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Think Globally, Act Locally: First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 10:24-36; Philemon; Romans 6

Matthew’s Jesus says, “Students are not above their masters . . .; there is nothing veiled that will not be unveiled . . . do not fear those that kill the body but not the soul; even the hairs on your head are numbered; I came not to bring peace but a sword . . . mother against daughter; a person’s enemies are members of the same household.”

Matthew’s message seems to be, “do not be afraid” of those who criticize or threaten bodily harm.  Trust God, and don’t hide your message out of fear of those who kill the body.  Instead, Matthew’s Jesus says, announce the good news from the rooftops.  Everyone who proclaims the message will be recognized and protected by God, even in the face of the possibility of death.  These words are a call to action.  They hold far more power than the church tradition imagines, especially if considered after Paul’s radical illustration of equality in the letter to the slave-owner Philemon, and Paul’s astounding argument in Romans 6.  We do not know if the writer of Matthew’s Gospel had Paul’s letters in front of him, or if he knew of Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death.  But when Paul’s point in Philemon and Romans 6 is considered in the light of the new translation by scholars Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and the late Daryl D. Schmidt (SV), than the radicality behind the words Matthew gives to Jesus becomes apparent.

Let’s start with Philemon.  By the time of this writing, Paul had already developed the core of his theology in his letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians, and Corinthians:

Concerning your relationships with one another: I don’t need to add anything to the God-given precept that you should love one another.  You are already practicing this precept in your dealings with your fellow believers in Macedonia, but we urge you, friends, to do this extravagantly.  1 Thess. 4:9-10 (SV).

You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male and female.  Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.” Gal. 3:28 (SV).

Just as the body has many parts and all of the parts, even though there are many of them, are still parts of one body, so is the body of the Anointed.  For we were all baptized by the same power of God into one body, whether we were Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and we were all invited to imbibe the same divine power.  1 Cor. 12:12-13 (SV).

Matthew’s Jesus seems to be reminding people of the radical equality of God’s rule.  But things had changed in the 20 or 30 years since Paul held Philemon accountable for his duty under God’s rule to set free his slave Onesimus.  Paul writes, “Perhaps the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while is so that you could have him back forever, no longer as your slave, but more than a slave, a beloved friend.  He is that special to me, but even more to you, both as a man and as one who belongs to our lord” – and not to you, Philemon, even if (especially if) you are the leader of one of the communities founded by Paul.

Matthew’s community is worried about persecution and being accused of demonic possession.  Matthew has Jesus attempt to convince the people to trust the power of God.  “What I say to you in darkness, say in the light, and what you hear whispered in your ear, announce from the rooftops.”  He even delivers a vague threat to the ones too timid to follow through: “The one who disowns me in public, I will disown before my Father in the heavens.”  But Matthew and his community have lost sight of the power available to them when they place their trust in the life and teachings of Jesus, and their confidence in God.  Matthew can’t use it, and The Elves never consider Paul’s take on a similar issue:

People who are concerned only with worldly affairs do not respond to the hidden wisdom of God.  It makes no sense to them.  They are unable to comprehend such things because the hidden wisdom of God is discerned only by people who can recognize it.  Such discerning people can judge the value of everything, but they themselves cannot be judged by other human beings.  As the scripture says, “who knows the mind of the Lord; who will instruct [that one]?”  But we have the mind of the Anointed.  1 Cor. 2:15-16 (SV; bracket mine).

Matthew’s community has lost sight of Paul’s ecstatic certainty that God raised Jesus into God’s presence from the profound absence of God whether from injustice in this life, or the nothingness of physical death:

The law is what makes the seductive power of corruption so lethal.  But thanks be to God for giving us the victory [over corruption and death] through our lord Jesus the Anointed.  So then, my friends, stand firm, let nothing shake you.  See that your work for the lord is always increasing, because you know that your labor for the lord will not come to nothing.  1 Cor. 15:56-58 (SV; bracket mine).

For reasons known only to the Elves, the Revised Common Lectionary pairs Matthew 10:24-39 with cherry-picked Romans 6:1-11, and places those readings in early summer (proper 7, year A).  Baptism seems to be the focus for the Elves, even though it does not fit with any of the other readings.  Baptism was apparently the ritual that welcomed newcomers into the communities founded by Paul.  Paul wonders if his Roman friends understood that baptism meant completely identifying with the Anointed Jesus, by being symbolically immersed into his death.  He then goes on: “What that means is that we were buried with him when we were symbolically immersed into his death so that, just as the Anointed was raised from the dead by the power and splendor of God, we also might live a new kind of life” (SV p. 224).  Paul is not talking about the “corruption” that happens when dead bodies are placed in the ground.  In fact, he says “the corruptible cannot inherit the incorruptible” – meaning it is (of course) impossible for dead bodies to live again.  Instead he is arguing:

This we know: the old version of the human condition has been crucified with [Jesus] so that the life that was corruptible [i.e., subject to power-grabbing, egotistical, injustice] might be brought to an end and that we might no longer be in bondage to the seductive power of corruption . . . And if we really died with the Anointed, we are confident that we will also live with him, since we know that, because the Anointed has been raised from the dead [to be with God in God’s heaven], he is not going to die again; death no longer has any power over him.  When he died he died to the lure of corrupting power once and for all, but the life he lived [past tense] he lives [present tense] to God.  In the same way you must think of yourselves as if you were dead to the appeal of corrupting power, but as alive to God in solidarity with the Anointed Jesus.  Romans 6:4-11 (SV; brackets mine).

This is a far cry from baptizing infants into death, as though nothing matters in the more or less 85-year interval between womb and tomb.  The traditional understanding as found in the NRSV translation (and others) concentrates on baptism as a ritual of death to the old life of “sin,” and rebirth to a life free of “sin,” and qualification for heaven in the afterlife.  It is this traditional or “orthodox” interpretation that is such a non sequitur in the readings for proper 7 (as I argue inThe King’s Business“Sin” is not personal, petty, and sexual. When “sin” is defined and understood as “the seductive power of corruption,” we are propelled into the present moment, where politically, socially, and personally, we experience daily the seductive traps that are set by the very laws that attempt to create a just and equitable civilization.

First century Matthew seems to be well aware of the difficulty of living out the promise of Romans 6.  The spring season of Lent 2011 finds humanity globally engaged in the struggle for distributive justice-compassion from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli and beyond.  “Don’t get the idea that I came to bring peace but a sword,” Matthew has Jesus say.  “After all, I have come to pit a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; and most tellingly: “A person’s enemies are members of the same household.”

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