Red Letter Experiment: Money Trees or Mud Holes? Matt. 18: 1-4

middle_east28-01 “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing…never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

A quick recap on my Red Letter Experiment: After reading Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne’s book, Red Letter Revolution, I felt like I had two choices: 1) to act like the book was an interesting discourse on possibilities and certainly worthy of discussion, or 2) to dive into Jesus’ words headfirst without even dabbing a test toe in first. I chose number two, but most of the time I’m living number one. Call me human and distracted. I think my “Preview” blog from yesterday (June 27, 2013) clarified the situation a bit.

But no excuses. I’ve been dabbing test toes in several different books of the Bible and tossing around ideas for an in-depth Bible study for the summer. Maybe Isaiah again? What about Romans (I jumped away from that one really fast!)? I even started a study on 1st Corinthians after completing one on 2nd Peter and Jude. (Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago has incredible teaching series on podcasts available free of charge! I learned so much. Amazing teachers! Go to: http://media.willowcreek.org/classes/bible-and-theology/god-speaks-we-listen-the-process-of-serious-bible-study-part-1/#content )

Still uncertain about 1 Corinthians, I listened to Dr. Grant Osborne teach a six-part series on how to go deeper in my private Bible study time. Wowsers. Terrific teaching. Overwhelming amount of information. But one of Dr. Osborne’s simplest bits of guidance was the alliterative “Read–Reflect–React.”  I could–and can–do that. So, good-bye 1st Corinthians (for a bit) and back to the red letters of Jesus in Matthew. I’m on my second Rhodia notebook just over the book of Matthew. I’m up to Matthew 18 now. So what does Matthew 18:1-4 tell me about how to live?

Step 1

Dr. Osborne would tell me to look at the context–both historical and cultural. When you open your Bible up to Matthew 18, you are going to find yourself staring at a double-wide red spread. Yep. Matthew 18 is almost entirely Jesus talking and teaching. This is the fourth discourse of five discourses in Matthew. Jesus spent chapter 17 getting transfigured by God and visiting with Moses and Elijah while Peter, John, and James stared slack-jawed. Then Jesus healed a boy possessed by demons that his disciples hadn’t been able to heal. This led to another discussion on mustard seeds. Of course, Jesus kept making subtle and not-so-subtle references to his imminent death and resurrection. Oh, obtuse disciples! I doubt I would have been much different. Jesus closes out the chapter with a discussion on temple taxes and a fish with a drachma in its mouth. Cool way to end a chapter. A fish story.

Step 2

A little human context. Think about where you work. I teach at a high school. Between  classes, we teachers stand in the hall in order to prevent buffoonery, overt displays of fully-clothed sex, possible drug deals, fights and literary brawls (an English hall, after all), but mostly we just share chocolate, gum and the latest frustration regarding the administration or parents or crazy teenagers. If one of us is feeling bummed, the others will try to encourage and do a little rah-rah routine. But sometimes we digress into the dark and twisty world of comparison. “Well, I do this and she only does this (da da dum)!” “Can you believe he or she or it got Best Common Core Curriculum Practicer? Really?” “I know, you are so much better at that than he/she/it is!”

It’s ugly. it happens. It was happening with the disciples in Matthew 18. Matthew (maybe because he was a former tax collector and felt like he had received inordinate amounts of mercy) doesn’t recount the apparent somewhat heated conversation between the disciples, but Mark and Luke lay it out pretty clearly. “Who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”

Thank God I am not Jesus. Wow. Weird statement if you think about it a minute. I would have rapped their bare toes with my walking stick and told them “Too bad, so sad–you will be on latrine duty for the first part of eternity for that question.”  I might have done a spinning ninja kick and challenged them to a walking stick fight for positions in the kingdom. Sigh. Jesus might have sighed. Might. Maybe. And who could blame him? He’s been walking and teaching and healing with these guys for quite awhile now. They should know better. And he knows his time is running out. He’s got to get these guys ready for spreading the gospel to the whole world. He knows they are going to be murdered because of their faith, so he’s got to make them understand who He is, where he’s going, and what His kingdom looks like.  He’s only got 10 more chapters. Not long.

Read. Matthew 18: 1-4. 

Jesus could have answered their question about who would be the greatest in a very direct way. He might have said: “Anyone who thinks they are all that and a bag of chips–anyone who thinks he or she has me all figured out and understands the mystery of the Trinity–anyone who walks around acting all holy and righteous and telling everyone else how to be as holy and righteous as they are–anyone who ignores the insignificant, powerless people in favor of those with prestige–any of those types of people haven’t got a chance in hell of entering the kingdom.”

Whoa! Step back there Jesus! Getting a little too direct. A little too real. Couch it in a parable, please. It’s much more palatable. Jesus already knew that. He knew that the Kingdom of Heaven could only be understood through parable. So, bring in the child. Maybe the child is dirty. Barefoot. Torn robe. Bad breath. Skinny. Lice-ridden hair. Insignificant. Powerless. And then Jesus lays the truth on them–and he warns them first! “I tell you the truth (see!), unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Reflect.

Look at Matthew’s diction choices. Yes, they were originally in Greek, but if you do a parallel word study, you’ll find consistencies. I like how the Phillips New Testament uses “repent (change, turn about).” Other translations use a variation on the same idea: turn, return, turn around, change, convert (my least favorite). I prefer “repent” to “convert” because there is a sense of “turning” with repent. To “re-” anything, means to do it over. To return to a childlike state is possible because we were all there once. Jesus tells us we must go back to that place sans intellectual questioning, cynicism, distrust, and disbelief. We must turn. 

More Reflecting: I like visuals. I can pretend I’m on a woodsy path and up ahead are money trees, prestigious homes, awards of all sorts ready for hanging on walls, sycophants like flattering prostitutes line my pathway. Facebook and Twitter feeds reel from the sky claiming religion as the root of all evil. And mirrors. In front of me and beside me,  I see only me. Me likey me. I like the flattery. I like the awards. Money trees would be cool.

It’s tempting. it’s reality. We live in it. I just took a little hyperbolic poetic license. 

But Jesus said unless I turn, I will never enter the kingdom of heaven. So I turn back. I see the the woodsy path. I see the hills and the mountains and mud holes. I see butterflies and mosquitoes. And I see fireflies. Little Holy Spirit insects. Only a child could view them that way. Only a child could see a mud hole as a great place for splashing a Barbie and having her wrestle a plastic alligator. A child doesn’t have to be convinced that Jesus loves him or her. A child looks and sees love–not counterfeit love for children are wary of counterfeit love–but authentic love. A child will follow authentic love. And a child will catch glimpses of the promised kingdom. The community of Christ. A child will see it breaking through the cynical world and shining with pieces of metallic hope.

React. 

Whew. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. In Matthew 18:1-4, Jesus very clearly and visually with an example we all can relate to–offers himself to us. He offers us a different path. A different way of seeing. What will you do with this Jesus? I’m going to sit down with him awhile. He won’t rush away. We’re going to talk a bit and he’s going to tell me all about his kingdom–his community–his promise.