Sunday Meditations: Forgiveness

Forgiveness has been my official theme for almost three weeks, now: looking over resentments I’ve held onto or wrongs I’ve felt were done to me that have gone unaddressed.  These are things that I need to turn over to God’s justice rather than my own to be handled in the way He sees fit.

Forgiveness is important to those of us trying to be more like Jesus.  He forgave sins, asked God to forgive the people executing him, and talked several times about the importance of forgiveness in those who would be faithful, going so far as to say that God would not forgive the sins of those who were unwilling to forgive others.  In fact, this theology is right in the middle of the Lords Prayer.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

It is a prayer that God’s forgiveness would be like our forgiveness, which is kind of a lot of pressure.  Given our frailties and the frailties of Jesus’ followers at the time, it is doubtful this is meant to be a theological equation in the sense that, if you do not perfectly forgive, God will withhold forgiveness from you.  However, the relationship is not incidental.  Jesus says more than once in more than one way that God forgives the sins of people who forgive those who sin against them, and if you are unwilling to do this, you should not expect that God will forgive your trespasses, either.

This is a hard teaching and hard to do in wise ways, sometimes.  We might, for instance, forgive someone who is very dangerous for us to be around.  Forgiveness may mean coming to a place where we give up our personal rights of retribution, but it may not mean moving back in with them.  Some sins cross into abuse and criminal behavior and there is just nothing easy about figuring out how forgiveness works in those scenarios, even as we acknowledge that a follower of Christ must figure them out when they arise.  Just deciding not to forgive is not an option.

In my case, however, the tricky issues of forgiveness are rarely about how to deal with the “trespasser” going forward.  I think it is possible to forgive someone and make wise decisions about what your relationship is going to look like in the future in a way that is best for both parties.  For me, the tricky issues of forgiveness have to do with the benefits I get from not forgiving.

You see, if someone else is in the wrong, it makes me feel as though I am in the right.  The sharper among you may point out that it is quite possible for two people to both be in the wrong, but that’s for rational people thinking about the situation rationally.

If I have something to hold over you that you have done wrong, it makes me feel better about my own behaviors while at the same time justifying them.  As long as I have the “right” to demand retribution, I can feel whatever I want to feel and do whatever it seems right to me to do, and I can feel justified in doing so.

The combination of resentment and self-righteousness is more powerful, numbing, addictive, and rationality-destroying than most drugs.

While I might think it is hard to forgive because I was really, really wronged and the other person does not seem very sorry, the reality for me is that it’s hard to forgive because I’m giving up leverage and self-justification.  If I don’t have something to hold against you, then I have to face my own feelings and behaviors unmitigated by “what you did.”  They have to stand on their own merits and, when that happens, I find they are unacceptable.  I find that I have built idols out of my wounds that I turn to for solace and encouragement, and like every other idol, they have to go.

Maybe that’s peanuts for you, but honestly, I find it kind of terrifying.  What will I look like when I am no longer evaluating myself against harms, real or perceived, done to me?  When you take those justifications away, what is left?  When I no longer have the right to treat you like crap, well, now I’m just treating you like crap, aren’t I?  When I can no longer explain my behavior in terms of what someone else did to me, now it’s just stuff that I do.

Forgiveness isn’t just giving up overt retribution for an offense; it’s giving up the host of negative responses I have crafted because of your offense, or the things I engage in because of the way what you did makes me feel, or the pride I feel in being the wronged party.  Basically, anything about myself that I have propped up with “what you did” has to go.

That doesn’t mean you get to escape the consequences of what you did.  That doesn’t mean that I have to work to make a close friendship out of our relationship.  It does mean that whatever destructive characteristics or behaviors I have that are “justified” by the fact that I have been wronged have to go, and I do not get to label them as righteous because I have suffered an injustice.  That’s part of forgiving, at least the way I see it.

And perhaps this is why Jesus cannot envision his followers not forgiving one another.  If you are the image of God in the world, you do not get to harbor resentments, or cart someone’s past offenses out as ammunition for something else, or indulge in baser character flaws because you now have the right to do it.  If the world is going to look the way God wants it, we have to be a people who can forgive as well as be forgiven – both things change us.

And both things direct our trust and hope toward God.  It is only by trusting God that we could ever turn our retributive rights over to him and find our solace there instead of taking our comfort into our own hands.

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My Servant: Matthew 12:15-21

When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.

    And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Matthew 12:15-21 (NRSV)

Jesus finds out that the Pharisees are now plotting to kill him, so he decides it’s probably time to take his operation somewhere besides their synagogue.  Makes sense.

Lots of people follow him, and he continues his ministry of healing.  He “cured all of them,” which seems like a very time consuming activity.  But as is his wont, he asks the people not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah.

Earlier in Matthew, we’ve seen this happen as a concern for the survivability of Jesus’ movement.  If the region begins to proclaim Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah who will rescue Israel from Roman dominion and rule the Jews, this is bound to bring down heat from both the Empire and the Jews who currently rule the Jews.  No one in power is going to sit by the sidelines and see what happens when people start talking about Israel’s Messiah having arrived, and so we’ve seen in Matthew that Jesus is concerned the word doesn’t get out too quickly or too broadly.  He doesn’t want this work snuffed out prematurely.

In this passage, Matthew alludes to this and then some by quoting Isaiah 42.

Isaiah 42 is part of a series where God announces that Israel has served her time in exile and it is time to deliver her from Babylon.  In this series, God refers to Jacob/Israel as his “servant” (Isaiah 41:8).  It is difficult to tell exactly if Isaiah is talking about Israel meaning the entire Jewish people or a faithful subset – probably those who will return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem.

But whatever the case, the Lord talks about how His servant is blind and deaf and incapable of doing much except turning away from false gods.  Because of this, the nations will identify with the servant because they, too, are blind and deaf.  But God Himself will deliver him and Israel will rule the world.  When the nations see this, they will rejoice.

It’s an interesting collection of chapters for a number of reasons.  For our passage in Matthew, the two important parts are the servant being mostly passive and just focusing on faithfulness so that God Himself will do the army-smashing, and the repeated mentions of the pagan nations who will see this and be freed and healed as well.

Mentions of the benefits to Gentile nations are not unheard of in the Old Testament prophets; they’re just particularly rare.  The focus of the prophets is squarely on Israel, and in that light, the Gentile nations are oppressors and bad guys.  They worship false gods, lead Israel astray, enslave her, etc.  The nations are portrayed as enemies.

But, on rare occasions, a prophet will talk about how Israel, in her deliverance and restoration, will be the first among nations that Israel’s God will call to Himself.  Israel is the first, the head, the collective priesthood that mediates between God and the rest of the world, but still, the idea is that the nations who are enemies and oppressors, now, will become worshippers and followers of YHWH and find their own prosperity in this service.  And why will they turn?  Because they see what YHWH does for Israel and they want in.

Matthew, like the Old Testament, is not terribly concerned with Gentiles.  The focus is primarily on Israel.  Even at the very beginning in chapter 1, Matthew tells us that Jesus will save his people from their sins, and he calls Jesus Emmanuel, hearkening back to another prophecy in Isaiah when the birth of a child named Emmanuel would be the sign that God was about to deliver Israel from the Assyrians.

That doesn’t mean that Matthew is saying Jesus is irrelevant to Gentiles.  It’s just that, in this gospel, the Gentiles are minor, occasional characters who pretty much only show up to give Jesus an occasion to say something to Israel.  The focus is on what Jesus is doing for Israel and her fortunes, and we run the risk of misunderstanding Jesus if we try to make his mission about all humanity prematurely.  We will get there, but there is not here.

And even in this passage, Matthew’s focus is not on the bit about Gentiles, but is rather on how God’s faithful servant Israel (Matthew sees Jesus as ideally embodying this in a way Israel has failed to do until now) will be subdued and relatively passive so that God Himself will bring down the thunder.  Jesus is not trying to start an insurrection; that’s not what the servant in Isaiah does.  The servant in Isaiah focuses on turning the people from idols and announcing the imminent Day of the Lord, but the servant does not lift a finger against Babylon.  That is God’s work.  The servant is gentle, quiet, humble, restorative, not even breaking a reed or snuffing out a small flame.

In Matthew’s mind, Jesus fulfills this by doing his healing work and keeping it quiet.  He is avoiding an uprising.  He is deliberately trying to keep an armed confrontation between Rome or the Temple and his crowd of followers from happening.

Then we get to the part about the Gentiles.  If you look up the actual text in Isaiah 42, you may discover that it doesn’t say what Matthew says it says.  This is because your English translation of the Old Testament is based on the Masoretic (Hebrew) text.  However, Matthew is quoting from the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament – which ends the way we see, here.

While this may give some of the more fundamentalist among us the willies, I’d like to point out that the idea that the Gentiles will hope in God’s servant is an accurate summary statement of what the OT prophets say about Gentiles and Israel in the future, and that material is found abundantly in Isaiah 42 as well.  If you read the entirety of the chapter and the surrounding chapters, the idea is clearly that Israel will rule the world and, as a result, the other nations will be healed, given sight, released from bondage, etc.  The nations experience the benefits of YHWH as their God because this is mediated through Israel, which, if you recall God’s promise to Abraham, was always the plan.

I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.

Genesis 22:17-18 (NRSV)

In a nutshell, this is a great summary of Isaiah 42.

Also, the Septuagint translators had access to different source texts than the Masoretic.  In many cases (although not all), as we’ve discovered older and older Old Testament manuscripts, we’ve come to see that the Septuagint typically reflects these older manuscripts where the Masoretic does not.  This helps us understand that the Septuagint is a viable Old Testament source worthy of study all on its own; it may have had access to texts that were lost to the Masoretic.  If you’re interested in this at all, one of my favorite popular-level works on the subject is When God Spoke Greek by Timothy Michael Law.

My point is that, even though the citation in Matthew does not match what you see in your Old Testament, there’s no reason to get ruffled about it and, honestly, if you expect the New Testament to always quote the Old Testament word for word, you should prepare yourself for a lot of uncomfortable situations.  Matthew doesn’t, for example.  In fact, in at least one place, his quoted verse doesn’t even exist.

But the point is that Matthew is applying that Old Testament eschatological hope – going all the way back to Abraham – to Jesus doing his work, now.  Although we won’t really get it full force until the very end of Matthew, it is exactly Matthew’s expectation that the nations will hear what God has done for Israel in Jesus and want to become followers, too.  They will want to repent of their sinful ways and worship Israel’s God and experience the benefits that, up until that point, have been largely reserved as a hope for Israel, herself.

And good thing, too, for us Gentiles.

Consider This

  1. Jesus appears to be taking the tack of focusing on spiritual reformation, forgiveness, and destroying the works of the devil by healing the sick, reconciling sinners, etc.  If there’s any deliverance from the political powers that be, he seems to expect that God will handle that.  How, if at all, should that influence the focus, efforts, and work of Christians in the world, today?
  2. If you are a Gentile, does Matthew make you feel a little pushed to the outside?  How do the other New Testament writings tell the story of the role of the Gentiles in God’s work of redemption?

Lawful to do Good: Matthew 12:9-14

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV)

Jesus and his followers were just out in a field, and this becomes the setting for a little verbal contest between Jesus and the Pharisees that ends up with a pretty controversial claim by Jesus: that he is the Son of Man, that he is greater than the Temple, and as such, the Sabbath laws are subservient to him (and all mankind, as it happens) and not the other way around.

From a narrative standpoint, that makes this passage interesting, because Jesus leaves the field to go into the Pharisees’ synagogue.  If you flip these two passages around, it seems like it would make more sense: he goes into the synagogue, has a disagreement with them about healing on the Sabbath, they leave and the miffed Pharisees follow them, they have the field incident, and Jesus goes to DEFCON1.

Matthew, however, has these passages in a different order.  Jesus’ boldest claims come first, out in a field where there happen to be some Pharisees watching him, and then he packs up and goes to their church.  I’m not sure why this is the sequence other than the default, “This is how it happened.”  Matthew clearly intends this passage to follow the previous one, as it says “their synagogue,” and the “their” would seem to indicate the Pharisees from the previous passage.  So, it’s not like we had two, separate stories and they just got redacted weirdly.  It may be that it’s as simple as these things just happening in this sequence.

Well, whether Matthew deliberately arranged them this way or whether he’s just going off memories of how it happened and this is how it happened, he presents a Jesus who has a lot of guts.  Imagine getting into it with a group of Westboro Baptist protesters and saying things that drive them into a rage, and then going, “Hey, I think I’ll go to your church this afternoon.”

Although Jesus does not make the radical claims he made in the field, the situation he addresses is more dire.  Here, it isn’t simply a matter of eating when one is hungry.  We have a man with a withered (xeran – dried up) hand.  Jesus does what Jesus does, which is heal him, thus signifying that he is Israel’s Messiah who has brought the restoration and reclamation of Israel, forgiving their sins in God’s name and overturning their curse.

But he does this on Saturday.  These Pharisees anticipate this.  They even ask Jesus a leading question.  Once again, this makes the sequence of these passages puzzling to me because Jesus just harvested grain on the Sabbath and gave some pretty radical reasons why he was justified in doing so.  Obviously, the Pharisees here are trying to nail Jesus for violating the Torah; they aren’t genuinely curious about his views.  But still.  They already have puh-LENTY of evidence to nail him for blasphemy and disregarding the Law of Moses.  This seems unnecessary.  But, hey, he’s already in your synagogue, I guess there’s no reason not to try to rack up a few more incidents to share with the Sanhedrin.

Jesus answers them with an argument that is much less theological in nature than the field conversation.  Here, he meets the objection basically by saying, “Don’t you condone working on the Sabbath to get your ox out of a ditch?  Isn’t this more important than that?  Doing good on the Sabbath is totally legal.”

There may be a subtle dig at the Pharisee’s love of money, here.  Getting your ox out of a ditch is mostly about economics in the first century and less so about animal rights.  You use an ox to grow food and transport goods.  If your ox is stuck, you can’t do that.  Jesus is using a hypothetical example where the Pharisees’ livelihood is in jeopardy on the Sabbath – the implication being that of course they would fix that.

But here we have an Israelite, and not just any Israelite, but a faithful one who is in the synagogue.  These are the people that the religious leaders are supposed to be valuing, caring for, sacrificing for, helping, etc.  They are supposed to be far more valuable to the Pharisees than an ox, not only because a human being is more important than an ox, but specifically because these are the people that Israel’s leaders have been given charge over.

Jesus is a pretty clever dude when you think about it.  This was supposed to be an opportunity for the Pharisees to trap him, but he has trapped them.  “You would get your ox out of a ditch, wouldn’t you?  So, wouldn’t you want to help a faithful Israelite?  Your own people whom God gave you charge over?  You want me to help faithful Israelites, right?  Or do you think your oxen are more valuable than your own people?”

Clever, clever.

What is at stake, here, is exactly the sort of thing that got Israel in trouble in the first place.  One of the characteristics of Israel that invoked the curse of the Law is exactly this – Israel’s leaders valuing their possessions while treating their people like crap.

There are lots of passages about this.  The entire book of Malachi comes to mind.  Zechariah’s portrayal of a shepherd.  Perhaps one of the more direct referents is Ezekiel 34.  Here’s how that chapter begins:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Ezekiel 34:1-4, NRSV (Emphasis mine)

Jesus is doing what the Pharisees and other leaders in Israel should have been doing this whole time.  The Pharisees won’t strengthen, heal, or bind up the injured, because they’re being “righteous” – keeping the Sabbath laws.  But God wants mercy and not sacrifice, and Jesus will heal this man, thus showing who the true shepherd of Israel is.  Jesus is God shepherding Israel, Himself, which is exactly His proposed remedy for the situation.

“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” – Ezekiel 34:11

I hope this brings into clearer focus some of Jesus’ imagery about sheep and shepherds, but that’s not in our passage, today.

Whenever we hear Jesus talking about the Law, at least in Matthew, we see it as an opportunity for contrast with Israel’s leaders.  They want to know how most thoroughly to observe the regulations.  Jesus wants to teach how the Law can be practiced in a way subservient to the idea that Israel is to love God with all her heart, mind, soul and strength, and also love her neighbor as herself.  If your practice of the Law causes you to do those two things, you are practicing the Law rightly in Jesus’ mind.  If your practice of the Law causes you to drift from those things, God doesn’t care at all for what you are doing, and He will not be impressed by your technical legal obedience.

You may protest, “But isn’t a zeal for keeping the Law loving God?  And isn’t confronting people with their shortcomings loving them?”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m almost positive this was a common thing to hear from Pharisees.

Because, according to Jesus, no, it isn’t.  These people kept the Sabbath and jumped on people who didn’t, and Jesus did not interpret this as an act of love for God or man.  These people strenuously tried to comply with God’s Law and just as strenuously pointed out Israelites who did not, and Jesus thought of this as oppression and pride – markers that you belonged to the present evil age.  He did not interpret it as love, no matter how you spun it, theologically.

That’s something to consider, isn’t it?  God’s perspective isn’t that zealous pursuit of His commandments and calling others out on their sin is intrinsically loving.  It is only loving if such pursuits enable you to demonstrate actual love.  Keeping the commandments doesn’t demonstrate you love God.  Calling out the sinful behavior of others doesn’t demonstrate you love them.  Those things can be done in a loving way but they only are loving if you are actually loving.

The Pharisees are the ones who zealously want to keep the Sabbath and enforce the Law.  Jesus is the one who says, “I know what the Law says, but this guy needs to be healed.  My violation of the Sabbath is lawful because I am doing good for this man, regardless of what the letter of the commandment is.”

That’s something to consider, indeed.

Consider This (Indeed)

  1. Are there instances where you or the Church in general have zealously pursued obedience to the letter of a commandment from God, and it resulted in keeping you from demonstrating love? (Reminder: Obeying the Law and pointing out sin is not inherently an act of love.)
  2. If loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves are the controlling principles of obeying God, even superseding what might seem to us to be obvious ramifications of a commandment, does that affect how we understand obeying certain commandments, practically speaking?

 

Sunday Meditations: Spiritual Warfare

I’m experiencing some synchronicity on this topic between Marcus Warner visiting our church to talk about the Deeper Walk Institute, some casting out narratives coming up in Matthew for when I get back to writing some devotional entries, and my being sick, today.

When I was much younger, I really dug the Charismatic movement.  I was raised fundamentalist Baptist, and the Charismatics just seemed to have something I was missing – a fire and a zeal.  Life in the Spirit seemed very real to them in comparison to my dry, dusty Baptist pursuit of the Christian faith, which primarily revolved around not listening to Fleetwood Mac and making sure I was in church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.

During this time, I particularly got into spiritual warfare.  If you’re not familiar with the topic, the core idea is that there are demons out and about in the world and Christians are supposed to fight them, spiritually.  For most spiritual warfarers, this usually has the look of a somewhat tamer exorcism.  Many books and videos have been produced on this subject, and I was somewhat surprised to see that the DWI spends an entire course out of their four course series on the topic.

I have to admit that I’m very leery of the idea of spiritual warfare as presented.

First of all, whenever someone has written far, far more about a topic than the Bible itself spends on that topic, I have to wonder if we aren’t overreaching our data.  Typically, spiritual warfare material will include things like “generational strongholds” and make a great deal out of the power and effects of the occult and fine-tuned distinctions between “soul” and “spirit” on which their mechanics depend.  The Bible just doesn’t give us a whole lot of information about how the whole evil spirit thing works, but that doesn’t really stop anyone from extrapolating wildly.  Of course, one could say this about just about any theological topic, but it just seems particularly weird to do so in this area.

Second, having lost my youthful fundamentalism, I’m very skeptical about supernatural claims.  That may sound odd, considering that I’m a Christian.  It’s not that I don’t believe supernatural things can happen; it’s that I would consider such things to be very, very rare and their occurrence would communicate something significant to the audience.  A worldview that has invisible demons everywhere being the source of human troubles is too much for me.  People can experience all sorts of afflictions of body and spirit and turn to acts of great or habitual evil without any extra help, and while it may give a college student an extra burst of willpower when his youth group leader casts out the “spirit of masturbation,” I’m very skeptical that anything metaphysical has actually happened.

Third, there seems to be a disparity between the way the gospels portray Jesus’ et al casting out of evil spirits and the contemporary manifestation.  In Jesus’ ministry, casting out demons was a corollary to physical healing.  The people Jesus cast a spirit out of had some serious physical and mental problems that left with the evil spirit.  The healing miracles and exorcisms are so closely related that I half wonder if casting out an evil spirit is simply another way to tell a healing miracle story.  For instance, exorcisms only happen in Galilee and nearby regions.  Everywhere else, just healing miracles.  The Gospel of John records zero exorcisms.  It appears to me that miraculous healing and casting out an evil spirit are two sides of the same coin in the gospel narratives; the way in which they are presented has to do more with the way the audience would have perceived it.

I want to hang out here a moment, because for all the books and videos on spiritual warfare, there are very few books or videos on how to heal someone in Jesus’ name.  Both are presented as regular parts of the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, and both are commanded to Jesus’ followers.  Where are all the books and courses on miraculously healing someone?

It seems to be that the big difference is verification.  If someone is blind or can’t walk or is greatly psychologically unstable, and you try to heal them, it’s pretty clear whether you’ve succeeded or failed, and I’m guessing there have been more failures than successes in that department.  Evil spirits, though, are invisible.  You can have a “successful” exorcism or binding of Satan or whatever because there is absolutely no way to verify that anything happened.  Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I suspect this is a major part of why every Christian and their dog thinks they can cast out demons, but nobody thinks they can touch a person with a wounded leg and heal them.

To me, the portrayal of these things are so closely connected in the Bible that it makes sense to put them both in the same categories.  If you think supernatural healings are rare in the church, today, then it seems consistent to also think that about casting out demons.  I suppose the reverse is also true, but I’ve never run across anyone who seems to think that supernatural, miraculous healing is as common as spiritual warfare.

Finally, we also have to take into account the eschatological situation of Jesus and his apostles.  Jesus has come to destroy the works of the devil, inaugurate the Kingdom of God, liberate and restore Israel, and forgive her sins and remove the curse of the Law.  It is within this context that we see a lot of healing and exorcisms.  This is evidence to the observers that the Kingdom of God has come and Jesus is the one who’s bringing it.  It also marks the binding and defeat of these powers.  Satan is bound.  The Temple falls.  Rome converts.  We live on the other side of this great battle, and insofar as it makes sense to talk about dark, spiritual forces, we should expect that they would be greatly lessened after the ministry of Jesus, not continuing on full force like nothing ever happened.

In the same way, now that the meaning of those kinds of supernatural acts is no longer current, why would we expect the acts to continue in the same way?  It would be like expecting to have visions of clean and unclean animals on a sheet, today.  But Gentiles are already grafted into the Kingdom, all foods have been declared clean, so why would we expect that vision to recur?  The circumstances in the plan of God that vision communicated have come and gone.  If such a vision did happen again, we would assume that something new must be meant.

But on the other hand, we also have to take seriously the narrative of the Church as she continues her journey.  While many of the “spiritual warfare” episodes today may just be so much psychodrama, can we write off every account to that?  We hear power encounter stories from our brothers and sisters in the mission field; could it be that, in other countries, the circumstances are such that casting out an evil spirit still has meaning to the audience – a meaning it simply would not have in a modern, Western nation?

And then there are divine healings, such as the one James Mercer witnessed in his parish.  I suspect that many such stories are just theological explanations for things that happen naturally, but here is an example of one that seems to defy such an explanation.  Could it be that God is still healing miraculously and everything that would entail?

I feel like I have to say yes, and when such instances do happen – whether a miraculous physical healing or some kind of spiritual fire and light showdown in the backwaters of Honduras – we should not only be grateful for the work, but endeavor to read the sign.

Lord of the Sabbath: Matthew 12:1-8

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8 (NRSV)

This is one of the episodes in Jesus’ life that I could easily see happening, today, either among Jews on Saturday or Calvinists on Sunday.  Jesus’ disciples pick grain to eat on the Lord’s Day, and the religious gatekeepers have an issue with this.

On paper, they have a valid objection.  The Law clearly forbids work on the Sabbath and makes no direct exceptions.  Interpreters of the Law – the biblical scholars of the day – had teased out all kinds of implications of this commandment (cf. the Westminster Larger Catechism) leaving the Jewish people with essentially permission to breathe and move around a little.  The Law continues to hold sway in this way.  The Sabbath has always been a definitive marker of the Jewish people, and to this day, some Orthodox Jews won’t even flip a light switch on the Sabbath.

Jesus begins his defense by bringing up counter-examples in the Old Testament of people breaking the Sabbath due to hunger.  David and his companions are one example, and the laws concerning priests are another example.  The priests are especially noteworthy, because not only do they glean their food for the day from offerings, but they also are about all kinds of work in the Temple.

I’m surprised Matthew does not record some wag piping up, “Oh, so you believe the Bible has contradictions in it.  Why don’t you just admit that you don’t believe the Scriptures, Jesus?” because that’s the sort of thing people say to me when I point out areas of the Old Testament that don’t gel.  “The priests and David weren’t really breaking the Sabbath, because if you look at the text carefully….” but Jesus says they are breaking the Sabbath.  Perhaps he’s putting air quotes around that phrase, but we can’t know that from the text.

But Jesus’ intent is not to invalidate the Law, per se, but rather to point out that the Sabbath laws give way to larger considerations, such as the king of Israel and his companions being hungry (you see where Jesus is going with this, right?) or the priests serving in the Temple.

The clash between himself and the religious authorities of his day is something that has worked its way into Matthew in many passages, but here, Jesus brings it to a head on collision.  “Something greater than the Temple is here.”

Well, that escalated quickly.  What began as a theological justification for picking grain to eat on the Sabbath (with some veiled allusions to Jesus and his disciples being comparable to David and his companions as well as priests) ended up in a straight up challenge directly to the Temple, and the Temple is not going to take this lying down.

To substantiate this claim, Jesus invokes Hosea 6:6.  “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

In Hosea, Ephraim (Israel) and Judah have fallen into grave disobedience, allying and intermarrying with other nations, their rulers, and their gods to seek protection and prosperity.  They have left their trust and love of YHWH who had delivered and preserved them up to that point for other loves and other sources of security.  I’ll pause a moment to allow any pastors reading this to make a sermon point out of that observation.

In light of this, YHWH despises the external obedience that Israel and Judah produce.  You can bring your sacrifices all day long to the Temple, but you won’t find God there.  You’ll find an empty shell of a priesthood going through the motions.  But God doesn’t want their sacrifices and burnt offerings (although, it should be noted in the Law, God absolutely wants their sacrifices and burnt offerings); He wants their love and trust back.

A similar theme opens Isaiah right in chapter 1.  In verse 11, YHWH basically says, “Who asked you to bring me sacrifices?”  Well, You did, but the point is that God does not want burnt animal carcasses.  The sacrifices are only meaningful if they reflect a desire to repent and restore the relationship Israel has to her God that has been disrupted by her sins.  Without that desire, now we’re just killing goats for no particular reason other than the fact that the Law requires it.

In Hosea, this situation is followed by prophecy that Israel will be invaded by foreign powers, sacked and ravaged by them, and live in captivity under them.

Jesus is framing his current situation against the situation described in Hosea.  He is telling anyone who will listen that the Temple of his day is as effectual as the Temple of Hosea’s day.  Israel’s heart is far from God.  She trusts in other things, now.  But she goes through the motions all the same.  For Jesus, the Temple and the leaders in it who perpetuate the current state of affairs (which we know is not every single one of them, but almost all) are that empty shell.  Her offerings mean nothing to God and will not stop His coming judgement.  What God wants is not the raw observance of the Law; He wants Israel’s love and trust back.

Jesus challenges the Pharisees to understand what’s really going on, here.  The Temple they serve is a sham and God despises it.  God’s judgement is coming, and the only hope for Israel is genuine repentance and a return to the Lord.

Jesus identifies himself as that mechanism.  He is the king David was meant to be.  He is the priest that the priests were meant to be.  He is the temple that the Temple was meant to be.  He is the one who will lead Israel back to what she was meant to be – a kingdom that loves the Lord her God with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loves her neighbor as herself.

This in and of itself is probably enough to put the lid on Jesus’ coffin as far as the religious authorities are concerned, but he steps it up to DEFCON 1 at the end by declaring, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

To refresh your memory, the Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure in Daniel 7.  In this vision, the Ancient of Days destroys the great kingdom that oppresses Israel, then he gives all glory and rulership to a man – the Son of Man – who rules forever.  Within the confines of the vision, this figure is identified as faithful Israel.

Jesus appropriates this title and image for himself.  He is faithful Israel – the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.  He declares himself to be this apocalyptic figure who is faithful Israel who will be given all authority when God destroys Israel’s oppressors.  And because he has all authority, he is lord of the Sabbath.  If David gets to decide what is and isn’t lawful on the Sabbath, how much more so does Jesus, the Son of Man, the epitome of faithful Israel and her true king whose authority will last forever?

If you find yourself debating what is and isn’t lawful to do on Sunday, I highly recommend you omit Jesus’ last point from your argument.

But it works for Jesus, and as is typical of his rhetorical mastery, he takes the objections of the learned and turns it around on them.  What began as an accusation of breaking the Sabbath has ended as a declaration of war.  And hope.  Bad news for those who are benefiting from the current power structure; gospel for everyone else.

Consider This

  1. If Jesus has authority over the Law itself, how does this affect how we understand and interpret the Law?  How does it affect the role, if any, the Law has in your life, today?
  2. Does the church face a scenario, today, where there are powerful leaders who observe outward obedience but have made allies with the worldly powers that be?  Does this passage imply a message to them?  How do you think they would respond?

Sunday Meditations: All Jesus Has Commanded

In the hymn “All Authority and Power,” Christopher Idle penned the stanza:

All the clear commands of Jesus
must be heeded and obeyed;
full provision for our weakness
in his teaching he has made;
in the gospel words and symbols
saving truth to us conveyed.

As much as I like the hymn, the opening lines and closing lines of this stanza are some of the most ambiguous anywhere.  Is he saying that all the commands of Jesus are clear?  Is he saying that only the clear ones need to be obeyed?  Is he saying that some of the commands of Jesus may come to us by way of symbols as the last lines intimate?

Virtually all Christians throughout the ages have professed that Jesus is to be obeyed as our king and that his commandments are found in Scripture.  Arriving at that list, however, has been anything but unanimous or simple.

“Oh, it’s quite simple,” I hear someone object.  “It’s only not simple when we try to find a way to wriggle out of it.  If Jesus said it, then we do it.”

Fair enough, but then, let me ask about this:

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

John 13:14-17 (NRSV)

When I was growing up, I belonged to a relatively smallish Baptist denomination that literally washed each other’s feet after taking the Lord’s Supper together.  It was listed as an ordinance along with the Lord’s Supper and baptism.  It was only as a got older that I realized this occurs in virtually no other Christian body.

But why not?  Here, we have a very clear command to wash one another’s feet.  Jesus even says that what he did is an example, and that we are blessed if we do it.

The typical way of dealing with this passage is that Jesus’ actual command is not literally to wash each other’s feet, but rather to humbly serve one another in whatever form that takes according to culture and circumstance.

Oh?  What in the text tells us that’s the case?  What in the text indicates that Jesus meant anything besides that his followers ought to wash each other’s feet?  The answer is: nothing.

There is something in the traditions of the Church that have kept her from interpreting these passage along “plain” and “clear” lines.  Perhaps it is an aversion to feet.  Maybe this is one of those “spiritualizing” or “allegorizing” that people get accused of, trying to make something symbolic so they can weasel out of the “plain” meaning.  This is possible, but if that’s what this is, it’s a flaw that has been part of the Church’s practice of this passage for millennia.

There are other passages where Jesus issues commands that we do not follow.  For example, in the miracle story of Jesus feeding the 5000, he orders his disciples to bring him the loaves and fishes.  In the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water, he commands Peter to get out of the boat and walk to him.  Before his entry into Jerusalem, he commands two of his disciples to bring him a colt.  When Judas is about to betray him, Jesus commands him, “Whatever you are going to do, do it quickly.”

These all appear to be clear commands, yet we do not observe any of them, at least in the form they are given to us from Jesus.

Perhaps these seem too obvious.  Perhaps it is obvious to any reader that Jesus just meant that command for the initial recipient(s) and/or the command was only pertinent to that specific event and not something intended for all time, or we are only meant to observe the general principle of the command and not the specific command itself.

But why is it obvious?  Why is it obvious that I, as a believer 2000 years after Jesus lived, am responsible for obeying the Great Commission, which was also a command Jesus gave just to his immediate disciples?  Why is that obvious, but it is not also obvious that I am supposed to gather loaves and fishes when people are hungry?  Why is it not also obvious that I am to wash people’s feet?

And then there’s the matter of extent.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repudiates taking lawful retribution against enemies and instead instructs his followers to love them and give them even more than they are forcibly taking.  Does this mean, as our Anabaptist brothers and sisters would teach us, a Christ-follower is never to do violence?  Does this mean, as our typical Baptist brothers and sisters would teach us, that we should have handguns in our glove compartments in case someone tries something, but we shouldn’t normally do violence as a matter of course?  Does it mean we are only to meet persecution in this way, but not robberies or muggings?  Was the commandment just for a time when the survival of the community of believers was very fragile?  The Church is possessed of some very diverse views on this, all of which appeal to Jesus and none of which are actively trying to rebel against him.

As we read through the commands of Jesus, what are the cues that tell us something is just for that audience or just for that circumstance or just meant to be understood as a general principle and not a practice, and how can we tell the difference?  Are we consistent in how we tell the difference?

Because we love to polarize, I should point out that this is not to say that “What Jesus Commanded” is a free for all that can only be filled by our subjective preferences, or because we can’t be totally certain, we shouldn’t worry about doing anything Jesus wants his followers to do.  Jesus is our king, and we should behave in ways that he sets out.  I’m just calling out that figuring this out isn’t just a matter of easy, plain readings of the text, and we can deceive ourselves saying, “Of course this commandment is meant to be followed by everyone as literally stated, but this other one is meant to establish a general principle.  This other one was just meant for the disciples at that time.” and assuming that the reason we make these decisions is because they are plain in the text.  Nine times out of ten, the text simply does not make any of those distinctions.  It is an act of interpretation.

The first question for me is: how do we know if a command of Jesus is meant for everyone, everywhere at all times or just constrained to the people and situation he’s addressing?

To me, this is the trickiest part.  On the one hand, we know Jesus intended at least some of his teaching and commandments to spread throughout the known world.  In the Great Commission, Jesus tells his disciples to “make disciples… teaching them to obey all the things I have commanded you.”  Whether he meant for all those commandments to last beyond the coming eschatological crisis is another discussion.  For the purposes of my thoughts this morning, it’s enough to acknowledge that Jesus has commands that he gave to the disciples, and he intends other people who haven’t heard them yet to obey them.

But he doesn’t flag for us which ones those are.  Jesus did not walk around with an entourage of journalists with notebooks.  When Jesus says and does things, he is not doing so primarily with the idea that someone will write them down and publish them, later.  Jesus does not turn to the camera.  He teaches and acts and, decades later, people write down the things about that time that they and others remember.

Also, the primary scope of Jesus’ mission is the restoration, reformation, and reclamation of Israel for God.  The rest of the world barely gets a nod, and it is only at the end of the gospels that Jesus sets in motion a plan to get word out to the rest of the Roman Empire.  We have to keep that in mind when we read English words like “world” that, in the Greek, are actually “kingdom” or “land.”  When Jesus is commanding his eleven disciples in the Great Commission to go into the world, he is not thinking about Inuits crossing the Bering Strait.  When Paul says that the whole world has heard the gospel (Rom. 10:18), he does not mean that the Mayans building ziggurats have been visited by Barnabas and John Mark.

It is sometimes our “default” that, if Jesus says something, we understand it to be for all times, all peoples, all places.  But, honestly, I wonder if that’s a good default.  Maybe our default should be the opposite and we should look for particular indicators that would make Jesus’ words transcend their original context.  Or maybe we should just not have a default and see what happens.

In any case, there are a few things that I look for when trying to make this sort of decision.

One is if Jesus is addressing people in general or a specific subgroup.  Whenever Jesus just speaks specifically to the Twelve (or Eleven, for the Great Commission), that would give more weight to the “just for these people, this time” way of hearing him – although it certainly doesn’t settle the matter.  By contrast, if Jesus is teaching large crowds, that would lean more towards a “all people, all places” way of hearing him – although that doesn’t settle the matter, either.

Another is the scope of what Jesus is addressing.  When Jesus asks his disciples to get him a colt to ride into Jerusalem, that is a very narrow scope.  When Jesus tells a crowd of listeners to love their enemies, he attaches to it the clause, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Since this command is issued so that the listeners might imitate God in the world, this would seem to have a much broader scope than simply “keep your head down while the Romans are in power, but after that, it’s open season on your enemies.”  At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the Sermon on the Mount is very much controlled by the concerns of that specific situation in time, and that needs to be taken into account whenever we look at a command in that sermon.

Another thing to consider is whether or not the command seems similar to or correlated with other commands in the Scriptures.  When Jesus says to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves, it is very difficult to argue this is meant to be constrained to his specific audience and time period given these commandments had defined the people of God for thousands of years.  Whereas when Jesus instructs the disciples to wash each other’s feet, that is not attested anywhere else in the Scriptures, but the principle certainly is!

This same indicator can work backwards as well.  What do the apostles do with Jesus’ commands?  Which ones come up again in their instructions to the churches and which ones don’t?  What is their understanding of them?  When none of the apostles poke out their eyes or cut off their hands and do not encourage their congregation members to do the same, we are probably safe in assuming that Jesus’ command to poke out your eye or cut off your hand to avoid sin is not meant to be understood literally.

None of these are hard and fast rules.  I don’t have a flowchart for determining if an imperative that came out of Jesus’ mouth was meant to be obeyed by everyone, everywhere at all times.  That would be great.

But what I do know is, much like the Old Testament, you cannot simply take a command of Jesus and drop it on top of the 21st century Western church without doing some thinking and praying, first.  We are not Jesus’ original disciples.  The Roman Empire no longer oppresses the Church.  The Church spans both Jew and Gentile with very different relationships to the Torah.  The world of the apostles was evangelized, the Temple fell, and Rome surrendered to Jesus.  All these things and more have put us far outside the circumstances and groups that Jesus spoke to, directly, and if we do not take that into account when we read his commands (or anything in the Bible), we are bound to neglect things Jesus wants us to attend to and pursue things he’d rather we didn’t.

But at the same time, Jesus is the full image of God in the world.  He is out to bring the kingdom of God, and because of his death, both Jew and Gentile have been brought into this kingdom.  The mission was bigger than his 30 some years of ministry, and he knew it.  He is our king even now, and when we see him in the pages of the gospels, we see what God is like in the world of that time.  We cannot simply relegate all that to ancient history, but rather, are enjoined to use it with the promptings of the Spirit to learn and be conformed to the image of God, ourselves.

Weary and Heavy Laden: Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV)

My therapist has a tendency to pray in public in such a way as to speak to the hearer(s) moreso than to God.  Sometimes, he abandons all pretense and begins to refer to God in the third person in his prayer.  This makes me chuckle a little.  One of the benefits of prayer is how it affects the speaker, and another benefit is how it affects the hearers, so I don’t think it’s illegitimate to consider how the audience will hear your prayer, but it’s kind of funny to me to ostensibly begin by addressing God then veer off to speak directly to the other people in the room.

This seems to be what Jesus is doing, here.  Either this is a continuation of the prayer he began in verse 25, or he stops the prayer abruptly to address the listeners, or maybe verse 25 isn’t even a prayer, directly, but simply Jesus continuing to address the audience.

In any case, Jesus has displayed something of a progression in this chapter, going from his appreciation of John the Baptist, to a frustration with the lack of response from Israel, to a sort of theological resolution of the problem recognizing that this is all part of God’s plan, to an appeal to his current audience to respond.  A faithful response from a listener would make them one of the “infants” Jesus talked about a few verses ago, but Jesus does not think of this as an insult.  In fact, he thinks of it as an act of humility and faith, recognizing one’s powerlessness and limitations, and instead placing themselves wholly in the care of God.  This is, incidentally, the first three steps of 12 Step programs.

In this passage, Jesus makes an appeal to his audience inviting them to believe his message and follow his path.  If we simply read Jesus’ words against the way we as modern (and for many of us, Gentile) readers would understand them, what we have is a fairly generic promotion.  Jesus is a great guy, and he won’t ask for much.

Jesus may be a great guy, but we know he’s going to ask for a lot, actually.  In fact, he just finished warning his followers about upcoming persecution and even death.  This is our first hint that our initial, “plain reading” of the text may not be telling us everything we need to know.  All this talk of easy yokes and light burdens does not seem to jive very well with Jesus’ rather intense calls to discipleship which will involve metaphors like taking up one’s own cross to follow him, or losing one’s own life for Jesus’ sake, or a narrow/difficult path that avoids destruction as opposed to a wide and easy path.  So, what’s the deal?

One possible explanation is that this is a bit of source material included in Matthew that simply doesn’t jive well with the other material.  This kind of thing happens in the Bible more than we’d like to admit, especially in the Old Testament.  You have several source stories about a thing, and the person crafting the book wants to include truths from both, so they get sort of jammed together in the least disruptive way.  While perhaps scholarship has been a little overzealous in slicing documents up into varying sources, the fact that we can take a text and construct wholly coherent, yet differing, accounts of the same event out of its component parts is one thing (among many) that suggests that multiple source and redactor theories are not just imagination.

For some, this may make one uneasy.  You have differing accounts of something in the Bible, and this casts doubt on its historicity, so we have to rush to resolve the tension and come up with some coherent explanation that somehow, in some way, through some device, makes the accounts compatible (cf. every book that has ever been written on harmonizing the Gospels or dealing with the objections of contradictions).  This, I would offer, is an instinct that comes from worldviews that come into play much later than the production of the Scriptures.

In the world that produced the Scriptures, however, it’s no trouble at all to include differing accounts and material if doing so helps us to understand the subject in new ways, better ways, ways that are closer to the truth than perhaps deciding on a single, authoritative account would give us.  It is a way of thinking that points more East than West.  Rather than challenge us to explain the contradictions away, such a maneuver invites us to ask why an author would knowingly put accounts side by side that are difficult to reconcile.  What are they trying to tell us by splicing these together instead of choosing one or the other?

But, I digress, because in this particular case, I don’t think we have some other source material grafted into a larger narrative; I think we are missing the context of the original audience.

Keep in mind the contrast Jesus has been drawing.  On the one hand are Temple officials, Pharisees, scribes, scholars – the authorities of the Torah who should be shepherding Israel but, instead, oppress her, and the Torah is the tool they use to do it.  Paul accuses Satan of doing something very similar, actually, in Romans.

On the other hand are fishermen, farmers, peasants, the poor, the sinners – people who probably have a very casual/cultural/nominal relationship to Torah BUT are turning out to be the same crowd who are drawn to Jesus.

The prosperous authorities and the Law as a tool to keep people down on the one hand.  On the other hand are the scum of the earth and the dregs of humanity.  The first group has the appearance of being loyal to God and being rewarded as a result, but the reality is that their hearts are far from him, they love themselves, and this is displayed in their opposition to Jesus.  The second group is seeing their God truly for the first time, and they want it and the kingdom He wants to establish, and this is displayed in their faith in Jesus.

The image Jesus draws up is that these poor and oppressed listeners are like yoked oxen under a heavy burden.  This is not an image Jesus came up with off the top of his head.  It has a history.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses announces that part of the curse that will fall upon Israel if she disobeys the Law is, “you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything.  He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.” (Deut. 28:48, NRSV)

In 1 Kings 12, King Rehoboam takes the wrong advice and decides that he will increase the “yoke” his father put upon the people, meaning that he will demand harder service, more taxes, and enforce stricter penalties: “Now whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke.  My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:11, NRSV)

While Rehoboam was rocking like a hurricane, the metaphor of the yoke also became a symbol for the Law – the covenant that Israel took upon herself.  For example, when the prophet Jeremiah muses that poor people won’t know the Torah, but surely the rich are keeping the Law, he discovers: “But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst their bonds.” (Jer. 5:5, NRSV)

But the yoke is a suitable image for the Torah because it represents the rule of God over His people.  The yoke still serves as an image for the rulership of oppressive kings, as we see still in Jeremiah 28, where Hananiah and Jeremiah have a prophetic dance-off, and Hananiah prophesies that God will break the “yoke” of Babylon in two years, and Jeremiah counters, “Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals.” (Jer. 28:13-14)

So, the imagery of the yoke has these two, closely related referents in Israel’s history.  All the references have at their root rulership.  Someone is under an obligation of service to someone else.  As we see it in the Old Testament, one common referent is an oppressive rule.  Another referent is the covenant of the Torah.  And as we’ve seen, in some cases, these two usages are compared and contrasted.  If you throw off the yoke of the Torah, you will incur the yoke of oppressive rule.

But we also know these images can blur together when talking about the Torah as an oppressive rule.  For example, Peter refers to keeping the various obligations of the Torah as “a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear” in Acts 15:10.  Paul, referring to the covenant of circumcision, instructs the Galatians that Christ has set them free, and they should not “submit again to a yoke of slavery” in Gal. 5:1.

In rabbinic literature, the image of the yoke is also used to describe rule by the Torah and oppressive rule by others.  For instance, in Avot 3:5, Nehunya b. ha-Kanah tells us: “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns.”  The reading of the Shema is called “accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” and agreeing to perform the Commandments (the second paragraph of the Shema) is called “accepting the yoke of the Commandments.”

Against this backdrop, Jesus’ contrast becomes clearer.

The people Jesus is appealing to are Israel under the curse of the Law.  They are under an oppressive, pagan rule that is grinding them into the ground.  Furthermore, the very people who should give them hope are using the Torah to alienate them further from the very God who would deliver them.  They are burdened oxen with a heavy yoke, and they have been laboring under it a long, long time.

By contrast, Jesus encourages the people to trade that yoke for his.  Embrace Jesus as king, not Caesar or Herod.  Embrace Jesus’ administration of Law, not the chief priests and Pharisees.  Jesus’ yoke is light.  Jesus’ yoke means deliverance.  The only way out of the Law’s curses and out of the thumbs of the oppressor is to embrace a new king and a new legal administration – the Torah of love – the heart of the Torah – a return to commandments that are meant to build up, reconcile, restore, and grow instead of alienating, condemning, and ostracizing.

A new kingdom is at the doorstep and a new king is among them, and he brings a legal administration that is loving and good and seeks the good of the people who take it on.  It is hope.  It is deliverance.  It is life.  It is a stark alternative.  It is a direct challenge to the powers that be of Jesus’ day.

And, wonder of wonders, how does Jesus ask for their trust?  By stating that he is one of them.  “I am humble in heart.”  Jesus is poor.  Jesus is living under their situation.  Jesus is not an official, not prosperous, not a high ranking Temple official.  He’s a commoner.  He’s one of the unwashed masses.  The second Moses identifies with humble Israel as did the first Moses.  He is one of them, he will fight for them, and he will protect them even from the wrath of God Himself as Moses did for Israel so long ago.

Do you hear with the ears of those first century Israelites – shadows of their former selves ground into the dirt?  Does this, perhaps, sound like gospel – good news – to you?

Consider This

  1. Some take the position that Jesus overthrew everything about the Law.  Some take the position that Jesus intended to keep the Law going more or less unchanged.  What do you think?  How does Jesus use the Law?  How does Jesus seem to countermand the Law?  Does this have any ramifications for the value we as modern readers might get from the Law or its appropriate usage in our own lives?
  2. The Temple and the Roman Empire are long gone.  What does it mean for us, today, to take on the yoke of Jesus as king and enter the kingdom?  What position does that put us in regarding all the other powers in the world?

Father and Son: Matthew 11:25-27

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Matthew 11:25-27 (NRSV)

Jesus has just finished drawing a contrast between the Israelite cities who, by rights, ought to recognize what Jesus is doing right away and get behind that effort, and Israel’s historical enemies infamous for wickedness who, Jesus believes, would have repented and followed Jesus much more readily.  He may be making this projection based on the fact that the people who seem to have truly notable faith in Jesus thus far have been Gentiles and noted sinners.

The vast majority of Israel at this time appears not to put too much stock into what Jesus is saying about the kingdom coming and judgement being right around the corner, at least not enough pursue the fruits of repentance or drop everything and follow him.  In fact, Israel’s religious leaders and scholars actively oppose Jesus, and Jesus sees this opposition only getting worse – drawing in not just him, but his followers.  He sees persecution coming from the synagogues, and not acceptance.

These thoughts lead to a prayer.  The prayer seems to be more for the benefit of the listeners than the pray-er.  In fact, if the last verses of chapter 11 are still part of the prayer, Jesus just starts directly talking to the people listening.

In this prayer, he identifies the dynamic he’s been experiencing.  Obviously, he’s being a little metaphorical.  Infants are not following Jesus around.  Elsewhere, he has referred to his faithful followers who are at the mercy of the world’s oppression as “little ones,” and we might think of other passages in Matthew and other gospels where Jesus has pointed out special places in the kingdom for children or encouraged his followers to be like children.  The idea here seems not to be that intelligent adults are hard-hearted rebels while literal infants have the true revelation of God, but rather Jesus is drawing a contrast between two kinds of people, and this is a theme in Matthew that bleeds everywhere starting in the earliest chapters.

On the one hand, you have a group of people who, by all external indicators, should have been the first to hear Jesus’ warnings and get behind them, encouraging the rest of Israel to turn their hearts back to God, loving Him and loving their neighbors as themselves, and listening to Jesus’ warnings about the judgement that is right around the corner.  This group of people are the priests, the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, those who serve in the temple – these people are trusted scholars and leaders of the Jewish people of their day.

On the other hand, you have a group of people who are just trying to keep their heads above water under Roman dominion.  They are poor and uneducated.  They have only a cultural-osmosis level of understanding of the Old Testament.  They are farmers and fishermen.  They are the very referent of the phrase “unwashed masses.”  They are sinners, doing whatever it takes to survive and keep their lives tolerable.  They do not meditate on God’s Law day and night, nor is it a lamp unto their feet nor a light unto their path.  They once were the glorious kingdom of David, and now they are the flotsam and jetsam of a backwater Roman province.

On paper, it is that first group who should have embraced Jesus as a welcome prophetic addition to their ranks.  “Yes, exactly, Jesus.  We need, again, a passion for loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and we need to rekindle the people’s affection for one another, loving each other as they love themselves.  We need to be the faithful people God has called us to be starting with our father, Abraham, and we need to be the kingdom once again.  We need to take seriously the idea that God will not allow this condition to go on indefinitely for His people and prepare ourselves for the hardships that are about to come.  Thank you, Jesus, for taking this message to the people in ways we could not.  Please, come speak at our synagogues and revive our people!”

It is the second group that should be apathetic or even opposed.  Their lives are close to the bone – brutal and short.  And now here comes a man talking about how money changes a person for the worse and turns hearts away from God.  He’s talking about trusting God to provide if we make being the kingdom – something we lost a long time ago – our first priority.  He wants to take my weekly visits to prostitutes away, or my skimming off the top of the people’s taxes away, and he wants me to spend my time thinking about how to love and serve God and my fellow Israelites instead of thinking of how I’m going to earn enough coin to stay out of prison.  No, thanks.

But, amazingly, the exact opposite happens!

The group that is supposed to know God and pursue faithfulness rejects and opposes Jesus.  They may not like the Romans much, but they’re doing just fine!  They enjoy respect, wealth and the knowledge that they are the true faithful because they observe all the regulations of Moses as they seem them, and they like that situation in life, thank you very much.  While this rag-tag group of sinners who smell like chum believe Jesus, repent, and make amends to those they have harmed.  Some leave the only jobs keeping them alive to follow Jesus, trusting that God will take care of them.

This is what it means for God to have revealed Himself to infants and not the wise, and this is what it means for those who have believed Jesus and followed him to have a true knowledge of God that seems to have eluded the scholarly, powerful, and outwardly righteous.

Consider This

  1. In what ways does what Jesus is doing for Israel more clearly reflect the true God than an exhaustive knowledge of the Torah?
  2. What does this say about what our efforts as a church should be?  What should be our priorities?  What things do Christians make big deals about that perhaps don’t reflect a clear expression of who God is, and what things do we neglect that might be an eye-opening revelation of who God is?  How does Jesus model these things?

Sunday Meditations: The Devil

This morning started with a most unwelcome reflection on mortality and loss.  This led to me breaking out the ol’ Slavery of Death by Richard Beck.  I think I may have to read this book once a year or even once a quarter if I’m going to make it through mid-life without joining a Buddhist monastery or spending my life savings on a whirlwind of hedonism or a giant statue of myself or any of the kinds of things that I really would rather not do for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which respect for God.

Anyway, tangentially related is the figure of Satan (which I often misspell as “Stan” – sorry, Stan) or the devil, and I was thinking about him this morning.

Christianity these days struggles with what to make of Satan.  As we get, you know, older and wiser (?), it’s harder to imagine this malevolent spiritual entity with intelligence and personhood, even less so the one pictured in Byzantine art.

But I would say that the Judeo-Christian faith has always had to work through this in some form or fashion.

In the Old Testament, Satan is not mentioned very much, especially once we eliminate the passages that later Christian theologians have said are about Satan but don’t actually mention him.  He appears to be a heavenly being who can converse with God, and the thing he likes to do is accuse God’s people of being terrible so that God will forsake or destroy them.  Charming.

It’s interesting that the prophets also accuse God’s people of being terrible, but the difference seems to be that the prophets do so to warn the people of the outcome of their actions in the hopes that the people will repent.  What the prophets are after is a restoration of Israel and reconciliation with God.  Satan in the Old Testament, by contrast, is trying to drive a wedge between them.  This difference is something to keep in mind as we contemplate various visions of “the end of the world.”

As we get further along the timeline in Scriptures and Jewish theology, a change takes place.  Either Satan changes tactics or, more likely, God’s followers have an evolution of their understanding of Satan.

Somewhere along the line, Satan moves from an observer and accuser to an active participant, but he’s a participant through physical mechanisms.  In other words, Satan may be the spirit, but other things are his body – most prominently, the oppressive armies of other nations, but also in the forms of disease and various physical and psychological afflictions.

It is this understanding of Satan that seems to be in the air during the time of Jesus and provides a background for how some of the gospel story is told.  Jesus heals the sick, raises the dead, and in some regions cast out demons (while in other regions, the same activities are described as physical healings).  Perhaps the clearest example we get of the view that Satan is the spiritual animus behind the afflictions and oppression of God’s people is when Jesus confronts a demon who says his name is Legion, which is the name of the Roman army.

As time goes on and we get further away from the world of Jesus, the Christian church continues to evolve in her understanding of Satan, eventually arriving at a spiritual figure who primarily spends his time trying to get people to sin, perhaps so he can claim their souls.  He becomes God’s slightly less powerful opposite – the ruler of Hell to oppose the ruler of Heaven in an eternal, cosmic war for the soul of mankind.

Not surprisingly, I think that middle description does more justice to the biblical data and makes for a view of Satan that can be cogent for a variety of theological perspectives.  Whether you think of Satan as a person or as the transhuman forces at work in the world to bring death and destruction, they both fit.  For Jesus, you can’t conceive of Satan without also thinking of his incarnations in the world, and vice-versa.

The factor that unites the idea of Satan as found in the Scriptures is what Satan is after: death.  He’s after the destruction of the creation that God loves, especially mankind.  Satan is not presented as wanting sin as though sin had some intrinsic value to Satan.  Satan only wants sin because he wants death and destruction.  He is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.

And it is this, then, to which Jesus refers when he speaks of coming to destroy the “works of the devil.”  He did not come to get people to stop sinning; he came to save his people from destruction.  He came to take the power of death away from Satan.

Death, after all, is Jesus’ last enemy, and after that enemy is destroyed, Jesus will retire from being king (1 Cor. 15:24-26) because a kingdom just isn’t necessary when the last threat to creation is destroyed.  We see this captured in the Apocalypse where Satan is defeated with the fall of Rome, but after a long period of peace, he is released again and destroyed, followed by the destruction of death and the realm of the dead.

Sin, certainly, has a role in this.  The primordial story of Genesis tells us how we ended up a world where the forces of death do not serve man but rule over him – sin.  In the West, primarily owing to Augustine, we took the sin bit and ran with it as though the point of Genesis 3 was to explain where sin and our sinful desires came from, but Genesis 3 is prologue for the world in which humanity’s drama will play out – a drama that is not about people committing sins, but mortals surviving and perishing and whether they pursue life or pursue death.  We all, individually, play this story out in our own lives, choosing words and actions that bring harm to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us, and the wage of those actions will be paid out.

And this picture, I think, has the potential to line up across all kinds of theologies and hermeneutics.  We may not all agree about the nature or even existence of heaven and hell, but we can all agree that everybody dies.  We may not all agree about the doctrine of original sin, but we can all agree that sin racks up destruction until it is paid off in death.  We may not all agree that Satan is a literal person, but we can all agree that there are forces in the world that cause and even profit from the death of people and the destruction of creation, and these forces are bigger than individual human beings and bigger than their singular manifestations.  In these senses, everyone believes in Satan.

But Jesus enters the story to destroy the works of the devil.  Have you ever thought about what it means to renounce the devil and all his works?  It’s much bigger than your personal sins.  It is, under the banner of Jesus, to wage a war against all that would tear down mankind and creation, and in its place establish life and provision.  Nor is this merely some eschatological hope that, at some point in the distant future, Jesus will do all of this work for us and all we have to do until then is just camp out, make money, and try not to look at naughty magazines.

Jesus commissions and empowers us by the Spirit to destroy the works of the devil.  Let’s get into this fight.

Sunday Meditations: Interpreting the Bible

People who know me know that I have been on something of an intense reexamination and realigning of how I’ve read the Bible and how that relates to various beliefs and doctrines I’ve held.  The main catalyst for that has been my own journey through recovery and letting go of a lot of past things.  What do I believe when I am not required by my past or my social structures to believe anything in particular?  What does my journey look like when I do not feel like I have to arrive at a particular outcome and can just see where the road takes me?

As part of this, a renewed interest has sparked in my own life in looking at the Bible as a historical document and how that helps us understand how the original receivers of Scripture might have heard it.  In fact, the whole reason this online experiment exists is for me – to document my attempts at bringing this perspective to the Scriptures and seeing how they can speak through that corridor.

I have several good, wise, and especially patient friends who are beside me in this, and while they may agree with some things and critique others, they all share in common the willingness to let me bounce wildly off a few walls before coming to rest.

But in these reexaminations, certain questions occur to me and to them like:

  1. Did everyone get the Bible wrong after the first century?
  2. Do we have to read the Bible according to the framework of the original audience, or is it ok to read it in other ways for various purposes?
  3. Is it wrong to get something out of the Bible if it wasn’t part of the original context?
  4. Do you believe that the only people who understand the Bible are you and Andrew Perriman?

And so on.

These questions and others like them (with the possible exception of #4 – the answer to which is “no,” btw) basically boil down to the same issue: what do we do with varying interpretations of the Bible?  Is one of them correct and the rest are wrong, or are they all correct in some way?

There Has Never Been One Interpretation of Scripture

One reality we have to acknowledge is that there has never been a time when the believing community carried a single, unified interpretation of Scripture as far as we know.

As we look through rabbinic and pre-rabbinic literature, we find dialogue, debate, and disagreements among teachers both about translations and the teachings of Scripture.  Most commonly, these disagreements are allowed to stand side by side as authoritative treatments and, to this day, Jewish seminaries will teach their students to read the Torah in pairs so that they might debate its meaning and, in the process, learn and discover new facets.

By the time we get to the first century, there are several, main divisions of Judaism with multiple subdivisions.  These are not over small issues, either, but on questions as large as whether or not there is a resurrection of the dead, or how many Messiahs there would be, or whether or not angels and demons are real beings.  The divisions were not limited to purely doctrinal matters, either, but deeply practical ones: Did certain laws pertain only to those who labored in the Temple or all of Israel since all were a holy priesthood to YHVH?  Since the laws tend to be general, what specific practices are required or forbidden?

This isn’t even getting into Christian history with its own schisms.  The Monophysite debate erupted into outright violence between cities.  Nowadays, we have so many Protestant denominations that it gives more credence to the theory of multiple universes.  At every possible branching point of doctrine, a Protestant denomination exists that went the other way.

Roman Catholicism posits a singular, unified voice on Scriptural teaching in the Magisterium, but even if one believes that (which I do not), one still has to reckon with the fact that Scripture and faithful followers of God went most of their history without any kind of divine provision of certainty or doctrinal unity.  There is no Old Testament version of the Magisterium, and arguably the New Testament version of the Magisterium hasn’t always been in lockstep, either.

The widespread multiplicity of meanings that readers get out of the Scriptures is as old as the Scriptures themselves.  Even (especially) the more historically minded of us need to take care that we do not talk about the views of “the ancient Near East” or ” first century Judaism” as though this were one, monolithic thing.

Is this upsetting to God?  Possibly, but the fact that we can have the Spirit and still read Scriptures very differently sort of makes you wonder how big of a deal this actually is to Him.  Maybe it’s enough that we’re all generally pointed in the right direction of fulfilling His vision for the world.

Believers Have Often Held that Scriptures Have More than One Meaning

This may offend our logical sensibilities, and may especially offend Protestant sensibilities.  For example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, Section IX, we read:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

Emphasis mine.

However, we have to keep in mind that those Reformers were both reacting to what they perceived as excesses in the Roman Catholic church as well as establishing the logical prerequisites for the doctrine of sola scriptura.  If you remove the authority of the Church to tell you what to believe and place that authority in the Scriptures, then the Scriptures had bloody well better say only one thing.

However, this disposition was shared with neither Judaism nor a decent chunk of church history.

It was several months ago that I was reading the Ruth Rabbah tracking down the source of a particular Messianic interpretation of Ruth 4:14-15.  As it happens, different rabbis had different takes on who this passage was talking about, but one of the rabbis offered that the passage was talking about six, different people: David, Solomon, Israel, the Messiah, Boaz himself, and someone else I forget.  It caused him no tension whatsoever to say that this passage was about all of those different referents.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that every passage of Scripture has four meanings: the historical, the allegorical, the tropological (moral), and the anagogical, and this is a standard part of Catholic exegesis.

This is not to say these people are necessarily correct.  It is to acknowledge, however, that in the long history of the Scriptures and their interpreters, not only are there disagreements on the meaning, but there is a well-attested sense that a given passage can mean more than one thing.

Meaning Comes From Both Readers and Writers

Here is the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There was a time when it was very popular for English teachers to tell their students the poem was about suicide, and if you read it, you can see it in the imagery relatively clearly.  In a sort of allegory, a man pauses to consider taking his own life and entering into quiet, beautiful oblivion, but he ultimately decides that he has obligations and commitments to which he must be faithful, so he continues on.

The interesting thing is that this interpretation is wrong, according to Robert Frost.  Frost was up all night writing a different poem, “New Hampshire,” and when he went out to see the sunrise, he had a mental vision of a person riding a horse by the woods and stopping to contemplate them, and he wrote a poem about it.

But here’s the kicker – all those people who read the poem and took something away from it about suicide, were they all wrong?  What if someone were contemplating suicide but read Frost’s poem, and it encouraged them to keep going?  Is this illegitimate?

What gives Robert Frost the authority to tell you what you can and cannot get out of his poetry?

When anyone creates communication, they have something in their heads they want to communicate (with the possible exception of art that is specifically designed for you to fill in your own meaning, e.g. much of modern art).  The text is the medium they create to try to convey that idea – whether it is a speech, a written text, a statue – whatever.

However, as any parent can tell you, there is a big difference between the message you intend to send and what the receiver makes of it.  In some contexts, we would consider this a failure.  We wouldn’t want an architect to draw up blueprints for a skyscraper and hand them over to a builder who subscribed to an allegorical interpretation of them.

In other contexts, however, what a text means to the reader may differ from what the author had in their head, and this is not only not dangerous but may, in fact, cause the text to spring into even greater purpose.

We see this happening the Bible, itself, as Jesus and/or the gospel writers will take passages out of Israel’s history that quite clearly are envisioning their local, current situation at the time of their writing.  Yet, Jesus/the authors will reuse those texts to explain Jesus, and they are not shy about this.

Is this wrong?  Is this illegitimate?

I ask you, is it wrong for someone to read Frost’s poem and find it an artistic and thought-provoking picture of contemplating, but ultimately rejecting, suicide?

I do not think that is wrong.  I think it means the text can be valuable for people in different ways and, as they share their reading into a larger community of readers, we can appreciate the poem in ways we did not, before.

What would be wrong, however, would be for someone to say that the suicide thing is what Frost wants all of us to take away from his poem, and that leads me to my last observation.

Not All Proposed Meanings are Equally Plausible, Valuable, or Likely to Reflect the Intent

It’s one thing for me to read a text and take away something of personal significance.  It’s another thing altogether for me to announce that as “the meaning” of a text, or what the text “teaches,” or what “God says,” or anything that might imply that how a text reads to me is also what the author intended or the role the text played to the original audience.

I could read a newspaper article about a drop in the stock market as an allegory of an individual’s struggle with emotional depression, and that’s fine (although I might find it valuable to also recognize that the stock market is dropping), but I need to be careful about making that interpretation in any way anything other than something I got out of it personally.  If I were to tell people that the stock market article was “really about” a person struggling with emotional depression, I should be prepared for people to point out that this is not what the author intended or how anyone else read it because newspaper articles report news and are meant to be read as such, not as allegories.

Let’s take my favorite chestnut, Jeremiah 29:11:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

If a teenager is about to enter college, reads this verse, and finds comfort there, I’m not going to take that away from him.  The text has affected him in a personal way that may not at all be the original intent of the passage, but it was used by him in a helpful way that had meaning for him.

However, this passage is to the Israelite exiles in Babylon.  God is promising that He will rescue them from Babylon and bring them back to their land.  That’s who He’s talking to and that’s what He means.  There’s nothing about anyone else except Israelite exiles in Babylon and God making good on His promise to Abraham.  There’s definitely nothing about teenagers or college or careers or what have you.

It is because of this that I am on very shaky ground when I tell someone else that God has promised that He has good things in store for their future, and I quote that verse.

What I might do is tell someone, “When I read this verse, it reminds me of God’s commitment to His people and His promises.  I feel like He could be talking directly to me, and that always brings me comfort and confidence.”

All fine and good, but that is not and should not be the same as me telling someone that’s what the passage means.  In terms of possible meanings of Jeremiah 29:11, the meaning that “God has an awesome future for each and every Christian” is hugely unlikely, not just because we can obviously see in people’s lives this is not true, but the fact that Jeremiah 29 circumscribes who and what it is addressing.  Other contexts are notably absent.

A very good question, however, would be: can it mean both?

I’m ok saying that as long as we keep in mind what we mean when we say it.  There are no indicators that Jeremiah 29:11 is meant to fit any historical circumstances but its own.  And yet, we also know that the biblical authors themselves will repurpose passages to describe something happening in their own day.

Could this passage, for example, be used to comfort an imprisoned church in China?  The historical circumstances would be similar in some ways.  I think it could be (and is actually a lot closer to the original passage than the college thing), once again, being very careful with requisite qualifiers and a knowledge of what we’re doing.

And this is kind of where I’m at with all this.  The Scriptures had something to say to their original audience.  Knowing what this is not only helps us get at The Meaning of the passage, but it also provides some sanity checks if and when we repurpose it or look at our own circumstances through the lens of that text.

But at the same time, we also should allow for the fact that an individual will get meaning from a text that is just for them.  Like looking at art, it will mean different things to different people at some level, and I have little ground and even less motive for telling someone what they got out of a passage is “wrong.”

But we do need to understand what we’re doing when we do that, and I’m not sure most of us do.