Matthew 17-18: Casey’s Wise Words

With a hat-tip to baseball philosopher Casey Stengel, who said the secret to managing was to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are still undecided, sometimes I think the secret to my success is keeping the folks who think I don’t curse from those who know better.

Which comes to mind as I hit Matthew 17-18, particularly the story of the father of the epileptic boy. When someone you love is facing down that exact scenario, bad words come out when you see the story come up in the gospels. Especially if you have ringing in your ears the Marcan version, in which Jesus taunts the father for lacking faith and the father, begging for help with the phrase we could all say, cries “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

But that’s not what happens in Matthew (which, unlike Mark, actually calls the affliction epilepsy, at least in some translations). In Matthew, it’s not the *father* that Jesus ridicules for lacking belief, but the *disciples*, his chosen leaders, who fail to heal him. And it’s sandwiched between two statements from Jesus that he’s going to get rolled by the powers that be. This gives me a little comfort, in foreshadowing that Jesus knows for suffering.*

Before I started actually reading the Gospels front-to-back again, I thought that the only times Jesus showed anger was in confronting religious hypocrites, as in the cleansing of the Temple or the “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees” statements. That’s not entirely true, I have to admit. But Matthew 18, drawing on the energy from Jesus’ lambasting of the disciples for lacking the faith to help the poor desperate father of the epileptic boy, does help me understand why I might have so generalized. 

The disciples ask about which one of them is the greatest, and Jesus responds by saying they need to model the powerlessness of a child rather than what they’re doing. And then he tells them how awful it will be for anyone who leads little ones astray. And then he tells the story of the good shepherd who leaves the 99 for the one lost sheep (which was in last Sunday’s readings in Luke, grouped with other stories of the lost being found; here, it’s less about the God who seeks the lost than the difference between a good shepherd and a lousy one).

Jesus wraps Matthew 18 with the statement that Catholics use to talk about the sacrament of reconciliation – whatever you Apostles bind or loose on earth, God will bind or loose in heaven – but it’s within a context, not of apostolic power, but of the need for Jesus’ followers to forgive. It’s bracketed by Peter asking whether he has to forgive seven times (WAY more, Jesus says), and the parable of the servant forgiven by his master who won’t forgive others and pays for it.

All of which underscores a point: the Jesus described in Matthew has no patience for leaders who want anything but for people to know God’s love and mercy. So when people in leadership of our churches are focused on other stuff, particularly stuff that makes their sins less damning than the sins of others, stuff that separates “respectable people” who have socially acceptable failings from “those people” whose failings aren’t ours, we should know that, at the end of this, God will call that stuff out for the [bad word] it is. We’re all in this stuff together. We’re all loved and forgiven anyway.

*An aside – I don’t know if anyone actually still has a Good News Translation, but Matthew 17:23b has to be the most comically understated translation in the whole thing: “The disciples became very sad.”

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