Category Archives: Matthew

He taught them with authority

February 14, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 7:28-29.

When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

When I started to write these reflections I used the daily gospel readings. After a year had circled around I decided to go back to Matthew and fill in the gaps left by weekend readings, times that I had been out of town, and verses that are not included in the readings through the year. I decided to leave these two verses for the last. I can’t recall now exactly why.

Chapter 7 is the conclusion a series of teachings that began with the sermon on the mount in chapter 5 and finishes with these: judging others, pearls before swine, the answer to prayers, the golden rule, the narrow gate, false prophets, the true disciple, and the two foundations of which one was built on rock and the other on sand. It was these teachings that astonished the crowds who listened.

I have heard and read the gospel of Matthew over the years, but I, too, have been astonished as I have reflected on just a few verses at a time trying to discern Jesus’ teaching for me each day. Barclay comments on this passage, “Knowledge must become action; theory must become practice; theology must become life.” That’s what Matthew’s gospel has been leading me to and why instinctively I saved these verses for last.

I am called to do more than know, although action springs from knowledge. When I started these reflections it was to answer a question in my mind that wouldn’t go away. Who was this man Jesus? What has happened over the past year and a half is that I have come to know him on a personal level. Now I am no longer astonished at his wisdom and his vision for God’s kingdom. Now he is prodding me to action, to do something about what I now know, what he has been teaching me with the full authority of God the Father. Now I am ready to reply to God as Isaiah did, “Here I am, send me.”



I am with you always

February 13, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking to good news today from Matthew 28:16-20, which is the end of Matthew’s gospel.

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. Whey they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

In the end are new beginnings. It’s interesting that I end the gospel of Matthew on Ash Wednesday, marked with the ashes of the palms of last Palm Sunday when we greeted Jesus upon his arrival in Jerusalem, the beginning of his end time on earth. With this end of his mission on earth, Jesus now commissioned his disciples with a new mission — to make disciples of all peoples, not just the Jews.

Isn’t it interesting that even though the apostles hurried to Galilee to meet Jesus as instructed by the angel through Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, and now encounter him, they both worshipped him and doubted at the same time? Sometimes that seems like a curse to me, worshipping and yet doubting at the same time. However, I think it recognizes our natures as both spiritual and material creatures. Monte reminded me the other day of something Fr. Mike Scully has said, “There’s no faith where there’s no doubt.”

When I doubt, I have only to think of these last words from Jesus, “I am with you always.” When I am in darkness, when I feel hopeless, when I am hurting, I have only to ask, “Are you there, Lord?” And he will answer, “I am with you always.” He always answers my doubt , my questioning, with a desire to know him, to be with him. He does not fail in his faithfulness to his promise to be with me always.

I am reading each day this Lent Wondrous Encounters by Franciscan Richard Rohr. In his introduction he writes, “There are two moments that matter. One is when you know that your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive. The other is when you know your life, as presently lived, is entirely pointless and empty.” For many months now I have been trying to discern what task it is the God wants to use me for. I think I may have discerned that while at the same time realizing that it could also be many other things. The point is to love and serve others. That is the task he has prepared me for. That is what my one and only life is for. It is only is doing something about, getting about doing it, that my life becomes absolutely valuable and alive. Jesus is telling me that no matter what I choose to do to accomplish God’s will for me, he is with me today, tomorrow, and always. That’s where I can draw my strength, my determination, and my courage. “I am with you always.” In the beginning and at the end and all the times in between when I may doubt and wrestle with questions.


Do not be afraid; he has been raised

February 12, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I am taking the good news from the beginning of the last chapter of Matthew — 28:1-7.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.”

Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, have been with Jesus through all his travails. There were at the crucifixion, at the foot of the cross. They were at the tomb when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus cleaned and wrapped the body and laid Jesus in his tomb. Now, they are the first to see that the tomb is empty and to hear the angel report that Jesus is risen.

I can imagine the grief that Mary and Mary experienced. Most of us have grieved for someone we loved with all our hearts. In the first hours and days it is like being in a state of shock, of suspended knowing. It’s as if my mind and body could only absorb the loss in small stages, otherwise risking being swamped and sunk, being irretrievably lost. In this altered state I was able to go through the motions of living, of making necessary decisions, but it was like an out-of-body experience as if it were someone else living my life, manipulating my mind and body.

Mary and Mary had witnessed the most horrifying kind of death. They mourned the loss of their love, the loss of their hopes. It took something extraordinary to pierce this veil, this fog of grief, in order to bring them to an understanding of what they were seeing and to prompt them to action. The earth shook beneath their feet and a radiant angel appeared. I can imagine their startled fright. Shock upon shock. How much more could their minds and hearts withstand? And then the tomb was opened to reveal its emptiness. Where was Jesus? Who had taken him? How did they get past the guards? Questions can flash through the mind in nanoseconds without stopping to search for answers, to reason.

The angel calmed their fears. How many times had Jesus told his followers to be not afraid when confronted with something beyond experience, beyond comprehension, beyond reason? The angel gently helped them open their eyes to what they were seeing. He first spoke to their hearts letting them know that he understood they had come to be close to the one they loved above all others, the one to whom they had given their hearts unconditionally. He acknowledged the love that drew them, that motivated them. Then he reminded them of what Jesus had told them, that he would be raised up. They could see and realize that Jesus remained true to his promises. He was faithful to his promises; he was faithful to their love for him. The angel invited them to see for themselves, to let all their senses confirm what their eyes were seeing and their ears were hearing. He shook them out of their wonder and reverie, commanding that they spread the news. He even gave them the words to use so they wouldn’t have to grasp for some way to tell what they had witnessed. Lastly, the angel gave them the most precious gift of all. He promised that they would see Jesus again in Galilee as Jesus himself had promised. Sweet Jesus!

It’s often in those times of abject grief, of suffering, of hopelessness, that God breaks through the veil of fog to let me know that He loves me, that He is true to His promises. But first He tells me to not be afraid. Don’t be afraid that I don’t have the strength to endure, that I will perish. Don’t be afraid that I am alone. Don’t be afraid to let everything go — my defenses, my independence, my doubts. Don’t be afraid to be loved. When I no longer resist, His loves comes flooding over me and raises me up as from death. I am released from my tomb; I am risen in His love. A new day dawns. Sweet Jesus!


Just in case

February 11, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:62-66.

The next day, the one following the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that this imposter while still alive said, ‘After three days I will be raised up.’ Give order, then, that the grave be secured until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ This last imposture would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “The guard is yours; go secure it as best you can.” So they went and secured the tomb by fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard.

Matthew is the only one of the gospel writers to give us this information and the follow-up scene in the next chapter about the chief priests bribing the soldiers of the guard to lie about Jesus’ body being stolen while they slept.

The chief priests remind me of agnostics who aren’t willing to either believe in or deny the existence of God. It’s as if they want to hedge their bet. That’s what the chief priests seemed to do. They, of course, refused to accept that Jesus was the Son of God. Yet, something made them uneasy about that. There was the niggling doubt that maybe he was; maybe God would raise him from the dead. So, they want to cover their bet by having the tomb sealed and guarded. And they went one step further: they planted the seed with Pilate that if the tomb were found empty it was because his deceitful followers had stolen the body to make it appear that he had been raised from the dead. They thought they had all the bases covered.

I am at times somewhat like the chief priests in reverse. I believe, but I have a niggling doubt about whether Jesus was really the Son of God. In a sense, I’m covering all my bases, too. I attend Mass regularly; I say my prayers; I do most of the things expected of me as a Catholic and Christian. Just in case. Really not much different than the chief priests.

The only real difference is that I want to believe; they didn’t. Some times I can’t be more sure that it’s all true; I’m absolutely convinced. Those are the times when I let the experience of God take hold of me. The times when my heart has rule over my head. The defenses of my intellect are overcome.

Franciscan Richard Rohr’s meditation today seems pertinent. He wrote, “What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them. God is always the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us. All we can do is respond in kind.”

All I need to do is allow God to seduce me. Once and for all, not over and over again. My niggling doubts do neither of us any good. They just keep me from allowing myself to be loved completely as I am and from being the instrument of His love for others. I don’t need to hedge my bet, I just need to go all in.


A rich man who was a disciple

January 6, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:57-61.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb.

Luke tells us that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin but that he had not agreed with the council’s judgment against Jesus. Luke and Mark use the phrase “awaiting the kingdom of God” instead of describing Joseph as a disciple of Jesus as Matthew and John did. The meaning is the same, though, Luke and Mark may also have intended to reflect the belief that Christian Jews expected that the kingdom of God was imminent, that Jesus was coming again very soon.

Jewish law as stipulated in Deuteronomy required that a man who was sentenced to death and hung on a tree must be buried on the day of death. Under Roman law the relatives of the dead criminal could claim the body for burial; otherwise it was left for the dogs. There was a problem, though. Jesus’ relatives were from Galilee and most certainly didn’t have a burial tomb in Jerusalem or nearby. Additionally, the Sabbath was quickly approaching, which meant that nothing could be done with the body the next day.

Joseph provided the solution to what was surely a deep anxiety for Mary and the others. The synoptic gospel accounts make it sound like Joseph alone took down the body, transported it to the tomb, and prepared it for burial. John adds that Nicodemus, who had earlier come to speak to Jesus under the cover of darkness, brought a hundred pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes to dress the body. Just as during his life, well-to-do followers provided for Jesus in death.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses are inserted here so that they could verify both the location of the tomb and the fact that Jesus was laid there. Matthew adds the human detail that the women remained there facing the tomb, sitting with their shock and grief over what they had witnessed.

The gospels are not historical records; they are not long, detailed accounts of the life of Jesus or his ministry. So, it’s easy for us to miss a lot of the backstory, what was going on all around Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion was a very public event. I can imagine that nearly all his followers were aware of what was going on as the hours of his crucifixion wore on. People shuttling back and forth between Golgotha and private homes and places all around the city where people gathered together to wait for news, to support one another, to seek a sense of safety in numbers. The report of Jesus’ impending death and then his last breath spread quickly. Most of his followers, being Jews, immediately realized that decisions had to be made quickly regarding what to do with the corpse. Word went out. Who can claim the body? Who can gain access to Pilate to make the request? Who will take his battered body down from the cross? Where can Jesus be buried? Who has a tomb? Who will help clean and dress the body? Hurry, we don’t have much time before sundown.

Joseph and Nicodemus stepped forward to volunteer. They knew they had sufficient status to get to Pilate. They had the money and resources at hand. They could get it done. No matter that they would probably be ejected from the Sanhedrin and reviled for going against the will of their peers. No matter that it might cost them business or risk the confiscation of their wealth. They knew in their hearts what was the right thing to do, what had been the right thing all along. They hadn’t been able to stop the crucifixion, perhaps hadn’t even tried. That didn’t matter any more. Their hearts overwhelmed their good sense and they did what was needed.

I can’t help but think about the times I have failed to have the faith and the courage to do the right think, to risk rejection or scorn by my peers. In my head I can justify my inaction. But when the time of need for courage has passed, the time when I could have taken a stand, I become remorseful. I want to make up for it someway, somehow, without counting the cost. In fact, the greater the cost, the better I would feel. It’s my way of saying, “I’m sorry.” I think that’s what Joseph and Nicodemus were going through. To their credit they listened to their hearts and responded to the requests for help without dithering.

They didn’t just give their money and assets, though. They gave of themselves. They did something quite extraordinary and unexpected. They cleaned and dressed the corpse for burial. In this intimate service to Jesus I believe they experienced what Jesus intended. Just as Jesus had shown his disciples — and me — in the washing of their feet. In personally serving others I experience love, forgiveness, and redemption. In those acts of service I become a disciple of Jesus, caring for them as if I were tenderly caring for the bloody body of Jesus. I think that’s how he wants me to look at and do for all the battered, broken, bloody people around me. I think that’s the only way I can bring myself to do it, seeing him in them.


Coming forth from their tombs

January 5, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:51-56.

And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

As usual, this passage is filled with symbolism.

There were two veils in the temple in Jerusalem. One covered the entrance to the Holy Place and the next within that space veiled the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, a day for repentance. The high priest entered to offer the blood of sacrifice, the blood of a bull for himself and his family, and the blood of a goat for the people. In the tabernacle in the desert which God instructed Moses to build and in the first temple built by Solomon rested the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies holding the tablets of the ten commandments. This is where God dwelt among his people.

The New American Bible notes and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary hold that the veil torn upon the death of Jesus was the one covering the Holy of Holies, the one that separated God from His people. With the death of Jesus God tore up His covenant with his chosen people. He had commissioned His prophets including John and even become flesh himself to inspire people to return His for them by submitting themselves to His will and by loving one another. But they were a proud and stiff-necked people who persecuted and murdered those to whom He gave His voice and authority.

The earth quaked and tombs opened, the apocalyptic event prophesied of old came to pass. From the book of the prophet Joel: “Let all who dwell in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; yes it is near, a day of darkness and of gloom, a day of clouds and somberness!…Before them the earth trembles, the heavens shake; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withhold their brightness.” The prophet and priest Ezekiel during the Babylonian exile prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the promise of a new covenant; “Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them.” Earlier the greatest prophet Isaiah prophesied, “But your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise; awake and sing, you who lie in the dust.” Nahum prophesied the coming judgment of God, “The mountains quake before him and the hills dissolve; the earth is laid waste before him, the world and all who dwell in it.” The apocalyptic writer of the book of Daniel foretold, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” The happenings on this day would evoke these images that were so well known to the Jews. Here were the signs that the Pharisees, the scribes, the chief priests and elders repeatedly demanded.

Who is the first to recognize what this all meant, though? A Roman centurion and his soldiers — Gentiles, pagans! They knew nothing of the scriptures and were justifiably frightened by the darkened sky and the quaking earth beneath their feet. It was certainly a shock to realize that the sign over Jesus’ head, King of the Jews, was a true testament, not a false and blasphemous charge. It was the Gentiles, not the Jews, who first came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They had all made a dreadful mistake and now it appeared that God was going to punish them all. Yet even in their fear, they believed.

Last we have these woman who had followed Jesus from village to village, taking care of him all the way. Women had no legal status; they were a liability not an asset. They represented all those who were marginalized, dispossessed, disrespected, and abused. In Jesus they had come to have hope; they believed in his message of forgiveness of love. They followed him everywhere, even to Golgotha.

In his death, Jesus made it clear to all who witnessed it that he was the Son of God. A new age was upon them. What did that mean? I don’t think anyone had any idea yet. They didn’t know the rest of the story as we do. It was simply a fearful time, a time of shock — grief for some, remorse for others — a time of confusion and uncertainty. I’m sure they must have thought to themselves, “What now? Where do I go from here?”.

Those are the questions I struggle with still. What now? Where do I go from here? What am I supposed to do with all of this? The answers seem daunting and I keep trying to scale them down to my size. I think that’s the problem. I’m trying to diminish my responsibility to participate in building the kingdom of God here on earth. I’m reading Jesus Before Christianity by Dominican priest Albert Nolan. He wrote, “Jesus relied upon faith. The only power that can heal and save the world, the only power that can do the impossible, is the power of faith. This faith is obviously not the same as subscribing to a creed or a set of doctrines and dogmas….Faith is a good and a true conviction. It is the conviction that something can and will happen because it is good and because it is true that goodness can and will triumph over evil….The power of faith is the power of goodness and truth, which is the power of God….The opposite of faith is therefore fatalism….Fatalism is the prevailing attitude of most people, most of the time. It finds expression in statements like ‘Nothing can be done about ti.’ ‘You can’t change the world.’….’You must accept reality.’ These are the statements of people who do not really believe in the power of God, people who do not really hope for what God has promised.”

The power of faith is the power of God. That’s why I struggle with these questions. My faith is not up to the task that God has given me. I used to think that I could change the world in some small way at least. But now I’m not so sure anymore. It seems so damn hard, even impossible! That’s what my head says, but my heart still sings when I’m inspired to be part of something good that is greater than myself. The power of goodness is the power of God. That’s what I need to hold on to and draw determination from to get going. To do what it is He made me for! To be resurrected and come forth from my tomb.


Why have you forsaken me?

January 4, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:45-50.

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “This one is calling for Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink. But the rest said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.” But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke all include the observation that the sky became dark from about noon until Jesus’ death around 3:00 in the afternoon. The New American BIble notes indicate that this may be a reference to the book of the prophet Amos, who was a shepherd in Judah in the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. and who delivered God’s words of divine judgment. Chapter 8 is of interest here: “The time is ripe to have done with my people Israel; I will forgive them no longer….On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun set at midday and cover the earth with darkness in broad daylight….I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentations….I will make them mourn as for an only son, and bring their day to a bitter end.”

Matthew drew much of his material from Mark including Jesus’ last cry. Luke and John have much different versions. Matthew changed Mark’s “Eloi” to “Eli,” from the Aramaic to the Hebrew. He left the rest of the sentence in Aramaic. These are the words of David’s lament from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?” That partly answers my question about why Jesus cried out to God, instead of to his Father as he usually addressed God. Psalm 22 is interwoven throughout the account of the crucifixion.

Jesus cried out again in a loud voice. Did he repeat himself? Or did he helplessly groan in pain and anguished abandonment? Or did Jesus cry out, as Barclay suggests, what John wrote, “It is finished.”? Barclay notes that in Aramaic and Greek, that is just one word. In Greek it is tetelestai, which means a shout of victory.

To me Jesus’ last words are a reminder of his humanity. He was in unimaginable pain. The minutes must have seemed like hours and the hours days. He had given everything to God, submitting to His will at every turn. Now, the reality of dying, the darkness of death, gripped him. He couldn’t escape the question, why. Why do I have to endure this alone?

That captures my own feelings about death. It’s not death so much that bothers me. I don’t think I fear death. I fear dying, though. I fear feeling like I’m clawing for air; I fear being knotted by pain; I fear the yawning abyss of darkness. Abandonment. Alone, powerlessly letting everyone slip away. That is frightening to me.

Jesus “gave up” his spirit. The New American Bible notes that he willingly surrendered his life, his spirit, to God in a last act of submission. I have sat with people as they lay dying, wondering at the tenacity of the human will to live. However, there comes a point when the spirit gives up. With my grandmother it was a moment as she lay unconscious when she sat upright and said, “I see the light, I see the light.” I’ve always thought of that as a “God moment.” Now, I think of it as a gift. A gift of confidence that God is there to receive me, to embrace me. I need not fear darkness, separation, abandonment. I can willingly volunteer my spirit, knowing that I will be re-united with God’s spirit. I just hope that can come well in advance of the moment of death, but I doubt it will. My will to live is too strong. Not even Jesus could overcome his human will until his last gasp — tetelestai, his shout of victory, in seeing the light, the waiting embrace of God, his Father.


He trusted in God

February 1, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:33-44.

And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of the Skull), they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink. After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And they placed over his head the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left. Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, [and] come down from the cross!” Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” The revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way.

“He trusted in God.” The chief priests and elders could hardly have known the depth of the truth they were speaking. Jesus trusted in God in a way that was beyond their comprehension.

Neither Matthew nor Mark from whom Matthew largely draws his account witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion. Presumably, those who were witnesses told the story, which in turn was repeated to others over the years. It’s impossible to know if the statements reported here are accurate. Their words and behavior toward Jesus reflect a passage from the Book of Wisdom. The Book of Wisdom was written by an unknown author about 100 years before Jesus was born. The author’s purpose was to uplift his fellow Jews who were suffering at the hands of Jews who had deserted their faith and principles. Here are verses 12-20 of chapter two.

“Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is hardship for us, because his life is not like other men’s, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He call blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father. Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.”

Surely the chief priests, scribes and elders were familiar with the Book of Wisdom. They were entrusted to preserve and teach the faith. They practiced its rituals and enforced the legalisms, but they didn’t trust God. They didn’t trust God as Abraham, the father of their faith, had when he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. So, here we have a kind of bookend to Abraham who was obedient to God even to the point of sacrificing his only son. Jesus is obedient to God, his Father, even to the point of sacrificing his own life. Unequivocal trust.

Their trust in God wasn’t genuine; it was cynical and contemptuous. The chief priests and elders wanted a sign or so they said. We will believe if… Their belief was conditional. It was shallow, without roots. In their shameful condemnation of Jesus and their refusal to trust God, they unwittingly brought an end to the old covenant. The Jews were no longer the only chosen people of God. They had chosen otherwise and now God would regard all those who embraced His son as His chosen people.

Trust cannot be conditional; it is absolute. If I am to be God’s chosen, I must trust Him absolutely. That’s what Jesus showed in his life and in his death. What does it mean to trust? I think it means that I have to be thoroughly vulnerable, which means that I have to know unquestioningly that I am loved no matter what and no matter what happens to me. Trust and love are very much the same. Both require courage and the willingness to take risk “even to accept pain and disappointment” as Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving. And both are an act of faith, which brings me back to Jesus, the perfect human. His faith was unbreakable; his goal was unity with his Father. In that consummation he trusted. If only the chief priests and elders had understood what they said in mockery, “He trusted in God.” Our story might have been quite different. But then, our story is always different when we trust God. It changes everything.


Pressed into service

January 31, 2013

Dear sisters and brothers,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:27-32

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him. Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him. As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.

The New American Bible notes tell us that a cohort of Roman soldiers numbered 600. Pilate usually headquartered at Caesarea Maritima on the coast, but traveled to Jerusalem for the principal feasts with a cohort of more of soldiers in order to tamp down nationalistic fervor that could lead to protests and riots. The praetorium was his residence, which had a large entry courtyard. The scarlet cloak was worn by a Roman soldier. The last note of interest is that Simon was from Cyrenaica, a Roman province on the north coast of Africa whose capital was Cyrene. It had a large population of Greek-speaking Jews. Simon could have possibly been a pilgrim in Jerusalem for Passover, although Mark identifies him as the father of Alexander and Rufus who must have been well-known members of Mark’s church years later. The Romans were at leave to press residents into service or to confiscate their goods.

It’s doubtful that these Roman soldiers knew anything about Jesus, who he was or what he had done to deserve crucifixion. It didn’t matter to them; so what if the authorities had called him king of the Jews. They knew he wasn’t really the king. They were strangers in a strange land populated by people who practiced strange customs. They were subject o continual tension as they were employed to keep the peace, assure that the taxes were collected, and carry out the brutal torture and crucifixion of enemies of Rome. They had just marched about 70 miles, entering a city teeming with perhaps as many as 1.5 million Jews celebrating their liberation from Egyptian enslavement. They were on their guard undoubtedly hoping that there would be no riots that they would have to quell, fearing that they could easily be outnumbered.

There is something about being part of a larger group. It provides anonymity, a kind of release of personal responsibility, and an emboldenment of dark passions normally kept in check. A group takes on its own personality drawing in part from its members but displays an exaggerated caricature. It’s usually ugly.

I think that’s what we witness here with this large group of soldiers — men who felt confined, tense, bored, resentful. Men who could easily vent their frustrations on a defenseless man condemned to death. There was not fear of retribution or punishment. Someone started it; robing Jesus with his own cloak to give Jesus the aura of royalty. Others got into the act by making a crown of thorns. It kept escalating; many spitting on him and hitting him about the head and shoulders with the mock scepter. When all those who wanted had their chance to participate in the fun, they tired of their game and started toward the site of the crucifixion.

By contrast Matthew gives us Simon. A man in the crowd of bystanders, an individual picked out of the crowd at random. A man who suddenly stood out from the crowd, who no longer had the cloak of anonymity. One single man who took on the responsibility of carrying the cross. A man who happened to be from Cyrenaica, not from Jerusalem. A man who may not have heard Jesus teach in the temple precincts. But something drew him to watch what was happening. If Simon wasn’t converted to become a follower of Jesus, apparently his sons subsequently became notable members of the Jewish Christian community. Whether he did or not, Simon had a profound experience that must have changed his life in some ways.

I think the story is about God reaching out to us as individuals, converting us one at a time through our encounter with Him. We have to take responsibility as individuals for our actions; we can’t hide in the anonymity of a group. He may single us out at the most unexpected time, in the most unexpected way like poor, unsuspecting Simon. Maybe he didn’t willingly bend beneath the weight of the cross, but he took the place of Jesus with each step he took toward Golgotha. That’s what God wants for me; He wants me to take the place of His son, Jesus. He wants me to bend to His will, to accept the burdens He imposes whether I am ready or not. He wants to pull me out of the crowd, to use me. I am the means to His end. I am Simon pressed into service to carry His son’s cross.

That’s a very sobering realization, a vivid picture of submission. I’m not even sure what it means other than to live my life one step at a time, bending to His will, and accepting whatever burdens He gives me. Surely wearying, stumbling at times, but gratified that I am serving Him. I am taking the place of Jesus; I am His beloved son on whom His favor rests. He has picked me out of the crowd.


Who is innocent?

January 29, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:15-26.

Now on the occasion of the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called [Jesus] Barabbas. So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Which one do you want me to release to you, [Jesus] Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over. While he was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.” The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus. The governor said to them in reply, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They answered, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Messiah?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified.

Matthew added a number of details to this account that don’t appear in the other gospels: the first name of Barabbas, the message from Pilate’s wife, Pilate’s washing of his hands, and the crowd’s assumption of responsibility for Jesus’ death.

‘Jesus’ was a common Jewish name of the time. It’s interesting that ‘Barabbas’ means ‘son of the father.’ Matthew has used a number of ironic subtexts to contrast the two figures. It’s important to keep in mind that scholars believe that Matthew’s church was originally comprised of Jewish Christians that became largely Gentile Christians. There was considerable enmity between Matthew’s church and the Pharisees, which became the dominant voice of Judaism particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew’s church was also careful not to upset the Romans who had asserted complete control of all aspects of life in Palestine. So, Matthew was disposed to blame the Pharisaic Jews for Jesus’ death and, thus, treat Pilate and the Romans sympathetically.

Here we have Jesus Barabbas, the son of a human father, and likely a revolutionary seeking to re-establish God’s kingdom on earth for His chosen people through violence perhaps with grand dreams of installing himself as its secular king. He is contrasted then with Jesus of Nazareth, son of God, who sought to establish God’s kingdom on earth through personal transformation by teaching non-violence, forgiveness, and submission to the world’s rulers. Predictably, people chose violence over peace, Barabbas over Jesus the Messiah.

The chief priests and elders had assembled a crowd of people who supported them, symbols of the status quo of power and authority, and took their cues from the chief priests and elders. It’s unlikely that there were many of Jesus’ followers in the crowd in this small, confined courtyard. This was all a mockery of justice just as the trumped-up charges justifying Jesus’ arrest and condemnation had been. Matthew has used it to his own end to emphasize the divide and distinction between his church and the Pharisaic Jews. The consequences over the centuries have been horrific.

Pilate had no use for the Jews he governed. He looked down upon them, he denigrated them and their customs, he butchered them. He was a cruel, heartless steward of Palestine for the Roman empire. The ritual of washing his hands to be absolved of the blood about to be spilled was not a Roman custom. It was a Jewish ritual described in Deuteronomy. It’s highly unlikely that Pilate would have utilized this symbolic practice to free himself from the crime about to be perpetrated. He was ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death; the blame could not be shifted.

Still, I think the point of the passage is that we are all much like the crowd clamoring for the secular and rejecting the spiritual. We think we can enter God’s heavenly kingdom but ignore the demands to establish HIs kingdom on earth. We too eagerly choose violence as the means to an end instead of non-violent recourse. We can justify the blood of innocent children and others by trumpeting the right to bear arms instead of seeking a land governed by love rather than fear. We’ll gladly suffer the consequences; just give us what we demand. Just as in that time, leaders and followers collude to have their own way rather than submitting to God’s will.

We are all guilty — civil and religious leaders and the general public alike. We all what we want now without regard for the consequences. We all want Jesus Barabbas, not Jesus the Messiah. Those who believe in God of whatever branch of faith think that heaven is far off in time and space. God’s desire is for us to bring about His kingdom here and now, though. We can’t wash our hands of responsibility for that. We have to work for it within ourselves, our families, our communities, our country, our world. Of course, it seems impossible and unrealistic, like a fairy tale. As long as we think like that, it is. In failing to take responsibility, we are just like the chief priests and elders, Pilate, and the crowd.

Through all of this, Jesus stood silently by, watching in sadness. He accepted the revilement, the humiliation, the violence, and death. He took it upon himself to bear our sins to His Father so that we might be forgiven and given another chance to make the choice to work for the kingdom now. And another chance and another. He has never turned His back on us; He just keeps hoping the best in us will win out from time to time. Fortunately, it does from time to time.