Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Twelve Questions For the June 8 Gospel

The Gospel for this coming Sunday, June 8, is Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26. This is not a sermon on it, but some questions which I bring to it, to try to open it up.

1. I wonder why Matthew has stitched these little stories together, the story of Matthew's own calling from his seat at the tollbooth, the story of Jesus eating dinner with the sinners, the story of the ruler's daughter, and the story of the woman with the flow of blood. Why does he make it a single story?

2. I wonder what it means to get up and follow. That happens twice in our lesson. Matthew "got up and followed" Jesus. Then later, after dinner, when the ruler comes to beg the help of Jesus, he "got up and followed" the ruler. Jesus does what Matthew did. Is he giving Matthew an example? Does it mean that if we follow Jesus, we first have to follow him away from our place in the world, and then follow him right back into the world when it's in need of us?

3. I wonder why the emphasis on hands. The ruler asks Jesus to "lay his hand upon his daughter." Then the women comes up and touches the fringe of his cloak. Then when Jesus sees the ruler's daughter, he takes her hand in his hand and he raises her up. Your hand, her hand, his hand, her hand. What do these hands mean? Can I put my hand on God? Can I have the hand of God on me? Is this why we do the laying-on-of-hands?

4. I wonder why Jesus touched the ruler's daughter. Why didn't he just speak to her? We know he could have done that, we know the Word of God has power. We know that when Jesus resurrected Lazarus he didn't touch him, he just said, "Lazarus, come forth." Why did Jesus touch her?

It was a thing undone in Israel, touching a dead body. If you touched a dead body you became unclean, you became unkosher. This prohibition made a lot of sense, there was good medicine behind it. Jesus disobeyed the prohibition. He touched her.

It's not because he was invulnerable, we know that he was not invulnerable. Did Jesus want to take on her corruption? Or is he saying that he is more powerful than corruption? Was it because the healing power was coming out of him, that it had more pressure than the power of corruption coming in? His healing power had such pressure, such voltage, that it even sparked across the tassels of his cloak? Does he touch the girl, because the woman first touched him?

5. I wonder why Jesus calls the woman "daughter." Is it because he's on his way to heal another daughter? I wonder what it is to be a daughter. I wonder how this woman feels when Jesus calls her daughter. Does it belittle her? Does it raise her up? Does it encourage her? Does it represent his natural affection, his feeling for her misery, his sympathy, his pity, his love? Is the love of God like this, so natural, so sudden, so immediate?

6. I wonder if it's like a resurrection for this woman. Was what happened to the girl the truth of what happened to the woman? No, she wasn't dead. But because of her bleeding, she was unclean, she was ritually unclean, she was considered contaminated, permanently contaminated.

She was not allowed to set her foot inside the synagogue. She was not allowed to go up to the temple. She was officially untouchable. By the law of Moses, any one who touched her was also made unkosher. And anything she touched, another person, even another person's clothing, just her touch made that untouchable. That's why she tried to touch him secretly. For Jesus to heal her, wasn't that a resurrection for this woman? Is the healing of the woman and the girl the same?

7. I wonder why the one daughter was active in her healing, she reached out, and the other daughter was passive in her healing, she just lay there. It wasn't the young girl's faith that saved her. Maybe the father's faith, but not her own faith. But Jesus clearly tells the woman, "Your faith has saved you." Is he giving her a commendation, or is he teaching her? Is he saying that it wasn't her actual touching of his robe that saved her, but her faith? Is he telling her it wasn't something magical, that touching without faith would have been powerless?

8. I wonder if Matthew combines these two stories to show us what faith really does. If not for the second story, we might think it is our faith itself that saves us, that whether we get healed or not depends upon our faith. But the second story shows us that it is the power of God that saves us, that heals us, not our faith. Our faith is not the energy that does it. Our faith is the extension cord that we plug into God. We might have thought that for the woman the extension cord was her hand on Jesus' cloak. But this was just a physical expression of the invisible extension cord of her faith, plugged into God's grace. His cloak and her hand was like a sacrament: "as surely as you eat the bread with your mouth, so surely does Christ feed you with his own body."

9. I wonder what it means to be saved. Today when people ask you if you're saved, what they mean is, "Will you spend eternity in heaven?" But clearly in this story Matthew means something else, for when Jesus says to the woman, "Your faith has saved you," he's not talking about eternity, he's talking about the here and now. What does salvation mean now? I wonder how God saves us now, already in this life. Is it like saving drowning swimmers? Is it like saving money, or saving dessert till last? I wonder what salvation all includes.

10. I wonder how important is physical healing. Is it something in itself, or is it a powerful symbol or even a sacrament of something else, a means of grace, a means to an end? This little girl must die again, this woman will get sick again. Salvation: is it restoration? Is it the restoration of an older woman to an ordinary life, the restoration of a daughter to her father, the restoration of a family? Is it reconciliation, that God will eat and drink with us? Is that salvation, to sit at God's table, alive and clean, and be at peace?

11. I wonder at the theme of shame, lying just beneath the surface of these stories. It was a thing of shame for a rabbi to be eating with these sinners. It destroyed his credibility. They would say he lacked integrity. How could he speak for God? He made himself unkosher by eating with these sinners. He should be ashamed of himself.

And the woman lived in shame. A sickness of shame. Any time we have a sickness or infirmity "down there," in that part of our bodies, it's a thing of shame. In certain circles, even ordinary menstruation can be thing of shame. And when it's constant, that's a life of shame.

And then the people laughed at Jesus. When he said she wasn't dead, they laughed at what he said. They ridiculed him. Can you feel the shame in that? They scorned him, they scorned him in the ruler's house, they scorned him at dinner with the sinners, and the woman lived a life of scorn. I wonder if Jesus is entering the suffering of the woman that he healed, if he's entering the alienation of the sinners that he ate with, and I wonder if that's what his disciples must also do if they get up and follow him. Can we expect to be laughed at and ridiculed? Is that the price of victory over shame, that we "despise the shame" (Hebrews 12:2).

12. Finally, I wonder how we find out what it means that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. He told the Pharisees to go and find out what it means. He didn't tell them to go look it up. Maybe the only way to learn it is to go and do it, practice mercy, entering into lives of shame and sinfulness, touching and eating, and even enjoying the pleasure of their company, do you know what I mean, trusting in the power and the pressure of God's righteousness in us. Is this what it means to get up and follow Jesus?

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

nittenaway said...

Such good questions.
That's all I needed -- not for the sermon I'm preaching this week -- that one is written -- but just for me -- to feel bestowed with God's grace. Thank you.