First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 12

William Loader

Pentecost 12: 31 August  Matthew 16:21-28

For Matthew identity is about much more than status; it is about performance. In Mark this scene is part of a single passage which flows from Mark 8:27 to 9:1. In Matthew there is a break. Matthew has added, 'From that time,' at the beginning of 16:21. This has the effect of setting the next scene off from 16:13-20, which we considered last week. On the other hand, the one certainly affects the other. The empowered Peter fails, just as he did when invited to walk on water.

Jesus' announcement of his impending visit to Jerusalem, which will result in his suffering and then his resurrection (16:21), derives from Mark 8:31, where it forms the first of three such predictions which come in rapid succession. The other two are 9:31 and 10:33. Matthew also takes these up into his gospel, but more material intervenes so the effect is less dramatic. He refers to the prediction, then, a fourth time in 26:2. In Mark each of these predictions is set in contrast to failures on the part of the disciples to understand the path of suffering and, instead, to be preoccupied with their own power and status. In Matthew this is still there, at least with the first and the third, but it is less dominant in the context of the whole section of chapters 16-20.

The path of suffering set out in 16:21 is fundamental for Matthew. It is interesting that he has replaced 'Son of Man' (Mark 8:31) with the simple, 'I'. It is almost as though he has transferred it (by cut and paste!) up to 16:13! Jesus' suffering receives emphasis because it is part of his obedience and provides a model for faithfulness of the disciples and doubtless of Matthew's hearers who also face adversity. The focus is not his dying for their sins. This understanding of Jesus' death is also known to Matthew, but receives little emphasis.

The path of lowliness is an important commentary on the nature of the authority and leadership given to Peter and the church in the preceding verses. The bottom line is to be like Jesus in the exercise of leadership. He lived out what the beatitudes blessed. Matthew sharpens the focus on Peter in the verses which follow. In a play on Peter's name, Matthew adds that Peter has become a 'skandalon', a rock which trips people over. Peter has failed to understand Jesus' leadership and lowliness. He is espousing the common values of the time about power and worth and not espousing God's values. The lectionary selections from Matthew will not take us to the passages about the small child in the midst and the challenge to espouse a different understanding of greatness and power from that of those who throw it around in this world (see 18:1-5; 20:26-27). We need to bear them in mind. It is quite remarkable that Jesus addresses Peter in the same way he addressed the devil in the wilderness: 'Get behind me, Satan!' (4:10).

16:24-26 now apply these insights to the way of discipleship. The call is not to lose self identity and so abandon one's responsibility, but to abandon the agenda for living which pits self against the others. It is the creation and defence of a self image which will manipulate others to its own advantage, be preoccupied with its own power and with creating and defending its worth. It plays games to create and sustain good impressions. It is a false self because it denies that God loves us for who we are and assures us that we do not need to justify ourselves and can be free from all the business of the false self. We don't need facades. Denying oneself and taking up the cross is abandoning the project of the constructed self and allowing oneself to be real and vulnerable, to be loved and loving, also to the point of suffering and death. These texts are not calling us away from what it means to be a human being, but calling us to be truly human, to find our true selves in God, but abandoning our false selves.

Loss and gain is an issue. Clearly we are being encouraged to espouse what will be of gain. Sometimes these texts have been expounded in a way that has led people to expect that they should not value themselves and that has led to a kind of inverse hypocrisy, where one parades before oneself that one is of no value - usually a lie and certainly a denial of the gospel. The true nurture of the self is to love ourselves as God loves us. It is serving the false self that is selfishness. Caring for oneself as God cares for us means opening oneself to God's love as the life and energy of the soul. That love will expand in all directions: towards ourselves, towards others, towards God. When Christianity is perceived as teaching that we should ignore our own interests, there is deception and untruth. The gospel is an appeal to people to recognise what is good for them (in their self interest) - so here: what is gainful. The answer lies in a revolutionary thought. I find myself, we find ourselves, when we allow ourselves to be loved and to love and to abandon the effort to manipulate that love from others by playing games and exercising power.

Many, if not most people have their fair share of serving the false self. Sometimes it is because they have experienced so very little of love for themselves for who they are. So they have built up facades and hidden behind them for years. The structures now form such an integral part of their being that change is likely to be traumatic. It is important in preaching that we do not simply go on the attack against such structures. Some exposure of the issues is appropriate, but the focus needs to be on trying to let people see something of the light of God's love which might shine into the darkness through a crack and awaken them to new ways of being - gently. Sometimes the energy to save people by crashing through their barriers is the very abuse of power which Jesus confronts here. Threatened, shrivelled people hiding behind massive artifices which have enabled them to survive, need tenderness and understanding. They don't want to be told off for not letting themselves be loved. Sometimes any change will require extensive therapeutic help. It is never unhealthy to proclaim the gospel of God's compassion, .. compassionately!

Matthew has revised Mark 8:38 to bring out all the more clearly that ultimately we shall be judged not by our status nor even by whether we are 'Christian', but solely by the reality of our performance, a common Matthean theme which has a profoundly levelling effect (16:27). 16:28 may indicate that Matthew contemplates that history will reach its climax with the return of the Son of Man within a generation or so of his writing. It has been hard to sustain that urgency for 2000 years - but certain groups will get excited as we reach 2000. The transfiguration (17:1-8) is like the 'shorts' of a movie. It gives an advance showing of that day and brings us back to the figures who featured in 16:13. Whether in time or space, we are dealing in 16:21-28 with ultimate issues which affect the world of the individual as well as the world in which we all share. Love sets us free to love and to lead in serving and to find fulfilment in such giving which characterises the life of God and is revealed in the story of Jesus.

Epistle:  Pentecost 12: 31 August  Romans 12:9-21

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