Tyre and Sidon: Matthew 11:20-24

Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,

will you be exalted to heaven?
    No, you will be brought down to Hades.


For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Matthew 11:20-24 (NRSV)

This comes, narratively, after Jesus has praised John the Baptist and positioned his work in the line of Old Testament prophets and being the herald of the Messiah.  He ends this with a note that, even though John the Baptist has come like Elijah and Jesus has come like one of them, they are still unresponsive.

That introduces this bit where Jesus gets a little worked up over this idea and delivers some very prophetic claims of his own.

First, Jesus contrasts the cities of Judea where he has been at work with traditionally wicked cities from Israel’s past history.  Both Tyre and Sidon were historical enemies of Israel, and both were prophesied against as we see in Ezekiel 28.  Both cities were threatened by destruction via conquest, and both cities were so conquered in the course of time.

These cities become the prototypes for what Jesus announces will happen to Israel.  And they are not just prototypes, but condemnations.  Because for all their historical opposition to Israel, Jesus is of the mind that, if they experienced Jesus’ words and work, they would have listened and repented.

This is not the first time this idea has come up in Matthew.

For example, Matthew describes a scene where a Roman centurion – a pagan oppressor of Israel – comes to Jesus in Capernaum and believes Jesus can heal his servant.  Jesus announces that no one in Israel has shown the faith that this centurion has, and that many foreigners would find themselves in the kingdom of God eating and talking with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while many Israelites would find themselves shut out of it.

In Capernaum, a pagan oppressor of Israel believes Jesus, but the Israelite people of Capernaum themselves do not.

And so, as he did in chapter 8, Jesus turns these counter-examples against unrepentant Israel.  These pagan oppressors of Israel would repent, but Israel herself would not.  When the terrible Day of the Lord comes, Israel will find herself much worse off than these historical oppressors have found themselves.

Speaking of Capernaum, Jesus reserves a little quote for them.  This could be a summation of Ezekiel 28:1-10, where the prince of Tyre exalts himself as a god, but God will bring him down to the Pit.  But it more directly matches Isaiah 14:13-15, which is a prophecy against Babylon.  Either way, the parallels Jesus is drawing are clear – here are pagan enemies of Israel that God shattered with another nation.  You, corrupt Israel, have become the oppressor of the people of Israel, and your day is coming when God will shatter you, and your heritage will mean nothing on that day.

Finally, Jesus draws from a comparison of Israel to Sodom that the Old Testament prophets also make.  In Ezekiel 16, we read that Jerusalem has become a “sister” to Sodom and Samaria.  They have followed after their ways, yet they have become even worse.  In what way have they become worse?  The prophet tells us:

As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:48-50 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

That’s an interesting bit of information, isn’t it?  God destroyed Sodom primarily for their pride and unwillingness to use their prosperity to help the poor, and this becomes part of the prophet’s case against Jerusalem.  And this is how the chapter runs itself out: you used to refer to Sodom as a byword, but now you are about to be destroyed as they were, and I will restore your fortunes when I restore hers.

Jesus brings that message forward into his day.  The Israel of Jesus’ day has become a worse oppressor of her own than any of those historic enemies of Israel; but, in Jesus’ opinion, any of those historic enemies would have repented if Jesus had been doing his works and preaching his message in them.  (In fact, we have an Old Testament depiction of this in Nineveh’s response to Jonah.) Because of this, these great cities of Israel should expect that they, too will meet a fate in their day of judgement that will be even worse than what those other cities experienced.

This is, in fact, what happened.

Consider This

  1. Put yourself in the position of a Jewish religious official in first century Judea. You’re doctrinally sound.  Everyone comes to you with questions about the Bible and how to live a faithful life.  You are respected, and it appears God has blessed your life with wealth and influence.  How would Jesus’ message that you are actually unfaithful strike you?  What evidence would you muster to argue against that?  What would have to happen in order for Jesus’ message to break through?
  2. How can we be aware of when we are falling short?  Where could those messages come from and how should we receive them?  How can we communicate these things to others?

Children in the Marketplace: Matthew 11:16-19

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not mourn.’


For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Matthew 11:16-19 (NRSV)

This concludes Jesus’ commentary on John the Baptist, although this particular point will cause him to launch into a round condemnation of Israel’s unbelief.  Just to recap the context:

  1. Jesus is about to scatter his disciples throughout Judea to carry his message and works.
  2. Jesus warns them that such declarations and acts will bring increased persecution from the powers that be, and this will tempt them to lose faith.
  3. As if on cue, John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s dungeons for his proclamations, asks Jesus if he is actually the Messiah or not.
  4. Jesus responds with prophecies that explain what he is doing.
  5. Jesus offers effusive praise for John the Baptist and the reminder that the humble nobodies who will be persecuted for the kingdom are even greater than that.

Here, we get to an interesting bit that seems to stump a lot of commentators – this bit about children in the marketplace.  Nobody seems to know for sure what this mini-parable is really all about, and I’d count myself in that number.

If I were to take a stab at it, though, I’d say the basic point is, “No matter how we call out to you, you won’t respond.  John the Baptist came as an ascetic prophet in the wilderness calling to you, and you did not respond in faith.  I came as just a regular Israelite, and you did not respond in faith.  You said the guy eating locusts in the desert must be possessed, and you said the guy eating and drinking regular meals is a partier who hangs out with sinners all the time.”

The principle is illustrated by children out and about in the public square.  Some are playing the flute, and the people do not respond.  Some are crying, and the people do not respond.  If someone doesn’t care about these kids, there’s no approach that’s going to get a response.

This sentiment, if accurate, would explain why it’s a segue into the next section when Jesus condemns the cities that have seen his works, yet do not repent.

There are a couple of items of note in this section besides the little story.

One is that Jesus zeroes in on “this generation.”  This is a recurring theme with Jesus, especially when it comes to the topic of hearing his warnings of a coming judgement and repenting.  Although we might find similarities in our own generation, Jesus is bringing the focus to that specific time in Israel’s history and that specific crisis.  An impending doom is coming upon those very people and those people are not listening.  It is time sensitive.

Jesus’ frustrations are not simply that he isn’t being listened to; it’s that a terrible calamity is at the doorstep of that generation, and he’s trying to help.  It’s like knowing for sure a bomb is about to go off in your building, and you’re running around trying to get everyone out, but everyone just writes you off as a nutjob.  They don’t believe you.  The building looks fine to them, and the idea that a bomb is about to go off is absurd.  In that situation, you might well become frustrated, get angry, get loud, get extreme – but all of it is because a crisis is imminent and you care about saving people.  We know that, later, Jesus will weep regretfully over Jerusalem because they would not turn to him, and he will express his earnest desire that their sufferings are short.

Another interesting bit is the line about wisdom at the end.  The NRSV has “wisdom is known by her deeds” because that’s what the majority of our manuscripts say, but some of our older manuscripts say, “wisdom is known by her children,” which I think is probably more appropriate, not the least of which because it connects with the little parable.

But either way, Jesus is talking about a very old image in Jewish theology – that of Wisdom being a lady who is an agent of God.  As we see in Proverbs 8, Wisdom is God’s first creation, who is with Him in the beginning and works with Him as a master craftsman to create the world.  It is this same image that John will borrow from to talk about Jesus in John chapter 1.  We see all through Proverbs that Wisdom is pictured as a woman who is calling out to all who will listen, and those who listen, she calls her children (for instance, Proverbs 8:32-36).

For the purposes of Jesus’ allusion, it comes directly from Proverbs 1:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
    I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
    have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
    they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
    and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
    and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
    and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
    and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
    and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:20-33 (NRSV)

That whole passage could come directly from Jesus’ lips in the situation he is addressing, and that is likely his intent.  He is a child of God’s Wisdom calling out her words, but the foolish will not listen and, as a result, will have calamity come upon them “like a whirlwind.”  John the Baptist was also a child of God’s Wisdom calling out her words, and they despised his reproof.

These children were in the marketplace playing the flute and wailing, but nobody danced, and nobody mourned, and the complacency of fools destroyed them.

Consider This

  1. Are there people today pointing out that terrible consequences await if the Church does not change her course?  Are these warnings credible?  What is the price of being complacent?
  2. In Proverbs, following the Wisdom of God is depicted to bring you an easy and prosperous life.  How does this square with the life of Jesus and the Apostles?  How does this change what we’d expect to see from a faithful life?  What expectations should someone have for reward and prosperity if they are faithful?

Elijah Reborn: Matthew 11:11-14

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!

Matthew 11:11-14 (NRSV)

This is part of a speech Jesus is giving about how great John the Baptist is.  Somewhat surprisingly, it is part of Jesus’ response to John the Baptist publicly questioning whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.

Certainly, the hyperbolic statement at the beginning shows that Jesus thinks nothing but good things of John the Baptist.  Jesus says that John is the greatest person who has ever been born, and it’s hard to give a higher compliment than that.  Certainly, as a prophet, John has much to commend him.  He saw the upcoming judgement and was desperately trying to turn the ship of Israel around so that she might be reconciled to their God, and this after almost 500 years of prophetic silence from Israel’s God.  John is also the forerunner of the promised Messiah.  He has been put into a special role at a special time in history and has risen to the occasion as the great prophets before him.

But Jesus begins to turn our attention to something to the Kingdom of God – an end point to which both he and John have been pointing.

Within the Kingdom of God are “the least.”  Who are they?  Well, the way Matthew uses the phrase, it refers to the powerless faithful who cannot protect themselves from persecution.  Apart from Matthew 10:42, there’s also the parable in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus rewards those who took care of “the least of these” and exiles those who did not.  In this passage, Jesus appears to be saying that, as great and important and vital as John the Baptist was, that pales in comparison to the small, humble, and weak who remain faithful even under persecution – incidentally, a category that describes John the Baptist at the time Jesus is saying this.  It is no accident that Matthew has this occurring immediately after Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples to remain faithful even though persecution will be heating up.

This provides our context for understanding Jesus’ comment that the kingdom of God is seized violently by the violent.  John the Baptist is in one of Herod’s cells, and this is only the beginning.  Many people less capable than John are about to experience persecution from both government and religious authorities.  The same Greek words are used in 1 Enoch 103-104 to describe the plight of Israel under her oppressors, and she is encouraged to wait patiently because the day of her liberation is near.

And should this surprise anyone?  No, because this has largely been the experience of the prophets in Israel’s “recent” history, and when I say “recent,” I mean like the past millennium from Jesus’ standpoint.  The faithful prophets warn of impending doom if Israel will not change her direction and call her to repentance, and they are persecuted, incarcerated, exiled, and killed for their troubles.  In this way, everyone in the Kingdom of God is about to become a prophet.  They, too, will carry this message to Judea and they, too, will suffer for it.

This leads to Jesus’ crescendo – that John the Baptist is fulfilling Malachi 4.  Malachi (which simply means “My messenger”) chapter 4 is only six verses long.  It is the end to a diatribe against the corruption of Israel’s priesthood whose hearts are far from God and have used their position for gain, even at the expense of the rest of Israel.  In Malachi 4, God promises that the day is coming when he will destroy the arrogant evildoers, but the faithful will experience the rise of righteousness and healing.  There is a reminder for them to return to the obedience of God’s Law, and then:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Malachi 4:5-6 (NRSV)

The prophet Elijah will come to bring Israel to repentance so that they might not fall in the destruction.  This will happen before that terrible day comes.

This mission is not lost on John, who purposefully dresses up like Elijah and lives like Elijah in the wilderness.  John, like the prophets before him, is putting on a dramatic show along with his message, and the point of his show is, “I am Elijah.”  In this way, he connects himself directly with Malachi’s warning, and Jesus affirms that John the Baptist’s understanding of his role and place in history is dead on.

Even as Jesus praises John the Baptist, it’s also an occasion to remind the audience that a coming judgement is imminent, and the day is near.  John the Baptist is here.  Jesus is here.  The things the prophets looked for as signs of the great Day of the Lord are all here.  On the one hand, this is a great reason for hope: the oppressors will be put down and the faithful will be restored.  On the other hand, it is a sobering call to faithfulness, even with the knowledge that violence against the faithful will increase.

Consider This

  1. Who are the power structures that affect the lives of “the least of these” today?  In what ways do the least of these suffer violence from these power structures?  How would that violence increase if those structures were confronted with the message that God will one day put them down and exalt the humble faithful?
  2. When John the Baptist called people to repentance, he was clear that the people who repented “bore the fruits of repentance” and not just confessed their sins privately to God.  What does it mean for us to bear fruits of repentance?

What Did You Go Out to See?: Matthew 11:7-10

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’


Matthew 11:7-10 (NRSV)

This comes on the heels of messengers from John the Baptist who ask if Jesus is the Messiah Israel is expecting or if they should look for someone else.  Jesus answers them by pointing to the events that precede the Day of the Lord, and off they go.

It is here that Matthew records Jesus giving a sort of extended speech about John the Baptist, which is interesting considering how little air time he tends to get in the stories we tell amongst ourselves and from the pulpit.  His primary purpose is to announce Jesus, and when Jesus shows up, we don’t need him, anymore, so he drops off our radar very early on in the meta-gospel we have in our heads.  And, in fairness, he makes few other appearances in any of the gospels.

But here, we get a window into Jesus’ estimation of John the Baptist, both as a person and in terms of mission.

In the start of the John the Baptist speech, Jesus draws a contrast between John and the powers of his day.  You go to rich palaces to see rich people in fine clothes.  The “reed shaken by the wind” is an odd image, but may refer to Herod since Herod’s emblem was a reed.  The overall point is that, if you want to find the rich and powerful, you go to the palaces and there they are.

But people found John in the wilderness.  You go out to the wilderness to find prophets.

Jesus is going to make quite a bit out of John’s role as a prophet, so it helps to remember the often uneasy relationship between prophets and royalty in Israel’s history that only got worse as time went on.

You see, a prophet’s job was not primarily to predict the future, although that’s often what we think of when we think of prophets and prophecy.  A prophet’s job was primarily to speak for God, and this primarily for the purposes of calling them to repentance and forecasting the things that might befall them if they were unfaithful.  “Predicting the future” was a very small slice of what prophets did, and in most cases, their predictions were not so much spontaneous oracles as looking at the situation, seeing where Israel was going and what the landscape of powers looked like in and around her, and making a prediction and theological interpretation of what was likely to happen if she pursued her current course or turned aside from it.

When Israel’s rulers were interested in faithfulness, their relationship to prophets might have been awkward at times, but they were overall good.  We might think of David and Nathan, for example.

For much of Israel’s history, though, and especially the centuries immediately prior to Jesus’ day, this relationship was openly antagonistic.  It turns out that people in power do not care to be told that what they are doing is wrong and, unless they lead the people in justice and righteousness, God will bring a horrible calamity upon their regime.  Prophets found themselves in the wilderness often to hide from the powers that sought their lives moreso than the wilderness being a particularly spiritual place.  The wilderness was a season of trial from which they hoped to emerge vindicated, and we see this in both Israel’s history in general and Jesus’ history in specific.

So, we have the contrast as we have seen so often in Matthew.  On the one hand, we have the rich and the powerful and the established who may have the appearance of being favored by God but who are actually opposed by Him.  On the other hand, we have these dirty homeless guys ranting about those rich and powerful in their palaces.  It just so happens that God is on their side.

The quotation at the end of our passage is similar to the opening passages of Isaiah 40, but is more closely a quotation of Malachi 3:1.

We don’t know much about the book of Malachi.  Malachi simply means “My messenger” and, as such, may be the author’s title and not his name.  We also have no direct cues in the text as to what particular historical situation the writer is talking about.  Because the Temple has been rebuilt and certain Persian political terms appear, we have a general idea that it is probably around the 5th century BC, but specific nations and battles and monarchs and events that are prevalent in some of the other prophets are absent from Malachi.

Yet, Malachi paints a very clear picture of the situation he is prophesying against.  In Malachi, Israel’s priesthood is depicted as corrupt individuals going through the motions and lining their own pockets.  They are faithless professionals who have led Judah astray, and as a result, Israel’s God is no longer paying attention to her.  The wicked prosper, and people shrug their shoulders and assume that God must approve of them.  Others wonder where the God of justice is in the midst of this situation.

God then announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way for Him to come into His Temple, but this messenger’s arrival will be a day of judgement that is to be endured as he “refines” the priesthood and purifies Israel.  When this happens, God will arrive and set things right, putting down the evil, exalting the good, and restoring Israel.

Malachi delivers this message to encourage the people of Israel to return to faithfulness, but the book closes on a rather ominous note – that God will send Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.

So, to recap, Israel’s leadership has become corrupt.  God seems absent.  The prophet calls the people to repentance and announces a messenger who will come and refine Israel, and this will immediately precede God coming to the Temple in judgement to throw down the wicked and rescue the faithful.

It is very appropriate, then, that Jesus will take this passage and announce that this is about what’s happening now because… well… I mean… come on, right?  This is exactly what’s happening in Israel in Jesus’ day.

And in this scenario, John is the messenger who refines Israel prior to the terrible Day of the Lord.  He is Elijah, as Jesus will mention in the very next set of verses.  John comes calling Israel to repentance, baptizing her into renewed faithfulness, and warning that the judgement of God on the powers of the age is near.  When Israel’s religious leaders show up, John quite clearly indicates that they are the very people who are supposed to fall in that judgement.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John the Baptist did not go to evangelism training.

All these things boil down to a powerful conclusion: Jesus’ expectation was that the great and terrible Day of the Lord was at hand, and John was the prophesied messenger sent to refine Israel before it happened.

It is interesting to me that Jesus does not identify himself as this messenger.  In fact, he even changes the text of Malachi (do not try this at home).  In the original passage, God announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way before “me,” meaning God Himself, presumably.  When Jesus quotes the passage, God announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way before “you,” which I assume is Jesus.  I’m not sure what other “you” Jesus would be talking about.

After all, Jesus also calls Israel to repentance, also leads her into renewed faithfulness, and also announces a coming judgement.  Very John-the-Baptisty kinds of things that, at least in this regard, seem to be a continuation of John’s mission.

But remember, Jesus has just sent a message back to John that Jesus is the expected Messiah, and he establishes this by pointing to the actual deeds he is doing – healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead.  It would seem that Jesus sees his role less in terms of forerunner and messenger and more in terms of instigator and implementor.  What John announced, Jesus has started doing.  It is Jesus who is not only calls Israel to repentance, but also forgives her sins.  It is Jesus who not only announces the coming kingdom, but also heals the lame and the blind and casts out demons.  It is Jesus who will take up all authority in heaven and on earth, given to him by God.  And it is Jesus who will judge the world, first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile.  Jesus may be announcing similar things to John, but where John was preparing Israel for an event, Jesus has brought the event with him.  Whereas John is preparing the way for what God will do, Jesus is how God is doing it.  Jesus is not Malachi’s Elijah; he is Daniel’s Son of Man.

We will explore the depth of this as Jesus continues to praise John the Baptist, but for this opening passage, it sets the stage.  John is the prophet speaking against the rich and powerful in Israel, and like the prophets before him, he is being persecuted by Israel’s leaders.  But this is what prophets do, and in this particular case, this prophet is the last warning before the great and terrible Day of the Lord.

Consider This

  1. Given what prophets actually did in the Scriptures, how does that influence how we might understand the gift of prophecy, today?  Are there people you know who are gifted in speaking for God to His people, calling them to greater faithfulness and warning of what might happen if they continue to go astray?  Do you do this?
  2. What is our responsibility in speaking to power?  How does power typically respond?  How does the church typically respond to power?

Are You the One?: Matthew 11:1-6

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Matthew 11:1-6 (NRSV)

I had grown up in church, and yet it wasn’t until college that I actually ran across this passage – the one where John the Baptist questions whether or not Jesus is the expected Messiah.  I guess it might be one of those uncomfortable passages.  It sort of disrupts our narrative.  John the Baptist, the man who so forthrightly declared the arrival of the Messiah in Jesus, is not supposed to question this, have second thoughts, and demand some answers from that same Jesus.

But this occurs during the period of time when Jesus sends his disciples out to prepare towns for his arrival.  They are supposed to proclaim the kingdom, forgive sins, heal, cast out demons – basically all the things that Jesus has been doing this entire time.

It is because Jesus’ ministry has been characterized by this that we can sympathize with John’s confusion.  First you overthrow the bad guys, then you restore Israel.  Jesus, by contrast, seems to be about the work of restoring Israel, but the bad guys are still in power.  In fact, John himself is rotting away in Herod’s prison.

What’s supposed to happen, from John’s perspective, is that Jesus brings the judgement with him.  He’s supposed to defeat Herod in an epic sword fight, put all Israel’s corrupt leaders to the sword or drive them out, and ultimately break Roman power over the land.  When John talks about the coming Messiah earlier in Matthew, it is all in terms of the coming judgement.  In fact, when Pharisees and other religious leaders show up, John pointedly asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

And John’s not wrong.  The prophetic hopes as well as the established pattern of God working in Israel’s history are that she undergoes a time of troubles, but when she repents and calls to God for help, He destroys the powers that threaten her and restores her to safety.  I can’t tell you how many Christian sermons and commentaries I have read that say that the people of Jesus’ day were mistaken to expect this, and I do not agree with this at all.  They had every reason to expect this.  In fact, if anyone suggested that all these Old Testament events and prophecies were really describing what the coming Messiah would do spiritually, and no one should actually expect God to do what He had done several times up to that point, they probably would not have gotten a favorable hearing, and rightly so.

It is true that the pictures we have of God’s deliverance in the prophetic imagination also have a spiritual component.  In these visions, God wants to win Israel back, and she returns to Him in faithfulness and repents of her sins, and He forgives her and restores their broken relationship.  But the wrath, salvation, deliverance, and restoration of God always manifests as a historical event; it does not happen exclusively or even primarily within the chambers of an individual Israelite’s heart, even though it certainly includes the changing of that heart.

It is also noteworthy that Jesus continues John’s message; he doesn’t correct it.  Jesus, too, will announce a coming calamity that Israel will only survive if she repents of her sins and turns back to her God in faithfulness.  The wrath of God is at the doorstep, and everyone needs to deal with this situation right now.  There is no time to work your repentance into your long-term planning.  Following Jesus does not get added to your Five Year Goals.  The building has caught fire and you need to get out now before the boilers explode.

So, we need to put ourselves in John’s shoes.  You are a prophet.  In your heart burns the message of an imminent judgement that the Messiah would herald, and with it comes your deep compassion and sense of mission to the lost of Israel to help her prepare herself to make it through.  And now the Messiah is here!  The clock has struck!

But what happens in the world?

This Messiah goes around proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand.  Yes, we agree with that.  The judgement is near and all must repent and trust in Jesus.  Yes, quite so.  Jesus has the authority to forgive Israel’s sins and is going about doing this.  Ok, that’s a little weird, but God forgives sins as part of delivering Israel, so ok.  Jesus is demonstrating that the kingdom is near and that sins are forgiven by healing people and casting out demons.  Ok, well….  And now Herod has put you in prison.  Ok, seriously, what is going on here?

Where is this imminent judgement?  Where is the whole setting the world back to rights?  I’m here.  The Messiah is here.  Israel is responding.  What’s the deal?  Why am I in prison?  Why does Herod even still have his head attached?  Where are the consuming flames that burn away the chaff?  Where is the winnowing fork the Messiah would wield to eliminate the weeds that have sprung up in Israel?  Everything seems to be right about the timing and the circumstances, so what gives?

Well, maybe we got the wrong guy.

What if Jesus isn’t the Messiah?  What if I was supposed to prepare the way for someone else?  What if someone is out there like that Barrabas guy or that Judas Iscariot who was always making trouble for the government, and that’s who I was supposed to be guiding people to?  What if I need to tell my followers to look for the real Messiah so we can get this program back on track?

I hope you can see where this is all coming from.  I hope we are not judging John too harshly, looking back on it.  Who among us can’t resonate with the idea that God has promised a world that looks a certain way, but when we look around us, it looks very little like that, and we begin to have second thoughts?

Jesus is not in the least upset.  In fact, in the next few verses, he can’t say enough good things about John the Baptist.  I get my hackles raised when someone questions my decision to get burgers for lunch, but John questioned Jesus’ very identity and mission as the Messiah, and he appears to be totally fine with it.  But he also doesn’t leave John where he is.

Jesus quotes a bit from Isaiah 35, and he makes a few additions to the list: raising the dead and cleansing the lepers – both things Jesus has done.

Isaiah 35 comes at the end of an extended description of what God will do for Israel to restore her fortunes.  This description spans chapters.  Near the beginning, the oppressor is Assyria, but as we get into the neighborhood of chapter 34, Babylon gets identified.  These chapters are followed by a huge Assyrian invasion and the faithfulness of the king in the midst of it.

John knows this.  John knows that God gave this word to his people while they were in the midst of oppression.  He knows that it got a lot worse before it got better.  He knows that these promises were intended to give Israel faith and hope that would keep them faithful even when the heat turned up, which it did.

Jesus is bringing Isaiah into his day to help John understand what is going on.

The great things described in Isaiah 35 are happening.  The great day of the Lord in this age is imminent!  But remember, John, Israel still had to hang on.  The worst of her oppression was yet to come, but at no point did that invalidate the promise of God.  You may be in a prison cell right now, but Assyria and Babylon are dust.  God will do what He said, and the fact that you are seeing the healing and deliverance that you’re hearing about is the proof.  Be faithful and steadfast, even though the oppression around you may increase.

We do not know what John’s response to this was.  We do not know if he threw up his hands in frustration or nodded thoughtfully and returned to his prayers with a renewed faith and determination.  I like to think it was more the latter.

When we hear about John, again, it will be in chapter 14 when he is executed by Herod.

We do not know what John’s last thoughts were as he faced the sword.  We do not know if he thought his life was a failure or if he was full of regret.  But the author of Hebrews may give us a clue:

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:32-40 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

All these died in faith, seeing the promises far off.  For John, those promises were actually very near, nearer than to anyone in the list the author of Hebrews presents.  Yet, he would not see the deliverance he proclaimed in his flesh.

And surely, centuries earlier, there would be those in Israel who had received the promise of deliverance, but fell to Assyrian swords or languished in Babylonian slave pens.  Isaiah told them to wait upon the Lord, for the great day was near.

Look, John, from the doors of your prison.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame leap for joy.  The lepers are cleansed.  And the dead, John?  Those who have died in their faith?  THEY ARE RAISED.

Deliverance is coming, John.  It is coming for Israel.  It is coming for those in prison.  It is even coming for those who have died.  Lift up your head, in that terrible, dark, damp cell, for your salvation draweth nigh.

Consider This

  1. What promises do we have from God, today, and what circumstances around us make it difficult to believe them?  Can we, like John, take any comfort from God’s promises and actions in the past?
  2. What things has God provided to help His people remain faithful and hopeful as we continue to wait in faithfulness?

The Little Ones: Matthew 10:40-42

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

When I first started this blog, I sort of randomly chose passages to write about, but I found that I had to spin up so much background and context before talking about the actual passage that I shifted to going sequentially, hoping that previous posts would establish the necessary background for later posts.

While this has generally been the case, Matthew 10 contains so many passages that are often dealt with in isolation from one another that I feel like I have to keep harping on the context with every section.

As always, when we read this passage, we need to keep in mind that this is part of a speech that Jesus is giving to his disciples who are about to go out into the world with the message of the kingdom and doing the works of Jesus.  They are going to encounter severe resistance and persecution.  Jesus is warning them that this is inevitable and they have reasons to stay faithful in the midst of it, not the least of which being that their oppressors will perish in the coming judgement, but God will shepherd the souls of the faithful disciples through it.

Please see previous posts for the fleshing out of all of that.

This passage, then, is not so much about generic humanitarianism as it is about how the world will treat the disciples as they are about their work.  There may be some bearing on generic humanitarianism, though, and I’ll circle back around to that.

In this passage, Jesus pronounces that, as the disciples go out, those who give them aid and comfort will receive the same reward as those who are faithful – “righteous,” no less.  When the coming catastrophe comes, God will not only take care of Jesus’ followers, He will also take care of those who took care of Jesus’ followers.  The reasoning behind this is, when they show hospitality to the disciples who are being persecuted by everyone else, they are showing hospitality to their master (Jesus, if you’re following along).  If they show hospitality to Jesus, they show hospitality to the one who sent him – God.

To sum up: their good works on behalf of the disciples will be accounted to them as righteousness.  I assume that causes no issues for anyone.  That’s a joke.

Because we are prone to come to the Bible with a theological framework in place, and we let that framework dictate what passages must mean, we can wrangle this however we want.  We can hypothesize that the sorts of people who care for the disciples do so after coming to saving faith and converting, for instance.  And, you know, that probably happened in some cases.

But that’s not actually what Jesus says, is it?  He doesn’t say, “If someone believes your message and repents of their sins and has faith in me and then takes care of you, he will have the reward of the righteous.”  It’s actually a very simple proposition.  God will give the reward for righteousness to the people who do good to the righteous.

Probably the closest parallel thought will come later in Matthew in chapter 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)

It’s the same thing in parable form, complete with images of eternal fire, eternal life, and eternal punishment.  At the end of the present age when God’s judgement comes, there will be a group of people who identified with all the right things who will not make it through the judgement.  There will be another group of people who have no idea when they ever did anything for God, but because they took care of Jesus’ people, they took care of him and are rewarded with the reward of the righteous.

I love the little dialogues in that parable.  We have Jesus actually trying to convince a group of people that God will reward that they deserve it, and the people themselves are like, “Um, we think you’ve got the wrong people.  We never did anything for you, trust us.”  And Jesus is all, “Oh, yes you did.  All that time you thought you were just doing good to someone in need, you were actually serving ME!  So, hah!  Suck on THAT!  Here’s your eternal life, doofuses!”

We want to make sure, before we make too much theological hay out of all of these, we come back to the historical contingencies that bring Jesus to these announcements.  Jesus’ disciples are about to go into the world saying what he said and doing what he did, and the corrupt power structure of Israel herself will persecute them, and they are not afraid to bring in the muscle of the Roman Empire to do it.

Those who will, in the face of this persecution, defy these powers and take care of Jesus’ disciples instead of turning them in or turning them out will be rewarded.  The Old Testament version of this is Joshua 2.  Two spies go into Jericho in advance of Israel destroying it.  A resident of Jericho hides the spies.  She survives the invasion and, as far as we know, lives a long and happy life in the land.  Another example, possibly closer to Jesus’ mind given his example of the prophets, could be 1 Kings 17, where a widow takes in Elijah during the reign of Ahab whose wife is killing God’s prophets.  She takes care of this lonely, persecuted prophet who the royal family wants dead, and in return, she receives an unending supply of income and her son is raised from the dead.

And it is perhaps the recurrent historical pattern that makes us wonder if the particular historical situation in Matthew 10 isn’t another instance of the Way God Works in History.  Because, if it is, our theology ought to make room for it.

In fairness, we can’t simply reduce the situation to people doing good works and getting good stuff.  In Matthew 7, for instance, we are confronted with the truth that the very religious power structure that will persecute Jesus has people who are prophesying and casting out demons and working miracles in Jesus’ name, yet Jesus calls them “evildoers.”  So, some level of internal alignment seems to matter, here.  What are the motives for these deeds, and how are they used, and who truly benefits?

But at the same time, we also cannot escape the very simple principle that Jesus articulates that seems to be reliably demonstrated in several instances in the Bible spread out over centuries – when the faithful are persecuted, the people who care for them instead of handing them over are also given the reward of the faithful, even if they have absolutely no clue that they are doing it for Jesus or are basically just pagans who recognize the realities of their situation.  And maybe that’s all the mustard seed-sized faith it takes.

There are Christian theologians who, regrettably, have written about the “fate” of unbelievers with a sort of perverse glee that the horrors of eternal torment will finally show them what’s what.  Some have even said that part of what makes heaven heaven will be that believers will be able to view the endless torment of all those who did not believe.  And we wonder why we make people edgy, right?  That’s sociopathic.

But I, too, take a perverse glee when I think of unbelievers at the final judgement, because I can’t help but wonder if there won’t be at least a segment of them to whom God says, “Hey, you know when you built all those homes for Habitat for Humanity because you wanted to show that atheists could be philanthropists?  Well, you built those houses for ME!  How do you like them apples?  Stick that in your empirical positivism and smoke it!  Welcome to the new heavens and earth, nerds!”

Ok, it probably won’t go quite like that, but still.

Consider This

  1. Even to this day, there are countries where Christians are actively persecuted.  There are countries where people of all kinds of religions are actively persecuted.  What should our stance be toward that?  What are some things we can do about it?  What can we do when we see low-level persecution in small ways around us?
  2. If God commends those who do not know Him for taking care of His followers, how much more ought we to be zealous for taking care of His followers?

Bringing a Sword: Matthew 10:34-39

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 10:34-39 (NRSV)

It’s always a little awkward when Jesus says things like, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  It seems to run counter to Jesus’ commitments to loving enemies and not hitting them with swords when they come to arrest you in gardens.  What is worse, Jesus specifically says that this conflict will turn family members against each other and offers that anyone who loves their family members more than Jesus is not worthy of him.

It’s like some kind of Hard Sayings of Jesus marathon.

As we try to see how all these things fit into the story, the first thing we need to keep in mind is where we’re at in the story.  Jesus is warning his disciples about the persecution they will experience as they announce the coming kingdom, forgive sins, and heal.  He encourages them to stay the course in spite of their persecution, however, because a terrible judgement is coming against Jerusalem, and their oppressors will fall in that judgement.  It will be better to remain faithful and be saved through the judgement than to give up the work and fall in the judgement.

That is the backdrop for these comments – a judgement is about to fall on “institutional” Israel because of what she has become.  This judgement is going to take the form of a war with Rome that is not going to end well for Jerusalem.

We have already seen how Jesus incorporates Jeremiah’s warnings to Israel in his own warning, and it happens again in this passage.

There are numerous places where Jeremiah talks about the sword coming to Israel.  Jeremiah 12 uses the image in response to the fact that “the shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,” referring to the fact that Israel’s leaders have ruined her.  Thus, the sword is coming.

Only a bit later, in Jeremiah 14, the prophet talks about both a sword and famine coming against the land, and he points out that family members will not even be able to bury the slain.  This passage is particularly apt because Jeremiah is contrasting himself with the false prophets who are telling everyone that these are days of peace and prosperity.

Another Old Testament prophet who announced a coming judgement upon Israel was Micah, and it is perhaps Micah 7 that Jesus has in mind in this passage, because Micah speaks of family members turning against each other when the day of punishment is at hand.

So, when Jesus says he has not come to bring peace to the land (gen), but a sword, he is not declaring that he has specifically come to start attacking people or instigate family members to start attacking one another.  He is announcing to Israel what the prophets have announced before him – God is bringing the sword against Israel, and it is happening in the form in which it historically happens: assault from another nation’s army.  Violence and famine and tribulation are not far off, but rather are very near, and Jesus is the harbinger.

The appropriate response from Israel should have been what it always should have been to the true prophets who announced this: repentance and restoration of the nation’s commitments to pursuing justice and returning to the worship of her God.  This is what Jesus is going around trying to get people to do, and in response, he announces God’s forgiveness, an end to the curse, and the dawning of the kingdom.

But this is where the conflict comes in that will turn families against each other.  Not everyone wants to do this.  In fact, many are fine with the way things are and would like it to stay that way.  The conflict does not originate between Israel and another nation; the conflict erupts within Israel herself, and it knows no distinction but those who believe Jesus and those who don’t.

As in the days of Micah, the faithful cannot count on their friends and families to be allies now that the day of judgement is at hand.  They must look to the Lord for their salvation.

This is what Jesus is telling his disciples now that this situation is about to take hold.  He is not telling them that he has come to be violent.  Nor is he asking them to examine their passions and make sure that they feel more love for Jesus than they do for their family members.  He is telling them what the prophets have always told them – the sword is about to be brought against Israel, and on that day, only those who follow me and my path will be saved.  You cannot count on anything else to carry you through that day – not even your own family members and loved ones – and if you do, you will fall in it.

It is this that Jesus sums up for his disciples in the very pithy statement: if you cling to your life, you will lose it.  If you give it up for my sake, you will receive it.

When Jesus talks about taking up the cross, it is important to remember that he had not yet been crucified.  He may very well have foreseen that as the inevitable conclusion to what he was doing, but when he tells his disciples to take up their cross, their point of reference is not the crucifixion of Jesus; their point of reference was getting killed by Rome.  That’s what crosses are for when Jesus is talking to them.  Crosses are how Rome executes her political enemies: rebels, criminals, insurrectionists.  Crosses are how Rome shows her power over those she has conquered.  In our day, we might say, “Get your blindfold and last cigarette, have your last meal, say your last words, and follow me.”  Jesus calls his disciples to experience that now.  Now, before you go out into the world, holster up your cross and get ready to walk a path that could cost you your life.

The disciples will experience persecution and even martyrdom if they faithfully follow Jesus to the end.  But if they do, they will save their lives, and even if they are killed, they will be restored to life by God.  But if they are not willing to do this – if they give it all up to go back to their lives as they knew them – they will not survive.

If they believe Jesus’ announcements and do what he says they will survive it and enjoy a new life in the age to come.  There is nothing overly spiritual about this.  It’s the hard, historical reality that faces Jesus’ disciples in the first century.  Stay the course and live, abandon it and die.

Two options, two paths, two kinds of people.  It is dire news for all those who are making the most of Israel’s plight, but it is very, very good news for the broken poor who have longed in their hearts for restoration.

Consider This

  1. What sorts of upcoming crises do you think the Church faces, today?  In that context, what would it mean to remain faithful to God as opposed to giving up the life He has called you to?
  2. In what ways are we encouraged to think of ourselves as dead in advance?  What things are we dead to, and what things have we been given new life to walk in?

Who Acknowledges Me: Matthew 10:32-33

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 10:32-33 (NRSV)

A quick recap of Matthew 8-10 up to this point:

  1. Jesus is bringing the coming kingdom, forgiving Israel of her sins and overturning the penalties for her sins, demonstrated by healing and casting out demons.
  2. Jesus is moved by the plight of how lost and oppressed his people are and realizes he can only do so much, himself.
  3. Jesus commissions a group of disciples with his own authority to spread out among the people, making the same proclamation and accompanying it with the same deeds of forgiveness, healing, and liberation.
  4. Jesus warns that this increased activity will draw the attention of the powers that be, inviting opposition and persecution for all of them.
  5. Jesus encourages his disciples that their opposition will fall in a judgement that they, themselves, will survive – if nothing else than by resurrection and glorification – and that no matter what happens to them, God knows, cares, and will act.

There is a flip side to all this, however.

Jesus knows that, when persecution heats up, the temptation will be strong to give all of this up and go back to fishing or whatever the disciples were doing before they decided to follow Jesus.  It might not even take persecution; they may be tempted to give it up the first night they have to go hungry because they can’t find someone to give them food and shelter for the night.  Giving up the kingdom and going back to trying to eke out a reasonably comfortable existence is both a reasonable and attractive option to consider in the face of persecution.

When a disciple is dragged in front of the Sanhedrin, perhaps beaten, and commanded to stop proclaiming that the kingdom has come and Jesus is its king under the threat of imprisonment or death, it would be so easy just to say, “Ok,” and get back to your regular life.  You think about your family.  You think about your own well-being.  You think about pain.  You think about your fears for the future.

And at this stage in the game, you may have seen what you consider miracles, but you still don’t know how all this is going to turn out.  There has been no resurrection nor ascension.  In fact, persecution from this age’s powers is something you’d expect not to happen if Jesus were the actual expected Messiah.  You’d expect the Sanhedrin would be in prison begging for mercy, not the other way around.  Healing people is all fine and good, but now the people in power are about to regulate, and Jesus’ counsel is to… suck it up?  Try and hang in there?

That doesn’t sound like a conquering king, does it?

These disciples in the first century had far more at stake and far less reasons to hang in there than many of us do in the West.  We’re petrified that a co-worker might make fun of us, but these disciples would have given anything for mockery to be their worst case scenario.  In other parts of the world, today, that’s still the case.

But always, always, Jesus in Matthew draws us back around to the fundamental decision: Do you want to stand and fall with the present age, or do you want to stand and fall with the new Israel?

The present age has a lot going for it.  It’s already here, for instance.  Its powers are in place.  Its society is defined.  You can find your place in it, and while you may be having a rough go of it, at least you’re alive.  At least you’re not being tortured.  At least you can deal with it.  And being an ally of the present age asks very little of you – in fact, all you need to do is absolutely nothing.

What does the new Israel have to offer?  It has no power.  Its members are the dirtiest, stupidest, sinningest, rag-tag dregs of society you can imagine.  No guarantees of even the basics of food and shelter.  The only, single, solitary thing they have going for them is Jesus and all the promises of God he claims to represent.  If you want to join up, you have to repent of your sins, embrace a new life of faithfulness, and follow Jesus even if that means your imprisonment or death.

Who on earth would make a decision to stand against the powers that be to embrace life with these other people?

The people who have faith – that’s who.  The people who believe.  The people who trust.  And, perhaps in some cases, that trust is facilitated by having lost everything this world had to give them.  Because if you believe Jesus then you believe the judgement is coming, and the world and its powers will find themselves on the business end of God’s great renovation on the road to a new, better world.  You can ditch Jesus, now, and remain separate from him when God’s wrath arrives, or you can embrace Jesus, now, and be found as one of his faithful servants on that day.

But this decision only has meaning if God is going to make good on His promises to Israel and Jesus is who he says he is.  At this point in the story, the disciples have no way of knowing that for sure.  They have signs, yes, but so much of what they see around them and what they are about to experience will challenge these claims of Jesus.

In the midst of such fires, they have to trust.

Consider This

  1. In what ways have you been challenged to give up the faith?  In what spheres of life is it difficult to be faithful and assimilation would be much more attractive?
  2. A lot of our journey continues to be based on trust.  Is our trust blind?  What are some of the reasons you find God trustworthy?

Fearing the Right Guy: Matthew 10:26-31

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Matthew 10:26-31 (NRSV)

The very important key to this passage is keeping in mind the context.  That may seem like a trivial thing to point out, but a reasonably large amount of exegesis of the pieces of this passage is done as if each sentence were some atomic saying that Jesus just spontaneously said one day.

Everything in this passage is occurring within a little preparatory talk Jesus is giving to his disciples before they go out doing what he’s been doing and saying what he’s been saying.  The main theme is that they should expect fierce opposition and even persecution, the vast majority of which will come from the authorities in the Jewish religion at the time.  They will be tempted to surrender, give up, fall back in line, get back to their old lives to end the suffering, but Jesus encourages them to press on.

This passage falls mostly under the “press on” part of the talk.

Jesus encourages them with the idea that, up till now, he has been working and teaching subversively, staying under the radar, but the time has come for the truth to be revealed in big, blazing signs.  This is, in fact, what will precipitate the steeper opposition that Jesus has already warned them about.  The true nature of the corrupt leaders will be revealed, and the true nature of faithful Israel will be revealed.

In explaining why his followers should not be afraid of this persecution, he contrasts his age’s power structure with God.

This is where the helpful English translations may point us in the wrong direction.

First, we need to look at the word “soul.”  The Greek, here, is psychen, and you probably recognize that word as the root of some modern English words like “psychology.”  Because of our theological framework, we probably think of the “soul” as an immaterial, immortal representation of ourselves, and while that is a possible reading, the word is generally used in Scripture to mean something more along the lines of “identity” or even just “life.”

For example, in Matthew 2:20, an angel tells Joseph that it is safe to return to Israel because “those who were seeking the child’s psychen are dead.”  Later in this same chapter, in Matthew 10:39, Jesus says that “those who find their psychen will lose it, and those who lose their psychen for my sake will find it.”  This is repeated almost word for word in Matthew 16.  In that same chapter, Jesus asks, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their psychen?”  The last appearance of this word in Matthew is 20:28, where Jesus explains that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his psychen as a ransom for many.”

Those are all the appearances in Matthew, but the pattern is similar throughout the New Testament.  Soul/psyche is much closer to something like “you as a living person” than “the immaterial, immortal component of your identity.”  A soul can lost or given up.  A soul can be preserved or taken.  Perhaps the most direct counter to the use of the word as something immortal is the LXX translation of Ezekiel 18:20 – “The psyche that sins shall die.”

The reason I’m going on about this is, when we are looking at this contrast, it is unlikely the point of contrast Jesus is making is that humans can only kill you, but God can torment your immortal being for eternity.

The other word that tends to send us on this trajectory is the English word “hell,” but once again, the Greek is Gehenna.

Gehenna is an actual, physical location outside of Jerusalem.  You can go there, today.  You can literally have a picnic in Gehenna.

Gehenna occupies in Jewish theology a location as a special place of God’s judgement, beginning with what we learn in Jeremiah 7:30-34:

For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

That “valley of the son of Hinnom” is Gehenna.  It is a location where Judah worshipped idols and sacrificed their children in flames.  Because of these horrible practices, God will slaughter them and fill the valley with their corpses and destroy the city of Jerusalem.

This is repeated with some more detail and an object lesson involving breaking a pot in Jeremiah 19, where the prophet actually delivers this pronouncement from the actual Gehenna.  Again, for their idolatry and unfaithfulness, God announces a great tribulation and disaster He will bring upon Jerusalem.

One must acknowledge that, in Jewish literature, this idea grew beyond its historical roots.  Gehenna became a metaphorical stand-in for God’s judgement.  One writer spoke about how Gehenna was so wide that the sun never went down on it.  Others, that it was the mouth of the grave.  As you flip through the ages of Jewish writing on God’s judgement, both on individuals and nations, Gehenna becomes a powerful image.  It is a place where God will judge you now and, if you happen to be a tyrant, after you die.

It is because of some of the relative fluidity of the imagery of Gehenna that I will say that the idea that Jesus is talking about God punishing an immortal soul in a spiritual location of torment is a possible reading.  And, given the contrast, there’s a certain logic to it.

However, I do not think this is the most likely reading.

Jesus’ reference to Gehenna takes the warning of Jeremiah and brings it into his own day.  Judah’s kings have led her astray into new kinds of idolatry and dissolution.  Jerusalem has become a site of infidelity.  A judgement to set this situation to rights is coming, and Jesus is announcing this to Israel.  Jeremiah foresaw this destruction coming at the hands of Babylon; Jesus foresees it coming by Rome.  Jeremiah was persecuted for his warnings by the priests of Israel, which is exactly what Jesus is warning will happen to him and his followers.

Very illuminating is the prayer Jeremiah makes in chapter 20, praying against his persecutors.  In this prayer, he describes the people who seek his life and make him wish he had never even been born, but he knows the Lord will defend him and rise against them.

This, I would say, tells us what we need to know to understand Jesus in his context.

Those who remain faithful to proclaiming the message God has given them through Jesus will experience opposition and persecution.  These people may torture the body.  They may even kill it.  But the faithful will not be destroyed, but live.  God will deliver them from their imprisonment, judge their tormentors, and even if they should die, they will rise to reign with Christ in the next age when God has broken the power of these oppressors and brought a new way of life to His faithful.

It is because of this that his disciples should not fear their persecutors.  It is the same hope that kept Jeremiah going, saying he could not contain the warning because it burned like a fire in his bones.  He had to proclaim it, and the suffering he experienced made him actually angry with God for putting him in this position, but he also knew God would vindicate him and save him.  Your body may die, but you will have saved your psychen.

By contrast, God is about to bring judgement once again on Jerusalem.  Gehenna will once again be filled with corpses as the pagan invaders raze the city.  The people who fall in this judgement will not live.  They will not be vindicated.  They will not reign with Christ.  They will not rise again.  The grave will be the end for them… if they’re lucky.  They will have lost their psychen.

The contrast Jesus offers is that it is far better to suffer and die at the hands of the persecutors and commit your faithful life into the hands of a vindicating God than to die in the judgement God is bringing, after which is no hope, no vindication, no salvation – only death, destruction, and loss.  Forever.

It is the same, pivotal choice Matthew has presented to us throughout his gospel, over and over again on different occasions.  You can conform to the powers of this age and die with them in the coming judgement, broken forever, wiped from the pages of the Book of Life, or you can identify with the poor, suffering, bedraggled faithful, and find yourself exalted.  And even if you die, you will not die, but live!  Live through this age into the next and endless ages to come.

Jeremiah made his decision.  Jesus made his decision.  His followers have to make that decision, and what they do with the rest of their lives will tell the tale.

But Jesus does not simply let the choice hang.  In one of the more touching and beloved passages of the Church, Jesus reminds them that this is not just some issue of cosmic accounting or the fallout of the clash of nations.  Jesus reminds them that God cares about them as individuals!

To those of us steeped in American evangelicalism, maybe this is old news.  We make the individual the center of the universe and the highest point of God’s attention, desires, and plans, so this is probably no big deal to us because we already think everything God is, does, or wants revolves around our individual lives.

But this perspective has more to do with our modern ethos and American values than it does the Bible’s world, which overwhelmingly emphasizes the collective.  God loves a people, calls a people, saves a people, justifies a people, and glorifies a people, and you are either in that people or not, and your destiny is carried by that larger vessel.

In the grandeur of the Bible’s perspective, we find very few nods to anything describing God’s relationship to individual, nameless believers throughout history.  But here is one.  Jesus comforts his disciples by assuring them that God even superintends the life and death of sparrows, and how much more important to God are the disciples than sparrows!  And just to make sure they understand the point, Jesus tells them that even the individual hairs on their head are noted by God.

I’ll admit it – I struggle with the notion that God cares deeply for me as an individual.  I intellectually agree with that idea, sure, but I struggle to truly internalize it as a deep belief that I walk in (to use a handy evangelical phrase).  But here is a bold proclamation of Jesus that God attends to even the smallest of things.  If He is interested in the lives of sparrows, how much more does He attend to my life?  How can He know the hairs on my head if He pays no attention to me as an individual?

Granted, Jesus is making a speech and using expansive imagery.  Granted, Jesus is talking to the people in front of him and not to everyone throughout time.  But the logic he uses does not seem to be able to be constrained only to the local audience.  If that deal about the sparrows works for them, for instance, it works for everybody.  It is unlikely God only cared about the sparrows within earshot of Jesus.  Jesus’ whole point is that God’s care and attention knows no bounds and no concept of insignificance.  There is nothing He has created that He does not attend to and have intimate knowledge of, and that scope includes you and me.  And birds and hairs, apparently, but Jesus lets us know that disciples rate higher.

And this truth about God’s regard is also meant to comfort the disciples.  When they are dragged into the synagogues and commanded to stop preaching.  When they are brought into courts under false charges to shut them up.  When they are in prison.  When they are beaten.  When their bodies are being burned.  However much they may hate it, the one thing they cannot think is that God has forgotten them, that God does not care, that God will let this situation go unanswered.  The timing may not be yours, and the form it comes in might not be yours, but He is there, He knows, He cares, and He will not take it lying down.

And why?  Because of His love.  His love for those poor, lost, wayward, dirty, poor, sinful sheep of Israel.  His love for the Gentile doofuses who believed in Jesus and are all ready for the Bible study as soon as they get back from the orgy.  His love for brokenly, uproariously, sinful fools who know nothing, but for faith, love, and hope continue to open their arms to God and walk forward as best they can.

People like you and me.

Consider This

  1. What is our message to our world, today, concerning this creator God.  Who is He and what is He doing?  How do we get that message across, and who is likely to want it to stop?
  2. Jeremiah is incredibly resentful toward God in chapter 20 as he prays because of what he is suffering, and he feels that God will not allow him to stop.  This doesn’t seem to diminish God’s regard for Jeremiah in the least.  Do you ever resent God because your attempts at faithfulness just seem to land you in deeper suffering?  Have you ever told Him?

Master of the House: Matthew 10:24-25

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”

Matthew 10:24-25 (NRSV)

Master o’ the house / dum da dee da dum / fifty cents for looking in the mirror twice….

I think the song goes something like that.

This passage is in a larger flow where Jesus is ready to ramp up the mission, so he is sending out his disciples to heal and cast out demons and announce the kingdom has finally come.  In response to the notoriety this will almost surely bring Jesus’ movement, Jesus foresees that persecution will increase and involve his followers at a level they’ve been somewhat shielded from.  Jesus is preparing them for this in the hopes that they will remain steadfast even in the face of opposition.

This short bit is simply making the point that, if people oppose Jesus, they will most certainly oppose his followers.  If Jesus, with his demonstrable power, authority, and following, will be maligned and persecuted, people won’t think twice about doing the same thing to ol’ Simon the Cananaean.  Do you remember Simon the Cananaean?  Exactly.  (HINT)

One interesting bit of the analogy is Jesus conjuring up the image of people calling him Beelzebul.

Beelzebul was a god of divination in Ekron.  He is mentioned in 2 Kings 1 as the deity that a sick Ahaziah (king of Israel) consults to see if he will recover.  Elijah meets the king’s emissaries on the way and has strong opinions about this, saying (among other things), “Is there no god in Israel such that you must inquire of Baal-zebul?”

The idea, of course, is that there is a God in Israel, but rather than consult with the true God of Israel, the king is consulting with a pagan one of some other nation.

Jesus’ opponents are apparently ascribing Jesus’ work to the powers of false, pagan gods as opposed to the true God of Israel.  This is an objection that will crop up more than once, and we’ll see it in more direct form in Matthew 12.

The irony of this is that it is Jesus who is a prophet of Israel’s God, and it is his opponents who have received their power from pagan sources – not ancient gods of Ekron, perhaps, but from Caesar and his Empire – the gods of their age.

This is how Matthew has drawn the lines of the conflict over and over again.  On the one side are the forces who have all the inertia.  They are the keepers of the Temple and the Law.  They have official leadership positions.  While some may criticize the Empire and appear to be defenders of Israel, the reality is that many of them were either placed in their position directly by the Empire or maintain their comfortable lives by not rocking the boat.  While they externally appear to be faithful to the true God and be shepherds of His people, the reality is that they are shills for a pagan power.  They enjoy their comfort and their position and that’s the way things are going to stay.  Not all of Jesus’ opponents will fit this model, but Matthew draws a picture of a great many who do. They are the almost faceless, transhuman “opposition” to Jesus.

On the other hand is Jesus, a wandering prophet with dirty clothes living off the land who speaks out against the established authorities and traditions – not because authority and tradition are inherently bad, but because these authorities and these traditions have contributed to Israel’s oppression, not helped set her free.  In fact, Jesus says that the more you follow after these people, the greater the risk of your own destruction when God brings them down.  Instead, you should embrace the dangerous, painful road that he himself is walking, because it is these people whom God will exalt.

It is because of this that perhaps we can have compassion for those we read about in the Scriptures who wavered or never got on board with Jesus to begin with.  If all you had to go on was appearances and the inertia of your day to day life, which group would seem more legitimate to you?  Which group looks more like they’re being rewarded for their choices?  Who looks like representatives of the true God and who looks like representatives of paganism?

But beneath the deceptive appearances is something more primal and powerful.  The leaders of Israel have failed to bring about God’s promises, but this crazy, dirty, wandering prophet guy – he’s bringing the kingdom, and the illusions will not hold together when they come crashing into the power of the kingdom come.

Consider This

  1. If the religious status quo as you know it needed to be critiqued, how would that happen?  How would you recognize the right side?  If a respected pastor was on one side and a homeless vagrant were on the other, would that influence your decision?  What would have to happen to tip the scales the other way?
  2. Does the world treat you better than Jesus?  Why is that?  How much of that is due to differences in time and culture, and how much of that is due to what you represent?