A Meditation on “Bread” in Matthew’s Gospel

February 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Lord’s Prayer.  And the enigmatic phrase related to “daily bread”.  Enigmatic because the prayer uses a word for “bread” which apparently was so little used in Greek (and nobody knows the presumed Aramaic equivalent used by Jesus) – that now nobody knows exactly how to interpret that part of a prayer so well known to all of us.

So, here goes…  Based on the petition for bread from the Lord’s Prayer – as the theme of bread resonates  across Matthew’s Gospel – and possibly dovetails with another theme close to my heart – that of God’s Rest.  (I’m thinking of the beloved quote:  “Come to me all you…  and I will give you rest.”)  Let me anticipate by adding that another title for this post might have been:  Jesus – Source of Sabbath Rest. 

Let’s start with the first reference to “bread” in Matthew’s Gospel.  Maybe this will surprise you:  “Jesus was born in Bethlehem…”  Bethlehem means House of Bread.  Now, recall that only two gospels provide information on  Christ’s birth… but in two different locations.  So if Matthew states he was born in Bethlehem, should we see meaning in that?  You can choose not to, but I’m going to entertain the idea that Matthew (or his tradition) had reason to flag House of Bread as the earthly origin of Emmanuel (God with us) .  

Doesn’t that just start your neurons tingling???

Moving right along…  Our next meeting with the word bread comes in the desert when the Tempter says to Jesus:  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  Once again, two gospels (the same two) reference such a temptation.  Luke words it slightly differently and has Jesus answer only that “one does not live by bread alone” while Matthew extends that by adding “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  And Matthew also tells us that Jesus is quoting scripture when he uses that reply – in a quote from Deuteronomy:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Wow!  Now we’ve got humility, hunger, and a mysterious kind of feeding – from the Lord’s mouth to ours.  Word = Bread.  Bread of Life.  Word of Life.  And a connection to the Torah, specifically to the book which constitutes Moses relaying God’s teachings – akin to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – a teaching centered around the Lord’s Prayer.  Which is itself centered around the request for bread.

And if we look closely at the Sermon on the Mount, we find it bracketed at its beginning and end by allusions to bread:  a reference to “hungering and thirsting” smack in the middle of the Beatitudes which begin the Sermon in Chapter 5; and the command in Chapter 7 to “ask… search… knock” with the promise that “the door will be opened” – illustrated by the very image of a child asking for bread and God’s gifts being akin to a parent granting her child’s request.  So we again have a connection with bread – as the image of God’s goodness and graciousness, blessing us for hungering and thirsting (for righteousness/justice, etc.), where prayer and action on behalf of the Kingdom  are somehow linked in meaning with images of  “word” and “bread”.   To stretch the image even further, one could imagine the kneading of dough – water and wheat, salt and yeast – as putting the Sermon into practice, following the recipe, so to speak.  Prayer and the Holy Spirit – being perhaps the condition of dough becoming bread.  (Ok, yes, it’s a stretch – but this is meditation, not a proof!)

I could practically rest my case here.  But indulge me a bit longer…

Scripture is so rich!  As I’ve said before, it’s like a symphony, a harmonic whole, conversing with itself.

So now we take what may appear to be a bit of side trip, where I’m going to present a quote and then comment upon its placement, because it’s the placement, I think, that will help us connect this quote with the theme of bread that I’ve been following.  Like a trail of breadcrumbs…  here’s the next bit:

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Now rest concerns the Sabbath.  (God rested on the 7th day.)  And immediately following Jesus invitation to take his yoke (recall that Yoke for a Jew suggests the Yoke of the Torah =  God’s Teaching, his Word of Life)…  Immediately (!) we have a story where Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath.  And Matthew has Jesus justify his disciples’ plucking heads of grain and eating them by reminding the Pharisees that David and his men, when hungry “entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence.”  Among other important things, Jesus also tells them (us):  “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Wow!  Lord of the SabbathImmediately following the promise of rest – if we will just take his yoke, learn from him, God-with-us, “gentle and humble of heart.”  And Matthew soon provides this wonderful quote from Isaiah:

‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smouldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.
   And in his name the Gentiles will hope.’

So many allusions in that quote.  Reminds us of the recent Baptism story (just before the desert fasting and temptations), the Gospel message – even to the Gentiles – and the gentle invitation to us all in the quote promising rest, that Jesus’ yoke is one that “will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick…”

But let’s back up just a minute.  For I’ve given you part of the context for the quote promising rest (which is what follows in the Sabbath story).  But I need to provide what exactly precedes the invitation, which is a quote more reminiscent of John’s Gospel than of Matthew’s.  A quote which appears in John’s Gospel at the Last Supper (umm…. think bread!) just prior to the footwashing (an action which stands, in John’s Gospel, where the Eucharistic event is recalled by the synoptics).  I’m going to give the whole of the quote, for its seems to be part of a prayer – but I will flag in bold the words which most interest me (and match those prior to the footwashing):

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Followed by “Come to me….  and I will give you rest.”  Rest…  the Sabbath.  Given by God as a time and a commandment.  Now entrusted to Jesus, who offers us both companionship and rest.

Ok, I know this is getting really long.  Long story short:  Matthew’s Gospel offers two miraculous feedings.  Should we take special note of that?  Yes!  One in Chapter 14.  Another in Chapter 15.  Smack in the middle of this Gospel.  Both in the context of crowds who’ve come out to listen to his teaching, to follow this man whose words and deeds are so powerful.  Unlike John there is no lengthy mystical preaching on Jesus as the Bread of Life.  But we know that already:  Jesus comes from Bethlehem; he offers God’s rest (with all its biblical implications of wholeness, healing, eternal Life).

Finally, as we all know, Jesus, at the Last Supper, identifies himself with bread that has been blessed and broken to feed his disciples.

I end with a reference to the monastic view of reading and internalizing scripture.  There is an image of meditating upon it as one would chew bread.  Ruminating.  (Think of a cow chewing its cud.)

There’s a huge amount of commentary on whether the Lord’s Prayer asks only for physical breadThere’s nothing wrong, of course, in praying the prayer that way.  But somehow I’m not convinced, that Matthew wants to limit our understanding of the prayer that way.  Bread is just too rich a symbol.  To waste.  S0  …  Go for the mystical!

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Forgiveness – the Heart of Mercy

November 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

Mercy.  Forgiveness.  When Jesus went around Galilee – healing and preaching – one of the things we see him doing over and over is telling people:  Your sins are forgiven.

This came home to me a few weeks back, when I was reading the selections for one day’s liturgy.  First there was a selection from Paul (Romans 15:14-21), next a parable from Luke (16:1-8).  And I heard the words in a new way, a way which pertains to what I’ve been reaching towards in this blog (related to priesthood) as well as in my Nothingness blog (related to writing down my Soul in a sense).

Now, I’m going to quote Paul’s words but using two translations because I’ve done a lot of thinking about this and consulted various translation and commentaries, together with just treasuring these things in my heart for a bit.  Till they ripened.

So here are Paul’s words as they struck me (in bold) – in relation to the parable and to my own experience of Holy Mystery:

I myself am convinced about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.  But I have written to you rather boldly in some respects to remind you, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus in the priestly service of the Gospel of God for I will not speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me by the power of the Spirit of God.

Now, please forgive me.  But I hear those words as if spoken through me – for you.  And also to all of us for each of us.  Our goodness.  Our ability to instruct one another.  Our (baptismal) priestly call to service.  On behalf of the Gospel.  And the fact that the Holy Spirit is working through each of us – for all of us – as ministers of Christ Jesus.  That we too are called.  Just as Paul was called.  Out of our daily lives.  Out of our limitations and waywardness.  To hear the Gospel anew.  And to serve it – as if we were servants bearing the food of the Word to a hungry world.

And what does the Gospel say – for that day in the Lectionary?   What is the Gospel, in other words, that we are to spread?  (Assuming we are in touch with God’s own Power in our lives – that we have experienced the healing touch of God’s undeserved Mercy.  Which is, in a sense, how I read Paul’s words – as if the Holy Spirit is speaking them from within my heart.)

The Gospel Parable is one that has always been a mystery to me.  Till now.  It tells of the Steward squandering his Master’s property.  That’s us, of course.  And the threat of judgment, of being dismissed.  Thrown out of the Kingdom.  Which, God, in my own experience (now I’m speaking the Gospel as delivered to me in my own life) does not want to do.  OK, the threat is there.  We find it in the Gospel.  Throughout the Bible.  But the even stronger message (as delivered to me) is the never-ending, undeserved, unlooked-for (because undeserving – I think TS Eliot said something like that) MERCY of Divine Love.

And by the way, this is clearly what Pope Francis is getting at.  Over and over.  Through word and deed.  And particularly in his most recent (and truly wonderful) apostolic exhortation:  The Joy of the Gospel.  (The link provides for a pdf download.)  Where Francis makes it clear that indeed this joy is for all of us – to spread.

And what are we to spread?  I honestly think that the “unjust” Steward, as he is sometimes called, turned to forgiveness.  And we know that “forgiveness of debts” is part of the Our Father.  And while it could mean actual objects of money, if we consider Jesus, who so often forgave sins even before he healed physical woes, then what are called to do?  But to do as Jesus did.  To go around offering Mercy.  To all.

Not just to forgive those who have personally hurt us.  But to extend Mercy and Forgiveness on a general basis.  To all those, in particular, who are hurting, who are laboring under burdens.  To lift those psychological burdens and spiritual burdens and physical burdens.  Simply to go around – even in the quietness of our daily lives – extending that Love in ways big and small.  To preach the Gospel – at all times.  “If necessary with words.”  (St. Francis said – and Pope Francis does and says.)

Go.  And do likewise.

Lord of the Sabbath

May 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

What is this REST that Jesus offers?

When Jesus declares:  “and I will give you Rest” the Jews of his time would have heard echoes of Genesis and Exodus.  The Sabbath Rest.  The Promise of Rest.  Wholeness and healing.  Safety and security.  Absence of oppression.  A Merciful Heart ~ like His.

And note that just prior to this offer to all of us, Matthew’s gospel has Jesus declare that God has placed everything in his hands:

27All things have been handed over to me by my Father…

See Matthew 11: 25-30

And this quote is significant.  For it links with John’s Gospel:

And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

Note the similarities in both Gospels at this point.  We have Jesus declaring his indwelling union with the Father, which includes a “handing over” of everything and a tender care for everyone.  A gift of self.  A share in Divinity.  For it not only relates to Christ’s Lordship over everything, but in both places its context is one of Christ’s humility, his desire to share His LIFE with us.  His self-emptying servanthood, meant to teach us to do the same.

So when Jesus says to us:  “Come to me… take my yoke…”  he not not only offers to join us to himself,  but he thereby asks that we too become “callers” and “carriers” – people who offer ourselves, who offer to share the burdens and the suffering of others.  To bring wholeness and healing, Sabbath Rest, to a broken world.

Indeed, immediately following this in-gathering Call in Matthew’s Gospel, Christ explicitly declares himself Lord of the Sabbath:

12At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’

Lord of the Sabbath – another Name of God that Jesus shares with the Father.  But there is more in those words above.  For Jesus, in declaring that the priests are above the sabbath (that they can “break” the law of the sabbath), is reminding us of our own priesthood.  The priesthood of our Baptism.  

Sabbath.  Rest.  Liberation from the LawReminder of our share in his priesthood.

“And I will give you Rest”

May 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Do you have one quote from Scripture that has stayed with you for decades?  Something you’ve pondered deeply?  Which runs, like a refrain, through your life?  Lives within you?

Here’s mine:

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

(from Matthew 11: 25-30)

Now the link above actually gives you both the quote and its the foregoing context.  (A context that links to the foot-washing in John 13.)  But from my childhood, when I first heard the words, nearly 60 years ago, the “come to me” has resonated so deeply.  And through the years individual words and phrases, ones you find all over the Bible, these too, I’ve pondered again and again:  ComeRestMercy in a gentle, caring God.  Offering peace and rest.  A personal call.  The sense of mission – which actually scared me as a child of 8 or 9.  (What would God ask of me?)

I love that quote.

But now I know more.  Now I see that Jesus is revealing Divinity.  And sharing it.  Offering a share in Himself.   Offering more than YHWH offers Moses:

14He said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’

(Exodus 33:14)

Presence.  Rest.  Indwelling.  The spiritual reality we are given at Baptism.  The summit of our spiritual journey – if we live into it.

There’s so much here.  This is enough for now.

More Musing on the Footwashing

April 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s very interesting how liturgical dates affect us, even if they are out of sync, so to speak.  Ash Wednesday did that to me (a liturgical date that is not marked within Orthodoxy, but surely happened in my heart).  And now it’s Holy Thursday, one week early (in terms of the Orthodox celebration this year).  Nonetheless, here I am, musing on the Foot Washing, and feeling the need to write up some thoughts I’ve been pondering for a while.

The icon above shows us the disciples taking off their sandals.  Which reminds me of the Burning Bush and the words to Moses:  Take off your shoes.  For this is Holy Ground.”  And since icons are part of Tradition, one has to wonder if the Icon itself is intended to remind us of Moses’ first encounter with Holy Mystery  (YHWH).  We certainly cannot discount that.

But actually we have no description of this in John’s Gospel.  Instead, I think, we are (perhaps) reminded of the First Chapter of John, where John himself assures us, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.

So I wonder…  as Jesus went from disciple to disciple, even as Peter tried to stop him, did Jesus not only wash feet but untie sandals to do so?  For if untying sandals is a lowly task, how much more lowly the task of washing feet?  We are left to ponder this as well, for John provides no clues.

Two things have struck me of late.  The first one is a link between the Foot Washing (John, Chapter 13) and  the discourse on the Vine and the Branches (John, Chapter 15).   And the second relates to the kind of humility asked of us, not the kind we usually think of (to follow the example of the foot-washing in terms of our brothers and sisters), but the very command that to receive a share in the Divine Life we must hand ourselves over to the one who seeks to wash our feet, something we, like Peter, shrink from.  For it is almost inconceivable to what lengths the Holy One will go in search of us, in a desire to heal and cleanse us, in an insistent yearning to unite with us, as the very Holy Ground upon which we walk and out of which we grow:  An inner and outer Abiding, which is our very Life.  To which we must freely submit.  For it is not something we can do on our own.

So where do I get this idea that the Foot Washing (Chapter 13) connects to the Vine and Branches (Chapter 15) in John’s Gospel?  Once again, while I have no command of Greek, I am told in various sources that the Greek word for “cleanse, make clean” is the same word as “prune, take away, cut off” – a term which appears only in these two chapters of John, only in reference to the foot-washing (the interchange with Peter) and the pruning of branches.  Hmmm….

In Chapter 15, we are told that the pruning of the branches is the work of the Father.  And that the cleansing occurs through the action of the Word:

bear fruit

15 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.

Compare this to Chapter 13 where Peter at first refuses to have his feet washed:

6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’

And what is this share we receive through the washing?  I think Chapter 15 provides a clue:

4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

Once again, the “LOVE Command” (in relation to the Vine and Branches) – already stated in Chapter 13 after the Foot Washing (following an announcement of Jesus’ coming glorification):

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

And underlying all of this, I think, the singular and amazing point, underscored in Chapter 15, in connection with the Love Command:

16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…

The foot-washing, it seems to me, emphasizes an almost maternal care and love, including even the description of the Beloved Disciple resting on Jesus’ breast, together with an insistence that we, too, beloved disciples, must accept this painstaking, attentive care, turning ourselves over (in an almost childlike dependency) to an indwelling and personal intimacy, wherein the Divine Life permeates and transforms us.  And I think that the allusions (within the foot-washing) to the Vine and the Branches, together with the command to go and bear fruit, suggests our spiritual priesthood, where the pressed fruit is at times spoken of in Hebrew as the blood of the grape.

So, yes, I’ve been pondering….

But there is yet one more aspect to the Foot Washing, which complements and extends what I’ve already said.  (And by no means have I exhausted the meaning of this Chapter!)  For the foot-washing is preceded by an interesting comment:

3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

Now the wonderful thing about scripture, to my mind, is how words, phrases, verses, whole stories in one place resonate with other parts of scripture.  (Like the ringing of a bell I once heard as if I my whole self was also resonating.)  And while I cannot assure you that the quote I am about to make really does fit with the words in bold above, nevertheless, given the connections between Jesus as Word (present at the Creation we are assured from John’s Prologue) and Old Testament descriptions of Wisdom‘s power and role within creation itself, there is something cosmic going on here – at this banquet:

1 All wisdom is from the Lord,
and with him it remains for ever.
2 The sand of the sea, the drops of rain,
and the days of eternity—who can count them?
3 The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth,
the abyss, and wisdom—who can search them out?
4 Wisdom was created before all other things,
and prudent understanding from eternity.
6 The root of wisdom—to whom has it been revealed?
Her subtleties—who knows them?
8 There is but one who is wise, greatly to be feared,
seated upon his throne—the Lord.
9 It is he who created her;
he saw her and took her measure;
he poured her out upon all his works,
10 upon all the living according to his gift;
 he lavished her upon those who love him.         (Sirach 1: 1-10)

A sketch in time…

September 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

This post will be like a sketch.  Lines in ink, which hint at the pregnant spaces between them.  For topics I’ve been mentally circling.  Which I could never adequately address.  But before I move on, or until I can deal with them in greater depth, it seems necessary to leave an outline:

Somehow, to me, there are important connections between the following:  the foot-washing of John’s Gospel; the burning bush (God’s SELF-revelation) in Exodus; the three angelic visitors in Genesis; the appearance of Jesus to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel; and this inner priesthood we are immersed in from our Baptism.  Plunged into Divine Life as partakers of Christ’s Incarnation.   That’s the sketch in its briefest form – like a kind of koan: If we meditate on this long enough, we’ll be enlightened.

But to flesh it out just a bit more.  I’ve become convinced that the foot-washing makes sense as a kind of midrash on parts of Deuteronomy and Joshua, specifically as a means of calling for unity (not excluding being a parable on God as both hospitable and humble as part of that calling).   And what clued me into that was Peter’s initial refusal to have his feet washed and Jesus’ enigmatic answer that,  “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

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In the Vineyard of the Lord

September 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

I once wrote a story for a patient called The Garden. It was really a story about therapy – about doing therapy.  About wanting each person to grow according to their inner heart.  But now it strikes me that the Priesthood of our Baptism is like that too.  That we are planted in the Vineyard.  With no uniform blueprint for growth.  (…though many long for it…) But that our God is like the Gardener in my story.  Trying to help each of us – individually, uniquely – to recover from woes and sins we have either endured or inflicted.  That the Garden or the Vineyard, the Kingdom of God, is a place of healing, a place to find the Compassion of God and the Heart of our (Be)longing.

Like the words of St. John Chrysostom, which so struck me when I first read them at my new parish.  Which, indeed, called to me and taught me of Orthodoxy:

Enter into the church and wash away your sins.  For here there is a hospital and not a court of law.  Do not be ashamed again to enter the church; be ashamed when you sin, but not when you repent.

Hospital. And that makes me think of Hospitality. Which makes me think of the Rublev Icon of the Trinity.  Of Abraham offering hospitality.  Of God’s love being so great he created a world and progressively revealed The Divine Life animating all that is and has been and will be.  And in this Hospital – this place of healing and mutual service – we are invited to become not just co-workers grafted into Christ but Partakers of Divine Life itself.

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