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?
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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?

Welcome to Struggleville: Matthew 14:1-12

At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

Matthew 14:1-12 (NRSV)

The title for today’s devotion comes from the song of the same name by the Vigilantes of Love, which you can listen to, here:

(Here’s a link for you folks getting this post via email)

I have a funny story about seeing the Vigilantes of Love live if you run into me and care to hear it.

Anyway, the song is great for a number of reasons.  Lyrically, it captures the idea that the execution of John the Baptist is the beginning of a long line of believers who are persecuted in order to suppress the truth they proclaim, which is that the powers of the present age, mighty though they might be, are falling.  Those who would follow after Jesus’ Way are signing up for this.  This pattern continues today.

I could probably just leave this song as a devotional on this passage and be done with it, but since I like to hear myself talk, I’ll add a few things.

I’ve tried to make a big deal about John the Baptist in this series on Matthew, partially because my own tradition doesn’t make much of a big deal about him at all.  We make a big deal about Jesus and rightly so as he is the focus of the Gospel.  We make big, but not quite as big, deals about the apostles, or at least the ones we read about a lot.  But John the Baptist pretty much only gets mentioned in connection with Jesus’ baptism, and then we move past him.

This is unfortunate, because John is brought on the scene as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament prophets.

Malachi and Nehemiah have been silent for centuries by the time John the Baptist comes on the scene, although other writings are being produced during this time that are also testimonies to Israel’s experience with God.  Empires have come and gone.  The restoration and reclamation of Jerusalem was about as successful as a rocket that couldn’t reach escape velocity.  There is resignation and there is regret.  There are pockets of defiance.  But there is neither a Moses nor even a Jeremiah.

Into this scene comes John, who announces that the kingdom of God has come near!  The time has come, and John is here to prepare Israel for it!  It is time for Israel to be cleansed in baptism and repent and turn back to her God, for the day of her salvation is at hand!  But salvation is a double edged sword.  Israel cannot be liberated unless her oppressors are put down, and this will take the form of a terrible judgement against the rulers of Israel, herself.

And so we see that John is in the tradition of the prophets before him, announcing a coming judgement if Israel will not repent, but he is also different than the prophets before him in that that the restored kingdom of Israel the prophets longed for is finally here, and John is preparing them for the reign of the Messiah, himself.  John begins the task of finding the lost sheep of Israel and bringing them back to the Lord who is their Shepherd.

Jesus comes a long way to be baptized by John.  Jesus is greater than John, true, but he enters into John’s prophetic ministry.  Jesus carries this same message – the same warning, the same announcement of the kingdom – and has the same mission, which is to reclaim the lost of Israel for God.  Jesus can do this in ways John cannot, but John is the man who sets Jesus up for his ministry, prepares the people for him, and points him in the right direction.  Jesus looks and sounds so much like John the Baptist that, in our passage today, Herod assumes the stories he hears about Jesus are actually about John the Baptist who has been risen from the dead with power.

As Jesus’ ministry increases, he warns his would-be followers that this road will take them into persecution and suffering.  As if to prove the point, John the Baptist is captured and thrown into prison by Herod for denouncing Herod’s many evils.  We know one of these specifically was Herod taking his brother’s wife, but we do not know the rest.  Given the nature of John’s message, it’s probably fair to assume that Herod is being denounced as an oppressor of the very people he is supposed to be caring for.  “King of the Jews” indeed.  John believes another king deserves that title.

But being thrown into prison creates a problem for John.  His theology of the kingdom runs into the cold, hard reality of a Herodian cell.  This is supposed to be the advent of the kingdom of God.  The judgement was supposed to come.  Evil rulers of Israel were supposed to be toppled and the righteous exalted in a new age.

But none of that actually happened.

And so John begins to doubt.  We know he doubts that Jesus is the Messiah, but I imagine he began to doubt that God had even spoken to him at all.  He probably began to think very differently about how he’d spent his time the past few years.  Maybe there was someone in the next cell telling John that he was really too old to believe in an invisible friend in the sky who would solve all his problems.

We don’t have text for any of this as John’s psychological state isn’t really Matthew’s concern, but we know human nature, and John’s disillusionment must have been truly profound.  He had dedicated his life, reputation, and now his very survival on the idea that the kingdom of God had finally come and Jesus was the guy.  And now he was wasting away in a cell owned by the very powers who he had preached were about to fall.

In desperation or anger, he sends a messenger to Jesus asking if they should look for someone else to be their Messiah.  Jesus sends a message back, explaining to John that the restoration comes first, and then the coming judgement.

You might expect that Jesus might have been a little offended by this, or at the very least disappointed in John’s lack of faith in the same way Jesus was disappointed many times by the lack of faith of Israel as a whole and the disciples in specific.  But this is not the case.  Jesus has nothing but the highest praise for John the Baptist, and he makes the bold declaration that John the Baptist is the visitation of Elijah that was to come before the Messiah.

And in our passage, today, John the Baptist is dead.  He is executed at a party thrown by Herod – a corrupt ruler of Israel who was only “grieved” because he worried that the common people might rise against him for what he had done.

John who was both Jesus’ mentor and follower.  John who baptized Jesus into the coming kingdom and confessed it should have been the other way around.  John, whom Jesus held in higher esteem than any other man who had ever lived.  John was dead, now.

And John did not simply pass away waiting in hope for the kingdom he never saw.  The very kingdom that was supposed to be judged instead judged him.  He was put into a cell by Herod, left there to rot by Herod, led to a chopping block by Herod, and Herod cut his head off.  What did John think about the coming of the kingdom as he was led, bound, from his cell to be executed?  What were John’s thoughts of his life and his hopes and of Jesus and of God as that axe rose over his head?  Did he feel like all was lost?  Did he feel forsaken by God?  Did he feel as he lifted his eyes for the last time that he was utterly alone?

We don’t know.  On the one hand, I like to think the Spirit ministered to him in those final moments.  On the other hand, I feel like I can understand a John the Baptist struggling with fear and doubt when his theology seems to have no correspondence to the real world, and I feel like he can understand me.

Not long from now, Jesus himself will reckon with this very reality as the rulers of that age come for him and are riotously successful.  Oh, yes, we know the end of that story.  We know how the cross was a mechanism of defeat of those powers, and we know about the resurrection and exaltation of Christ.  But at the time, that night of fear and silence in Gethsemane gave way to an experience on the cross where we saw a Jesus vacillate between the strength of his commitment and crying out to God asking why God had forsaken him.

Jesus knows what it feels like to believe one thing and reality to look very, very different.

But look at me; I’m already shifting the spotlight.  Let’s turn it back to John the Baptist, the man who was so pivotal and influential in Jesus’ own life and in the lives of those who would follow Jesus.  He is the first to fall at the hands of the very powers Jesus proclaimed were about to be defeated.  And he will be followed by countless more in that age and ages to follow, including our own.

I know all of this actually ends in hope and triumph, but today, I’m just going to let this hang where the passage does, so that we might know both what it may mean to follow Jesus, and also know that the saints before us understand fear, doubt, disappointment, and disillusionment, even up to the point of their death.

Welcome, all you suckers, to Struggleville.

Consider This

  1. Do you also have fears and doubts when the “real world” doesn’t look very much like your theology dictates?  Do you think God is displeased when you feel this way, or do you think He understands?
  2. Some of us to this day are called to give up our lives for our profession of faith.  Many of us will not, although we may face other persecutions.  In the United States, Christians face virtually no persecution at all, overall.  What might be required of you to be faithful in your service to God?  Are you willing?

Jesus’ Hometown: Matthew 13:54-58

He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

Matthew 13:54-58 (NRSV)

Critical scholars the world over want to understand the historical Jesus.  Well, this is where that gets you.

I’m being tongue-in-cheek, but it’s interesting to me that the people in this passage knew the historical Jesus and this was their primary argument that this Jesus could not have said the things he said or did the things he did.  This is like hearing from the Third Quest or the Jesus Seminar.

“Yes, we know the wise sayings of Jesus, and we have heard the stories of his miracles, but we know the actual Jesus – the one with brothers and sisters who was born in this town – could not have produced most of these sayings or done these miracles.”

I’m sorry; this is very comical to me.  Anyone else?  No?  Ok, then.

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, which meant that at least the local leadership of that synagogue was ok with Jesus being a teacher there.  I have recently had a discussion with a very smart gentleman who is dubious about many of the sayings of Jesus because they would most likely come from a trained rabbi, and Jesus was not that.  While this is probably true, Jesus seems to enjoy the privilege of speaking in synagogues from time to time, so there’s something that convinces synagogue leadership that he’s qualified to teach there.  The Gospels strongly imply this is Jesus’ keen insight into the Scriptures that he demonstrated even as a child by the questions he would ask.

But in this story, people are not overcome by the authority of his teaching or the appearance of the miracles, but are instead scandalized by them because they know this kid.  They know Jesus did not drop out of the sky; he’s a guy they all knew growing up.  They know his family.  They went to school together.  They have maximal insight into the historical Jesus, and it makes them doubt that he is the source of these teachings or the doer of these wondrous deeds.

In Mark’s Gospel, which many believe to be the original that Matthew was working from, this story comes after the stories of Jesus casting out the demon Legion, raising a girl from the dead, and healing a woman.  Even though similar words are said, the presence of this story at the end of some heavy-duty miracles places the emphasis on the miraculous deeds.  Nobody believes the Jesus that they all know could have done these things, and in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus only cures a few sick people and is truly amazed that they do not believe in him.

In Matthew’s Gospel, this story comes after a series of parables about the kingdom, which places the emphasis on the wisdom shown in Jesus’ teachings.  The people who grew up with Jesus are equally incredulous about this (which kind of makes you wonder what Jesus was like as a teenager and a young man – what kinds of things did he say that made people so skeptical about where he learned these teachings?).  Matthew simply summarizes that he did not do many deeds of power, there, because of the unbelief that he found.

But in both places, Jesus connects himself with the Old Testament prophets that have gone before him and notes that the people who don’t think much of prophets are also the people that know them well and have grown up with them.  Family, townsfolk, etc.

On the one hand, we can hypothesize about why the Gospels include this tidbit.  If the Gospels were written at the dates that earlier estimates give them, it’s quite possible that actual family members and/or people who lived in Jesus’ hometown were actively saying that Jesus hayseed could not have said or done the things being ascribed to him.  This passage would have dealt with that issue.

On the other hand, these may not be purely apologetic passages.  In Mark 3:20, Jesus’ own family tries to keep him quiet, leading to verses 31-35 where Jesus’ family shows up asking for him, and Jesus proclaims that whoever does the will of God is his true family.  In John 7, Jesus’ brothers try to tempt him to go to Judea during the Feast of Booths and perform miracles for the public (not unlike Satan’s temptation for Jesus to throw himself from the Temple to demonstrate that God will protect him), and Jesus rebukes them.  John 7 is also littered with statements of unbelief coming from people on the grounds of them knowing Jesus, and Jesus can’t be the Messiah.

Tradition holds that Jesus’ family was very skeptical of his claims but, eventually, became leaders of the Christian movement.  The most prominent of these was Jesus’ brother James who became the leader of the church at Jerusalem.  Hegesippus also tells us about some grandsons of Judas (Jesus’ brother, not Judas Iscariot) who were brought before Domitian who was afraid that Jesus would return and overthrow him.  Domitian questioned them, and because they said Jesus’ kingdom was entirely spiritual and would only appear at the end of time, Domitian set them free without charges.  Sextus Julius Africanus tells us of descendants of Jesus’ family who, proud of their heritage, were able to reconstruct their genealogy after Herod destroyed all the genealogical records he could to cover up his own heritage.

So, what we get is a somewhat consistent picture that the people who knew Jesus have a hard time believing his teaching or that he can do miraculous things, but at some point along the line, this perception changes.

Once again, I think of myself of having a historical-critical bent when it comes to approaching the Scriptures, but it does still strike me that the Gospels do not shy away from the fact that the people who knew the historical Jesus (as opposed to the Christ of faith) have a hard time crediting him with these teachings and miraculous claims.  This isn’t some problem invented by “modern, liberal scholars” or what have you.  The people who actually knew the person Jesus also had this issue.

“Jesus?  Of Nazareth?  Isn’t he that carpenter’s kid?  That kid who broke his own hand when he was fixing a stool?  You say he healed some lepers, huh?  Well, he should’ve tried healing his own hand.  Listen, I know that guy, and he can’t heal crap.  Can’t fix a stool for crap, either.  I don’t know what all the Messiah’s supposed to be like, but seems like he oughta be able to hammer in a peg without injuring himself.”

And this is Jesus’ whole point.  This obstacle faced every prophet before him.

“Jeremiah?  You mean that guy what got drunk and rode his donkey off the cliff in back of his house?  He says we’re going to be destroyed by some army in the future if we don’t get rid of our idols?  Ha!  Yeah, ok, I’ll get right on that.  You know, if JEREMIAH says so.  Just keep him away from my donkey, ok?  That guy….”

The prophets that God sent to Israel to warn her of her upcoming destruction were not “the type.”  They were everyday people who God called into service, and the familiarity Israel had with them was a stumbling block.  The people who knew them best heard their message but did not listen and did not repent.  In the end, conquest, imprisonment, exile, and death came for them.

And this is the situation Jesus finds himself in, crying out a warning to his own people, and his own people do not receive him.  The historical Jesus is a stumbling block to adopting the Christ of faith.  They cannot reconcile his commissioning from God and his warnings and his acts of restoration with the person they know, and this is one more way Jesus stands in the line of those prophets, carrying those warnings that will surely come to pass because people simply do not believe him.

And yet, what historical sources we have that speak on the subject, we have family members of Jesus and their children and their children’s children joining the movement after Jesus’ resurrection.  We have a small knot of disciples that slowly grows into a tiny movement.  We have tiny, believing communities form as this small knot disperses.  We have Gentiles who hear of this foreign God and this foreign Jesus, and they, too, believe.

Is it only the lack of familiarity that caused this?  Is it stories of a mythical Jesus circulating in a highly credulous society?

Or was it, maybe, that at least that core heard something or saw something that they simply could not brush aside?

Consider This

  1. N.T. Wright has raised the point that first century people were not inherently more credulous than later people.  In other words, they did not simply accept stories of miracles or rising from the dead as truth.  They knew people did not rise from the dead, water did not become wine, etc.  At the same time, people of the first century depended a lot on the oral transmission of news and lacked a lot of the verification mechanisms we have, today.  What do you think accounts for the belief of this early Jesus movement?
  2. God’s selection of prophets seems highly circumstantial in the Old Testament, with the authority of the words and the demonstration of power verifying the message, but at the same time not to the extent that faith/trust/belief is not required.  What, if anything, does this tell us about evaluating modern-day prophets or teachers or leaders who claim to represent God?

The New is in the Old: Matthew 13:51-53

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

Matthew 13:51-53 (NRSV)

This is the conclusion of a large grouping of parables by Matthew, all of which explaining aspects of the kingdom of God in picture/story form.

Jesus has said that people not understanding the parables is a sign of the coming judgement, but the disciples have been granted the privilege of understanding them.  This is why Jesus asks them the question about understanding.

They say yes, although it would really have helped us out if at least one of them had said, “Well, some of it, but some of this is also a little vague to me.”  The subsequent explanations might have profited us all.

But they say yes, and apparently Jesus is convinced, or at least convinced enough.  For some reason, I envision the disciples eyeing each other nervously before saying yes.  I’ve taught enough people to know that when you ask if they’ve understood everything, and they say, “Yes,” you’re taking a rather big risk when you accept that as their final answer.

Jesus is satisfied, though, and he’s in a much better position to know.  He commends them for their understanding with a final parable – a scribe who has become a student of the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a house who goes into storage and brings out new and old things.

A scribe, here, is not simply someone who writes things down.  Scribes in first century Judaism were scholars who translated the Torah and provided commentary, much of it we can read today in the Targums.  The scribes also commonly taught in the form of parables and wise sayings, much like Jesus himself has just done.  Scribes sat in the Sanhedrin and, as such, were part of the religious power structure in Judea.

As we’ve already seen in Matthew and will see again, Jesus often runs afoul of the scribes because he and his disciples did not observe the traditional interpretations and lessons from the Law that the scribes imposed on the people.  Instead, Jesus often accused the scribes of hypocrisy and placing legalistic burdens on their own people in order to maintain their positions of power and their reputation as scholars and meticulous practitioners of righteousness.  Jesus accuses them of pedantic observation of legal details while at the same time failing to practice justice and compassion.

In our passage, today, Jesus sets himself and his disciples up as sort of anti-scribes.  Or, more accurately, new and improved scribes.  Because Jesus is teaching them of the kingdom of heaven, they are able to bring out of their treasures both old things and new.

But what does this mean?

All through Matthew, we have observed that many of Jesus’ teachings, illustrations, instructions, imagery, allusions, and prophetic statements are either quotations from the Old Testament or very strong allusions to the Old Testament.  But he is using these Old Testament passages to explain what is happening in his present time.  It is not simply a matter of referring to Old Testament passages that specifically predict the kingdom of God or a coming Messiah, but it also includes taking the concrete historical situations Israel lived through in her past and using those as a point of reference for what is happening in the first century.

For example, earlier in the chapter, Jesus referred to Isaiah 6:9-10 as being fulfilled when he (Jesus) taught in parables.  But Isaiah 6:9-10 is not a prophecy about the future or about something the Messiah will do.  Isaiah 6:9-10 is an instruction God gives to Isaiah.  In Isaiah 5, God portrays Israel as an unfruitful vineyard because of the rampant practices of selfishness, evil, and injustice – specifically the power structure in Jerusalem.  This is followed by a warning that another nation will invade Israel and reduce it to an empty wasteland.

Isaiah has a vision of God in Isaiah 6, and God commissions him to speak to the people, pointing out that they refuse to listen to the prophet and turn from their wickedness.  Their obstinance will ensure this judgement comes to pass.

Jesus takes this portion of Israel’s history, which is a word from a prophet about his own immediate future, and uses that to explain that this is happening around Jesus right now.  Israel’s rulers have still not turned from her wickedness.  They have ignored or killed all the prophets.  Now, the son himself has come, and they will not listen to him, either.  Thus, they have sealed their own judgement – another nation will come in and, again, reduce Jerusalem and her territory to a wasteland.

Isaiah 6 is not a prediction of Jesus.  Jesus understands what Isaiah 6 is about and, as the perfect scribe, brings out treasures both old and new by using Isaiah 6 to explain what is happening to him.  This is why he speaks in parables and many do not understand him.  Jesus is saying this is Isaiah 6 taken to its fullest conclusion.  This is super-Isaiah 6.  This is more Isaiah 6 than Isaiah 6 was.  He has taken the old meaning and brought forth something new – something that uses the past to explain the present.

It is true that some of our early church fathers did not handle this hermeneutic very artfully.  Many of them did not have a point of reference for the Jewish concerns that drove the Old Testament, and a few of them even actively tried to separate Jewish concerns from the Old Testament.  When this happens, the hermeneutic gets a little unwieldy.

“Look, Noah built the ark out of wood!  The cross was also built out of wood!  The story of the ark is a typological allegory of the crucifixion!”

Erm, well, maybe not.

You see, a scribe has to be a scholar of the Old Testament, understanding it in a Jewish way, the way Jesus himself would have understood it.  And it is from this treasury that you can bring forth the new treasures.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the use of typology or allegory; it means that these usages should be shaped by the original meaning to the original audience.  This is the anchor that keeps us from drifting into odd constructions based on the similarities of surface details or reading the Old Testament like a secret code where anything that remotely sounds like something about Jesus must be a prediction of those very things.

In my opinion, reading the Scriptures this way and preaching them this way is like a baseball player putting all of their weight and torque into a swing.  When everything is in alignment, there is power there.  The swing starts way back in Israel’s history and follows through to the pivotal moments of Jesus and Pentecost and the early church and carries into our present field of vision and even sweeps beyond it as we swing through the ball.

This, I would say, is the task of those who would be present day scribes who are the disciples of the kingdom of heaven – the ability to transpose these old things (which now includes the New Testament) into the new.  This is done neither easily nor lightly, but by the power of the Spirit it is even within the grasp of tax collectors and illiterate fishermen.

Consider This

  1. What are the challenges involved in using the Bible to understand the church’s present experience?  How has this gone wrong in your experience?  What are some examples of it going right?
  2. Given that most of the Old Testament is not a prediction of the future, what does it mean for Jesus to “fulfill” the Old Testament or “fulfill” the Law?

Fish of Every Kind: Matthew 13:47-50

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;  when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:47-50 (NRSV)

We are coming to the end of a string of parables in Matthew, all of which are designed to teach the hearers something about the coming kingdom of God.

This parable uses a fishing image that would be familiar to many listeners as well as several of Jesus’ own disciples.  You throw your nets into the sea and pull them up with whatever they come up with – an undifferentiated mass of sea life and detritus.

You keep all of this together until you get to shore.  At this point, you start sorting out the fish you can use from what you can’t use.  What you can’t use is destroyed or thrown out or what have you.

In many ways, this parable is similar to the parable of the wheat and the tares.  Not only is the basic idea the same (i.e. the good and bad are together until the end of the age, at which point they are separated and the bad are destroyed), but verse 50 is almost word for word the same as verse 42.

Certainly the main points are the same.  At the present time, the good and the bad in Israel are all together.  They are all Israel.  They are all plants in the masters’ field or fish in the fishermen’s nets.

At the end of the age, however, there will be a great separation performed by the agents of God whereby the good will be brought into a new age of prosperity, but the evil will be destroyed.

The things that I mentioned about the wheat and the tares also apply here:

  • The end of the age is not the end of the world, but rather the end of the present system of things.  Jesus expected this to happen within a generation and some of his disciples would be alive to see it.  Paul clearly believes the end of the age has come upon his congregations.
  • Weeping is a sign of being stricken with God’s judgement, and gnashing of teeth is what angry people do in the Bible.
  • The use of fire as a symbol for judgement is common in both testaments as it represents both destruction and purification.  With the notable exception of the ancient story Sodom and Gomorrah that has actual fire destroying the cities, this judgement comes in the form of being overcome by an army.  The most notable example of this is Isaiah 66:14-16, 24 which is the origin of the famous phrase about the worm dying not and the fires never being quenched.

What we have here is a story that Jesus is telling about a particular moment in Israel’s history.  What is waiting for them is a destruction at the hands of an invading force (Rome, in this case).  The evil will be given over to that destruction experiencing grief and anger at what has happened to them, while the good will not.  In the parable of the wheat, the good are gathered into the master’s barns.  In this parable, they are gathered into baskets.  When Jesus explains the parable of the wheat and the tares, he explains this represents a people shining like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

So, for the most part, what we have is simply a retelling of the parable of the wheat and the tares except using a fishing image and with somewhat less detail in the explanation.  It may be that Jesus strung all these parables together as Matthew 13 portrays them.  It may be that Matthew 13 is just a collection of these parables that Jesus told at different times.  It’s also quite likely that Jesus told these parables multiple times in different places or made the same points with different parables based on his audience.  So, it’s not weird that we have instances of parables that are basically the same.

But one difference that may be significant is the presence of fishermen catching fish that actually represent people.

In Matthew 4, when Jesus calls Peter and Andrew (who are fishermen who are fishing at the time) to follow him, he tells them that he will make them fishers for people.  A similar account is related in Luke 5.

In a similar way, in Matthew 9, Jesus looks out at the people of Israel and declares that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers (Jesus and his disciples) are few, and they should pray that God would send more laborers to help with the harvest.

In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the harvesters are angels.  In the parable of the fish, the separating is done by angels who, presumably, are the fishermen who brought in the catch.

Aggelos (angel) is an interesting Greek word.  We often assume it means a divine being in the service of God, and sometimes the context makes this clear, but the word doesn’t specifically mean that.  It means a messenger or a delegate – it’s someone that you send out in your name to act on your behalf.  In God’s case, an angel can be a divine being that serves Him, but it could just as easily be a person, or even an animal for that matter.

It may very well be that Jesus is not envisioning heavenly beings rounding up good people and bad people, but rather he is envisioning other people doing this.  Certainly, God is still the one sending these people, but it may very well be that Jesus is thinking of people sent by God who will cause a split between the good and the evil, with the good being led to salvation and prosperity by some of these people and the evil being destroyed by others.  But whether we interpret Jesus’ explanations as referring to spiritual beings or human beings, the historical outcome was certainly the same.

Jesus’ generation had their end of the age.  Their persecutors were brought down.  Those early believers did not only survive, but they grew until they ruled the nations under the Roman Empire.  We live in the aftermath of those events.  Does this parable have anything to say to us?

One thing this parable reminds us is the importance of our own prophets who can share with us what God wants us to know in our present situation and as we think about the future.  God did not make a covenant with the United States of America or any other modern nation, but the people of God exist in all nations and they still get into trouble and they still need saving.

We know God saves, and He saves in His own timing and by His own mechanisms.  We also know that, at least at a collective level, it may involve something very unpleasant happening to a group if they insist on being oppressors.  We face our own historical situations and God is still acting.  We need our teachers and our prophets to tell us our own parables that are in continuity with the word we have received in the past but open up our present experiences – our current warnings, guidance, reminder of the promises, and reasons to hope.

The parable of the fishermen is not some little theological abstraction but is a timely message and call to action for the people who heard Jesus.  What Jesus told them is something for us to continue to look for.  His words can be used to make sense of our own experiences as we have them, but we need people who are saying these words.

But perhaps the main thing we can take away is the reminder that there is still an iteration of God’s plan yet to come.  There is a new heavens and new earth, and whatever the symbolism of the prophetic imagination does or doesn’t tell us about that, one thing that is clear is the removal of all forces that plague not just the people of God, but creation itself.

There will come a day when everything that brings misery to God’s world will be removed from it.  This implies both a warning and a call to action.  We can ally ourselves with this new creation – being those new creation people today in the midst of evil and entropy – or we can latch onto whatever will bring us the most benefit and comfort in the present even if we have to kill, destroy, lie, cheat, steal, over-consume, or oppress to get it.  We can be “pro life” in the fullest, most comprehensive, most complete form of that sentiment, or we can be “pro me” no matter how much destruction we leave in our wake.

God loves, and because He loves, He cannot allow suffering to go on forever.  On that day, will we find that we have actually assisted these forces all along?  Will we cry, “Lord, Lord!” and Jesus will not know who we are, even though we did great spiritual deeds?  Which world do you belong to – the powers that are passing away, or the world that God will preserve into ages of ages to come?

Consider This

  1. It can be difficult or even distasteful to think of a God who is loving but also opposes the arrogant who oppress and use their power unjustly.  This same loving God defends the powerless from those who would prey upon them.  Are these ideas incompatible?  What picture emerges from the long testimony of the Scriptures through the ages?  How do you balance them out in your own mind?
  2. What trends in the world do you think God is moving to stop?  Is there anything that you believe His patience will run out on, someday?  What trends do you think God is behind?  What does that mean for your life and what you support?

The Pearl of Great Price: Matthew 13:45-46

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:45-46 (NRSV)

We are in a portion of Matthew that collects many parables of Jesus, all of which are meant to explain (or obscure) the nature of the kingdom of God.  Without rehashing all the parables up to this point (you can read my first post in this chapter and go from there), a picture is emerging.

The word of this kingdom is going out in the world.  Many reject this word, but a small portion take it to heart and, because of the belief this kingdom has come, it changes lives.  This number of people starts small, but eventually they grow until they fill the whole earth providing blessing to all creation.  This has begun now, and it is a sign that the kingdoms of the present evil age are about to be toppled in judgement.  When that day comes, you want to be in the kingdom of God, not allied with a world power that is passing away.

Our current passage is in the middle of a small stream of bite-sized images Jesus uses to describe the kingdom.

This passage is basically a variation of the previous parable about a man finding a treasure in a field, and the basic meaning is the same.  Inheriting the kingdom is of such great value that there is nothing worth holding onto in order to obtain it.  Everything you have, even your own life, is worth giving up if it places you in the kingdom.

This is an echo of sentiments Jesus has already expressed; by committing yourself to God, God will take care of you even if someone should take your life, but if you have lined up with the world’s powers when the judgement comes, you will find that you have lost everything forever, including your own life.

We also should keep in mind that the kingdom of God is not just valuable because it is an escape from judgement – some Get Out of The Roman Siege Free card.  It is valuable because the kingdom of God is a new age – a new world.  It is a way of living together under a rule of love, justice, mercy, protection, compassion, and righteousness where Jesus – our exemplar of these things – is the king.  The arrival of this kingdom is good news for all who are ground into poverty by Roman taxes or face lawsuits where they cannot afford to defend themselves or are without relatives and loved ones to care for them.  It is good news for the unclean in every way Torah defines them.  It is good news for anyone whose heart was broken over what had happened to God’s precious Israel.

The poor, the sinners, the weak, the sick, the orphans, the widows, all the have-nots and should-nots (or, in short, the vast majority of humanity) have good news waiting for them when this kingdom of God comes and Jesus is running the show.  Not the prudish, easily offended, disdainful, angry Jesus of Western fundamentalist morality, but the Jesus who invites prostitutes and con artists and idiots and Samaritans to have dinner with him that he might show them a new life in a new order of things, surrounded by people who have also been forgiven much, so that they might love much, and love one another as they have been loved.

A pearl of great value, indeed!  What heart can go unmoved by such a dream?  God’s own dream for His world.

There is a slight difference to this mini-story.  In the story about the man finding treasure in the field, the man finds it by accident.  He’s just going about his normal work and daily life and stumbles across this treasure.  He’s not looking for treasure.  In fact, there’s no reason at all to expect a treasure to be in this field, but there it is.

In our passage, today, the character is a merchant who is searching for pearls.  Looking for pearls is this man’s entire enterprise.  The surprise is not that he found a pearl; the surprise is that he found one that was so valuable that it was worth giving up all his money and possessions for it.

It is very difficult not to think of the rich young ruler whom Jesus will meet in chapter 19.  This very well could be the idea behind this parable.  The story of the field is one that resonates with the poor who work in fields that are not their own, or that may have been theirs at one time but no longer.  Perhaps the story of the pearl brings this same message to the wealthy: when you come across the kingdom, it is worth giving up all your gold and possessions to have it.

But in this story, the pearl is a kingdom.  The man is a seeker.  Perhaps this man represents a faithful scribe, Pharisee, or priest who knows the Scriptures and is looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise.  Perhaps this man is like a Zechariah – a priest who follows the Torah with true faith, or a Simeon who is just and devout and is longing for the restoration of Israel.  The true pearl of great value they have sought is here.

Or perhaps the concept is broader.  Perhaps the man is a seeker of kingdoms, trying to find a way of life in which he is happy.  Buddhism calls this the “mind that seeks the Way” – that drive to continue to seek after spiritual welfare and fulfillment.  Perhaps this person has functionally moved from one way of living to another, looking for the one that is worth giving up everything else for.  Perhaps they have lived under different rulers, hoping the next one would finally be the one that produced the kingdom their heart could finally rest in.

Maybe the reason this tiny little parable is so effective is that it can embrace all these people and more.  Because it doesn’t really matter who you are or where you’re coming from or how your past has or hasn’t worked out.  What matters is that you recognize the value of the kingdom when you see it, and when you do, you’ll realize there is nothing worth keeping for yourself when you could be a part of that kingdom.

The kingdom is now past the form of an empire among empires; we do not look for another institution like Constantine’s Rome.  Our horizon is a new heavens and earth, but that society, that community, that massive disbursement of the image of God is at the center of all eschatology.  In that sense, the kingdom still is and will be.

Consider This

  1. What are the things in your life that you depend on to feel safe and at peace?  What things are you afraid to lose?
  2. What would it look like to bring the “kingdom of God” into the various aspects of your life?  How about the institutions you are a part of?  What would it mean to participate in a world like God dreams of in your own little parcel of it?

Looking Like Jesus: Galatians 6:11-18

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

As Paul brings his letter to a close, he points out that his handwriting is really large. It’s just a little personal comment like any of us might put in any letter, but it lets us know that Paul has weaknesses – in this case, his eyesight. Some have even thought this vision problem might be the “thorn in the flesh” Paul talks about.

We read in other ancient writings that Paul was bald, scarred, short, and bow-legged. He even had a unibrow! Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 10:10 that the church loved his writing but thought he was pretty unimpressive in person.

None of this stops Paul from planting churches all over Asia Minor. He assumes that, whatever prejudices anyone might have about the way he looks or his physical challenges, this is no obstacle to the Spirit and the spread of the gospel, nor is it an obstacle to him living out the mission he believes Jesus has for him.

Paul tells us, near the end of his letter, that he believes the Judaizers are hypocrites who are just trying to avoid persecution. They themselves do not obey the Law, but they take pride in how many people they are getting circumcised. It’s hard for me not to think of the scandals that tend to arise in the lives of popular Christian speakers.

But Paul tells us the only thing he wants to be proud of is that the cross of Christ has made him dead to the world and brought him to life in a new one – a life of the Spirit where Jesus lives through him.

And for Paul, this is almost literally true, because he has been physically abused for his message, just as Jesus was. Paul says that this is why nobody should be giving him a hard time about circumcision; only his resemblance to Jesus matters.

As Paul closes this letter, he challenges all of our preconceived ideas of who is worthy of esteem. The only thing that matters is how much someone’s life looks like Jesus. Do they sound like him? Do they act like him? Do they prioritize what he did? Do they suffer like he did?

It doesn’t matter how much theology someone knows. It doesn’t matter how big their church is or how engaging they are. It doesn’t matter how many books they’ve written. It doesn’t matter how rigorous their moral standards are. It doesn’t even matter how many people they’ve shared the gospel with.

The only thing that matters is if they are like Jesus in the world. This is something that can unite a farmer in rural Kansas with a megachurch pastor in New York. For ourselves, for our congregations, for our leaders, for people we look up to, Paul leaves us with that final, vital question:

Do we/they look like Jesus?