(Sermon 2 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)
Last week we began our Lenten series looking at the gospel of Matthew and it’s correlation and integration with the Jewish liturgical year in Jesus’ time. We began by looking at the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, and Matthew’s Sermon of the Mount.
Now we turn to the next major festival in the Jewish liturgical year, Rosh Hashanah, usually referred to as the Jewish New Year. It was also the holy day to which Jews attached their hopes for the coming of a messiah. This increasingly became the focus of the festival, and since Matthew was writing after the fall of the temple in Jerusalem and during the Jewish-Roman war, certainly the Jews were in desperate need of someone to come and get them out of that mess.
(For the full video version, click here.)
The scripture from the writings of the prophets that was typically associated with this day was Isaiah 34-35 which talks about the signs that would accompany the arrival of the messianic kingdom, and then expounds on what that kingdom would look like once it arrived:
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
the ears of the deaf will be unsealed.
Then those who cannot walk will leap like the deer
and the tongues of those who cannot speak
will sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6)
Spong believes that Matthew 11: 3-15 clearly correlates with this Rosh Hashanah reading. In beginning of the 11th chapter of Matthew we learn that John the Baptist is in prison. He sends a messenger to Jesus asking, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” And, Jesus (never one to give a straight answer) sends a message in return: tell John what you see and hear, “Those who are blind recover their sight; those who cannot walk are able to walk; those with leprosy are cured; those who are deaf hear; the dead are raised to life; and the anawim – the “have-nots” – have the Good News preached to them.” Fascinating! Matthew obviously is making the case that the scripture is fulfilled and the Messiah has arrived.
But, just in case the Jews weren’t quite convinced, Matthew has Jesus make it absolutely clear that John wasn’t just a whack job who was thrown in prison. Jesus says, “…If you will believe me, [John] is Elijah who was to return. Let those who have ears to hear, hear this!” The prophet Malachi (4:5) prophesied that the great prophet Elijah would return at the end of times to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.
Here’s something even more interesting… if we back up a little bit to the last festival, Shavuot (the readings for which paralleled the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7), Matthew still had two to three months of Sabbaths in the Jewish liturgical year to cover before he arrived at Rosh Hashanah. These would be covered by Mt. 8, 9, 10 and part of 11. So, what do you suppose was in these texts? The stories of miracles that Jesus performed including (but not limited to) cleansing a leper (Mt. 8:1-4), healing a paralyzed person, (Mt. 9:1-8), giving sight to two blind men (Mt. 9:27-31), and helping someone who’d been unable to speak due to a “demon” (Mt. 9:32-34). The entire Sermon on the Mount was preaching the Good News to the poor.
So, basically, Matthew set the stage over the course of a couple of months, and 3 chapters in Matthew, for the coming messiah.
I’ve always struggled with preaching when these healing passages came around. Taken literally the message seems to be that if we just have enough faith, God will heal us. My bet is that we’ve all prayed for physical healing for ourselves, or for someone else, at some point and it didn’t happen. Did you have that moment of “I must not have enough faith”? I have… even though I know better. Or even worse are people who leave the church and give up on God because they prayed so hard for someone to live, to be physically healed or cured, and it didn’t happen. If God is supposed to be all loving and merciful, then why did God let so-and-so (who was such a good person) die? Or maybe sometimes it seemed that your prayer was answered and sometimes not, which can only lead us to believe we have a capricious God who does whatever they darn well choose and we’re told to chalk it up to “it’s a mystery.” I like a somewhat mysterious God, but that’s just a slap in the face.
Spong holds that the audience of Jews hearing these stories would not have even thought to take them literally because they heard them in the context of the festival and their Hebrew scripture readings. Plus, remember, Paul wrote NOTHING about Jesus performing miracles… certainly he would have used that to his advantage if he’d heard of that.
So, now if we consider these passages in a new light, in a more than literal way, and in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah and the anticipation of a messiah, it puts a completely different spin on things. Spong says:
Miracles represent the edited and expanded understanding of the Matthean principle, namely that God is present in Jesus and all people will be united in him. It is a wonderful interpretive portrait. It points to the experience of life expanded and made whole in the presence of Jesus. That experience is literal. The story is not. Matthew calls people to enter that experience. It is not a call to believe in miracles, but a call to enter the one who makes all life whole.
Matthew wanted people to enter into the Jesus experience where eyes are opened to the Divine presence, where ears hear anew the message of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and blessedness, where we walk with renewed purpose leaving that which crippled us behind, and where we are moved to speak the language of God which is the language of love and hope and joy.
This is so much more than the literal message!
We’re called to a deeper relationship with the Divine than being an object to be acted upon. We are called to SEE, to HEAR, to KNOW, to GIVE and to LOVE with our hearts and souls, and so to be made whole.