thorough research into the Jewish nature of this Gospel, and especially on how Jesus related to Gentiles. What follows is drawn from our conversations and particularly from the research of Elizabeth, as we have written this material together.

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The statement about going “only to the lost sheep of Israel” (10:5–6), in the mission directives to the twelve disciples, is clearly an addition to the original Markan passage (Mark 6:8–11) that Matthew used as a source. In this statement, Jesus directs that Gentile (and Samaritan) towns are to be avoided.

There is a second statement to this effect in this Gospel, when Jesus encounters a Gentile woman on the northern borders of Galilee. This also is a clear redactional addition to an account already found in Mark (Mark 7:24–30). In Matthew’s version, he declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). There is nothing of this in Mark’s report of this encounter.

A third Matthean statement about mission, the “Great Commission” (28:16–20), is completely different, as the disciples are commanded to go out and actively “make disciples of all nations”. This command correlates with nothing at all in the body of the Gospel, during the earthly period of Jesus’ life. The mission to the Gentiles is an entirely post-resurrection phenomenon.

So the two major statements of mission to Israel in this Gospel, as well as other accounts of the activities and ministry of Jesus, contain a number of significant differences to that of Mark and Luke. The ministry of both Jesus and the disciples is geographically quite limited in Matthew’s account.

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Jesus rarely sets foot on any Gentile soil in this Gospel. In Matt 15:29–31, there is no tour through Sidon and the Decapolis as is reported in Mark (Mark 7:31–37), and no missionary activity undertaken by the demoniac after the demons have been exorcised from him (Mark 5:1–20; compare Matt 8:28–34).

The Matthean Jesus never goes near Samaria (contrast with Luke 17:11–19 and John 4:1– 42), nor does he speak favourably about Samaritans, as he does in Luke (Luke 10:25–37), prefiguring the Lukan mission to Samaria (Acts 1:8; 8:5-25). The activities of Jesus and the disciples are concentrated in the Galilean area, and on the Jewish people.

In Matthew‘s account, there are no Gentiles who are intentionally sought out by either Jesus or the disciples. Rather, there are just a select number of Gentiles who seek out Jesus. They come to him; he does not approach them or seek them out. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this striking observation.) In two instances, it is their faith which includes them in the kingdom of God (the centurion in Capernaum, 8:10, 13; the Canaanite woman in Tyre and Sidon, 15:28).

Ultimately, Jesus says to the Jews, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). He is not here saying that the kingdom will be opened to the Gentiles per se; his words are directed towards the chief priests and Pharisees (as 21:45 indicates).

It is those Jews who “produce the fruits of the kingdom” who will be given entry to the kingdom. Those who do “produce the fruits of the kingdom” include those normally considered as “unclean” by the Pharisees, and therefore outcasts or rejects from Judaism (9:10–13; 21:31, 32).

Jesus’ discourses and acts of healing, in general, involve only Jews. His contact with Gentiles, when it occurs in the Gospel, is always highly significant, and designed to illuminate some aspect of Jesus’ teaching or person regarding authority, inheritance of the kingdom, discipleship or messiahship.

It is noteworthy that those occasions when a person is asked whether they have faith before Jesus will heal them, are only when Gentiles are involved. Jesus readily heals Jewish people without requesting a prior faith statement (4:24; 8:3; 8:15; 12:13; 12:22; 14:36; 15:31; 21:14).

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More recent Matthean scholarship has recognised the Jewish character of this Gospel, and a consensus is emerging that this work was most likely written for a community that was still immersed within its Jewish tradition. It appears that members of this community had been ostracised and persecuted by other Jews (including their families) who did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. They did not withdraw voluntarily from their local synagogues, but still operated as a group under Jewish authority (10:17; 23:34).

This community is still directly under Jewish law; the clear words of Jesus that are remembered and repeated are “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it” (23:1-3). That law is not to be abolished, but fulfilled (5:17); it remains “until all is accomplished” (5:18).

In the teachings of Jesus which are recalled in this community, their faithfulness in the midst of persecution is valued (5:10–12); they report that Jesus identifies this persecution as taking place “on my account” (5:11; see also 10:18, 39; 16:25; 19:29). Thus the difference between this community and many other Jews of the time was the belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

Judaism was in a state of flux in the middle to late decades of the first century. The pivotal moment looks, from the benefit of hindsight, to have been the a Jewish-Roman War of 66-74 CE, and particularly the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which took place in 70 CE, in the middle of this war.

Things were different after the Temple was rendered unusable. That is often taken as a marker for understanding events in the period of the New Testament, certainly, it is a key marker for understanding the major shifts that took place within Judaism—with no Temple in place, the importance of synagogues as gathering places in towns and cities across Israel (and beyond) grew.

What little evidence we do have from this general period indicates that there were a number of sectarian groups within Judaism, which were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. They were well-placed to take advantage, as it were, of the situation when the Temple no longer served as a focal point for Jews.

Nevertheless, many Jews, particularly in the Diaspora, were not yet “Pharisaic”—they did not see their faith in the same way as the Pharisees. There were many disputes amongst Jewish communities as to the correct way of seeing things, and some of these disputes were quite bitter.

Many groups claimed to be the ‘true Israel’ as distinct from other groups, who were false leaders and teachers, and who failed to follow the Law correctly. The Law became the most accessible means of revealing God’s will for Israel after the destruction of the Temple, and most of these groups focused on what they believed to be the true interpretation and application of it.

The synagogues were the places where the Law was studied and discussed, where it was preached and understood. The synagogue was where the scribes and Pharisees most naturally operated. The Pharisees thus grew in significance over time. They had established synagogues decades before Jesus was born. After 70 CE, synagogues became the key gathering place for Jews, both within Israel, and across the Dispersion.

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Matthew’s Gospel reflects one such debate, between the authorities in the synagogues and the followers of Jesus. Biblical scholars suggest that this Gospel should be read alongside of other literature from after the time of the destruction of the Temple—books such as 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and the Psalms of Solomon. This literature is trying to envisage what Judaism should be like in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Understanding and living by the Law is central in each of these documents.

Thus, although Matthew’s Gospel has been seen to have played an important role in the formation of early Christian theology, a more natural interpretation is to locate this Gospel within the first century Jewish debates about how the Law is best to be understood and applied.

These debates took on even more intensity after 70 CE. The survival of Judaism without the Temple depended on the faithful practice of the Law: all of its commandments and instructions. The polemic in Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees, and the warnings that are uttered to Israel, show that Matthew still had hope that his ideas would become normative for all Jewish people.

If the author of this Gospel knew anything about what was happening elsewhere, he would have known about the gathering strength of the movement led by Saul of Tarsus, for whom strict obedience to Torah was of less importance than belief in Jesus as Messiah.

This arm of the movement was opening a door wide for Gentiles, who did not follow the Torah, to belong to such communities. This had been underway since the 50s. It had gained momentum by the late 60s and would become the dominant form of Christianity later in the second century.

It was perhaps with this awareness that Matthew’s Gospel was created—to insist on the centrality and priority of the traditional teaching of Jesus, the Torah-observant Jew, whom God had chosen as the anointed one. And the picture that he offers of Jesus is a resolutely Jewish one. Remembering that Jesus said “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5) makes perfect sense in this context.

(In fact, I think that this Gospel might more accurately reflect the activity of the historical Jesus during his earthly activities—he was a faithful Jew who observed Torah and advocated for his particular interpretation of how the commandments were to be kept. Staying away from Gentiles and Samaritans would be a perfectly respectable course of action for such a person.)

So, in reporting the words of Jesus about mission, and in insisting on the thoroughly Jewish nature of this movement, this really is “the book of origins”. This is how I translate the opening phrase (1:1). Usually this phrase is related to the story that follows, about the origins of Jesus (1:1–2:23). And that makes sense.

In a broader sense, however, the author of the book of origins is making a pitch about the true nature of the movement that was formed by Jesus.

Jesus instigated a prophetic movement to renew the people of Israel, to recall them to the prophetic heart of their traditions and restore the sense of righteous-justice that was fundamental to his understanding of Judaism. That is the real story of our origins, the author of this book is declaring.

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

Holy Week: a week set apart, in a time set apart.

Today we begin Holy Week. This is the final part of a longer period leading up to Easter, called Lent. We do this every year, as part of the annual cycle. It is a familiar and comforting ritual for many people of Christian faith.

This year, however, will be different. In the middle of a viral pandemic, with restrictions prohibiting gathering for worship, Christian people will be walking through Holy Week in their own homes, not in gatherings at church. This is a week set apart, for people of faith, in a time set apart, for all of society.

We are not able to gather together. This year, people of faith are not gathering together. Instead, we are gathering-apart, through virtual worship, online. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/)

Holy Week culminates the season of Lent, which is an ancient practice for a Christian people. It lasts for 40 days, serving as a time of preparation for Easter. But whereas Lent is an ancient tradition, Holy Week is a more recent development. Designating the week leading up to Easter as Holy Week most probably comes from the narration of chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus is understood as being in Jerusalem from a Sunday until his last meal on a Thursday.

The week starts with Palm Sunday when Christians remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and the crowds waving palm leaves as he enters the city. Jesus stays near to the city for the remainder of the week. This year, we have not remembered that event with festive processions and cheerful hymns. Many of my colleagues have provided resources for Virtual Worship, Church At Home, Postcards for Reflection, and the like. People are gathering-apart.

On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. His words are recorded in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This gives rise to the name for the day. The Latin for “commandment” is mandatum—hence the name of the day, Maundy.

Some people believe that Lent officially ends at sundown on Maundy Thursday, so they celebrate that with Holy Communion, or with a meal known as an agapé or a “love feast”. It is a remembrance of the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers. Others maintain that Lent continues through into Easter Saturday, until the end of the day just before the empty tomb is discovered.

After Maundy Thursday comes Good Friday, remembering when Jesus was crucified. Why is this day called Good? It comes from the theological evaluation that, on this Friday, Jesus died on the cross “for our sins”, thereby securing our redemption. This is the basis for the “good news” which the Church has proclaimed for centuries.

Churches all around the world normally hold various rituals for people to attend. Roman Catholics have the Adoration of the Cross, the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, the Stations of the Cross, and Evening Prayers. Anglicans have a three-hour service with reflections on the Last Words of Christ. Many people come for these times of gathering together. But not this year—we have to gather-apart.

The Stations of the Cross are focused around the events of Good Friday, recalling the various events which took place as Jesus made his way from his trial to his death on the cross. These Stations have been appropriated, in art or through personal creative responses, as ways of moving attention from the story as a singular ‘history’, to the significance of the story and the resonance of the events with universal human experiences.

This year, gathering together is not possible. As we gather-apart, there is the opportunity for personal reflection; perhaps, for instance, using this exhibition of contemporary art work that was specifically commissioned in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=UUDH-6NVr6aj6X6DAmzSKLvg

Next comes Holy Saturday or Easter Eve—a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, and looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge from those event.

(I will make a post about Holy Saturday on that day.)

After Holy Saturday, the celebration of Easter Sunday bursts through the gloom and despair with a vibrant message: Jesus is risen, Jesus has conquered death. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. So the traditional affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”. This leads into an expression of joy, that the trauma and grief, the uncertainty and fear, are now passed. Life is different; hope is renewed; the future, even if it looks different, will still be viable.

For the next period of time, the Church moves into a new season—the season of Easter, 40 days when the celebration of resurrection continues. And so the cycle continues, death turning into life, despair breaking out into hope, frustration moving into promise.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/03/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-acclaiming-the-king-anticipating-the-kingdom/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/sacrificial-death-to-give-his-life-good-friday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liminal-space-waiting-and-not-knowing-holy-saturday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liberating-life-a-new-way-of-being-easter-sunday-reflections/

Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Acclaiming the king, anticipating the kingdom

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on its significance. What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, and Jesus amongst them. We hear the crowd singing Hosanna! and we see them spreading their cloaks along the way, to honour him. And we hear their cries in the ancient hymn, “Blessed is the coming king, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one bringing the peace of heaven into this city here on earth”.

So the people cry, singing words from Psalm 118 about the king who comes to implement the kingdom willed by God—a psalm which is echoed in the song of the angels from early in Luke’s Gospel, declaring that, in Jesus, God is bringing “peace on earth, among those whom he favours” (Luke 2:14)

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you see the thoroughly political nature of the activity of Jesus? Can you hear the thoroughly political nature of the cries of the crowd? Hosanna—Save us! Blessed is the King—not Caesar, not ruler of the Romans, but Jesus, King of the Jews, the one Chosen by God to proclaim the kingdom. Can you hear these cries?

In this story, as throughout all of the Gospel accounts, the actions of Jesus have clear and strong resonances from the scriptures that he knew so well. He does not enter Jerusalem with a fatalistic acceptance of what lies ahead; instead, they are a call to this-worldly involvement, to action in our own time, serving the people amongst whom we live.

So it is in this story of the Passover pilgrims. The cries of the crowd, the actions of the people, the anticipation of the Roman soldiers and the symbolic statement made by Jesus as he rides into the city on a donkey—all of this points to the inherently political, thoroughly this-worldly orientation of the ministry of Jesus.

The kingdom is coming, the future kingdom is here and now in our midst, and the kingdom will overturn the expectations and practices of the political powers within this world. The Romans did well to notice, and anticipate, and respond to such a message. The Jewish leaders, so it seems, were anxious, also, about what was taking place.

Matthew ends his report by noting that “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” That was the critical question, for all four authors of the Gospels in the New Testament. The stories they tell are focussed on answering that question: ‘Who is this?’ Matthew has this questioned answered immediately, as the crowds were telling one another, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” His name and reputation were known. Certainly they perceived the significance of the way that he chose to enter the capital city. He was calling people to follow him in a clear, direct, and challenging way.

On the following Friday, we will remember that Jesus, ultimately, was condemned to death with a sign that declared that he was “the King of the Jews” (John 19:19–20). We see, very clearly, in the inscription nailed to the cross, the political nature of the message of Jesus. From the perspective of the Roman rulers, articulated by Pilate, Jesus was given a drastic political punishment, death by crucifixion, for the political insurgency that he was seen as undertaking, in claiming to be the King of the Jews.

That King is the one whom we follow. This is the path that he calls us to walk. When we pray, as Jesus instructed us, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven, we are praying that what we hope for, in heaven, is to be lived out, here, on earth, every day, in our life of discipleship. Our faith calls us to be faithful disciples of Jesus. It calls us to compassionate engagement with others in our society. It is a costly call, but a compelling call.

For us, today, that is the challenge: how do we show the merciful love and righteous-justice that Jesus spoke about and lived for in his life? Jesus ultimately was crushed by Roman imperial power; as he died, however, he showed that there was another way. A way of faithfulness to God’s calling. A way that truly leads to peace, to peace with righteous-justice.

And so, as we look to that time with hope and anticipation, we pray, as we always do: your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven … and we wait, patiently, and work, persistently, with that end in view.

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence – Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-riding-on-a-donkey-or-two-as-the-crowd-shouts-hosanna/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/02/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-waving-branches-spreading-cloaks/

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Waving branches, spreading cloaks

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on its significance. What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago.

As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, and Jesus amongst them. We hear the crowd singing Hosanna! and we see them spreading their cloaks along the way, to honour him.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you see the people, waving branches? Of course, this Sunday in the church year is traditionally called Palm Sunday. However, no palms are mentioned in the reading we have heard from Matthew’s version of the story, nor in Mark or Luke. That the branches are from palm trees is noted only in John’s version. Both Mark and Matthew refer to branches that the people cut and waved, even though they don’t specify that they are palm branches. Nevertheless, we see the palm branches, because they are front and centre in the tradition of today—it is Palm Sunday, as we call it!

This waving of palm branches was an activity intimately associated with the actions of the Maccabees, who were men from a priestly family who took up arms to fight back the Seleucid overlords and reclaim the Temple. The waving of palm branches became closely associated with this event; we can read the instructions in one of the Jewish books (2 Maccabees 10), which directs the people to “carry ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and fronds of palms, and offer hymns of thanksgiving to [God] who had given success to the purifying of their own holy place”. So the palms evoke the famous military campaign of centuries earlier.

What do you see? What do you hear? Do you see the cloaks, spread on the ground, by those along the side of the road? A curious detail. What can this mean? Perhaps the more astute of the Jews along the side of the road, would have had some insight; perhaps they recalled the story of the time when a young prophet from Ramoth-gilead declared that God was anointing Jehu, the son of Jehoshaphat, as the next king of Israel.

The story is recounted in 2 Kings 9, and it contains this striking detail, as the prophet decreed, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I anoint you king over Israel’”, and so they took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps, and blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is King’” (2 Kings 9:13). Can you hear the resonances in the story of the Passover pilgrims? The cloaks on the steps, when Jehu is King … the cloaks on the wayside, when Jesus comes as King.

So Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, entered the city in the midst of the pilgrims, for the festival of Passover. Did he come as King, in the minds of the crowd? He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21).

Jesus came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark as God’s chosen King. The branches and the cloaks both point to the immediate political significance of this event.

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence – Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-riding-on-a-donkey-or-two-as-the-crowd-shouts-hosanna/

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

Tomorrow: Acclaiming the king, anticipating the kingdom

Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Riding on a donkey (or two) as the crowd shouts ‘Hosanna’

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on its significance. As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, climbing the hills outside the city as they make their way to the capital of ancient Israel. And in their midst, can you see the figure of Jesus, surrounded by his followers, approaching the city?

Jesus, seated on the colt, riding on a donkey, was the centre of attention—at least for his own followers. Those in the crowd who knew their scriptures, would have immediately recognised the allusion. The account of this story that we find in Matthew’s Gospel and that we hear this Sunday, actually specifies the verse that interprets the significance of the donkey (Matt 21:4-5).

In Zechariah 9:9, the vision is clear: “your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey”. That is what the prophet declares; in this story of Passover pilgrims, Jesus can be seen to be bringing that vision to fruition. And that vision declares that this coming ruler “shall command peace to the nations, and his dominion will be from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth”. That is the vision that Jesus evokes as he rides into Jerusalem on this donkey.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you hear the cries of the crowd: “Hosanna, hosanna!” they cry. What were they calling out? Hosanna is a foreign term, a word from the Hebrew language, not a common word in our English usage. The best way to translate Hosanna, is “save us”. It is a cry for salvation; a yearning for deliverance. The word appears in the Psalm we have heard today, in Psalm 118:25, where they people cry out, “save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” Save us, redeem us, liberate us.

Psalm 118 was one of the Hallel Psalms, the Praise Psalms, which were associated with celebrations on each of the three great festival days—the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths; the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost; and the Feast of Passover. These psalms of praise became particularly associated with the celebrations of the rebuilding of the Temple.

Rebuilding the Temple was an inherently political action. It was the foreign invasion of Palestine by the Hellenistic Seleucids some two centuries before Jesus which had led to the destruction of the Temple. It was the political activity of the Jewish Maccabees which had led to the reclaiming of the Temple two decades later.

“Praise you, O God, for we have our Temple, rebuilt, restored, renewed”. So the prayer might well have gone. And it was the political activity of the Maccabees which had brought this about. The Hallel Psalms had become Psalms of Praise for liberating political activity. And this is what the people were singing out!

They expected Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. He entered the city in the midst of the pilgrims, for the festival of Passover. He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21). He came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark.

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence—Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

Tomorrow: Waving branches, spreading cloaks