Sunday, August 03, 2008

Matthew 4
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

If this were New Year’s, I might be resolving to get rid of some books. This week I became reacquainted with my library: not in the fond way book lovers can pour over a stack of books and recall the contents of each one, but in the way that involves boxes and stairs and wide-eyed helpers.

You might think that I would somehow repent of the whole book thing, having tormented my helpers and strained myself as the collection found it’s way across town. Weirdly, it has had the opposite effect: I noticed some of my sets are incomplete, maybe the answer is more, not less, and I remain grateful to a denomination that says ministers have a duty to read books.

I think it was Erasmus who said “if I get a little money I buy books: if I have any left over, I buy some food.”

It all starts in introductory bible class at the beginning of our training. “If you’re going to preach,” we’re told, “you should start with the Bible.” See, I’m heading to the bookstore already: I need to get a Bible. “Next,” we’re told, “you should read the Bible in the original languages.” That’s two more bibles, Greek and Hebrew, for a total of three. “Finally, (there’s more) you will need to own several translations.” A kind of alphabet soup of translations with titles like “new” and “revised” and “new revised.”

I’m sure the phrase “swear on a stack of bibles” began after a visit to some minister’s study. These days, with places like you might imagine that the stacking phenomenon is waning, but I have my doubts. There is something comforting about being surrounded by bibles. I’m reminded, however, of the wisdom that just as owning a vacuum doesn’t make your house clean, owning a bible doesn’t make you religious (but that’s another sermon).

Back to those introductory classes, we began preaching class with the same instruction: get lots of bibles. When you begin to look at the bible text for the day, one of the best ways to begin is to read and reread it in a variety of translations. Look for similarities and differences: look for the surprising ways some translators render the text, and make a mental note of what stands out. More often than not, something seemingly new appears in the text, something that all the previous readings didn’t produce, something unique that Bible is sharing today.

A scholar might call this the “generative capacity of the Word.” That is capital “w” Word, the Word that we believe was present at the beginning of creation, the Word that took our flesh and walked among us, the Word that speaks when we bring ourselves to the text and try to listen for a message of new life. And this is precisely why we reprint and retranslate and study and memorize and give ourselves to this book we call the Bible: it continues to speak.


Back in June, I was looking at another lesson in Matthew’s gospel and was struck by one scholar’s insistence that the action of the text was happening at Jesus’ house in Capernaum. This wasn’t apparent in my first look at the passage, and even less obvious when I looked at other translations. It seems that the various bibles were evenly split on this issue of locale: half said “the house” and the other half said “Matthew’s house.”

Now my Greek is twenty years old and rusty, so I turned to Carmen, my wife and resident biblical language scholar, and had her look under the hood. It seems that using the phase “Matthew’s house” is a complete fabrication. This means that fully half of the translators solved the problem of a little ambiguity in the text by making up a location.

Why would they do this? Before I attempt to solve this question, I want to look at today’s reading and highlight an obvious tension in the story of Jesus.

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Here’s a place where the text is anything but ambigious: In the first part of Matthew 4 Jesus is tempted in the desert. The devil departs, and the angels tend him. Leaving the south, he makes his way to Galilee where he “made his home.” So far, so good. The text is very clear that he makes his new home in the north, in Galilee, and specifically (as we soon learn) in Capernaum.

There is nothing extraordinary in this, except how you read it. If I say I have made my home in Toronto for the past 16 years, it tells you little except the name of the city I call “home.” If I say my family and I make a home on a quiet street in East York, suddenly it sounds quite different. Suddenly this has specificity, a sense of place, maybe even a mental image if you have ever had the good fortune of travelling through my neighbourhood. I could even say come by next weekend for “Taste of the Danforth” and join me and a million of my closest friends for some souvlaki.

The same contrast exists in Matthew 4. The text makes it clear that Jesus makes his home in Galilee, but then immediately he begins walking and encountering people and issuing his famous invitation “come, follow me.” They follow, and the rest of the passage takes them throughout the region teaching in synagogues, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom and healing the sick. He never stops. And this, is at the heart of the tension.

He never stops, but he has a home. He is the world’s most famous itinerant preacher, but he has a house in Capernaum. He spent three years casting out demons and raising the dead, but he has an address on a little street in a tiny seaside village. He turns water into wine and sinners into saints, but he has a mailbox just like the rest of us.

Throughout time, one version of Jesus has been dominant. Just as half the Bible translators decided to insert “Matthew’s house” where the words just didn’t exist, the church has spend much of its history literally “walking the way” with this movable Jesus. Even the idea of being a “follower of Jesus” or a person of “the way” indicates forward movement, and we seldom ever reflect on the young man who had a home by the sea.

The answer to my translation question, then, is that we favour one Jesus over the other. We prefer the Jesus with one cloak and one pair of sandals and the unceasing trust that God will provide for all his needs. We prefer the Jesus who rushed headlong into crowds, unburdened by the material possessions that surround the rest of us. We prefer the Jesus who carried nothing but the cross, unless you believe as I do that he also carried with him the sins of the world.


There may be more, however, to this tendency toward one version of Jesus over the other. There may be a tension in each of us that favours the itinerant Jesus over the “at home” Jesus. There may be a tension that comes from a simple desire to make Jesus as unlike us as we possibly can.

It seems irreverent to even say it, but would you want to live next door to Jesus? He might look in the recycling bin, or the state of the garden, or hear the things we say to each other as we come and go. I can’t imagine many of us would want that kind of pressure, so Jesus becomes itinerant, living a lifestyle none of us can truly relate to, and therefore as unlike us as possible.

And there he stays. Close, but not too close. Close enough to see us bow our heads, but maybe just far enough to miss the exact words we pray. Close enough to see us put on our Sunday best, but not close enough to see us at Wal-Mart in the afternoon. Close enough to see us head off to vote, but not so close that he can see us mark our ballots.


I want to try another way. I want to join the welcome wagon and head over to Jesus’ house. I want to find that open door and enter in. I want to take my place among the outcasts and sinners and join the conversation. And I want to look around: I want to see what the house of our Lord might look like, the things to see that might confound and amaze. What may we see?

The gold long gone, given to the poor I guess, but still traces of frankincense and myrrh.
The small oil lamp, worn clay: a flame to read by that even the light of world needs in the darkness.
The top of a flask, still fragrant, anointed with love and devotion.
A flint, to light a fire in a lonely garden and later still, on a beach to grill some fish for his friends.
A mite, and no more, to recall that some give all they have.
And chairs, lots of chairs, simple chairs, well-crafted chairs, chairs enough for everyone wishing to drop in, chairs enough for everyone with a question or a need or something to confess. Chairs enough for the whole world and chairs enough for you and for me. Chairs enough to fill his house and this house and every house where Jesus makes a home. Amen.