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Category Archives: Gospel of Matthew

Gatsby God

Old story. Familiar story.

So easy to go into blah blah blah mode. Yes. Even with Scripture. Sometimes especially with Scripture. So it was nice when this old story popped at me (thanks, again, John Henson and your Good as New translation):

This is what it’s like in the Bright New World. There was once a head of state whose son was getting married. Good As NewThe head of state was making plans for the wedding reception and sent details of the time and place to those on the invitation list. But nobody replied to say they were coming. So the head of state sent another set of messengers with a note saying, ‘Everything is ready. The food has been prepared and the table decorations have been made. Please let us know if you intend to come to the wedding reception.’ But nobody could be bothered to reply. One booked a holiday for the same date, another went off to a cottage in the country, and another arranged a business trip. Some gave the messengers a hostile reception. The head of state was very put out. Those who had treated the invitation with contempt were deprived of their offices of state and all their privileges. The head of state said to the messengers, ‘It will all go ahead as planned, but those on the official invitation list don’t deserve to be there. Go into the street and invite everybody you meet to the wedding reception.’ The messengers went up and down the high street and invited everybody, good and bad. As you can imagine, the place was heaving. But when the head of state came in to chat with the guests he noticed someone wearing a disapproving frown. The head of state said, ‘Friend, how did you get in here with a face like that?’ The person with the angry look couldn’t think of an answer. So the bouncers were called to do their duty. The head of state said, ‘Outside is the place for those who choose to be miserable.’” (God’s party is for everybody, but not everybody displays the party spirit!)

This is traditionally called the “parable of the wedding feast” (found in Matthew 22:1-14).

yeah, pretty much this... and this would be his idea of a party game

yeah, pretty much this… and this would be his idea of a party game

For some reason, I always saw the king as grumpy. I mean, when the party is finally pulled off, he goes in evidently to inspect the guests, and finding one dressed inappropriately has him thrown to hell.

I can’t tell how many times in the old days I heard this story cited as undeniable proof for dressing in your Sunday best at church. Even though I haven’t seen this story in such a negative light for some time, it still had that aura of “I hope I get this right because he’s coming for an inspection” performance feel to it.

 

Until I read it in Good as New.

What a different take on this “head of state”! And it’s there in the text the whole time.

His heart is bursting for the party. He simply won’t be denied his exuberant, extravagant, over-the-top celebration. Even a boatload of unresponsive, apathetic yawners who won’t even bother to hit “reply” won’t dampen his spirits. Nor will those who go beyond apathy to actively unfriending him and his messengers. Sure, he cashiers them, but he’s still going to throw the party. So all the nobodies, the riff raff, the undesirables flood the house, and he comes in, not to inspect, but to join in the fun. This has been the whole point, after all! If anything, he wants to make sure everyone is having a good time. Think Gatsby, only for losers instead of highbrows.

And then, like the proverbial fly in the ointment, he sees someone who totally ticks him off.

Not because they weren’t dressed well enough.

Not because they weren’t good enough or bad enough.

some days this could come in handy...

some days this could come in handy…

It was the disapproving, scowling frown.

“Friend, how did you get in here with a face like that? Outside is the place for those who choose to be miserable.” And out he goes.

And how about the rendering of “many are called but few chosen” (which to me signals exclusivity, high performance or status levels, and a “gee I hope I’m good enough” ‘party’ mood) with “God’s party is for everyone, but not everyone displays the party spirit.” So joy is the qualification here as in “love, joy, peace,” etc.

ah, the missing key...

ah, the missing key…

We’ve seen it. We’ve all done it. God is throwing the ultimate party and all we can do is gossip about the guest list, critique the catering, despise the cake, ridicule the best man’s toast and spread a toxic, carping, caviling, critical spirit everywhere. God has a very simple response: He unfriends you. And then out you go where those who choose to be miserable can enjoy each other’s miserable company, and then maybe you’ll think better of it. Maybe.

The same day I read this I came across this from Richard Rohr in a reflection he entitled “Smiling is a Form of Salvation”:

That’s why the holy old man can laugh and the holy old woman can smile. I heard recently that a typical small child smiles three hundred times a day and typical old men smile three times a day in our culture. What has happened between six and sixty? Whatever it is, it tells me that religion is not doing its job very well.

All of this makes me wonder about my own spontaneous smile quotient is – where am I in that 3 to 300 smile range on a typical day?

some days this is what it would take...

some days this is what it would take…

This isn’t a post to guilt you or me into forcing a smile, wearing a mask when your heart is broken, or faking it until you make it. That’s called business as usual, especially in church life.

It’s more like an invitation I just received when reading this story through fresh eyes. An invitation to embrace a totally different party spirit than the one most of our religion and politics encourage and stir.

I’m just choosing to hit “reply”, to click “like”, and to step into the party of life leaving the cynical frown and caustic remarks at the door, not because I want to please and impress, but because I’ve just been exposed to contagious Joy Personified.

Thought I’d share the invitation.

The party is for everyone…

smiles 1

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2013 in Church, Gospel of Matthew, haverings, Religion

 

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project 89

The Bible is not God. The Bible is simply the cradle that holds Christ. Anything in the Bible that does not hold pastrixup to the Gospel of Jesus Christ simply does not have the same authority.

~ Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix

His name is Carl. At least that’s what I’ll call him.

We sat in what I call the “Nook” in the Vineyard bookstore (BookCellar) which essentially functions as my “office” for at least half of each work week. It’s a place of words, either written, read, or spoken. In this case spoken as Carl tells me his story.

Raised LDS. Married in the Temple. Missionary. Divorced. Disillusioned. Searching.
And now perhaps on to something, but what?

Carl found himself being dunked in the Boise River at our annual river baptism in August. Now he seems to be asking “What the hell happened in that river?” What does he do now? What does this mean? He’s done the religion thing, and that has no appeal. He’s done the irreligion thing. Just as flat. Is there a third option? And if so, what does it look like?

I listen and then I share my experience. Fifteen-year-old youth devouring the 1189 chapters that make up what we know as the Bible. Said boy counting up the number of chapters in the New Testament (since there was no Google to Google in 1975 – and the answer is 265 chapters) and then calculating how many chapters a day he would have to read to get through the New Testament in a week, two weeks, a month, and then doing that at about that pace (take your pick) for at least the next decade, with the Old Testament thrown in for good measure with a read through every six months.

Ferocious appetite, and one that ultimately landed me in the New Testament Epistles. And there I camped. In fact, I memorized them all over the next twenty years.

stained-glass image... because I was afraid to search for "St. Francis stripping naked"

stained-glass image… because I was afraid to search for “St. Francis stripping naked”

And then I told Carl the story of St. Francis – at least as best I could remember it at the moment.

Stripping himself naked.

Taking hold of the Gospels.

A simple devotion: read the Gospels; do what you find there.

I tell Carl I wish I had been told that story when I was fifteen, as I was telling him right now. I tell him I wish I had put all that reading and memorizing energy into the four Gospels.

 

“How many chapters are in the four Gospels?” I blurt out.

A quick verbal tally.

Matthew – 28
Mark – 16
Luke – 24
John – 21

That’s 89. Jesus. In 89 chapters. I laugh. And I was pouring so much effort into mastering 265 or actually all 1189…

Jesus.

Carl, I can’t tell you what to do, nor would I presume to provide you with a formula to spiritual growth and maturity. There are plenty of books in here that will do that for you. Just pick one. “But if you would be perfect,” go, strip naked, and take the four Gospels. Three chapters a day. Day after day, week after week, month after month, for the next year. Then I would like to see you this time next year so you can tell me just how badly Jesus has screwed up your life – because he will. This journey will ruin you, undo you, redo you, reshape you. And you will hate much of it.

Just the Gospels. One year. Every month. Leave the other 1100 chapters alone. They will come later. And when they do they will screw you over again, big time. By your own admission, in your former religious life you had at least one too many books. Welcome to the club.

So.

Strip naked.
Take the Gospels.
Read.
Do what you find there.

And I did such a good sales job that I sold myself.

The hardest part? Easily it’s the stripping naked part. I’ll be working on that one for a while.

But in the meantime, as I strip, I’m just taking the four gospels.

Three chapters a day.
Even in Greek that’s a piece of cake.

Ahh, but now the doing what I find there. Yes, now that will take some doing.

if I'm stripping, I guess I'll have to skip the shirt

if I’m stripping, I guess I’ll have to skip the shirt

 

 

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dipper doubts

Spent some quality time with John the Baptist this week.

Actually, I like to call him “The Dipper.” Dipper isn’t a bad translation of the Greek word βαπτιστὴς that we refuse to translate. Don’t think it will catch on though. Particularly with Baptists.

Here’s a guy who before he was even born was handed a detailed prospectus:

You won’t drink wine or beer.

it may be da vinci, but I just don't see him this way

it may be da vinci, but I just don’t see him this way

You will be filled with the Holy Spirit right from the womb.

You will impact your generation.

You will be strong and yet will soften hearts.

You will attune your generation to the very heartbeat of God himself.

Quite the to do list (with one “to do not” item).

For a moment I could see this as a paint-by-numbers life plan, removing the mystery and suspense, the adventure of discovering all this for himself. Isn’t half the fun found in the invention and reinvention of ourselves? Of trial and error, of trying this, then that; of following a path that leads to a dead end, then finding one that opens up in a wondrous vista?

Then I saw instead a canvas being handed to John – a canvas with its own distinct texture and shape – along with a palette of paints for him to splash on it.

And splash he did.

Wild splashing by a wild man in a wild place.

And he seemed so sure of himself, his message, his vision. I don’t hear any quavering or quivering in his voice, no tentative calling, no tenuous pronouncements.

No reed shaken in the wind, this. More like a mighty oak withstanding all the winds beating upon it.

But then the oak is transplanted to a prison yard.

And there.

He doubts.

Did I really see what I thought I saw? Did it really mean what I was so sure it meant?

And rather than sitting on the question as it dripped with fresh raging doubt, he spoke it. Out of the prison yard it went, echoing through his followers to the very ears of Jesus.

“Are you the One, or do we look for another?”

There. He said it.

The Dipper was a Doubter.

And after answering John’s followers Jesus owns him. Right there. Publicly. He owns him.

Some solid lessons here in this tale.

Of the reality of our doubts and questions raging inside us, unexpressed, unspoken, as we put on that brave poser face.

Of what we can do with them instead.

Of how He responds when we do.

yes, sister aloysius, we all have doubt

yes, sister aloysius, we all have doubt

 

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Prayer on the porch

The late afternoon hours Lee spent with Mary, sitting on the porch of their cottage, often chatting with friends they had not seen for years. Even here, the public would intrude. Preceded only by the briefest introduction performed by companions who were passing the cottage, one man advanced up the steps to the porch where the Lees were sitting with friends. “Do I behold,” this man said, “the honored roof that shelters the head of him before whose name the luster of Napolean’s pales into a shadow? Do I see the wall within which sits the most adored of men?” The self-styled orator had gained the porch; he turned to Mary. “Dare I tread the floor which she who is a scion of the patriotic house of the revered Washington condescends to hallow with her presence?”

Lee was speechless. The man was continuing, “Is this the portico that trails its vines over the noble pair— ” when Mary smiled at him and cut in with, “Yes, this is our cabin; will you take a seat upon the bench?”

I love this scene of Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary painted by Charles Flood in his book Lee: The Last Years.

I can see the Lees sitting on that porch, the horrors of war behind them, moving forward into the rebuilding of the South and of the nation – now accosted by this man, and yet responding so graciously.

Makes me think of the airs we often feel we have to take on as we approach God’s porch.

I’ve been learning the Lord’s prayer in Hebrew – first of all, because it just sounds cool. Then, of course, there is also the residual “tongues” benefit – it’s the one way this evangelical boy can appear quite charismatic in public worship.

But there’s something about praying this prayer in Hebrew. The fewer words, the gutteral sounds. A fresh awareness of the simplicity of our approach. Reading through Kenneth Bailey’s observations about this prayer in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, that sense of simplicity is reinforced by his conviction that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Aramaic rather than classical Hebrew. As Bailey observes, what a huge leap that would have been! Instead of long memorized prayers in a language you don’t even speak (and don’t bother looking across the aisle at our Catholic brothers – just ask yourself how often when you pray you begin speaking a language you never speak or hear anywhere else – except perhaps from a pulpit), Jesus empowered his disciples to speak intimately to God as Abba in their own native tongue. And with such few, concise words and expressions of need.

Bailey illustrates our penchant for piling on in addressing esteemed personages by relating how in 1891 a Persian scholar wrote to an American Christian missionary scholar, Dr. Cornelious VanDyke, who at that time was a distinguished professor of medicine in Beirut. The Persian scholar sent a gift to VanDyke with this wording in a cover letter:

A souvenir to the esteemed spiritual physician and religious philosopher, his Excellency, the only and most learned who has no second in his age, Dr. Cornelius VanDyke, the American. As a souvenir presented to his loftiness and goodness and to him that is above titles, who is a propagator of knowledge and the founder of perfections, and a possessor of high qualities and owner of praiseworthy character, the pole of the firmament of virtues and the pivot of the circle of sciences, the author of splendid works and firm foundations, who is well versed in the understanding of the inner realities of soul and horizons, who deserves that his name be written with light upon the eyes of people rather than with gold on paper…

Now that is called a build-up. And the reality is He needs nor desires none from us.

With what truly wonder-full contrast do we hear coming from our own lips the simple and intimate Αββα ὁ πατήρ – Abba, Papa, Dad, Daddy in Aramaic and Greek, East and West; the universal cry of the Spirit across all boundaries in human hearts awakening to the One who would know us as Father. Who, while we wax ever so eloquent as we ascend the steps of his porch, extolling his divine virtues and attributes, tells us “Yes, this is our cabin” and then beckons us to please come and take a seat on the bench.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2011 in Gospel of Matthew, musings, Prayer

 

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For Bible Geeks Only: New Testament Word Counts

While teaching yesterday I mentioned the total New Testament word count – a place I hadn’t planned on going – and I knew I had the numbers wrong, ending up with “there’s a lot of words.” That answer never worked on a math test – which is probably why math is the one class I consistently failed (when I finally pulled a “C” in Algebra 1 it was a cause for major rejoicing).

So here is the official total – or at least one official total (I believe the word count is from the KJV):

169,751

There are 169,751 words in the English New Testament (depending on the translation – the Amplified Bible no doubt at least doubles this – and I’d be interested to see a word count for the Message). Interestingly enough, the word count for the Greek New Testament is 138,020 (depending on which edition one is using). Amazing how much more one can say with fewer words in Koine Greek .

Sticking with the English, the total word count of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) is 83,898; adding in the book of Acts the total goes up to 108,148. Which means that we are left with 61,603 words for the New Testament Epistles and Revelation.

This means that nearly half of the New Testament is literally the story of Jesus told four times. Well over half is narrative. The remainder is the applied theology of the letters – and the wild visions of Revelation.

Of that 61,603 words for the letters and Revelation, 6,950 of them are found in Paul’s most systematic development of a theology of the cross in Romans 1-11 (for the West) – which we can place alongside Hebrew’s  rather systematically developed theology (for the East) coming in at a word count of 6,928.

The point that was striking me yesterday during the teaching was, to put it another way, Paul’s 6,950 words in Romans 1-11 I don’t believe were ever meant to drive the major download of the four Gospels that together comprise nearly half of what we know as the New Testament. All things considered, I think Paul would shudder at the thought of his 7,000 word theological treatise aimed at western culture garnering more attention and receiving top billing over the fourfold Gospel. In fact, isn’t the simplest answer to the question, “What is the Gospel?” found in asking which books of the New Testament bear that name? The plain fact is that the Gospel is the Story of Jesus. The four Gospels provide us with the Message that was preached then and that remains the only message to preach now or at any time: the perfect doing and perfect dying of Jesus – and his resurrection Life bursting out of the tomb and effectively beginning the re-writing of all creation’s (and our) DNA with the kingdom of God.

How ironic that evangelicals tend to memorize Paul (at least I definitely did) and minimize the Gospels, ultimately understanding Jesus through reading Paul’s explanation (inspired though it be), and leaving the Jesus Story of the Gospels in the background. In my old fellowship, we even emphasized that Jesus lived under a different covenant and thus half of the New Testament (that scandalous part in the Gospels) doesn’t even directly apply to us today. Bowing to one of the great gods of our age here in the West – Reason – we much prefer the reasoned explanations of Paul over the scandalous acts of a most unreasonable Savior (by the standards of accepted Reason and Religion). I believe that would have been news to the four Evangelists and their audiences in the streets, in the synagogues, in the marketplaces, and in all those upper rooms, because this Story told in all of those little story bytes that scholars call pericopes were aimed directly at them. And they are still pointing right at us – thankfully. This is the Jesus that comes to us still. And Paul, through all of his inspired commentary, still ultimately points to that Story. “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”

And it’s that Story that still wins the ears and hearts of people desperate for the Light among all ages and cultures and peoples and languages and religions — Light ultimately visible in the face of Jesus in the Gospel of the four gospels.

 

 

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Bonhoeffer, Maher and the Mount

What a curious intersection.

I thought this was going to be the year of C.S. Lewis and a rabid reading of the New Testament. But my devotional life has been overtaken by Bonhoeffer. Reading Metaxas’ somewhat foreboding behemoth biography of Bonhoeffer I have not only been drawn into reading simultaneously Bonhoeffer’s books (Life Together, Cost of Discipleship and Ethics), but I’m being drawn into a prolonged contemplation of the Sermon on the Mount.

It’s a Sermon I memorized nearly two decades ago. It’s one that I’ve literally preached on numerous occasions in various churches over the years – it makes for a very brief Sunday sermon (all of ten minutes or so). The first time I preached the Sermon was in my former church fellowship as I was on the way out. I mounted the podium dressed in my usual Sunday best (meaning suit and tie in that context) and without preface or explanation preached the Sermon. I recall literally weeping out the final words. Reflecting back on that, I believe the weeping was rooted in a deep seated realization that this rubber was not meeting my road.

Listening to the sermon this past Sunday, I had the Sermon open before me, meditating upon it as I listened. “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went eis to oros (pronounced “ace tow oh-rohs”) – up the mountain – and his disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” I still haven’t advanced beyond those words this week. As I rolled them around my tongue and turned them over in my spirit, I heard mention in the sermon of Matthew 28 and the “great commission.” Turning there the words leapt off the page like a bolt. “The eleven proceeded into Galilee eis to oros – up the mountain – which Jesus had appointed/told/tasked them.” The Sermon on the Mount is not just another sermon; the Mount of the Sermon is also the Mount of our sending, our commission. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The “all things I have commanded you” is not an invitation to a commandment scavenger hunt back through Matthew or the rest of the Bible, for that matter. Think of where they are sitting as they hear this commission. It’s the same spot, perhaps even at the same time of year. All that was missing was the large crowd below. The commission – its nature, its content, its direction – flows from the Mount, from the Sermon given there that functions as the Jesus Manifesto. All else in the New Testament is commentary.

This is what Bonhoeffer saw in the midst of the perilous times his generation faced, writing to his brother after deciding to lead an illegal seminary (O, for a few more of those!):

The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.

What other point as believers, ultimately, is there to gather than to pursue a life together in becoming active practitioners of the Sermon on the Mount? Some gather on the one hand for fun and frolic (and I’m all for fun!) and others for an academic exchange on theology (I can get into that right along with the best of them). But to gather to go eis to oros, to go up the mountain, to sit at his feet, to truly hear and digest his words, and to divinely pursue that rubber meeting my road – not only is this the restoration of the church, it is the restoration of the world, of “all things spoken before by the prophets of old.” Anything less than journeying eis to oros and then living from there, and we are only building academic/theological/speculative societies long on talking and activities but woefully short on the one doing that is needed, the only meaningful doing that can issue from being rooted with him eis to oros. Living from the Mountain.

Enter the third party in this intersection via a friend’s posting of a Bill Maher rant. I’ve caught glimpses of Maher for years now and found him genuinely funny and frequently offensive but just about always thought-provoking. Sometimes Maher, like all of us, is off by the proverbial country mile. Other times he is so dead on that he verifies the fact God does indeed still speak through donkeys (which means there’s hope for us all). I’ve listened a few times to this “rant” of his on Christians celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden, and each time I find myself laughing as well as wincing. As usual, Maher doesn’t pull any punches, nor spare any words – including one usage of the “f” word (not forgiveness or faith…the other one), so be advised. Watch and listen if you dare. But for me it’s worth the listen simply because in it I hear echoed the challenge and call heard by Bonhoeffer (if delivered a bit more crassly). If more of us (myself included) were truly doing our “home” work and were active practitioners of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps we would supply much less angst fodder for a rant like this.

Now it’s true, some will rant regardless because it’s more about what’s in them than what’s out there. But the question remains before me, challenging and even taunting me: if we defined a “Christian” as someone who is an actual practitioner of the Sermon on the Mount, how many of us would in fact qualify as “Christians”?

 

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