Asking for a Sign: Matthew 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

Matthew 16:-1-4 (NRSV)

This is an interesting passage because it lays out a few, different sets of expectations and assumptions, and they don’t always line up with the people you’d expect.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are both Jewish but have fairly different theological ideas on a number of topics.  It’s helpful to keep in mind that first century Judaism was not a monolith.  It’s helpful not only in the sense of understanding these events better, but it also helps in that it reminds us how grossly inaccurate it is to cast Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews.”

The Pharisees were a group that believed Israel was under Roman dominion because they had failed to keep Torah.  Their solution to this was to preach stricter Torah observance among the people in the hopes that their obedience would motivate God to deliver them.  Since the Torah doesn’t exactly spell out in detail every little thing, rabbis of a Pharisaical bent threw themselves into that very task, creating traditions and interpretations of the Law to which they held their people accountable.

From the standpoint of Israel’s story up to that point, these views had a lot going for them.  It is true that the prophets explained Israel’s exile and tenure under foreign dominion as a result of their breaking of the covenant, and it’s reasonable to assume that, if the nation repented and began steadfastly obeying the covenant, God would turn their situation around.

The disconnect came in the fact that Israel’s failure to live up to the Law did not consist in the failure to observe this or that little detail – it was that Israel’s leadership had become corrupt and unjust in how they treated both their own people and foreigners, and they had led the people astray from devotion to their God into idolatry.  The indictments the prophets brought against Israel were indictments of how they treated orphans, widows, the poor, and the stranger.  Israel was doing fine observing the “religious” specifications of the Law and had abandoned anything that looked like love or justice.

As one example, take the opening salvo of Isaiah:

When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Here, the prophet tells us that God finds all the careful religious observances that are in the Law offensive because the same people doing those careful observances are oppressors.

We see this clash play itself out with Jesus and the Pharisees as well, as Jesus warns that a world-changing judgement on Israel is imminent, and the only way to be saved through it is to believe him, repent, and follow his path, which included not simply a spiritual reorientation to God but manifested in works of love and restoration of the least of peoples, even when doing so could be seen as technically a violation of Torah.  The Pharisees will not help a crippled man on the Sabbath because that would be doing work, but Jesus demonstrates that helping this man in love is, in fact, what God and the Law require.

You can see how these two would clash.  Jesus is preaching that the judgement will not be averted by more Torah obedience the way the Pharisees define it and, in fact, their definition of obedience is actually hypocrisy in the eyes of both God and Torah.

The Sadducees, by contrast, are more urbane than their Pharisee counterparts.  Sadducees do not believe in any supernatural beings but God, and even that might be a little iffy.  Sadducees do not believe that anyone has or could rise from the dead or even that people have an immortal soul.  They openly reject the “traditional” laws of the Pharisees and only hold strictly to the written words of the Torah, which affords them quite a bit of moral latitude.

The Sadducees tended to be something of a bridge between the Jewish people and the Greco-Roman control of the region.  They were often very high up in both religious and political hierarchies, performing grand Temple duties and serving in various councils and tribunals dealing with matters of Jewish governance.  As a result, they were a prosperous group and archeological evidence has shown us that they tended to adopt the customs of and even change their housing and decorations to match the tastes and preferences of whomever was in charge of Jerusalem at the time.

Perhaps Jesus has run afoul of this group because of the miracle stories or his teaching of resurrection, but I think a great part of the hostility probably comes from Jesus’ preaching against Israelites taking up the ways of her oppressors for their own comfort and prosperity.  God is in opposition to this world order, and those who are allied with it will fall in the judgement, and that puts Sadducees right in the crosshairs.

Honestly, both of these groups provide some good object lessons for looking at Christianity in America, today.  But that’s not really the point of the passage.

The point is that we have two groups who probably never agreed on anything – a fact that Jesus actually uses to his advantage a time or two – who are teaming up here to put Jesus in a bind of sorts.  They demand that Jesus show them a sign from heaven, presumably to validate his message.  The one thing that unites both groups is that Jesus represents a threat to their power base, and if they ask the Miracle Man to produce one, and he can’t, obviously he’ll lose credibility with the rank and file Jewish people.

One thing that’s interesting to me about this is that the author of the gospel of Matthew does not shy away from the miracle stories of Jesus.  In fact, this passage follows on the heels of a miracle Jesus performs.  Matthew, following Mark, even shows us a literal voice from heaven validating Jesus.  If the author is simply trying to establish Jesus’ credibility before gullible first century (and subsequent) readers, then it’s go time.  Jesus’ enemies ask for supernatural proof, Jesus does something amazing or another voice speaks from heaven, and boom – Jesus is vindicated, and you’re an idiot if you don’t believe him.  There are stories like this in both Testaments; it’s a well-established trope.  This is the kind of story we’d expect from a gospel writer who was more concerned with creating a Jesus movement than they were telling us what they believed to be true.

But here, Matthew shows us a Jesus who isn’t interested at all in a supernatural sign.  Honestly, in isolation, this story would look exactly like the story of a fraud – a shyster.  People quite reasonably ask for a supernatural demonstration that should be perfectly commensurate with the stories people are telling about Jesus, and Jesus cleverly and verbally evades the issue and produces nothing.  But it is clear that portraying Jesus this way is actually counter to the author’s intent.  It sort of hurts Matthew’s case, in a sense, to include this story.  If Jesus wants people to believe in him, and he’s fully capable of producing a miracle, why not do it right here, right now?  Those Pharisees and Sadducees would have no choice but to give in to the empirical evidence right in front of them, right?

Interestingly, John (the weird gospel) has an episode where this is exactly what happens:

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

John 12:27-32 (NRSV)

In this passage, John tells us that some people said the voice was just thunder, while others recognized it as a supernatural voice but ascribed it to an angel and not actually God.  If you continue reading this passage, some people in the crowd continue to grill Jesus as if nothing had happened. Maybe producing a supernatural event that convinces everyone is harder than it seems.  Even if you don’t believe John is recording a historical event, here, the author still has people reacting differently to it.  To me, these nods to skepticism not only give us a nice, honest depiction of how people of all worldviews interpret data according to their assumptions, but they actually add credibility to the gospel accounts in a sort of “we’d normally be embarrassed to say this” kind of way.  If you’re making up a miracle to prove Jesus’ identity, it really doesn’t help you out to note that a good chunk of people wrote it off as thunder, and it would just be weird to fabricate people ascribing it to “an angel.”

Anyway, that’s not the point either.  I’m getting there.

The point is that Jesus answers their request for a sign from heaven with an appeal to interpreting the world around them.  In other words, Jesus does not direct them to a miracle or even his past miracles, but rather he points them to the mundane events unfolding in the world.

In other words, they should be able to know Jesus’ message is true because they can look at world events and see that’s where things are going.

I really want to underscore that, so let me say it, again:

They should be able to know Jesus’ message is true because they can look at world events and see that’s where things are going.

If you ever had any doubts about orienting Jesus and his message to the concrete, historical circumstances of his world, allow Jesus to put them to rest for you.  The claims that Jesus is making should have been supported and evident by observing the events of the day.

This criticism would be ridiculous if we had a Jesus who was solely proclaiming “spiritual realities.”  You can’t validate “spiritual realities” by observing the signs apparent in the natural flow of events.  What you can validate is what’s likely to happen down the road on the basis of what you’re seeing, today.

That’s exactly Jesus’ analogy, isn’t it?  You look at the sky the night before, and you can tell what the weather will be like, tomorrow.  You look at the sky in the morning, and you can tell what the weather will be like the rest of the day.  Jesus says the reason people are asking for supernatural validation from heaven is because they’re incapable of observing the normal course of events and drawing the conclusion that Jesus is correct.

This has to mean that Jesus’ message is at least partially about where concrete history is going.  He foresees tensions building up to a conflict with Rome that Jerusalem will not survive, and he weeps over it.  He warns people of this coming calamity and that the time is now to repent, start helping one another, get their hearts right, and literally flee the city when they see the Romans show up.

We can’t really understand Jesus’ preaching about coming judgement, repentance, forgiveness, restoration, and salvation if we totally divorce those concepts from the historical situation and concerns of Jesus’ day.  I’m not trying to say there isn’t a spiritual component of those things, but I am saying that the Jesus the gospels show us is not a transhistorical teacher of timeless spiritual truths.  He is an apocalyptic prophet in the tradition of Israel’s prophets before him that are concerned with the survival of Israel among the nations, with the added status of being God’s own Son sent into the vineyard to warn the tenants.

Further confirmation of this is found in Jesus’ parting words, that this generation would get no sign except the sign of Jonah.

Jesus has already said this, elsewhere.

Part of this – the part that Christians love so much – is an allusion to the resurrection.  Just as Jonah was in the belly of the beast for three days and nights, so Jesus would be in the tomb for three days and nights.  That allusion is completely valid and, in the Matthew 12 reference to it, makes that allusion explicit.  So, I’m not trying to take that away.

But something the Matthew 12 reference also makes explicit is part of the “sign of Jonah” is Jonah bringing a prophetic message to Nineveh telling them to repent or their city would be conquered:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Jonah 3:1-5 (NRSV)

You see, Jonah’s warning wasn’t that Nineveh needed to repent or they would all go to Hell when they eventually died.  Jonah’s warning was that the great and powerful city of Nineveh would be overthrown.

Jesus is that sign of Jonah for Jerusalem.  He, too, is carrying that message in his day.  The tragedy is that, in Jonah’s day, the (very non-Jewish) city of Nineveh believed the prophet and repented, turning toward the mercies of the true God.  Here, among his own people, Jesus finds unbelief and rejection.  The overthrow of the great city will happen.  And Jesus cries over his beloved Jerusalem, praying that the disaster might not come on them in the winter or on a Sabbath.

But the gospel writers let us know all is not lost.

The kingdom of God has come like a tiny mustard seed, and it will grow until it is a mighty tree that fills the earth.  That seed begins with this rag tag collection of peasant fishermen and tax collector sellouts.  It begins with cripples and lepers and those who have been isolated because of the Law.  It begins with prostitutes who have no place in a first century society or economy.  Jesus’ opposition comes from the religious professionals who know their Bibles, but the salvation of Israel begins with the lowly.  And, thusly, a triumph of both God’s power and grace.

The day would come when all the nations who bowed the knee to Caesar would bow the knee to Jesus Christ.  Jesus was vindicated, and so were all who decided to place their faith in him.

Consider This

  1. What are the perfectly natural, mundane signs of our times showing us God is doing in the world?
  2. Do we have a hope for the immediate future?  What would have to happen in fifty years or a hundred years to vindicate our hope?
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  1. Pingback: It’s the Bread, Isn’t It: Matthew 16:5-12 | Letters to the Next Creation

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