We begin this week in mid-stride with the second half of the Sermon on the Mount, and the words are particularly poignant. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” including (but not limited to) toilet paper, hand sanitizer, yeast, and hair dye. Jesus’ message about materialism is always hard to hear, especially for an American audience, but I wonder if we might be listening with different ears these days. So much of what we have treasured, collectively and individually, has been forcefully set aside, and we are left to consider: What is essential? What matters? What if Covid-19 is the thief, but one that by taking away much, lays bare the possibility for a new way forward?
The passage’s relevance continues with the petition to cast away our worries. I don’t know about you, but I have been beset and besieged by anxiety. Yet here is Jesus, begging us to consider, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” A few years ago, I wrote this verse on a Post-It note and placed it on my computer as a guide during Lent. I may need to do this again during Eastertide. Might you as well?
As we move into chapter seven, Jesus continues to speak directly into our socially distanced but quick-to-post-judgment hearts. How many times have we read on social media some scathing report of how this person or that group is “failing” quarantine? But here’s the thing: None of us have taken a how-to-pandemic class before. The grading scale is not apparent. Let us worry about the splinters and logs in our own eyes first—and quickly, because we don’t want any unnecessary trips to hospitals.
As with the first half of the discourse, Jesus finishes with a litany of moral guides, wisdom meant to be remembered, recited, and shared. With each of the Five Discourses of Matthew, we know that they have ended when we hear the words, “when Jesus had finished saying these things.”
The next few chapters of Matthew remind me of the outline for a script. The main events are bulleted, with a few key details and phrases, but there’s little interstitial material, no connective tissue or transition from one story to the next. Jesus heals the leper. Boom. Then the centurion’s servant. Check. Peter’s mother-in-law. Another scene. We don’t know how Jesus traveled from one place to another, and we don’t hear much dialogue or response. It’s as if the gospel writer presents us with a highlight reel, and we rely on imagination and prayer and study to fill in the rest.
Within these ten miracles, Jesus shows his divinity, not only showing power over human ailments by healing people from disease and demons but also his authority over the natural world. He rebukes the winds and the seas—and they obey him.
Each miracle story offers a wellspring for study, reflection, and sermons, but I want to note two important messages. Jesus continues to draw a distinction between the old and new covenants, between the laws of the Old Testament and the mercy of the new one. The Messiah is here. Things are different, and we cannot put new wine in old wineskin.
Jesus also offers important insight into the cost of discipleship. When one of the disciples asks first to bury his father, Jesus tells him to “let the dead bury their own dead.” Nothing comes before following the Son of Man. The cost of discipleship is very high. The reward, even higher.
As we conclude this week of readings, we finally learn all the names of the twelve apostles. Jesus gives them the power to heal and to cast out unclean spirits. He warns them of pending persecution but calls upon them to be bold, even in the face of such trials: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” So shall it be with us, disciples in a modern-age facing, as did those twelve, perilous foes.