Intimacy, Fear, and Forgiveness

Gospel: Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

Then Jesus [he] summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”[or: is at hand] 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.

16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

We could read this text as a kind of summation of the teaching and healing Jesus has been doing in Matthew since Chapter 4. It is there he first says the kingdom is at hand as a fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy

that 6 the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’ 

Jesus now lives this out in "all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness." He models Kingdom, and directs the disciples to do the same. The wholeness of the kingdom, its restoration, and its coming fulfilment are symbolised by the number twelve, which is highlighted and repeated. Israel is  becoming what it was meant to be; the disciples are sent first of all to the lost sheep of the people of Israel. There is also a reminder of incompleteness and loss, for among the twelve is "Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him." One of those sent to have compassion upon the flock turns out to be on the side of the wolves, and in the future, (Matt 28:16-20) there will only be eleven. I take the reference to the eleven in last week's text to be a reassurance that even though we betray the kingdom, the task is not beyond us.

And then we have the great contrast to Kingdom, for those who are going out, moved with compassion, are told they will be hated because of their love.

I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves… they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me… 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name.

How does this work? How is this kingdom?

I answer my question with these images.

I look first at the picture of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar which we used in our congregation last week:

I've been changed, yes really changed
In these past few days, when I've seen myself
I seem like someone else
I don't know how to take this
I don't see why he moves me

He's a man. He's just a man…

Yet, if he said he loved me
I'd be lost. I'd be frightened
I couldn't cope, just couldn't cope
I'd turn my head. I'd back away
I wouldn't want to know
He scares me so
I want him so
I love him so  (Written by Brian Kelly Mcknight • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group)

Here, I see the desire for love, and the desire for healing, colliding the fear of intimacy. In the song, (which perpetuates the non-biblical tradition that Mary was a prostitute,) Jesus is just a man… There's a deep cynicism and wariness; we have learned to be as wise as serpents about those who would pretend to save us, or complete us.

Then there are the opening words of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power, which also describe this collision within ourselves:

There is nothing we man fear more than the touch of the unknown. We want to see what is reaching towards us, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. We always tend to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless flesh of the victim. All the distances which we create round ourselves are dictated by this fear… 

It is only in a crowd that we can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd we need is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that we no longer notice who it is that presses against him. As soon as we have surrendered ourself to the crowd, we cease to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The one pressed against us is the same as our self. We feel them as they feel themselves. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest.

I have removed the masculine voice from the translation of Canetti's text, not only as a matter of gender sensitivity, but to highlight that we are this. It is a description of us all.

This week's text in Matthew is introduced with the words "when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." The crowds in the gospels are a symbol of all humanity; they are not merely Pharisees, not merely disciples: they are all of us.

The Website Preaching Peace said of crowds in 2014 (As at June 12 2017, you need to use the Wayback Machine)

They need tending. Their health, their physical health, their spiritual health are not being tended to. They have been left to their own devices, they have no models to follow, no vision to seek.

We are too often alone, lost, and harassed. The models of my childhood world have broken down. We live in a constant barrage of advertising promising us the world, telling us what to be, and driven by the agenda of media outlets which seek to play us to their own tune; that is, the tune of their masters. Employers drive us to work more for less. Government punishes us for needing social welfare.

My third image concerns an event last week, which still has me shaken. We were returning home from the city on an evening train. A few stops before ours, a mother with three girls, 8, 9½, and 12, entered the train. Some of the knot of people who had been gathered to meet the train remained on the platform; we think the girls were being collected by their mother after an access visit.

The three girls entered the carriage like a terror laden storm. I cannot describe the energy or their distress; the entire carriage was shaken out of the travellers' determination to ignore other people. We wondered later if the children had been deliberately dosed by the father as an act of spite; they were like someone who was "iced up," and beyond control by themselves, or by others.

Most shocking were the emotions roiling under the racket of the surface; desperation, fear, the panic of resurfacing trauma; mooning and thrusting motions which left both of us wondering about sexual abuse. The two younger girls hung opposite each other on the rails that standing commuters use to keep their balance when the train is crowded, and swung high, repeatedly trying to kick in the ceiling panels, and the lights.

It has been difficult for us to comprehend what we were in the middle of. The trauma responses and the rage were obvious. But at a deeper level, there seemed to me to be a great loss. It seemed that somehow the humanity of these little girls had been… undone.

The ferocity of the swinging and kicking increased as we approached the last station; it was clear the crisis was about to boil over in some way; a passenger facing me was beginning to weep. My wife, who still surprises me after all these years, went and stood silently between them, near the door of the carriage. The youngest tried a few small kicks into her. Wendy ignored her. The noise subsided into threats and foul mouthed insults from the youngest, who was clearly the most disturbed; the other one was more subdued. When the doors opened, they raced into the night to catch a connecting bus. And I cannot escape the feeling that the youngest girl was somehow relieved and pleased at Wendy's intervention, as though a certain safety had been offered her.

In all of this, I was paralysed by my self. My gut response was deep disapproval and outrage.  My concern for the children, whose situation haunts me, was clearly secondary. I knew my disapproval meant that any actions by me would risk violence from me. I could not imagine a response like that of my wife.

I also knew that restraining the youngest child— perhaps especially her— if she had turned her physical rage upon my wife, could easily result in claims of sexual abuse; I was afraid.

I know the source of my paralysis. In my own childhood trauma, there were two ways to survive. One was return the violence and, therefore, deter it. I was no fighter, but on a few occasions I have so violently exploded, that I know my rage is deadly. I could not, and cannot, risk that path.

So I chose the other path, which is reputation. I was clever, and had some status in that. Then, in a signal event, the whole class needed a scapegoat to deflect the wrath of the headmaster over the use of slingshots at school. I was chosen; I said I did not possess one of the offending items; the Prefects had taken mine earlier in the day. The mob kept offering me to him, and he said, "I have never known Andrew Prior to lie, so I will believe him now."

That affirmation gave me a kind of protection which endured until I left primary school. But I was still part of the violence of the mob. Reputation and affirmation merely made it harder to choose me as the scapegoat under the current regime. And rather than being freed from the cycle of violence, I entered it more fully. I set up my own scapegoats who were not "good." I avoided seeing my own failings— not to mention my lies! — by being clear that there were far worse people than me; I was extra good to mark myself as different from them.

This is the problem with seeking to be good, and to be ethical, as a response to God. It does nothing to move us out of our underlying violence; it may even increase it via our disapproval— have you noticed how often "good Christians" relish the thought of the punishment of evil doers at the Judgement? Being good too easily blinds us to our own ethical failings. Others become our excuse— our scapegoat; after all, we are not so bad.

How do we escape the dilemma of our desire for intimacy and safety when it collides with our fear of intimacy because being close to people may lead to us being harmed, or even leave us at the mercy of a mob?  It seems we have only the choice of seeking to be deeply, anonymously embedded in the mob, made invisible by our blending in, and therefore safe from being the scapegoat, so that we may be part of something bigger than ourselves, which then seems to affirm us and grant us some safety.  

In that crowd, even good reputation is dangerous; rise to the top and someone will lop you off. Reputation, which we all desire, marks us out from the crowd, There is a deep hatred fuelling the system, bred of envy and fear. We want more, we want to be a somebody, but those who succeed risk being seen as the tall poppy.

The only escape, since there is no place to go, is to destabilise the system.

James Alison says of the text, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16)" that

rather than this being an instruction about prudence, as it is usually made out to be, I suggest that this is what acting out forgiveness in the world looks like: it looks like knowing that you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply destabilized by your innocence and because of that to seek to lynch you. On Being Liked

Perhaps we see this destabilising when the abused wife suddenly attacks the police officer who comes to arrest her husband; suddenly, what little stability and safety she has, what little identity she has, is being torn away from her. The Gospel does not only criticise the rich and powerful who are lording it over us; it addresses the fact that we are all live in the system; we are all part of the cycle of violence. The gospel threatens us; even the scapegoat knows who he his; will he thank us for removing his identity?

How do we live as destabilisers who are themselves destabilised? How are we converted?

Firstly, Jesus comes to heal all people. Even us. Even we need healing. We are enmeshed and complicit in the culture of the lost and harassed sheep. And by virtue of being able to write and read this— we are literate, we have a computer, we are privileged with enough education to work with the concepts of scapegoating— by virtue of all this, it is plain that we are among the wolves. We are much nearer the top than the bottom! When the gospels speak of the rich, and the poor and oppressed, we are numbered among the rich. We, first of all people, need to acknowledge our wolfishness.

Alison says "the 'heart' of a shepherd a means being able to look at wolves in their sheepliness." (Raising Abel, pp. 187-188) I can only imitate Jesus in this if I recognise my own wolfishness. Otherwise, I will project and scapegoat. I will recognise no need to forgive. I will see only that the problems lie with others.

It is one thing to assent to this wolfishness in my mind, and something very different change. Change is the conversion that comes from acting out the discipleship the instructions of Jesus; I need to practice them. Jesus says

Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 

This is the direct opposite of being a wolf on Wall Street, or in my street. It is counter cultural. It is a sublime ignoring of the way of the world. It ignores success. It ignores reputation. It is barely concerned with safety. It does not take seize opportunity, except the opportunity to heal. Preaching Peace says

If I will surrender myself and my mimetic cravings to the reign of the King of Heaven, then I can really be a part of the healing of the sick, and not just by doing a blood pressure screening.

I first misread this text as: then I can really be a part of the healing of the sick, and not just doing a blood pressure screening. The misreading betrays so much of my discipleship which has too often seemed joyless and duty driven, and which has been too often ineffectual rather than healing. It has been "blood pressure screening," good at diagnosis, but not much else.

By contrast, the text says Jesus gave the disciples "authority (vv 10) over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness." There is a power described in the text which is missing in much of my experience of our serving the world (and each other.) Sometimes we decide this power not for us; perhaps we conclude that there is something dispensational about the texts, so that the events of those days no longer happen. Or we may sophisticate about exaggeration of the writer to make his point.

At other times, we take him at his word, and seek the power. But we too easily sell out to rumours of "signs and wonders," and to claims of miracle healings, whilst remaining untouched in ourselves. Or we are deeply afraid of what surrender to the Spirit might mean for us. So we stay in the old cycle of envy of reputation, of desire to be liked; our crowd merely shifts into the auditorium, packed together, singing choruses, and apt to attack those who doubt or question the reality of it all.

We speak of love, of course. And indeed, if we do not begin to practice love, if we do not abandon our wolfishness, then we risk being forever trapped in the sway of the mob— even though it may look more religious than before.

True love costs. We all know this. I have assumed the cost means that I will lose money, or I will be abused, or drunks will be sick on me. But there is something deeper. Love means I will lose reputation. People will laugh at my foolishness. Colleagues will call me a heretic for accepting my LGBTI brother. Or call me an atheist for questioning the way we have traditionally read the scripture.

And there is something deeper again. Without this, I cannot go forward. James Alison:

in the measure that we learn unconcern about our reputation, in that measure the Father can produce in us the same love which he has for his Son, and the same love which he and his Son have for the human race. Here is where we have to make an imaginative effort, or at least I do. That love is in no way marked by any desire for vindication, for restoring besmirched reputations, for turning the tables of this world, and all that might seem to us to be just and proper, given the horror of the violence of our world. That love loves all that! It loves the persecutors, the scandalized, it loves the depressives and the traitors and the finger pointers. That love doesn’t seek a fulminating revelation of what has really been going on as a final vengeance for all the violence, even though we may fear that it will be so. That love is utterly removed from being party to any final settling of accounts. That love, the love which was the inner dynamic of the coming of the Son to the world, of Jesus’ historical living out, seeks desperately and insatiably that good and evil may participate in a wedding banquet…

This means that when we are able to stand loose from our reputation, and because of that, from our need to insist on a day of reckoning, the eschatological imagination, the mind fixed on the things that are above, begins to give us the capacity to love human beings without any sort of discrimination, in imitation of that love, quite without rivalry, which the Father has for us. (Raising Abel, pp. 187-188)

Love is only love when we cease to seek redress. The instructions Jesus gives to the disciples can only be carried out when they set themselves— when we set ourselves— to forgive, to seek reconciliation, and when we seek to stay on this course even if our loving terrifies and destabilises the system and it sets the mob upon us. Only in that risk are we free of the mob.

Why focus on reputation? Why not simply speak of love and forgiveness? It's because reputation simply cannot forgive; if it does, reputation is lost. Becoming aware of my enslavement enabled me to see how little I forgave people— do you see that all my being good, and being better, was a refusal to forgive others their failings? Not to mention a projection of my own failings upon them. And becoming aware of our enslavement to reputation allows us to see our fear of loss. It is, after all, one more attempt at death avoidance; a way to be safe in the crowd. (Unless we become the object of too much admiration!)

So we do not only practice love; we specifically practice forgiveness. As Alison says, we act out forgiveness. The girls on the train were acting out trauma. While the situation left most of us in the carriage paralysed, my wife acted out something of the difficult bleeding edge of the discipleship. She put her body on the line, standing between the two girls, and (among other things) acted out forgiveness: she was silent in the face of threats and abuse and kicking. She gave without even the payment (Matt 10:8) of respect.

I read somewhere* that Origen said the Last Day will come when even Satan has repented and entered into the kingdom of heaven; it can come then, because then everything will be complete. In other words, victory, the final fulfilment of the kingdom, means reconciliation. And reconciliation can only ever mean forgiveness, otherwise we have the imposition of power— a violence rather than the empowerment which is the giving of life. If God is truly God, God can only love us, forgive us, and invites us to do the same. And to be truly Christian is to practice the same.

To renounce violence is to forgive without reservation. We enter the place of the poorest and the least powerful. We volunteer to give up all power to redeem our position. We go as sheep into the presence of wolves who may read us as the betrayers of all that is decent.

There is something else which comes with forgiveness. To forgive, to renounce the power we could hold over people, is to be truly compassionate; that is, we no longer pity from a position of privilege, but are able to feel-with. When I am able to feel with the children on the train, rather than feel affronted, I can ask, "What has been done to you?" I am able to see that they are not the problem; someone else has been the problem. Refusal to forgive can block justice; it can make me blind to abuse, for example. It is only when I forgive the distress they cause me that I can see that they are not the cause.

Is this true? Does living without seeking payment, even the payment of vindication at the end, and learning to act out forgiveness and love, does this kind of living actually "work?" Or is all the above a playing with words?

I note two things. Since the night on the train, I find that when I let myself feel compassion for the three girls, instead of fear and anger at the breakdown of family and society they might symbolise— and my fear of that breakdown— when I focus on their pain, my fears are removed. When I worry about my future in this suburb, my future as an older person who would not be able fend them off, the fears return. When I focus disgust on the desolate mother who had no control— all that inherited stuff about control and reputation, and keeping the power structures of society in place, I am afraid. When I let my heart weep for the children, and for her, and when I let myself remember my own (although far less severe) traumas as a child, I am surprised; I  feel not only by an unexpected compassion for them, but a kissing of my own secret wounds.

Secondly, I have been privileged to be a part of startling healing over the years; of an undeniable healing and regaining of humanity far in excess of the hoopla of televised religion. I have received some of that myself. Where there has been commitment to the long practising of love and acceptance, rather than the passing of some entry requirement; where there has been invitation rather than an imposition of standards; where there has been forgiveness rather than the demand for recompense— many calls to repentance sound to me more like a kind of payment by behaviour; just so much has there been an entry into a reality of kingdom living which is deeply authentic and deeply healing.

As much as we have compromised these things; as much as we have let status, power, ownership, even revenge, get into the mix, just so much have we lost the power to live well and be healed. Let alone have the power to bring healing to others. 

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!

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.

*I have never been able to find a reference to Origen saying this, and suspect it is  apocryphal.

Bill Schlesinger 19-06-2017
First, thanks. Really good and helpful work. Second - the upstream differences in the text with Luke (ruler's daughter vs. synagogue's ruler's daughter) seem to point to an intentional push against the religious leadership, and the sending of the 12 seems like an inciting move to generate the betrayal and an forgiving revenge (more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah) called forth in the process. In a way, I'm reminded of the organizing theory of 'rub raw the sores of discontent' - and the idea of stimulating a violent response from authorities to invalidate their moral authority in the process. Matthew seems intent on a strategy that attacks the foundation of that power of the religious leadership, understanding but without a path to forgiving the leadership's own history of trauma. There is a mixture of vengeful vindication and forgiveness in my life, and I find it in the text as well.

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