“Spontaneity rather than Direction”
Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
The writing of the Gospels provided authors a way to tell the story of Jesus. The structure of how the story is told adds spontaneity and freedom in the telling. For example, the 15th chapter of Matthew’s gospel tells familiar individual stories. Jesus has confrontations with Pharisees and Sadducees and, immediately following, then experiences the insistent mother who presses Jesus and persists in calling upon his compassion to heal his daughter. For myself, I view these individual venues as separate experiences. It took a gospel writer to weave these fragmentary patches into a full tapestry. Recall that this gospel was written, at the earliest, 40 years after Jesus life. It seems unlikely to me that immediately following this head-to-head with Pharisees and Sadducees then Jesus immediately met the Canaanite mother; then going from her to healing the crowds and feeding another very large crowd immediately followed by yet one more Pharisee-Sadducee confrontation. (Matthew 15:1 – 16:4)
What I’m getting at is the structure of the gospel, how each one was put together, how each tapestry of telling recounts not only story but meaning. I believe today’s tapestry is an invitation to follow Jesus’ own example of spontaneity. Rather than follow lock-step to those who control the law and its meaning we have Jesus who heals and feeds regardless of who is a card-carrying member of what group and or religious denomination. And I’m saying that these individual stories have been re-constructed to place the emphasis on the Way of Jesus – A way with multiple interpretive paths.
First, there’s the fixation of the Pharisees and Sadducees on twisting the law for the benefit of religious institutions and their personnel (15:1-21). On Jesus’ telling, the religiously corrupt were able to even twist the commandments of God. You got your Fourth Commandment, “Honor your Mother and your Father.” For people’s benefit, this served to create a social structure on religious rather than governmental means. The children were to take care of the parents until death. Then the self-serving religious leaders come up with a category called “dedicated to God.” Can’t you just see the industry called “Legal assistance to dedicate what’s properly the parents now going to religion?” Of course, money that is dedicated to God is only a short hop away from spreading the wealth to all “religious” leaders. I mean, who better to deprive the parents than the Pharisees-Sadducees combine? They twist the Fourth Commandment to their own benefit (Exodus 20:12).
Next let’s see the end of this bookended passage in Matthew 16:1-4, another meeting with the Pharisees and Sadducees to close off this patch of one of this gospel’s tapestries. The Pharisees & Sadducees, let’s call them for the sake of brevity “P&S,” demand a sign. You see, a sign is convenient; you can twist a sign just as surely as you can twist a sign. And Jesus, knowing this refuses a sign. There will be no miracles for the P&S, no full plate of being fed that day. These are just the signs for which one may be interpreted to be a blasphemer. Instead Jesus gives them the sign of Jonah – three days in the tomb. Let them chew on that for a while.
Sandwiched in between these bookends of entrapment, we find the real food of the spontaneity of Jesus. Though he requires a little goading with the Canaanite mother, and though she may have been one among many others imploring his attention, Jesus chooses to have this conversation with her; the cast away woman who will do whatever is required to attract Jesus’ attention.
Here is also where we find Jesus’ choice to heal and to feed. Was this on the day’s schedule? I think not. When confronted with need Jesus responds. There is no entrapment here, simply Jesus’ spontaneous response to human need as well as spiritual connection with the Teacher. In this sweetness of the sandwich’s interior we find true application of the structure of the gospel. Jesus needs no direction, no twisting of the law, no misinterpretation of the sign.
Jesus gives of himself, the One who the people will follow and why they will do so. We learn to respond to the joy and directness of the Teacher and his message. This is our wide-eyed response to the life that brings healing and joy.
On Wednesday last week I walked Connor (our 7 yr old Irish Setter) through the neighborhood hardware store. This is where he finds some of his best friends – the kind that pet him and give treats, and have wonderful edible doggy tidbits to discover as he does his “nose shopping.” Connor heard a little girl’s voice in the next aisle over who may have been 2-3 yrs old herself. She spoke and he propped up his ears and wagged his tail. This was a meeting that had to take place. Around the corners they both went to discover one another. She reached out her hand, back of the hand very knowledgably up, and offered it to Connor’s nose. She was very excited and kept repeating, “We saw a dog” her vocabulary reflecting her toddler self. And then the wondrous thing happened. One of the employees at the far end of the story, on seeing this encounter taking place, started laughing. At that the little girl’s eyes opened wider because Connor was sending one of his best verbal greetings of “Awooooo.” And the little girl responded wonderfully and joyfully, “He Talks! He Talks!”
This is the spontaneity I’m talking about – spontaneity to respond to divine wonders. Can you think of the response by the Canaanite mother’s daughter? We’re told she was healed at the very moment Jesus spoke the Word to her mother. Or the response to others in this section of Matthew 15 who were healed and those who were fed? These are not experiences of anybody having given approval other than the divine one, Holy and Loving. So, abandon worries of getting direction on how to act. Rather, observe need and be spontaneous in your joyful and wide-eyed response.
A Prayer (JR)
Loving Christ, on seeing the people’s needs rather than act from obligation or edict
you healed and fed them with a joyful response of service. Your way is
to make a direct and free connection with all God’s people and creatures.
In our time and by our calling may we follow your example to respond.
It is the hope of all who seek to be in your company – Jesus, our brother and savior
now and evermore.