Pentecost 15A, 2008
Matthew 16: 13-20
A Liturgy is also available
A NOD AND A WINK, AND MAYBE ‘LIFE-ENHANCING’...
I understand from my Year 8 high school days
that the French language has a very small number of words
in comparison to English.
The various subtleties of meaning come from body language.
The British, being generally more reserved in temperament, need more words...
The French, being perhaps more demonstrative in temperament, need less words...
One of the interesting things about Internet communication is
there are various sets of characters which are used to express,
in shorthand, the spirit in which something is said.
So a full colon followed by a dash, followed by a closing bracket,
makes up a smiling face.
The statement is meant to be funny not serious.
If the colon is replaced with a semicolon,
this denotes a ‘wink’ - whatever a wink denotes!
So there is an Internet way of making meaning: the spirit in which something is ‘said’.
The translations of the Bible and/or the Christian scriptures
is not just a matter of substituting a word in English for a word in Greek.
There are interpretive and cultural differences
of both the texts and the translators that also colour
the meanings given to the words used.
Let me illustrate this by mentioning the old chestnut: ‘virgin birth’.
Neither the word nor the concept of ‘virginity’
appear in the Hebrew text of Isaiah that storyteller Matthew quotes
to undergird his story of the birth of Jesus.
The understanding of virgin is present only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew.
Yet much ink and book-burning has occurred
because some bishops and fundamentalist preachers
were not prepared to allow scholarship to correct printed English translations.
Likewise, the Bible is not a scientific textbook. Bishop Jack Spong writes:
“Jesus could not have imagined such an idea as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity… Concepts commonplace today in the world of physics, subatomic physics, astrophysics, and cosmology would have drawn from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to say nothing of the author of the Book of Genesis, nothing except blank stares of incredulity” (Spong 1991:25).
Yet I still get mail from people and organisations inviting me to attend
the latest film on (un)Intelligent Design, or distribute their propaganda,
or try getting up my nose by claiming the Bible
is the inerrant and authoritative word of God for all time (TAWOGFAT) (Vosper 2008:53),
infallible, and without error in matters of faith and practice!
Now part of the problem with the Bible is it is called the Holy Bible.
Thus, many have been taught its contents – a message from God –
is set in concrete. Untouchable. The spiritual resource.
And… if God is trying to get a message to me, to us through this book
“then we had better sharpen up and pay attention” (Vosper 2008:220).
But it isn’t a message book.
Neither is it ‘untouchable’ or holy.
It is a very human collection assembled over a 1,000 years or more.
Those who want to insist otherwise, are putting the Bible in jeopardy,
and becoming, even if unwittingly,
“accomplices in bringing about the death of the Christianity they so deeply love” (Spong 1991:32).
Now all this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the Bible seriously.
We should. And when we do take the Bible seriously,
a question we need to bring to every story is:
“What do you make of it? not What is the meaning of the story? You bring the meaning to it. It’s not there without you reading it and getting something out of it. You are the context in which it will be figured out and lived, if it’s worth it” (Vosper 2008:222).
I mention all this because this is the freedom storyteller Matthew has.
He uses that freedom all the time.
And certainly so in this particular story.
So let’s have another think about it.
Jesus seldom if ever, talks about himself or tells stories about himself.
When we read of such instances, it is probably the early Jesus Movement,
“having Jesus speak its convictions about him, rather than Jesus himself speaking” (Funk 2002:5).
So the story scene is set.
And what a challenge Matthew’s Jesus gives the disciples.
What are they saying?
What's the talk? Who do people say I am?
Who do you reckon I am?
Simon, the bloke with the nickname of ‘stony ground’, immediately jumps in.
At least Matthew the storyteller has Simon jumping in.
Why? What is the importance Matthew has attached to this supposed dialogue?
Let me offer this suggestion.
Matthew has Simon Peter, one of the so-called ‘heroes’ for Matthew’s community,
offering his interpretation, saying that this person Jesus,
the new Moses, who spent his days seeking out and accepting
the hospitality of ‘saints’ and ‘sinners’…
that this person Jesus reflects God.
Not the Torah. Not the destroyed Jerusalem Temple. Not the Roman Empire.
This Jewish person called Jesus.
This story is one of Matthew’s attempts to answer the question:
who is this Jesus, for a group of ‘reformed’ Jews living in another country?
So, what do you/we make of this story?
What is the meaning of the story for you?
I invite you to ponder that question along with this story.
In the meantime let me offer another’s attempt at giving it meaning…
Every time we recognise in someone else the presentness of God,
and they have a contribution to make to our lives,
we ordain them to do so.
Every time we look askance at another,
and wonder what earthly use this person would be to society or ourselves,
it is we who are the poorer -
and of course ultimately the church and society as a whole
suffers in the long run.
Perhaps this is why Matthew's Jesus:
"sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone he was the Christ".
That would be to point to a particular presence of God in just one individual.
For we will be blessed as we recognise and affirm
the unique presentness of God in many individuals,
in all those around us.
Such recognition is life-enhancing.
Funk, R. W. 2002. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Spong, J. S. 1991. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Vosper, G. 2008. With or Without God. Why the Way we Live is more Important that What we Believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins.