“Tell No One”

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
– Matthew 16:13-21

Biblical scholars have debated for centuries about why Jesus would have ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. The most obvious reason, though, is apparent once we strip away the accretions of church dogma: Jesus never intended that anyone outside the church should think of him that way.

This is, as I’ve said before, one of only two places in all the four gospels that Jesus says anything about church. Jesus’ blessing Peter for making the assertion and tying that assertion to Peter’s cornerstone foundational position in the building of the indestructible church indicates that the messianic understanding of Jesus is tied specifically to the church. It was never intended that it should apply to anyone else’s. Jesus is specifically the church’s messiah, who in turn passes exclusive messianic power to the church.

The consequence of this connection is, however, that the only legitimate basis for the church’s existence is the community carrying out the messianic purpose of God’s. In today’s world, that messianic purpose is often misunderstood, even by the communities claiming to be the church. (Indeed, it’s an open question, given Peter’s objection to Jesus’ next pronouncement about going to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, whether even Peter knew what he was talking about.) God’s messianic purpose is misconstrued to confer powers and privileges that are unintended.

Inasmuch as Jesus embodies God’s messianic purpose, that purpose is self-sacrificial, as his subsequent statement indicates.  Therefore, the church referred to here, unlike most churches we’re familiar with in North America, is the community that really and correctly understands its basis for existence in its self-sacrifice. Over the years, the so-called marks of the true church have been misplaced in piddling arguments about correct worship and observation of rites and sacraments and ordinances and all manner of arguing over polity. On the basis of this passage, some have claimed that to really be the church there has to be some kind of linear decent from Peter. It’s all crap.

The only way to tell that a church is really the church in the sense Matthew’s Jesus is talking about is when you see it die to give life to someone else.

It’s not glorious or triumphant. It makes no claims about what anyone else should do to achieve salvation. It seeks no worldly recognition or consideration or privilege. Nor does it ask for anyone’s approval. It simply goes wherever people need saving and gives everything it has away in the faith that binding what it does on earth, it will find its reward in heaven. A church that really understands messianic power doesn’t talk about it. It just does it.

Who’s the Slave?

Photo Credit: Daniel Dillman

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
– Exodus 1:8-14

Here is a perfect example of an all-too-often repeated dynamic. The minority tyrannizes the majority, why? Because the minority is afraid that the majority, of whom they are afraid, will escape, will run away and leave the terrified minority alone? That it would be easier just to let them go and be done with it, they’re gone now, nobody to be afraid of, never occurs to them. So, again, whose life is more circumscribed: the slave’s or the slave master’s?

Another paradox: the more the oppression, the more the problem grows. The more the problem grows, the more fear, the more the oppressive response. And on it goes.

Seth Godin recently remarked about the problems with basing a society’s (or any system’s) response on fear. It turns out that fighting terror with terror isn’t really a viable strategy in the long term. And Seth’s stories of his adventures at the airport are only the tip of the iceberg.

Fear and slavery are the way empires from Egypt to the USA have always worked. (They are also the reason no empire to date has lasted more than a few hundred years.) Therefore, the Exodus story is just as relevant today as it was the day it was first written down.

In response to this ancient dynamic, we would do well to ask ourselves why so much of our public discourse revolves around fear? Could it be that we’re simply as blind as the Egyptians to our version of the folly? Must we be the world’s police force? Really? Do we really think we’re that much in control of the world when we can’t even control our own credit rating. For a nation as fixated on a God of retributive justice as we are, we sure seem to be intent on relieving God of employment.

What would happen if we really took the advice of the Exodus story and simply let it go? What if we really acted as if FDR’s was right when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Who’s the slave? Who’s life is more circumscribed?

Is it:

  • the oppressed or the oppressor
  • the Hebrew or the Egyptian
  • the passenger or the TSA agent
  • the employee or the boss
  • the child or the parent
  • the Guantanamo detainee or the American soldier
  • the sweatshop laborer or the corporate executive?

How do you loose the bonds of slavery? How do you break out of the destructive, unsustainable patterns? The answer, hidden behind the fear of the moment, but obvious with a few thousand years’ hindsight: “Let my people go.”

What do you think? Is it possible, in the grip of an imperial fear-based system, for the oppressor to let go?

What Will Joseph Do?

Famine in the Horn of Africa, 2011
Photo Credit: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
– Genesis 45:1-15

Today as this post goes live, and this weekend as many Christians will hear it read in their churches, we would do well to observe that this is a time of famine. In the story, and today. The worst drought in 60 years has hit parts of East Africa affecting more than 10 million people.

The story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers is, of course, a happy one. But the backdrop is one of global disaster. The reason Joseph’s brothers have come is that there is no food. There has been no food for two years, and there will be no food for another five.

The take-away we commonly hear is this line about how they (the brothers) meant for ill but God meant it for good, and there’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. But in this story’s global context, Joseph’s words about how God sent him to Egypt “to preserve life” takes on a much greater significance. Indeed, Joseph preserves the lives of countless Egyptians along with the Israelites, but he does so in a way that makes them all slaves to Pharaoh. Joseph’s divine vision and insight is mixed with a healthy dose of political opportunism.

Such is always the case with claims of divinity. They come wrapped in human agendas. And, while the human agenda doesn’t negate the possibility of divine revelation, it makes religion in politics a particularly harrowing proposition with a propensity to end up in slavery.

To come back around to the connection between the famine then and the famine now, we might take at face value Joseph’s assertion that God intended his being there for good. Indeed Joseph had the power and used it to save lives. Given that assertion, that God places people, in advance, in the position to save lives in times of famine, then there are three compelling questions:

  1. Who has God placed in the position to save lives in the Horn of Africa today?
  2. Will they exercise their power? And,
  3. Will they exercise it in a way that will not enslave those who are saved?

Or, to put it a more colloquial way: Who is today’s Joseph? And, What will Joseph do?

By way of beginning an answer, there are plenty of aid groups on the ground in Somalia and Kenya. They are doing the best they can under extreme conditions, and they are to be commended. There have been millions of dollars dispatched in aid to the region. That’s good, it’s necessary, and it’s right.

That said, of all the governors and representatives pandering to the pious sensibilities of folk in today’s politics, will the real Joseph please stand up? Joseph is someone who has real power to influence the known world, who has the foresight to see what is coming, and the political savvy to get resources where they need to be. Who is (and where is) the world leader who has the vision to anticipate the famine that is coming seven years from now? Three years from now? Who will go ahead while so many others mean for ill, selling their brothers and sisters into slavery for their own convenience, to be the one to “keep alive many survivors.”

That person is the instrument of God. I don’t care what religion he or she may (or may not) be. Do you?

Meanwhile, if you want to help now, here is a list of reputable famine relief organizations compiled by CBS, some faith-based, some not.

Step 3 – Make the Enemy Your Friend

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Rembrandt, circa. 1650. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
– Matthew 15:21-28

We are learning from Matthew how to do great Kingdom things. Beginning with the story (Matthew 14:13-21) of Jesus feeding the 5000, noted that a similar event takes place at the end of Matthew 15. The two events bookend a series of events in which we learn how to do what Jesus does. The first step was the crossing of the sea (Matthew 14:22-33) in which we learned the importance of working through internal self-doubt to discover faith. Step 2 was the confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes in which we learned that to do what Jesus has in mind, we have to be willing to break a few rules.

Step 3 takes us into a foreign land – Tyre and Sidon. And, for the exposition that follows, I’m greatly indebted to Simon Harak.

Jesus has been rejected by the leaders of his own people and he ends up in this northern region. Some suggest that this is a popular vacation spot, and Jesus is still trying to get some time off after having heard of John the Baptist’s death, the event which set this whole chain of stories in motion. And, while it may be plausible that Jesus is looking for a little R&R, it’s also true that, even if for now the people in general are receptive to Jesus, his demonstration of sympathy for the common folk is beginning to garner the not-so-welcome notice of the authorities.

This fact of Jesus’ rejection is the key to understanding the exchange that follows with this Canaanite woman. But first some additional background:

  • In this culture (as is still true of many cultures throughout the Middle East today) an honor code dictates who can interact with whom and on what terms. We see this same honor code in play in the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:9). This same honor code would dictate that a Canaanite woman shouldn’t be approaching a Jewish man and speaking without first having been spoken to, let alone making requests of him.
  • Faced with this breach of propriety, Jesus can (according to accepted convention) do one of two things. He can either pretend it didn’t happen or he can point out her inappropriate behavior. At first, he attempts the first option: “But he did not answer her at all.” But when she continues, the disciples, embarrassed by the behavior, want him to send her away. So he attempts option 2: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This response clearly identifies the nature of the breach in protocol in a manner that allows the woman to correct her behavior without embarrassing her.
  • Rather than correct her behavior, however, she throws herself at her feet, signaling that he must deal with her one way or another. There will be no easy out for either of them.

This is the situation when Jesus speaks these words that trouble so many pious Christians: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Under the circumstances, it is the only remaining socially acceptable response.

But here is where the key fits: Jesus has been rejected by the leaders of his people, those who have the say-so about what is available on the table for those who call themselves God’s children. So she says, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Jesus has called her a dog, and she in turn, takes him down to the level of a crumb cast off the table, as if to say, “Well, crumb, here you are: you may once have been a Jew, but now you have fallen to me, and I will have my right.”

This is when Jesus says, “great is your faith.” One of only two people Jesus ever says this to. (Contrast this with the scene on the sea with Peter and Jesus saying, “Oh, you of little faith.”) This woman, the enemy, has great faith, the self-assuredness we spoke of in Step 1, great enough to approach Jesus, toe to toe, and confident enough to realize that she was going to have to break the rules to do what was needed for her daughter (contrast this with the Pharisees attitude toward taking care of family members). And she was ready to treat Jesus, not as a pious icon, but a real person, bound by the same cultural constraints as the rest of the world, so that in speaking the truth she became the instrument of his salvation as much as he was the instrument of hers.

So, by the end of this encounter, they are no longer bound in unequal relationship by the cultural constraints of their time and place. They are equals: each the savior of the other. The enemy has become a friend. How? By the recognition that just because someone is an enemy doesn’t mean they can’t have great faith, and that great faith, no matter who wields it, holds the capacity for liberation.

Finally, we have all three steps necessary to return to Galilee and to care for and feed the multitudes again. They are:

  1. Confront the self-doubt within and come to a place of faith in your own capacity to do what’s right;
  2. Stand up to those who make rules and criticisms aimed at distracting you from doing what’s right; and
  3. Recognize that in the enemy and other there is the possibility of redemption, not just for them, but for yourself.

What’s next?

Jesus returns to Galilee to heal and feed the multitudes again. The disciples still haven’t learned, and question where they are to get enough bread to feed everyone. But, hopefully, we who are looking on have learned what Jesus is trying to lead them to do.

What enemies have you had the courage to engage with lately? And, have you been able to recognize in your enemy any liberating truth about yourself? Could this be why Jesus said it was so important to love your enemy? Could our enemies really be the instruments of our very salvation?