At the Master’s feet

In January we begin a new series called ‘At the Master’s feet”  In this series we're going to explore some of the conversations that Jesus had with people as they're recorded in Matthews Gospel narrative.

We're going to listen to the questions posed and the answers that Jesus gives.  We're going to ask how the questions might be asked today, reflecting on Jesus answers in light of our own culture and context, and ask how we might apply the teaching in our life and time. 

The series is designed to help bring us to the feet of the master so that we may sit, listen, and learn from him.
Sitting and listening and learning from a Rabbi or teacher was common practice in the ancient middle-east that was home to Jesus.  Itinerant teachers and spiritual leaders were common place and as they travelled they amassed varying numbers of disciples and followers. 
The earliest followers of Jesus spent a great deal of time with the Master.  At times they would accompany him and listen to him speak to crowds. (Matthew 5) At other times they might have privileged and private audiences with him, listening and asking questions as he took time to explain parables and teaching to them (Matthew 13).  They would accompany him as he went about healing (Matthew 8), and in turn they themselves were sent out to do what they had seen their Rabbi doing (Matthew 10).
And through all of these ways and more, the Master taught his disciples about the Kingdom and salvation of God and the life of discipleship,
We believe that in the pages of the Gospels we possess an invaluable account of the life and teaching of Jesus.  An account that not only gives us facts and places, but an account that transmits the very same truths that Jesus taught all those millennia ago, to us.  The life, ministry, teaching, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus, and everything else that we stumble across in the Gospel narrative, acts as a guide and helps us shape and work out our own lives as disciples. 
One of the major stumbling blocks to drawing from the gospel narrative all that it has to offer in this way has been a lack of cultural understanding.  The gospels were written in a time and a place and a culture.  Jesus taught in a time and a place and a culture.  Quite naturally the time, place, and culture set the scene for, and influence both the gospel writers and Jesus himself. 
We tend to read the gospel accounts as 21st century western Christians, and why wouldn’t we because that’s what we are.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  We believe that whilst being the product of human hands, scripture is inspired by God and so it speaks across cultures and time. 
But at the same time, to forget the time, context, and culture in which the gospels were written is to deprive ourselves of an important interpretive tool, which when used well, enables us to mine scripture for all it is worth, to discover surprising truths, and to learn things that may have remained hidden. 
The challenge for any serious reader of the scriptures is to delve into the culture in which they were written, understand the questions, answers, events and situations as they were understood then, and then translate them into our own life and times, and discover through how God spoke then, what he is saying now.   We must be ready to understand fact in light of context and understand that meaning can vary whilst truth is maintained.  
In reading ancient literature today we have a tendency to revert to simple fact finding.  We reduce what we are reading to being a simple statement of principle or fact, which we then try to extrapolate and apply.  But this is surely not satisfactory when it comes to reading the scriptures? 

Let me explain what I mean...

Here’s a statement of fact:  On the 22nd of November a man with a rifle shot and killed another man in a passing car
These are the facts, but at this level they are so sparse that they mean nothing at all.
Let’s add something to the statement fact:  The president of the United States was assassinated. 
This is now more ‘factual’ and has more meaning.  The victim is identified, the killing is given its political context, and the perspective is in a sense truer. 
Let’s add something else:  Men everywhere felt that they had looked into the abyss of evil and people wept in the streets.

This now adds an emotive edge to the statement of fact.  It is true, but in a new and different way and it can be said to be more fully true as our understanding of the event, its context, and interpretation are more full.

The Gospels capture all of the above three ways of truth telling.  They describe events and facts, they provide context and ways of interpreting the events, and they provide meaning in an emotive and experienced way that is tied to history and event, but that also transcends them. 
In this series we’re going to try to delve into Matthews gospel in a way which looks beyond simple fact finding and is instead about discovering the context in which things are said and things happen, in order to understand their meaning.  It’s also about discovering the emotive and experienced meaning.  From here we will try to reframe the questions with our own experience and culture in mind.  We’ll re-interpret the answers that Jesus gives for our own times and situations, and I hope we’ll be nourished by the words of the Master just as those who sat at his feet 2000 years ago were. 
The series outline is as follows, please note that the weeks are not titled in an attempt to preserve an openness to new meaning and understanding.  Parallel passages in other gospels are in brackets. 
5th January
Matt: 4:18-22 (Mk 1:16-20, Lk 5:2-11, Jn 1:35-42)
12th January
Matt 5:43-48 
19th January
Matt 6:25-34 (Lk 12:22-31)
26th January
Matt 7:7-12 (Lk 11:9-13)
2nd February
Matt 8:18-22  (Lk 9:57-60)
9th Febrauary
Matt 15:1-14  (Mk 7:1-23)
16th February
Matt 18:21-35
23rd February
Matt 20:1-16
2nd March
Matt 26:36-46  (Mk 14:32-42, Lk 22:40-46)

Simon Butler, 03/12/2013