Telling the Secrets of the Kingdom

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”  Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  (Luke 8:10)

In the 4 Gospel accounts, the word “Kingdom” (of heaven or of God) appears some 115 times.  The Evangelist Matthew uses “Kingdom” the most – 52 times, while the Evangelist John only mentions it twice.  Depending how you count the sayings, Matthew uses parables, metaphors or pithy statements thirteen times (25%) to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to something more familiar to his listeners: a sower of seeds, good seeds, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a fishing net, a householder and his treasure, a king settling accounts with his servants, a householder hiring laborers for his fields, a king and the marriage feast for his son, wise and foolish maidens and their lamps, a man entrusting his property to  variously talented servants, and the separating of sheep from goats.

These comparisons give us a sense that the Kingdom may be different than we imagine – for all parables require some interpretation, but Jesus does not tell us exactly how the Kingdom is like these many different common scenarios.  The Lord leaves their interpretation open ended, for his disciples to hear and and grasp the hidden meaning.  Yet, He says the secrets of the Kingdom are given to them. The meaning of the ambiguous parables and enigmatic aphorisms are the secrets of the Kingdom of God which Christ is gifting to us.  The parables, metaphors and apothegms often defy common logic or our sense of “justice” causing us to have to lay aside an earthly sense of correctness in order to see or hear the hidden meaning.  They are like photos of a common object, taken from an unusual perspective – it can take us a long time before we realize what we are looking at, if we ever figure it out.

By describing the Kingdom in terms of parables, Christ moves us away from thinking about the Kingdom purely in terms of commandments, rules, regulations, or rubrics.  Christ uses the comparisons paradoxically – the Kingdom of heaven is like… – to give us a sense that it is like nothing we can imagine.  The parables and metaphors of the Kingdom turn out to be an apophatic way of thinking about the Kingdom exactly because Christ doesn’t explain how the things mentioned are able to enlighten us  about the Kingdom.

The parables of the Kingdom have been proclaimed by Christians for nearly 2000 years.  They are the true teachings of Christ, timely in every generation and situation, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not itself changing.  Whether the Faith is prospering or being persecuted, whether the listener is rejoicing in blessings or surviving through suffering, the Kingdom of God remains the same.  It is a reality not affected by our times or by our mental state.

St. Paul whom God chooses to proclaim the Kingdom, discovers that being faithful to God can leave one in perplexing circumstances.  If one believes faithfulness to God is going to automatically yield prosperity, just read 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9, in which Paul describes soldiers hunting him down to arrest and kill him, and then also suffering personally some “thorn in the flesh” – an affliction he attributes to Satan, perhaps a serious, disfiguring illness which God will not take away from him.  Despite these setbacks, he remains faithful to that Kingdom which can be compared to seeds and sowers, talented servants as well as sheep and goats.

Even in the face of such terrible recent disasters – hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, wild fires in California, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas – the Kingdom of God remains the same reality revealed to us in the Gospel lessons.  Despite our worries about health care, and divisive politics, policy turmoil, soaring drug related deaths, the Church calls us to remember the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we can remain properly oriented in an uncertain world.   The mystery of the Kingdom, helps us to keep our feet on firm ground, even as the sands shift and the water rises against the house.

The Gospel does give us an answer to current worries – it gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God.  It is just that this insight is not necessarily the answer we think we need to solve all our problems.

The Lord Jesus taught this parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (Luke 8:5-9)

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Understanding Seeds and Parables

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  (Matthew 13:8-10)

“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).

The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?

If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?”  (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)

Christian: To Be Christ’s Friend

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”  (John 15:15)

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   (Luke 12:29)

“What a sight – to see a countless multitude of luminaries above the clouds, an incomparable company of men exalted as a people of gods surrounding God! The fair ones surrounding the Fair One, the servants surrounding the Master! He does not begrudge His servants if any of them share in His splendor, nor does He regard it as diminishing aught from His own glory were He to receive many as partakers of His kingdom. Those among men who hold others in subjection, even if they give their subjects everything, would not bear even to dream of them sharing their rule. But Christ does not regard His servants as though they were slaves, nor does He bestow on them honors fit for slaves; He regards them as friends.

Towards them He observes rules of friendship which he has established from the beginning; He shares His own with them, not merely one or another part of His riches, but He gives the very kingdom, the very crown. What else is it that blessed Paul has in view when he says that they are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), and that all those who have shared hardships with Christ reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12)?”  (Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 166-167)

All Are Invited to the Heavenly Banquet

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2)

 

One aspect of the Heavenly Kingdom which Jesus modeled is the banquet to which everyone is invited – not just the righteous, but sinners as well.  Biblical scholar James D.G. Dunn notes:

“In his own ministry Jesus embodied this forgiveness and acceptance of the end-time kingdom, particularly in his table fellowship. These gatherings, from which Jesus excluded no one, even open sinners, expressed the heart of his message, for they were the foretaste of the messianic feast of the new age (Luke 14.13, 16-24). Hence Mark 2.17 – ‘I came not to invite the righteous (that is, to the wedding feast) but sinners’. So too his immediate band of disciples included two or three tax collectors and ex-prostitutes. This is why he was so disparagingly called ‘a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matt. 11.19, Luke 7.34, Luke 15.1-19.7).”  (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p 16)

Despite Jesus’ embrace of all, welcoming them to His Messianic table, not everyone is willing to accept the hospitality of the Master.  So the Lord Jesus offered the following parable  in Luke 14:16-24.

Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’  Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master.

Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

The Gospel lesson of the messianic banquet has the originally invited guests all making excuses for why they won’t attend the banquet with the celebration offered to them.  In Orthodoxy we read this Gospel on the 2nd Sunday before Christmas.  We are reminded in the Nativity season that it is possible to reject the heavenly kingdom for very mundane reasons.

“In church today, however, we celebrate the forefathers, most of whom were Hebrews by race. For what reason? So that all of us may learn that the Hebrews were not disinherited nor the Gentiles adopted as sons in a way that was unjust, unreasonable or unworthy of God who did these things and made these changes. Rather, just as among those Gentiles who were called, only the obedient were chosen for kinship with God, so the race of Israel, and Adam’s descendants down to Israel’s time, were a great multitude, but only those among them who lived according to God’s will were true Israelites. To them the prophecies belonged, through them future events were prefigured, and to them the promises were given (cf. Rom. 3.1-4.13). Only these men were the true fathers and forefathers, firstly of her who in virginity bore Christ, who is God over all (Rom. 9.5), according to the flesh, and then, through Him, of ourselves.

These fathers and forefathers were certainly not cast out of Christ’s Church, for they are publicly commemorated by us today as partakers of the fullness of the saints. For in Christ Jesus there is neither old nor new, ‘nor Greek, nor Jew, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all and in all’ (Col. 3.11, cf. Gal. 3.28). In Him there is no Jew, which is one merely outwardly, neither is there any circumcision, which is outward, but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter of the law (Rom. 2.28-29). All, old and new, who have been well-pleasing to God, and all who have led lives acceptable to God, either before the law, under the law or after the law in the gospel of grace, have this circumcision and are united by it (cf Rom. 4.10-12, Phil. 3.3, Col. 2.11).” (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp 454-455)

Am I My Possessions?

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26

At that time someone came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

And the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

He said to him, “Which ones?”

And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?”

But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.

St. Nikolai Velimirović (d. 1956AD) comments on the Gospel lesson, seeing the rich young man as a prisoner of his own wealth, unable to distinguish himself from his possessions.  His worth as an individual, and how he measured others as well, was in terms of what he possessed.  Or, as the case was, possessed him.

Though the young man approaches Christ with respect, St. Nikolai pardons him for not recognizing Jesus as Christ and Lord.  The young man sees Jesus as just another teacher of Israel.

“ ‘Good Master.’  Thus the young man addressed the Lord.

From him, this was enough. He who has spent his whole life in prison with only a candle to give him light – is it a great sin in him, when he first sees the sun to call it a candle?

What good thing shall I do?’

This question was obviously in the context of his riches, as is usually the case with the rich, who cannot see a distinction between themselves and their possession, nor think of themselves without thinking of their possessions. What could I do – what good work – with my wealth, that I may have eternal life?”  (HOMILIES,  pp 117-118)

What the rich man cannot imagine is salvation apart from his wealth.  This is the thought on which Jesus challenges  him.   Eternal life is not dependent on how wealthy you or how blessed you are in this world.   Eternal life is not open only to the fortunate elite who are blessed with abundance in this world.  Even the poor – including those poor in spirit! – can be blessed by God and receive the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who pursue wealth in this world and imagine that will be a sign of their eternal blessings as well, might find themselves disappointed in the Kingdom of God.  Poverty is no barrier to eternal life, and wealth is no guarantee of eternal blessings.

 

God Moved by Compassion, Forgives

At that time, Jesus said to Peter, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

 

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and   besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you   besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

(Matthew 18:23-35)

“The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35) or, what the kingdom of heaven is like:

Moved with compassion, a king forgives his servant who owes him a ridiculously large sum of money. The king releases him from debtor’s prison. But when this servant won’t forgive a fellow servant a small debt, he shows he doesn’t really understand the king’s action.

The servant rejects the sort of ‘economy’ found in the kingdom of heaven. This economy is not a market economy in which we are encouraged to make as much money as we can for ourselves. It is not a barter economy in which we trade with others who can give us something in return. It is not a tit-for-tat or you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back economy. It is not an economy in which we do business only with those dear to us or who can do something for us. The economy in the kingdom of heaven is a gift economy in which we are all invited to participate. When he compassionately forgave the debts of the servant, the king gave a gift of forgiveness and compassion to the servant. The servant, however, did not pass that gift on by forgiving his fellow servant. He wasted both the compassion and forgiveness given to him. So, he excluded himself from the kingdom of heaven.”  (Fr. John D. Jones in In Communion:Journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Spring – April/June 2012, pp 8-9)

The New Covenant of the Mystical Supper

Certainly the highlight of Holy Thursday is the institution of the Mystical Supper by our Lord Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, in the current liturgical practice of Orthodoxy, the Vespers-Liturgy of Thursday evening is sometimes de-emphasized and the service is often relegated to a more minor role in the spiritual life of a parish.  I’m guessing this occurred in the years or centuries in which Holy Communion was de-emphasized in the weekly life of Orthodox Christians.  As piety made Communion less frequent, the significance of the Vespers-Liturgy of Holy Thursday also waned.  Since people weren’t going to Communion anyway, Matins of Holy Friday and the drama of the events of the crucifixion replaced in piety the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and the participation of the faithful in the Mystical Supper of Christ.

The Eucharist like the sacraments of Baptism or Unction is a way for us to actually participate in the saving grace of the incarnation of the Word of God in Christ Jesus.  The profundity of this saving event cannot be over emphasized.  It is somewhat sad that we replace the reception of the Word of God in the Eucharist with only hearing of the Word in the Gospel lessons when in our parish celebration of Holy Week we focus on the Matins of Holy Friday rather than on the Vespers-Liturgy.  It doesn’t seem quite Orthodox to me.  We have our icons to “look at”, but the Divine Liturgy of the Church takes us beyond just “looking” and beyond a re-enactment or drama to actual participation in the Body and Blood of the incarnate God.  It is my hope and prayer that some day all of Orthodoxy will again make the Vespers-Liturgy the main liturgical focus of Holy Thursday evening.

We can meditate on the Mystical Supper of Christ and our participation in the incarnation of the Word by considering the “Prayer of Joseph the Visionary” from the Syriac Orthodox tradition.  The ancient Syriac Fathers composed poems to express their prayers and sermons.  In them we find beauty and we encounter their efforts to take us beyond the literalness of words into the mystery which is salvation in Christ the Lord.

May my mind travel inwards

towards the hiddenness of your sacrifice,

Just as you have travelled out into the open

and been conjoined to your Mysteries.

The Christian life is a sojourn – we are always traveling toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  Prayer, charity, fasting, scripture reading, service, ministry, evangelism and all that we do as Christians is movement, journeying toward God.  We move, we sojourn, even when standing still in prayer.   So the first stanza reminds us that prayer itself is a sojour: our mind/heart/soul are moving toward the kingdom.  In prayer we approach the Mystical Supper of Christ.  We are going to receive the Bread and Wine in which the incarnate God is mystically hidden, and also revealed.   Christ, God’s own Son, journeyed from His throne in the Kingdom to His incarnate life of earth.  He crossed every barrier that might separate God from humanity, to come to us and to unite us to the Triune God.

And now, when your Spirit descends from heaven

upon your Mysteries,

may I ascend in spirit from earth to heaven.

 Joseph in his prayer sees the movement in the Liturgy as occurring in both directions: from Heaven (God) to earth and also in each of us our minds traverse the spiritual realms to enter into heaven.  “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).  The Liturgy is always movement, drawing us ever closer to God and the Eternal Kingdom.

At this time

when your power is mingled in with the bread,

may my life be commingled

with your spiritual life.

At this moment

when the wine is changed and becomes your blood,

may my thoughts be inebriated

with the commixture of your love.

 In Joseph’s prayer, it is not only the Bread and Wine which are transformed by the Liturgy.  Indeed they do become the Body and Blood of Christ – God’s power mixing in with things of earth and transfiguring them.   But simultaneously with God entering into the Bread and Wine, Joseph prays that God may also enter into him and into his own spiritual life.   It is not just the Bread and Wine which become the Body and Blood of Christ, but we, the community of believers also are transformed into the Body of Christ.  We want God’s incarnate presence not only in the Eucharist but in our own lives, bodies, minds and souls.    Holy Thursday commemorates Christ initiating this most miraculous change of the things of earth, including ourselves, becoming the things of Heaven.  So Joseph’s prayer continue with these most marvelous words and images:

May my body be purified by you

of every image and form here on earth,

and may my thoughts be cleansed by you,

and my limbs be sanctified by you;

may my understanding shine out,

and may my mind be illumined by you.

May my person become a holy temple for you;

may I be aware in my whole being of your majesty.

May I become a womb for you in secret;

then do you come and dwell in me by night

and I will receive you openly,

taking delight spiritually

in the Holy of Holies of my thoughts.

Then shall I take delight in your Body and your Blood

in my limbs.

(THE SYRIAC FATHERS ON PRAYER AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, pp 356-359)

All of these things are what we commemorate on Holy Thursday as we celebrate the Vespers-Liturgy and bring to mind the mystical supper of Christ in that upper room.  We as disciples are called into this same experience that the original Twelve had.

This morning, I was at the London Correctional Institution to give Holy Communion to some inmates there.  We recited together one of the hymns of Holy Thursday:

Come, O faithful, let us enjoy the Master’s Hospitality: the banquet of immortality.  In the upper chamber with uplifted minds, let receive the exalted words of the Word, whom we magnify.

The Master’s Hospitality extends throughout the world, even into prisons, and into Hell itself.  The banquet of immortality was served in a prison today, and the cell became the upper chamber with Christ present.  The One Who descends into Hell, fills also the prison cell in which the faithful gather, and He fills the hearts and minds of each disciple.  Such are the miracles and grace of our Holy Thursday commemoration of the Mystical Supper of Christ.

I will add one more idea, somewhat related to the above, but the power and importance of the Holy Thursday Liturgy continues to resonate in my heart so I want to add this about Christ’s initiating the mystical supper with His disciples on the day before He is sacrificed on the cross.

In Psalm 78:24-25 we read that “God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels…”  John repeats this line in his Gospel in John 6:31.   But, it is interesting to note that while the Fathers found so many typologies in the Old Testament prefiguring Christ, a number of them did not see the story in Exodus of God feeding the Israelites manna in the wilderness as a typology or prefiguring of Holy Communion.  Jean Danielou, for example, says that for Origen in the 2nd Century:

“Manna is not a type of the Eucharist.  It is the bread for the imperfect, those still going forward and needing instructors.  . . . The bread of the Promised Land is the type of the Eucharist and the true food for those who are perfected.”

Origen goes on to say :

“’Hence it is written in the same Gospel: Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead (John 6:49): if anyone eateth of this bread he shall live forever.’ For the manna, though it was given by God, yet was bread of travel … bread supplied to those still under discipline, well fitted for those under tutors and governors.  But the bread Joshua managed to get from corn cut in the country, in the land of promise, others having labored and his disciples reaping—that bread was more full of life, distributed as it was to those who, for their perfection, were able to receive the inheritance of their fathers.”

The Eucharist in the minds of the early Church Fathers was not like the manna in that manna was a special bread supplied by God to sustain the Israelites on their sojourn.  But the manna did not continue forever.  For once the Israelites crossed the Jordan River they began to eat and enjoy the bread of the harvest of the Promised Land.  It is this bread which Joshua provided them in the Promised Land.  This is the bread which prefigures the Eucharist: it is not the bread of the sojourn but the bread of the Kingdom.  They bread which signifies that we have entered into Heaven and have reached the goal of the long sojourn on earth.

Holy Thursday is the day upon which we celebrate this new bread of the Kingdom which causes us to live forever.

Solomon in All His Glory

“… yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  (Matthew 6:29) 

“Christ, our generous host, has set before us again today a banquet-table worthy of veneration: a table not simply to be honored by custom, but recognized as part of our familiarity with God; a table not marked by yearning for earthly delights, but sharing in those of heaven; a table not splendid with Solomon’s delicacies, but crowned by God’s laws; a table not made blessed by abundance of food, but made solemn by thoughts of God.

For what could be richer than Solomon’s table spreading out day by day (as is told us in the Third Book of Kingdoms)

‘thirty kors (note: 1 kor is approximately 120 gallons) of fine wheat flour,

and sixty kors of ground barley meal,

and ten tender, choice calves

and twenty grazing cows

and a hundred sheep –

to say nothing of deer and gazelles and choice birds.’  (1 Kings 11:1-13, LXX)

But such a lavish abundance of dishes brought Solomon no benefit, nor did it lead him towards perfect virtue.  Just the opposite: by leading him to indulge himself beyond measure, it led him to go mad in the end.  

But the table of the Lord, richly laid before us again today – a table that is immaterial, infinite, incorruptible, immortal, uncircumscribed, beyond human reckoning – directs us not only towards earthly blessings, but towards heavenly ones as well!

For it does not offer us ‘ thirty kors of wheat flour’,

but lavishes on  us the kingdom of heaven, as the yeast in ‘three measures of barley.’

 Nor does it set out ‘sixty kors of barley,’

but the bread of heaven itself;

I mean that the Lord Christ rewards believers here with the gift of himself, day after day.

But I am speaking empty words, I think, when I compare Solomon’s luncheon, nourishing the senses, with the spiritual table of the Lord.

 For there we find ‘ten chosen calves,’

but here ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’  

There twelve grazing cows,

here innumerable martyrs

bestowing their blessings on souls and bodies.

 There deer, adorned with wide-branching antlers;

here prophets ‘judging spiritual things with spiritual gifts.’

 There gazelles struck in the flank with an arrow;

here Apostles enlightening the world with divine Scriptures.  

There a flock of birds, taking flight without rational pattern;

here a reverent people frolicking in the Spirit.  

There a hundred mindless sheep, giving joy to Solomon’s household alone;

here Christ our spiritual sheep,

shared everywhere on earth, yet never knowing decrease.”

 (Leontius of Constantinople -6th Century?, LIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN, pp 115-116)

Counting on Prayer

Multiplying loaves and fish and counting people in Matthew 14:14-22

At that time when Jesus went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

Scholar David Instone-Brewer comments that the attention to detail of numbers in this version of this Gospel lesson found in Mark 6:39-40 and Luke 9:14, where the people are to sit in groups of 50 or 100, may have to do with the fact that Jewish practice provided different blessings before and after eating depending on the number of people sharing the meal.  Thus counting the number of people was important for knowing which prayer was required for the situation.

“The different blessings for different sizes of gatherings may explain the reason why the Gospels are particularly interested in the number of people who sat down to eat the miraculous loaves and fishes with Jesus (Mt. 14.13-21; 15.32-38 and parallels). […]Matthew specifically says on both occasions that the women and children were not counted (14.21; 15.38), which suggests that they were counting the number of eligible people for the saying of Grace, in order to decide on the form of the blessing.[…]It is likely that people at a public meal were already in the habit of sitting in groups of ten men or in larger numbered groups. Not only would this facilitate counting for the Grace, but it would mean that each group could decide for itself when it had finished the meal and say Grace together, if someone in that group had to leave before the whole gathering had finished. It may be significant that they Synoptics say that ‘they all ate and were satisfied’ (Mk. 6.42/Mt. 14.20/Lk.9.17), alluding to Deut. 8.10, ‘you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God.’ ” (Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament,  pg. 81)

The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes finds its significance in the fulfilling of Torah:  they ate and were satisfied.  The importance of this is that the people were supposed to recognize this as a sign of God’s presence, prophecy, promise and Kingdom!  Instead the people don’t recognize the sign and as Christ laments only look for more food rather than to look for the Giver of Life and His Kingdom.

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”  (John 6:26-27)

The fulfilling of Torah was to remind the people that they are blessed by God: God provided for them in the wilderness and they should never forget the Lord.  In the Gospel, the problem becomes the people are quite willing to have the Lord feed them, but then they don’t recognize the Lord feeding them.  They will soon forget and turn against the Lord.  It is worth reading Deuteronomy 8 and thinking about the Gospel lesson of the loaves and fishes in the light of Deuteronomy.  God did His part, but the people forgot their role and so failed to recognize God in their midst even in the wilderness where they were both hungry and thirsty.

“All the commandment which I command you this day you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your fathers.  And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not.  And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. . . . ” 

While we all need bread (food, nutrients, sustenance) to survive on earth, Christ reminds the people that they are not merely biological creatures.  To be human is to have the image of god imprinted on our very being, to beathe the Spirt of God and to have His Word abiding in us.  We need God’s Word, Jesus Christ, as much as we need bread to live in this world.

So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him.  For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, . . .  a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing. . .  And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.  “Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day:  lest, when you have eaten and are full. . .  then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.  Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’  

Part of the Gospel lessons regarding the feeding of the thousands by Christ, is the disciples’ fear that they don’t have enough wealth to feed the people themselves (Matthew 14:15, Mark 6:37, John 6:7).

You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day.  And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish.  Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.”   (Deuteronomy 8)

After reading promise and prophecy of Deuteronomy 8 in which God’s people are instructed to remember the Lord when they see the signs of the Kingdom of Heaven, we come back to the Gospel Lesson of the feeding of the 5000 (the only miracle reported in all four Gospels).  It was immediately after feeding the 5000 that Jesus has the following dialogue in John 6 with the people who had seen the miraculous sign of the multiplication of loaves and fishes in the wilderness (keep in mind that the wilderness is not a place you would normally find fish or wheat!).

On the next day the people who remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone.  However, boats from Tiberias came near the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks.

The emphasis is mine and not in the original text.  The people remembered the thanksgiving which was offered by Christ and yet still do not see this as a sign – a fulfilling of the promises and prophecies of the Torah.

 So when the people saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.  When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”  Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  

Jesus even calls attention to the fact that they have witnessed a sign of the kingdom of God but they are disinterested in that sign, rather He notes sadly that they are only interested in satiating themselves on earth.  Having enough to eat is a good thing, but they fail to see that having an over abundance of food  in a wilderness place is a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, of God’s hand on earth.   That Christ claims to be feeding them the bread of heaven is of no interest to them as they cannot see beyond their own gluttony (“their god is their belly” – Phillipians 3:19).

Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” . . .  

Jesus promises to give them something more than food in this world which satisfies for the moment; He promises to give them a food which gives eternal life.  But, the people don’t take the bait, so to speak.  They fail to see the miracle as a sign of God’s Kingdom and are blind to what is before them.

So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?  Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”  Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. . . .  For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”   (John 6:22-40)

We too see the signs of the Kingdom.  The bread of heaven,who is Christ the Lord, continues to be given to us in the Eucharist – it continues to be multiplied throughout the ages and throughout the world, feeding all of those who are spiritually hungry for the food which gives eternal life rather than for the bread which satisfies for the moment.   Yet, even today, some are not much interested in this sign of the coming Kingdom and rather only want miracles and magic which amaze for the moment and cause them to only want more amazement and amusement in a world which is passing away.

Reading the Gospel, Learning to Hate?

Recently I was asked why in the Luke 14:25-35 Gospel lesson does Jesus teach “hate”:

“Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.'” (emphasis not in the orginal text)

Jesus teaching us to “hate” seems uncharacteristic of the Lord who not only taught us to love not only neighbor but enemy as well, but who died for us while we were still considered to be the enemies of God!

In answering the question about why Jesus said we are to “hate” other family members, I’m not going to address any issues about translating the Greek word for hate or its connotations.   Rather, I want to bring attention to the very way in which we read Scriptures as a key to dealing with the difficult sayings of Jesus. I won’t claim that my answer will address the question satisfactorily, but it raises an issue we should keep in mind as we read and try to comprehend the Bible .

There are the claims that Jesus in this passage is speaking with a certain form of speech referred to as Mideast or Mediterranean “exaggeration.”    I’ve also heard it said that Americans tend to prefer understatement when speaking and thus “exaggeration” seems even more magnified in our minds.   All of this possibly gives us some insight into  understanding Jesus in Luke 14.

There is the fact that Jesus at times confronts us in our thinking and tries to shake us out of our lethargy by making shocking statements.   He speaks from the point of view of the Kingdom of God whose values are often just the opposite of what we might expect say for example of justice which turns out to be forgiveness, or where the first are made last, and the least are made the greatest.

Jesus demands from us a radically new way of life, and if we listen to his words we really have to wrestle with what he could possibly have meant. What is He teaching us to do? This saying about “hating” parents is just the opposite of his teaching to “love your enemies.” It is the world of the up-side-down Kingdom of God. We are to examine our assumptions, loyalties, dependencies, and our worldly values in order to constantly question how it is possible for us to live in this world of the Fall and yet claim membership in the Body of Christ and thus claim membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, one possibility is that Jesus wanted to challenge us in our normal thinking and make us realize how different the values of the Kingdom of Heaven really are.

In that sense, His words cannot be taken out of the context of the Gospel. In other words, we cannot simply take one line out of the Gospel and try to create a way of life around it for Christ gives to us the values of the Kingdom of God to transform the world.   It can be a  dangerous thing (which we often do) to take one sentence of Christ’s teaching out of its Kingdom context and try to impose it on our lives in the world of the Fall.  This is very true of Jesus’ teaching on hating family (for He also said other things about family which tell us to love and respect the other members of our families, and when at His death He commends His own mother to the care of His disciple John, he also demonstrates something different than hate for His mother ).

Unfortunately, many Christians rely on single passages or sayings of Jesus as their only encounter with Christ.  There are countless books which “help” us by rearranging the Gospel lessons into neat collections of sayings, one liners, sound bytes, which are designed exactly to give full power to each sentence by taking them out of context so that each saying really stands out in our minds.  This form of Scripture reading when it becomes our only way of reading the Gospels, causes us to think of the Bible as an endless collection of quotable quotes, favorite sayings, and incantations to apply to any situation.   While it is a way to read the bible, it should not be our sole diet of Scripture reading.  Each text will be much more meaningful when also understood in its context.

The saying of Jesus about hating one’s parents or children are meant to shock us, to force us to take notice, and to actively pursue their meaning – but their meaning within the context of all the other things Jesus taught and commanded.  If we simply take one line out of the Gospel context and try to comprehend it separated from the rest of Christ’s discipline and from His body of disciples, we distort its meaning.

The same Christ who spoke to us about hating parents and children, tells us to love our neighbors and enemies. We cannot read each verse as if it is unconnected from all the other teachings of Jesus. We need to read them all within the context of the entire New Testament, and we need to read them within the Christian community in order to be able to search for their meaning.

When we try to treat the bible like a collection of one line pithy sayings, then we think we can just pull any one verse out of its context and use it as almost a magic saying to live by for the day.   In doing this, we begin to treat each line of Scripture almost as some magical spell if we say it correctly will exhibit magical powers.  Think for example of the fictional Harry Potter books and movies.  There the wizards and witches have to memorize one line formulas and each when spoken has magical power to do something.   That is not what Scripture reading is to be.  We are not engaged in magic, we are not invoking the elemental powers of this world.  Rather we are engaged in a process by which we ourselves become transformed by the teachings of Christ:  whether in imitating Him or obeying Him, we begin to conform our lives to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sometimes  taking individual passages out of their contexts reduces the passage to a magic spell formula.   But that is not what the Scriptures are nor do they ever tell us to use them in that way.  Every text of Scripture is to be kept in the context of the Bible.  When we read them contextually, we also make them the context in which we understand them and try to practice them!  Scripture is theology, not wizardry.

Every Scripture text has its context, and so reading any one of the difficult sayings of Jesus is meant to draw us back into the deep well of the Scriptures and to try to understand the saying in the light of all of Jesus’ other teachings and his own actions. Did He hate his mother or brothers? NO.  In fact He expands His definition of brother, sister mother to include all of His disciples including us (Mark 3:34-35).   Do we see Him showing respect for the 10 Commandments law to honor your mother and father? yes.

So obviously a mere literal reading of a single text taken out of context is not the best way to read the bible.  Memorizing certain passages has value to it, but we are not merely trying to inform our minds, we are trying to transform our hearts and lives.   This happens best when we keep each line of Scritpure in its context:  the rest of the bible and the Christian community.

We are to keep on reading the Scriptures, and wrestling with the text, and learning to understand them within the context of the people of God to whom God entrusted them.