The Roller Coaster Ride

Week of August 24 2008
Lectionary Reading: Matthew 16:13-20

I could call Matthew Chapter 16 “The Roller Coaster Ride.”  It’s full of excitement and high expectations, and sobering and frightening forewarnings.

There are two lectionary readings taken from Matthew 16. This week (August 24) is the famous moment where Peter realises that Jesus is the Messiah (Verses 13-20.) Next week follows with the sobering, and denied news, that he is a very different Messiah from popular expectation. This Messiah will suffer and die. (21-28)

The drama of the wider story has much to tell us. After last week’s realisation that no one is excluded from God’s love (Jesus experience with the Canaanite Woman) Jesus goes on to live this out. First, he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them...  (15:30ff) This little story has  Jesus acting in the role of a new Moses. (When Jesus goes up the mountain, the place of God, think Moses...  It’s like a little repeat of the Sermon on the Mount. )  People sit at his feet,  which is a sign of his status, and the sick are healed. He shows all the signs of power of one chosen by God.

He then takes his new lesson from the woman and again feeds a multitude. This time there are seven  fish, seven baskets left over, and 4,000 men. These are Gentile numbers. This repeat of the feeding of the five thousand with five fish and twelve baskets left over (14:13-21) which are all significant numbers in Jewish culture, is an en masse acting out of the healing of the Canaanite girl. She is no special case.  Jesus is saying the good news of God is for all people, not just Jews, and making the point thousands of people at a time. We may all be different, but there are to be no boundaries in the new world.

Immediately after this the Pharisees and Sadducees come and ask for a sign from heaven. This is a bipartisan approach; Jesus has moved beyond what anyone on any side in the establishment is happy with.  After all the healing that has been going on, and the works of power in feeding they still ask for a sign!!  It’s like a woman goes into anaphylactic shock in a plane high over the pacific and a doctor on board operates with a plastic knife and a biro to perform a tracheotomy and save her life... and then the woman’s husband says, “Prove to me you’re really a doctor!”

An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. (16:40 You blokes are only asking for a sign because you can’t see what is obvious (the signs of the times.) And why is that? Because you are evil and adulterous... you have turned away from God and made other things God instead. So you can’t see what are obvious signs from heaven.

Jesus labours the point of the feeding miracles with the disciples.  (This is where Jesus refers to the Pharisees and Sadducees as corrupting yeast- see Corrupting Kingdom.)   They cannot see the obvious, or do not want to see it.  They are essentially rejecting him, afraid of what he is doing. Their positions of power and influence are challenged by his physical power (the miracles) and directly attacked by his teaching (all people are God’s people.)

Whilst the people have not rejected Jesus, and crowds of them have sought him out, they have not truly seen who he is.  They recognise his power. They see he is part of the plan of God... perhaps Elijah or Jeremiah, the great figures of the past whom many thought would return to prepare the way of the Messiah.  But only Peter sees Jesus is the Messiah.  Jesus says to him ...flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven... There is a broad hint here, I think, that to commit to Jesus as the one who will shape our life, is more than a human decision.  There is at least something much deeper and more fundamental going on than a mere intellectual choice. We have not simply weighed up the attributes of Jesus, versus Buddha, versus some kind of Dawkinsion faith about the nature and purpose of reality, and decided that, on points, Jesus wins. Our whole being affects our choosing.  In some sense we are given to see a way for life and attracted toward something.  Our choosing will of course be greatly affected by our environment and cultural experience, and we may also choose to reject our inklings of the Divine in favour of a more immediate, self-controlled and temporal power (the Pharisees do this). Personally, I’m not persuaded by some kind of ultra-Darwinism that thinks it all comes down to atoms and cause and effect. Much as I would sometimes like to give up my responsibility to live well and say it’s all inevitable.... and much as I sometimes wish I could take of an essentially Pharisaic model which, whatever piety it purports, tries to get itself into a heaven (the true biblical meaning of adultery?)... I can’t overcome the sense that a Divine anoints Messiahs; people who show the way to a deeper reality which is calling me.  Language is barely adequate. (“Messiah” means “anointed one.”)

Jesus says to Simon:  (1618ff ) And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock  I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. He renames him Peter, which is a pun; petros (Peter) means rock. Some interpreters of Roman Catholicism use texts like this one to claim a superiority and authority of the Roman Catholic church, which is fatuous.  Church here is a much more inclusive term, and a “Peter” is someone who has grasped hold of that inkling of the “anointed” nature of Jesus.  The keys of  the kingdom of heaven is at least in part referring to the fact that a church, a body of people who live the way of Jesus together, begins to experience the life of heaven. They begin to experience new depths of community, and all the power and healing that flows from that. In the  language of the old imagery that imagined heaven as that perfect place we go to after death, a church should begin to experience “heaven on earth. “  If I do not forgive you, and release  you (unbind you) from our clashes and hatreds in our daily lives (that argument over the colour of the paint in the church kitchen, or the fact that your kid beat up my kid at school) then you and I will be bound by that same argument in heaven.  Our unresolved and unforgiven issues will come into heaven, come into church with us, and taint the church, and suffocate the glimpses of the new deeper life our discipleship and community together is offering us. We will be bound in heaven, prisoners to our earthly arguments.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!






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