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Tag Archive: Gospel of Matthew

Magi from the East

Posted: Thursday, January 6, 2011 (8:13 pm), by John W Gillis


Since today is actually the great Feast of Epiphany – despite what the bishops say! – I thought I would celebrate it by posting a short essay I wrote several years ago on the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel – especially the Visit of the magi, which forms the central mode of our celebration of this feast in the Latin world.

Jesus’ genealogy is a little dicey, and Matthew makes an obvious point of it, recognizing among his ancestors the Canaanite Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law Judah into impregnating her while she posed as a prostitute; Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute of Jericho who assisted Joshua’s spies during the conquest; Ruth, not untoward in character, but nonetheless a Moabitess; and Bathsheba (by inference), the wife of a Hittite, who was taken by King David in highly dubious manner (and is not recorded as having objected).

This diversity seems to be often taken as a sign of the inclusion of the gentiles in the new covenant. However, the text places these women explicitly within the scope of the older covenants, and so is more of a commentary on the proper interpretation of the meaning of God’s people since the time of Abraham than it is a pointing toward something new happening at Bethlehem. It seems to me to defy logic to claim that the inclusion of these women in this genealogy of Jesus within the chosen people is somehow making the assertion that after Jesus, people like these women (who came before Jesus) can finally be counted among the chosen people!

The story of the Magi is another place where the gentile world tends to read itself into the story of God’s people in a breaking-in of new relationship made possible by the universal nature of the salvation offered in Jesus Christ, being a very distinct thing from the nationalistic and tribal salvation proposed by Judaism. However, I’m not convinced that this is Matthew’s intent.

Matthew undoubtedly sees the Messiah ultimately in universal terms, but it does not seem consistent with his story to place gentiles as the first to recognize and offer homage to the King of the Jews. In Mt 10.5-24, Jesus sends his disciples out, but only to the house of Israel “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Mt 10.5). It is only after his resurrection that Jesus sends the remaining disciples out to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19). As Paul also ceaselessly observed, the Gospel was to go first to the Jews, and then to the gentiles. Can we really be so certain that Matthew is telling us that the good news of the birth of the messiah came first to gentiles?

The Magi came “from the east” (Mt 2.1), but that is precisely to where both Judah and Israel had been exiled, hundreds of years earlier. Although Matthew makes no mention of it, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that these Magi were the descendants of either exiled Jews or Israelites. We tend to project a “We Three Kings of Orient Are” view of these people because of later nativity traditions, but the Bible has them as magi, a term with strong religious connotations that would have referred to people who played roles ostensibly similar to the role of the prophet in Israelite religion, but who used divination and magical arts to “obtain” the divine word – in stark contrast to Yahwistic practices. Yet, according to the Biblical text, they use their astronomical/astrological arts to perceive the birth of Christ.

The term Magi, or a derivative, is used in the New Testament to refer to two other people: Elymas Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6-11 & Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24. Elymas was a Jew, and Simon a Samaritan, and so quite possibly at least of mixed Israelite descent. These passages are of great help in understanding what kind of people Matthew is referring to, even putting aside the question of their racial origin. I fail to see the theological significance of making such practitioners the primary heralds of the nativity of the Son of God if indeed they are simply pagan magicians. But if they are Israelites, then we can see in the passage a foretaste of the fulfilling of the messianic promise.

While the messianic promise certainly seemed to involve the nations, at least in a subservient role, it was primarily about the restoration of Israel, of sons that shall “come from afar” (Isa 60.4), and of the final turning toward God of Israel. The “gifts” that the magi offered to Jesus have long been associated in Christian tradition with his ministry of priest, prophet and king, but these things were also perhaps part of the common stock-in-trade of the professional magi. Myrrh ink, for instance, was used to write magical charms, as I understand it. Seen as “tools of the trade,” these offerings can be understood not so much as gifts of homage, but as a declaration of disassociation from former practices. They acknowledged Jesus as Lord and threw away, or offered up as it were, their magic and astrology. They repented, and returned to YHWH through the coming of the Messiah. Now, that makes theological sense!

We know there were many Jews who had stayed behind “in the East” – in Babylon – or who migrated to Persia after Cyrus. And there were, of course, the Israelites, who vanished as a people in those very regions, but who surely survived as occupants in the land. I wonder if it was to a group of one of these peoples that the Lord spoke to in a dream (Mt 2:12), after their repentance.

The point of all this is to argue against a common perception that Matthew’s inclusion of the non-Israelites in the genealogy, as well as his placing of the magi at the nativity seen, can be used to justify an interpretation of his Gospel that has Matthew recording the gentiles shouldering in on the Jews, or even pushing them out of the picture altogether. Reading the entire gospel – especially in Matthew’s extensive use of allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures and claims of their prophetic fulfillment – simply does not support such a view. Rather, Matthew’s purpose was to demonstrate that the advent of Jesus would signal the restoration of Israel through a spiritual rebirth, by means of repentance and adherence to Torah (even if a radical, interiorized adherence), in the process creating a community of “sons of God” to bring the (universal) salvation forth from the Cross to “all nations.”

Regardless of Matthew’s genuine concern for the Gentiles, I think we can see that his primary positioning of Jesus is as a Torah teacher, within the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, i.e., as one calling for the reformation of the life of the community in conformity to a genuine understanding of Torah, as opposed to a meaningless ritualistic or legalistic perversion of it. And no other gospel writer comes close to displaying Matthew’s concern for defining Jesus as the son of David, right from the first verse. This is very much the Jewish Messiah.

Understanding these magi as gentile, unfortunately, finds the Gospel, in a very real sense, moving from the Gentiles to the Jews, which does not seem to me to be at all consistent with the overall Biblical witness (to which this writer is so sensitive). This gospel states very strongly that salvation comes through true fulfillment of Torah (cf. Mat 5:17f; 7:21; 15:3; 19:17 etc.), not through the circumventing or “abolishing” of it. It is achieved through faith, yes, but that faith is strictly manifested in fulfillment of God’s will (cf. Mat 12:50), which finds its perfection in the Passion of Christ. It looks to these eyes that the inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation is effected at Golgotha, not Bethlehem (cf. Mat 10:5-6, 28:19-20).

Celebrating Christ’s Redemption and Immortality?

Posted: Saturday, December 4, 2010 (8:29 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, December 4th, 2010:

Handel and Haydn Society Artistic Director Harry Christophers, from the Conductor’s Notes in the program for this season’s performance of Handel’s Messiah:

When listening to our performance, take note of [librettist Charles] Jennens’ amazing contribution. We need only look back to mediaeval carols where texts take us from Christ’s nativity through to his crucifixion and resurrection but Jennens takes us further – his is a unique journey which takes us from prophecies of Christ’s coming through the Nativity to Christ’s suffering, his resurrection, ascension to the Kingdom of God and finally to that amazing and jubilant epilogue celebrating Christ’s redemption and immortality.

Huh? Such palaver is the price one pays, I suppose, when the chattering class wanders into the sanctuary.

My wife and I yesterday took in, for the first time, the Handel and Haydn Society’s annual performance of the Messiah – their 156th consecutive year of performing it in Boston! H&H is a very talented ensemble, and the performance of guest alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers was memorable, yet I must confess to having had a hard time getting comfortable during much of the show.

concert-messiah-smI was haunted all night by the probably well-founded suspicion that most of the assembled – of both performers and audience – were engaging this magnificent musical setting of these sacred texts as if it were some kind of fashionably quaint fairy tale, which could just as well have been swapped out for some Italian opera with a snow-elf intoning candy-cane cantatas.

Not surprisingly, good folk complained back in Handel’s day that the theatre was no place for the presentation of such content. I understand the sentiment: I love the piety of the work, but when the presentation substitutes artistic sentimentality for its inherent piety, it is like salt that has lost its flavor.

In one of his many teachings that sounds too offensive to modern ears to be much remembered or mentioned these days, the Lord tells us: "Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Mt 7:6, RSV). Again, that might sound harsh, but it’s self-evident that Christ was actually being charitable, as he, by nature, always is. Offering strange fire has never worked out well for anyone.

I tried to enjoy the concert, and I am still trying to reconcile the experience into a true satisfaction, but I can’t quite escape the sense that the aesthetic magnificence obscured a careless trampling of the Pearl of the Word. What you mean matters more than the aesthetic form of what you render, needless to say.

Magi From the East

Posted: Tuesday, January 6, 2009 (11:55 pm), by John W Gillis


magi-2 Being Epiphany, it’s time for my annual consideration of the story of the Magi. About 15 years ago, I was engaged in a series of discussions on various Biblical readings, and I came to see this story in a somewhat unusual light.

Tradition takes this story as a harbinger of the universality of the salvation offered in Christ, seeing the magi as the first gentiles to come to Christ. It’s a powerful interpretation, and I certainly accept that it is how the Church reads the story, but I haven’t always been convinced that was Matthew’s original intent.

I’m satisfied with how the Church uses this passage in her liturgy, but I still think it might be useful to consider this story from an alternative – hopefully complimentary – interpretation: the possibility of the magi in Matthew’s story not having been pagan gentiles, but rather members of the house of Israel returning from afar (both physically and spiritually) to Jerusalem, at the advent of the Messiah.

Matthew undoubtedly sees the Messiah ultimately in universal terms, but it does not seem consistent with his story to place gentiles as the first to recognize and offer homage to the King of the Jews. In Mt 10.5-24, Jesus sends his disciples out, but only to the house of Israel “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Mt 10.5). It is only after his resurrection that Jesus sends the remaining disciples out to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19). As Paul also ceaselessly observed, the Gospel was to go first to the Jews, and then to the gentiles. Can we really be so certain that Matthew is telling us that the good news of the birth of the messiah came first to gentiles?

The Magi came “from the east” (Mt 2.1), but that is precisely where both Judah and Israel had been exiled to, hundreds of years earlier. Although Matthew makes no mention of it, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that these Magi were the descendants of either exiled Jews or Israelites. The fact that they come to Jerusalem asking for "the king of the Jews" (as if "the Jews" were a third party) would tend to argue against them being Judahites, but would not be a peculiar phrase if they were descended from the tribes of the old northern kingdom.

We tend to have a “We Three Kings of Orient Are” view of these people because of later nativity traditions, but the Bible has them as magi, a term with strong religious connotations that would have referred to people who played roles ostensibly similar to the role of the prophet in Israelite religion, except that they used divination and magical arts to “obtain” the divine word – in stark contrast to Yahwistic practices. Yet they use their astronomical/astrological arts to perceive the birth of Christ.

The term Magi, or a derivative, is used in the New Testament to refer to two other people: Elymas Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6-11 & Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24. Elymas was a Jew, and Simon a Samaritan, and so quite possibly of at least of mixed Israelite descent – and from a Torah-bound people, regardless. These passages are of great help in understanding what kind of people Matthew is referring to, even putting aside the question of their racial origin. I fail to see the theological significance of making such practitioners the primary heralds of the nativity of the Son of God if indeed they are simply pagan magicians. But if they are Israelites, then we can see in the passage a foretaste of the fulfilling of the messianic promise.

While the messianic promise certainly seemed to involve the nations, at least in a subservient role, it was primarily about the restoration of Israel, of sons that shall “come from afar” (Isa 60.4), and of the final turning toward God of Israel. The "gifts" that the magi offered to Jesus have long been associated in Christian tradition with his ministry of priest (frankincense, for sacrifice), prophet (myrrh, for burial anointing) and king (royal gold), but these things could also have been part of the common stock-in-trade of the professional magi. For instance, I understand that myrrh ink was used to write magical charms. Seen as tools of the trade, these offerings can be understood not only as gifts of homage from the magi to the Christ, but also as a declaration of disassociation from former practices: they acknowledged Jesus as Lord and threw away, or offered up as it were, their magic and astrology; they repented, and returned to YHWH through the coming of the Messiah. Now, that makes theological sense.

We know there were many Jews who had stayed behind "in the East" – in Babylon – or who migrated to Persia after Cyrus. And there were, of course, the Israelites who vanished as a people in those very regions, yet who surely survived as occupants in the land. I wonder if it was to a group of one of  these peoples that the Lord spoke to in a dream (Mt 2:12), after their repentance?

Matthew’s purpose in his gospel was to demonstrate that the advent of Jesus would signal the restoration of Israel through a spiritual rebirth, by means of repentance and adherence to Torah (even if a radical, interiorized adherence), creating a community of "sons of God" to bring the (universal) salvation forth from the Cross to "all nations."

Regardless of Matthew’s genuine concern for the Gentiles, I think we can see that his primary positioning of Jesus is as a Torah teacher, within the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, i.e., as one calling for the reformation of the life of the community in conformity to a genuine understanding of Torah, opposing a meaningless ritualistic or legalistic perversion of it. And no other gospel writer comes close to displaying Matthew’s concern for defining Jesus as the son of David, right from the first verse. This is the Jewish Messiah.

Understanding these magi as gentile, unfortunately, finds the Gospel, in a very real sense, moving from the Gentiles to the Jews, which does not seem to me to be at all consistent with the overall Biblical witness (which this writer is so sensitive to). This gospel states very strongly that salvation comes through true fulfillment of Torah (cf. Mat 5:17f; 7:21; 15:3; 19:17 etc.), not through the circumventing or "abolishing" of it. Through faith, yes, but that faith is strictly manifested in fulfillment of God’s will (cf. Mat 12:50), which finds its perfection (just as the Torah finds its fulfillment) in the Passion of Christ.

The inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation is effected at Golgotha, after all, not Bethlehem (cf. Mat 10:5-6, 28:19-20).

Watchman for the House of Israel

Posted: Tuesday, September 9, 2008 (11:49 pm), by John W Gillis


There is a common thread of real, and very serious, responsibility for neighbor running across all three of this week’s readings.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Ezek 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20

It’s not that common for the second reading to dovetail this nicely with the first reading and the Gospel reading. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but perhaps it bears repeating (even in somewhat oversimplified form). . .

The lectionary cycle for Sunday readings consists of two independent threads of content: the primary thread being a sequential reading of one of the Gospels, and the secondary thread being a sequential reading of one of the New Testament letters – this second thread being what is proclaimed in the second reading. The first reading is not independent, but is chosen specifically to provide Biblical context (from the Old Testament, as a rule) for the Gospel reading. So the first reading and Gospel reading always dovetail, while the second reading is usually pretty tangential to the others. A tangent, however, always has some point of contact, and sometimes, like today, it seems to complete the circle remarkably.

As I get older, I find it harder and harder to reconcile modernity’s obsessive individualism with the worldview of the Bible. The Ezekiel reading is quite straightforward in assigning the prophet responsibility – not for the fate of his people, but for their knowledge of God’s Word. The watchman will have on his hands the blood of those whom he fails to warn of their danger. This could not have been a particularly comforting message to Ezekiel. Yes, they are responsible for themselves, but so is Ezekiel. It’s hard not to think of Jonah here, and his attempt to flee rather than proclaim God’s Word – which the Lord would have none of. It also recalls, at least obliquely, that marvelous cry of Jeremiah’s pathos from last Sunday’s first reading:

I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.

But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;

I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. (Jer 20:9, NAB)

Looking strictly at the Gospel passage as it stands, it may not be immediately evident how the Ezekiel reading provides Old Testament context for understanding it – the Gospel message almost seems to be about church discipline, and the “proper” means of correcting the wayward. Yet the simple fact that the liturgy directs us to view the passage through the lens of the demands placed on Ezekiel calls for a closer look.

Seen within the context of the entirety of Matthew 18, it becomes a bit clearer how the Gospel passage relates to the Watchman passage. The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom, which Jesus answers by holding a humble child. But then Jesus warns of the terrors awaiting any who would cause such a child to sin, and then reasserts, in the parable of the lost sheep, how the Father desires not one of the little ones to be lost. This is the preceding context for our passage, and it could not be clearer that the Lord is reiterating the idea from our Ezekiel passage that the blood of sinners can be – and will be – judged to be on the hands of others.

Then our own passage speaks of how to deal with a brother who sins. Seen in the light of the preceding verses’ focus on the responsibility of some for the spiritual well-being of others – as well as on God’s salvific desire for all – the “process” of correcting the brother begins to look like an actual burden upon the Church, for the sake of reconciling the sinner. Where this differs from the instructions to Ezekiel is in the fact that Christ, as is typical, expands upon the requirements laid out in the Old Testament. No longer is it sufficient for the “watchman” to witness God’s Word to the sinner; he must now be persistent, imploring the help of others in the congregation – even the entire Church.

Implicit in this “correction” is the readiness to forgive – to be reconciled. For what else could it mean to “win over your brother” except to bring him to repentance, and how else could he be brought to repentance by “listening to you” except through an offer of forgiveness? A cynic might counter that he could possibly be shamed, exposed, or verbally beaten into repentance, but how would bringing along “one or two others,” after the fact, make them witnesses of some wrong done in the past? They could only serve as witnesses to your offer of reconciliation, and the repentance – or lack thereof – of the guilty party. The Lord is stressing here the power of Christian community to make Christ present to the world, especially Christ’s forgiveness.

That this is indeed what the Lord is pointing to is, I believe, made clear in next set of verses (closing out chapter 18), which show Peter asking how many times he must forgive his brother, and the Lord responding with the parable of the unforgiving servant – someone blessed with the gift of forgiveness who was severely punished when he did not use his opportunity to extend that gift to another in need of it.

So, having seen how the Gospel passage does, in fact, recapitulate the message of the Ezekiel reading – and even magnify it – we turn finally to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

“Love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul tells us, because “love does no evil to the neighbor.” But as we have seen, for those who possess God’s Word (and His forgiveness) the law calls for us to share such gifts with those in need of them, and so doing “evil to the neighbor” must be seen not only as committing sins against them, but sinning against them by omission: failing to warn them of danger, and failing to offer them the freedom of forgiveness. Loving others – even as ourselves – requires putting in the effort to make God present to them in humility, even in the face of the ever-present temptation to pull a Jonah.

Upon This Rock: Royal Authority & Stewardship

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2008 (3:46 pm), by John W Gillis


A few observations on the Gospel reading for this week…

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

19 I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. 20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 21 I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. 22 I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. 23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family; [NAB]

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! 34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?" 35 "Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid?" 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. [NAB]

13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 17 Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." 20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. [NAB]

Knowing & Knowing Of: It’s interesting to note the way Jesus frames the two questions he presents to the disciples: Who do people say the Son of Man is? vs. Who do you say that I am? The people, who are remote, know "the Son of Man," but He is to them a remote figure, whom they know inadequately, in a kind of third-person relationship. Really, they know of Jesus; they don’t know him. But the knowledge of the disciples is personal, and therefore able to be brought to completion. Not long before this, Matthew tells us, Jesus had explained to His disciples: "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted." (Matthew 13:11, NASB). Peter’s confession is the logical conclusion to this string of ideas showing the disciples as the privileged stewards of God’s revelation.

On Peter: Much is made in certain circles of the difference in the Greek between the masculine form of the name now given to Peter (Petros), and the feminine form (petra)of the "rock" upon which Jesus will build His ecclesia. The difference, it is said, is as one between a stone and a large rock mass. The usual rejoinder is that, in the Aramaic which Jesus would actually have been speaking that day to this Galilean fisherman, there is no such distinction, and the word used in both cases would have been kepha. This may be so, but I like to think the inspired character of the text given to us in Greek offers us insight that goes beyond any extrapolation back into the Aramaic.

The obvious Old Testament parallel and type for this passage is the passage from Isaiah 22 that we see in the first reading. The oracle, pronounced against Shebna, the king’s steward ("master of the palace"), makes reference to his being thrust from his office, and replaced by Eliakim, who unlike Shebna would act as God’s servant in his fulfillment of the office. This stewardship was not a singular role that was intrinsic to Shebna personally, but an office that he filled – and that others would fill so long as there was a Davidic king to be served as steward. I think this may be a useful interpretive key to the linguistic differentiation of the two "rock" words in the Greek.

Perhaps Jesus is saying here that He will build His Church not simply "on you, Peter" but "on Peter writ large." In other words, not only on Peter personally (though He certainly did that), but on the office of royal authority that Peter would inaugurate anew and serve as the paradigm for – as the following verse about the giving of the keys of the Kingdom makes clear, referring quite evidently back to Eliakim’s taking on of the stewardship of the Davidic kingdom.

The focus on the stone/rock mass distinction often seems offered as a rather coy means of minimizing the significance of Peter’s foundational role, and more importantly, by extension, of writing off the claims of his successors to a role of chief stewardship (claiming that Peter himself is not the foundational "rock mass" after all, despite the obvious parallelism at play in Jesus’ pronouncement). However, I think the Petrine claims to such an office become even more convincing when this passage is seen in its broader Biblical context, and the scale differentiation in the Greek text actually points forward beyond the personal (which would have made the statement mythological) to the historical unfolding of that Church which not appear in an instant, but will , we are told, be built. As the rest of the passage makes clear, Jesus was conferring real authority – His authority – upon Peter, and Peter could not possibly have exercised that authority personally until the Church prevailed against the "gates of the netherworld" in the resurrection.

The Rock: Even more interesting to me is Jesus’ choice of the name "Rock" for Simon. He could have called Simon anything, but He chose a term that had been widely used in Scripture to refer to God Himself. This says simply amazing things about Peter, or more properly, about the nature of the authority Jesus was conferring on him. It is clear that Jesus intended that those who heard the voice of Peter should consider that they heard the voice of God. If this is not clear enough in the gospel text, it is recapitulated, by inference, in “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this: [NAB] where the Risen Lord, seated in authority, uses language that hearkens back again both to Peter’s commission as foundation of the Church, and to Eliakim, a faithful servant become steward whose name is "God raises up."

And so we see at Pentecost, Peter, the faithful servant become steward of Christ, proclaiming to the world "God raised Him up" “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.[NAB]Peter testifies with the Pentecostal Spirit of Truth to the Lordship of Jesus “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” [NAB]which is the faithful fulfillment of his commission.

Peter Receives the Keys to the Kingdom (Perugino, 1481)

The Keys to the Kingdom: The association in the liturgy of the Isaiah 22 passage and Mt 16:19 makes clear both how Christ intended the kingdom He was inaugurating to be the fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom, and the kind of authority He was handing Peter as steward. The authority is historical. That is to say, while it is certainly a "spiritual" authority, it is temporal, even if it has eschatological implications. The authority of the Kingdom is not something waiting to be revealed in a mythic or even eschatological future – the Kingdom is now.

While it’s certainly true that the breaking in of the Kingdom is far from complete, this passage alone utterly repudiates the popular American Evangelical theology known as Dispensationalism – a recent variation on millenarianism which denies the present reality of the Kingdom, and expects instead a future 1000-year temporal reign of Jesus from modern Jerusalem, inaugurated in apocalyptic mayhem. It is quite ridiculous to think of Peter exercising Christ’s royal authority in such a scenario, with Christ somehow both reigning on earth as in heaven, and yet still building His Church!

Motherhood and Salvation

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008 (11:30 pm), by John W Gillis


I think the Gospel reading for this week – Mt 15:21-28, The Healing of the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter – is pregnant with eschatological meaning.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isa 56:1, 6-7
Ro 11:13-15, 29-32
Mt 15:21-28
“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And her daughter was healed from that hour.
(Mt 15:28)

The woman, who calls Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David,” asks for mercy on herself, but in doing so is actually referring to her daughter’s ailment. She is, in other words, identifying completely with her daughter’s suffering – she’s making it her own.

Jesus, however, does not respond to her with a logos (word). The disciples, we are told, ask (or implore) Jesus to “send her away,” though the plea doesn’t look much like a question. Did they “ask” Him on her behalf? Or did they just want to be rid of her so she’d stop yelling behind them? Verse 24 would seem to suggest they asked Him to help her. However, Jesus was not sent to the Gentiles . . . the apostles were – but that’s a story to be picked up later.

The woman, at any rate, would not be deterred, and she came and did Jesus homage – again asking “help me,” and so demonstrating again her commitment to her daughter’s healing as her own personal burden. There’s no real surprise to that, of course, but Jesus honors it. Great was her faith, so the Lord tells us, and it was indeed her will that was accomplished – Christ made her will His own. Such is the remarkable power of the prayer of those of “great faith.” Because of this woman’s faith, her daughter was healed of demon possession “from that hour.”

And if the demons had no more power over her, then her mother’s faith surely brought her across the threshold of salvation. Great is the power of intercession: If one will take on the suffering of others, the power of salvation can be manifest.

Why didn’t the disciples implore Jesus to save the child because of the her suffering from the “cruel” demon possession, instead of because of the nagging persistence of the mother? Perhaps that’s too harsh a reading; perhaps, in a sense, we have here a model of intercession, where the mother pleads for her daughter, and the disciples plead on the mother’s behalf.

I think those that would withhold baptism from infants and children fail to grasp the truth being displayed in this passage about the woman’s faith. It does violence to God’s intention and will for us in Christ to make baptism, or even salvation for that matter, a consequence of personal belief. This woman’s faith saved her child because of the unrelenting love and devotion that she had for the girl. It was a grace, pure and simple. But grace, as always, is offered in love.

Grace is, in other words, dependent on love – it is not random. It was, as Jesus said, the woman’s will that was done in the healing of the daughter. This grace has its origin in the mother’s love, or more precisely, in God’s love brought to light within the mother, expressed through her will to love her daughter.

This should not surprise anyone, because the Christ became like us that we might become like Him. And what is it to be like him? What else but to make the grace of salvation present in the world through love and faith.

Isn’t this just what Christ commanded when he told us to love one another as he has loved us? What was his love for us except taking upon himself our burdens as his burden, and through a faithful, persevering, sacrificial love for us, bringing us to God’s salvation? This is shown in yet another way in Paul’s remarkable assertion that “woman will be saved through bearing children.” (1Tim 2:15, RSV)

Those who are scandalized by Mary’s titles of Co-Redemptrix and Co-Mediatrix must fail to see this. Mary may bear those titles in a special and even unique way, as the one chosen from among all the offspring of Eve to bring Salvation Himself into the world through the love and suffering of childbirth and motherhood (for even if her childbirth were free of suffering, as tradition asserts, her motherhood surely was not). But she does not bear them uniquely per se, for we are all called to share in the salvific love of Christ for the world. Salvation is the work of Christ in the world, working through those who, in His Spirit, would be His Body. The titles really identify Mary with the Church, and orient the Church properly toward the world.

It seems some would like to keep well defined and intact a clear line between the thrice holy God and fallen humanity, but that is precisely the line that He became incarnate to erase, glory be to God.

Walking on Water

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2008 (2:10 am), by John W Gillis


I love the readings for this week. The Gospel reading is one of those stories that even unbelievers are familiar with – Jesus walking on the water. It has become a cultural reference, and the phrase “he walks on water” has come to have an immediately identifiable meaning. The Gospel story, for its part, is taken as evidence of (or at least a claim for) the Divinity of Christ.

But, interestingly, in this Matthean version, unlike the parallel in Mark, Peter also walks on water, if only briefly. This suggests some magnificent things about the Church, much like some of the other miracle stories: about how the Church is invited to participate in the transformative power that God reveals in Christ. But the wind caused Peter to become frightened.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
1Kgs 19.9a,11-13; Rom 9.1-5; Mt 14.22-33

He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how (strong) the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Matthew 14:29-30 (NAB)

The wind (Gk anemos) is never something good to encounter in the New Testament (the “roaring like a wind” at Pentecost is a different word in the Greek). Whether frightening the disciples at different times on the lake (c.f Mt 8.23-27), driving Paul and his captors toward shipwreck (c.f. Acts 27.14ff), representing the dangers of clever heresy in every wind of doctrine (Eph 4.14, c.f. the reference to John the Baptist not being a reed shaken by the wind in Lk 7.24), or acting as the force that works to topple the houses built on the two foundations of rock and sand (Mt 7.24-27), the wind seems to encompass all those forces in life that press against us in so many directions, and would divert us from our goals – even our walk toward the Lord.

The thing that most fascinates me these days about this story is that Matthew, but not Mark, includes the subtext of Peter also walking on the water. This episode directly follows the miracle of the disciples feeding a “great throng” (Mt 14.14), including 5,000 men, with 5 loaves and 2 fish (Mt 14.15-21, Mk 6.35-44).

As I said, Mark doesn’t mention Peter’s escapade on the sea, and his ending of the pericope seems, at least on the surface, very different from Matthew’s. In Matthew: Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” whereas in Mark: They were (completely) astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened. (Mk 6.51b-52)

This appears contradictory, as if one writer is saying that the disciples really “got it,” while the other writer is saying that they really didn’t. But I think what Mark is saying in his ending is basically the same thing Matthew says in his Peter subtext.

The disciples were not prepared to accept that the power of God is intended to be manifest in the disciples themselves, as lowly and plain and ordinary as they were (and are). We see a similar truth expressed in the Elijah reading: God doesn’t come to the world in the earthquake (or in the wind), He comes in the humble, the lowly, the ordinary, the still small voice. Even in the bread and wine.

In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus blessed the food and gave it to the disciples, but it was up to them to step out and hand it out to thousands of people – and this happened upon their return from their mission of preaching and healing (Mk 6.7-13). Even so, they would shortly thereafter be perplexed as to how they could get enough food to feed a smaller crowd, when they had even more loaves and fish! (Mt 15.32-39) Likewise, Peter stepped out of the boat and walked toward Jesus, doing something no other sinner had ever done or has done since. But the wind confounded him.

Peter and the disciples had no idea at this point how much Jesus had in store for them – for they themselves to be a blessing for the people. First, they had to learn to ignore the wind, and allow God to be manifest to them, and through them – in the humble and the ordinary.

We live this story still today, and He is with us in the humble and ordinary. It’s not that we couldn’t manifest the very power of God on earth if we were up for it, but we too often become frightened in the wind – even when He bids us “come.”

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

God’s Treasure

Posted: Sunday, July 27, 2008 (9:07 pm), by John W Gillis


A few years ago, I started teaching a unit called "Biblical Themes" in the parish Confirmation Prep program. I was given six 90-minute sessions to work with, and no curricula whatsoever. Since I was recruited for the task a mere week before classes were to begin, I didn’t have a lot of time to plan out the program, but I relished the idea of having such free reign to come up with six Biblical lessons for the high school kids.

I quickly sketched out a plan of study that I can only describe now as grossly optimistic. It involved touching each week on the Biblical meaning of one of six important concepts: revelation, covenant, sin, faith, righteousness, and salvation. 

About halfway through the third class, I finally made it out of the first lesson. Needless to say, I did some serious adjustment to the plan, and completely re-worked it the next time I taught it, focusing the whole unit on the reality of the Bible as God’s Word.

So I found myself, the second time through, trying to show about 20 high school kids how they can encounter Christ in Scripture, and taking the opportunity to perhaps reiterate the importance of some moral and religious duties. Yet I wondered if I was using the time well. These kids already knew the moral law, after all, and they already knew that God can be found in the Bible.

But, as was apparent during our lessons, they weren’t in the habit of going to the Scriptures to find God. So, I thought: Instead of spending my time telling them what they already know – at least at a basic level – perhaps I should be trying to understand why they’re not pursuing their ready opportunities to encounter God. It dawned on me pretty quickly that their knowledge of God was probably such that it was leading them to conclude that, if they did open the Bible to find God, He’d likely tell them, so to speak, to clean their rooms. What they really needed was to hear the Gospel.

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

1Ki 3:5,7-12; Rom 8:28; Mt 13:44-52

44 "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. 46 When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.
Matthew 13:44-46 (NAB)

At just that time, I was involved in putting together a reflection on two of the mini-parables in this Sunday’s Gospel reading: the Hidden Treasure, and the Pearl of Great Price. In both parables, a man gives up all that he has to possess the treasure he found.

As I found myself thinking about the best way to use Scripture to convey to my high school charges God’s love and yearning for them, I considered extrapolating on John 3:16, but decided it might come off as too cliche. It was early winter, when John the Baptist appears in the liturgical readings, and I got to thinking about how John’s insight "He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3:30) was recapitulated by Paul, in a post-Ascension context, when, in Galatians, he says:

"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Galatians 2:20 (NASB)

It struck me that the Son of God could not have given up more than Himself; that like the man in the parable who gave up his all to possess the hidden treasure, Christ has given up His all to possess the Church. This is the same essential message as John 3:16; it is the heart of the Gospel.

We’re accustomed to hearing this parable in quite different terms – that the treasure is the Kingdom of God that the wise disciple is willing to give up everything to possess (c.f. Mark 10:17-31), but I think Matthew primarily has something else in mind.

The parable of the Hidden Treasure (like that of the Pearl of Great Price) is set in the midst of a series of parables in chapter 13 of Matthew, which all suggest God as the subject and principal actor (the person), and the disciples/church as the acted upon objects (seed, wheat, yeast, fish).

It seems clear to me that the Lord is trying to tell us in these parables, not so much about what our priorities should be – as important as that is to understand – but just how much He thinks of us, and what we’re worth to Him.

My friend, in God’s eye, you are that pearl of great price whom He has given up all He has to possess. Next time you see a high school kid, see if you can find a way to convey that message – it’s the gospel truth.

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
Deuteronomy 7:6 (NRSV)

“Terror All Around!”

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2008 (6:04 pm), by John W Gillis


12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Jer 20:10-13; Rom 5:12-15; Mt 10:26-33

“Terror All Around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” (Jer 20:10)

It would seem that Jeremiah had come to be known among his “friends” and co-religionists as “Terror All Around.” Perhaps they had grown weary of hearing him repeat the phrase. Nobody likes a whiner, and particularly odious is anyone who dares to suggest that the “good guys” might not be square with God.

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (c. 1512)There is something at once disarming yet alarming about Jeremiah: Jeremiah is a bona fide failure. He has come down to us in history as one of the very greatest of the greats, and he provides us with perhaps our best interpretive tool for understanding the Hebrew Nabi – a line that culminates in Jesus of Nazareth (sorry, Mohammed), but the fact remains that, in his day and time, Jeremiah was a dismal failure.

That he was rejected by the religious establishment of his day is unsurprising – such often tends to be the role of the prophet. It is a sad fact of religious existence that the insecure and impenitent can and sometimes do take refuge in the certainty and immunity that religious authority invariably claims to provide. I say this not to demean religious authority as such, but merely to state what is already well-known: that religion, especially when it is politically (or financially) potent, is not the exclusive domain of saints, but is also compromised by self-seekers, and even knaves.

That Jeremiah was rejected by the political leadership is even less surprising. This, too, is the usual fate of the prophet. King Josiah notwithstanding, few and far between are the political leaders with the humility and piety to listen to the Word of God without responding in violence. Although the office of the Nabi proper is closed with Jesus, the Word of God is still spoken by those who are honest enough to bear its burden, and courageous enough to bear its consequences.

Jesus says to his disciples: “You will be universally hated on account of my name” (Mk 13:13). Said another way: the “prophet” who has climbed into bed with the generals and politicians is a fraud. This is not to say that Christian faith does not have political consequences – it does indeed – it is to say that the Christian voice raised in the midst of political struggle must be one that takes the gospel as its self-understanding and basis of discernment, not political alliance or “tribal” interests. The truth must be proclaimed to all parties, and hence, we will be (or should be) “hated by all.” (Mt 10:22)

Jeremiah smashing the earthen vessel in Topheth, by James Tissot (c. 1888)The Hebrews of Jeremiah’s time were quite convinced that, because they were genuinely God’s people (as indeed they were) who were worshiping the One True God within the context of creation’s only Divinely ordained religion, that their political and religious institutions would not – could not – fall. The people (not to mention the priests and the princes) were not able to hear the criticism of Jeremiah – the Word of God – being too full of bad religion for that. All of Scripture warns us repeatedly of the errors of assuming that uncritical religion (or politics) can keep us in good stead with God. God’s prophets may end up in cisterns or on crosses, but they represent our only true hope; they represent God, who never ceases to call us into deeper conversion.

And let it be said that there was no shortage of “prophets” to give this view religious legitimization. Indeed, they had the witness of the great prophet Isaiah to point to, oblivious to the perplexing proviso that Isaiah spoke God’s Word to a different time in different circumstances – and faith is not magic; the Word cannot be invoked like an incantation.

There is likewise no shortage in the world today of self-styled prophets, clamoring for the soapbox. Especially in the religious sphere, it’s hard not to trip over “prophetic witness” claims to point out the true path to redemption, or righteousness, or whatever the goal is presumed to be. But anyone conversant with the Old Testament knows that most of the prophets were false. It means nothing to be “prophetic” without being bound by the Word of God – as actually spoken by God. In fact, for those who preach their own understanding in the name of propheticism, it might just be their undoing:

2 “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, prophesy and say to those who prophesy out of their own minds: `Hear the word of the LORD!’ 3 Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! 4 Your prophets have been like foxes among ruins, O Israel. 5 You have not gone up into the breaches, or built up a wall for the house of Israel, that it might stand in battle in the day of the LORD. 6 They have spoken falsehood and divined a lie; they say, `Says the LORD,’ when the LORD has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word. 7 Have you not seen a delusive vision, and uttered a lying divination, whenever you have said, `Says the LORD,’ although I have not spoken?” 8 Therefore thus says the Lord God: “Because you have uttered delusions and seen lies, therefore behold, I am against you, says the Lord GOD. 9 My hand will be against the prophets who see delusive visions and who give lying divinations; they shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel; and you shall know that I am the Lord GOD.
(Ezekiel 13:2-9 RSV)

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Mt 10:26)

Why do prophets like Jesus and Jeremiah say things like this? If the people had listened to Jeremiah and had trusted YHWH, Jerusalem would have stood. But the people chose to trust the authority of the powerful instead. We should not think that this was an obvious mistake to them – in their own way, they were expressing a confidence in the God of their fathers. But they were filled with fear and pride, not humility and repentance; their eyes were fixed on the enemy at the gate, rather than on God, who transcends human structures – even those Divinely ordained – and sometimes speaks through riff-raff like Jeremiah. Such dialectics still arise, and it takes both courage and spiritual humility to engage them with fidelity to the God who gives voice to both parties.

What Jesus is telling his disciples in this week’s gospel is that we are to tell the truth in the face of whatever potential persecution we might met, whether social, religious, or political (“for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles” Mt 10:17-18). Fear should have no part in our decision-making (“So, do not be afraid”). But this is easier said than done, for our confidence must be in God, but it can be very difficult in practice to tell the difference between God and the religious and/or political structures we identify with (hence the popularity of the tribal deity that goes by the name of “God & Country,” not to mention jihadism).

The bottom line is that it’s hard to trust God. It is always a choice, and there is always an alternative, and the alternative is almost always compelling. When Jesus tells us that the Father values us more than so many sparrows, it seems like a weak argument – and certainly doesn’t convince many to jump out of trees expecting to fly better than sparrows. Radical faith in God is all too easy to paint as religious quackery, but that’s just an excuse to avoid the hard work of discernment. As Jeremiah shows us, being faithful to God is precisely about that discernment; about learning to lay self-interest aside (personal or tribal), and being willing to embrace the challenge God constantly presents us to continue in His Word.

Jeremiah in the Pit, by Marc Chagall (1956)This week’s readings are an invitation to shed our fears, and to put our faith in God, because the “free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:15) is a sure thing. There is no longer any excuse for allowing fear and pride to dull our ears to the prophetic voice of the Spirit calling us as disciples of Christ to speak truth to power, and to let God worry about the enemy at the gate. There are no shortcuts to peace through expediency. Too many Jeremiahs never get pulled out of the cistern, and we need them around to remind us of what we are created to be.

ΑΩ

Turning Aside from the Way Ordained

Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2008 (11:20 pm), by John W Gillis


Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matt 7:21 (NAB)

9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Deut 11.18, 26-28, 32
Rom 3.21-25, 28
Matt 7.21-27
(view the readings at the USCCB site)

Very interesting how the two reading cycles converge in today’s liturgy – which they certainly don’t always do. The first reading is not on a cycle, but is usually an Old Testament reading that somehow typifies, or at least contextualizes, the reading in the Gospel cycle. The Gospel reading today is from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus finishes by making a startling distinction between effective and vain forms of encountering Him. I sometimes hear people refer to this as the difference between giving lip service and real service to God, but I don’t think that goes far enough.

True, in Mt 7.24-27, Jesus clarifies the distinction by differentiating between those who act on His words and those who don’t, but I don’t think this is just about the need to put faith into action. It is about faith being rooted in truth, in God’s will. This seems very clearly illuminated in the first reading.

Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, God has placed before the people His words, and invited them to respond. Paralleling the “act on them”/”not act on them” distinction in the Gospel, we see the options to obey or not obey the commandments, bringing about blessing or curse.

The curse in Dt. 11.28 is identified with three phrases: not obeying the commandments; turning aside from the way ordained; and following other gods not known. There’s no distinction made between the first two terms – disobeying the commandments is turning aside from the way ordained – but the third term is given as a reason: to follow unknown gods. In other words, turning aside from the way ordained is said, by the LORD, to be done for the purpose of following other gods.

I think it’s important not to miss the significance of the assumption this verse is pregnant with: that one does not fail to obey the commandments except to follow other gods – perhaps even that one cannot turn away from the way ordained (The Way) without following other gods. So not only is following the LORD without obeying the commandments excluded a priori, but so is any semblance of agnosticism – at least among those who have heard the commandments, the “words.” This is sensible enough: having encountered the truth, one can accept it or reject it, but one can hardly claim to be unaware of its existence.

I think the NASB, HCSB, NIV and NJB get this verse wrong by translating it: “turn aside from the way… by following other gods.” (To its credit, the NASB does put “[Lit: to follow]” in the margin.) I’m not suggesting that following other gods is not in and of itself a turning aside from the way ordained – it’s a violation of the 1st Commandment – but the wording in these texts envisions sin (turning away) following from idolatry, instead of the other way around. There may be a reciprocal relationship between them, but I think the text is trying to tell us here basically that pride goes before a fall; the desire for falsehood precedes the lie.

Many of the loosey-goosey translations seem to botch this passage at least as badly. I see far too much leaning in them toward the wrong-headed idea that fidelity to God is about worshiping the “right” god, and, conversely and even more so, that worshiping the “wrong” god is what constitutes a sinner – and especially an enemy. This is an overly simplistic reading, and I think both the Matthew reading and the Romans reading witness against it.

Just a few verses earlier in Deuteronomy, we read: “be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them” Deut 11:16 (NAB). The word that the NAB here translates “lured away” is often translated as “deceived.” Idolatry is enticing, but it is by means of embracing falsehood (deception) that one is brought to idolatry. When Jesus says “I never knew you [evildoers]” to those who protest: “we cast out demons in your name,” we see the fruits of religious self-deception at work in those who may be very much in conformity to the exterior norms of a life of faith, and even impressively so, but who are not transformed themselves to a life of fidelity to God’s Word, which amounts to taking the truth as a yoke to bear, without regard to personal cost – that is the knowledge of Christ that unfolds in the life of the disciple. We cannot turn back from that path without “exchanging” gods.

This is essentially what Paul is getting at in the Romans reading as well, though he comes at it from a very different angle. Paul had to deal not only with practitioners of religious self-deception, but with teachers of it. The issue is complex, and deserves much more time than I can give it here, but we are still talking about the difference between approaching the spiritual life as an exercise in religious conformance, and approaching it as a humble – and grateful – subject of the encounter with ultimate truth. We are not made right with God through the practice of religious activities – ritual or charismatic – but through persevering faithfully in the ever-unfolding encounter with truth, as God has revealed it in the person of Jesus Christ.