Sign of Jonah: Matthew 12:38-42

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

Matthew 12:38-42 (NRSV)

This story comes next in a series of clashes Jesus has with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees are trying to publicly trap Jesus into saying something that will substantiate a charge of blasphemy or sedition, starting with Jesus’ “lawbreaking” of gathering grain to eat on the Sabbath.  Jesus has turned every situation back on them.  They are coming off looking like the people who don’t care about God or Israel.

By the time we get to this passage, Jesus has had at least three such clashes involving gathering grain on the Sabbath, healing a man on the Sabbath, and casting out an evil spirit.  We need to keep this in mind when the Pharisees and scribes ask him for a “sign.”

The Pharisees are not actually interested in seeing a sign from Jesus.  They have seen the healing and the casting out of evil spirits.  They have heard his message and heard the stories.  They already have plenty of justification for believing Jesus’ message, believing that he is their Messiah, believing his warning of a coming judgement, and responding appropriately by bearing the fruit of repentance and coming to the aid of persecuted Israel.

This is a trap, and Jesus isn’t going to have it.  Maybe the Pharisees believe Jesus won’t produce a sign, or maybe they think they’ll be able to spin the sign in some way that works against Jesus, or maybe they’ll be hoping the sign involves breaking a law or saying something blasphemous.  Whatever the case, Jesus identifies them as evil and adulterous in their request and tells them that the sign he will give them will be that the Son of Man will be buried for three days and nights as Jonah was in the belly of the big sea animal for three days and nights.

Sounds straightforward enough.  Jesus will be in the ground for three days, and this will be the sign that validates his message, but there’s more going on here than just a rote prophecy that Jesus will be dead for three days.

The reason Jonah gets used isn’t simply because Jesus is trying to think of what else happened for three days and nights; he gets used because he carries a message of imminent judgement to the city of Nineveh – a Gentile city that was historically an enemy of Israel – and tells them they will only escape judgement if they repent, and they do.  Thus, Nineveh escapes judgement.

Jesus is importing that situation to explain himself.  He, too, is a prophet sent by God to announce a coming judgement and urge repentance.  He has come, not to wicked Gentiles, but to Israel – people who have even more reason to believe and repent.  And what happens?  Most do not believe; they do not repent.

In this way, the story of Jonah and Nineveh becomes a condemnation to those who hear Jesus and will not believe.  Even wicked Gentiles repented when Jonah brought the word of God to them, but much of Judea will not repent.

This is why Jesus can summon the powerful image of Jonah condemning the Pharisees, or the Queen of Sheba – another pagan who recognized that the King of Israel had true wisdom, and she crossed many miles to hear him.  This in contrast to Israel’s leaders who have a greater King among them and just want him to shut up.

The message is clear, and Matthew has alluded to it in other places – the Gentiles have demonstrated more faith than that portion of Israel that scoffs and persecutes.  Once again, the very people who should have been first to welcome Jesus and obey his instructions are the people who seek to kill him.  We cannot help but think of Jesus’ warnings a chapter ago, where he reflects on the pagan Gentile nations who would have repented at Jesus’ message, but his own people will not.  And like the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, destruction hangs over the cities of Judea like a sword.  And when that terrible day comes, their own history will condemn them.

Consider This

  1. Jesus preached a message of imminent judgement and the need for repentance and the spiritual reformation of Israel in his day.  Do current generations face an impending judgement?  What would that look like?
  2. Like the Israel of Jesus’ day, has the Church been complicit in making the current generation what it is?  What might repentance and reformation look like for us?
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Good Fruit, Good Words: Matthew 12:33-37

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Matthew 12:33-37 (NRSV)

This is a continuation of Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees.  In this instance, they have accused him of being able to cast out demons because he is partners with the ruler of demons.  Jesus has pointed out this objection is idiotic and given a warning that those who are speaking against the spirit of God will not be forgiven.  This passage continues that thought.

Jesus is pointing out that the reason the Pharisees say what they say (i.e. the work of God’s Spirit is actually Satan) because they are actually wicked on the inside, he calls them a “brood of vipers,” and he uses the illustration of bad trees producing bad fruit.  Hmm.  Where might Jesus have come up with such a great imagery?

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Matthew 3:7-10 (NRSV)

Yes, it is John the Baptist.  Long before the Temple powers started giving Jesus a hard time, John the Baptist was on their case, warning the common folk about their true natures.  Jesus picks right up where John left off.  We don’t always give John a lot of air time when we talk about the Gospels, but his impact on the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry is hard to overstate.  Don’t get me wrong, they both seem to recognize that John is a forerunner – a preparer – for Jesus who is the actual Messiah.  Nevertheless, a lot of the things John says and does are things that Jesus uses in his own ministry.  Some scholars speculate that Jesus may have spent a good chunk of time as a disciple of John, and while that may be more speculative than the texts warrant, it does remind us of the influence John’s prophetic ministry and message had on the shape of Jesus’ own prophetic ministry and message.

John, too, preached an impending judgement about to befall Jerusalem, and he, too, called a broken Israel to recommit themselves to their God, repenting and being baptized, because deliverance and the kingdom was at hand.

And when the religious officials show up, John is angry at them.  He is actually upset that someone warned them about the coming wrath!  I guess they don’t call him “the Baptist” for nothing.  Heh heh!  Um, anyway….

It is John’s contention that, even though Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, scribes etc. have the appearance of faithfulness, this appearance is only skin deep, and at their core are oppressors, lovers of money and power, identical souls to the pagan Empire who have been propped up by them, oppressed Israel like them, and will fall with them.  This is Jesus’ position as well.

Here is a place where our familiarity with the Gospel accounts obscure the impact to the original audience.  We’ve always been taught the Pharisees are the bad guys, such that the word “Pharisee” is virtually synonymous with “legalistic hypocrite.”  This isn’t really fair to first century Pharisees as a whole, although it’s not a bad description of the specific ones who followed Jesus around trying to get him killed.

But it’s because we’re familiar with that story that John and Jesus’ words don’t really sting us.  Well, of course.  It would be like Luke Skywalker pointing at the Emperor and going, “You are a really terrible person.”  We know the story, so it shocks no one.

But to the original audience, Jesus is saying this about their role models – about their pastors, their godly mean in the service of the Lord, their mentors and advisors.  It would be like someone walking up to Tim Keller or John Piper or your pastor and talking about how they are, at core, bad trees producing bad fruit and they will not make it through judgement day.  Just about everyone would be aghast, right?  How would you react if the very people you thought defined faithful service to God were accused of being a deceptive brood of vipers whom God would judge?

If you can sort of imagine that, you might be able to imagine what it was like for most of Jesus’ audience.  Your pastor says this man is of the devil.  This man accuses your pastor of being a viper who opposes God Himself.  Who would you side with?

Well, under normal circumstances, you would probably side with your pastor, because why wouldn’t you?  Unless you were intimately familiar with things about his life or his heart that would give credence to the accusations, why would you believe some homeless dude who said bad things about him?

Unless, perhaps, you had seen that dude heal the sick and cast out evil spirits.  Unless you had listened to his words, seen his works, seen how he loves and cares for Israel and contrasted that with the cool isolation and exaltation of your church leaders, and you thought to yourself, “Truly, this man is the Son of God.”

As we come to the end of the passage, we should note that Jesus is still leveling charges against the Pharisees and not making a general, theological declaration.  Theologians may debate if we are justified by faith or justified by works, but nobody I’m aware of has championed the view that we are justified by words.

But Jesus’ whole point is that the words of the Pharisees – accusing the work of God in Jesus of being a Satanic plot – reveal what’s really in their heart.  They don’t really care about God or Israel; they care about themselves and their station and the benefits that come with it.  And therefore, their words condemn them, and they will not escape the wrath to come until those trees bear fruits of repentance.

Consider This

  1. Although Jesus is able to connect the words of people with the state of their heart, this can be very difficult to do for various reasons.  What are some ways you can discern a genuine faith and concern for God’s people over a desire to promote ego or gain prosperity?
  2. What criteria do we use to determine who “leaders” and role models are in the church?  Are these good criteria?

Binding the Strong Man: Matthew 12:22-32

Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matthew 12:22-32 (NRSV)

As is Matthew’s wont, stories of miraculous physical healing are combined with casting out demons, and here is one – part 3 in a series of “Pharisees Trying to Make Jesus Look Bad,” a reality show coming to a Judean town near you.

Because Jesus can cast out demons, the crowd wonders if Jesus is the “Son of David,” meaning that they see this as a sign that Jesus is the promised king and deliverer of Israel.  This shouldn’t be surprising to us by now.  We’ve seen enough in Matthew to know that Jesus’ clash with demons is a political clash and not just a spiritual one.  When the people see Jesus casting out spirits, they see in this their deliverance from their oppressors and relief from their present woes.  Their reaction is not that this man must wield great spiritual power, but that he must be their Davidic king.

The accusation the Pharisees level against Jesus THIS TIME is that the only reason the demons obey him is because Jesus is in cahoots with their master.

Jesus, for his part, points out that this accusation is stupid, because why would Satan bestow upon Jesus the power to dismantle Satan’s kingdom and destroy his works?  Furthermore, if it is Satan who grants Jesus the power to cast out demons, then how do the Pharisees’ own followers cast out demons?

It seems clear the Pharisees did not carefully think through the ramifications of their declaration.

Because of course the Pharisees have to acknowledge that, if their own disciples can cast out spirits, it can only be because of the power of Israel’s God working through them.  And if that is the case, then the spirit of Israel’s God is working through Jesus, and if God’s spirit is working through Jesus, then Jesus is who he says he is and his message is validated.  The long awaited new kingdom of God has come to Israel in that day, and Jesus is her king, and a judgement is right around the corner for the present kingdom that currently occupies Israel.

To further prove this, Jesus asks the Pharisees how you can possibly take a strong man’s property without first binding the strong man?

This question crops up in Jewish literature both within and outside the Bible.  Possibly it was a saying at the time.  “How can you rob a strong man unless you tie him up, first?”

In the Bible, one of the places it appears that may be important to Matthew’s account is Isaiah 49:

Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
    or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
But thus says the Lord:
Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
    and the prey of the tyrant be rescued;
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
    and I will save your children.
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
    and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know
    that I am the Lord your Savior,
    and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 49:24-26 (NRSV)

Isaiah 49 is about God’s vindication of His servant, faithful Israel, whom He will deliver from oppressors (Babylon, in this case), restore to the land, and make a light to all the other nations.

It is God’s mission in this passage to rescue the captives of a strong man – a tyrant.

In Matthew’s passage, the tyrant is Satan and his possessions are… well, possessed people.  Jesus is taking the possessions away from him, but he cannot do this unless the strong man is bound.  The fact that he can do this shows that God has bound the strong man (or is foreshadowing that He is about to, depending on where you like to think this happens).

It is in fact this very image we find in Revelation 20, where an angel imprisons Satan in a pit, an event that is followed by the judgement and reign of Jesus along with the martyrs raised to reign with him in the “first resurrection.”

Jesus argument, as it often is, is that the Pharisees are witnessing these great events right now, and the crowds see it and believe in what God is doing.  The Pharisees, however, not only do not believe, but they ascribe it to the work of the devil.

This brings us to one of the trickier passages in Matthew – that you can speak against the Son of Man and be forgiven, but you cannot speak against the Spirit and be forgiven, either now or in the next age.

This statement gives our systematic theology of salvation fits, because doesn’t God forgive you no matter what you’ve done if you repent?  The commitment to this doctrine is so strong that many have even argued that this “unforgivable sin” is rejecting Jesus’ offer of the gospel – typically meaning that you haven’t prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and converted.  The advantage of this view is that the people who are “unforgiven” are the people who didn’t ask for it and were going to Hell, anyway.

The other popular interpretation is that this “unforgivable sin” is if you ascribe the work of God’s Spirit to the devil.  So, you have to be careful when you say that speaking in tongues is actually demonic possession, for instance.

At core, I think both of these sentiments capture a facet of what Jesus is saying, and another clue is his statement that the people who commit this sin will neither be forgiven in the present age, nor in the next one.

At Jesus’ point in history, “this age” is Israel under Roman dominion, dispersed through the Empire but spiritually centered around the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.  It is into this age that Jesus appears and does his work, healing, forgiving, restoring, and reclaiming.  This is all a single package.  In Matthew, being forgiven of your sins and being healed are two sides of the same coin.  In fact, Jesus tells us that the physical healings are proof that God is forgiving sins.

“This age” is about to come to a drastic end that will redefine everything.  The age that follows will be an age where Jesus reigns and faithful Israel is back on top.

I believe what Jesus is saying is that anyone who believes that what God is doing in Jesus is actually a work of the devil will neither experience this forgiveness, healing, and restoration now (as the Israelite common folk are) nor will they pass through the judgment into the next age, and if by some miracle they could, they will discover that the next age will not be kind to them.  They will find themselves stripped of all their power, while the very people they oppressed will be in charge.  That latter scenario, in fact, is a pretty good description of what happened in the Roman Empire as a whole, even though the judgement happened in Judea much, much sooner.

In other words, they will live under the curse of the Law now, and they will continue to suffer the curse of the Law well into the future.

We might imagine, back in Isaiah’s day, Jews who assisted Babylon in keeping their people in captivity.  We might imagine such people, upon hearing Isaiah’s prophecies, trying to turn the people against him, perhaps accusing him of being in league with the devil.  We might imagine that such people would perish in the Babylonian war with Persia, and we might imagine what might have happened to the surviving captors when Babylon was no longer in power, Cyrus ruled, and he let Jerusalem govern herself under Torah.

Once again, the Pharisees have tried to undermine Jesus in the public eye, and all they have done is given him greater opportunity to cement his identity and cast doubt upon theirs.  What has taken center stage is the world-changing, history turning thing God is doing in Jesus.

Consider This

  1. If God had bound Satan such that Jesus was able to take Satan’s captives away, does this have implications for the church’s mission and efforts, today?
  2. When you think about the “lost,” today, what have they been lost to?  What owns people, today?  What does their captivity look like?

My Servant: Matthew 12:15-21

When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.

    And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Matthew 12:15-21 (NRSV)

Jesus finds out that the Pharisees are now plotting to kill him, so he decides it’s probably time to take his operation somewhere besides their synagogue.  Makes sense.

Lots of people follow him, and he continues his ministry of healing.  He “cured all of them,” which seems like a very time consuming activity.  But as is his wont, he asks the people not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah.

Earlier in Matthew, we’ve seen this happen as a concern for the survivability of Jesus’ movement.  If the region begins to proclaim Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah who will rescue Israel from Roman dominion and rule the Jews, this is bound to bring down heat from both the Empire and the Jews who currently rule the Jews.  No one in power is going to sit by the sidelines and see what happens when people start talking about Israel’s Messiah having arrived, and so we’ve seen in Matthew that Jesus is concerned the word doesn’t get out too quickly or too broadly.  He doesn’t want this work snuffed out prematurely.

In this passage, Matthew alludes to this and then some by quoting Isaiah 42.

Isaiah 42 is part of a series where God announces that Israel has served her time in exile and it is time to deliver her from Babylon.  In this series, God refers to Jacob/Israel as his “servant” (Isaiah 41:8).  It is difficult to tell exactly if Isaiah is talking about Israel meaning the entire Jewish people or a faithful subset – probably those who will return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem.

But whatever the case, the Lord talks about how His servant is blind and deaf and incapable of doing much except turning away from false gods.  Because of this, the nations will identify with the servant because they, too, are blind and deaf.  But God Himself will deliver him and Israel will rule the world.  When the nations see this, they will rejoice.

It’s an interesting collection of chapters for a number of reasons.  For our passage in Matthew, the two important parts are the servant being mostly passive and just focusing on faithfulness so that God Himself will do the army-smashing, and the repeated mentions of the pagan nations who will see this and be freed and healed as well.

Mentions of the benefits to Gentile nations are not unheard of in the Old Testament prophets; they’re just particularly rare.  The focus of the prophets is squarely on Israel, and in that light, the Gentile nations are oppressors and bad guys.  They worship false gods, lead Israel astray, enslave her, etc.  The nations are portrayed as enemies.

But, on rare occasions, a prophet will talk about how Israel, in her deliverance and restoration, will be the first among nations that Israel’s God will call to Himself.  Israel is the first, the head, the collective priesthood that mediates between God and the rest of the world, but still, the idea is that the nations who are enemies and oppressors, now, will become worshippers and followers of YHWH and find their own prosperity in this service.  And why will they turn?  Because they see what YHWH does for Israel and they want in.

Matthew, like the Old Testament, is not terribly concerned with Gentiles.  The focus is primarily on Israel.  Even at the very beginning in chapter 1, Matthew tells us that Jesus will save his people from their sins, and he calls Jesus Emmanuel, hearkening back to another prophecy in Isaiah when the birth of a child named Emmanuel would be the sign that God was about to deliver Israel from the Assyrians.

That doesn’t mean that Matthew is saying Jesus is irrelevant to Gentiles.  It’s just that, in this gospel, the Gentiles are minor, occasional characters who pretty much only show up to give Jesus an occasion to say something to Israel.  The focus is on what Jesus is doing for Israel and her fortunes, and we run the risk of misunderstanding Jesus if we try to make his mission about all humanity prematurely.  We will get there, but there is not here.

And even in this passage, Matthew’s focus is not on the bit about Gentiles, but is rather on how God’s faithful servant Israel (Matthew sees Jesus as ideally embodying this in a way Israel has failed to do until now) will be subdued and relatively passive so that God Himself will bring down the thunder.  Jesus is not trying to start an insurrection; that’s not what the servant in Isaiah does.  The servant in Isaiah focuses on turning the people from idols and announcing the imminent Day of the Lord, but the servant does not lift a finger against Babylon.  That is God’s work.  The servant is gentle, quiet, humble, restorative, not even breaking a reed or snuffing out a small flame.

In Matthew’s mind, Jesus fulfills this by doing his healing work and keeping it quiet.  He is avoiding an uprising.  He is deliberately trying to keep an armed confrontation between Rome or the Temple and his crowd of followers from happening.

Then we get to the part about the Gentiles.  If you look up the actual text in Isaiah 42, you may discover that it doesn’t say what Matthew says it says.  This is because your English translation of the Old Testament is based on the Masoretic (Hebrew) text.  However, Matthew is quoting from the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament – which ends the way we see, here.

While this may give some of the more fundamentalist among us the willies, I’d like to point out that the idea that the Gentiles will hope in God’s servant is an accurate summary statement of what the OT prophets say about Gentiles and Israel in the future, and that material is found abundantly in Isaiah 42 as well.  If you read the entirety of the chapter and the surrounding chapters, the idea is clearly that Israel will rule the world and, as a result, the other nations will be healed, given sight, released from bondage, etc.  The nations experience the benefits of YHWH as their God because this is mediated through Israel, which, if you recall God’s promise to Abraham, was always the plan.

I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.

Genesis 22:17-18 (NRSV)

In a nutshell, this is a great summary of Isaiah 42.

Also, the Septuagint translators had access to different source texts than the Masoretic.  In many cases (although not all), as we’ve discovered older and older Old Testament manuscripts, we’ve come to see that the Septuagint typically reflects these older manuscripts where the Masoretic does not.  This helps us understand that the Septuagint is a viable Old Testament source worthy of study all on its own; it may have had access to texts that were lost to the Masoretic.  If you’re interested in this at all, one of my favorite popular-level works on the subject is When God Spoke Greek by Timothy Michael Law.

My point is that, even though the citation in Matthew does not match what you see in your Old Testament, there’s no reason to get ruffled about it and, honestly, if you expect the New Testament to always quote the Old Testament word for word, you should prepare yourself for a lot of uncomfortable situations.  Matthew doesn’t, for example.  In fact, in at least one place, his quoted verse doesn’t even exist.

But the point is that Matthew is applying that Old Testament eschatological hope – going all the way back to Abraham – to Jesus doing his work, now.  Although we won’t really get it full force until the very end of Matthew, it is exactly Matthew’s expectation that the nations will hear what God has done for Israel in Jesus and want to become followers, too.  They will want to repent of their sinful ways and worship Israel’s God and experience the benefits that, up until that point, have been largely reserved as a hope for Israel, herself.

And good thing, too, for us Gentiles.

Consider This

  1. Jesus appears to be taking the tack of focusing on spiritual reformation, forgiveness, and destroying the works of the devil by healing the sick, reconciling sinners, etc.  If there’s any deliverance from the political powers that be, he seems to expect that God will handle that.  How, if at all, should that influence the focus, efforts, and work of Christians in the world, today?
  2. If you are a Gentile, does Matthew make you feel a little pushed to the outside?  How do the other New Testament writings tell the story of the role of the Gentiles in God’s work of redemption?

Lawful to do Good: Matthew 12:9-14

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV)

Jesus and his followers were just out in a field, and this becomes the setting for a little verbal contest between Jesus and the Pharisees that ends up with a pretty controversial claim by Jesus: that he is the Son of Man, that he is greater than the Temple, and as such, the Sabbath laws are subservient to him (and all mankind, as it happens) and not the other way around.

From a narrative standpoint, that makes this passage interesting, because Jesus leaves the field to go into the Pharisees’ synagogue.  If you flip these two passages around, it seems like it would make more sense: he goes into the synagogue, has a disagreement with them about healing on the Sabbath, they leave and the miffed Pharisees follow them, they have the field incident, and Jesus goes to DEFCON1.

Matthew, however, has these passages in a different order.  Jesus’ boldest claims come first, out in a field where there happen to be some Pharisees watching him, and then he packs up and goes to their church.  I’m not sure why this is the sequence other than the default, “This is how it happened.”  Matthew clearly intends this passage to follow the previous one, as it says “their synagogue,” and the “their” would seem to indicate the Pharisees from the previous passage.  So, it’s not like we had two, separate stories and they just got redacted weirdly.  It may be that it’s as simple as these things just happening in this sequence.

Well, whether Matthew deliberately arranged them this way or whether he’s just going off memories of how it happened and this is how it happened, he presents a Jesus who has a lot of guts.  Imagine getting into it with a group of Westboro Baptist protesters and saying things that drive them into a rage, and then going, “Hey, I think I’ll go to your church this afternoon.”

Although Jesus does not make the radical claims he made in the field, the situation he addresses is more dire.  Here, it isn’t simply a matter of eating when one is hungry.  We have a man with a withered (xeran – dried up) hand.  Jesus does what Jesus does, which is heal him, thus signifying that he is Israel’s Messiah who has brought the restoration and reclamation of Israel, forgiving their sins in God’s name and overturning their curse.

But he does this on Saturday.  These Pharisees anticipate this.  They even ask Jesus a leading question.  Once again, this makes the sequence of these passages puzzling to me because Jesus just harvested grain on the Sabbath and gave some pretty radical reasons why he was justified in doing so.  Obviously, the Pharisees here are trying to nail Jesus for violating the Torah; they aren’t genuinely curious about his views.  But still.  They already have puh-LENTY of evidence to nail him for blasphemy and disregarding the Law of Moses.  This seems unnecessary.  But, hey, he’s already in your synagogue, I guess there’s no reason not to try to rack up a few more incidents to share with the Sanhedrin.

Jesus answers them with an argument that is much less theological in nature than the field conversation.  Here, he meets the objection basically by saying, “Don’t you condone working on the Sabbath to get your ox out of a ditch?  Isn’t this more important than that?  Doing good on the Sabbath is totally legal.”

There may be a subtle dig at the Pharisee’s love of money, here.  Getting your ox out of a ditch is mostly about economics in the first century and less so about animal rights.  You use an ox to grow food and transport goods.  If your ox is stuck, you can’t do that.  Jesus is using a hypothetical example where the Pharisees’ livelihood is in jeopardy on the Sabbath – the implication being that of course they would fix that.

But here we have an Israelite, and not just any Israelite, but a faithful one who is in the synagogue.  These are the people that the religious leaders are supposed to be valuing, caring for, sacrificing for, helping, etc.  They are supposed to be far more valuable to the Pharisees than an ox, not only because a human being is more important than an ox, but specifically because these are the people that Israel’s leaders have been given charge over.

Jesus is a pretty clever dude when you think about it.  This was supposed to be an opportunity for the Pharisees to trap him, but he has trapped them.  “You would get your ox out of a ditch, wouldn’t you?  So, wouldn’t you want to help a faithful Israelite?  Your own people whom God gave you charge over?  You want me to help faithful Israelites, right?  Or do you think your oxen are more valuable than your own people?”

Clever, clever.

What is at stake, here, is exactly the sort of thing that got Israel in trouble in the first place.  One of the characteristics of Israel that invoked the curse of the Law is exactly this – Israel’s leaders valuing their possessions while treating their people like crap.

There are lots of passages about this.  The entire book of Malachi comes to mind.  Zechariah’s portrayal of a shepherd.  Perhaps one of the more direct referents is Ezekiel 34.  Here’s how that chapter begins:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Ezekiel 34:1-4, NRSV (Emphasis mine)

Jesus is doing what the Pharisees and other leaders in Israel should have been doing this whole time.  The Pharisees won’t strengthen, heal, or bind up the injured, because they’re being “righteous” – keeping the Sabbath laws.  But God wants mercy and not sacrifice, and Jesus will heal this man, thus showing who the true shepherd of Israel is.  Jesus is God shepherding Israel, Himself, which is exactly His proposed remedy for the situation.

“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” – Ezekiel 34:11

I hope this brings into clearer focus some of Jesus’ imagery about sheep and shepherds, but that’s not in our passage, today.

Whenever we hear Jesus talking about the Law, at least in Matthew, we see it as an opportunity for contrast with Israel’s leaders.  They want to know how most thoroughly to observe the regulations.  Jesus wants to teach how the Law can be practiced in a way subservient to the idea that Israel is to love God with all her heart, mind, soul and strength, and also love her neighbor as herself.  If your practice of the Law causes you to do those two things, you are practicing the Law rightly in Jesus’ mind.  If your practice of the Law causes you to drift from those things, God doesn’t care at all for what you are doing, and He will not be impressed by your technical legal obedience.

You may protest, “But isn’t a zeal for keeping the Law loving God?  And isn’t confronting people with their shortcomings loving them?”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m almost positive this was a common thing to hear from Pharisees.

Because, according to Jesus, no, it isn’t.  These people kept the Sabbath and jumped on people who didn’t, and Jesus did not interpret this as an act of love for God or man.  These people strenuously tried to comply with God’s Law and just as strenuously pointed out Israelites who did not, and Jesus thought of this as oppression and pride – markers that you belonged to the present evil age.  He did not interpret it as love, no matter how you spun it, theologically.

That’s something to consider, isn’t it?  God’s perspective isn’t that zealous pursuit of His commandments and calling others out on their sin is intrinsically loving.  It is only loving if such pursuits enable you to demonstrate actual love.  Keeping the commandments doesn’t demonstrate you love God.  Calling out the sinful behavior of others doesn’t demonstrate you love them.  Those things can be done in a loving way but they only are loving if you are actually loving.

The Pharisees are the ones who zealously want to keep the Sabbath and enforce the Law.  Jesus is the one who says, “I know what the Law says, but this guy needs to be healed.  My violation of the Sabbath is lawful because I am doing good for this man, regardless of what the letter of the commandment is.”

That’s something to consider, indeed.

Consider This (Indeed)

  1. Are there instances where you or the Church in general have zealously pursued obedience to the letter of a commandment from God, and it resulted in keeping you from demonstrating love? (Reminder: Obeying the Law and pointing out sin is not inherently an act of love.)
  2. If loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves are the controlling principles of obeying God, even superseding what might seem to us to be obvious ramifications of a commandment, does that affect how we understand obeying certain commandments, practically speaking?

 

Lord of the Sabbath: Matthew 12:1-8

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8 (NRSV)

This is one of the episodes in Jesus’ life that I could easily see happening, today, either among Jews on Saturday or Calvinists on Sunday.  Jesus’ disciples pick grain to eat on the Lord’s Day, and the religious gatekeepers have an issue with this.

On paper, they have a valid objection.  The Law clearly forbids work on the Sabbath and makes no direct exceptions.  Interpreters of the Law – the biblical scholars of the day – had teased out all kinds of implications of this commandment (cf. the Westminster Larger Catechism) leaving the Jewish people with essentially permission to breathe and move around a little.  The Law continues to hold sway in this way.  The Sabbath has always been a definitive marker of the Jewish people, and to this day, some Orthodox Jews won’t even flip a light switch on the Sabbath.

Jesus begins his defense by bringing up counter-examples in the Old Testament of people breaking the Sabbath due to hunger.  David and his companions are one example, and the laws concerning priests are another example.  The priests are especially noteworthy, because not only do they glean their food for the day from offerings, but they also are about all kinds of work in the Temple.

I’m surprised Matthew does not record some wag piping up, “Oh, so you believe the Bible has contradictions in it.  Why don’t you just admit that you don’t believe the Scriptures, Jesus?” because that’s the sort of thing people say to me when I point out areas of the Old Testament that don’t gel.  “The priests and David weren’t really breaking the Sabbath, because if you look at the text carefully….” but Jesus says they are breaking the Sabbath.  Perhaps he’s putting air quotes around that phrase, but we can’t know that from the text.

But Jesus’ intent is not to invalidate the Law, per se, but rather to point out that the Sabbath laws give way to larger considerations, such as the king of Israel and his companions being hungry (you see where Jesus is going with this, right?) or the priests serving in the Temple.

The clash between himself and the religious authorities of his day is something that has worked its way into Matthew in many passages, but here, Jesus brings it to a head on collision.  “Something greater than the Temple is here.”

Well, that escalated quickly.  What began as a theological justification for picking grain to eat on the Sabbath (with some veiled allusions to Jesus and his disciples being comparable to David and his companions as well as priests) ended up in a straight up challenge directly to the Temple, and the Temple is not going to take this lying down.

To substantiate this claim, Jesus invokes Hosea 6:6.  “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

In Hosea, Ephraim (Israel) and Judah have fallen into grave disobedience, allying and intermarrying with other nations, their rulers, and their gods to seek protection and prosperity.  They have left their trust and love of YHWH who had delivered and preserved them up to that point for other loves and other sources of security.  I’ll pause a moment to allow any pastors reading this to make a sermon point out of that observation.

In light of this, YHWH despises the external obedience that Israel and Judah produce.  You can bring your sacrifices all day long to the Temple, but you won’t find God there.  You’ll find an empty shell of a priesthood going through the motions.  But God doesn’t want their sacrifices and burnt offerings (although, it should be noted in the Law, God absolutely wants their sacrifices and burnt offerings); He wants their love and trust back.

A similar theme opens Isaiah right in chapter 1.  In verse 11, YHWH basically says, “Who asked you to bring me sacrifices?”  Well, You did, but the point is that God does not want burnt animal carcasses.  The sacrifices are only meaningful if they reflect a desire to repent and restore the relationship Israel has to her God that has been disrupted by her sins.  Without that desire, now we’re just killing goats for no particular reason other than the fact that the Law requires it.

In Hosea, this situation is followed by prophecy that Israel will be invaded by foreign powers, sacked and ravaged by them, and live in captivity under them.

Jesus is framing his current situation against the situation described in Hosea.  He is telling anyone who will listen that the Temple of his day is as effectual as the Temple of Hosea’s day.  Israel’s heart is far from God.  She trusts in other things, now.  But she goes through the motions all the same.  For Jesus, the Temple and the leaders in it who perpetuate the current state of affairs (which we know is not every single one of them, but almost all) are that empty shell.  Her offerings mean nothing to God and will not stop His coming judgement.  What God wants is not the raw observance of the Law; He wants Israel’s love and trust back.

Jesus challenges the Pharisees to understand what’s really going on, here.  The Temple they serve is a sham and God despises it.  God’s judgement is coming, and the only hope for Israel is genuine repentance and a return to the Lord.

Jesus identifies himself as that mechanism.  He is the king David was meant to be.  He is the priest that the priests were meant to be.  He is the temple that the Temple was meant to be.  He is the one who will lead Israel back to what she was meant to be – a kingdom that loves the Lord her God with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loves her neighbor as herself.

This in and of itself is probably enough to put the lid on Jesus’ coffin as far as the religious authorities are concerned, but he steps it up to DEFCON 1 at the end by declaring, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

To refresh your memory, the Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure in Daniel 7.  In this vision, the Ancient of Days destroys the great kingdom that oppresses Israel, then he gives all glory and rulership to a man – the Son of Man – who rules forever.  Within the confines of the vision, this figure is identified as faithful Israel.

Jesus appropriates this title and image for himself.  He is faithful Israel – the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.  He declares himself to be this apocalyptic figure who is faithful Israel who will be given all authority when God destroys Israel’s oppressors.  And because he has all authority, he is lord of the Sabbath.  If David gets to decide what is and isn’t lawful on the Sabbath, how much more so does Jesus, the Son of Man, the epitome of faithful Israel and her true king whose authority will last forever?

If you find yourself debating what is and isn’t lawful to do on Sunday, I highly recommend you omit Jesus’ last point from your argument.

But it works for Jesus, and as is typical of his rhetorical mastery, he takes the objections of the learned and turns it around on them.  What began as an accusation of breaking the Sabbath has ended as a declaration of war.  And hope.  Bad news for those who are benefiting from the current power structure; gospel for everyone else.

Consider This

  1. If Jesus has authority over the Law itself, how does this affect how we understand and interpret the Law?  How does it affect the role, if any, the Law has in your life, today?
  2. Does the church face a scenario, today, where there are powerful leaders who observe outward obedience but have made allies with the worldly powers that be?  Does this passage imply a message to them?  How do you think they would respond?

Weary and Heavy Laden: Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV)

My therapist has a tendency to pray in public in such a way as to speak to the hearer(s) moreso than to God.  Sometimes, he abandons all pretense and begins to refer to God in the third person in his prayer.  This makes me chuckle a little.  One of the benefits of prayer is how it affects the speaker, and another benefit is how it affects the hearers, so I don’t think it’s illegitimate to consider how the audience will hear your prayer, but it’s kind of funny to me to ostensibly begin by addressing God then veer off to speak directly to the other people in the room.

This seems to be what Jesus is doing, here.  Either this is a continuation of the prayer he began in verse 25, or he stops the prayer abruptly to address the listeners, or maybe verse 25 isn’t even a prayer, directly, but simply Jesus continuing to address the audience.

In any case, Jesus has displayed something of a progression in this chapter, going from his appreciation of John the Baptist, to a frustration with the lack of response from Israel, to a sort of theological resolution of the problem recognizing that this is all part of God’s plan, to an appeal to his current audience to respond.  A faithful response from a listener would make them one of the “infants” Jesus talked about a few verses ago, but Jesus does not think of this as an insult.  In fact, he thinks of it as an act of humility and faith, recognizing one’s powerlessness and limitations, and instead placing themselves wholly in the care of God.  This is, incidentally, the first three steps of 12 Step programs.

In this passage, Jesus makes an appeal to his audience inviting them to believe his message and follow his path.  If we simply read Jesus’ words against the way we as modern (and for many of us, Gentile) readers would understand them, what we have is a fairly generic promotion.  Jesus is a great guy, and he won’t ask for much.

Jesus may be a great guy, but we know he’s going to ask for a lot, actually.  In fact, he just finished warning his followers about upcoming persecution and even death.  This is our first hint that our initial, “plain reading” of the text may not be telling us everything we need to know.  All this talk of easy yokes and light burdens does not seem to jive very well with Jesus’ rather intense calls to discipleship which will involve metaphors like taking up one’s own cross to follow him, or losing one’s own life for Jesus’ sake, or a narrow/difficult path that avoids destruction as opposed to a wide and easy path.  So, what’s the deal?

One possible explanation is that this is a bit of source material included in Matthew that simply doesn’t jive well with the other material.  This kind of thing happens in the Bible more than we’d like to admit, especially in the Old Testament.  You have several source stories about a thing, and the person crafting the book wants to include truths from both, so they get sort of jammed together in the least disruptive way.  While perhaps scholarship has been a little overzealous in slicing documents up into varying sources, the fact that we can take a text and construct wholly coherent, yet differing, accounts of the same event out of its component parts is one thing (among many) that suggests that multiple source and redactor theories are not just imagination.

For some, this may make one uneasy.  You have differing accounts of something in the Bible, and this casts doubt on its historicity, so we have to rush to resolve the tension and come up with some coherent explanation that somehow, in some way, through some device, makes the accounts compatible (cf. every book that has ever been written on harmonizing the Gospels or dealing with the objections of contradictions).  This, I would offer, is an instinct that comes from worldviews that come into play much later than the production of the Scriptures.

In the world that produced the Scriptures, however, it’s no trouble at all to include differing accounts and material if doing so helps us to understand the subject in new ways, better ways, ways that are closer to the truth than perhaps deciding on a single, authoritative account would give us.  It is a way of thinking that points more East than West.  Rather than challenge us to explain the contradictions away, such a maneuver invites us to ask why an author would knowingly put accounts side by side that are difficult to reconcile.  What are they trying to tell us by splicing these together instead of choosing one or the other?

But, I digress, because in this particular case, I don’t think we have some other source material grafted into a larger narrative; I think we are missing the context of the original audience.

Keep in mind the contrast Jesus has been drawing.  On the one hand are Temple officials, Pharisees, scribes, scholars – the authorities of the Torah who should be shepherding Israel but, instead, oppress her, and the Torah is the tool they use to do it.  Paul accuses Satan of doing something very similar, actually, in Romans.

On the other hand are fishermen, farmers, peasants, the poor, the sinners – people who probably have a very casual/cultural/nominal relationship to Torah BUT are turning out to be the same crowd who are drawn to Jesus.

The prosperous authorities and the Law as a tool to keep people down on the one hand.  On the other hand are the scum of the earth and the dregs of humanity.  The first group has the appearance of being loyal to God and being rewarded as a result, but the reality is that their hearts are far from him, they love themselves, and this is displayed in their opposition to Jesus.  The second group is seeing their God truly for the first time, and they want it and the kingdom He wants to establish, and this is displayed in their faith in Jesus.

The image Jesus draws up is that these poor and oppressed listeners are like yoked oxen under a heavy burden.  This is not an image Jesus came up with off the top of his head.  It has a history.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses announces that part of the curse that will fall upon Israel if she disobeys the Law is, “you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything.  He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.” (Deut. 28:48, NRSV)

In 1 Kings 12, King Rehoboam takes the wrong advice and decides that he will increase the “yoke” his father put upon the people, meaning that he will demand harder service, more taxes, and enforce stricter penalties: “Now whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke.  My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:11, NRSV)

While Rehoboam was rocking like a hurricane, the metaphor of the yoke also became a symbol for the Law – the covenant that Israel took upon herself.  For example, when the prophet Jeremiah muses that poor people won’t know the Torah, but surely the rich are keeping the Law, he discovers: “But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst their bonds.” (Jer. 5:5, NRSV)

But the yoke is a suitable image for the Torah because it represents the rule of God over His people.  The yoke still serves as an image for the rulership of oppressive kings, as we see still in Jeremiah 28, where Hananiah and Jeremiah have a prophetic dance-off, and Hananiah prophesies that God will break the “yoke” of Babylon in two years, and Jeremiah counters, “Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals.” (Jer. 28:13-14)

So, the imagery of the yoke has these two, closely related referents in Israel’s history.  All the references have at their root rulership.  Someone is under an obligation of service to someone else.  As we see it in the Old Testament, one common referent is an oppressive rule.  Another referent is the covenant of the Torah.  And as we’ve seen, in some cases, these two usages are compared and contrasted.  If you throw off the yoke of the Torah, you will incur the yoke of oppressive rule.

But we also know these images can blur together when talking about the Torah as an oppressive rule.  For example, Peter refers to keeping the various obligations of the Torah as “a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear” in Acts 15:10.  Paul, referring to the covenant of circumcision, instructs the Galatians that Christ has set them free, and they should not “submit again to a yoke of slavery” in Gal. 5:1.

In rabbinic literature, the image of the yoke is also used to describe rule by the Torah and oppressive rule by others.  For instance, in Avot 3:5, Nehunya b. ha-Kanah tells us: “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns.”  The reading of the Shema is called “accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” and agreeing to perform the Commandments (the second paragraph of the Shema) is called “accepting the yoke of the Commandments.”

Against this backdrop, Jesus’ contrast becomes clearer.

The people Jesus is appealing to are Israel under the curse of the Law.  They are under an oppressive, pagan rule that is grinding them into the ground.  Furthermore, the very people who should give them hope are using the Torah to alienate them further from the very God who would deliver them.  They are burdened oxen with a heavy yoke, and they have been laboring under it a long, long time.

By contrast, Jesus encourages the people to trade that yoke for his.  Embrace Jesus as king, not Caesar or Herod.  Embrace Jesus’ administration of Law, not the chief priests and Pharisees.  Jesus’ yoke is light.  Jesus’ yoke means deliverance.  The only way out of the Law’s curses and out of the thumbs of the oppressor is to embrace a new king and a new legal administration – the Torah of love – the heart of the Torah – a return to commandments that are meant to build up, reconcile, restore, and grow instead of alienating, condemning, and ostracizing.

A new kingdom is at the doorstep and a new king is among them, and he brings a legal administration that is loving and good and seeks the good of the people who take it on.  It is hope.  It is deliverance.  It is life.  It is a stark alternative.  It is a direct challenge to the powers that be of Jesus’ day.

And, wonder of wonders, how does Jesus ask for their trust?  By stating that he is one of them.  “I am humble in heart.”  Jesus is poor.  Jesus is living under their situation.  Jesus is not an official, not prosperous, not a high ranking Temple official.  He’s a commoner.  He’s one of the unwashed masses.  The second Moses identifies with humble Israel as did the first Moses.  He is one of them, he will fight for them, and he will protect them even from the wrath of God Himself as Moses did for Israel so long ago.

Do you hear with the ears of those first century Israelites – shadows of their former selves ground into the dirt?  Does this, perhaps, sound like gospel – good news – to you?

Consider This

  1. Some take the position that Jesus overthrew everything about the Law.  Some take the position that Jesus intended to keep the Law going more or less unchanged.  What do you think?  How does Jesus use the Law?  How does Jesus seem to countermand the Law?  Does this have any ramifications for the value we as modern readers might get from the Law or its appropriate usage in our own lives?
  2. The Temple and the Roman Empire are long gone.  What does it mean for us, today, to take on the yoke of Jesus as king and enter the kingdom?  What position does that put us in regarding all the other powers in the world?

Father and Son: Matthew 11:25-27

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Matthew 11:25-27 (NRSV)

Jesus has just finished drawing a contrast between the Israelite cities who, by rights, ought to recognize what Jesus is doing right away and get behind that effort, and Israel’s historical enemies infamous for wickedness who, Jesus believes, would have repented and followed Jesus much more readily.  He may be making this projection based on the fact that the people who seem to have truly notable faith in Jesus thus far have been Gentiles and noted sinners.

The vast majority of Israel at this time appears not to put too much stock into what Jesus is saying about the kingdom coming and judgement being right around the corner, at least not enough pursue the fruits of repentance or drop everything and follow him.  In fact, Israel’s religious leaders and scholars actively oppose Jesus, and Jesus sees this opposition only getting worse – drawing in not just him, but his followers.  He sees persecution coming from the synagogues, and not acceptance.

These thoughts lead to a prayer.  The prayer seems to be more for the benefit of the listeners than the pray-er.  In fact, if the last verses of chapter 11 are still part of the prayer, Jesus just starts directly talking to the people listening.

In this prayer, he identifies the dynamic he’s been experiencing.  Obviously, he’s being a little metaphorical.  Infants are not following Jesus around.  Elsewhere, he has referred to his faithful followers who are at the mercy of the world’s oppression as “little ones,” and we might think of other passages in Matthew and other gospels where Jesus has pointed out special places in the kingdom for children or encouraged his followers to be like children.  The idea here seems not to be that intelligent adults are hard-hearted rebels while literal infants have the true revelation of God, but rather Jesus is drawing a contrast between two kinds of people, and this is a theme in Matthew that bleeds everywhere starting in the earliest chapters.

On the one hand, you have a group of people who, by all external indicators, should have been the first to hear Jesus’ warnings and get behind them, encouraging the rest of Israel to turn their hearts back to God, loving Him and loving their neighbors as themselves, and listening to Jesus’ warnings about the judgement that is right around the corner.  This group of people are the priests, the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, those who serve in the temple – these people are trusted scholars and leaders of the Jewish people of their day.

On the other hand, you have a group of people who are just trying to keep their heads above water under Roman dominion.  They are poor and uneducated.  They have only a cultural-osmosis level of understanding of the Old Testament.  They are farmers and fishermen.  They are the very referent of the phrase “unwashed masses.”  They are sinners, doing whatever it takes to survive and keep their lives tolerable.  They do not meditate on God’s Law day and night, nor is it a lamp unto their feet nor a light unto their path.  They once were the glorious kingdom of David, and now they are the flotsam and jetsam of a backwater Roman province.

On paper, it is that first group who should have embraced Jesus as a welcome prophetic addition to their ranks.  “Yes, exactly, Jesus.  We need, again, a passion for loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and we need to rekindle the people’s affection for one another, loving each other as they love themselves.  We need to be the faithful people God has called us to be starting with our father, Abraham, and we need to be the kingdom once again.  We need to take seriously the idea that God will not allow this condition to go on indefinitely for His people and prepare ourselves for the hardships that are about to come.  Thank you, Jesus, for taking this message to the people in ways we could not.  Please, come speak at our synagogues and revive our people!”

It is the second group that should be apathetic or even opposed.  Their lives are close to the bone – brutal and short.  And now here comes a man talking about how money changes a person for the worse and turns hearts away from God.  He’s talking about trusting God to provide if we make being the kingdom – something we lost a long time ago – our first priority.  He wants to take my weekly visits to prostitutes away, or my skimming off the top of the people’s taxes away, and he wants me to spend my time thinking about how to love and serve God and my fellow Israelites instead of thinking of how I’m going to earn enough coin to stay out of prison.  No, thanks.

But, amazingly, the exact opposite happens!

The group that is supposed to know God and pursue faithfulness rejects and opposes Jesus.  They may not like the Romans much, but they’re doing just fine!  They enjoy respect, wealth and the knowledge that they are the true faithful because they observe all the regulations of Moses as they seem them, and they like that situation in life, thank you very much.  While this rag-tag group of sinners who smell like chum believe Jesus, repent, and make amends to those they have harmed.  Some leave the only jobs keeping them alive to follow Jesus, trusting that God will take care of them.

This is what it means for God to have revealed Himself to infants and not the wise, and this is what it means for those who have believed Jesus and followed him to have a true knowledge of God that seems to have eluded the scholarly, powerful, and outwardly righteous.

Consider This

  1. In what ways does what Jesus is doing for Israel more clearly reflect the true God than an exhaustive knowledge of the Torah?
  2. What does this say about what our efforts as a church should be?  What should be our priorities?  What things do Christians make big deals about that perhaps don’t reflect a clear expression of who God is, and what things do we neglect that might be an eye-opening revelation of who God is?  How does Jesus model these things?

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?