Pentecost 4A, 2011
Matthew 9:9-13, 20-22a
A Liturgy is also available
KEEPING ALIVE THE COMPASSIONATE ‘DREAM’ OF GOD
The christian faith is a communal experience.
It presupposes a shared life.
It’s focus are the stories of different groups of people
discovering the presentness of God or the sacred,
in the ordinariness of life.
So how can we discover with assurance
what the christian story demonstrates again and again:
the spirit of God moves through the lives of ordinary people,
who beyond all expectation,
together can make a difference?
In Matthew's story today, we have heard some of the beginnings
of that ‘communal experience’ in the calling of Matthew.
A few chapters later on, our storyteller names the others ‘called’:
Simon, who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew.
James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
Philip and Bartholomew and Thomas.
James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus.
Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot.
All so very ‘English’ sounding names, hey!
And all transliterations from a different language, but usually
rendered this way because the English King James wanted his name in the Bible!
(A bit of history from the Authorised Bible commonly called The King James Version,
seldom mentioned during this, the 400th anniversary of that Bible!)
Meanwhile… we also get a similar, though not identical, listings by two other storytellers, Mark and Luke.
What is noticeable about these listings is:
• those named seemed to have been ordinary people
(even though we know little or next to nothing about them, including any qualifications they may have had fitting them for discipleship), and
• those named are all male. Not one woman’s name appears in the list.
(Although Mary of Magdala is a strong contender in other sources).
About all those named...
Tradition (if you can believe it) has jumped in
with a passing comment or two on three of them.
Matthew the tax collector, is from a profession that was despised.
Partly for its reputation for fleecing people, and
partly because it meant collaboration with the Roman oppressors.
Simon the Zealot, is a political enthusiast,
probably a member or former member, of the Zealot party,
and dedicated to ousting the Romans.
Judas Iscariot, whom it is claimed, betrayed Jesus.
About those unnamed...
Well, due to the foundational work of several feminist theologians
noticing that no woman’s name appears on any early or biblical list,
no longer comes as news.
But what should be of interest (and I hope, concern) to us
is the way that this non-listing or silence, continues to provide some
with a reason, indeed a literal law,
as to why church leadership should be restricted to men.
As one commentator has said recently:
“...that silence provides yet another occasion for transforming a biblical story into a law... By virtue of the same sort of genre confusion, we could equally well conclude from this passage that... only Jews should hear the proclamation of the gospel (since the Twelve are to go only to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’), or that ministers should receive no salary at all” (Gaventa 1993. www.looksmart.com).
So instead of literalising the story or the naming
and then making it into a law to hit some over the head with,
we are invited to place it in a much wider context.
And the wider context which is the more important is:
how does our understanding mesh with the gospel rather than the Bible?
Matthew names the group to remind his local community of their foundational stories,
and then claims (his?) Jesus invited them to go out to, and be a part of,
the marginalised and fragmented world of peasant villagers.
And as far as we can make out (or guess), their ‘going out’
was to be shaped by the broad gospel context of compassion.
From the very depths of their person.
Compassion rather than qualification or gender was to be their authority.
And its action involved liberating people from
“images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear and a false sense of separation from the Spirit of all life” (Morwood 2003).
So the followers of Jesus, the ones who had left fishing nets and families
to follow and learn from this Jewish sage...
These so-called 12 meagrely prepared ones were now to take their first steps
following in the way and style of Jesus,
and re-imagining the kingdom of God.
In our contemporary language that probably means
Jesus invited the apostles to engage in some
community building or community development.
Helping peasant families and workers to resist the shame and worthlessness
with which the taxation, farming policies, and religious purity codes
had labelled them (Bessler-Northcutt 2004).
And where God’s presence and not Rome’s presence was fully established.
So what of us?
True, our social realities are very different.
Yet the tradition invitation to us to follow ‘in the way and style of Jesus’
in ways that make sense in today's setting,
remains alive in the church.
The biblical storytellers put together a web of reflection and action
and had Jesus naming that web the ‘kingdom’ or ‘realm’ or ‘empire of God’.
But in the process this ‘kingdom’ thinking of Jesus got changed.
Away from ‘kingdom’ which meant social space
within which the reality of God could be experienced as compassion.
Moving to ‘kingdom’ which reflected the kingly character of God
in some distant splendour or paradise.
As a result, much of our own understanding is influenced by
the latter - the kingly and removed character of God - rather than
the former - the social space here and now where God could be experienced.
As such we have tended to miss all of Jesus’ radicalness.
A radicalness which asks of us, as we reckon it did of the apostles, to acquire
new habits of seeing, and
new habits of acting... even if after a bit of personal soul searching.
What difference does our being a (progressive) Christian make in the lives of others?
Are the suffering and marginalised better off...
Are the poor and homeless finding their lives improved...
Do children have a brighter global future...
all because we are on the journey which Jesus first chartered?
Re-imagining the kingdom or realm or empire of God
from the perspective of gospel compassion rather than biblical law or traditional creed,
helps us to keep alive the dream and presentness of Creativity God.
A ‘dream’ which cannot neglect the violations of human rights resulting from
inadequate education and health care,
widespread apathy and indifference, and
a lack of freedom (Adapted from US Bishops, Statement on American Indians/1977).
When we share in that bit of God’s compassionate ‘dream’
we can truly count ourselves blessed.
Finally, Revd. Ian Lawton, minister of Christ
tells an Hasidic story that captures the essence of compassion.
morning a group of students asked Reb Yerachmiel,
"What is the point of human life? Why are we here?"
The Rebbe replied, "If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound?"
students debated this for a while and
then the Rebbe replied,
"Here is my understanding.
Without an ear to register the vibrations of the falling tree no sound is produced.
Sound is not a thing but a transaction between things.
there to be sound, there must be a falling tree and
an ear to hear. Why are we here?
We are the other half of the transaction.
We are here to hear."
other beings hear!" a student said.
"And dogs can hear sounds humans can't hear. Are dogs more important than us?"
Reb Yerachmiel said, "dogs can hear what we cannot.
But we can hear what even dogs cannot.
We can hear the cry of a broken heart.
We can hear the outrage of injustice.
We can hear the whisper of empathy.
We can hear the silence of death.
are here to listen not only to what everyone else can hear,
but also to that which only you can hear."
are you here?
You are here to know God.
You are here to know God, and through your knowing, to
transform the world with justice and compassion (ILawton TCPC 2008).
Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in A. Dewey. ed., The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Morwood, M. 2003. Praying The New Story. Vic: Richmond. Spectrum