SA Harvest near Two Wells, Nov 2014

Tears and Laughter

Old Testament: Isaiah 35

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
   and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
   the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
   the majesty of our God.


3 Strengthen the weak hands,
   and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
   ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
   He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
   He will come and save you.’


5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,*
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.


8 A highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,*
   but it shall be for God’s people;*
   no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
9 No lion shall be there,
   nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
   but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain joy and gladness,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11, 12-18

When John heard in prison what the Messiah [Or the Christ] was doing, he sent word by his [Other ancient authorities read two of his] disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers [The terms leper and leprosy can refer to several diseases] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone [Or Why then did you go out? To see someone] dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? [Other ancient authorities read Why then did you go out? To see a prophet?] Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way before you.”
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, [Or has been coming violently] and the violent take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15Let anyone with ears [Other ancient authorities add to hear] listen!

16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’[Other ancient authorities read children]

 

Tears and laughter

John has come to the end. He knows he will not escape prison alive. Yet there has been no fire, no judgement, no felling of trees. (Matt 3:1-11) It seems nothing has happened at all. That which might be his only rescue has not come. How do you keep believing when nothing has worked and it seems everything you had hoped and dreamed for is going to elude you?

How many people later in life, when death has become a reality which will not stay ignored, and how many people who began a path with plans and high ideals which they realise will not be achieved, wonder if their choices were correct? Should they have looked elsewhere? Could I have done more? Was the church wrong? Have I wasted my time— even my life?

"Are we to wait for another?" John asked, voicing the grief and doubt of countless Christians and people of all faiths, at those times when the kingdom seems more absent than present. Indeed, when a respected scientist says he thinks it is "'at least highly unlikely' that his teenage children [will] survive beyond late middle age," what is there to wait for? The person I am quoting said of herself "At that point, three decades of climate unease crystallised into debilitating dread, and I’m far from alone." 

To all this, Jesus says

‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Which is to say

John, be at peace. The kingdom for which you longed is at hand, as you discerned. The kingdom is seen where  the blind receive their sight, where the lame walk, where the lepers are cleansed, where the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and where the poor have good news brought to them. It is the doing of these things which brings us the purification you so correctly divined that we need,  and which makes us fit for the new age as it is being fulfilled.

And this, of course, is a profoundly dis-empowering answer. It takes a wholesale conversion, a long learning, to understand that it is power itself which is the problem of the kingdoms of the world. John, in the darkness of his cell, is being invited to receive the new sight of the kingdom, the new ears which allow the world to be seen and heard in a completely different way, so that even in the world's captivity— he will realise his gaolers are locked into the same prison as him! — so that even in the world's captivity, we who are lame may limp into the light, lifted into new life and be made able to walk tall in the good news.

Florid language? Too much metaphor?  I say to my congregation that there are usually three components to any biblical text.  The first is the story, the simple words of the text.  These carry everything else. They are the mnemonic, the carriers of the tradition and its interpretations. Don’t mess with these.

But then there is the metaphor and hermeneutic (interpretation) which understands that no word is simply its surface value.  The fundamentalist claim that the text,  a particular word, means this…   is not merely wrong, and not merely an arrogant claim to be God (for such a claim depends on knowledge of ALL things which can only be had by the Creator of what Is). Such a claim is a malnourished and blinded poverty about the richness of things. So that to claim that faith is not real, or that faith is lacking something because actual physical blindness is not reversed by a prayer— and you may have noticed how one such claim of healing seems to outweigh the many times it does not happen— when something like that attacks our reading of the text, it is the sign of a profoundly impoverished reading of scripture, something to be mourned and treated with compassion, rather than feared. Our question is: does the text bear the metaphor? Is our metaphor, our wider understanding of blindness, for example, reflecting a real experience of Holy Spirit?

The third thing about the text is that it very often has a 'dad joke' behind it. An irony, or satire, or parody. It may not be immediately apparent, and sometimes it's because we are too serious for our own good. The story of Ahaziah and Elijah in 2 Kings 1 underlies the metaphor of Elijah and his fire, which informs our readings of John the Baptist this week and last week, and informs John's understanding of his calling. In my telling of the story of Ahaziah and Elijah, and despite its horror people in the congregation began to laugh. Because there is something ridiculous and hilarious in the machinations and pride of human power.

I seek to be alert to the deep irony which underlies these texts because not only is it often invisible to we privileged Christians, but even when we do get the sense that something is going on we are often at a loss to understand it, and so leave too easily a potent path of spiritual enlightenment.

A classic example of this might be the book of Job, where the poetry is bookended by chapters of prose that seem to be pure, simplistic Deuteronomic blessing and cursing, reward and punishment, which seem to contradict everything the poetry puts before us. So much so, that we wonder if some later editor tried to ameliorate the pain of Job, and to lessen the offence of the book by tacking on a truly tacky corrective. Or perhaps… the book is a giant 'piss take' as we say here in Australia. Perhaps that prose is the humour in the face of evil which not only is a way of bearing it—  dark humour, we might say—  but is also a ridiculing of evil, and of the not-powers which seek a simple answer to everything.

So… FedEx arrive at the door and say, "Does Mosihe Abrams live here?" and Mosihe says, "No!"
The guy looks at his screen and says, "Well, I've got the address correct—  who are you?" 
I'm Mosihe Abrams."
FedEx guy: "You said you didn't live here!?"
Mosihe: "You call this living?"

Now, as a Goy— my daughter's partner gently trolls me with this— I don't really understand the depths of Jewish humour; how could I? But in Matthew 11, John is exactly where he wanted to be. He is at the very cusp of discipleship; he is proving the power of the Messiah by the reaction of the other powers who are not-power but which can only kill; and he is living again the apparently endless tragedy and futility of the chosen people of God who cling, who trust; that is who faith— in the promise that

the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8 A highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Holy Way (Isaiah 35)

He is among those who have the ridiculous chutzpah, laugh so you don't cry, to say that this poetry is not describing the distant future, but now! Mosihe has tears in his eyes.

In your suffering, you are in the kingdom, says Jesus. "And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me." And this is the word to John which says, "You want hard words of judgement, and clear boundaries? Well, here they are. Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me:
If you can't abide in a kingdom which is about the healing of the poor;
which is about the repentant turning of one's back on the human non-power which is  violence;
which trusts me that using violence to produce love and justice is a misunderstanding which is truly perverse,
then your offence at me will keep you blind and deaf and lame and dead. You will not know good news.

"Instead you will be one those of this generation" of Matthew 11:16-18 (which the Lectionary does not cover until the fifth Sunday after Pentecost,) who are

like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn,”

 flip-flopping from one gospel game to the next, but never able to hear the Gospel."

They tell all this to John when they come back to the prison, and leave him to embrace his grief. It is in the grief that we can stumble over the great hilarious subversive joke that somehow weaves itself through the books of scripture. When we embrace the grief of our situation the FedEx messenger can gently say to us, "No Mohise, this is living! And you are becoming truly alive."

May peace be upon you.

Andrew Prior (2019)
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!

Also on One Man's Web 
Matthew 11:2-11, 12-15 - Suffering Extremes of Kingdom (2017) 
Matthew 11:2-11 - Jesus draws a line in the sand (2014) 
Matthew 11:2-11 - Are you the one? (2011)

Worth the Read:

Mark D Davis: When we look at the list of Jesus’ works in v.5, it is hard to imagine that there would be any cause for scandal/stumbling block in it, if it were simply a matter of making sick, demonized, and dead people feel all better. I wonder, however, if what we often imagine to be ‘medical miracle’ stories are better understood as ‘resistance’ stories. Since illness or disability or even premature death were often described as acts of punishment by God, maybe by curing them in the name of God, Jesus is re-describing them. To be sure, it would be another 1,500 years before they are atomized as strictly medical issues. If, however, illness and wellness are matters of communal health, rather than simply medical issues, the scandal/stumbling block would be the implied criticism of the conditions that have allowed such things to exist. By performing these works, Jesus may proclaiming be two things:
A. The lame, blind, poor, etc. are not cursed by God, but beloved by God.
B. The cause of such maladies are not God’s wrath, but something else –
     Maybe a lack of community, maybe the hardship of imperial oppression,
     or maybe some other holistic way of envisioning health.
To make those claims by healing, etc., would be a cause for scandal.

Andrew Prior: The violence Jesus is talking about is coming from his own people, but the implications are wider.

I propose that mimetic theory helps us to take Schrenk’s conclusion and generalize it as a problem of all human cultures, with the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day being a specific instance. What we might see is that all cultures are binding, forcefully imposing their myriad of conventions, standards, and morals. The “kingdom of heaven,” God’s Culture, on the other hand, intentionally suffers the violence of human cultures in order to expose it as violence. (I have added the emphasis)

Hence, the middle voice. Jesus, as representing God’s Culture, neither actively forces [himself] on others, in the vein of all other human cultures, nor does he passively suffer the violence. Jesus represents God’s culture by knowingly submitting to the violence of human cultures…. (Paul Nuechterlein)

We could restate that: Jesus re-presents God's Culture so it may be seen with new eyes.

 

 


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