How many of the Ten Commandments can you name? If you are like most Americans, the number is far below the full ten. A 2007 survey reported that most Americans could rattle off the ingredients of a Big Mac more readily than the Ten Commandments.
And yet the Ten Commandments play an unquestionably powerful role in our culture and politics today. The image of Charlton Heston hoisting a pair of stone tablets over his head is indelibly etched into the pop culture psyche. Debates about the placement of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols in public buildings continue to roil communities all around the United States. It is clear that the Ten Commandments are powerful cultural and religious symbols even if our knowledge of their actual contents is fuzzy at best.
By Greg Carey
Ezekiel speaks compellingly to the current situation in the United States. But is the prophet’s message true?
The society the prophet addresses suffers from a severe lack of perspective. It knows God’s standards. These appear in the verses our Lectionary passes over, Ezekiel 18:5-24. God condemns idolatry, sexual immorality, exploitative lending, and violence. God demands that people look to the needs of the poor and ensure that the powerless receive the same justice as do the powerful. The society knows God’s ways, and yet it rejects them. “The way of the Lord is unfair!,” it cries.
Maybe you remember this old line: A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.
Our notions of justice usually cannot help but be influenced by our own circumstances and by our opinions about what we and others deserve. We insist justice has to do with equality, but a lot of the time it’s a word we toss around to keep people and things we don’t like at bay.
And then along comes Jesus, eager to mess even more with our regular attitudes about what’s right or fair.
What is the text for this Sunday, September 11? The minister may read a text from the Bible but many people will be hearing other texts that aren’t in the book: the reading of names, the melancholy drone of bagpipes, a final goodbye left on an answering machine. Some of us may return to scripture verses read ten years ago – Lamentations’ poignant picture of the lonely city that once was full of people or the psalmist’s assurance: “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.” Many of us who live in New York City found the psalmist’s promise difficult to believe then, perhaps even now.
Matthew 18:15-20is an insider’s text for outsiders. From Matthew’s perspective, Jesus is both warning and assuring those inside the young Christian church. It is a church, however, whose members stand outside the main streams of both religious and civil practice.
For Christians today reading it as insiders, the text may evoke nods of approval at some memorable statements by Jesus. Start poking around a bit, though, and a host of questions arises. Who exactly is “your brother”? Who decides what constitutes sinning? Isn’t it rather racist to use the designation of “Gentile” in such a derogatory manner? Why does Jesus pick on tax collectors? Where is the unconditional love of Jesus if people are being excluded and shunned? What precisely does it mean for Jesus to be among those gathered in his name? Good questions.
By Greg Carey
Matthew 16:21-28 confronts us with the gap between Jesus’ gruesome fate and our own modest discipleship. Jesus’ verbs say it all. Deny the self, take up the cross, follow Christ. Moreover, only in losing one’s life – the primary meaning of apollymi is to destroy – one may save it. And Jesus apparently means it. Judgment he says, involves “repaying” people according to what they have done. At this moment we are hearing Matthew’s distinctive voice: salvation comes not to those who call Jesus “Lord,” but to those who do what he says (7:21-29). The Great Commission involves teaching people “to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). It’s a matter of life and death. Disciples are to walk Jesus’ grim path.
Had fear prevailed, we would not know the name “Moses” today. Had Pharaoh triumphed, the story of God’s liberation of God’s enslaved people could not be told. Had a number of women not acted out of compassion and courage, the extermination of a people would have been sharply felt by them but probably forgotten by history.
The closing chapters of Genesis narrate the story of Joseph and his family. Sold into slavery and despair, Joseph eventually finds himself—through God’s help—in the halls of Egyptian power. An interpreter of dreams and a wily diplomat, Joseph helps lead Egypt out of a severe famine. He, his family, and his people are rewarded for their service to the nation, but the rise of a new Pharaoh means that the memory of Joseph and how Israel had helped Egypt in its darkest hour is lost. Political memories are so very short, aren’t they?
This story in Matthew 15 is very troubling. A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter. By the end of the story, her daughter has been healed — but between the crying and the healing, Jesus says some terrible things. He’s arrogant, racist and just plain mean. We may believe that Jesus was “truly human,” but we don’t want him to be too human.
So over the years, people have tried to clean up this story. One attempt goes something like this: Jesus was testing this woman to see if she had enough faith. When she passed the test, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” That verse has caused plenty of pain because some people have heard Jesus saying, “If you had more faith your husband or wife, your mother or father or child would not have died.” But the woman in this story doesn’t make any confession of faith. Here’s another option to soften Jesus’ words: the Greek word kunarios — translated “dogs” — really means “little dogs, puppies.” So when Jesus tells the woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he really means puppies. Does that help? There’s one more possibility. Because this woman submits to Jesus and kneels before him, Jesus heals her daughter. Go thou and do likewise. We’ll do almost anything to make Jesus who we want him to be.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus walking on water morphs into a story of Peter walking on, then sinking into, the same water. It begins as a statement about Jesus’ authority; for Jesus’ contemporaries had learned from scripture that such mastery over the waters is God’s accomplishment. When Peter tells Jesus to call him, too, onto the lake, the story transitions into an illustration of what it looks like when people express faith in Jesus.
Whatever the origins of this story and however it might or might not relate to a predawn experience Jesus’ friends had on the volatile Sea of Galilee, the story prefers to press other questions. It serves up food for thought, mostly about who Jesus was and how he was remembered, but also about the nature of faith. Over the centuries this passage has fed Christians’ allegorical reflections on what it means to walk faithfully in fearful circumstances.