Yesterday’s post “And so we have it!” certainly suggests that with the major parties capitulating to “marriage equality” demands there are massive issues at stake. They are so momentous that it is well to stand aside and refuse to play the silly and farcical game of the Liberal Coalition parties with their national survey. It is a thoroughly confused strategy – unprincipled at root – and likely to generate still more political confusion and more unprincipled parliamentary manipulation.
Our advice: stay well clear. Keep your head and refuse to be badgered by this nonsense.
So with that dissent we are still in need of perspective, a light to lighten the path ahead. Here is my effort to suggest some things about the way in which Matthew gave the early church teaching of Jesus that helps us reconsider our membership in the “kingdom of heaven” in this 2017 context. It not only helps us see what is crucial for our everyday life, as we come to terms with a new and upcoming generations of children, but also for how we should see the connection between our contributions to the nurturing of these generations and the manner in which public life is formed (and we are taxed).
Matthew 18: 1-7
Here follows a series of exchanges where the disciples of Jesus begin to probe Jesus further, since his teaching is so obviously fresh and new and gives raise to all kinds of thinking that hitherto has not been thought about.
Jesus has begun to “open the eyes of the blind” – particularly of his disciples. Yes, their Kingdom of Heaven responsibilities include their task as those who live in a political realm, but not necessarily as they have come to construe it. His teaching instructs them to be motivated to give freely as God has given freely to them (Matt 10:8). This is part of a divinely mandated reciprocity that cannot be withheld from by the disciple from rulers even if these rulers sadly neglect their subjects by recourse to pre-emptive powers that claim ownership of the stewardship that has been given them by God.
And so the question of true greatness – albeit in a context of power-mongered demand for tribute – is raised.
Who commands immediate respect in God’s Kingdom, Lord?
Jesus’ answer turns the world upside down. These disciples were being forcibly induced to view it in another way. It is as if Jesus’ replies:
Oh I have been wondering when you might ask that question. It’s so important. Well done for asking. Here’s the answer – this lad, this lass, here, this three year-old who is still so much reliant upon being held in mum and dad’s arms – this child is the one to whom you, with all your adult sophistication, with all your tax reduction schemes, with all your skilful apprecticeships in various occupations, with all your learning from synagogue and school, with all the understanding you have gleaned from your parents and elders – this is the person who must command first and foremost respect in your life. And you know, unless you turn around and face this reality, and stop blundering on in your quest to command respect and in deed become a child, just like this one, there’s simply no way you can set out on the paths of God’s kingdom. This is because the pathways of God’s Kingdom are especially reserved for those are humble, who humble themselves like this child – get to know and sing, and keep on singing Psalm 131. Being one to one such child is being open to me – to me, your Lord, Master, Rabbi, the Son of Man, the one you are so keen to confess as Israel’s Messiah.
In his exposition of the tribute that His Father expects those associated with His Son to pay tribute to the Imperial Government – lest there be cause for offense. What Jesus says to his disciples leads on to what he says here about the consequences – the offense, the scandal – of not giving first and foremost respect to children.
More and more in our reading of this Gospel we have evidence of Matthew’s way of developing his narrative. As he develops the brief discussion about the paying of tribute, it is as if Matthew says to us “Oh and that word offense (σκάνδαλον) in the context of Jesus’ response about tribute, that reminds of this other time when Jesus used that word.” This seems to be part of the way Matthew maintains continuity in his story-telling narrative.
We see here a pertinent question about following Jesus, following Jesus in a political context requiring the payment of taxes, following Jesus by looking forward as we pay these taxes to how they will be put to good use, following Jesus by reckoning with the Kingdom of heaven’s deep, persistent and ongoing concern for how the next generation is being respected as it should be in our lives, following Jesus by giving respect to the ongoing human task of bringing children into God’s creation and nurturing them. He reckons with the problems, the offenses, the scandals, the sins.
The implication is that we are simply not on the same page as our Father in heaven if we do not understand His earnest desire of us as disciples of His Son to ascribe first-and foremost respect to who we are because of our being associated with His Son. it is as if Jesus continues:
And this all means that you are those He has given to me, you, you as His children too, just like this child here.
That then leads Jesus to a warning that burned the ears of those attending.
In God’s Kingdom any lack of first and foremost respect to any of these, whoever they may be, by actions that throw a hurdle of offense onto their path, is simply a disaster for the one doing so. The consequences of missing this point, even if by a concerted effort of giving offense in response to offense being given, is, quite frankly, to miss out on life itself. You might as well be drowned, well and truly.
Sure, says Jesus, these offences, these historically constructed hurdles that stand in the way of a new generation’s proper respect, are bound to come, but don’t go contributing, paying tribute, to these scandals. Keep well away.
And the way of keeping well away, presumably, is a life in keeping with Jesus’ teaching – because He is God’s own Son – and this teaching nurtures a new generation of those, just like us, only now as we take up our nurturing task, we become moreso like what we are becoming to be (an awkward construction admittedly but also used by the Apostle Paul who had to learn from Jesus how to forego his former offense at the Gospel – 2 Cor 3:18). This is the way to keep on identifying ourselves as children in God’s Kingdom.
This account would assist the young church in what their task was in relation to what Jesus had done and taught in his ministry. The sadness of the disciples at his prophesy that he was going to be killed – like John the Baptist – was no forerunner to an anger that would be oriented to rebellion about the Romans. This part of Matthew’s Gospel gives sound precedents to how Jesus expected his followers, not only to pay their taxes, but also to keep on encouraging the raising families even if it were in circumstances of alien imperial rule and oppression.
Luke 23: 44-56
And it was now about midday, and the sun not shining with darkness coming across the entire land until mid-afternoon with the veil of the temple ripped down the middle.
And Jesus, crying with a mighty voice said: “Father, my spirit I leave in your hands”, breathed his last.
And having watched it all take place, the Centurion [on duty] gave [his] praise to God, saying, “Truly this was a righteous man!”
And the crowd of people who had converged to watch first-hand, all went off home beating their breasts. And meanwhile, those whom he had known, the women accompanying him from Galilee, stood far off watching.
And this was when, Joseph comes into this report. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, a good and righteous man, not at all consenting with the council’s decree and what they had done. He was from Arimathea, a Jewish city, waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God. He had gone to Pilate asking for the body of Jesus and taking it down wrapped it in linen, placing it in a rock-hewn tomb in which no-one had yet been laid.
And of course it was the day of preparation and the Sabbath was immanent. And the women, those having come with him from Galilee saw the tomb, noted how the body was placed therein, and then they went home to prepare spices and oils [for the burial]. And since it was now the Sabbath, they rested.
We have wondered how Luke came by the account of Jesus’ exchange with the two criminals who were executed alongside him. Given that his disciples had forsaken Jesus and fled, we are left wondering who was there who could have provided Luke with the details he presents to us? In asking this, we note that Matthew and Mark with some slight variation give similar accounts to this.
Luke’s brevity is notable and as I have suggested, it is a significant aspect of his creative literary composition. He gives emphasis to the relatively short duration, when all is said and done, between arrest and execution. He appears to be very keen to move on to get to the “punch line”, the explosive reality, and, as it were, to get it all down for Theophilus before the Lord returns. He pauses briefly to tell us that it was a day to be remembered for the failure of the sun to shine and when dark clouds overshadowed the proceedings.
And it was then, on such a gloomy and dismal day, when, as confirmed by Matthew and Mark as well, that the curtain in the temple was torn. Luke says it was “torn down the middle”. Matthew (27:51) and Mark (15:38) say it was torn “top to bottom”. Matthew also refers to other strange miraculous events and sightings as well (27:51-54). And all three mention the Roman officer witnessing the event.
By reference to the clouds and the sun withholding its light, Luke also indicates to Theophilus something of the mood that accompanied Jesus’ execution; but he does not expand upon it as Matthew does, nor does he at this point tell us the names of the women who stood at a distance watching (see 24:10). We can say once more that his account – perhaps with the “distraction” of the exchange between the criminals and Jesus – is characterised by his emphasis upon how it was all carried out so efficiently and quickly, even if there was a degree of administrative uncertainty. In writing this account, Luke is eager to get to the main point of his entire exposition ASAP.
When he tells us of Jesus breathing his last breath, we obtain a hint of one primary source for his account – the Roman centurion is quoted and we should also keep in mind that perhaps he was indebted also to the conscripted cross-carrier, Simon of Cyrene.
Then those who had been spectators of the event returned home for the Sabbath. Except Luke now makes a distinction among the bystanders; the woman and some of his companions from Galilee stayed while the corpse was removed from its brutal frame.
And here comes another witness; Joseph is introduced into Luke’s account. The arrival at Golgotha of the Council member from Arimathea is wholly unexpected (by us). It is not only crucial for validating and giving further depth to Luke’s account of the rank injustice that had overtaken the Sanhedrin’s deliberations, but Joseph’s involvement would prove vital when the disciples would later refer to the discovery of an empty tomb, the burial place that had been made available by Joseph’s personal stewardship.
But at this point the disciples had fled. Who was thinking about a burial place? Was not Jesus’ body destined for the same mass grave that would be the resting place for the bodies of the two criminals? John the Baptist’s disciples had taken the headless corpse and laid it in a tomb (Mark 6:29). But apart from Joseph and the women, Jesus’ disciples were in no state of mind to make arrangements for the burial. The women kept an eye on events. Were they perhaps expecting Joseph?
John tells us that Joseph had teamed up with Nicodemus (John 19:39) – the supplier of oils for burial. So Luke points us to a couple of possible reliable witnesses and we recall, as he has said, that this is his attempt to put together an orderly and coherent account of what has transpired, confirming the utter reliability of what Theophilus has already been told concerning the amazing news of Israel’s Messiah and the meaning of his coming for the entire world.
By mentioning the temple’s veil being torn in two, Luke provides his readers with not a few questions. He simply states it as fact. It is as if Theophilus has already some idea of its meaning – it is also a metaphoric allusion to the fulfilment of Jewish temple rituals in the slaying of the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But the report of a coinciding event that happened on that same day, around that same time, it doesn’t seem to make much sense unless Theophilus had already been instructed in these ancient teachings. In that sense what we have said about Luke’s ongoing interest in linking his account of Jesus’ ministry with that of John the Baptist also comes into focus here. After all, John was well-known among Jesus disciples for having pointed them to Jesus “the Lamb of God who is taking away the sins of the world.”
And that then might suggest that Theophilus has some knowledge of John’s baptism (Acts 1:5; and also significantly 19:1-10). Would it not be another indication of how Luke’s two books were framed to tell how baptism in the name of Jesus, with the coming of God’s spirit, superseded the water baptism of John for repentance?
So far so good, but why does Luke’s narrative not provide us with any account of the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension? Could it then be that it is not elaborated because it was simply the time when Jesus clarified his teaching for his disciples? Was it not then that he answered their questions in the context of a reiteration of why his suffering was necessary for them. And so we have the repeated refrain in all Gospels that when he told them about his coming suffering they had no idea what he was talking about. Did he not have to provide them with the definitive explanation of the temple’s torn curtain to break through their “wilfully ignorant and lethargic hearts” (Luke 24:25)?
Luke, by his account of the haste by which Jesus’ crucifixion was carried out after his arrest and trial, seems to have taken on that characteristic into his own telling of the story. And indeed, it is, under his hasty telling, that this final chapter of what we have as “Luke’s Gospel” – his announcement of the Good News following Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. This then is all part of culmination of the story“until the day on which he was taken up from them into heaven” (Acts 1:2 see also Luke 24:51), and on the surface, it seems, we learn very little of the 40 days, apart from the account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus.
Of course, we can speculate about the exchange that took place between Jesus and his disciples as they regathered to meet him, and as he met them, in the 40 days between his resurrection and ascension. On one reliably reported occasion there were up to 500 disciples, brothers and sisters, meeting him (1 Corinthians 15:6). But what are we to understand by that 40 days – let alone that crowd of 500 witnesses? What are we to understand concerning what happened during this time? It would seem that these witnesses were participating in Jesus’ glorification in ways not dissimilar to what Peter, James and John had experienced on the “mount of transfiguration”, except now, instead of refraining from talking openly about what they had seen, as Jesus had then instructed them, they were to consider themselves as those called to prepare for the time when they would spread the word to every creature under heaven!
So as we consider that – provoked by the seeming riddle of Luke’s fleeting reference to “the temple curtain torn down the middle” – we might also come to a surprising conclusion. Rather than concluding, as we might easily do, that we only have sparse written accounts of what transpired on the 40 days between resurrection and ascension, we could just as well conclude that we have 4 Gospels which are the definitive account of Jesus’ “intensive” with his disciples during that period. That was when he taught them how his ministry had prepared him and them for his suffering and resurrection as Israel’s Messiah – his death and raising in which they now shared. It was also then that his relation to John the Baptist was clarified, and it was then further elaborated by Luke’s painstaking investigation, the results of which we now have in this Gospel.
After all, the meaning of the “ripped curtain”, is also definitively explained by Jesus in his teaching about himself. Before this curtain was torn in two Zechariah had received the promise of a son from the angelic messenger (Luke 1:21-22). And now, before the close of this scroll, Luke will recount how Jesus in his resurrection power, in his own body represents the tearing of the curtain “down the middle” that the other evangelists denote as a rip that came from “top to bottom”. Jesus challenged the “wilful and lethargic ignorance” of the disciples by presenting himself to them as the one who has brought the true and living way (Hebrews 10:20).
Were not these things necessary for the Anointed to suffer in order to enter into His glory?” And then beginning with Moses and all of the prophets he explained to them all the characteristics of himself from the scriptures (Luke 24:26-27).
Pilate and Herod Become Best Mates
Luke 23: 1-25
And the entire assembly rose as one and brought him to Pilate. And they began to make their accusations saying: “We find this man has been corrupting our nation, forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar, saying that he is the Christ and thus a King.”
And Pilate cross-examined him saying, “So, you are the King of the Jews are you?”
And he replied, “That is what you say! [Those are your words].”
And [finally] Pilate said to the chief priests and the assembled crowd: “I can find no crime in this man!”
But they were insistent, saying, “He stirs up the people with his teaching throughout all of Judaea, beginning with Galilee and now he has come here.”
Having heard of Galilee, Pilate made enquiries as to whether he was a Galilean. And as soon as he realised he was from Herod’s jurisdiction he arranged for him to be taken to Herod, since he too had come up to Jerusalem at that time.
And upon seeing Jesus, Herod was very pleased. He had been hearing about him for some time and was hoped to see some sign wrought by him. And he questioned him at length but Jesus said not a word.
Meanwhile, the chief priests and the scribes were also present, throwing malicious accusations at him. Having come to despise him, Herod and his soldiers mocked him by dressing him in a gorgeous robe to be then sent back to Pilate. And from that day, Pilate and Herod became friends because up to that point they had been each other’s enemies.
And Pilate called together chief priests and the rulers, with the people, to tell them:
“You brought this man before me accusing him of corrupting the people. And now, take note, I have examined him before you and found he has done nothing worthy of death. Neither has Herod for he sent him back to us. I will reprimand him and release him.”
But the crowd shouted in reply: “Away with this man and release Barabbas for us!”
This was the man imprisoned because of a rebellion staged in the city and for murder. But Pilate called out to them, pleading, wishing to release Jesus. But they shouted back:
“Crucify! Crucify him!”
He, now for a third time, replied to them: “What evil has he done? I found nothing in the case [you brought against him] that deserves death. I will reprimand him and let him go.”
But with a concerted chant they demanded his crucifixion. And their voices prevailed.
And that was how Pilate came to pass judgement at their request, releasing [at the same time] the one who had been thrown into prison for rebellion and murder, according to their request. But Jesus he handed him over according to their will.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial and committal hearing tells Theophilus that the Roman Governor had no special interest in this case. He obviously knew little about Jesus; it was only from the Jewish Council that he now learned about him. We can speculate upon what took place beyond what the Gospels tell us, but Jesus’ case was achieved with what seems relative efficiency. There is Pilate’s uncertainty , and his wife’s dream. But what we have here is in many respects a similar account to what is reported in John 18:28-40. Luke is telling his account with an emphasis upon the haste with which his judicial murder was carried out. Barabbas was obviously guilty and he was still in prison and his crime had taken place some time previously. Barabbas was presumably subject to some negotiation between the Governor’s administration and those wanting to make political capital for themselves from his incarceration.
But with Jesus’ “trial”, if we can call it that, it is the haste of his enemies that Luke emphasizes. But there is one feature that Luke adds to our Gospel knowledge of Jesus’ crucifixion – before he was nailed to the cross he was sent over to the (holidaying) Herod. Presumably, this was Pilate’s device to get himself off the hook, and Jesus’ enemies off his back.
And whatever Pilate’s exact motive may have been, Luke is also reminding Theophilus of the man who ended the life of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. The actual story of John’s beheading is not recounted by Luke – we find it in Matthew (14:1-12) and Mark (6:14-29). But Luke’s account tells us explicitly that Jesus did not take the opportunity to discuss “religion” or any other relevant topic with the gutless monarch. He remained silent.
That silence, says Luke, simply inflamed Herod’s instinctive abuse and mockery. He had this “king” dressed in a royal robe and sent him back to Pilate.
We have to wonder why it was that they became friends from that day on. Was it not that they had shared a theatrical event that goes them a moment’s respite from their respective uncertainty when faced by this innocent Teacher, let alone their boredom with the duties of public office.
And so, Herod entertained Pilate on that day – one can only wonder how Pilate greeted the mob of High Priests and rulers who brought him back to Pilate for concluding the charade. Herod had endeared himself to Pilate; we guess it was the royal robe. And with that development, Pilate resolved – Matthew tells us he was subject to his wife’s plea (Matthew 27:19) – to let him go.
And so the negotiation begins again with Jesus’ enemies and this time he is ready with a carefully formulated judgement
You brought me this man accusing him of sedition. Take note, I have examined him before you and found he has done nothing worthy of death. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. I will reprimand him and release him.
But Jesus’ accusers are ready. They have the Barabbas issue to resolve and besides it’s the day when a prisoner can be released.
Come on you guys. We know each other, don’t we. I can’t condemn this innocent man. You haven’t told me what evil he has done!
But what was he to do with demands for Barabbas’ release now being shouted from the roof-tops?
Luke tells us what we already know: Pilate’s uncertainty caved in.
We may now wonder whether Pilate had to deal with his wife’s subsequent sleepless night because of the injustice wrought on “that innocent man”, but Luke was telling Theophilus that efficiency prevailed and that a most convenient political friendship had arisen from a theatrical moment in the proceedings. Herod obviously knew how to engage in the art of dealing with conflicting demands. Nice touch that. Good theatre with that gorgeous royal robe. Helps a lot.
It may have been a difficult day for Pilate, as he confronted the organised insistence of Jesus’ enemies, but then his action betrays the realpolitik cop-out: that’s the reality of political life, isn’t it?
Besides he and Herod had shared a theatrical moment together, a joke that may have been at this poor man’s expense, but then the friendship between the Judaean Monarch and the Roman Governor was forged wasn’t it? Public administration, especially of such a difficult polity, needs such friendships, doesn’t it? It’s all part of the deal!
BCW 17th February 2017.