Sunday Meditations: Toenail Clippers

Because I live in a first world country, I have two sets of nail clippers – one for my fingernails, and another, larger one for my toenails.  Obviously, the idea of using one kind of nail clipper for both sets of nails is just nuts.

Whenever I go to clip my nails, something that has always struck me is that the type of clipper I don’t need at that particular time is always right there at the top of my single drawer of man-grooming stuff.  But I have to dig around for the other one.  Never fails.  I can easily find the one I don’t need, but the one I need requires searching.

It occurred to me this week, however, that this is because of one, simple thing: when I am done with the clippers, I just put them back in the drawer.  Thus, the pair I used last is always closest to the top and easiest to find.  But the pair I need is usually the other one, because I haven’t used them, recently.

This is probably not news to you, but it was something of a small revelation to me.  This phenomenon of the clippers I don’t need being easy to find (but the clippers I need being buried) is not due to Murphy’s Law or a comical irony of life and the universe or God or Satan trying to make my life marginally more difficult – it’s a perfectly logical and natural consequence of my own actions.  My present action of just putting the clippers away in the drawer – perfectly logical and natural action on its own – has the unintended consequence of annoying me in the future.  It is because of time and a host of other actions that pass in between that kept me from making the connection.

This is a very small, trivial matter.  But it does make me think about things on a larger scale.  What are the things that distress me in the present that are simply the natural outworking of my actions in the past, but I fail to make the connection because of the time and events in between?  What are the things that I am doing in the present that will cause me issues in the future even though it might not seem like it due to the amount of time and events that will pass before Future Me has to deal with it?

What are the things in my life that I ascribe to others or God or the brokenness of the universe that are actually nothing more than the very logical, natural outworking of my own actions?

Perhaps most importantly, how can I get better at seeing those things and using them to make things easier for me in the future?  How can I avoid being at the mercy of myself?

Lost Sheep of Israel: Matthew 10:5-15

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Matthew 10:5-15 (NRSV)

Having given the Twelve his own authority, Jesus now plans to release them into the wild to scale up the operation of liberating Israel.

You can see the focus on Israel right from the get-go.  Jesus specifically forbids them to go to any Gentile villages.  The intent is to recover the lost sheep of Israel.

It may throw us off, living on this side of Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, to see such a narrowly focused mission, but this is an important theme in the biblical story that often gets overlooked: the initial mission is to Israel, and it is in the context of what God is doing with and for Israel that Gentiles end up getting included.  Recall the proclamation of the angel at the beginning of Matthew, that Jesus would save his people from their sins.  Jews, not everybody.

It is this mission of saving Israel that will result in the inclusion and salvation of Gentiles.  At the end of Matthew, Jesus will send his disciples into all nations.  At this point in the story, however, we’re focused on what will become of Israel.  Gentiles will certainly be mentioned in the gospels, but they are singular events, worthy of mention due to their irregularity.  The focus of Jesus’ work, at this point, is Israel.  He is going to save them from the plight their sins have landed them in – the curse of the Law.

When the first Star Wars movies came out, it was easy to see that the movies were about Luke Skywalker.  But when the prequel trilogy came out, and we saw the whole scope of it, we realized that the movies were actually about Anakin Skywalker.  He was the prophesied one.  He was the one who brought balance to the Force.  The whole series is the story of his rise, fall, and redemption.  Luke Skywalker is a very important part of that story, but it’s actually not about him.  He is in the story only because the story is about Anakin Skywalker.

I sometimes feel modern Christians need to get out of their own heads a bit when looking at the biblical story.  If all you see is the New Testament, you might get the idea that the Bible is the story of God and humanity in general.  But when we incorporate the Old Testament and see the whole thing, together, we see that the Bible is predominantly the story of God and Israel.  The rest of humanity gets included as part of Israel’s story.

If we come at Matthew’s gospel from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry being about all mankind throughout space and time, then Jesus’ instructions to his apostles are jarring.  They are a weird problem to be solved.  But if we understand that this is predominantly the story of God’s relationship with Israel, it makes a lot more sense.  We know the Gentiles will be included in all of this, but in this scene, the Gentiles are just not relevant.  Israel has sinned, grievously and repeatedly, and has fallen under the curse of her covenant with God.  Jesus, and now his apostles, are about the work of overturning that condition.  Gentiles aren’t even on the radar right now.  They will be, but that’s a later movie.  Theologically, we may note that God knows the future and this was always His plan and such, and that’s fine, but let’s not let that obscure what Matthew’s gospel is telling us right now.

The Twelve are to go from village to village, announcing to Israel that the kingdom of heaven – a concept of Old Testament hope and Jewish eschatology – has now come near.  And how will they know?  Because the sick will be cured, demons will be cast out, and even the dead will be raised.  The apocalypse, in other words, but pretty much the good stuff.

The Twelve are not to worry about provisions for food and shelter.  Someone providing these things for them is their sign that this is a village worth saving.  If someone won’t, or if perhaps they do out of a sense of obligation but will not listen to the message, the apostles are to leave the village and shake the dust off their sandals.

Ironically, the Gentiles now come into this passage, because shaking the dust off your sandals is what you do when you’re a pious Jew leaving a Gentile dwelling.  You shake all that nasty, unclean, Gentile dust off your shoes before you return to your Jewish dwellings.  Here, Jesus is instructing them to do this when leaving the dwellings of other Jews.  Why?  Because it is faith in Christ that is drawing new dividing lines in Israel.  “Clean” and “unclean” are on their way to becoming categories that are no longer defined by the Law; they are defined by trust in Jesus.  This redrawing of the boundaries will be instrumental in including the Gentiles down the road, as Paul will forcefully argue in Galatians and Romans.

And what will become of such people?  They will fall in the coming judgement.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their immorality in the Old Testament.  Jesus says that those lands will be better off than unfaithful Israel when God’s judgement falls on their village.  The apocalypse, in other words, but the bad stuff.

This brings into focus the polarities that have been with us all through Matthew’s gospel – the outwardly pious law-abiding Jews who want nothing to do with what God is doing for Israel in Jesus, and the sinful, dirty, lost Jews who rejoice to see it.

One of these groups will go home justified.

Consider This

  1. What does the biblical focus on Israel mean for how Jews and Gentiles should see each other, today?  How does this play out for some of Paul’s concerns for the early churches?
  2. Is the concept of salvation in this passage a purely spiritual matter, or does it have a more holistic connotation?  How does this influence how we understand what it means to be “saved?”

The Twelve: Matthew 10:1-4

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

Matthew 10:1-4 (NRSV)

In terms of Matthew’s narrative, this is the first time so far we have a reference to the twelve apostles as we know them.

In Matthew 4, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John – and that’s the group for several chapters.  Then we have the calling of Matthew in chapter 9.  We do not get specific “calling” stories for the others.  We don’t know if they gradually trickled in over time during the other chapters, or this passage is jumping over / summarizing a period of time where Jesus selected more.  Some of them, we hear virtually nothing about at all at any point in the gospel.

This is just interesting to me because we often put together a meta-gospel in our heads, and in this gospel, Jesus starts out alone, and then picks up twelve apostles in a chunk.  We don’t usually consider that this happens progressively over time with various pieces of Jesus’ ministry occurring without some of these people present.

The most obvious significance of there being twelve is that there are twelve tribes of Israel.  These men do not appear to be a single person from each of the tribes, but they are Israelites and there are twelve of them.  Having twelve is significant, as we can see from the apostles themselves.  When Judas dies, the first order of business is to replace him.  Why?  Because you need twelve.  They are the seed form, the first wave, the firstfruits of the gathering of the elect and the restoration of faithful Israel.

This passage follows Jesus’ observation that Israel needs a lot of deliverance, and he needs more workers.  This seems to be the first wave of response.  Jesus takes his disciples and gives them authority to heal and cast out demons.

It is important that this is portrayed, not simply as a transfer of supernatural ability, but of authority.  Probably the most direct illustration of the connection between Jesus’ authority and his ability to heal is the healing of the paralytic.  The healing is a demonstration of the fact that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, and the observers are in awe that this ability has been given to human beings.

Jesus as the Son of Man now delegates his authority to these twelve, and once he does, they are able to do as he does.  This gives us further insight into the significance of the healing and exorcism miracles – they are not primarily demonstrations of the supernatural power Jesus possesses but a demonstration of the authority God has invested in him.

And what is that authority?  The authority to forgive Israel’s sin and repeal the penalties.

Israel suffers under occupation and oppression because she broke her covenant with God and persisted even after multiple warnings, minor judgements, and prophetic pleading.  Her present situation is that curse.  She is under an oppressive, pagan nation where even the Temple is under their control.  She is dispersed.  She is in crippling poverty.  And as we have seen in Matthew, the evil spirits and the maladies they cause are the spiritual version of this oppression.  The demons and the Empire are two sides of the same coin.  All of this comes from the curse invoked by Israel’s sin.

But now, here is a man who claims to be sent from God.  This man announces forgiveness of sins to those who are contrite and will repent.  This man announces an end to the present system and a new life on the other side of it for all who will follow him in faithfulness.  And how do we know he isn’t just another false prophet full of himself?  Because the signs follow him.  People are healed.  Evil spirits are cast out.  These are the signs that the forgiveness of sins and the freedom of Israel from her curse has come, and Jesus is the man who is doing it.  This is good, good news for the lost sheep.

Everyone from the man who finds himself working land that used to belong to his family for generations but now belongs to a Sanhedrin because of crippling debt – to the little girl who convulses in the grip of mental and physiological forces beyond her control – to the widow who cannot afford to feed her children – to the orphaned young man who has heard in the synagogue of YHWH and wants to be faithful but cannot afford a sacrifice….

Lift up your heads, ye poor and downtrodden, for your redemption draweth nigh!  His name is Jesus.

And he gives this authority to his disciples, beginning a cascading chain of deliverance that will crash its way past the boundaries of the gospels, into Acts, and into the ends of the earth.

Consider This

  1. When we witness today someone being delivered from sickness, poverty, or spiritual oppression, what does that tell us about God’s disposition toward the world and the role of His servants in it?
  2. In what way are our good works a testimony?  What are we announcing to the world through our service?

Sunday Meditations: Application

If we take seriously the historical parameters of a passage, can it speak to us outside of that specific situation?

One of the advantages of an approach that pares away the historical particulars of a passage to get an abstract, “timeless” truth is that it’s very easy to drop that truth into virtually any situation.  If the point of the story of David and Goliath is “you’ll win all your battles, no matter how difficult, if you trust God,” then you can easily apply that truth to a wide variety of circumstances across time and individuals.  The actual experience of Israel in her battles would suggest that this truth needs to be at least a little conditional, but you see what I mean.

By peeling away the historical specifics of a passage to get to an abstraction, we now have fodder for both sermons and personal Bible reading.  And self-help books.  And greeting cards.  It’s easy.

Take, for instance, 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 we take this from the moorings of its particular historical situation, the text as a basic principle can easily be used to give comfort and optimism in all kinds of situations, ranging from high school graduation to a first job to buying a new house to planting a new church or even trying to decide on the right brand of peanut butter.  No matter who we are or what our situation is, God has plans for our welfare to give us a hopeful future.

A good question is, though, is there any good reason to assume this is what God intends for us to take away from this text?  Is this the reason it was included in the canon?  Did the faithful community receive this writing for this purpose – a repository for abstract truths with no particular referent?

If we look to the historical situation surrounding the text, this is a word from God to the exiles in Babylon.  Prophets are claiming to speak in YHWH’s name that their deliverance will come right away, and Jeremiah is out to correct this notion.  The deliverance will not come right away, but it will come.  Therefore, the exiles should make the best of their current situation and persevere in faithfulness, carrying with them the hope that their deliverance will come, because God has plans for Israel – plans for her welfare and a good future, and not her exile, assimilation, or destruction.

When we read Jeremiah 29:11 in its context, this begins to rock our boat a little, because clearly this text was meant for a particular group of people at a particular time, and by rights has no immediate relevance to anyone who isn’t an Israeli captive of Babylon in the time of Jeremiah’s words (or the following seventy years).

So, on the one hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is just window dressing.  The actual meaning of the text has nothing to do with its original author or audience, transcends all historical particulars, and can be used for any situation that might in any sense fall under the umbrella of the abstract truth.

On the other hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is like a concrete wall around the meaning.  Anyone who isn’t an Israelite captive of Babylon at that time is not the intended recipient of the text, and the text would have no meaning for anyone outside of that group.

Are these our only options?

I think we can get some direction from the New Testament use of the Old Testament.

It should be noted that, when talking to Gentiles, Paul and the Apostles (great band name) do not really appeal to the Old Testament.  They talk about things like unknown gods and what has been made clear in nature and truths expressed in pagan poetry – things with which the Gentiles have a point of reference.  It’s not that they never mention the Old Testament to Gentiles; it’s just that by far and away their use of the Old Testament is for specifically Jewish groups or letters to groups that have both Jew and Gentile in them.

Part of that may be explained by the simple fact that the Gentiles wouldn’t know the Old Testament, but I would guess a larger portion of that is explained by the fact that the Gentiles have no relationship to the Old Testament.  The Torah is not their covenant.  The kingdom was not their kingdom.  The temple was not their temple.  The exile was not their exile.  In a very real sense, the Old Testament does not apply to them in any kind of direct way.  Yet, the apostles will announce the good news of the kingdom and Jesus to them, and they come to believe and receive the Holy Spirit.

The reason I point this out is that it may very well be that we assume all biblical texts have to be relevant to us, but maybe that assumption is wrong.  Maybe it’s ok to say that a lot of that text just isn’t directly pertinent to our present circumstances, and it doesn’t have to be.

I don’t think we need to resign ourselves to that, but I do think we need to be ok with it.  The assumption that a text has something to say to us is just that – an assumption.  We need to let the Bible tell us what it has to say and to whom and not dictate that to the Bible in advance.

But when the New Testament does use the Old Testament, it does give us some windows into how a text might speak to other communities past its own boundaries.

Take, for instance, Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15.

I’m not going to repeat everything I said when I talked about that passage, but the upshot is that Jeremiah 31 (continuing the train of thought in Jeremiah 29, in fact) is about the destiny of the Babylonian exiles.  Ramah was the city where Israelite captives were processed and shipped off to Babylon.  The prophet uses the image of weeping in Ramah for having to witness the loss of Israel’s sons, but her weeping will come to an end when the Lord brings an end to the exile and brings the children back.

Matthew uses this passage to talk about Herod killing Israelite children in an attempt to preemptively murder the newborn King of the Jews.

From a strict historical boundary, this use does not make a lot of sense.  Ramah is not Bethlehem.  The Israelites in the exile were not being murdered.  And so on.

But it doesn’t work well from an abstract truth perspective, either.  Matthew does not take Jeremiah 31:15 as, “Whenever you are sad about something, God will help you,” and that’s why it applies to the story of Jesus’ birth.

The reason Matthew can use Jeremiah with a straight face is because he sees Israel in captivity, and Herod’s predations are a rather dramatic and literal removing of Israel’s sons by those in power.  This is a tragedy for Israel.  There is weeping.  But it is the weeping before the promised hope.  This is the tragedy that comes before deliverance.  Matthew sees an end to captivity that Jesus will bring, and so, for him, Jeremiah’s prophecy about Ramah is an ideal descriptor.  In fact, he is counting on his readers’ knowledge of the Ramah passage to get his meaning across.  He is importing the meaning of the Ramah prophecy and using it to explain Israel’s present circumstances in his writing.

Or take for example Jesus beginning to quote Psalm 22 from the cross (also in Matthew’s gospel).  If Psalm 22 could only possibly be about David’s experience as a beleaguered king of Israel, then this would not make sense.  David did not die on a cross, for instance.

However, the abstract truth tack doesn’t work well, either.  Jesus didn’t look at Psalm 22 and go, “Here’s a Psalm about feeling like God has left you.  We all feel that way, sometimes.  Well, that’s how I feel now, so I think I’ll quote it.”  And in that vein, I should add that Psalm 22 is not a prophecy of the crucifixion, either.  It’s not like Jesus is mentally thumbing through the Old Testament scriptures he hasn’t fulfilled yet and came up with Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is about Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is surrounded by enemies who seek his destruction.  He is thoroughly distraught over this.  But he remembers how God delivered him in the past, so he will remain faithful.  Because of this, God will save him, and future generations will proclaim it, and God will have dominion over all nations.  Even the dead will serve Him and generations yet unborn into the future.

It is this meaning that Jesus brings forward into his own circumstances.  He is Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is distraught and surrounded by enemies.  It is he who is in dire straits.  But he remembers the faithfulness of God and will remain steadfast hoping in the help of the Lord.  God will save him, and countless future generations will proclaim it.  God will rule the nations.  Even the dead will rise up.

Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 is not independent of its historical meaning – it thoroughly depends on its historical meaning.  Once you understand what Psalm 22 means for David and Israel, then you are in a prime position to understand what it has to say in Jesus’ circumstances.

This is where I’m at so far on the issue of how biblical texts can speak into circumstances beyond their own.  If we can get our arms around what the text is communicating in its home environment, we can take that meaning and transpose it for circumstances beyond the original.  But that activity is grounded in the original meaning, not an abstraction.

So, Jeremiah 29:11?  Perhaps I might send that to a group of Chinese Christians in prison for having an underground church.  Perhaps I might remind them that their forefathers, too, were in captivity, and it looked hopeless, and they wanted with all their hearts to be released immediately.  But God made a way for them to be cared for in the present because of His plans for their future.  Not every Israelite saw that day, but that day came, nonetheless, and that hope was meant to sustain them in their captivity.

But as liberating as high school graduation might feel, I’m not sure I’m on solid ground applying Jeremiah to it.

Plentiful Harvest: Matthew 9:35-38

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:35-38 (NRSV)

Jesus has been going around to the synagogues teaching and healing, and at some point, the magnitude of his task hits him in a new way.  He sees the poor, broken, and oppressed and is moved to pity because they were “harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

There are several passages in the Old Testament that compare Israel’s leaders to shepherds, and there’s more than one that describes the piteous state of Israel at various times as sheep without a shepherd.  But probably the allusion that fits Matthew’s situation most directly is Ezekiel 34.  The entire chapter is dedicated to this metaphor.  Here’s how it 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Ezekiel 34:1-6 (NRSV)

The passage goes on to describe how YHWH will seek out and gather His lost sheep, and he will judge the sheep that have gotten fat and ravaged the flock.  He will save His sheep and deliver them from the rough places, using some images that are very resonant with Psalm 23.  And what will God do when He saves His sheep?

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Ezekiel 34:23-24 (NRSV)

It is probably not a coincidence that, just a few verses ago, the blind men that Jesus heals proclaim him the “Son of David.”

Ezekiel 34 finishes with an idyllic picture where God ensures that no more harm will come to his flock, nor will they suffer at the hands of the nations, and the world will know that Israel is His people.

Jesus sees that this is the current state of affairs with Israel, and he is moved to compassion for them.  He wants to save them, and he laments that there are so many that need saving but so few people who will work to save them.  He then commissions his disciples to spread out and, only to Israel, proclaim the good news that the kingdom has come, healing the sick and casting out demons as Jesus has been doing.  They join him as co-laborers in rescuing the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

The expansion of Jesus’ efforts to save Israel will not end here.  More disciples will be sent, and after his ascension, the Spirit is poured out, and Judean fishermen discover that they, too, are prophets and healers and exorcists, bringing the kingdom of God, warning of the impending judgement, and calling the lost sheep to repentance and salvation.

This is what Jesus prayed for and what he asks those who have joined him to pray for.  The time for saving his people is now, but the amount of work is vast.  Jesus is just one person.  As busy as he is, he can only heal so many people, cast out so many demons, teach so many people, warn so many people.  His prayers are answered by the apostles and, a little later, more disciples.  It is through the participation of these laborers that God sets up one shepherd over them.

The image of harvest is also one that Jesus will use to talk about his mission.  In Jesus’ parables, Israel is a vineyard that had been given to certain tenants to watch over, but these tenants were irresponsible and did not produce fruit for the landlord.  The landlord sends representatives to these tenants and, finally, his own son.  All are rejected by the tenants, and the son himself is killed.  The landlord puts the tenants to death and gives the vineyard over to others, and the stone that was rejected becomes the cornerstone.

Here, we see Jesus as the good shepherd.  We see him as the cornerstone.  We see him as the faithful caretaker replacing Israel’s former caretakers with caretakers of his own choosing, and the caretakers will not take this lying down.

As with many things in the New Testament, these events are long past.  The wicked shepherds have been judged.  The evil tenants have been driven out.  The sheep have been placed under their one shepherd.  Those things that were future events to Ezekiel and current or near-future events for Jesus are past events to us.

Yet the ravages that plagued Israel still plague the creation in some form or another.  If we look beyond the immediate New Testament story of Israel and the nations as they knew them, we see a creation full of people suffering who have no one looking out for them.  God has demonstrated in history that He will keep His promises not simply through the heroic efforts of Jesus, but by the Spirit-empowered ministry of Joseph Israelite and Jerry Gentile.  This shepherd is still our shepherd.  This king is still our Lord.  His God is still our God.  His Spirit is still our Spirit.

And what are we doing with our gifts and our privileged state of affairs?  What are we to be about if not blessing the nations?  What are we supposed to be if not inhabitants of the New Creation in the midst of this one?  And at the boundaries – at the points of intersection of this world and the next – what else should be happening if not forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and peace?

Care, in other words.

Consider This

  1. Living a life in service to God means, at least in part, being a servant to all.  In what capacity can you serve your corner of the world?

Satan vs. Satan: Matthew 9:32-34

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.”

Matthew 9:32-34 (NRSV)

Here is yet another story that brings up the same elements we’ve seen throughout this chain of healing stories as well as some earlier healing stories in Matthew.  I’m not going to rehash them; you’re welcome to look at previous entries to see fuller developments of these themes.

But in the interest of having pointed them out, in this passage, we see:

  • A medical affliction and a demonic affliction being presented as the same thing
  • The liberation of Israel from her oppressors and a glimpse of new creation
  • Evidence that Jesus is the hoped for Jewish Messiah

These are big themes, important and central to Matthew’s gospel, but I don’t want to keep repeating the same things over and over, so I do encourage you to look back over the last few days’ worth of entries and/or the links above to some entries further back if you’re interested in seeing these discussed in greater detail.

One unique thing that gets thrown into this story is the reaction of the Pharisees who claim that Jesus can only cast out demons because the “ruler of demons” empowers him to do so.  In other words, they posit a sort of scam where the demons really want to enslave people, so they choose a champion and make it look like he’s casting them out.  People will follow this man, seeing that he is setting people free from demons and healing their afflictions, but the demons get the last laugh because Jesus is really their man and people are actually being led further down the path to enslavement.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus will turn their accusation into an apocalyptic declaration of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  Here, Matthew just lets it lay where it is, possibly because he wants to underscore unbelieving Israel in contrast to the believing, getting healed Israel.  You have one group of people who is broken, needy, humbled, suffering, and oppressed, and they come to Jesus fully believing he can deliver them, and he does.  You have another group that is actually doing very well for itself, thank you very much, and they do not believe Jesus, and they actively work against him.

These two groups of people are pivotal in Matthew’s gospel and, in fact, form the bulk of the issues raised in the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not surprising to find Matthew drawing those lines here as well.

But if I could allow myself a bit of extrabiblical speculation, one has to wonder about the logic the Pharisees are employing, here.

By Matthew’s account, Jesus is healing and casting out demons all over the place, wherever he goes, so much so that Matthew has to just summarize the activity, sometimes.  One wonders how a group of people could plausibly claim this was an elaborate plot by the demons themselves when the results seem so plentiful and relentlessly effective.

In theory, the principle works.  This is the whole deal behind undercover agents or double agents.  You appear to be working for one entity when the reality is your allegiance belongs to another entity.  You are earning loyalty and credibility only so that you can ultimately foil the entity that you appear to be working for.

But talk about your deep cover!  The magnitude of destruction Jesus is wreaking on the devil’s works is unheard of in Israel.  This would be like a Russian double agent in the Cold War permanently disabling all the nuclear silos in Russia to win the trust of the Americans.  It’s hard to imagine how this level of damage done in the name of “faking it” could justify the outcome of “fooling people.”  In fact, at that level, you’re not even really fooling people.  Wherever your professed loyalties might be, you’ve effectively neutralized the people you’re supposed to be working for, which is pretty much the goal of the opposing side.  Whatever you might tell yourself, the victory that you’ve handed over to America would be so comprehensive that you are, functionally, a pro-American agent.  It would be difficult to imagine what sort of damage you could do to America at that point that would make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Jesus seems to think this, too, at least in his defense in Luke, which boils down to, “If this is all a ruse by the devil, it is the stupidest plan ever.”  But no, it is not a ruse; it is the sign that the kingdom of God has come in their midst.

All this makes me think a couple of things.  Once again, these are my own thoughts inspired by the biblical text but are not actually present in the text.

First, there is an irony here, because what the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of – being a double agent – is actually how most of Israel’s religious leaders are portrayed in Matthew.  They outwardly appear to be loyal to God and His people, but in secret, their hearts belong to the present world order.  Their works actually are a ruse, when the reality is that they’re doing fine for themselves and are quite content for the world to chug along as it has been.  #NotAllPharisees, of course, but it’s still a dominant theme in Matthew.  And when the pressure is on, they run to their real allies – the Roman occupational force – and they tip their hand for the world to see.  They will destroy the healer of Israel through their alliance with the Roman Empire, thus showing that they never had the people’s interests at heart to begin with, but rather their own power and prosperity.  The facade will come crashing down in a way that’s undeniable to Matthew at least.

Second, I cannot count the number of times over the years that a Christian has described something as “demonic” that is actually destroying the works of the devil.  Whether it is a theology or a practice or a group of people (Charismatics get hit with this a lot, but they also hit everyone else with it a lot, so….), there are many times when someone is actually doing something that heals disease, helps people out of addiction, brings people out of poverty, promotes peace and an end to conflict – things that embody the new creation and a kingdom of shalom that get written off as some secret plot of the devil or just overtly ascribed to demonic activity.

I would say that those claims are very much like the claims of the Pharisees in Matthew 9 in the sense that behind them is this: someone who is not us is doing good.

In first century Jerusalem, the Temple is where you go to get sins forgiven, get prayed for, and if there’s to be any miraculous signs of God’s presence, it happens there in those walls.  Here’s this Jesus strutting around forgiving sins and healing people as if the Temple doesn’t matter.  Or, more directly, as if the people who derive their authority, status, and livelihoods from the Temple are not strictly necessary.  And whether it’s work or religion or government – as soon as you suggest that the official structures are not necessary, the hammer will come down.

People in other denominations, people with different theologies, people with different traditions, even people with different religions or no religion at all – these people all can and do work against the principalities and powers of this age, and they undo the works of the devil, whether they would see it in those terms or not.  We should probably be very careful to denounce those things as schemes of the devil.  We might find that our established conceptions of what God can and cannot do and who He can and cannot use will put us on the wrong side of what He’s actually doing.

Consider This

  1. What groups do you consider a “threat” who are doing good in the world?  Why do you consider them a threat?  What are you afraid is going to happen, and what are your reasons for believing that will happen?
  2. When you are baptized in an Anglican church, they ask if you “renounce the devil and all his works.”  What are the works of the devil?  What does it mean for your life to renounce them?

Sunday Meditations: Ruler of the Nations

Lord, the world today does not look much like Jesus is king.

While we see flashes of compassion, many nations are ruled the way they’ve always been ruled.  Ambitious people have sought power and received it.  They do the things that keep them in power and avoid the things that they fear will make them lose it.  They marshal money, forces of arms, and harness the selfishness of others to enforce their will and put themselves at the top.

All of this operates at smaller scales as well.  Cities, corporations, families, and individuals are all possessed by these spirits.  They have become vessels for principalities and powers, and they have broken the world, and pain and death have followed after.  These are not tragic exceptions, but the norm.

Your people have turned to idols, worshiping the gods of this world and their prophets.  There is very little difference in the things that we love, fear, and protect than anyone else.  We, too, follow after Mammon.  We, too, have rallied to protect our own interests even at the expense of others.  We have given our allegiance to nations who have no intention of reflecting your kingdom, but are kingdoms in their own right.  We have promoted people and agendas and loved them and served them.  We have wanted power.  We have wanted our way.  We have condemned and ostracized.  We have shunned the needy for our own greed.  We have loved violence.  We have pushed to swell our numbers by conversion while spreading fear of faithful works.  We have loved celebrity.  We have established dynasties.  We have done all these things in the name of observing Your laws.

And I am possessed by these spirits.  I am not better than my brothers or sisters.  I have loved my own reputation.  I have put my comfort above any other considerations.  I have hoarded my wealth.  I have hoarded my time.  I have hoarded my love.  I have torn people down and drawn lines in the sand to ostracize them.  I have sought to establish myself by my own powers.  I have admired what the world admires.  I have fretted about how I might appear in the eyes of others.  Many times, my meditations are on the things that pass away.  Powers rule my life without my even thinking about them.

So it has been for some time, and to look around, it does not appear to be slackening.

And yet, how long was Israel beset by her enemies?  How long was she ruled by principalities and powers that were idolatrous?  How long did the faithful wait for a day they hoped for, but died before seeing?

And today, of all days, I remember how you brought Israel back to life.  You are a god who keeps promises.

And so I wait in hope, as well.  I may die before I see the day.  My children my grow old and die before they see the day.  And their children.  And their children.  I do not know if I will find the tomb empty tomorrow, but I hope, because I trust.

I believe in your promises and long for the renewal of the world.  I dedicate my life to that testimony, if You will but show me how to live it in my own little corner of it and give me the strength you gave to my forefathers who died with Your witness on their lips.  If You will grant me the fidelity that survives wars and poverty and disease.  I will trust You, even if I die.

Strengthen me.  Strengthen my brothers and my sisters.  Bring this world system to a close and replace it with the creation You have shown our prophets in their wildest dreams.  Raise us from the dead at the end of such faith and faithfulness for Your name’s sake.  For this, in the midst of the assembly, I praise Your name.

Blind Men: Matthew 9:27-31

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

Matthew 9:27-31 (NRSV)

This is a story that appears in all four Gospels with some pretty decent variances.  It’s not my intent to try to reconcile these variances into one MegaStory that reflects what “really” happened.  I am not interested in that, and I stand a very good chance of missing what Matthew is trying to tell me by trying to somehow make his account mesh with the others.  What’s more, I would basically be saying that the purpose of a gospel is to give me an objective biography of Jesus’ life, such that discrepancies between the gospels are now problems to be solved instead different takes on the stories to bring out certain truths of particular interest to the author.

Instead, I’d like to look at some choices Matthew makes and why he might have told this story the way he did.

Matthew puts this story in a chain of healing stories.  In this, he follows Mark, although the chain is not quite the same.  Luke and John have this story occurring in the midst of other things.  In Matthew, this chain is headed by a story where Jesus announces a new, eschatological era has come upon Israel that should usher in celebration, and yet there are overtones that there are hard times, ahead.

As I’ve pointed out several times before, the healings and exorcisms are like huge, neon signs for Matthew that Jesus is the expected Messiah.

In the 30s of Isaiah, the prophet urges Israel to remain faithful despite their impending war with Assyria.  Instead, they should trust in God for their deliverance.  Isaiah predicts that Israel will be ruled in peace by a righteous king.  The prophet paints a picture of the destruction of their enemies in staggering terms involving eternal flames and stars being destroyed, and this is contrasted with the prosperity of Israel under her new king.  And then we get to Isaiah 35, where the faithful retake Jerusalem in a blissful reign that even the other nations are envious of, and in the midst of this, we see:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Isaiah 35:5-6 (NRSV)

This is, in fact, the exact passage Jesus quotes to John the Baptist when John is in Herod’s prison and sends a message to Jesus asking if he is the expected Messiah.

Matthew clearly sees Jesus as this Messiah and wants his readers to know Jesus is this Messiah, too.  He is the man who fulfills the expectation of God delivering Israel from her enemies and ushering in a reign of peace and prosperity.

But where is the sign of this?  Well, one of the signs is that Jesus is healing people and casting out demons.  For Matthew, this is a strong apologetic that Jesus is the Messiah that Israel has been looking for.

This is another instance where Matthew has two people where the other gospels only posit one.  Matthew does this a number of times.  We don’t know why.  Some have thought that, since Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, having two witnesses is important to him, and that explanation sounds as good to me as anything.

Also, like the other healing miracles, the faith of the men is key to the outcome.  Jesus does not just waltz up and heal them.  He asks if they believe that he can do this.  It is through their trust that they are delivered, and this is a controlling paradigm for how Matthew’s Jesus approaches Israel.  This Jesus is issuing warnings about judgement and offering a way out.  Do you trust him?  Do you believe he can save you?  That will be the hinge that makes the difference between an Israel with faith who survives the coming calamity and a faithless Israel who will perish in it.

Finally, we see Jesus telling them not to tell anyone, so of course they tell everyone.  Here, as in other places, we see Jesus (through Matthew’s eyes) being sensitive to the timing and progress of his work.  Most likely, this is driven out of a concern for the survivability of the mission.  Despite what some of our well-intentioned songs might say, Jesus did not come to die.  He came to accomplish a mission that (almost) ended with him dying and inevitably involved him dying.  But dying was not the mission.  The recovery of the lost sheep of Israel was the mission.

If word gets out too fast to the wrong people, the forces that will inevitably move against Jesus will begin, and once those gears start turning, there’s no stopping them until Jesus is crushed between them.  In Matthew’s gospel, as in others, we see a sensitivity on Jesus’ part to timing and who knows what when.  Ultimately, Jesus’ death will be presented to us as a willing, planned decision on his part, not the random forces of history that spun up in response to him.  He is not presented to us as an unwilling victim who fell on hard times, but rather a man with a plan, and controlling the revelation of his works is part of the unfolding of that plan.

Ah, but the best laid plans of mice, men, and Messiahs, eh?  These men tell everyone, and perhaps Jesus knew that might happen, too.  Perhaps it is partially because of this that Jesus’ next steps in Matthew are to send followers out to villages to announce his coming.  The cat’s out of the bag, after all.

And what of you, reader, who sees Matthew’s Messiah?  Does he look like the deliverer of Israel to you?  Does this prophet and healer elicit feelings of trust and belief, or does he elicit feelings of scorn?  Do you believe in what God was doing in Jesus Christ so long ago?  Does this move you to trust this God?  Or are these reasons to simply let these stories pass us by of one more rabbi in ancient Judea who lived and died and time marched on as it always has?

Matthew wants his readers to believe.  Do you?

Consider This

  1. Isaiah is full of imagery about ancient Israel’s situations and expectations that the New Testament will later use to describe Jesus.  What are some other passages?  Is the scorn and rejection some felt for Jesus also apparent in those passages?
  2. What do you believe about who Jesus was?  Was he Israel’s Messiah?  What does that say about God’s promises?

Sunday Meditations: What is the Question?

A rather lot of the time, what the Bible has to say to us is influenced by the ideas we bring to the text.  As I’ve pointed out earlier, we generally have a theological framework in our heads (formally delivered or not), and when we come to the Bible, this has a profound influence on how we understand it.  For example, if we have in our heads that an evil, apocalyptic figure will appear near the end of the world (e.g. the Antichrist), then any passage in the Bible that mentions an evil person in the future from the standpoint of the text will sound to us like it’s talking about this evil figure at the end of the world.  Because of this, such disparate works as Daniel, Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica, and John’s Apocalypse appear (to such a reader) to all talk about the same person.

Related to this issue, although subtly different, is the fact that the questions we bring to the Bible also influence what we hear from it.

Years ago, I taught a basic HTML class at Intel in California.  As part of the class, I was talking about HTML tables (which we don’t use for layout, people) and made the offhand comment that, if I were going to build a complex table, I’d sketch it out first on paper.

After the class, a lady came up to me to tell me how meaningful my comment about sketching out the table was to her, because for so many of her endeavors in life, writing them out first helped her to clarify her goals and outcomes and helped her stay on track to achieving them.  So, she really appreciated me sharing that.

Now, I’m not saying that what she got out of that was wrong, exactly.  I can tell you 100% that it was not my intent to communicate that; I was just sharing a way to make HTML tables that I found helpful.  If you were coming to my class asking the question, “How can I keep my life on track?” you would get different things out of it than if you were asking the question, “How can I create complex HTML tables?”  Those things are not necessarily incompatible, but at the very least, I’d want to make sure this lady still knew how to make HTML tables, because that was actually my intent and the value I was trying to bring to my students in that class.  It was not my intent at all to give life coaching advice on accomplishing goals.

This lady was looking for something from the text that the text was not designed to give her.

Along with our existing theology, we have to be aware of the questions we are bringing to the Bible, because they can also shape what we hear.  If we come to the Bible asking how to live moral lives, that’s what we’ll hear back.  If we come to the Bible asking how we can go to heaven when we die, that’s what we’ll hear back.  If we come to the Bible asking whether or not transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom that fits their gender identification, that’s what we’ll hear back.

But like the very well-intentioned lady in my HTML class, if we come to the Bible with our questions, the “answers” we get back are rather suspect.  It’s unlikely that a writer in the Levant over two millennia ago is writing to answer the questions a 21st century American might have about life, or even the questions such a person would have about God.

What’s more, we run the risk of getting our answer and assuming that’s all the Bible had to say to us.  We might very well miss what the author had intended to get across because we went with our goal in mind, and when that goal was met, we were done.  When the lady at my class told me about the life-changing revelation I had given her, I just wanted to ask, “Ok, but you also know how to make HTML tables, right?  That was kind of the point of all that stuff.”

Along with reading the Bible without imposing our theological framework on top of what it has to say, we also want to be careful about imposing our questions on top of what it has to say.  We may discover that a given biblical text has no interest in our question whatsoever.  It may be addressing a set of questions completely different from our own.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t find our own answers, but it does mean we shouldn’t mistake that process for “what the Bible teaches” any more than it would be legitimate for that lady to tell her coworkers that I showed up to Intel to teach them all how to reach their life goals and recommend my HTML class to anyone who was struggling with life.

I would offer that one way to get out of our own heads and meet the Bible on a more level playing field is to explore the concerns and questions of the author of a text and/or the people who would be receiving it.  What was in their heads?  What was their day to day reality?  What were they looking for in the future, and why?  What were their frustrations and problems?

We might begin to discover that the Bible has a lot to say about issues that simply aren’t relevant to us, which may be disconcerting at first, but once we can hear it speak into those issues, we are much better prepared to transpose things into our world where appropriate.

Delivering Israel: Matthew 9:18-26

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district.

Matthew 9:18-26 (NRSV)

In this story sandwich from Matthew, both the bread and the filler center around a common theme: the faith of the sufferer leads to deliverance.

Matthew has a large number of stories like this.  Someone is sick (or has a dead relative), but because of their implicit belief that Jesus can save them, they are made well or their loved one is restored to them.  Why are these stories so important to Matthew?

In one sense, miracle stories are part and parcel of how you tell the story of a heroic figure in the ancient world.  Cassius Dio, for instance, in telling the history of the Roman emperor Vespasian records stories of him being able to heal.  Philostratus the Elder tells us the biography of Apollonius of Tyana and gives many miracle-working stories reasonably similar to some of the gospel stories of Jesus.  If Matthew’s intent is to illustrate how powerful or unique or terrific Jesus is, it might be easy to just write these off as early historiographical practices and not think twice about them, or at the most acknowledge that it’s pretty special to be able to do things like that.

But for the Gospel writers in general and Matthew in specific, the miracles are signposts to Jesus being the hoped for Messiah.  Jesus is about the work of liberating Israel and bringing the kingdom of God to fruition around himself.  The sick are healed.  The dead are raised.  Sins are forgiven on earth by the Son of Man.  These are all eschatological realities hoped for by the prophets on the day that God will overthrow Israel’s oppressors, forgive her sins, and restore her covenant and her fortunes.

Later in Matthew, an imprisoned John the Baptist will begin to lose heart that this day has come and will ask Jesus (by messenger) if he is the Messiah or if they should look for someone else.  Jesus does not respond with elaborate portrayals of how his birth fulfills prophecy or anything like that.  Instead, he responds this way:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Matthew 11:4-6 (NRSV)

That is Jesus’ proof that he is the Messiah that a John the Baptist who is awaiting his own execution should take hope in.  The healings, the resurrections, the cleansings, and the good news for the poor.

In these stories, Matthew shows us that when people hear about Jesus and believe him, they receive (supernaturally, no less) the promises of the age the Messiah is supposed to usher in.  Every healing Jesus does is apocalyptic.  Every paralytic who can walk or every blind man who can see is an invasion of the kingdom of God into another dominion.  It is a sign that deliverance has come in Jesus, and the prophetic expectations for Israel who has suffered so long are about to be fulfilled.  Their sins will be forgiven and the curse will be lifted.  These are concrete, historical realities that Israel is looking forward to, and Jesus delivers (no pun intended) on this expectation with healings and resurrections.

The point for Matthew’s readers is clear: it is this implicit faith in Jesus that will save you, and here’s the proof – not only the healings themselves, but the sign that Jesus is the Messiah we have hoped for and his reign is now.

We are long past that time in Israel’s history, but Jesus is still king and there is still a promised renewal of creation.  We hear stories of miraculous healings, or perhaps you have witnessed one, or perhaps you have even experienced one.  Perhaps these things continue to testify to this state of affairs.  As the Church, we have to figure out what such a thing means for us and interpret it when it happens.  I don’t know that we should assume such things should be happening regularly, and even less do I think that a lack of them represents a lack of faith.

But Matthew’s story challenges us to believe what God has done in Jesus Christ.  It is by hearing this and believing it that we join in with God’s faithful people, become part of their project, enjoy their relationship with God, and share in their destiny in the ups and the downs but always with God’s promise.  Do we believe Jesus was the promised Messiah?  Do we believe the news of what God has done in him?

And beyond that, do we believe God is still keeping His promise?  Do we believe a new world is possible, and are we working to bring that into realization around us?  Supernaturally or not, every blow we strike against death, disease, and brokenness is a testimony in flesh and blood to our confession that Jesus is our Lord and God keeps His promises.  Although the context may be different, we should be about the business of world renewal.

Consider This

  1. Have you heard stories about, witnessed, or experienced a healing that is difficult to explain?  What did that mean to you?  What effect did that have on your faith?
  2. What are the ways in your own tiny piece of the world that could you be about restoring it?