That’s the number — 7 times 70, or 490. There’s some variation in how we understand the conversation Matthew recorded, so maybe the number is just 77. Either way, it’s substantially larger than Peter was prepared to hear.
If someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy times seven.
It’s a big number.
Peter was just trying to get a handle on this whole forgiveness thing, which was itself a way of getting a handle on the whole God-thing. We like measuring out the gifts we give. We especially like taking the measure of God.
This is the line. These are the rules. How else are we going to know who is right and who is wrong? To put it another way, how else are we going to tell us from them?
We’re hard-wired to identify with our group. Millennia of evolution behind us, we know that the best way to survive is to stick with our group. Our tribe. Our family. Our kind. Against whatever is out there—saber tooth tigers, wolves, other people. We’ve learned to follow the behavior markers of our group, the way we dress ourselves, the things we do and don’t do, and most particularly the things we do and do not say.
If we are people of faith, there is the God-tribe. Mostly, it still means the same thing—our group. Not whoever is worshipping the same God differently. Depending on the brand of our denomination or faith, that may leave out the Methodists or Presbyterians, or the Roman Catholics, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Buddhists. It certainly leaves out those rogue, snake handling, King James Baptists, unless you are one, in which case your God-tribe likely excludes nearly everyone.
It’s about behaviors and boundaries, the behaviors that reassure us that we belong in our God-tribe, the boundaries by which we keep other people out.
Forgiveness. Putting down the club. Letting someone else shelter in our cave, enlarging our tribe. It is interesting that when we forgive others, we’re the ones who benefit the most. The object of our moral outrage seldom pays any kind of price. They may not even care.
Forgiveness held back is like rocks in the arms of a swimmer. The rocks may be intended for bashing an opponent, but they serve only to drown the one carrying them. Resentment is a burden carried by those who hold back forgiveness, measuring out grace as though it is a thing best kept close.
They are the same thing, resentment and forgiveness, just as a caterpillar and a butterfly are two aspects of the same life force. Kept inside us, resentment is a worm that eats into our hearts. Released, it flies. Those we forgive may see the beauty in its wings, but it is our own heart that is lighter.
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 10:1, NRSV)
If Christians went around with the ability to cure every disease and every sickness, people would pay attention. More people would become Christian, some because they had seen a miracle and it stirred their faith, others because they had seen a miracle and wanted one.
Instead, miracles are as scarce as they ever were, and fewer people are interested in Christianity.
The decline of Christianity may be due to the lack of miracles, but it is more likely due to the abundance of Christians, the loudest and meanest ones anyway. Every day I hear someone condemning other people—usually people who are different, in upbringing, orientation, geography, politics—in the name of Jesus. Forget the fringe groups who would hate everyone else regardless of their own religion. There’s plenty of hate and fear in the mainstream, and only the television charlatans claim to heal in the name of Jesus.
It’s enough to make me want to call myself anything but Christian. Most days Buddhism is looking pretty good. I can imagine Jesus embracing it.
So what do we do with passages like the one from Matthew’s Gospel, claiming that the followers of Jesus will work miracles? It says that Jesus gave his disciples the power to throw out “unclean spirits”—however we might understand that phrase today—and to heal every disease. Imagine it. Imagine being able to stroll through a children’s hospital and heal every kid in there.
Be healed in the name of Jesus. Regardless of your disease. Regardless of your sexual orientation, or faith background, or country of origin. Of all the people Jesus encounters in the gospel stories, he only questions the nationality of one—the gentile woman whose daughter is ill or possessed. It seems his question is pointed outside the gospel, pointed at us, we who listen to the story today, because he goes ahead and heals her daughter anyway.
So did the disciples have the ability to heal people? The gospels say so. The early Church reports it as so. (For example, see Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 2.32.4, written in the second century.) How do we understand the stories? Is it true, literally true, that they could heal the sick? Could Jesus? Did they perform these miracles? If so, why was there not a Pied Piper effect, a daily triumphant-entry-Palm-Sunday kind of parade?
Some people say our lack of miracles is due to our lack of faith. They may be right. I can’t contradict them, certainly not with the pitiful amount of faith I myself possess.
There are plenty of religious people eager to point to the modern lack of faith, or to some temporary dispensation of power to the early Christians not shared with us, we later poorer children, but we’re left feeling that the explanations don’t hold water or that we’d have to wear blinders to buy into them.
In the meanwhile, there are other ways to think about it.
Could these be symbolic stories, disease and unclean spirits as a metaphor? Fables or allegories? Simply stories with a meaning? Does that work? Could we think of them that way, and remain among the faithful?
Otherwise, we have no good explanations, but even without an explanation, there may be an application.
Albert Camus said this, though he wasn’t speaking to miracles—
We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century.
The prophets put it this way:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV)
Maybe we lack the power to walk into hospitals and heal the sick. That is a God-thing, and maybe it always was.
Maybe our work is the lesser miracles—mending what we have torn, restoring justice where we have failed, giving happiness to a child who has known nothing but war and hunger and fear. A home for the homeless. Food for the hungry. Clothes and education and peace for the poor. And medicines for the sick.
Those are pretty good miracles. We already know how to perform them. What is holding us back? Where are the miracle workers when you need them?
Reign of Christ | Luke 23:33-43 End of Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary
“Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” a man says. He is dying, one of three men hanging on crosses, all of them dying, condemned by Roman law in the first century AD in Jerusalem. There would be no reprieve, no way down from those wooden beams except through death. The story is embedded in the common consciousness of western civilization.
“Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” says one man, a common criminal. The one listening is accused of sedition and blasphemy: Christianity knows him as the incarnation of eternal God.
God is eternal, untrammeled, existing both outside of time and within it. Outside of time, in the where and in the when that we cannot imagine, God does all that God wishes, a communion of God within God beyond our comprehension. That aspect of God is alien to us. Inside of time, in the places and ways and times that we might comprehend, God transcends our notions of linear time.
God is always creating—always, at every moment, from the beginning of time to the end. God is continually coming into the world, in forms as unnoticeable and unexpected as a child. God is forever teaching, forever healing, forever betrayed and handed over to condemnation. God is always dying on a cross, and God is eternally dead in the darkness of the tomb. God is resurrection, continually raising and being raised into life.
And God is forever listening to that tortured prayer, eternally remembering the thief hanging on the cross, continually in every moment remembering each of us.
“Amen, I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise.”
This day. To God, all days are this day. All the tomorrows, all the todays, all the days past that we thought were gone and lost to us, irredeemable in the passing stream of our time, are present in the mind of God.
This day, you will be with me.
God redeems all our past days, our lost moments, our lost loves and joys and defeats, all our future happiness and loss, in one eternity. Maybe that is what it means to say that God is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end—God stands at the ends of time and at all the points between, folding our linear experience into the eternal moment that does not pass or change.
That is the gospel message. This day, forever now, we shall be with God in that kingdom we cannot comprehend, the land without death and loss and tears, beyond the sands of the shores of time, where time will lose track of us, and death itself shall forget our names.
Remember us, Lord Jesus, when you come into your kingdom.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 21:5-19
We don’t always get what we want, and even when we do, it is never clear which is better.
Blessings turn into cages, and what we thought were our failures may turn out to be gifts. We keep revising our opinions of the past and of events that brought us to where we are. Perspective, like prophecy, is a tricky thing. Just when we think we have a grasp on either one, it shifts.
You will be betrayed, Jesus says. Some of you will be killed, he says, yet not a hair on your head will perish.
Well, which is it? That seems a reasonable enough question, given the plain contradiction. Are we talking metaphorically? The things he describes don’t seem to be metaphors.
This isn’t the happy Jesus of bumper sticker Christianity. It’s not warm and fuzzy theology, and this isn’t the passage one would choose to read to new converts.
Or maybe it is precisely the right passage. They would know what they were in for. It would match up with what life brings them. A gospel life is not a trouble free life, and blessings are not magic. In Christian theology, all paths lead to the cross.
All the stones will be torn down, Jesus says. All of them will be torn down, with not one left on top of the other.
All of the stones were torn down, of course. The Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, purposefully reducing the stone walls to nothing but rubble, making the sort of point that Rome was so very good at making in the face of rebellion.
Today many Christians read this passage as a word of prophecy from Jesus, telling the crowd about things that would happen. Some say that this Gospel was written after 70 AD, when the author of Luke already had experienced the destruction of the temple and seen political persecution of Christians, and so the writer put these words into the mouth of Jesus. That last view is not particularly infused with faith, true enough, but it’s out there, and it’s possible. Still, who knows? God can work with anything, perhaps even a crafty gospel writer.
The meaning and the value of what Jesus is saying doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the temple in Jerusalem, or with stones in actual walls, or the persecution that played out in ancient courts. All of it could apply equally well at any time to our interior landscape, our inner life, our real lives, regardless of what is going on in the world.
Jesus knew that sooner or later our walls fall down. The stones crack and our building blocks get scattered. Maybe we call it depression, or cancer, or the loss of a loved one, or the lack of someone to love. Maybe it’s war, displacement, a flood, loss of work, loss of the ability to work. Our walls fall down. Our temple, our heart, where we cherish the things we have come to love, is broken, and we are cracked open, torn apart.
One of my favorite words is in the last verse of this passage. It is usually translated as patience or endurance, and I have written about it on other occasions: by your endurance you will gain your souls. Endurance. Patience. ὑπομονῇ. Hypomone. Taking this compound word literally, the meaning is remaining under. Living under. Dwelling in all of what life piles onto us.
It is a word of hope, but not the sort of word that most people want to hear. It is a word of being delivered in our troubles, but not out of them, and it does not match up with popular theology. It is the sort of thing understood best by people who have lost something, or who never had it to begin with—the poor, the troubled, the disenfranchised, those who understand that they live in the Exile, like strangers in a strange land, and knowing they may never see the Exodus in this life.
Sooner or later we are all exiles. Every single one of us. It may last a week, or a season, or the rest of our lives, but our walls crack and fall and we are left in the rubble.
The gospel hope is in the presence of a God who does not reside just in high places and in the palaces of a heaven we have not seen. The hope of Christianity is in a God who did not refuse or flee when we chose to kill rather than embrace the incarnation of God.
Yes, that sounds stark.
Christians are used to hearing words like sacrifice and redemption. It is the language which we in the Church use in part to explain and in part to distance ourselves from the event of the crucifixion. The simple fact of the gospel story is that we, or our counterparts from long ago, wanted this Jesus fellow gone. The presence of this god-man, if that is what he was, made us uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that we wanted him dead. Executed. Maybe a few of us would have stood faithful at the cross with John and the three Marys, but most of us can make no such claim. Not if we are honest.
The gospel story tells that God permitted us to kill even God. Perhaps that is what it took for us to grow to the next stage of humanity—killing the God we thought we knew, that we might grow to know the God who dwells among us like a stranger in a strange land. The resurrection story tells us of a God we had never truly known, and a new way of living in the presence of a God who stops at nothing, not even death, to remain present with us.
We may lose everything. All our stones may crack and fall, not one left piled on top of another. We may be betrayed by those we love, killed outright. Jesus gives us the promise of being present, that he will give us the word we need at the right time, the right place, to offer an answer and a reason for our lives. And when a wall falls, there is something on the other side. By our endurance we gain our lives.
As the late Leonard Cohen put it, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 20:27-38
It is a queer tale, odd, to our modern ears, this business of seven brothers marrying the same woman one after the other as each died and left her a widow, each trying to leave a son to carry on the name of the first brother in the line who died childless. It is a story based in a society so removed, so alien to us that it makes little sense.
In modern western culture, where married women often do not change their surname and where single parents are not an oddity, we cannot fathom these ancient thought processes. We don’t get the idea that producing an heir, even a surrogate one, was more important than the wishes of the brothers or the rights of the woman. The men and the woman were all, albeit unequally, bound by an archaic set of social laws that we cannot fathom.
These archaic religious practices weren’t even the point of the story. Luke only uses the doozy of a riddle posed by the Sadducees as the setup for Jesus’ answer. Still, it’s worth a little reflection.
The Sadducees did not believe in eternal life nor any resurrection of the dead. This life is it, and when it is over, it’s over, a view that did not lament mortality so much as hold our brief lives all the more precious. They weren’t poking sticks at the notion of a string of brothers and one beleaguered woman following an odd bit of Mosaic law. They were trying to debate the notion of resurrection, the idea of life continuing beyond this life, by holding it up to ridicule.
We might struggle with both parts—the riddle and the answer.
We view the ancient religious marriages as peculiar, serving an end that we no longer understand, treating a woman as inheritable as any family heirloom—cherished, maybe, but property nonetheless. We might stop to view it from the perspective of the Garden of Eden.
After all, there are other views of the creation narratives of Genesis than the explanations of mainstream Christianity. One alternative to seeing the expulsion from Eden as punishment is to view this first exile experience, and the prescription of child bearing and work, as representing a passage into the adulthood of humanity, the realization of mortality, and the appreciation of the only two things that remain after us—our work and our children.
From that perspective, we might appreciate the ancient idea of a man fathering a surrogate son for a brother who died childless. Dying childless was to die indeed. A child meant that one’s life continued generation by generation. (There was also the transfer of property to consider, though the question at hand is life, not the deed to the farm.)
The answer Jesus gave should do more than enlighten us about the afterlife. He didn’t offer it, and Luke did not bother to record it, just so that we could dangle his words in the face of modern Sadducees: see, Jesus said there is an afterlife.
For that matter, I don’t think it is ever safe to use the words of Jesus to prove what we believe. There are lots of reasons, but the best one is this—we’re probably wrong, as wrong as the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Romans, the disciples, as wrong as every single group that comes along in the gospels. It’s what all of them had in common—being wrong. It is likely the single thing that all of us have in common.
Christians, particularly American evangelicals, like to be right. Right about gay rights, human rights, pro life rights. Right about who can marry whom. Right about sex, drugs, alcohol, music, art, literature, movies, and political candidates. As right as the Sadducees, who were very good people. As right as the Pharisees, who were also very good people. More right than most of the disciples, who were fairly good people most of the time.
At the end of this gospel passage, Jesus says something interesting about God and about people who died in ages past. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.”
To God all of them are alive. Not right. Not voting for the right candidate, opposing the right (or wrong) positions. Alive. Which suggests there is something more important that being right: being alive in God is the point.
As I write these words, I see a tree, the leaves slowly turning from green to orange and brown for autumn. It is not bothering to sort out the people around it, the birds, or the squirrels. It is simply alive, alive to them, alive to the sunlight, alive to the shifting seasons, and it is alive to God. It is not giving a great deal of thought to the future spring, that final spring, when no green leaves will emerge from its branches.
The voices on our televisions, computer screens, radios, churches, government, grocery stores, and even in our heads can tell us a great deal about who is right (usually us) and more about who is wrong (usually them.) That tree can tell us more about being alive to God.
If we get the part about being alive to God, the rest will take care of itself.