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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Feeding the Crowds, Redux: Matthew 15:32-39

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

Matthew 15:32-39 (NRSV)

If you’ve been reading through Matthew, this story probably looks a little familiar.  It was only a chapter ago that we saw Jesus (or, more specifically, his disciples) miraculously feeding a crowd of 5000 men along with women and children.

The stories are not just similar in events, they are similar in the specific language and sentence structures used.  Other than some specific details, the only substantial difference is that, in this story, Jesus verbally says things at the beginning that are a summary of the beginning thoughts and dialogue back in chapter 14.

So, what does this mean?

One option is that it doesn’t mean anything.  Jesus happened to have two experiences that were almost exactly the same right down to the opening thoughts and dialogue.  This is possibly the most “conservative” option in the sense that it would make these stories in Matthew simply reports of exactly what happened in Jesus’ life.  It just so happened that Jesus, being an unusual person, had the same unusual event happen twice and be almost identical.

I think this is possible but unlikely.  This story reads almost like a copy and paste of Matt. 14:13-21 with some tweaks (this is also the case with the two accounts in the gospel of Mark).  The coincidences, if they were coincidences, would be shocking in and of themselves, even apart from the fact that a miracle is at the heart of these stories.

On the other hand, we have to take into account that Matthew’s author is not an idiot, and neither was Mark’s.  They obviously know these two accounts are very similar and they are intentionally present together.

It could be that our gospel writers are preserving two accounts of the same event that differ in some details.  This does happen in the Scriptures from time to time, although often the two accounts are interwoven into one story.  It’s easy to imagine that Mark pulls together multiple sources, but it seems unusual to preserve two narratives of the same event by portraying them as two, different events separated by other events.  It is possible, however.

As we think through our options, one thing we need to keep in mind is that our four Gospels are neither journalism nor biography.  Nobody is following Jesus around with a notepad chronicling his words and actions.  Our Gospels are stories about Jesus written quite some time after Jesus’ death.  That doesn’t make them untrue, nor does it mean their historical claims are just creative fiction.  It does mean, however, that they are reconstructive stories about Jesus, not news articles or biographies in the sense that we think of biographies.

Think of it like this: what’s the difference between writing a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and a novelization of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.?  There’s certainly some overlap between those two projects, right?  You’ve got the historical figure and you’ve got the contours of his life.  But one of those projects is aiming for more of an objective, “scientific” presentation of King’s life, perhaps with an analysis of his impact, while the other project is interested in telling a compelling story.

In a novel of Martin Luther King’s life, conversations and events will be presented narratively.  It is quite likely that the events presented in such a work will do some dramatization.  Events the author was not present for will need to be imagined and/or derived from other sources.  Dialogue will be presented narratively, and the odds are good the novel will not be presenting the exact words said or put everything in all the right characters’ mouths.  It doesn’t make the novel untrue; it does mean that the novel’s primary concern is telling a story, not objectively reporting facts, and while it intends to faithfully present Martin Luther King Jr. to you, it’s going to take some liberties in order to deliver the meaning the story is supposed to have.

Now, if you were writing a novel about Dr. King’s life, you’d have a lot of existing written material, both primary and secondary source, to rely on.  In the case of our Gospel writers, they don’t.  Their material is a lot more scattered and hard to come by and, by the time the Gospels are written, already dependent on various stories that have gone around.

Here’s where I’m going with this: we have to understand the Gospels are, in many ways, dramatizations.  That doesn’t mean their source information is untrue; it does mean we are looking at a dramatic reconstruction of events, not the transcript of a video camera recording.  The writer shapes the story being told and does so for various reasons.

These stories sometimes give us clues that this is happening.  For example, in Matthew 14, Jesus feeds a crowd of 5000 men along with some unnumbered women and children.

Really?  Exactly 5000?  They took the time to count all the men for some reason (tax purposes?) and came out with exactly 5000?

In our story, today, we have 4000.  Exactly 4000?  A while back, he fed exactly 5000 men and, this time, they counted everyone again and it came out to exactly 4000?

Does it seem likely these are objective facts, or does it seem likely these are big, round numbers used in a dramatic recounting?

So, when we read the Gospels, we want to ask why a story was told and why it was told a certain way.  Maybe not every little detail “means” something, but more is being revealed to us than simply the raw events described.

In the previous passage, I talked about whether this crowd was predominantly Jew or Gentile and how that affects the meaning.  I’m not going to rehash all those arguments, and I encourage you to read that post because a lot of what is said, there, applies here.

I do want to add a few reasons that come up specifically in this part of the story that lead me to believe the crowd is Gentile.

In the first place, there are less of them (exactly 1000 less, as it happens).  This is perhaps the primary difference in the details of this story and the miraculous feeding in Matthew 14.  The main strategy Jesus has employed with Gentiles is to avoid them altogether.  In the rare instances when Jesus ministers to a Gentile, he likes to keep things under wraps.  The consistent message we witness and that comes from Jesus’ own mouth is that Gentiles are not the focus of his ministry; he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  These episodes are exceptions that happen on the way.  They may give us hints that Jesus’ work will eventually have meaning and ramifications for the Gentiles as well, but this doesn’t happen during Jesus’ regular ministry.

I admit that a crowd of 4000 is not a small number, nor does it really qualify as keeping things under wraps, but 4000 is a nice, big, round number less than 5000, and that may be our indicator that this crowd is “lesser” compared to the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14.  There’s fewer of them because Jesus isn’t focused on them.

Another potential indicator is that we get five baskets of leftovers.  In the other story, we got twelve.  The disciples go out in Jesus’ name bringing miraculous food to the people and return to Jesus with twelve baskets.  While this may be an incidental detail, it’s hard not to think of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Here, we have seven baskets brought in.  Seven is a number of perfection and fullness.  It’s also the number of days in which God created the world including humanity’s common ancestor.  It’s also the number of laws that define a righteous Gentile in Jewish tradition (the seven Noahide Laws).

But aside from these details, one has to ask why we even have this story if the crowd are not Gentiles.  We have a perfectly good story of Jesus miraculously feeding Israel and bringing them in as the good shepherd should.  What’s the point of including, later, another story that is almost exactly the same, even in the language used, except the numbers are smaller?

I’m not saying we couldn’t come up with reasons; I’m saying that, in my opinion, this story’s very existence makes more sense if what we’re seeing here is Jesus replicating a miracle that was done for Israel to a crowd of Gentiles.

And if this is so, then what we’re seeing is a preview.

Right now, saving the faithful from a coming judgement is very much focused on Israel, but after this, judgement will roll out to the nations, and so will the salvation of a faithful people of God.  This people will, of all things, incorporate faithful Gentiles.

And what is it that will identify these faithful Gentiles?  Their faith and belief in what God has done in Jesus Christ.  By sharing this characteristic with faithful Israel, these people who were not God’s people will be called His people.  They will receive the promises to Israel’s patriarchs and receive the Spirit of Israel’s God, and God’s people will be saved into the age to come at least in part because it now includes these people.  These Gentiles will come to Jesus in droves, and this will overthrow the Empire.

What we see here, I’d argue, is a picture that forecasts that day.  It’s a distant rumble of thunder that happens hours before the storm hits – where Israel’s promised shepherd and deliverer feeds a crowd of Gentiles because he has compassion for them.

If this is true, then the Canaanite woman deserves a lot of credit and air time, because it was her faith, persistence, and sharp reasoning that brought Jesus’ arc into this trajectory.

We might really owe her.

Consider This

  1. What elements of meaning from Jesus’ initial feeding of the 5000 might carry over to a crowd of Gentiles?  Which ones might not?
  2. If we think of Gentiles as the latecomers, what implications does this have for how we (I’m a Gentile) see ourselves in the story of the people of God?  What virtues should this engender?  Does this impact how we view Jewish people?

Restoring Israel: Matthew 15:29-31

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Matthew 15:29-31 (NRSV)

In both this passage and the one that follows, it’s unclear exactly where Jesus is and who constitutes these crowds.  Unfortunately, this is kind of important.

The reason we get into ambiguity is mostly because of Mark 7-8.  Toward the end of Mark 7, Jesus is going to the Sea of Galilee by traveling through the Decapolis region.  This region was almost certainly Gentile at the time.  During this leg of the trip, Jesus heals a man who was deaf and had trouble speaking.  It seems to be an example of Jesus healing a Gentile, especially underscored by the fact that Jesus heals him away from the crowd and instructs all the witnesses not to tell anyone what just happened – a common thing Jesus does when he doesn’t want the Gentiles to get wind of what he’s doing.

Mark tells us that in those same days, Jesus feeds a crowd of 4000, which is the miracle that follows today’s passage in Matthew.

Because of this, many commentators on our passage believe the healings described in Matthew happened to Gentiles.  Certainly, in line with Matthew’s narrative, this would make a certain degree of sense.  Jesus has just had a woman convince him to heal Gentiles, so it would be a very interesting continuation of the story to have Jesus go on to perform healing and exorcisms among a great crowd of Gentiles and even, as we’ll see, perform another miraculous feeding that mirrors his miraculous feeding to Jews in the previous chapter in Matthew.

What’s more, our passage points out that the crowds “glorify the God of Israel,” which many readers think supports the idea that this crowd was Gentile, because why else would Matthew point this out?  Of course Jews would glorify the God of Israel.  What would be startling and newsworthy would be if Gentiles were healed by Jesus and, as a result, began to glorify Israel’s God.

If this is what the text is trying to portray, then what we have here is a very dramatic foreshadowing of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God.  Now, Gentiles are receiving the healing, restoration, and liberation that was promised to Israel at the hands of Israel’s Messiah, with the end result being that these Gentiles turn to Israel’s God.  It should be noted that these Gentiles do not become disciples of Jesus, nor do they seem to join up with Israel in any way, but what we would have here is an incident of Gentiles being exposed to the miracles of Jesus and responding in faith, which is something Jesus has speculated would happen.

What’s more, this is an eschatological hope anticipated in the Old Testament – not the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of Israel, but their conversion to / glorification of Israel’s God when they witness the deliverance of Israel.  For example:

On that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the Lord of hosts raises against them. And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the plan that the Lord of hosts is planning against them.

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.

On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Isaiah 19:16-25 (NRSV)

In the prophetic imagination, God is going to deliver Israel from her Gentile oppressors and put her back on top, and when this happens, those same Gentile oppressors will turn to the Lord and become a people to the Lord.

We still have to get through things like Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to see these hopes come into their own, but if Jesus is healing and casting demons out of Gentiles and they are, in turn, glorifying Jesus’ God, we may be seeing this happen in a small scale, foreshadowing way.  We have to keep in mind that, if this is what Matthew is showing us, this is the same Matthew who repeatedly highlights Jesus being sent to Israel and keeping his ministry hidden from the Gentiles.  We have to keep in mind this would be an exceptional episode, and because of its exceptionality, it draws our attention to what it says.

It’s also quite possible this is happening to a crowd of Jews, not Gentiles.

Bringing Mark’s gospel into play does not give us a clear cut indicator of what’s going on here in Matthew 15.  Firstly, there’s been some recent scholarly disagreement as to whether or not Mark 7 is meant to indicate Jesus is passing through the midst of the Decapolis region, sticking close to the border, or is at least at the border by the time the events happen.  I currently take the reading that Jesus is going through the middle of the region, but it’s possible that reading is wrong.

Secondly, Mark 7 tells us the route Jesus took on his way to the Sea of Galilee, but our passage begins with Jesus already traveling along the Sea.  We don’t actually know where he is now with respect to the Decapolis.  Mark’s “in those days” doesn’t really help us out, because that just means “around that time,” not that it happened on the same day.

So, by the time we get to our passage, we’re fairly disconnected from the background of Jesus healing the deaf man in Mark 7.

Regarding the healed people glorifying the God of Israel, well, Jews would glorify the God of Israel and would actually be more likely to do so than Gentiles.  But there’s another reason why Matthew might think it was significant to point out that a crowd of restored Jews would glorify the God of Israel.

We need to keep in mind that the mission of Matthew’s Jesus is to the lost sheep of Israel.  Jesus is not ministering to devout, faithful Jews.  He is reclaiming the lost ones.  He is recovering an Israel that has largely abandoned her God because she considers herself abandoned by Him.

We have already seen a number of places where Jesus is shown in Matthew to be a new Moses (including the feeding of the 5000), and it’s noteworthy that Moses believes that Israel won’t know who their ancestral God is:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13-15 (NRSV)

Moses is on a mission from Israel’s God to deliver Israel from her oppressors, but Israel has forgotten her God and has to be reminded.

What we may be looking at, here, is not a foreshadowing of God’s plan for the Gentiles, but rather a dramatic deliverance and reclamation of the lost of Israel.  Jesus said in the passage before this one that he was sent to the lost of Israel.  Of course, in the passage before this one, he also heals a Gentile.

Finally, we also have to take into account that a large display of Jesus ministering to Gentiles would be rather discontinuous with everything we know about Jesus’ ministry up to this point.  There’s no way he can keep this quiet (there are 4000 of them), so some dramatic display of healing to the Gentiles that everyone will talk about is pretty jarring, not just for Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry but all the Synoptics, really.

If you’re paying attention, you might have noticed that the “shockingness” of this story is both an argument for a Gentile crowd and an argument for a Jewish crowd.

Well, welcome to the wild, wonderful world of historical reconstruction.  When we do history, two truths have to be reckoned with:

  1. By definition, the things that are most likely to happen are what usually happen.
  2. When unlikely things happen, they’re worth noting.

Much disagreement among historians comes down to how this tension plays out.

On the one hand, it would be really irresponsible of a historian to accept all reports of highly unlikely events as historically accurate.  I’m not just talking about dramatic miracles, here, but even events that seem unlikely given the time or the culture or the people involved because they’d be inconsistent with what we know.  Generally speaking, responsible history work sticks with determining what was most probable.

On the other hand, we all know that improbable events are a… heh… normal part of reality.  Think about your own life.  Is everything that happens to you the most statistically probable thing?  Is everything you do or say completely consistent with your general character or culture or situation in life?  You probably don’t go an entire day without something discontinuous happening to you, and that’s just a day in the life of one person!  And when those things happen, you make note of them, don’t you?

So, this is the problem.  Jesus healing a huge audience of Gentiles in the midst of a mission very clearly defined as being to Israel with a self-conscious effort to keep Gentiles from finding out about it would be really out of sync with what we know about Jesus.  On the one hand, that makes it unlikely the crowd was Gentile.  On the other hand, it’s exactly the unlikeliness of it that would motivate Matthew to record it.

Personally, I’m inclined to think the crowds were Gentile.  I think that explains why Matthew bothered to include this story and, when we get to the passage about feeding the four thousand, I think there’s some numerical symbolism that bears this out.  I think there is a nice, narrative connection between Jesus insisting on a mission to Israel only, then a woman talking him into extending his healing to a Gentile, and then this act of mercy to Gentiles on his way back.  I am inclined to think of this story as a shocking foreshadowing – much like the story of the Canaanite woman.

However, I’m very on the fence and could easily be persuaded the other way.  This story serving as a reinforcement of Jesus’ mission to recover the lost sheep of Israel is more consistent with Matthew’s narrative and the second Moses imagery is also very consistent with Matthew.  What we’d be seeing here is a powerful incarnation of God’s fulfillment of His promises to His people as they are healed, freed from spiritual profession, and the lost detritus of Israel begin to praise the name of their ancestral God once more, also fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.

And who knows?  Maybe Matthew left out definitive, identifying information on purpose.  Maybe we’re supposed to come away with both truths – the hope for the Gentiles and the salvation of Israel – found pictured here in the ministry of Jesus.

Because whether the crowd is Jewish or Gentile, one thing is clear: Jesus is restoring them.  He is healing their sicknesses and diseases and will even feed them, and when they experience the good he is doing for them in their midst, they glorify the God of Israel.

How do you like them apples, J-Mac?

Consider This

  1. What does this story show us about Jesus’ concepts of salvation, deliverance, and redemption?  What implications might that have for the work of the Church in the world?

Thrown to the Dogs: Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)

Well.  Talk about your un-Jesus-y moments.

This little story is a jarring pebble thrown into our placid, quiet pool of What Jesus Must Be Like.  In it, he ignores a woman’s cries for deliverance for her daughter.  When she keeps after him, he emphasizes that he is only here for the lost of Israel.  When she continues, he dismisses her with something of an insult.  Finally, her persistence seems to win him over, and her daughter is healed the moment this happens.

This story seems so jarring to us that a very common tactic to deal with it is to assume that Jesus is deliberately staging this whole thing for the purposes of addressing a Jewish misconception.

In this way of reading the story, Jesus’ actions and words do not reflect his own views or intentions, but rather they reflect the views of the Jews around him – that Gentiles are dogs that aren’t worth helping.  Jesus sort of dramatically/sarcastically pretends to have these views, himself, only to reveal at the end that he (and other Jews) should view Gentiles as neighbors worth helping and treat them accordingly.

I remember attending a presentation by Don Richardson when I was in college.  This was the tack he took with the passage, and he narrated this with gusto, having Jesus winking to the woman as he talked and the woman catching on to what Jesus was doing and proceeding to play her part.  And, you know, Matthew’s gospel does not have stage directions in it, so we don’t really know Jesus’ tone of voice or other contextual actions as he said and did these things.

This is a legitimate reading of this story, and I don’t really have any arguments to demonstrate this story can’t be read that way or shouldn’t be read that way.  I would certainly advise a couple of things for those who want to take this route:

  1. If this passage is meant to show Jesus not really believing something he says, be prepared to explain how you can tell the difference, especially when it comes to looking at other passages that are difficult sayings of Jesus.
  2. Make sure you can establish your case on the basis of the source material and not just initial distaste for the idea that Jesus might, in fact, actually think these things.

You see, when we find passages in the gospels that don’t seem to fit what we think Jesus was like, that may be our cue that we’re not reading the passage correctly, but it also might be our cue that our understanding of what Jesus was like isn’t entirely correct.

“Oh come on,” I hear my imaginary reader protesting.  “Jesus was the perfect image of God in the world and, as such, would definitely not have retained the cultural views of his people toward Gentiles.  That’s petty, prejudicial, and racist.  What’s more, Jesus was on a mission to reconcile all of humanity to God, not just Israel.  His mission was universal.  The idea that he would limit his deliverance to Israel and deny it to Gentiles is just really inconsistent.”

Ok, imaginary reader, I hear you, and those are good points.  In return, I would offer that the Jesus we are shown especially in Matthew’s gospel is not primarily a transhuman Jesus out to save all humanity but is primarily a Jewish Jesus who, at this point in his ministry, sees his mission mostly if not exclusively as a mission to recover Israel.  He may foresee ramifications this will have for the rest of the world, and we definitely see that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, but Jesus’ views of Jew and Gentile are shaped by Judaism and we will see that Matthew has taken pains to show us that Jesus’ pre-Resurrection ministry is focused on liberating Israel.

Are Gentiles Dogs?

In Jewish tradition, the primary distinction between Israel and other nations is that the Jewish people took on the yoke of Torah.  There is no particular sense that Jews as a race are somehow superior to everyone else.  In fact, some traditional stories have the Jews only accepting the Torah under duress, while others point out that it was precisely the lack of any special features of the Jewish people that made them the ideal people for God to have as a nation of priests so that His own power and faithfulness would take center stage (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-11).

Nevertheless, the Torah itself makes plenty of distinctions between Jew and Gentile and even will contrast God’s expectations for the Jews with the normal behavior of the Gentiles.  For instance, Deuteronomy 18:14: “Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.”

Laws concerning Gentiles extend into the realm of clean and unclean, with Gentiles being denied entrance to the Temple.  It was certainly possible for Gentiles to convert, but to do so, they had to be circumcised, take on the whole yoke of Torah, and leave their lands to live and travel with the Jews.

So, right from the get-go, in the very Torah itself, Israel is elevated (not through any merits of her own) to a special status with God giving her a role of ruler and priest over the other nations.  These other nations are basically lawless idolaters who will corrupt holy Israel if they intermingle.  This principle is carried out symbolically into laws about food and fabric.

Very early on in rabbinic writings, we see the perspective that Gentiles even outside of Torah can follow the laws God set down for Noah.  They can fear the true God and they can obey Him in this general sense and even enjoy His favor if they choose to do so.  But the perspective on Gentiles as a whole is very negative.  As you look at the interpretations of laws that depend upon reciprocation, for example, the traditions assume Gentiles won’t hold up their end of the bargain.

One of my favorite examples of this is Siman 153:2 of the Yoreh De’ah that sounds like something your mother might say:

An Israelite should not be alone with a Gentile; they are idolaters and may commit bloodshed.

Yoreh De’ah 153:2 (translation mine)

So, even though the issue is not so much about race as it is about relationship to Torah, the general perspective found in the Torah and traditional commentary on the Torah is that Gentiles, being apart from the Law and worshiping false gods, are not to be trusted and, given the opportunity, will probably screw you over.

Unfortunately, history mostly seemed to bear this out in terms of Israel’s relationships to the other nations, and by the time we get to Jesus’ day, Israel had suffered much at the hands of Gentile rulers, and they were currently under an oppressive Roman regime in their own land.

While we might envision Jesus rising above all this, we do well to note that this would not be the first time Jesus refers to Gentiles as dogs, and even pigs.  If you don’t think Jesus is referring to Gentiles in general in that passage, he’s referring to somebody, right?  So, unless we’re willing to say that Beatitude is a sarcastic statement where Jesus is just taking on the stereotypical views of his day in order to contradict them (which is possible), then we need to reckon with the possibility that Jesus might actually mean what he says here in Matthew 15.

I think at least part of our distaste is because of the insults that we associate with referring to someone as a dog or a pig.  But the reason dogs and pigs can be used to describe Gentiles in the first century is not because dogs and pigs are ugly or fat or worthless – it’s that they’re unclean animals.

Dogs, especially, in Jewish law and tradition, are viewed not only as unclean, but they are seen as prone to violence.  Portions of the Talmud require dogs to be chained because they are unpredictable in their violent tendencies.  Elsewhere in the Talmud, a person who trains up dogs is called “accursed.”  These traditions continue in Jewish teachings even as late as the 12th century, where the Mishneh Torah requires all dogs to be chained because of their propensity to do harm.  It’s only the 16th century where we begin to see distinctions made between safe and unsafe dogs.

So, yes, Jesus comparing Gentiles to dogs in a proverb is derogatory, but it may not have the same insulting connotations you and I are used to.  In Jewish law and tradition, dogs are both ceremonially unclean and unpredictably prone to violence.  It is those characteristics that make them a first century image for Gentiles.

Is Jesus Only Interested in Helping Israel?

In our passage, Jesus says that he has only been sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  The two, powerful forces that make this seem out of character to us are that we already have a story in place of Jesus coming to bring salvation to all mankind, and that we know the end of the story.

Never ever underestimate the power of the narrative you have or I have in our heads about what the Bible says.  Many times, that mental narrative takes the place of the actual Bible, and when we read the actual Bible, our preexisting idea of what the Bible says is a huge controller of how we read the text.  This is so much the case that many people frequently fail to differentiate between “what the Bible says” and “what I understand the Bible to say,” especially in discussion.  So, if I have a different theological view than you do, it’s not that I understand the relevant texts to mean something different than you do, it’s that I’m deliberately disregarding “what the Bible says.”

So, when we come to this story already having a narrative about a universal Jesus on a universal mission to secure eternal life for all mankind, passages like this almost demand to be read in a way to make the tension go away.

In addition, we know that the mission draws in the Gentiles.  We know Jesus in Matthew will tell his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, and we know that people like Peter and Paul take their message to the Gentiles.  Perhaps because, today, the followers of Jesus are by far and away more Gentiles than Jews, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that God including the Gentiles in His people and promises is a huge shock to all parties concerned and plays a dominant theme in many Pauline writings.

Because of these powerful, existing perceptions, we can easily read these things backward into the whole of the gospels and assume that Jesus’ mission has always meant at all times to be directed at all mankind.

But is this really the picture Matthew has painted for us?

Right from the outset of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph and says of Mary:

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NRSV)

At the stage in history Matthew 1 is describing, “his people” means Israel.  You could possibly argue it down to “faithful Israel,” but it would make no sense to argue it up to “all mankind” or “all who will become followers of Christ in the future, Jew or Gentile.”  While theologically we might refer to all Christ followers as “Jesus’ people” these days, it would be hugely anachronistic to read that back into Matthew 1.  That would be like saying everywhere the Old Testament says “Israel” it actually means both Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus because that’s how Paul and Peter will later use the term.

Joseph would certainly have understood this as Israel as would any of Matthew’s readers.

This is carried into Matthew 2, where the magi show up looking for “he who was born king of the Jews,” and the priests tell Herod Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, quoting Micah 5 and telling him that the Messiah has come “to shepherd my people Israel.”

The phrase Jesus uses here about the lost sheep of Israel is actually one he’s used before:

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.”

Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

It is true Matthew gives us an occasional example of a Gentile showing faith.  For instance, the Roman centurion:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

Matthew 8:5-13 (NRSV)

But this does not mark the inclusion of Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry.  This event actually happens before Jesus tells his disciples not to proclaim the kingdom to Gentiles.  The reason this story stands out is that it’s an exception.  Jesus uses it as an indictment against Israel.  The point of the story isn’t, “Now I will begin to liberate the Gentiles,” the point is, “Even this heathen has more faith than you guys do.”

It’s also noteworthy that Jesus is amazed at this.  He’s shocked.  He’s surprised.  He did not see this coming.  If Jesus can be surprised by the faith of a centurion, then he can also be won over by the persistence of a Gentile woman.  Maybe it seems a little crass to you that someone could actually coax a result from Jesus from constant pleading, but in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable that God is like this when He delivers justice to His people who continually cry out, so Jesus’ listeners should be encouraged to keep praying and not give up:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)

So What’s the Point Then?

Like the centurion story, this story is meant to be exceptional.  This woman disrupts the pattern, and she disrupts the pattern by displaying great faith.

This story is immediately followed by Jesus doing great healing works among “the crowds” who “glorify the God of Israel,” but none of them are singled out.  This woman is, because she’s exceptional.

And because she is a Gentile, she stands in contrast to an Israel that has largely given up and does not have faith that Jesus will deliver them.  In contrast to an Israel that has stopped praying and lost heart, this woman follows Jesus, begging him incessantly for deliverance for her daughter.  She truly believes Jesus is her only hope, and she will not let him go.

Others in Israel will pass Jesus by without giving him a second glance.  Still others will try to silence him.  But for this nameless Gentile woman, Jesus is all she has to turn to, and she will not be dissuaded by either silence or opposition.  Even when Jesus himself tells her why he won’t do it, she won’t leave him alone.  She counters his argument, and Jesus gives in to her faithful persistence.  Many in Israel will not, but this Gentile woman will.

And this calls to mind the teaching Jesus gave to his disciples when the centurion asked for Jesus’ help:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 8:11-12 (NRSV)

Like I said, there’s not really an argument against reading our passage as a sort of drama or mockery that Jesus is intentionally using to show that the views he’s pretending to espouse are false.

But at the same time, I don’t think there’s a good reason to need to explain away tensions in this passage.  I think this passage as written is actually very consistent with the narrative Matthew is laying out before us – one of a Jewish Jesus who has come to save the lost sheep of Israel.

But, oh, along the way, we see powerful examples of faith that even Israel cannot deliver – examples that instruct her and convict her and call her to like faithfulness.  And these seeds of faith will grow into a mighty tree, for the same Jesus that, today, is focused on Israel, is the same Jesus who will unleash his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all the nations, bringing Israel’s hopes for the future to their climax – a new world under the Messiah where faithful Israel has led the way.

Consider This

  1. Is it troubling to think of Jesus focusing first on Israel then bringing in the Gentiles?  Are there other passages of Scripture that indicate that God plans to deal with Israel first, then bring in the rest of the nations?
  2. Is it troubling to think of Jesus as a man shaped by his religion, his culture, and his time in history?  Why or why not?  What does it mean for Jesus to be completely, fully human?

What Defiles: Matthew 15:10-20

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Matthew 15:10-20 (NRSV)

Right before this passage, some pharisees had criticized Jesus and his disciples because they did not wash their hands before eating.  This was a tradition with a great degree of weight behind it.

Jesus points out the hypocrisy of this criticism by demonstrating at least one case where the same people criticizing him used these traditions as a way to escape their obligations as God’s Law defined them – specifically, the obligation to care for your parents.  This is an example of a very common theme in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus’ opponents will go to amazing lengths to avoid violating the letter of the Law, but they have no qualms about circumventing love.  They will not tend to the sick lest they break the Sabbath.  They will pledge their money to the Temple while their own parents go uncared for.  They will make a great display of their donations to the Temple while the poor in Israel languish.

This is the very scenario under which the nation of Israel came under judgement and what brought her to exile in the first place.  She would not listen to her prophets and did not love God with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength, and she did not love her neighbor as herself, and in this way she became a sister to Sodom.  This is the very scenario Jesus is confronting and the very situation he hopes to turn around.

As we’ve noted before, this is not some abstract clash over legalism or tradition versus Scripture.  This is a clash over the fact that the Law – something that in Jesus’ mind is supposed to be an expression of love – is actually being used to preserve power, wealth, and comfort and build prestige, fame, and ego at the expense of the welfare of others, especially the weak and hurting.  The problem is not that people want to observe the Law; the problem is that behavior that is being framed as technical obedience to God is being used to withhold sacrificial love from the people who need it most.  Thank goodness we don’t have this problem, today!

(That was sarcasm.)

Here, Jesus turns his attention to the logic of the tradition, itself, and may have even challenged the logic of the Law itself as pertains to diet.

The whole point of the tradition of washing hands before eating was about ritual uncleanness.  We know, today, that there are health benefits from washing one’s hands before eating, but that’s not where the Jewish tradition came from.  Prior to knowledge about germs and their relationship to sickness or the health issues around various meats, the Law forbade the consumption of or even contact with substances, animals, and even people that were considered unclean.

These laws were primarily symbolic in nature.  There’s nothing particularly immoral about touching a corpse, for example, but Israel was meant to be a holy nation, distinct from the corrupt world around her, and her people were meant to keep themselves holy.  These laws along with others were meant to put this principle into very tangible and visible forms, not unlike how the Lord’s Supper is a ritual that puts the presence of Jesus among us and the spiritual bonds we share with one another into visible and tangible form.

Of course, some contact with unclean materials is inevitable, and the Law made provision for this: how long were you considered unclean and how could you purify yourself?  “Uncleanness management” is not a small topic in the Law.

At the same time, as detailed as the Law might be in some respects, it’s very general in others, and it was up to the people to figure out what that Law might look like in their context.  Thus, the tradition of washing hands (along with many others) was born.

We need to keep in mind that the situation Jesus is speaking into is one where the very teachers of the Law were using the Law as a means to avoid the very greatest commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.  We may be making Jesus paint with too broad of a brush if we think of this passage as a dispassionate discourse about the pointlessness of law-keeping or the worthlessness of traditions.  It is highly unlikely Jesus thought either of those things.

But the external, technical observance of the Law as a means of protecting selfishness and power is precisely the opposite of what the laws intend, at least the way Jesus reads them.  The Law is supposed to be subservient to the tasks of loving God and neighbor; it’s supposed to guide you in the ways of doing those things, not a means of avoiding those very things.

It is this background that fuels Jesus’ quip that it isn’t what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean, but rather what comes out of their mouth.  In other words, it is the things that are inside a person that makes them unclean.  You can outwardly observe the laws about food, contact, etc. all you like, but you can’t get away from what drives you on the inside.  This has the net effect of Jesus declaring the Pharisees to be unclean while he and his own disciples are clean, despite violating the tradition of washing hands.

Understandably, this is offensive to the Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples tell him so.  This is probably because Jesus doesn’t really seem to care if he offended them or not.  We have to keep in mind that, even though there are Pharisees in the gospels who are portrayed as the bad guys, this is not the role they had in the eyes of the common Israelite.  They were the teachers of the Law who were zealous about Law keeping.  They were the ones who explained to you what obedience looked like.  They were the ones preaching convicting sermons.  They were the ones calling out all the sins of the surrounding culture.  They were the ones explaining that there was an earthquake because God was upset with homosexuality or paganism or eating bacon and the solution to all of this was to repent and follow the Law harder.

Like any such group of people, some of them were hypocrites secretly practicing the sins they decried in others, some were using their position to their own prosperity and advantage, and some were genuinely distressed over the condition of Israel and were just doing what they thought was best.  We don’t hear a lot from that third group of people in Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus, unlike his disciples, is not very concerned for the good opinion of the Pharisees.  He compares them to plants that will be uprooted, which is apocalyptic imagery that comes from the Old Testament.  Faithful Israel is a tree planted by God that will never be uprooted, but the oppressors around her are like trees that will be cut down.  The faithful are like rich wheat that God will gather to Himself, but the wicked are like chaff that will be blown away or weeds that will be consumed in fire.  When Jesus looks at this particular group of Pharisees, he sees a group that God will remove one way or another.

This may seem sort of dark to us.  Rather un-Jesuslike, perhaps.  But I think we need to keep in mind two things.  One is that none of these people are outside the bounds of repentance.  Any of these Pharisees are invited to follow the way of Jesus in faith, pursuing faithfulness out of love for God and His people, and living a life of self-sacrificial love – teaching the people in gentleness and care, forgiving those who are sinning, helping those who are struggling, caring for the sick and the poor, pouring their lives out as leaders for the good of the people.  Every encounter with Jesus or news of Jesus is a chance to respond to what God is doing in faith and put down the lives they have built for themselves to embrace a new life in the coming kingdom.

But the second thing is to realize that this removal, this judgement if you will, is not a vindictive God punishing sinful mortals, but a God who loves His people and wants to liberate them.  This oppression of poor and weak Israelites at the hands of their leaders has gone on for centuries, and God has sent prophet after prophet to warn them, followed by the calamities the covenant of the Law had in its terms, and still they will not change course.  In what sense could we say God loved Israel if He never acted to set her free?  It is clear that His obvious preference would be for these leaders to turn things around, but after generations of intractability, it doesn’t look like He’s going to get that.

And so, Jesus is not rubbing his hands in delight at the destruction of the wicked but is stating a regrettable fact: God will have to pluck up these plants.  They are the leaders of a blind Israel but they are just as blind themselves, and this is how Israel has ended up in her predicament.  Her leaders steered her in all the wrong directions.  Jesus is not making this statement up on the fly, either, as the “blind leader of the blind” was a proverb from the Roman poet Horace.

Peter, a common Israelite fisherman, is a little lost with all this talk of plants being uprooted and allusions to Roman poets, and he asks Jesus what all this means.  Perhaps he has no idea at all.  Perhaps he begins to grasp that Jesus might be describing an upcoming judgement on the Pharisees or even a possible insurrection.  He might even be getting a little excited about it.  But whether he’s totally lost or is beginning to suspect something, he wants Jesus to spell it out for him.

Jesus returns to the matter at hand, explaining clearly that it is the evil within a person’s heart that makes them unclean, not what they eat.  Food simply passes through a person temporarily, but their heart is where evil dwells.

In Mark’s version, the author makes the parenthetical conclusion, “Thus, he declared all foods clean.”  Matthew’s gospel does not see fit to make this statement, possibly because Matthew is very concerned about persuading a Jewish audience to believe in Jesus.  Matthew, you may recall, also tones down Jesus’ parable about the wine skins in comparison to Mark’s gospel.

Regardless of whether or not this might be a theological implication of what Jesus is saying, his point is not about the validity of the dietary laws in the Torah.  His point is that observing dietary laws does not make a person clean if their hearts are full of evil.

Our context is a little different in that we are not anticipating an immediate, eschatological overthrow of our religious power structure, nor do we have controversies over dietary laws.  Mostly.

But the principle of what is at stake here and how it works itself out practically is something we collectively and individually need to keep in mind.  It can be very easy to replace a Torah of love with a Torah of formal obedience and, by doing so, we become oppressors and teach others to become the same.

Jesus called his generation to a realignment.  Are you zealous for obedience?  Then listen to what God defines as obedience.  Everything we believe God has commanded us must be interpreted through the lens of love.  The acts that lead us to greater love for God and people in need, those are acts of true obedience.  The acts that lead us to a relationship with God based less on love or that show less love to the people around us, those are not obedient even if they conform to the letter.  We are misinterpreting and misapplying any commandment that removes our high calling to sacrificial love, especially for the people who need it most and “deserve” it the least.

Consider This

  1. By looking at how they lived their actual lives, how would you say Jesus’ opponents defined following God’s will?  How did Jesus define it?
  2. In what ways in your life and the life of the church has a desire for obedience led to showing less love or an avoidance of self-sacrifice?

Sunday Meditations: Dark Night of the Soul

If you are a Christian, or maybe even if you’re not, when you think about the things that need to be removed from your life, what kinds of things do you think of?

An initial answer to that question may be easy, as we think about various sins, shortcomings, and character defects we’d all be better off without.  Some of them are temporary struggles, some of them are ongoing struggles, and some of them are sublimated so deeply that they are simply habits of our mind, personalities, and behavior about which we do not and cannot make conscious choices.

And it is good to identify and give attention to these things.  Yes, there are dangers involved, not the least of which being a strong shame-based approach (individually or corporately) to dealing with these things, but I hope as I get older that I do not shy away from talking about sin or the need to rid ourselves of it.  My list of sins has changed some over time and as I’ve seen more of what happens in my own life and the lives of others, my severity hierarchy has been adjusted a time or two, but I hope my love for myself, individuals, and humanity in general does not erase the concept that we are beset by impulses, messages, and habits of the mind and body that take us along trajectories of alienation from ourselves, others, and God and ultimately our own destruction.

Identifying sins in ourselves and our spheres of influence is both difficult and uncomfortable and repenting of them even more so.  While I would not describe this process as easy, awareness of the situation certainly is.  Christians are almost hyper-aware of sin.  Sin and sin management tends to find its way to the center of our spiritual narrative.

But there is another layer that is more subtle.  In some ways, it is a sin.  In some ways, it’s the root of many (perhaps all) other sins, and that is idolatry – the valuation of something to a place that properly belongs to God.

Although the deliberate search for idols in our heart is less prevalent in Christian consciousness than sin, it’s still fairly widespread to an extent.

Idolatry appears in the Old Testament as Israel has contact with other cultures who make icons representing their deities.  The deity’s spirit was often thought to inhabit these vessels in some form, even though it seems very few people actually thought the icon was the deity (although this was a mockery YHWH’s prophets sometimes leveled at idolatry).  Israel’s God forbade making some kind of representation of Him to venerate as well as doing this for other gods.

When I was growing up, idolatry was most commonly brought into modern day in terms of following “false religions,” but this doesn’t really capture the essence of idolatry.  Idolatry is when you venerate something that is not God as though it is.

In Christian churches, it’s not uncommon to talk about idols such as money, celebrities, careers, or pleasures.  This is not wrong.  Anything in which we find a sense of safety and security, anything we trust, anything we define ourselves by, anything we are mortally afraid to lose – all these things can be idols and those things I just listed are some big ones.  Do I feel anxiety because I don’t have enough savings?  If some disaster happened to me such that I couldn’t keep going in my career and had to start over in something totally different, or maybe even no career at all, would I lose a sense of who I was?

If you really want to turn up the heat in an American congregation, you might start talking about the idols of nation or your spouse and children or your pastor.  This really starts getting people edgy because, depending on the church, the people may actually be encouraged to make idols out of these things.  And here we begin to enter an area of tension, because now we’re talking about things worth caring about, praying for, loving – maybe even things Jesus wants us to place at a very high level of importance – but how easily these things can demand our worship and command our deepest emotions.

This past year or two, I’ve come to realize how easy it is to make an idol out of the good things that come from God, Himself, but are not God Himself.

What are these things?

Things like feeling the comforting presence of God.  Things like doctrines and beliefs that define God.  Things like discernible spiritual growth.  Things like certainty.  Things like peace and safety.

The thing is, all those things and more can be seen as an end rather than a means to an end.  Do I love God or do I love what God does in my life?  Do I trust God or do I trust my understanding of Him?  Do I pursue God because of who He is and who I am or do I pursue Him so I don’t have to be afraid of dying?  Do I feel peace in my circumstances because I am abandoned to God or because of a handful of Bible verses that indicate that He’s in control of everything?

Yes, these things can be idols.  The things I believe about God.  The things I think I’ve figured out.  The feelings I get.  The changes in my life.

And, sadly, the only way to lose my attachment to those things and attach instead to the God behind them is often to lose them.

This is what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul – that period where it seems as though consolations of God are absent, but the longing is still there.

The dark night John of the Cross wrote of refers to indefinite periods of time, but I remember quite clearly a literal dark night almost a year ago where I was lying in my bed struggling heavily with doubt and anxiety and feelings of loss to the point where I thought it might be unbearable, and I cried out to God.  Being a Christian, I am used to prayer feeling a certain way.  Although sometimes it can seem kind of dry and rote and isn’t always some deep experience, I always have the sense that someone is listening.

But that night, there was nothing.  My bedroom felt like a cavern full of darkness, outside of which was only empty darkness that expanded out into infinity.  I felt like I was the only consciousness in my room or even anywhere.  I cried out to God in my need and, in return, felt utterly alone.

That night is sort of an extreme embodiment of that season in my life.  I felt like I was losing everything that had given me certainty as a Christian growing up and well into adulthood, and this cascaded into feelings of grief and anxiety about almost every aspect of life worth living.  I thought about my own death.  I thought about losing my spouse and my kids.  I felt like I had nothing to cling to that used to make me feel certain and safe in those times.  I felt like I felt once as a small child when I got onto a roller coaster that terrified me, but there was no way to get off because the train was rolling.

I wonder if that was how Jesus felt that night in Gethsemane, when he was so filled with stress and anxiety and prayed for hours, begging that the cup might pass from him if there were some other way.  Hours!  He never got some mystical feeling of peace or special word or revelation that ministered to him.  But, in the end, in the face of that vacuum of God’s presence, he pledged his trust.

It wasn’t until later that I would learn that I was being deprived of some of my idols and experiencing withdrawal.  All kinds of idols.  Ways I had idolized myself, my understanding, my expectations, and the benefits I had gotten out of my spirituality up to that point.  And when those things were taken away, the only thing left was God Himself and my decision to trust.

Before there was a Bible, before there were mystical experiences, before there were doctrines and theology, before there were miracles, before there were changed lives, God was and is.

Those things I felt absent from during the dark night – those things that made me feel close to God and confident in His presence and peaceful in dealing with life and peaceful when contemplating my death – those are not bad things, nor have they remained absent.  They are present in my life, again.  God may see fit to remove them from me again in my life, but I know that the outcome of those experiences will be deeper trust and greater love, not just for Him, but for myself for His sake and for all my fellow human beings.

From that standpoint, the dark night is far from being a period of deprivation.  The dark night is the active, obscure, presence of God doing His work.  We have been taught for so long that we feel separated from God because of sin that perhaps we miss the times when feeling separated from Him is actually a sign of His presence.  Perhaps we feel times of His presence with us as well as times of His absence from us because, in both, He is.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Psalm 139:7-12 (NRSV)

Traditions of the Elders: Matthew 15:1-9

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Matthew 15:1-9 (NRSV)

Today’s passage takes us into an area where most of our stereotypes about Pharisees come from as hypocritical legalists.  It’s good to note that not all Pharisees were this way, however the ones that oppose Jesus’ ministry in the gospels certainly have this tendency.  But as usual in Matthew, there’s a bigger picture behind this little incident, and the quote from Isaiah gives us the clue.

First, let’s start with the offense.

In our passage, Jesus and his disciples are being confronted over a tradition that comes from the Talmud – you’re supposed to wash your hands before eating any meal that has bread.  Some scholars believe this tradition was instituted so the people would remember the priestly washing rituals that had to be performed before accepting certain kinds of offerings.

This tradition was held in very high esteem, as Sotah 4b tells us:

R. ‘Awira expounded sometimes in the name of R. Ammi and at other times in the name of R. Assi: Whoever eats bread without previously washing the hands is as though he had intercourse with a harlot; as it is said, For on account of a harlot, to a loaf of bread.

and later

R. Zerika said in the name of R. Eleazar: Whoever makes light of washing the hands [before and after a meal] will be uprooted from the world.

There is precedent for bread being treated as unclean food, as we read in Ezekiel 4:12-13 where the bread is baked over human dung.  So it was with the the tradition of washing hands before eating meals with bread.  As Sotah 4b states:

R. Abbahu says: Whoever eats bread without first wiping his hands is as though he eats unclean food; as it is stated: And the Lord said: Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean.

So, this was a traditional practice, not one that is actually found commanded in the Law, but you can see how highly esteemed this tradition was among the rabbis.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with this.  The concern behind this tradition is the symbolic holiness of Israel to God, and this is the same concern behind a rather large chunk of the Torah laws.  Jesus does not criticize having traditions or declare this tradition as bad, although he will later criticize some of the foundational ideas behind it.

What sets Jesus off is that the very religious leaders and teachers who are criticizing him for not following this man-made tradition are themselves in hypocritical violation of God’s actual Torah for His people.

For the past several centuries of Israel’s history, the corruption of her leadership had led the nation into unfaithfulness.  God sent prophet after prophet to warn Israel about this and the curses that would fall on her because of the covenant she made to be God’s people and be faithful to Him.  Always the hope of repentance and restoration was held out.

But this was not to be, as Israel did not listen to her prophets and often persecuted them and even put them to death.  Instead of those being opportunities to turn things around, they were opportunities for the nation to plug up their ears and blind their eyes that they might not respond to the warnings in faith.

It is this dynamic that brought Israel through exile from their land, the dominion of several pagan empires, the predations of Antiochus Epiphanes, and finally the oppression of the Roman Empire.

It would be a mistake to think of every individual in Israel during this time as incurably sinful.  Instead, we are to see them as a nation being steered by their leaders, and it is the corruption of their kings, teachers, priests, etc. that come into the crosshairs of the prophetic critiques.  Yes, this unfaithfulness does characterize the people in general, but it’s the leadership that takes them there.

This is why Jesus’ words to your common Israelite are generally gentle and kind, but his clashes with religious leaders or the rich and powerful tend to have a lot of animosity behind them.  Those in power in Israel should be doing what Jesus is doing – calling the nation to repentance and pursuing new lives of faithfulness to God so that they might be restored and saved through the judgement that is to come (or perhaps even avert it altogether).

It is those with authority in Israel who should be sacrificially giving of themselves, seeing that the sick and the poor are cared for, seeing that those who are spiritually struggling are made whole, seeing that neighbors are treating each other justly in love, and seeing that their people’s hearts are captured with the love of God.

But they have not done this.  Instead, they have allied themselves with the power structure of that age.  They have used their position to get money, comfort, and fame for themselves even at the expense of their own people.  And they have been at this for a very long time.

During this time, Israel’s religious leaders continued to observe certain measures of the Law (usually the religious ones – the ones that gave them their authority), even as they ignored important parts of the Law like justice and mercy, caring for the poor, the widow, the oppressed, and the foreigner.  These are all longstanding items in prophetic indictments against Israel’s leadership.

Here’s a small sampling:

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
    What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
    I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
    and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But at Adam they transgressed the covenant;
    there they dealt faithlessly with me.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    tracked with blood.
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.
In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
    Ephraim’s whoredom is there, Israel is defiled.

Hosea 6:4-10 (NRSV)

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)

Know, then, that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and well-being, which I gave him; this called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.

Malachi 2:4-9 (NRSV)

And we could go on and on.  Most of the prophetic writings are full of stuff like this.  If they aren’t going after Israel’s enemies, they’re going after Israel herself.  It is clear that the unfaithfulness of the leadership has led the nation as a whole astray and, as such, she is subject to the curse of the Law, even though she may be technically observing portions of it.

In this passage, Jesus points to a practice where religious officials, instead of using their wealth to support their parents, offer it “to God” instead.  This sounds very pious, right?  Well, that’s exactly the problem.

Jesus points out that what God wants in the Law is for Israelites to honor, respect, and care for their parents.  That’s what He asked for.  The Law serves love, here.  In this case, these aren’t just Israelites in general, but your own parents.

Here, the Pharisees and scribes escape this obligation by declaring their money to be “corban” (sacrifice) – in other words, the money was donated as a consecrated offering given to the Temple for its ornamentation or operations.  Basically, this is like the money you give in your church offering with more of an official connotation.  Money given as corban was like a vow or a pledge.  That money was to be used for the Temple and could not be used for anything else.

As far as I know, there is no specific rabbinical writing that spells out that you can take the support you normally would have given to your parents and consecrate it for the Temple, thereby removing your obligation to provide for them.  Corban is talked about both in the Talmud and the Mishnah particularly underscoring how binding that vow is when you declare something as corban, and I found one passage in the Mishnah that describes the situation where someone may declare their financial benefit as corban.

So, this practice Jesus is criticizing seems to have sprung up.  Through a complex path of systematic theology, the religious teachers of his day were holding that you could take money you would have normally used to support your parents and declare it to be for the Temple’s special use, instead.  And this was honoring to God.

It doesn’t take much imagination or cynicism to figure out what interest “Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem” would have had in this practice.  Perhaps it enabled a public show of piety by giving lots of money to the Temple.  The odds are also pretty good that these exact people benefitted financially from money given to the Temple.

Whether the Pharisees do this to promote the public image of themselves as pious and faithful, or whether they do it to line their own pocketbook, the facet of the problem Jesus brings into focus is that they have neglected something the Law requires – for them to care for their parents who can no longer care for themselves.

By saying this, Jesus does what he has done countless times in Matthew.  He reveals the religious leaders of the day to be lovers of their own selves and not at all interested in the welfare of the people under their charge, while he and his disciples are working their butts off and sleeping in fields healing the sick and feeding the hungry.

In this case, Jesus’ accusers try to demonstrate his lack of faithfulness by pointing out a violation of a tradition, but Jesus shows how they have used a tradition to violate the actual Law of God – specifically, laws that would require them to give sacrificially for the care of Israel.  It is a massive failure to keep the covenant that has plagued Israel’s leadership for centuries, has led to their current state of affairs, and keeps them trapped in their current state of affairs.

It is here that Jesus quotes Isaiah 29.

Scholars are in agreement that, when you see a quotation of the Old Testament in the New, that the quotation is meant to imply the surrounding context.  In other words, those quotes entail the much larger section they came from.

Isaiah 28, interestingly enough, is about judgement coming to Israel’s leadership.  They have made themselves prosperous and drunk and they teach “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”

It is this chapter that contains the well known passage:

Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers
    who rule this people in Jerusalem.
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
    it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
    a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
    “One who trusts will not panic.”

Isaiah 28:14-16 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

I doubt this was lost on the Pharisees.

Isaiah 29, then, begins to describe a siege against Jerusalem as a result of what these leaders were doing, and the passage Jesus quotes is right in the middle of it, offering the reasons why Jerusalem is being destroyed.

I mean, how on the nose does this need to get?

Jesus is appropriating these observations about Israel for his own day.  In Jesus’ own day, the leadership is doing what Isaiah described – right that very second in fact, and in Jesus’ own day, a destruction of Jerusalem is coming in response.  This is not just an occasion to point out the hypocrisy of Jesus’ opponents, it is a warning of a coming destruction.

But the end of Isaiah 29 tells us what is to be hoped for when the smoke clears:

 

Shall not Lebanon in a very little while
    become a fruitful field,
    and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest?
On that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant shall be no more,
    and the scoffer shall cease to be;
    all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
    who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
    and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.

Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:

No longer shall Jacob be ashamed,
    no longer shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
    the work of my hands, in his midst,
    they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
    and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who grumble will accept instruction.

Isaiah 29:17-24 (NRSV)

Consider This

  1. What are some instances you’ve seen in out in the world or even in your own life where a particular practice or interpretation of “what God wants” seems to actually obscure or interfere with what God has revealed He wants, especially in Jesus?
  2. How much of modern Christian expression would you classify as “tradition?”  Given that traditions are not intrinsically bad, which traditions do you think keep us pointed in the right direction, and which ones have perhaps steered us wrong?

The Hem of His Garment: Matthew 14:34-36

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Matthew 14:34-36 (NRSV)

Kinneret (Gennesaret) was a prominent city going all the way back to the Old Testament stories of Israel’s flight from Egypt.  It was nearby springs, fertile lands, and rich soil.  It has been the site of several archaeological excavations that are ongoing to this day.

There is not much about this little episode that is different than other “healing the crowds” stories that we have found in Matthew.  This story does not mention casting out demons, but in Matthew’s gospel, healing the sick and driving out evil spirits are commonly found together and, I would argue, roughly the same phenomenon as seen through first century eyes.

As with the other stories, our attention is drawn to the fact that Jesus is restoring Israel.  The healing miracles are signs that the kingdom of God has come, Israel’s sins are being forgiven, and she is being reclaimed by God and restored to an esteemed state.  This is being done through Jesus.

We need to keep this in mind because the point of a miracle story is never to emphasize the miracle.  We don’t get these stories simply to show that Jesus was powerful or cool or different in some unusual way.  The miracles are signposts, and when we see a miracle story in the gospels, we should ask, “What does this miracle tell us?”

In this case, the healings tell us that Jesus is about the work of overturning Israel’s curse and restoring her fortunes, because the great day of salvation is at hand for Israel.

It’s hard not to think of Isaiah 35, which is a passage Jesus cited in response to John the Baptist when John began to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah:

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

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.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35:3-6 (NRSV)

 

After the destruction of Edom in Isaiah, God will have rescued His people and will return them to their land, reborn to begin being what Israel was always meant to be – a holy people bound faithfully to her God and enjoying all the benefits of that.

This is the work that Jesus is doing, and the healing miracles show us this.  They are an indicator of mission as well as timing.

This is reinforced somewhat by the crowd asking to touch the fringe of Jesus’ garment to be healed.  The fringe Jesus was wearing is an article that is required by the Torah:

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

Numbers 15:37-41 (NRSV)

The fringe is a reminder of the covenant.  It’s like a spouse wearing a wedding ring.  In this case, the tassels are a sign and a reminder to Israel that she is to follow God’s commandments and is set apart especially for Him.  After all, he is the God who rescued her from Egypt.

In Jesus’ day, Israel is suffering from the curse of the Law.  As a nation in history, she had been unfaithful to those commandments.  She was not holy to her God, but rather behaved just as all the other nations did, put her trust in them, and assimilated into their religions, ethics, and values.

One may look at people grasping at Jesus’ fringes to be healed and see here a picture of the faithfulness of Jesus bringing healing and restoration to a sinful Israel.  This is certainly appropriate.  While this is not a picture of imputed righteousness or any particular systematic theology of justification, we will see that Jesus’ faithfulness unto death is the catalyst that moves the hand and heart of God to forgive and save His people.

But it isn’t simply a picture of people passively receiving Jesus’ benefits.  They believe in what God is doing in Jesus, and because they believe, they reach out and touch and grasp.

You see, part of restoring Israel is calling her to return to faithfulness to her God and being a special, unique people before Him, distinct from the corrupt, money-hungry, accommodationist power structure of the Temple and the pagan Roman Empire ruling by might and wealth, living out their wildest excesses.

This is what it meant for John the Baptist to call people to repent and be baptized.  They were to turn away from their present lives – die to them – to be cleansed and risen to a new life – a life of faithfulness that produced the fruits of repentance.  This is what Jesus called them to, as well.

Repentance is not primarily a feeling, although it involves your feelings.  Repentance is not primarily praying for forgiveness or confessing your sins to someone, although that may be part of it.  Repentance is turning aside from one way of life to embrace a new one.  It is about leaving an old world for a new.  It is about dying to the values, practices, goals, and machinations of the world’s powers and living unto God, taking upon yourself a new calling with new values and practices and hopes for the future.  It is about stopping certain behaviors that do not match who you are and embracing new ones that do.

Jesus does not just provide a path for Israel out of her misery; he leads her on to be what she was always meant to be.  He dusts off the gem that she is and shows her that she has dignity and worth and is God’s own treasured possession, and he calls her to be that very thing.

Consider This

  1. What do the Scriptures tell us about the church (Jew and Gentile)?  What does God think of her and what has He done for her?  Who is she supposed to be in the world?
  2. There may be sins that you are sorry for and have asked forgiveness for.  Have you considered how you might make things right?  Repair damage you may have caused?  Have you thought about what new, different practices you could pursue?

Walking on Water: Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)

There are a lot of images coming together in this little story.  I won’t do any of the connections justice because there are so many possible ones, so I encourage you to look more into them and meditate on them for yourself.  I actually encourage you to do that with any of my devotions, but perhaps especially this one.  The themes are very large.

Water in general and the sea in specific play a big role in Old Testament songs and stories, and I believe Matthew may be drawing from several.

As most commentaries will point out, the sea is a symbol of untamed chaos.  At creation, everything was chaotic waters.  We sometimes talk about creation out of nothing, but the Genesis 1 narrative actually presents us with God hovering over the surface of formless waters.

Apart from the capricious nature of what could happen to you in the ancient world while you were out at sea, the sea was believed to be home to giant serpents that were cast as embodiments of the sea, itself.

For example, in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Baal does battle with Yam, a primordial sea dragon.  After defeating her, the cosmos is restored to pristine harmony and Baal builds himself a house in six days.  These themes undoubtedly show up in Genesis 1, however El does not battle with Yam, El commands Yam and Yam obeys.  El does not only build His house but an entire cosmos in six days.

But the point is that the waters represent that untamed, dangerous dark chaos that God Himself must put to rights.  This image is one of the reasons why John does not see a sea in the new heavens and earth.

By showing Jesus walking on the water, we see that Jesus has control over these primordial dark, chaotic forces similar to his ability to cast out demons.  One particular parallel of interest comes from Psalm 74:13-14:

You divided the sea by your might;
    you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
    you gave him as food for the people.

Psalm 74:13-14 (NRSV)

This is an interesting image considering Jesus has just finished feeding the 5000 with bread and fish.

It also ties in with the preceding story that Jesus calls Peter out to walk on the water with him and, at least initially, Peter does.  This shows that, by the power and authority of Jesus, his disciples also have power and authority over these dark forces.  Like the earlier story where Jesus’ disciples feed the 5000, here we have a disciple walking on the water with him, once again showing that Jesus’ power and ministry is being handed to the disciples.  Peter, who walks on the water with Jesus, is also the disciple that Jesus commands to feed his sheep.

We do, however, see Peter faltering because his faith fails when he looks at the stormy sea around him.  This is perhaps a foreshadowing of Peter’s denial that Matthew will tell us about in chapter 26.

To tie all this together, this story shows us a Jesus who wields God’s power and authority displaying sovereign control over even the most elemental forces that threaten his people.  He can walk on the water and command the wind.  Demons and corrupt Temple officials and pagan empires are nothing before this King.  And what’s more, he delegates this to his disciples.

There are many, many references to God commanding storms and waters in the Psalms.  If you’re looking for something to do in your own Bible study, you might look them all up.  One particularly famous one that gets brought up with regard to this passage is Psalm 107:

Some went down to the sea in ships,
    doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
    his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
    which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
    their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
    and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.

Psalm 107:23-30 (NRSV)

Here, God causes the storm to arrive, and when this causes some of His redeemed to panic, He calms the storm for them.  This is not really that different than the picture in our passage, today, although Jesus did not cause the storm that we know of.

This Psalm ends with:

When they are diminished and brought low
    through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
he pours contempt on princes
    and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
but he raises up the needy out of distress,
    and makes their families like flocks.
The upright see it and are glad;
    and all wickedness stops its mouth.
Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
    and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 107:39-43 (NRSV)

This has the overtones of Jesus having compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd, but this is the grand finale of a Psalm that celebrates the many ways God has helped His redeemed: bringing down the empires that oppress His people.

This, too, accurately captures some of Jesus’ mission as Matthew sees it.

The last Psalm I want to look at is Psalm 77.  In this Psalm, the author is crying out because it seems as though God will never be favorable again to Israel.  He wonders if God will ever turn His love toward her again and grieves that God’s fundamental disposition toward Israel has been changed forever.

But, then, the Psalmist reflects on how God has treated Israel in the past and reflects that God has always acted to save His people in great ways for the sake of His own holiness and reputation.  The Psalm ends with this example:

When the waters saw you, O God,
    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
    the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
    the skies thundered;
    your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
    your lightnings lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
    your path, through the mighty waters;
    yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Psalm 77:16-20 (NRSV)

This, too, captures Jesus’ mission as Israel suffers under foreign dominion.  The faithful of Israel share the Psalmist’s despair.  God has let this go on for a long, long time.  Is He done with them?  Has He forgotten them?  Have her sins finally turned Him away for the last time?

In answer to this question, the Psalmist gives us the story of God’s dominion over the seas and how He led his people “like a flock” through it.  Though God Himself did not leave footprints, he led the people with Moses and Aaron.

When we looked at Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, we noticed that Jesus miraculously feeding the people was a Moses miracle.  Jesus the new shepherd Moses was leading the flock of Israel through the wilderness and providing food for them, miraculously.  This is an act he does through his disciples.

Here, we see another parallel.  God fed Israel in the wilderness through the shepherd Moses.  God fed Israel in the wilderness through the shepherd Jesus.  God saved Israel through the stormy sea through the shepherd Moses.  God saved Israel through the stormy sea through the shepherd Jesus.  And in both stories, Jesus passes this to his disciples.

I don’t know if Matthew intended all of these things.  Maybe he intended to call to mind one of them, some of them, or all them and some passages I didn’t even mention (seriously, tons of Psalms talk about this).

But through all these possibilities, we see a central overlap that keeps coming up.  Jesus has God’s own dominion over the forces that threaten His people, Jesus will use it to save them, and Jesus will pass this power and responsibility on to his disciples.

Consider This

  1. The very next story in Matthew is Jesus healing large numbers of sick people in an important Israelite town.  What do you think the connection might be to the themes in this story?
  2. Has there been a time in your life when either you or someone else seemed, through their prayers, to affect circumstances that should have been out of anyone’s control?

Feeding the Sheep: Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)

Jesus has just been informed that John the Baptist has been executed by Herod.  Understandably, he wants to be alone and gets in a boat and heads off to some deserted location.

Part of this may simply be the grief and loneliness anyone would feel at the death of a friend and a mentor.  I had an English teacher in high school who had a big impact on me, and when I heard that he had died, it certainly affected me, even though we had not spoken in years.  Jesus is not a stoic.  When his friends die, he cries, as he did when Lazarus died.

Part of this is also what John’s death means.  It means Jesus’ own execution can’t be far behind.  Jesus has been proclaiming John’s message for some time and, because of Jesus’ miracles, he has gained a following and a notoriety that John did not.  Jesus already has powerful people upset with him, and we know that Jesus has already warned his disciples that these powers are coming for him and will come for them as well.

We also know Jesus has taken some pains to keep the opposition from building too quickly too soon.  In his early career, when he does miracles, he asks people not to tell anyone.  He wants to keep the heat low.  It’s possible that Jesus’ retreat on a boat here may be more than just his desire for solitude; it may be to get out of the public eye for a little while.

John’s execution is an escalation.  Now, these forces are not just debating with him or trying to turn the crowds against him.  Now blood is being spilled.  Jesus is next on the block, and he knows his disciples will follow not long after.

But just as it was many times in the past when Jesus tried to lay low, this plan fails.  People somehow figure out where he must be going, and they all race over there so that, when Jesus finally rows the boat ashore (hallelujah), the crowd is waiting for him.

If it were me, this is where I would mutter, “You’ve gotta be f’in kidding me.”  Jesus probably handled the situation more gracefully than that, but I can only imagine what his initial reaction must have been as he heads out on a boat to get away from everyone for a while, only to find they are waiting for him at his destination.  He must have seen them while he was still a little ways out, right?  “Wait, is that… they… oh no.”

I think it says a lot about Jesus that he didn’t start rowing in the other direction.

No, Jesus sees them and has compassion on them.  This is not the first time Matthew has used this phrase.  In fact, it shows up soon after Jesus has told the blind men he healed to keep it quiet.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9:35-36 (NRSV)

I’ve already discussed this passage, so I won’t repeat it all here.  It’s important to today’s passage, though, to keep in mind that this language is Old Testament imagery that calls to mind a lost and forsaken Israel who has been oppressed by her own leaders such that God Himself is going to punish her leaders and reclaim the people for His own, leading them Himself.

Jesus goes about healing their sick, which is a sign of their deliverance, and the hour grows late and the people need food.  The disciples want to send everyone home so they’ll have time to eat, but Jesus has them all stay in that deserted place so that he can feed them, miraculously.

Does that make you think of anything else?  The scattered Israelites in a deserted place being fed miraculously?

The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” 

Exodus 16:31-32 (NRSV)

By the miraculous power of God, Moses feeds Israel in the wilderness.  Lest we think this is just a conceit of Old Testament lovin’ Matthew, this story appears in all four Gospels, including the weird one (John).

This miracle is a sign pointing to Jesus as the deliverer who will rescue Israel from her bondage and lead her safely through the intervening wilderness, just as Moses had done ages before.

But there is a twist, here.  Did you notice it?  It’s very subtle.

Jesus does not actually feed the five thousand.  He gives the food to his disciples, and they do it.  When the people are done, the disciples also collect all the leftovers, and they collect twelve baskets – a basket for each disciple.

The need to have twelve disciples as representatives of Israel is known to the New Testament and to the disciples themselves, so much so that, when they lose Judas, they quickly need to get a twelfth disciple, again.  There has to be twelve, faithful disciples because there are twelve tribes of Israel.  This is made explicit in the image of the new Jerusalem in John’s Apocalypse, where the gates of the city bear the names of the twelve tribes and the foundations bear the names of the twelve apostles.

But what is even more interesting to me than the numerical symbolism is the act itself.  Jesus has the disciples feed Israel.

What I think we may be seeing here, right on the heels of John’s execution, is Jesus transitioning his position to his disciples.  Jesus knows his days are numbered, and it is time for his disciples to start gathering and caring for the lost of Israel in Jesus’ name.

Back in Matthew 9 when Jesus had compassion on the crowds, he lamented that he had so little help.  He wanted God to send him more helpers and, immediately after that, he sent the disciples out to cast out demons and heal the sick – the very acts Jesus was doing among Israel.

Here, Jesus blesses the food and gives it to the disciples, but the food miraculously multiplies as they hand it out and gather it back up.  While Jesus is certainly behind this miracle, the disciples actually perform it.  The headings in your Bibles should read, “The Disciples Feed the Five Thousand.”

It is hard to avoid thinking of the story in John’s Gospel when the risen Jesus is talking to Peter and tells him that, if he loves Jesus, he should feed Jesus’ sheep.  Also in John’s Gospel is the theological version of this:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

John 14:10-12 (NRSV)

And in the book of Acts, this is what we see portrayed.

It is the disciples who begin to explain present events and how they fulfill events in the Old Testament.  It is the disciples who carry the gospel to the nations and see many come to faith, both Jew and Gentile.  It is the disciples who heal the sick, cast out spirits, and even raise the dead.  The fact that they can do these things, they say, proves that Jesus is alive and the last days have come.

Along with these things, it is also the disciples who organize the believers into communities that serve one another.  It is the disciples who make sure that wealthier congregations send money to poorer congregations.  It is the disciples who make sure that factions, divisions, status differences, etc. do not exist in these communities.  It is the disciples who send people to visit the sick and those in prison.  It is the disciples who urge their people to care for widows and orphans.  In many ways that Jesus could not during his brief but powerful ministry, the disciples care for his sheep in their day to day needs and struggles.

It is also the disciples who appoint elders to care for these congregations.  Notice how Peter closes the loop:

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. 

1 Peter 5:1-4 (NRSV)

Jesus is the Great Shepherd of God’s flock.  He raised up the disciples to be shepherds after him.  They raised up elders to be shepherds after them.  And on this goes.

What we see in our passage, today, is a humble Jesus emptying himself and, in doing so, all his little lambs are fed.

Consider This

  1. How important to God is the care for the people of God?  Is it more important than evangelism?  Equally important?  A secondary priority?
  2. Is there room for “authority” in the church along the lines of those early church elders?  If not, what happened to that concept?  If so, what should that authority look like?  How should it be different from authority and power as the rest of the world defines and uses it?