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?

Sheep Among Wolves: Matthew 10:16-23

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Matthew 10:16-23 (NRSV)

Jesus is commissioning his disciples to go into the Jewish towns in the area announcing that the kingdom of God has come, confirming this state of affairs by overturning Israel’s curse with healings, removal of oppressive spirits, and even resurrection from the dead.  This is part of his plan to scale up the deliverance of Israel.  The time is here and the people are ready, but there aren’t enough workers.  So, in response, he picks disciples and sends them out to replicate his message and works.

As he sends them, he instructs them what to do in towns where they are received and towns where they are not believed or ignored.  This doesn’t sound so bad.  I’m a Lean Operations consultant, and organizations pay me a good chunk of money to ignore what I have to say (although this is actually something people can do for free).

But here, Jesus ratchets up the warning.  The real opposition will not be from the common folk not listening; the opposition will come from the people who will drag them before the religious and political rulers of the day.  “I send you out as sheep among wolves,” Jesus says, and the metaphor is apt.  The disciples are going out amidst those who will want to kill them, and the disciples themselves will be powerless to stop them.  This isn’t just some thug with a knife – it’s the engine of the Temple power structure and the Roman government.

In the face of this opposition, the disciples are to be as cunning as serpents, but harmless as doves.  This, in fact, follows the pattern of Jesus, himself, who has proclaimed this message and done the work of the kingdom, but has also tried to keep off the radar of the powers of the age by trying to avoid both publicity and any hint of an insurrection.  This is how the disciples are to be as well.  They are in an environment that is about to turn destructively hostile.  They are to navigate this environment with wisdom and avoid anything that might be an excuse for the powers that be to crush them.

Jesus presents this as an inevitability.  It is not an “if,” but a “when.”  The irony, however, is that this persecution will get the disciples in front of crowds and powerful people.  They will be a testimony (martyrion) to the proclamation of the coming kingdom before not just the Jewish powers, but the Gentile ones as well.  The persecution, Jesus predicts, will actually spread the good news rather than snuff it out.

Because in those moments, the Spirit of the Father will speak through them, making the proclamation God wants them to make about the work God is doing in Jesus Christ.  They do not need to fear their (literal) trials because God will be present with them and God’s message will get out as a result, though it may take their own blood to do it.

Once the cat is out of the bag, Jesus foresees a rapid movement of these wolves, creating an environment of oppression such that even family members will sell each other out to save their own skins and squash the movement.  They will become collaborators with the present age – people who turn against their own people in a conflict because they want to be on what they perceive as the winning side.  Their own survival and prosperity is more important to them than their own flesh and blood, and certainly more important than a cause on their behalf.

Obviously, Jesus is telling them the worst because this is exactly the level of heat that causes even the most zealous to waver.  Who wants to be a follower of Jesus when their own son will secretly rat them out to the government as an insurrectionist?  Who wants to be a follower of Jesus when it will mean being publicly shamed, property seized, and a cross waiting for you to remind you that Augustus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and the King of the Jews is whomever Augustus appoints to that position – not this poor, vagrant Nazarene.

For all our colossal whining about “persecution,” there is nothing a Christian in America undergoes that even minutely approaches the stakes for these early Jesus followers, although some Christians in other countries know.

This is why Jesus has to remind them of the promise – endure to the end, and you will be saved.

Because, you collaborators, the Empire is not the winning side.  The High Priest and the Sanhedrin, they are not the winning side.  God opposes those proud and, instead, will exalt the humble.  A catastrophe that will bring these powers crashing down is right at the doorstep.  The kingdom will come.  Jesus will be Lord.

And on that day, if you have been driven from the land, you will return.  If you have been put in prison, you will be set free.  If you have been injured, you will be healed.  And if you have been martyred, then you will live again to reign with the true King you were loyal to with your last breath.  Endure to the end, and you will be saved.

And is this day far off?  No, because they will not get through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.  The Son of Man, that great figure from Daniel 7, the holy ones who receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days – that day is coming faster than the disciples can possibly work, even if they have to flee from every town in Israel.

The hope of deliverance is contingent on faith.  Do you believe Jesus is the King?  Do you believe his kingdom is coming?  Then you will be persecuted by the present kings and kingdoms, but you will endure to the end, and the reward of your loyalty will be with him.

This was the scenario held out to those disciples so long ago.

Do we find kinship with them?  Are they our brothers and sisters in faith?  Do we hope for the renewed creation?  Do we hope for the resurrection?  Will our trust in God’s promise produce endurance?

Consider This

  1. What situations have you been in that tried your faith?  Was it tempting to give it up, even for a little while?  What sort of circumstances do you think would produce such a test of your faith?
  2. What are the powers of this world that claim to rule it?  What does claiming the lordship of Jesus look like in the face of those powers?

Lost Sheep of Israel: Matthew 10:5-15

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Matthew 10:5-15 (NRSV)

Having given the Twelve his own authority, Jesus now plans to release them into the wild to scale up the operation of liberating Israel.

You can see the focus on Israel right from the get-go.  Jesus specifically forbids them to go to any Gentile villages.  The intent is to recover the lost sheep of Israel.

It may throw us off, living on this side of Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, to see such a narrowly focused mission, but this is an important theme in the biblical story that often gets overlooked: the initial mission is to Israel, and it is in the context of what God is doing with and for Israel that Gentiles end up getting included.  Recall the proclamation of the angel at the beginning of Matthew, that Jesus would save his people from their sins.  Jews, not everybody.

It is this mission of saving Israel that will result in the inclusion and salvation of Gentiles.  At the end of Matthew, Jesus will send his disciples into all nations.  At this point in the story, however, we’re focused on what will become of Israel.  Gentiles will certainly be mentioned in the gospels, but they are singular events, worthy of mention due to their irregularity.  The focus of Jesus’ work, at this point, is Israel.  He is going to save them from the plight their sins have landed them in – the curse of the Law.

When the first Star Wars movies came out, it was easy to see that the movies were about Luke Skywalker.  But when the prequel trilogy came out, and we saw the whole scope of it, we realized that the movies were actually about Anakin Skywalker.  He was the prophesied one.  He was the one who brought balance to the Force.  The whole series is the story of his rise, fall, and redemption.  Luke Skywalker is a very important part of that story, but it’s actually not about him.  He is in the story only because the story is about Anakin Skywalker.

I sometimes feel modern Christians need to get out of their own heads a bit when looking at the biblical story.  If all you see is the New Testament, you might get the idea that the Bible is the story of God and humanity in general.  But when we incorporate the Old Testament and see the whole thing, together, we see that the Bible is predominantly the story of God and Israel.  The rest of humanity gets included as part of Israel’s story.

If we come at Matthew’s gospel from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry being about all mankind throughout space and time, then Jesus’ instructions to his apostles are jarring.  They are a weird problem to be solved.  But if we understand that this is predominantly the story of God’s relationship with Israel, it makes a lot more sense.  We know the Gentiles will be included in all of this, but in this scene, the Gentiles are just not relevant.  Israel has sinned, grievously and repeatedly, and has fallen under the curse of her covenant with God.  Jesus, and now his apostles, are about the work of overturning that condition.  Gentiles aren’t even on the radar right now.  They will be, but that’s a later movie.  Theologically, we may note that God knows the future and this was always His plan and such, and that’s fine, but let’s not let that obscure what Matthew’s gospel is telling us right now.

The Twelve are to go from village to village, announcing to Israel that the kingdom of heaven – a concept of Old Testament hope and Jewish eschatology – has now come near.  And how will they know?  Because the sick will be cured, demons will be cast out, and even the dead will be raised.  The apocalypse, in other words, but pretty much the good stuff.

The Twelve are not to worry about provisions for food and shelter.  Someone providing these things for them is their sign that this is a village worth saving.  If someone won’t, or if perhaps they do out of a sense of obligation but will not listen to the message, the apostles are to leave the village and shake the dust off their sandals.

Ironically, the Gentiles now come into this passage, because shaking the dust off your sandals is what you do when you’re a pious Jew leaving a Gentile dwelling.  You shake all that nasty, unclean, Gentile dust off your shoes before you return to your Jewish dwellings.  Here, Jesus is instructing them to do this when leaving the dwellings of other Jews.  Why?  Because it is faith in Christ that is drawing new dividing lines in Israel.  “Clean” and “unclean” are on their way to becoming categories that are no longer defined by the Law; they are defined by trust in Jesus.  This redrawing of the boundaries will be instrumental in including the Gentiles down the road, as Paul will forcefully argue in Galatians and Romans.

And what will become of such people?  They will fall in the coming judgement.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their immorality in the Old Testament.  Jesus says that those lands will be better off than unfaithful Israel when God’s judgement falls on their village.  The apocalypse, in other words, but the bad stuff.

This brings into focus the polarities that have been with us all through Matthew’s gospel – the outwardly pious law-abiding Jews who want nothing to do with what God is doing for Israel in Jesus, and the sinful, dirty, lost Jews who rejoice to see it.

One of these groups will go home justified.

Consider This

  1. What does the biblical focus on Israel mean for how Jews and Gentiles should see each other, today?  How does this play out for some of Paul’s concerns for the early churches?
  2. Is the concept of salvation in this passage a purely spiritual matter, or does it have a more holistic connotation?  How does this influence how we understand what it means to be “saved?”

The Twelve: Matthew 10:1-4

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

Matthew 10:1-4 (NRSV)

In terms of Matthew’s narrative, this is the first time so far we have a reference to the twelve apostles as we know them.

In Matthew 4, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John – and that’s the group for several chapters.  Then we have the calling of Matthew in chapter 9.  We do not get specific “calling” stories for the others.  We don’t know if they gradually trickled in over time during the other chapters, or this passage is jumping over / summarizing a period of time where Jesus selected more.  Some of them, we hear virtually nothing about at all at any point in the gospel.

This is just interesting to me because we often put together a meta-gospel in our heads, and in this gospel, Jesus starts out alone, and then picks up twelve apostles in a chunk.  We don’t usually consider that this happens progressively over time with various pieces of Jesus’ ministry occurring without some of these people present.

The most obvious significance of there being twelve is that there are twelve tribes of Israel.  These men do not appear to be a single person from each of the tribes, but they are Israelites and there are twelve of them.  Having twelve is significant, as we can see from the apostles themselves.  When Judas dies, the first order of business is to replace him.  Why?  Because you need twelve.  They are the seed form, the first wave, the firstfruits of the gathering of the elect and the restoration of faithful Israel.

This passage follows Jesus’ observation that Israel needs a lot of deliverance, and he needs more workers.  This seems to be the first wave of response.  Jesus takes his disciples and gives them authority to heal and cast out demons.

It is important that this is portrayed, not simply as a transfer of supernatural ability, but of authority.  Probably the most direct illustration of the connection between Jesus’ authority and his ability to heal is the healing of the paralytic.  The healing is a demonstration of the fact that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, and the observers are in awe that this ability has been given to human beings.

Jesus as the Son of Man now delegates his authority to these twelve, and once he does, they are able to do as he does.  This gives us further insight into the significance of the healing and exorcism miracles – they are not primarily demonstrations of the supernatural power Jesus possesses but a demonstration of the authority God has invested in him.

And what is that authority?  The authority to forgive Israel’s sin and repeal the penalties.

Israel suffers under occupation and oppression because she broke her covenant with God and persisted even after multiple warnings, minor judgements, and prophetic pleading.  Her present situation is that curse.  She is under an oppressive, pagan nation where even the Temple is under their control.  She is dispersed.  She is in crippling poverty.  And as we have seen in Matthew, the evil spirits and the maladies they cause are the spiritual version of this oppression.  The demons and the Empire are two sides of the same coin.  All of this comes from the curse invoked by Israel’s sin.

But now, here is a man who claims to be sent from God.  This man announces forgiveness of sins to those who are contrite and will repent.  This man announces an end to the present system and a new life on the other side of it for all who will follow him in faithfulness.  And how do we know he isn’t just another false prophet full of himself?  Because the signs follow him.  People are healed.  Evil spirits are cast out.  These are the signs that the forgiveness of sins and the freedom of Israel from her curse has come, and Jesus is the man who is doing it.  This is good, good news for the lost sheep.

Everyone from the man who finds himself working land that used to belong to his family for generations but now belongs to a Sanhedrin because of crippling debt – to the little girl who convulses in the grip of mental and physiological forces beyond her control – to the widow who cannot afford to feed her children – to the orphaned young man who has heard in the synagogue of YHWH and wants to be faithful but cannot afford a sacrifice….

Lift up your heads, ye poor and downtrodden, for your redemption draweth nigh!  His name is Jesus.

And he gives this authority to his disciples, beginning a cascading chain of deliverance that will crash its way past the boundaries of the gospels, into Acts, and into the ends of the earth.

Consider This

  1. When we witness today someone being delivered from sickness, poverty, or spiritual oppression, what does that tell us about God’s disposition toward the world and the role of His servants in it?
  2. In what way are our good works a testimony?  What are we announcing to the world through our service?

Plentiful Harvest: Matthew 9:35-38

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:35-38 (NRSV)

Jesus has been going around to the synagogues teaching and healing, and at some point, the magnitude of his task hits him in a new way.  He sees the poor, broken, and oppressed and is moved to pity because they were “harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

There are several passages in the Old Testament that compare Israel’s leaders to shepherds, and there’s more than one that describes the piteous state of Israel at various times as sheep without a shepherd.  But probably the allusion that fits Matthew’s situation most directly is Ezekiel 34.  The entire chapter is dedicated to this metaphor.  Here’s how it 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Ezekiel 34:1-6 (NRSV)

The passage goes on to describe how YHWH will seek out and gather His lost sheep, and he will judge the sheep that have gotten fat and ravaged the flock.  He will save His sheep and deliver them from the rough places, using some images that are very resonant with Psalm 23.  And what will God do when He saves His sheep?

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Ezekiel 34:23-24 (NRSV)

It is probably not a coincidence that, just a few verses ago, the blind men that Jesus heals proclaim him the “Son of David.”

Ezekiel 34 finishes with an idyllic picture where God ensures that no more harm will come to his flock, nor will they suffer at the hands of the nations, and the world will know that Israel is His people.

Jesus sees that this is the current state of affairs with Israel, and he is moved to compassion for them.  He wants to save them, and he laments that there are so many that need saving but so few people who will work to save them.  He then commissions his disciples to spread out and, only to Israel, proclaim the good news that the kingdom has come, healing the sick and casting out demons as Jesus has been doing.  They join him as co-laborers in rescuing the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

The expansion of Jesus’ efforts to save Israel will not end here.  More disciples will be sent, and after his ascension, the Spirit is poured out, and Judean fishermen discover that they, too, are prophets and healers and exorcists, bringing the kingdom of God, warning of the impending judgement, and calling the lost sheep to repentance and salvation.

This is what Jesus prayed for and what he asks those who have joined him to pray for.  The time for saving his people is now, but the amount of work is vast.  Jesus is just one person.  As busy as he is, he can only heal so many people, cast out so many demons, teach so many people, warn so many people.  His prayers are answered by the apostles and, a little later, more disciples.  It is through the participation of these laborers that God sets up one shepherd over them.

The image of harvest is also one that Jesus will use to talk about his mission.  In Jesus’ parables, Israel is a vineyard that had been given to certain tenants to watch over, but these tenants were irresponsible and did not produce fruit for the landlord.  The landlord sends representatives to these tenants and, finally, his own son.  All are rejected by the tenants, and the son himself is killed.  The landlord puts the tenants to death and gives the vineyard over to others, and the stone that was rejected becomes the cornerstone.

Here, we see Jesus as the good shepherd.  We see him as the cornerstone.  We see him as the faithful caretaker replacing Israel’s former caretakers with caretakers of his own choosing, and the caretakers will not take this lying down.

As with many things in the New Testament, these events are long past.  The wicked shepherds have been judged.  The evil tenants have been driven out.  The sheep have been placed under their one shepherd.  Those things that were future events to Ezekiel and current or near-future events for Jesus are past events to us.

Yet the ravages that plagued Israel still plague the creation in some form or another.  If we look beyond the immediate New Testament story of Israel and the nations as they knew them, we see a creation full of people suffering who have no one looking out for them.  God has demonstrated in history that He will keep His promises not simply through the heroic efforts of Jesus, but by the Spirit-empowered ministry of Joseph Israelite and Jerry Gentile.  This shepherd is still our shepherd.  This king is still our Lord.  His God is still our God.  His Spirit is still our Spirit.

And what are we doing with our gifts and our privileged state of affairs?  What are we to be about if not blessing the nations?  What are we supposed to be if not inhabitants of the New Creation in the midst of this one?  And at the boundaries – at the points of intersection of this world and the next – what else should be happening if not forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and peace?

Care, in other words.

Consider This

  1. Living a life in service to God means, at least in part, being a servant to all.  In what capacity can you serve your corner of the world?

Satan vs. Satan: Matthew 9:32-34

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.”

Matthew 9:32-34 (NRSV)

Here is yet another story that brings up the same elements we’ve seen throughout this chain of healing stories as well as some earlier healing stories in Matthew.  I’m not going to rehash them; you’re welcome to look at previous entries to see fuller developments of these themes.

But in the interest of having pointed them out, in this passage, we see:

  • A medical affliction and a demonic affliction being presented as the same thing
  • The liberation of Israel from her oppressors and a glimpse of new creation
  • Evidence that Jesus is the hoped for Jewish Messiah

These are big themes, important and central to Matthew’s gospel, but I don’t want to keep repeating the same things over and over, so I do encourage you to look back over the last few days’ worth of entries and/or the links above to some entries further back if you’re interested in seeing these discussed in greater detail.

One unique thing that gets thrown into this story is the reaction of the Pharisees who claim that Jesus can only cast out demons because the “ruler of demons” empowers him to do so.  In other words, they posit a sort of scam where the demons really want to enslave people, so they choose a champion and make it look like he’s casting them out.  People will follow this man, seeing that he is setting people free from demons and healing their afflictions, but the demons get the last laugh because Jesus is really their man and people are actually being led further down the path to enslavement.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus will turn their accusation into an apocalyptic declaration of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  Here, Matthew just lets it lay where it is, possibly because he wants to underscore unbelieving Israel in contrast to the believing, getting healed Israel.  You have one group of people who is broken, needy, humbled, suffering, and oppressed, and they come to Jesus fully believing he can deliver them, and he does.  You have another group that is actually doing very well for itself, thank you very much, and they do not believe Jesus, and they actively work against him.

These two groups of people are pivotal in Matthew’s gospel and, in fact, form the bulk of the issues raised in the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not surprising to find Matthew drawing those lines here as well.

But if I could allow myself a bit of extrabiblical speculation, one has to wonder about the logic the Pharisees are employing, here.

By Matthew’s account, Jesus is healing and casting out demons all over the place, wherever he goes, so much so that Matthew has to just summarize the activity, sometimes.  One wonders how a group of people could plausibly claim this was an elaborate plot by the demons themselves when the results seem so plentiful and relentlessly effective.

In theory, the principle works.  This is the whole deal behind undercover agents or double agents.  You appear to be working for one entity when the reality is your allegiance belongs to another entity.  You are earning loyalty and credibility only so that you can ultimately foil the entity that you appear to be working for.

But talk about your deep cover!  The magnitude of destruction Jesus is wreaking on the devil’s works is unheard of in Israel.  This would be like a Russian double agent in the Cold War permanently disabling all the nuclear silos in Russia to win the trust of the Americans.  It’s hard to imagine how this level of damage done in the name of “faking it” could justify the outcome of “fooling people.”  In fact, at that level, you’re not even really fooling people.  Wherever your professed loyalties might be, you’ve effectively neutralized the people you’re supposed to be working for, which is pretty much the goal of the opposing side.  Whatever you might tell yourself, the victory that you’ve handed over to America would be so comprehensive that you are, functionally, a pro-American agent.  It would be difficult to imagine what sort of damage you could do to America at that point that would make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Jesus seems to think this, too, at least in his defense in Luke, which boils down to, “If this is all a ruse by the devil, it is the stupidest plan ever.”  But no, it is not a ruse; it is the sign that the kingdom of God has come in their midst.

All this makes me think a couple of things.  Once again, these are my own thoughts inspired by the biblical text but are not actually present in the text.

First, there is an irony here, because what the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of – being a double agent – is actually how most of Israel’s religious leaders are portrayed in Matthew.  They outwardly appear to be loyal to God and His people, but in secret, their hearts belong to the present world order.  Their works actually are a ruse, when the reality is that they’re doing fine for themselves and are quite content for the world to chug along as it has been.  #NotAllPharisees, of course, but it’s still a dominant theme in Matthew.  And when the pressure is on, they run to their real allies – the Roman occupational force – and they tip their hand for the world to see.  They will destroy the healer of Israel through their alliance with the Roman Empire, thus showing that they never had the people’s interests at heart to begin with, but rather their own power and prosperity.  The facade will come crashing down in a way that’s undeniable to Matthew at least.

Second, I cannot count the number of times over the years that a Christian has described something as “demonic” that is actually destroying the works of the devil.  Whether it is a theology or a practice or a group of people (Charismatics get hit with this a lot, but they also hit everyone else with it a lot, so….), there are many times when someone is actually doing something that heals disease, helps people out of addiction, brings people out of poverty, promotes peace and an end to conflict – things that embody the new creation and a kingdom of shalom that get written off as some secret plot of the devil or just overtly ascribed to demonic activity.

I would say that those claims are very much like the claims of the Pharisees in Matthew 9 in the sense that behind them is this: someone who is not us is doing good.

In first century Jerusalem, the Temple is where you go to get sins forgiven, get prayed for, and if there’s to be any miraculous signs of God’s presence, it happens there in those walls.  Here’s this Jesus strutting around forgiving sins and healing people as if the Temple doesn’t matter.  Or, more directly, as if the people who derive their authority, status, and livelihoods from the Temple are not strictly necessary.  And whether it’s work or religion or government – as soon as you suggest that the official structures are not necessary, the hammer will come down.

People in other denominations, people with different theologies, people with different traditions, even people with different religions or no religion at all – these people all can and do work against the principalities and powers of this age, and they undo the works of the devil, whether they would see it in those terms or not.  We should probably be very careful to denounce those things as schemes of the devil.  We might find that our established conceptions of what God can and cannot do and who He can and cannot use will put us on the wrong side of what He’s actually doing.

Consider This

  1. What groups do you consider a “threat” who are doing good in the world?  Why do you consider them a threat?  What are you afraid is going to happen, and what are your reasons for believing that will happen?
  2. When you are baptized in an Anglican church, they ask if you “renounce the devil and all his works.”  What are the works of the devil?  What does it mean for your life to renounce them?

Blind Men: Matthew 9:27-31

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

Matthew 9:27-31 (NRSV)

This is a story that appears in all four Gospels with some pretty decent variances.  It’s not my intent to try to reconcile these variances into one MegaStory that reflects what “really” happened.  I am not interested in that, and I stand a very good chance of missing what Matthew is trying to tell me by trying to somehow make his account mesh with the others.  What’s more, I would basically be saying that the purpose of a gospel is to give me an objective biography of Jesus’ life, such that discrepancies between the gospels are now problems to be solved instead different takes on the stories to bring out certain truths of particular interest to the author.

Instead, I’d like to look at some choices Matthew makes and why he might have told this story the way he did.

Matthew puts this story in a chain of healing stories.  In this, he follows Mark, although the chain is not quite the same.  Luke and John have this story occurring in the midst of other things.  In Matthew, this chain is headed by a story where Jesus announces a new, eschatological era has come upon Israel that should usher in celebration, and yet there are overtones that there are hard times, ahead.

As I’ve pointed out several times before, the healings and exorcisms are like huge, neon signs for Matthew that Jesus is the expected Messiah.

In the 30s of Isaiah, the prophet urges Israel to remain faithful despite their impending war with Assyria.  Instead, they should trust in God for their deliverance.  Isaiah predicts that Israel will be ruled in peace by a righteous king.  The prophet paints a picture of the destruction of their enemies in staggering terms involving eternal flames and stars being destroyed, and this is contrasted with the prosperity of Israel under her new king.  And then we get to Isaiah 35, where the faithful retake Jerusalem in a blissful reign that even the other nations are envious of, and in the midst of this, we see:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Isaiah 35:5-6 (NRSV)

This is, in fact, the exact passage Jesus quotes to John the Baptist when John is in Herod’s prison and sends a message to Jesus asking if he is the expected Messiah.

Matthew clearly sees Jesus as this Messiah and wants his readers to know Jesus is this Messiah, too.  He is the man who fulfills the expectation of God delivering Israel from her enemies and ushering in a reign of peace and prosperity.

But where is the sign of this?  Well, one of the signs is that Jesus is healing people and casting out demons.  For Matthew, this is a strong apologetic that Jesus is the Messiah that Israel has been looking for.

This is another instance where Matthew has two people where the other gospels only posit one.  Matthew does this a number of times.  We don’t know why.  Some have thought that, since Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, having two witnesses is important to him, and that explanation sounds as good to me as anything.

Also, like the other healing miracles, the faith of the men is key to the outcome.  Jesus does not just waltz up and heal them.  He asks if they believe that he can do this.  It is through their trust that they are delivered, and this is a controlling paradigm for how Matthew’s Jesus approaches Israel.  This Jesus is issuing warnings about judgement and offering a way out.  Do you trust him?  Do you believe he can save you?  That will be the hinge that makes the difference between an Israel with faith who survives the coming calamity and a faithless Israel who will perish in it.

Finally, we see Jesus telling them not to tell anyone, so of course they tell everyone.  Here, as in other places, we see Jesus (through Matthew’s eyes) being sensitive to the timing and progress of his work.  Most likely, this is driven out of a concern for the survivability of the mission.  Despite what some of our well-intentioned songs might say, Jesus did not come to die.  He came to accomplish a mission that (almost) ended with him dying and inevitably involved him dying.  But dying was not the mission.  The recovery of the lost sheep of Israel was the mission.

If word gets out too fast to the wrong people, the forces that will inevitably move against Jesus will begin, and once those gears start turning, there’s no stopping them until Jesus is crushed between them.  In Matthew’s gospel, as in others, we see a sensitivity on Jesus’ part to timing and who knows what when.  Ultimately, Jesus’ death will be presented to us as a willing, planned decision on his part, not the random forces of history that spun up in response to him.  He is not presented to us as an unwilling victim who fell on hard times, but rather a man with a plan, and controlling the revelation of his works is part of the unfolding of that plan.

Ah, but the best laid plans of mice, men, and Messiahs, eh?  These men tell everyone, and perhaps Jesus knew that might happen, too.  Perhaps it is partially because of this that Jesus’ next steps in Matthew are to send followers out to villages to announce his coming.  The cat’s out of the bag, after all.

And what of you, reader, who sees Matthew’s Messiah?  Does he look like the deliverer of Israel to you?  Does this prophet and healer elicit feelings of trust and belief, or does he elicit feelings of scorn?  Do you believe in what God was doing in Jesus Christ so long ago?  Does this move you to trust this God?  Or are these reasons to simply let these stories pass us by of one more rabbi in ancient Judea who lived and died and time marched on as it always has?

Matthew wants his readers to believe.  Do you?

Consider This

  1. Isaiah is full of imagery about ancient Israel’s situations and expectations that the New Testament will later use to describe Jesus.  What are some other passages?  Is the scorn and rejection some felt for Jesus also apparent in those passages?
  2. What do you believe about who Jesus was?  Was he Israel’s Messiah?  What does that say about God’s promises?