Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Matthew 9:9-13

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13 (NRSV)

The actual story of the calling of Matthew is not very dramatic.  If you decide to make a movie about Matthew’s life, someday, I would not use Matthew 9:9 as the sum of your source material.

The important detail about the calling of Matthew is that Matthew is a tax collector.

Intentionally or no, one of the primary aspects of Roman oppression was economic.  The grand buildings, cities, libraries, statues, etc. were not free, and what great things were built under the reign of a particular emperor was an item of note of early historians when assessing the overall greatness of that emperor.  Often, these projects where funded by a rather large amount of taxation.

The effect this had in the lives of first century Israelites cannot be overstated.  The vast majority of Israelites under the Roman Empire were not wealthy merchants or high-ranking government officials.  Many were laborers or farmers.  Rarely were these citizens able to keep up with their taxes and would find themselves owing to the government the very means of their livelihood.  If you were a farmer, for instance, you might very easily find yourself being a sharecropper on land owned by a wealthy politician that used to be in your family for generations.

And of course, once your primary means of making money belongs to the Empire, your whole life is essentially a struggle to survive while staying out of prison.  It’s cyclical, generational, and self-sustaining.

You can see why the subjects of Empire and taxation would be such volatile topics for Jesus to have to address and how easily it could land him on either the wrong side of the Empire or the wrong side of prison.

For various reasons, the Empire often chose to collect taxes through tax collectors who were members of the occupied people.  You can imagine how odious this would be to the occupied.  Here was someone of your own people who had Rome’s enforcement power behind them taking your money and your lands to support the Empire that had dominion.  It would be like a black slave-catcher in the antebellum South or a Jewish administrator of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany.  It didn’t help that your typical tax collector did pretty well for themselves by skimming a little extra off the top.

Just imagine the loathing a people group would have for someone like that.  Imagine how despised an Israelite tax collector would be to the Israelite people.  They are enemy collaborators.  They chose their own security and prosperity over the welfare of their own people.  Instead of joining the poor and oppressed, they became the oppressor.  It is ironic, indeed, that tax collectors would be the targets of the ire of Israel’s religious leaders who often played the same role, just from a religious sphere rather than a financial one.  One might even consider that hypocrisy.

And so, when Jesus calls a tax collector to follow him, this is bound to upset everyone.  Nobody liked the Roman soldiers, but at least we expect Roman soldiers to act in Rome’s best interest over the interest of Israel.  Here, Jesus calls an Israelite who has chosen Rome over Israel.  Or perhaps more accurately, they have chosen themselves over Israel.

To push the analogy further, we might envision a rabbi in a concentration camp inviting that Jewish administrator working for the Nazis to come be a part of Sabbath worship.  You can imagine the reaction this might cause for the Jews in the camp.  But you also might imagine that a transformation of that administrator might not be far behind.

Jesus is retrieving the lost of Israel.  Matthew stands for them – the Israel who might have been faithful except they are lost – snatched out of the fold by circumstances and wandering hearts.  It is part of Jesus’ mission to turn their hearts back to their God and bring the lost sheep back into the fold.

Thus, this short little ditty about Matthew serves as the perfect prologue to what comes after.  Jesus is having table fellowship with “many tax collectors and sinners.”  We don’t know what sort of people are described by the label “sinners,” and we don’t need to know.  All we need to know is, by any honest reckoning by Israel, these people are unfaithful.  They are the lowest of the low.  Nobody who cared about faithfulness in terms of purity would even be in their house, much less having dinner and chatting with people like this.

Surprising no one, the Pharisees find this curious to say the least.  How can a rabbi have meals with people like this – people who are clearly on the “outside” when it comes to religious purity?  We might debate over where the line is between faithful and unfaithful, but we don’t need to debate about the people Jesus is eating with.  By any way of reckoning, these are people to be shunned – shunned because of what they have done and what they have become.

Jesus, by contrast, seems to think these are exactly the sort of people he should be eating with.  These are the lost of Israel; these are who need a Shepherd.  Israelites who have been consistently faithful the whole time do not need to be brought back around to God.  Like the elder son in the prodigal son parable, such people have been in the house the whole time, honoring the father, and the inheritance is theirs.  But here, Jesus is after the prodigals.  He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are safely in the fold to find the one who is in a very dangerous place.

But Jesus does not stop with that instruction; he does the unthinkable.  He issues an eschatological warning – not to the sinners, but to the Pharisees – by quoting Hosea 6:6.

In Hosea 6, YHWH has issued a call for repentance to Israel, and he has sent them the prophets to warn them.  But instead, Israel has killed her prophets and become a land of injustice.  God tells Israel, as He does in many passages in the prophets, that her outward observance of Torah means nothing to Him in light of their idolatry and the oppression of their religious leaders.

As robbers lie in wait for someone,
so the priests are banded together;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
they commit a monstrous crime.

Hosea 6:9 (NRSV)

At the end of chapter 6 and on into chapter 7, God speaks of a day when He will restore faithful Israel, but that day will be a day of retribution for unfaithful Israel.

It is unlikely that Jesus’ point is lost on the Pharisees.  You can keep Torah fastidiously, but if you have neglected justice and mercy toward the people in your care, you will be judged as an infidel.  Law-observing religious authorities without love and mercy will find themselves receiving God’s wrath, while sinners and tax collectors who are brought back to God by believing Jesus and following him will be healed and restored.

We should note that, even though Matthew often portrays the Pharisees in a bad light, we should not assume that “Pharisee” is a synonym for “legalistic hypocrite.”  Most Pharisees were Pharisees because they genuinely wanted to obey God from their hearts and believed that Israel needed to turn away from her disobedience and back to obedience so that God would save them from the Torah’s curses.  Their oral tradition wasn’t because they were legalistic prudes, but because they genuinely wanted to figure out how to obey God, especially since the Torah can be kind of vague on various points.

We would expect that at least some Pharisees would resonate with Jesus’ message and believe in what he was doing, and if they were faithful and their hearts were soft might even have signed on.  Paul was a Pharisee and, at first, a great opponent of Jesus and his movement, and if someone like that could convert, then anyone could.

But this is the gospel of Matthew, and this gospel has a laser like focus on Israel and the pivotal choice Matthew presents to his Jewish audience – here is Israel’s Messiah, what are you going to do about him?  And, so, we do not see much good coming from Israel’s religious leaders in this gospel.  The good guys in Matthew’s story are the humble, faithful Israelites who turn from their disobedience to Jesus in faith.  The bad guys are the rich, the powerful, and the religious leadership – because that’s who the bad guys are in the Old Testament prophetic works Matthew loves to use to explain Jesus’ significance.

And here, we find the Son of God in the midst of sinners, eating and talking with them as if nothing is strange at all about that, and we find the sinners receptive.

Consider This

  1. Think of a group of people that, as far as you understand Christian moral behavior, are clearly on the outside.  Abortion doctors?  Muslims?  Homosexuals?  Democrats?  Can you imagine Jesus spending his time eating and having conversations with that group?  Can you imagine him preferring to do that than to associate with Christians who checked all the boxes on the Christian Morality Checklist?  How would you feel about that?  How should you feel about that?
  2. There doesn’t seem to be any indication in the text that Jesus insisted that everyone give up their tax collecting and sinning in order to have fellowship with him.  At the same time, we also know Jesus called his followers to faithfulness and obedience.  Does this tell us anything about how we deal with those on the “outside” of our beliefs and morals?

Sunday Meditations: Reading Forwards

Throughout my life, my relationship to the Old Testament has changed.

I grew up Free Will Baptist, which is what you might think of when you think of fundamentalist fire and brimstone sorts of churches (#NotAllFreeWillBaptists).  I was a licensed minister in this denomination at the ripe old age of seventeen.

In this climate, the Old Testament was a collection of stories to establish general moral truths or truths about God.  The story of David killing Goliath was to teach us that trusting in God means we can overcome big problems.  Or, alternately, that God uses the small and weak people of the world to do great things.  Although I don’t recall any sermons ever framing the issue this way, basically all Old Testament sermons came down to, “And the moral of the story is….”

When I became Reformed, the Old Testament became the conceptual building blocks for theology and doctrine.  Predestination.  Total depravity.  It’s all there in the proof texts of the Old Testament.

As time went on, I became exposed to the idea that the Old Testament pointed forward to Jesus.  It was still, secondarily, a stockpile of doctrinal proof texts, but now we read the Old Testament as a sort of allegory that really happened, and the meaning of the allegory was to portray the things revealed in the New Testament.  This is the basis behind the little rhyme, “The New is in the Old, concealed.  The Old is in the New, revealed.”

A key passage to understanding the Bible in this way was the Emmaus road story in Luke 24:13-27, which ends with, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

At any of those points, all of which I would say have a facet of truth to them, the Old Testament was never irrelevant, exactly, although it’s difficult to say that it was necessary.  All of those things I described could be supported just fine purely on New Testament scriptures.  The Old Testament was basically there for backup.  You could, in theory, hack out the Old Testament and just read the New Testament and still do just fine.  Although the flannelgraph industry would tank hard (if you get that joke, we probably have a lot in common).

These days, I’m at a point in my journey when it appears to me that the Old Testament lays down an important conceptual framework for understanding the New Testament.  In other words, we understand the New Testament best when we read forward from the Old Testament.

For instance, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul refers to Christ as the Passover lamb.

One way to approach this concept is to take what we know about Jesus and read it back into the Passover account.  Let’s say, for example, someone has the typical evangelical understanding of original sin and penal substitionary atonement.  This is a big part of Jesus’ meaning, that he dies to take our place (sinners) under the destructive wrath of God.  So, when we look at the Passover account, we might see it the same way.  The Israelites sacrifice a lamb to substitute for their firstborn under the wrath of God that would rightly fall on their firstborn.  The Egyptians, who do not provide a substitute, have their firstborn slain.  In this way, the Passover becomes a picture, or foreshadowing, or type of what Christ has done.

But there are a couple of problems with this.

The first problem is that there is no evidence from the Exodus texts that God would have killed the firstborn of Israel or that the lamb was intended to be a substitute.  In fact, we read the exact opposite when Moses proclaims the last plague:

Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

Exodus 11:4-7 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

God has no intention of harming the Israelites.

While the Israelites do kill and eat a lamb, and this vaguely looks like the sacrificial laws that will come later, they also eat unleavened bread.  The only function the lamb’s blood is said to provide is to identify the Israelite houses.

The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:13 (NRSV)

There is nothing that is said about the lamb being killed in the place of the Israelite firstborn.

When God institutes the Passover as a regularly occurring observance (presumably not to continue to substitute for the firstborn), here’s the rationale He gives:

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed down and worshiped.

Exodus 12:26-27 (NRSV)

Why continue to observe the Passover?  Not as a substitution for your firstborn, but to make an offering to the Lord in gratitude for what He has done.

So, when we try to read back into the Passover from what we know about Jesus (or what we think we know about Jesus), we find we may be trying to force a square peg into a round hole, and if you have ever heard a sermon on a more prosaic Old Testament passage where someone has tried to force it to “point forward to Christ,” you have probably experienced this first hand.  And it comes from that basic vector of taking what you know about Jesus and trying to find it in the Old Testament.

But this brings us to our second problem – in 1 Corinthians, Paul is expecting us to understand his instruction on the basis of what we know about the Passover; he isn’t trying to get us to understand the Passover on the basis of his instruction.

The whole reason Paul thinks he can ground his command about sending the unfaithful out of congregations on Jesus being the Passover lamb is because he is depending on the knowledge the letter-reader already has about Passover.  He is expecting you to read forward.

“Remember the Passover when God said we would have nothing to do with leavened bread, and whoever did would be cut off from the community?  Well, that Passover is now.  Jesus was the sacrificed lamb.  Now we need to make sure our bread is unleavened as well.”

Regardless of the merits of Paul’s argumentation, it is clear that he expects us to bring to his instruction our knowledge of the Passover.  He isn’t trying to redefine the Passover in terms of what Jesus did.

And I would say that, at least for the most part, this describes any of the New Testament use of the Old Testament.  The writer expects us to bring our knowledge of the Old Testament to their words.  They aren’t trying to explain the Old Testament to us; they’re trying to explain what is currently going on by using what we know about the Old Testament.  In light of this, I would say it is very likely that this is what Jesus was doing on the road to Emmaus – not going through the Old Testament and going, “See this?  This isn’t what you thought.  This is really about me.”  But rather, “See this?  See what has happened for Israel in the past?  That’s what I’ve done, for you, now.”

Even when you take a look at the passages where Jesus or the apostles chastise their audience for not recognizing Jesus on the basis of the Old Testament, the criticism is not that they are failing to understand their Old Testament in new ways in light of Jesus; the criticism is that, knowing the Old Testament, they should have been the first to recognize Jesus and what he was doing.  Jesus is acting in the stream set up by the Old Testament, not establishing brand new categories that we are supposed to use to reinterpret the Old Testament.

Does that mean that Jesus does everything as expected?  No.  Does that mean that we shouldn’t read the Old Testament and connect it to Jesus?  I believe we should.

But I believe the Scriptures were given historically and progressively to God’s people for a reason.  I believe the Old Testament is indispensable.  It is in the Old Testament light that we see Jesus for who he truly is, and we run a serious risk of allowing our own theological constructions to control our Bible reading if we start with our understanding of Jesus and push it backwards into the Old Testament.

But, you know, check back with me in ten years and see where I’m at.

Forgiveness of Sins: Matthew 9:2-8

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

Matthew 9:2-8 (NRSV)

I don’t know if Guys Bringing Their Paralyzed Friend to Jesus constitutes a genre of story, but if it does, this is one of those stories.

Matthew has already set a background for these scenarios with his note that Jesus is going around healing and casting out demons, and as a frame of reference, he cites Isaiah 53 which depicts the suffering of faithful Israel for the sake of restoring the nation to God.  As part of this process, Isaiah pulls together healing and forgiveness of sins.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6 (NRSV)

Against this backdrop, the paralytic is a representative figure for Israel in Jesus’ day – broken under infirmities both spiritual and physical.  But he, or at least his friends, has faith that Jesus can deliver him, so there he is.

Given this background, it is not that strange that Jesus would announce to this man that his sins are forgiven, especially as Matthew is keen to make the point that Israel being forgiven of her sins, being healed, being restored, etc. is all part of an eschatological package that Jesus is bringing in.  Jesus’ pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins to the paralytic man is a microcosm of what God through him is doing for Israel as a whole.

In a turn of events not unlike the previous exorcism episode, this makes the observers – the Jewish scribes – angry.  They accuse Jesus of blasphemy, apparently in whispers among themselves.  Matthew does not spell out the reason they think this.  Both Mark and Luke specify that their issue is that only God can forgive sins, and given the rather large amount of Old Testament testimony to this fact, it’s safe to say this is their problem with the whole thing.  Presumably, they have had little success coming up with complaints about Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, but forgiving sins is a bridge too far.

It’s interesting that Jesus does not take the tack most of our modern theologians would.  If the story stopped here, commentaries on this passage would probably suggest that, since Jesus is God, he can forgive sins and the scribes have no real complaint.  But this is not how Jesus responds.

Jesus responds by identifying himself with the Son of Man and uses a healing miracle to validate his claim that the Son of Man has been given the authority to forgive sins.

In Daniel 7, in the midst of powerful kingdoms and their blasphemous leaders, the Ancient of Days sets up thrones and subdues these kingdoms and destroys the last, most terrible one.  Then, one like the Son of Man appears before Him.  He bestows on this figure an everlasting dominion and kingdom.  Daniel asks one of the servants of the Ancient of Days for an interpretation, and what follows is one of the more explicit interpretations of apocalyptic visions that the Bible has to offer, with the Son of Man figure being identified as the “holy ones of the Most High” several times.

So, according to this vision, the kingdoms of the earth that rule over Israel and the known world will be put down by God, and faithful Israel will be given authority on earth by God to rule.

Jesus identifies himself, as he already has and will again multiple times, with that Son of Man figure in Daniel 7.  He is faithful Israel and, as such, God will put down his enemies and give him an everlasting dominion and kingdom.  This is a theme that is so common in Matthew that the gospel even closes with it (Matthew 28:18) and, for Paul, the resurrection is the great miracle that proves that Jesus has been given all authority (Eph. 1:20-23, 1 Cor. 15:20-28).

It is on this basis that Jesus answers the charge of blasphemy – that the thing Daniel prophesied is happening now, Jesus is that Son of Man figure, and he has received his authority from God.

This is confirmed further by the end of the story.  The crowds glorify God who had given such authority to men.  People are praising God because a human being has the authority, now, to forgive sins.  Why is this good news?  Because that event is a key, eschatological milestone in Israel’s hopes for her deliverance and restoration.  If a faithful Israelite has been delegated God’s own authority on the earth, the rest of Daniel 7 cannot be far behind.

The actual miracle of healing the paralysis serves the classic function of miracles in the gospels – they establish that Jesus is the hoped-for Savior of Israel and confirm the truth of his claims.  Jesus specifically spells this out for the scribes.  “I am going to supernaturally heal this guy with God’s power so that you can know that I am the Son of Man and I have God’s authority to forgive sins on the earth.”  And then he does, so he does.  It is interesting that here and elsewhere, the healing takes the form of a command.  Jesus -commands- the man to stand up, take his bed, and go home, and the paralytic man obeys.  It is a demonstration of authority that transcends natural boundaries, a resonance all the way back to Genesis 1 when God commands light to shine, and it does, or commands the waters to part, and they do.  Jesus is demonstrating that God has truly vested His authority in Jesus and there are no limits to it.

And why is this good news?  Well, partially because Jesus is awesome and, if someone is going to have that kind of authority, it’s good news for everyone that this someone is Jesus.  It is good news for the whole world that Jesus is the true King.  If there is hope for the world to be set right, it can be found in the fact that it is Jesus who rules and not the typical sort of person who rises to power over empires.  It is the good news that Israel was always supposed to be for the world, and it is good news for Jew and Gentile, all tribes, every nation.  In fact, it’s even good news for unbelievers insofar as everyone benefits from a just society.

But we don’t want to lose the particular moment captured in Matthew’s story.  This is good news for the original audience because it means the moment of overthrow, deliverance, forgiveness, and restoration has come near after so many years.  The kingdom of God that seemed like a pipe dream during the Babylonian Exile is, centuries later, right around the corner, and the appropriate response from Israel is trust, perseverance, and joy.

Consider This

  1. Historically, when Christians have been in power, how has that gone?  Why did it end up the way it did?  What would it look like for a Christian to be in power and have that be a blessing to all people?
  2. In the scheme of the big historical picture, God forgiving Israel’s sins meant ending the sin-earned curses she suffered and restoring her to the status she was meant to have as a faithful people.  How does this inform what forgiveness looks like between us and God, today?  How does it inform the way we forgive one another?

The Demons Believe: Matthew 8:28 – 9:1

When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town.

Matthew 8:28-9:1 (NRSV)

This story in Matthew is a good story to talk about how the gospel writers shape their stories.  It appears in all three synoptic gospels.

In Mark’s account, Jesus goes to the country of the Gerasenes, not the Gadarenes.  There is one demoniac, not two.  Jesus also asks for the demon’s name, which is Legion, giving the story an explicit connection between the Roman Empire and the spiritual oppression of the people.  Jesus also commands the man to go tell everyone what has been done for him, and no negative consequences of this are recorded.  Unusually, Mark’s account is the longest and most detail rich of the three.

Luke’s account is similar to Mark’s account, just shortening the story a little.

Matthew’s account is the most different.  The location is different, the number of demoniacs is different, the name of the demon is irrelevant, and not only does Jesus not advertise what happened, the outcome is ultimately negative and Jesus has to return back across the Sea of Galilee.

We could, and people have, expend a lot of energy trying to harmonize these accounts with explanations of varying levels of credibility.  But what is probably more profitable is to ask ourselves what Matthew is trying to get across in his own, unique take.

The town of Gerasa was a prominent town from the perspective of Roman dominion.  It would later be called the Decapolis, and it is a meaningful backdrop for Mark’s (and Luke’s) more explicitly anti-Roman account.

Gadara, or at least the region around Gadara, was a city of splendor in its day, as the ruins attest.  It was the capital of Perea, which was the eastern part of Herod’s kingdom (the western part being Judea) and dotted with tombs in the nearby cliffs that you can still see to this day.  It was also one of the first cities sacked in the First Jewish-Roman War – the same war that would see Jerusalem destroyed.

For Matthew, this region serves as a mirror to Judea.  The things that Jesus has been up to over there, he’s now up to over here.  They, too, were under Herod’s governance.  In many ways, this allows Matthew to zero in on this territory as a Jewish city under virtually the same auspices as Jerusalem.  This story becomes one of local, regionalized, Israel-oppressed-by-her-own-Roman-sympathizer-leaders that is one of Matthew’s prominent themes.  This may explain why the detail about the demon’s name is left out of Matthew, assuming he knew about it from Mark.  The Roman connection was not as important to Matthew as the intra-Jewish one, which is a distinguishing mark (no pun intended) of Matthew’s specific gospel.

The issue of why Matthew has two people where the other accounts only have one has been the topic of much debate and speculation, especially since this isn’t the only place where other gospels talk about one person, but Matthew says there were two.  Perhaps we might assume Matthew’s account is What Really Happened and just as well ask why the other gospels report one person instead of two.  Another explanation that I think holds a lot of promise is that having two people satisfies the Torah’s requirements of having two witnesses.  This fact works both for and against Jesus in the narrative and plays into one of Matthew’s central concerns, which is, “What does Israel think of Jesus?”  There are certainly other takes people have on the issue, but very little attention in the debates is given to the meaning of having two demoniacs; most of the energy is spent on explaining how all the accounts can together be correct despite the differences, and that’s not a particular interest of mine.

Demons crop up in Matthew’s gospel usually as a supplement to sickness and disease.  Jesus goes around healing and casting out demons.  And the demon cases are always in the region of Galilee, never in Jerusalem or Judea – a fact probably explained by the fact that Jews did not all share a belief in demons or supernatural beings, and Matthew is putting together the accounts from different sources.  So, Source A may describe certain kinds of physical ailments as a disease, whereas Source B may describe it as demonic possession.

This interchangeability provides us some insight into not only the gospels but the way of looking at the world in the first century where there is a hidden, spiritual world that is operating behind the physical one, and a given thing that happens can be described either way (or both).

In our mind, these are two, separate explanations.  Something either has a spiritual, supernatural explanation, or it has a physical, naturalistic explanation.  This is largely a modern dichotomy and is at least partially behind a lot of the heat modern evangelicals feel regarding evolution: either God supernaturally created the universe or it arose from naturalistic processes – they are not both portrayals of the same phenomenon (although nobody seems to think this about the water cycle for some reason).

But in the first century Levant, spiritual and natural are not oppositional categories.  They are more like plastic overlays.  You can talk about the spiritual world behind what you see, or you can talk about the natural world behind what you see, but these things are not separate; they cohere in the same phenomenon.

So, is the Roman Empire an occupation of territory by Roman soldiers?  Yes.  Is it an occupation of territory by demons?  Also, yes.  The political oppression of Rome and the spiritual oppression of demons are not two, separate issues.  They are the same issue and experienced the same way.

Is this person having a seizure because they have a disease?  Yes.  Is this person having a seizure because of demonic activity?  Also, yes.  They are not two, separate causes.  They are the same cause.

Now, not all Jews believed in demons and angels, and they would be unlikely to portray any event as having that spiritual aspect.  But this was the view of many Jews, and we find it present in all the gospels except John.  No demonic activity is present in the gospel of John, although the Apocalypse makes a point of pulling back the curtain to observe the spiritual forces operating behind what the inhabitants of the earth are experiencing.

It is important to note this about the first century worldview, because when we see Jesus casting out demons, it is not to add that extra Dungeons and Dragons flavor to our Christianity.  It is a spiritual way to describe Jesus liberating his people from the forces that oppress them, whether it is the Legion or sickness or sin or corrupt leadership or whatever is plaguing Israel and keeping her from being whole and restored.  It is only through the lens of seeing the spiritual animus and the physical manifestation as the same thing that Jesus can plausibly call Peter “Satan” or refer to certain Pharisees as sons of the devil or refer to death as sleeping.

In this story, the demoniacs are fierce, enraged people who lived on the margins of society.  We don’t know their background or how things ended up this way.  We do know that they are angry, strong, and severely antisocial – a danger to everyone who gets close.

The words from the men (who both speak) come to us from that spiritual realm where they recognize Jesus as the Son of God – a powerful ruler, a Caesar, the promised King of the Jews – and ask if he has come to torment them before “the time.”  Apparently, the demons perceive that there will come a time when their heyday is over.  There will come a time when judgement will come upon all who have oppressed faithful Israel, and Israel herself will be healed and restored to her former place.  This event has not yet happened in this story, and the demons rightly perceive that this encounter is some kind of prefiguring of that event.

Jesus commands them to leave the two Galileans and enter pigs who perish in the sea.  Some have pointed out that, since pigs are unclean animals to the Jews and the pigs are destroyed by the sea, that this recalls Israel’s liberation from Egypt.  This is certainly possible, as the liberation of Israel is precisely what we are seeing in this story.

Since destruction in the sea is often used as a metaphor for armies, this may also prefigure the actual judgement God will bring on the oppressors of Israel – namely the corrupt Israelite power structure.  They will be handed over to the Gentiles and destroyed.

Perhaps all or none of that is intended, but the one thing that is clear is that Jesus is about his mission – liberating Israel from her oppressors.

Well, the people who tended the herds of deviled ham who committed suey-cide (old Baptist preacher jokes die hard) did not take this turn of events well.  They tell the people in the town what happened, and they all get riled up and ask Jesus to leave.

This is a stark difference from the other gospel accounts where the liberated demoniac becomes something of an advocate for Jesus and people are amazed at the change in the man.  Here, people become greatly alarmed and force Jesus to go away.

But this serves Matthew’s narrative very well.  In the other gospels, the demon possession is linked directly to the Roman Empire in a Roman city.  Jesus liberates the man, and everyone is happy.  Here, the possession occurs in a Jewish city.  Jesus liberates the man, and many Jews are not at all happy about this and turn hostile to Jesus.

This is another presentation of a primary conflict in Matthew – that between Jesus and the Israel who likes the way things are and rejects him.  This is in contrast to the Israel who is lost and wants to be found, who leaves everything and sacrifices everything to follow Jesus so that she might be saved.  In fact, just a few verses earlier Matthew compares corrupt Israel unfavorably to a Roman centurion.  Even the Roman Empire has more faith than Israel.  This will come to a head, obviously, in the crucifixion.

This also recalls Moses and Egypt.  Moses kills an Egyptian who is beating an Israelite.  Then, when he intervenes in a fight between two Israelites, they turn against him.  He is their liberator, but his liberating activities breed resentment.  Jesus as Israel’s Lord and Christ brings a new hope to those who would be faithful, but brings rejection and hostility from those who would keep Israel under their yoke.

This passage, like so many others in Matthew, reaches out to a Jewish audience and asks them to make a decision.  Who do you think Jesus is?  Will you follow him and be saved?  Will you reject or ignore him and continue in a life of slavery that ends in death?

It is a decision that once had Jerusalem as its epicenter.  Then the Roman Empire.  And now creation itself.

Consider This

  1. Have you at times artificially separated the “spiritual” from the “physical?”  How does this division affect our priorities and actions?
  2. One of the more intriguing steps from the Twelve Steps program is Step 6.  “[We] were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”  Isn’t this a default for every Christian?  What does it mean to be “entirely ready?”  What would liberation truly mean?  Are there costs associated with it?

Sunday Meditations: Individuals and Community

Business partner, friend, and iron sharpener Travis had a talk with me about some thoughts he had on last week’s Sunday Meditation.

He pointed out, rightly so, that I may have been setting up a scenario much like medieval Catholicism, where the average person is deemed unable to understand anything from the Bible and requires a specially-trained person to explain to them what it says.  Furthermore, our history has many examples where one charismatic leader took large groups of people down bad roads simply because they adopted his words as truth and were unable or unwilling to process these teachings themselves and compare them against the Scriptures.

I certainly agree that both of those are valid points to add to the topic, and what’s more, I obviously agree that those scenarios are terrible things meant to be avoided, and they can often occur very subtly.  You don’t need a Jonestown-style massacre to have a single person steering a whole congregation into patterns of thought and behavior that are detrimental to the world at large and the Church in specific.  Nor do you need to have some of the ham-fisted power grabs of the medieval Roman church to have a person or small group of people essentially considered infallible and beyond critique.

Perhaps another way of looking at the issue is to examine the relationship between the individual believer and the community of believers.

In the context of American evangelicalism, I would say (and I could be wrong) that we have definitely put the private experience of the individual believer front and center.  From the get-go, we tell stories to potential believers about personal relationships with Jesus and the destiny of their immortal soul.  We center the entire redemptive story of the Bible around them as an individual and ask for their personal conversion.  We teach them spiritual disciplines to be performed individually in the privacy of their own home so that they can cultivate an individual, personal spirituality.

The other structures that exist tend to be framed as aids to this individual enterprise.  Worship services exist to extend the call to more individuals to make more individual conversions as well as growing and strengthening your personal spirituality and personal relationship with God.  The number of modern Christian worship songs that say “we” are massively dwarfed by the number that say “I.”  You could probably put up dividers between every individual at church, and their experience would be roughly the same.  Even in sacraments with names like “Communion,” we often stare into the ruby depths of our individual cup and contemplate our individual sins and spend a few moments in individual prayer to get our individual hearts in a good state.

When we talk about God working in someone’s life or someone spiritually growing, this is typically cast in individual, private, mystical terms.  You read the Bible on your own, pray on your own, listen mystically to God on your own, and the idea is this way of “doing spirituality” becomes in our minds the normal way God works.  If you want God’s counsel, you spend time in prayer and listen for the “still, small voice” (which is a mistranslation, btw).  Sure, you might ask another Christian or two what they think, but nothing can trump that internal, spiritual dialogue.  If you struggle with sin, that is primarily private, and you pray intensely about it hoping that, after enough prayer sessions, your heart will be supernaturally fixed.

Sort of like my conversation with Travis, it’s easy to see what these patterns are trying to correct.  We know that, in western church history, it is incredibly easy to be a nominal Christian.  You show up to the stuff, do the thing, and go home.  We think of Kierkegaard essentially throwing a fit over the Danish church, pointing out how it is full of Christians, none of whom seem to care very much about the alleged truth they possess.  It neither inflames their passions nor affects their lives.  This dead, purely formalistic expression of the faith drove him utterly into a view of truth that is fundamentally subjective in nature and, in order to even be worthy of the name Truth, has to be something for which you as an individual can live or die.

But we don’t have to go back two hundred years or further, we can see it in our own cultures where the church has become a social institution.  God, mom, and apple pie.  You go to church, sing the songs, and pray the prayers on Sunday morning, then get right back to your “normal” life and behavior as if nothing had ever happened.  We recognize rightly that such religion is basically a waste of everyone’s time.  We recognize that people whose trust is in belonging to the right group of people are bound to be disappointed.  We can easily point to passages in the Gospels when Jesus directly told his followers to abandon such notions, and we can also turn to Old Testament passages where Israel was collectively doing all the right rituals and whatnot, but their hearts were far from the Lord, and He was unmoved by all their efforts.

But is the remedy for this a radically individualized faith?  Is the picture of life in the Spirit that the Bible shows us a life of private, mystical, individual experience?  Do we see any evidence that someone’s personal understanding or “leading” trumps everything else?  Is the gospel really mostly about me, myself, and I?  Were the apostles martyred for helping people establish a personal relationship with Jesus?

I would offer that what we observe in the New Testament is neither a hierarchy of professionals catering to the unwashed masses, nor a highly individual spiritual experience, but a spiritual life in community with others who are also participating in the same project with you.

This is the entire story of people of God through both Testaments.  People did not have personal Bible reading time, because there were no personal Bibles.  You did not own your own personal copy of the Old Testament.  Certainly, we can find examples of personal piety apart from the community, but the overwhelming amount of data we have are not individuals struggling through their individual spiritual lives, but a people of God tackling this project together.  They worship together, pray together, hear Scripture together, debate it together, sin together, repent together, and are led together.  Individuals are not called to leave one mode of individualism for another – they are called into a people to get on board with a collective project.

Perhaps the one example we have of people checking someone’s teaching against the Scriptures are the Bereans in Acts 17:11-12, where they, together in the synagogue, eagerly search the Scriptures to see if Paul is telling the truth.  They do not accept Paul’s teaching simply because Paul is a good teacher and has authority, but neither do they run home to privately go through the Old Testament and see what they think.  Together, as a group in the synagogue, they go through the Scriptures, discussing, debating, and praying.

Whatever fallibility I might ascribe to a person teaching me the Bible, I must be willing to ascribe that same fallibility to myself.  My own personal interpretations of Scripture are no more or no less prone to error than another teacher’s, no matter how much I pray about it or what I think I personally may have heard from God (who, by the way, often sounds a lot like me in those times – weird, isn’t it?).

That mutual recognition of fallibility in others and ourselves, as well as the mutual recognition of strengths in others and ourselves, is what makes the community model necessary and vital.  According to Paul, we have a variety of strengths, weaknesses, and spiritual gifts among our number, which makes co-dependence at some level a necessity.

Some people are good at teaching, some are not.  Some are good at praying, others are not.  Some can demonstrate radical hospitality and care, others struggle with it.  While, at some level, every believer is expected to cultivate good works and a passionate spirituality, we also know not everyone is equally good (or bad) at the various aspects of spiritual life as it appears in the body of Christ, which is why we earnestly contribute our strengths and are willing to allow others to help us in our weaknesses.

And this, I would say, is the primary means by which God operates in the life of an individual believer.  Just like God typically does not heal a disease through a supernatural event, He doesn’t do much else that way, either.  God does not proclaim His gospel to the world; He empowers Spirit-filled people to go and do it.  God does not supernaturally fill a believer’s head with information; He empowers Spirit-filled teachers to do it.  The primary way God acts in the world and Jesus’ presence is made manifest is through the words, actions, and lives of those who carry the Spirit with them.

This is not to denigrate a personal spirituality, nor is it to say that God never supernaturally speaks to an individual or does something in their lives.  It’s just that these things are not the normal mechanism, which is why they stand out.  The primary way I hear God’s words to me is to hear them coming from the mouths of the Spirit-filled community.  The primary way God will care for me and demonstrate His love is through the care and love shown by His people.  The primary way God will increase my spiritual growth is by my participation in the community’s spiritual growth and the things God has given the Church to exercise for this specific purpose (Word, sacraments, prayer).  The primary way Jesus will give me a hug when I’m distressed is by one of his followers giving me a hug when I’m distressed.

And the reason these things get mediated through a Spirit-filled community is at least partially because of all the wackiness that results when you invest all that power, obligation, and authority into one person, whether that one person is the Pope or that one person is Myself.  Someone has to be able to critique the Pope from God’s point of view, and someone has to be able to critique me as well.  Someone has to be able to critique Peter and Paul, too.  These things cannot happen if I, myself, am a self-sufficient conduit for God’s word and works (or if I abdicate this responsibility by leaving it up to another individual or group).

It is this healthy, balanced, give and take experience of God together that I see presented in the Scripture that I fear is getting shoved aside and even institutionalized in our evangelical movements, today, although with the best of intentions.  Instead of moving to a place of, “Let’s stop listening to people and start listening personally to the Holy Spirit,” I’d like to get us back to, “Let’s listen together for the Holy Spirit in what God has to say through His people.”

The Sea Obeys: Matthew 8:23-27

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

Matthew 8:23-27 (NRSV)

Earlier, Jesus had given orders to cross the Sea of Galilee to the other side before he was held up by a couple of people who asked to become his followers.  Having had those conversations, he and his disciples get into a boat to cross.

This is one of the more famous stories of Jesus.  It is a powerful image that lends itself well to retelling and various portrayals not just due to its own drama, but in terms of the empathy we feel with the disciples who are fearful because of their circumstances, while Jesus is calmly in control of them.

The sea itself may contribute some of the meaning, here.  The sea, throughout the Levant, represented chaos and destruction by powerful forces.  All the way back to Genesis 1, Elohim commands creation to rise up out of the chaos waters, and both the waters and the creation obey.  This is in contrast to other creation myths in the Levant, where a god or demigod has to battle with a primordial sea monster for supremacy.

This unleashing of destructive chaos crops up in many, many Old Testament accounts, either directly (the Flood, the Red Sea, etc.) or indirectly, used as a common symbol for both the grave and the invasion of powerful armies.  It is this significance, in fact, that contributes to John’s vision in the Apocalypse of a new age where there is no sea in the world (Revelation 21:1).  Jesus demonstrating mastery over the sea, in the Hebrew mind, has connotations of Jesus being the master of not just a body of water, but the core forces of destruction in the world – powerful armies, chaos and entropy, and even death itself.

But we also want to take into account the purpose of miracles in the gospels, which are to give signs that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah.

Throughout the Old Testament, God does miracles through people for similar purposes.  Sometimes, the miracle itself is an act of deliverance.  But whether it is or not, the miracles serve the purpose of demonstrating that God is on the side of the miracle-worker and the miracle-worker is in the right – his contentions are true.

When it comes to miracles that control nature, and storms in specific, we might think about Elijah, who not only called down lightning from heaven in a contest with Baal the storm god, but who shut up the rain during those years.  This is to demonstrate what the poor widow recognizes during this time when Elijah raises her son from the dead: “Now I know you really are a man from God.  I know that the Lord truly speaks through you.” (1 Kings 17:24, NCV for some reason)

Or perhaps we might think of Moses who brought plagues upon Egypt’s natural resources, destroyed their army in the Red Sea, called down manna from heaven, opened the earth to swallow a rebellion, and on and on.

It is through these demonstrations that observers recognized that Israel’s God was operating through these men, and it marked them as true prophets and deliverers – Egypt in Moses’ case, a corrupt political and religious government in Elijah’s case.

By doing this miracle, Jesus not only saves his disciples, he demonstrates that God is working in him – that he is a prophet and a deliverer in YHWH’s name just as the miracle workers of old were in Israel’s history.  The fact that he saves his disciples from a storm at sea is part of the sign, that Jesus will save those who follow him from the coming storm against Jerusalem.  Remember Jesus’ parable from the Sermon on the Mount.  A storm is coming, and those who listen to Jesus’ words and follow them will be saved through it.

Once again, Matthew brings us firmly back around to the issue of trust in God despite the appearance of external circumstances.  Here, that experience is encapsulated by a short story about a storm, but this is a theme that spans Israel’s entire history and is particularly relevant to Israel at that moment in history.  Israel, who lives as a prisoner and a sojourner in her own land, ruled by a pagan empire that is many, many times more powerful than they.  Israel, whose religious leaders are not shepherds who will lay down their lives for her, but instead are money-grubbing hypocrites who scrabble like dogs for every shred of power the Empire might throw their way, all while parading their external conformity to the Torah as righteousness.  And this situation doesn’t last for a few weeks or a few months or even a term of four years – it has gone on a long time, even longer if you replace Rome with INSERT PAGAN EMPIRE HERE.

But Matthew tells his readers, “Jesus is a reason to trust God.”

This Jesus is the Word that God is moving and active among His people, ready to do a great work of deliverance.  This Jesus will be their anchor not only while they follow him, but for decades after his death (and resurrection).  This Jesus will be a reason to trust God for the intervening centuries under pagan persecution until the Empire embraces the name of Christ.  This Jesus will be a reason for countless Gentiles who did not know Israel’s God at first to trust Him.  This Jesus continues to be a reason to trust God for people the world over from age to age who did not know him as a man, but take up his identity and mission all the same, trusting in the God who raised him from the dead.

Can we say that, in a given particular circumstance, God will always intervene to make it turn out the way we’d like?  If you’re old enough to even entertain that question, you know the answer is no.  There are specific circumstances where He does, and many others where He is silent.  God does not ask us to trust Him on the basis of all our troubles going away, our suffering being alleviated, or even our lives being saved.  If that’s where our eyes are set, we will surely have a great difficulty trusting this God.

But God asks us to, insofar as we can, see the story from where He sits.  He asks us to see the long journey of His people through ups and downs.  He asks us to look at how He has always moved to keep His promises in the timing He deems best, even when His own people are not keeping up their end of the bargain.  He tells us, as Jesus showed the disciples in the boat, that He will see His people safely through whatever lay ahead, and they will not just survive, but be the heralds of a new creation.

Even if it takes resurrection to do it.

Consider This

  1. What are some instances in Israel’s history when the common person on the street probably felt as though their circumstances were insurmountable?  What did God do in those circumstances and why?
  2. Have there been specific circumstances in your own life when God did not act in a way that would have helped you?  Do they make it harder to trust God?  Have you ever told Him that (the prophets had no issue telling God this)?  How could you work through these things with Him?

The Dead: Matthew 8:21-22

Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Matthew 8:21-22 (NRSV)

This follows closely on the heels of another offer to follow Jesus.  In that offer, Jesus presents the stark reality of the cost of following him.  That same basic train of thought continues into this passage.

In this passage, the would-be follower wants to take care of a familial obligation, first.  This is not trivial; his father died.  We might imagine Jesus’ exasperation if someone approached him saying that he wanted to follow Jesus – and all the sacrifice that entailed – if he could just wait until after lunch.  But this is actually a weighty matter in someone’s life, and it serves to sharpen the point.  Jesus will maintain that following him is actually more immediately vital than this man’s father dying.  It is better to leave his father unburied than to delay following Jesus.

This is also important to our understanding of the passage.  The man wants to follow Jesus; he just wants a short delay to tend to something else.  It’s a very reasonable request, assuming that following Jesus is always going to be an option – or at least a viable option for the next day or two.  In Jesus’ mind, any delay is unacceptable.  The man has to leave all his present circumstances behind and follow Jesus right now.  Not tomorrow, but right now.

So, we know that, in Jesus’ mind, following him is more important than burying your recently deceased father, and no delay is acceptable.  What is behind this?  Why is Jesus so emphatic, that you need to leave everything behind and follow him right now?

Our clue is in Jesus’ statement, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Something we often overlook in our readings of Jesus is his strong belief, that John the Baptist also proclaimed, that the wrath of God was imminent.  It was looming, like an executioner’s blade hovering above your neck.  A rather large chunk of what it meant to Jesus to save His people was to save them through this judgement that would fall on Judea, and eventually the whole Roman Empire, at any moment.  It was this imminent destruction that fueled John the Baptist’s urgent cries for Israel to repent and be baptized, and it is this imminent destruction that is behind Jesus’ urgency to follow him and be saved.

Certainly, there is a spiritual component to following Jesus even for the original followers, but for us on this side of the destruction of Jerusalem, the spiritual component is all we can really relate to, and as a result, we often forget about the very real phenomenon of people literally leaving behind everything to follow Jesus so that they might literally be saved from a literal impending judgement.

It is this that explains Jesus’ seemingly harsh response.  If the building is about to explode, you don’t have time to go back and take care of even very important things, and the people who insist on going back and staying in the building are dead.

Even in modern speech, we use that expression.  People say, “You’re a dead man” to people who are very much alive (has anyone actually said this to a dead person?) to indicate that their death is an imminent certainty.  We say, “Those people are dead,” when we watch a movie where people are put in an impossible situation where their death is certain.  Even our prisons refer to “dead men walking” when talking about prisoners making their way to their executions.

In Jesus’ mind, you can follow him and escape the building that’s about to explode, or you can stay there (or go back there) and die.  This destruction could happen at any moment, and even Jesus himself does not know when this will happen:

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Matthew 24:34-36 (NRSV)

But he does know it will happen soon.  It is against this certain, imminent destruction that Jesus’ words make a lot of sense.  There is nothing the would-be follower could do that would take priority over surviving the wrath to come and living in the age to come, and anyone who decides that there is something more important is a dead man.

There is a sense in which the teeth behind Jesus’ words have been blunted with time.  The imminent destruction Jesus was concerned about happened a long time ago.  We may not feel the building-with-a-bomb sense of urgency that is behind Jesus’ perspective in this passage, and inasmuch as the destruction of Jerusalem was occupying Jesus’ mind, there’s no particular reason why we should be concerned about that specific thing.

This passage does give us an occasion to reflect on why we do what we do, the costs of doing so, and what we hope to gain.  It challenges us to examine our own priorities and compare them to what we profess to be the driving factors in our lives.

And, too, there is an amount of uncertainty about when God will act definitively in history and what forms that may take.  John’s Apocalypse puts us in an indefinitely long period of time where not a lot happens or changes, but he also foresees another period of trouble followed by another pivotal moment when God destroys Death and the evil that is in the world in favor of another age of new closeness and prosperity.  We do not know when this will happen.  Perhaps we will live out our lives and die without seeing it.  Perhaps it will start tomorrow.  Perhaps it has already started and will take some time to build to its pivotal crescendo.

But we don’t know, and this should inject our lives with a certain sense of urgency – an urgency to make sure we are being the new creation people God wants in the world, and an urgency to invite everyone we can to join up.  It is only this faithful community that God has promised He will see through age to age, and the broad terms of what God wants His world to look like have been emphasized to us for millennia.

We need to be about this project.  We need to be about it now.  We need to consider what we will give up to join up, and we need to arrange our priorities according to our hope and act on them in ways that testify to the world that God is truly our God, Jesus is truly our Lord, a new creation is coming and now is, and that we actually believe this.

Consider This

  1. How do we live consistently with the truth that we are in the midst of an indefinite period of time before the next definitive act of God as well as the truth that we are to be a new creation people in the here and now?  Should we assume we will live and die with no great change in history?  Should we assume the world as we know it will be overturned tomorrow?  What implications does this have for our actions, now?
  2. What do you hope to gain from your faithful participation in God’s people?  Where does that come from?  What would you be willing to give up for it?  Is there anything you wouldn’t be willing to give up for it?

The Cost of Joining Up: Matthew 8:18-20

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Matthew 8:18-20 (NRSV)

I can’t read this passage anymore without thinking of the Left Behind series of books.  In them, the Two Witnesses make a sort of prophetic statement about Ben Tsion, and they use this verse to do it.  Later, Ben Tsion ends up in a bunker and discovers that it has no pillows or mattresses.

As it happens, this saying occurs in Matthew’s gospel probably to communicate more than Jesus grousing about sleeping conditions.

Jesus, seeing the great crowds, hops in a boat and crosses the Sea of Galilee.  I can certainly appreciate this tendency.  There are gospels where the crossing over from side to side of the Sea plays a role in organizing Jesus’ ministry.  This seems less pronounced in Matthew.

But Matthew does call our attention to the fact that Jesus is approached by a scribe.  Earlier in the chapter, Jesus was approached by a leper, a Roman centurion, and a faithful Israelite.  Each of these incidents were selected by Matthew to make a point about Jesus’ mission.  Here, we have a scribe – essentially a Torah lawyer.

Scribes generally serve as opposition to Jesus.  They pal around with the Pharisees and serve as both the debate team and the prosecution.  In a society where there is very little literacy, such people were invaluable in all kinds of legal matters and did relatively well for themselves as a result.  In other words, a scribe pulls together a lot of the elements that typically characterize Jesus’ “enemies” – rich, socially prominent, leader and teacher of Israel, and obsessed with the letter of the Law and the tradition that has interpreted it.

This scribe, however, recognizes Jesus as a rabbi and wants to follow him.

We should not take this offer lightly.  In the ancient world, this is what you did with great teachers.  You literally followed them.  You might have to leave your home and family, but you traveled around with your teacher and tended to their needs, and in return, you learned from them and were mentored by them.  This scribe’s offer actually represents a big commitment.

We might expect, given some of the other scenarios in Matthew, that Jesus would be happy about this or at least make a point out of it.  After all, the Roman centurion was praised for his faith, and Jesus contrasted Israel unfavorably with him.  Here we have a scribe – a member of the group that nips at Jesus’ heels throughout his ministry – offering to follow Jesus.

Perhaps Jesus suspected a trap.  Perhaps he’d just had enough of scribes.  But what he does, instead, is he puts a warning and a test before the scribe.  He tells the scribe that even wild animals have places to rest, but Jesus himself is a wanderer with nothing, solely at the mercy of whatever circumstances may come his way, and so it goes with all who have followed him.

Jesus has a habit of doing things like this.  He does not enthusiastically take all comers.  He has a knack for telling them how difficult the road is going to be, resulting in loss of possessions, social standing, family, and perhaps even one’s own life.  Nobody reduces crowd sizes like Jesus.  While the other Army recruiters are talking about seeing the world and learning new skills and the G.I. Bill, Jesus is the one talking about grueling training, inhospitable climates, and hours and hours of playing Spades while you wait for someone to take their turn guarding the empty truck that broke down in the middle of the desert.

But there is some teeth to this warning that may get lost on us, but would definitely not be lost on a scribe.  Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure from the Old Testament who features most heavily in Daniel.  In Daniel’s vision in chapter 7, he sees kingdoms (in the image of beasts) rising up and coming down, and a prominent person (in the image of a horn) boasting in his conquests and might.

In response to this, thrones are set up on the earth, and the Ancient of Days sits in judgement and destroys the last beast and takes away the kingdom from the others.  After this, we read:

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a [Son of Man]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14 (NRSV, brackets mine)

Daniel then goes on to interpret the vision, with the one like a Son of Man being “the holy ones of the Most High.”

In Daniel’s vision, the mighty kings of the earth are swept away by God, and their dominion is given to faithful Israel.  The Son of Man is a corporate figure under the image of a single person, which is a fairly common Old Testament technique for imaging Israel.

Here (and elsewhere), Jesus is taking this image for himself.  He is the holy one of the Most High who will receive an everlasting kingdom from God who will overthrow the current, arrogant kingdom that is in power.  He is faithful Israel in a single figure, and he will usher in the promises granted to them.  The call to follow Jesus, here, is a call to join this group.  It is a call to be united to Jesus in the same way Israel was united with her kings.

But yet, despite being this apocalyptic figure, he has nowhere to lay his head.  Though he is the recipient of the kingdom, his current circumstances are humble ones of poverty and uncertainty.  To look at him, you wouldn’t think he was going to inherit anything, much less an everlasting kingship from God Himself.

Do you see Israel in this man?

The scribe knows what Jesus is saying.  The road to receiving the promises is a road of hardship, setbacks, and sacrifice.  Moreso than simply deciding to follow after a rabbi and learn from him, Jesus will demand everything from this scribe – the entire trajectory of his life – in exchange for what Jesus has to offer at the end of a very difficult road.

We are not told if the scribe stayed or went on his way.  We do not know if, like the rich young ruler, he “went away sorrowful” or if he joined the loose group of nameless Jesus followers and we just never hear from him, again.  This is not important to Matthew, and we are certainly free to speculate.

But what is important to Matthew is this: Jesus will receive his kingdom and usher in the promises to Israel, but the road to achieving this will be full of uncertainty, sacrifice, and deprivation.  The only thing keeping Jesus going is trust – trust that at the end of all this, God will make good on His promises.

We cannot follow Jesus in this sense.  We can’t leave behind our possessions and follow him around, learning from him and tending to his needs.  Nor can we join a rag tag band of Israelites united only in our trust that God is about to put down the kingdom we live in to hand over an everlasting reign to His faithful, and the way to be on right side of this is to know what Jesus knows, believe what he believes, and do what he does.

At the same time, we know what it is like to have promises about what God will do in the world and have external circumstances not match up with those promises.  Are our empires less oppressive and more just than ancient Rome?  Perhaps some are in some ways, although the mechanisms of oppression can operate in ways a lot more subtle than armored soldiers.  Is the grip of death lessened?  Perhaps in some parts of the world, though starvation, disease, and violence are still widespread, and only a fool would believe that they could not die at any second.

Do we look around the world and see widespread justice?  Compassion?  Mercy?  Self-sacrifice?  Mutual care?  Forgiveness and restoration?  Good moral choices?  Perhaps the news we see tends to skew us, but it is hard to think of the world at large and not think of inequity, vengeance, and the “every man for himself” mentality that is all but institutionalized even in the “civilized” West.

Yes, we know what it is like to have promises from God and look around ourselves and see a very different picture.  Can you imagine what it was like for Joe Israelite hearing the words of Jesus?  Can you imagine what it was like for them to be called to have a new faith?  Can you see how easy it would be just to put your head back down and try to get through life as comfortably as you could?

You can see it, can’t you?  Because we also have that struggle.  You can empathize with their struggles and doubts because you have a resonant echo in your own chest.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

But just as courage can only exist in the presence of fear, trust can only exist in the presence of doubt.  Perseverance can only exist in the presence of discouragement.  If you are reading this, and you believe as I do, then we follow a God who has demonstrated that He will deliver on His promises in the midst of ludicrously unlikely circumstances, and often after ridiculously long periods of time where “bad” has long since been the status quo.

It is in the midst of genocides and weird presidents and wars and threats of wars and poverty and heroin addictions and dying relatives and pornography empires and banks you owe money to and global warming and insane dictators with nuclear weapons that Yahweh leans across the table, brushes away the noise for a moment, looks you in the eye and says, “Do you trust Me?”

I will.

Consider This

  1. If you are a believer, what got you into all this?  What were you told about what life would be like or what the future would hold?  Did things turn out that way?  What keeps you going?
  2. If we believe that God will make good on His promises, what influence should that have on our lives?  How about our life as a church in the world?

Sunday Meditations: Discovery Bible Studies

Discovery Bible Studies are a Thing that has become popular recently in various evangelistic and church-planting movements.  Depending on the organization, the particulars of how to conduct a Discovery Bible Study may vary a little bit, but the basic upshot is that you take a group of people who are interested in spiritual things, give them Bibles, take a curated list of texts, and have them go through the texts answering a short series of questions that are variations of, “What do I think this text means?”  The most popular questions seem to be:

  • What does this passage tell me about God?
  • What does it tell me about people?
  • What will I personally do in my own life in response to this passage?

The idea is that the Holy Spirit works through this process to create faith, conversions, obedience, and core groups used as the seed to plant churches.  Apparently, this has been very successful numerically, although field research has demonstrated that it is very difficult to find many of these churches a few years afterward.

Not that anybody cares or should care, but I have some real Kingdom of God concerns about this practice.  I do not think the practice is evil, nor do I think that every DBS should disband.  But I do have concerns, and I have been thinking about them insofar as my own church is getting involved in starting these sorts of bible studies.

They’re Not Biblical

I want to say this is not actually a concern of mine.  I don’t care if there’s a biblical basis for a particular church activity or not.  Truth is truth whether it is present in general or special revelation.  Further, the Bible does not provide blueprints for a wide variety of worthwhile human activities.  In fact, the one activity for which it cannot provide instructions is how to do a Bible study since the Bible did not exist at the time of any of the biblical writings.  Churches can do good and effective things without a particular passage in the Bible defining those things.

The reason I bring this up is because this practice is typically at the center of Disciple-Making Movements which self-consciously proclaim Luke 10:1-16 as the biblical model for evangelism and church planting.  This episode where Jesus sends people into villages to prepare them for his in-person arrival is used as a blueprint for all church planting efforts everywhere for all time, even though the apostolic model seems to vary much more widely.

It is just interesting to me that an organization can, on the one hand, make so much out of their basic approach to church planting being “biblical” while tacking onto it a methodology (Discovery Bible Studies) that are nowhere in the Bible.

In fact, when we see someone sharing a biblical text in the New Testament, they also explain it.  Jesus does this.  The apostles do this.  There are no instances where someone quotes the Old Testament and says, “So, what do you guys think about this passage?”

If there is a biblical model for communicating biblical knowledge, it is surely the teacher-student or preacher-audience model.  There aren’t any others presented.  Even Philip explains the Bible to the Ethiopian eunuch; he doesn’t ask the eunuch to record his own thoughts.  In fact, it appears the Holy Spirit specifically sends Philip to the Ethiopian for this very purpose, which seems odd if the “model” is that the Spirit teaches Scripture-readers directly.

Someone could say, “Just because all of our examples are of a knowledgeable person explaining the Scriptures to less knowledgeable people, that doesn’t mean we are constrained by those examples to only do it that way.”  I would agree, and I would promptly add this also applies to evangelism and church planting.

The Role of the Spirit

The idea behind the DBS is that the Spirit is a better teacher of the meaning of the Scriptures than a person.  I would agree with that in the abstract, even though, once again, there is no example in the New Testament where someone was left to just themselves and the Holy Spirit to understand the Scriptures.

However, the DBS’ do not sit down with Bibles and have at it.  They are given a curated list of texts.  So, the meaning is left to the activity of the Spirit, but the choice of texts is definitely not.  Why not?  Is it because a person is a better selector of texts than the Spirit?  Or is it perhaps that the architects of the DBS movement understand that people new to the Bible need guidance?  Perhaps they recognize at their core that this Spirit-teaching: Good / Man-teaching: Bad is an artificial dichotomy when we are talking about Spirit-filled people explaining the Scriptures, but they still maintain that dichotomy as a justification for their method.

If this dichotomy were real, then the Spiritual gifts of teaching and preaching that Paul says have been given to the Church are not only pointless, but counterproductive.  It would be far better on Sunday, for instance, if we all just heard the biblical text and sat quietly for a while, coming up with our own interpretations and applications, and then just left (granted, I have heard some sermons that would have been greatly improved by being replaced with people just coming up with their own stuff).  The preaching and teaching of a person would just get in the way of the direct communication and instruction we should receive from the Spirit, if that’s how this worked.

But these are Spiritual gifts given by the Spirit to the Church through which the Spirit operates.  The Spirit doesn’t primarily teach us all through some kind of supernatural, mystical, private revelation; the Spirit teaches us through Spirit-gifted preachers and teachers who are full of the Spirit.  A Spirit-filled teacher exercising their gifts in community in accordance with the Word is the primary means by which the Spirit teaches.  There is no difference.  Certainly, teachers are fallible, but is the activity of my own private reading and understanding somehow less fallible?  Is it somehow “more spiritual” if it’s my own brain instead of someone else’s?

Why does the Holy Spirit send Philip to the Ethiopian?

This is leaving aside the fact that the DBS is really geared toward spiritually-interested people who are not yet Christians.  They don’t even have the Spirit, themselves.  Yet, somehow, they are supposed to be more in tune with the Spirit and the spiritual understanding of the Bible than an actual teacher.

This is a concern of mine, not just because it seems wrong to me, but because we are perpetuating the Westernized ideal of a spirituality that is primarily private, individual, and mystical where my own thoughts get top billing over the counsel of pastors, elders, or really anything anyone else might say.  This is not what the Kingdom of God looks like in the Bible.  It’s a Western concept of ascetic spirituality that has thoroughly hamstrung the Church in America, and now we’re baptizing the rest of the world into it as well.

The Dominance of Culture

A hundred years ago, my theological forefathers were maintaining that the Bible advocated and promoted the slavery practiced in the antebellum South.  Today, American Christians have a Jesus who opposed gun control, opposed immigration, defended States’ rights, defended private property, and wants you to be rich just so long as you don’t get too carried away with it.  These effects, and many others, come from reading the Bible from the standpoint of American culture in your time period.

DBS people realize this as a danger, and as a result, want to keep Western culture from influencing the message of the Bible in other cultures.  Their solution, however, is to have people read the Bible from the standpoint of their culture.

But this doesn’t solve the problem.  It just replaces American cultural issues and biases with the issues and biases of another culture.  Anyone who is reading the Bible primarily from a standpoint besides first-century Judea is bound to be making the Bible say all kinds of interesting things completely unintended by the authors.

There is nothing inherently better in a naive modern Indian reading of the Bible than a naive modern American reading of the Bible.  Both of them are going to appropriate the Scriptures into their own worldviews, confirm their own prejudices, and produce a result crafted in their own image.  Even if the results challenge them, they are results that are generated from their own modern cultural standpoint.  This is why we can have “convicting” sermons about the dangers of teaching evolution in public schools.

One might object that it is impossible to read the Bible outside of our own cultural assumptions.  This is correct, but the remedy for that is to get closer to the Bible’s own cultural assumptions, not just throw our hands up in desperation or, worse yet, neuter the Bible by trying (and failing uproariously) to make it trans-cultural and trans-historical.  Even worse is to take the DBS approach which simply surrenders the biblical text to the cultural assumptions of the modern reader.

The main reason people have a hard time understanding the Bible is because there is a great historical and cultural distance between them and the writings.  The solution to this is to labor with the people of God to close that gap, not just capitulate and say, “Hey, however you guys want to read this is cool,” and feel good that we haven’t imposed a Western reading.

The Bible Answering Questions

In 2 Timothy 4:13, we read:

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.  (NRSV)

What does this passage tell you about God?  What does it tell you about people?  What are you going to do in response to this text?

I hope that even the most pious and allegorical of us can recognize that 2 Timothy 4:13 is a portion of a personal letter where the writer asks the recipient to bring him his cloak and books and papers that he’s left behind.  And that’s pretty much it.  The passage does not reveal any particular truths about God or human nature (except our tendency to lose track of our belongings), and this is certainly not an imperative for all believers everywhere to fetch cloaks or books from Troas.

Now, imagine someone trying to make this passage answer those questions.

“This tells me that God is sovereign, providing a way for Paul to get his cloak back despite Paul’s own negligence.  It tells me that people need the Scriptures, because it was through the Scriptures that Paul was able to ask Timothy to get his cloak.  I will now go out and help people recover their lost objects as well.”

We would say that, not only has this person produced something completely artificial and unintended, but that they have also missed the actual meaning of the passage.  By making a weird spiritual construct out of it, we are no longer interpreting the text as intended – as a personal part of a letter.

This is probably a big reason why DBS’ work off a curated list instead of being a Bible study where the participants go through a cohesive book; we recognize that, when we bring a set of our own questions to a text, the text may not answer them.  And in trying to force the text to answer them, we may end up not only constructing things that are foreign to the text, we may very well miss the actual meaning in our effort to make it answer our questions.

This, to me, can be a very crippling way to introduce someone to reading the Bible and virtually guarantees they will have a very hard time with it as they read more.

We do not come to the Bible with our questions and concerns.  We listen for what it has to say.  The Bible has its own world, its own issues, and its own concerns that may or may not overlap with our own.  To understand it, we need to receive it on its own terms, not bring our terms to it.

I remember, years ago, the late Charlie Dennison telling me a story about a man in a congregation who heard a sermon out of Philippians and promptly told the pastor that the sermon was wrong because it didn’t mention joy.  Philippians, according to this man, is the epistle of joy, and therefore, any passage you explain out of Philippians should tell you something about joy.

Now, we all can agree that joy is an important theme in the Bible, and perhaps it is especially prominent in Philippians, though I’m not terribly sure about that.  But I also hope we can agree that doesn’t mean every single passage in Philippians must tell you something about joy.  If you force every passage to do this, not only will you inevitably say things the author did not intend, but you have a very high risk of missing the passage’s actual meaning, because you have to make it about joy, not whatever the passage might actually be telling you.

One of the biggest barriers between a believer and their Bible is their own damn selves, and this is one of the ways it happens.  We do not know how to listen to the Bible, because it sounds like an alien to us.  So, instead, we make its sounds fit our language.  Romans is no longer addressing the problems of a church torn apart by an influx of Gentile believers into a predominantly Jewish community; it is now about whether we are saved by faith or works.  Jesus is no longer warning his listeners of an upcoming destruction of Jerusalem; he is now talking about the end of time, probably in our generation.  Genesis 1 no longer establishes El as the true creator of the heavens and the earth who is superior to Baal because He simply commands chaos to be ordered instead of having to battle it; it is now an apologetic against Charles Darwin.  Because we bring our own questions to the text, we have made them something useful for our purposes and have become deafened to the voice of the text.

“But nobody is going to know those things when they come to the text for the first time,” you object.  “We don’t know those issues or that culture.  We don’t think that way.  It would take a lot of study and explanation to understand what these texts have to say in their own context.”

Yes, exactly.  Exactly.  I could not have said it better, myself.  Although I will say this – we have largely created this situation for ourselves.  If the Church had stuck with handing down the biblical narrative and context from generation to generation as Israel used to instead of forcing it to answer our own questions and concerns, then reading the Bible that way would be second nature to us.  Instead, because of practices like making the text answer our questions, we have all but buried any meaning the text might have in its own world.  Now reading that way is hard and takes lots of study, but its our own fault that’s the case, and it sure isn’t going to get any better by reading an ancient text from the Levant and asking a room full of vaguely spiritual South Africans, “What does this tell you about people?”

Wow, You Really Hate These Things

I don’t.  I hate the things that have happened in the relationship between the Church and her Scriptures that make things like Discovery Bible Studies sound like the greatest thing ever.

I think the people behind DBS’ recognize the excesses that the West has had when imposing their culturally-conditioned interpretations of Scripture on newcomers.  They recognize this is bad.  They are genuinely trying to help people have a spiritual encounter with God through the Scriptures unfettered by American evangelicalism telling you what’s what.  I can’t hate that.  I love them for that.

But I think it’s misguided.  I think, in the long run, this way of introducing the future Church to her Scriptures is just going to make the whole mess much, much worse.  I am afraid of the Church losing whatever tenuous connections she has with her original identity, and I think efforts like this will speed us down the way to becoming wholly alienated from the Bible.