The birth narratives about Jesus are overtures to the gospels that follow. In other words, they set the themes which we will hear repeated time and again. Two of those themes are suffering and light.
The suffering we hear in the birth narrative of Matthew is the episode of King Herod murdering children. We hear suffering again in the text today in response to Jesus’ followers going forth to heal and to speak peace.
Light is symbolized in Matthew’s birth narrative by the star from the East ‘stopping’ over the manger wherein the real star lay. The imagery of Jesus as light in the darkness appears not just in the 4th gospel, but also in Mark and Luke [a ‘light to the nations’].
The context of the early Jesus movement, beginning among Jewish communities both in Palestine and beyond, under the heavy boot of Roman colonial policies and compliance, was one marked by suffering. Many of the central tenets of Jesus’ teaching would bring his followers into conflict with the authorities.
And even putting to one side the political/theological context, survival issues – like food and health – were paramount. The early Jesus movement particularly addressed the needs of those whose food supply was under threat and whose health status was marginal.
As for light… well the light had gone out! The hoped for Messiah, the one who would bring salvation [political, theological, & material] was dead - shamefully dead on a criminal’s cross.
So very early in the thinking of Jesus’ followers was the simple truth: if the light is still going to continue to shine [namely the truth and hope known in Jesus is going to shine] then we followers, inadequate and vulnerable and mess-ups, are going to have to be the light-bearers. We are going to have to be that candle that bravely stays alight in the darkness of suffering.
This is the symbolism of those Pentecost flames in Acts 2. There were no light bulbs in those days. The flame over the heads of the 120 were symbolizing that each follower is now a light-bearer.
So it is with the church today. There are no messiahs. When we make someone into a messiah we quickly look for the clay feet in order to dethrone them. Sure there are roles that we ask people to take on. And some people are very gifted in those roles. But we need to be clear – the task of being a light-bearer can’t be delegated away. It is symbolized in baptism. That’s why we give the child, baby, or adult a candle – not just symbolizing the light of Christ, but that they too are now bearers of the Christ light. That’s what it means to be a Christian.
Last Monday a dozen or so of us went to the Triratna Buddhist Centre in Grey Lynn to listen, learn, and meditate. It was Buddhist Action Month [BAM]. At the front was an artificial tree. Members could write on green cardboard leaf shapes, and then attach them to the tree. On the cardboard they wrote what they were going to do this month for BAM. The teacher read out some of them: ‘smile more often’, ‘use less plastic’, ‘use public transport more often’…
They were all little things. There were no big plans or dreams mentioned. No lobby the government about housing for the homeless or start a neighbourhood group for victims of violence.
I liked it that they were all little things, little changes, to make others’ lives or the planet a little better. They weren’t big onerous things that would take a major commitment or reorientation of their lives.
Sure it’s great when people join together, network, form partnerships and the like, in order to try to do something big. But it’s also great, and fundamentally important, when everyone – old, young, healthy, less healthy, with spare money or without – know they can do something to make others’ lives or the planet a little better. Everyone can be a light-bearer. Making a phone call can brighten someone’s day. Knowing a child’s name and adding a smile to it can brighten their day. Listening to the one who is sitting alone can be healing. These things show loving kindness, or Metta, is what the Buddhist’s call it; loving-kindness, or Hesed, is what the Bible calls it; loving-kindness: kindness motivated by love.
Which brings me to our text in Matthew 10.
Matthew, written probably in the late 80s has Jesus authorizing his twelve disciples and sending them out. The constructed myth of twelve men being ‘the disciples’, ‘the apostles’, ‘the leaders’, we now know was an attempt to bring discipline, structure, and male control over a movement that was fast moving, organic, and in many places affirming of female leadership.
My only comment today on this emergence of patriarchal governance in the late 1st century church is that it came at the expense not only of female leadership but also I believe at the expense of the affirmation of the baptismal vocation of each Christian to be a light-bearer, a Christ-bearer. Authority became top-down rather than bottom-up.
Interestingly Luke[i] has not only the sending out of the twelve, but also in the next chapter the sending out of seventy. He doesn’t seem too wedded to the idea of apostolic ministry belonging only to twelve.
In the texts on these episodes from Matthew, Mark[ii], and Luke what the light-bearers are being sent out to do is remarkably similar. It is simply to heal, and to enter houses [when invited] to ‘speak peace’. In so doing the Kingdom of God – that topsy turvy counter-cultural vision of Jesus will have come nearer.
Marcus Borg says that “more healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in the Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer.”[iii] Liberal and Progressive Christians have often wanted to skip over Jesus the healer. It’s more comfortable to think of Jesus as a teacher than a faith healer.
Jesus’ healings were illustrative of the compassion of God for outcasts, and Jesus’ priority of people over laws. Jesus also saw the source of his ability to heal as his experience of the sacred.
Medical anthropologists make a distinction between healing and curing: Healing goes with illness which refers to the social meanings attached to that condition. Curing goes with disease which refers to the actual physical condition of a person. Some Jesus scholars, like Dominic Crossan, say Jesus only healed illness, not cured disease. Marcus Borg’s sense is that Jesus did both.
Personally I like the word ‘healing’. For me it takes us into a way of thinking that is not just medical, but also social, political, psychotherapeutic, and spiritual. Healing is about addressing, or seeking to address the chaos – often caused by trauma – of both the individual’s soul and the soul of the community. The two ‘souls’ so to speak are deeply interwoven, as is soul and body.
An example of this was given the other night at the Te Reo course being offered here at St Luke’s. The word for ‘land’ is ‘whenua’; but whenua also means ‘placenta’. Similarly the word ‘hapu’ for ‘subtribe’ also means ‘pregnant’. The linkage between the individual’s physical body and the land and community is so deeply enmeshed [as reflected in these words] that to pull them apart is spiritually and physically destructive to the individual, and to the land, and to the tribe. This is why grievance settlements – like we saw at Parihaka the other week – are spiritual ‘settlements’.
The biblical scholar Ched Myers in his interpretation of the healing of the Gerasene demonic[iv] [Mark 5] makes the linkage between Roman colonialism and mental illness. This linkage is reflected in our colonial history too.
Healing for those sent out by Jesus was connected with ‘speaking peace’. The texts personalize the peace to the community of each household they visit. They were to speak to small groups not large crowds, they were to be personal not universal.
Healing and peace are woven together in the biblical tradition. Indeed the word ‘shalom’ or peace in Hebrew embraces the concepts of justice, healing, and restoration. Shalom is a big word.
So to ‘speak peace’ is not so much to say the literal word ‘shalom’ but to listen, engage, and enact - via your loving kindness - the shalom of God. I would suggest this is not some great big thing that only a holy man or woman can do. No this is like offering, literally, a pot of soup; or offering a listening ear; or a kind smile. This is being a small candle in the time of another’s gloom. This is something that every light-bearer can do in the midst of others’ suffering and chaos. We accept, we heal were we can, we value the soul, we value the deep connections that are often frayed or under stress. We try to be kind. We light-bearers aren’t big change agents. We just do little things. Justice always starts small. And we trust that the mysterious spirit of God will work through to do the big things.
[i] Luke chapters 9:2-6 and 10:1ff.
[ii] Mark 6:7-13.
[iii] We know from other sources from the time healings and exorcisms were common in the first century.
[iv] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus.