Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 8:18-22
We have seen how the previous three healing stories recall the temptation of Jesus in the desert, and pose the question of Jesus’ relationship with authority. In the story of Jesus’ temptation, (4:1-11), the nature of his authority is questioned: will he use his authority in the way of rulers and emperors, or will his way be different? Immediately after the temptation, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the reign of heaven and calling the first disciples.
Now, following three stories of Jesus using his authority to heal, liberate and restore, Matthew tells of some would-be disciples of Jesus. The position of this episode suggests that it is meant to be read in light of the calling of the first disciples in Matthew 4:18-22. There, Jesus calls people to follow him. Here, they approach Jesus. There, Jesus calls fishermen, who belonged to the exploited people on the underside of privilege and power. Here, a scribe is the first to approach Jesus. Rather than forming a group on their own, like the Pharisees or Sadducees, scribes belonged to the retainer class. They were the literate class, who worked in various roles such as royal scribes and government bureaucrats, public and private secretaries, village and local scribes, scribes of voluntary associations, and different levels of torah scholars.1 Scribes could be aligned with a group such as the Pharisees, perhaps in the same way that modern journalists might be aligned with the views of particular political parties. What is clear is that scribes weren’t among the poor, as they must have had some means in order to be educated and possess the materials necessary for writing.
In our story, Jesus answers the scribe with a puzzling saying: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (8:20). It seems that Jesus’ reference to “foxes” and “birds of the air” were more than innocuous observations of the natural world. Herod Antipas had gained the “nickname” of a fox (Luke 18:32), as had the greedy emperor Vespasian.2 In answering the scribe, Jesus “compares his alternative, marginal itinerant existence  of life-giving (20:26-28) with the security of the settled elite.”3 For a scribe to follow Jesus, then, would mean giving up the benefits of their class, and throwing their lot in with those who are marginal. Perhaps this has even been the experience of the author of Matthew’s Gospel(?).
In the earlier story, the disciples left their boats and their father (Mt 4:22) to follow Jesus immediately. Here, a would-be disciple (though he/she is already called a disciple!) asks to “go and bury my father.” Jesus reply, while perhaps seeming to neglect the timeless responsibility to care for elderly parents, which Jesus affirms elsewhere (Mt 15:3-9), might also be seen as a break with patriarchal culture which claimed the allegiance of all in the household. Jesus’ revolution is not business-as-usual in a patriarchal world. Rather, discipleship is “hard, countercultural, single-minded, marginalized, a difficult and liminal lifestyle of absolute and continuing commitment to Jesus amidst participation in society.4
- What strikes you in today’s reading?
- What challenge do you think Jesus saying, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” might bring us?
- What challenge do you think Jesus saying, “let the dead bury their own dead” might bring us?
- Take a moment to consider how God is speaking to you today. Share what you are hearing with a partner or the group.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1. Duling, Dennis C. “Matthew as Marginal Scribe in an Advanced Agrarian Society.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 58, no. 2 (2002): 534-539.
2. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000), 207.
3. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, Kindle loc. 2621.
4. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 209.
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 8:23-27
Today’s reading picks up the story of the sea crossing which Matthew began in 8:18. That Matthew has interrupted the sea crossing story, which he takes from Mark’s Gospel (Mk 4:35-41), with the encounters with would-be disciples (Mt 8:19-22), tells us that he narrates this story with discipleship in mind. Matthew, according to Athol Gill, “recasts the story of the storm in such a way that it not only tells what happened once upon a time at the sea of Galilee, but, more importantly, what happens to disciples time and again as they follow Jesus.”5
The “windstorm” which arises on the sea of Galilee is, as Matthew tells it, a different kind of storm than in Mark’s version. Whereas Mark tells a story of a gale, Matthew uses a word (seismos) which evokes an event of apocalyptic force. “To follow Jesus,” he seems to say, “is a stormy confrontation with cosmic, political, social, economic, and religious powers.”6
Jesus doesn’t respond to the storm immediately after waking, as he does in Mark’s telling. First, he addresses the disciples: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” It is a question which must have struck to the heart of Matthew’s struggling and battered community. How were they to face not only the constant challenge of survival for a people on the underside of exploitation and oppression, but the trouble and persecution which would come as they sought to live out Jesus’ way of just and generous living and nonviolent resistance to imperial powers? In Matthew’s story, Jesus’ actions speak to this question. In the time of Matthew, the emperor Domitian was said to be “master of sea and land.”7 Here, though, it is Jesus, the Galilean peasant, who masters the sea. The disciples’ counter-question, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”, is one which invites the response, “One who has greater authority than the emperors.”
For Matthew’s community, perhaps this story was one which emboldened them to live out the way of Jesus knowing that, whatever came their way, whatever consequences they faced for exposing the injustice of current power arrangements, they followed One of greater authority even than the emperor—and of a radically different kind. It was an authority not exercised in conquering and domination, but in healing and restoration and liberation.
- In what ways do you identify with the disciples in the boat?
- Are there ways in which you are challenged by Jesus’ question, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”?
- Are there ways in which you are encouraged by the authority of Jesus revealed in this story?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
5. Athol Gill, Life on the Road. (1989; repr., Dandenong: UNOH, 2009), 51.
6. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 210.
7. Apollonius 7.3, cited in Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 211.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 8:28-34
Socio-historical studies have noted the connection between the phenomena of demon possession and social contexts of domination and oppression.8 When people under these situations cannot cope, the manifestation of behaviours linked with demon possession can be a “way of coping with and/or a form of protest against harsh (crazy) circumstances, a refusal to accept and adjust to economic, social, religious, and personal demands.”9 This is not to deny a spiritual reality behind what is going on, but to understand this reality in its social context.
It is just such a social context which we find in the Gospels. Oppressed under the imperial power of Rome, the disruption of social and economic relations broke up communities and often families, as families were removed from their land and people were forced into debt-slavery or to leave villages in search of work in the urban centres. Added to this, the intimidation of the Roman military kept the people fearful of any reprisals should any outbreaks of revolt occur near them. In particular, the tenth Fretensis legion, whose mascot was the swine, and who some ten or fifteen years before Matthew’s writing was responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem, was stationed nearby in Syria.
In today’s reading, Matthew relates a story of an encounter with two people said to be “demoniacs.” Though Matthew drops the reference to “legion” from Mark (this was surely a story dangerous enough to tell already in an urban centre like Antioch, without obvious references to the Roman military!), the words he uses for “herd” (agelē) and “rushed/charged” (hōrmēsen) are military terms unusual to be used of pigs.10 Moreover, the connection between pigs and the tenth Fretensis legion’s mascot of swine would have given those who heard this story an unmistakable picture—that of an army rushing down into the sea to be drowned! For those immersed in the traditions of Israel, this was a picture of liberation reminiscent of the exodus from slavery in Egypt. For Matthew’s community, it would have been a prophetic reminder that the powers which have aligned themselves against God’s way of shalom and justice for the created order are on borrowed time.
- Imagine that you are a part of Matthew’s struggling community as you read today’s reading. What hope does it bring you?
- Why do you think the people of the town responded the way they did to Jesus?
- In what ways have you see people under domination this week?
Spend some time praying around the themes that have emerged from today’s reading.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
8. Paul W. Hollenbach, “Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49 no. 4 (Dec 1981): 567-588.
9. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 126.
10. Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (20th Anniversary ed. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008), 191.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Voluntary Simplicity
Read: James 5:1-12
Ask: In what ways are you challenged in your commitment to voluntary simplicity this week?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer