Like Leaven: Matthew 13:33

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Matthew 13:33 (NRSV)

If I had a little more foresight, I probably would have just tacked this on to the end of the parable of the mustard seed.  The overall point is basically the same.  The kingdom of heaven starts as a small introduction into a much larger entity, and before you know it, it’s grown throughout.

Where things differ somewhat is in the precedent for the imagery.  With the growing tree, we saw how this was a metaphor used in the Old Testament to describe the rise of powerful rulers and their kingdoms, not the least of which being an image of the restoration of Israel after other trees have been cut down.

By contrast, there’s no consistent use of the imagery for yeast.

There is a fair amount of yeast imagery depicting the spread of sin and corruption in the world.  We see this in both Jesus and Paul’s use of the image (Matthew 16:6, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Galatians 5:9).  The fast-spreading properties of leaven are used negatively, here.

Of special note is the Matthew 16:6 passage, because Jesus explains that the leaven is the “teaching” of the Pharisees.  In other words, it’s not the intrinsic, sinful desires of the Pharisees Jesus warns about, but rather the teaching of the Pharisees.  This comes after another episode where the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking for a sign.  The Pharisees are a force in the world that is destructive to Jesus and his disciples.

In the Talmud, yeast is used as a metaphor for the spread of sin and evil a few times, but perhaps the most illuminating is the prayer of Rabbi Alexandri as we read in Berachos 17b:

Rabbi Alexandri, when he finished his daily prayer, said the following: ‘Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known to You that our true desire is to do Your will. What prevents it but the “yeast in the dough” and the subjugation of the exile! May it be Your will, O Lord, to deliver us from their hands, and we shall return to perform the decrees of our will with a perfect heart.’

In this prayer, the image of yeast in the dough is paired with “the subjugation of the exile.”  Foreign dominion created an environment that permeated the Jewish people, turning their hearts from doing the Lord’s will.  In the prayer, we see R. Alexandri asking for political deliverance that will result in a changed heart and a return to faithfulness.

Also, unleavened bread is a key feature of the Passover story as well as the laws commanding future observance of the Passover.  Absolutely no leaven is to be used.  In the story, this is because the Israelites have to leave that very night.  There is no time to make leavened bread, so the unleavened bread is a marker of the haste with which God will deliver them from Egypt.

However, this also takes on an ethical significance.  Passover observance requires, not only the use of unleavened bread, but the complete purging of leaven from the house.  A Sephardic prayer that follows the burning of the gathered leaven ends with, “Just as we did remove chametz from our homes and burned it, so we pray that we should be able to remove evil inclinations from within us always.”

Leaven, however, also has positive implications.  Leavened bread is used in peace offerings and wave offerings as commanded in Leviticus.  One particularly interesting reference to this practice is in Amos 4:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
    who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
    The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
    even the last of you with fishhooks.
Through breaches in the wall you shall leave,
    each one straight ahead;
    and you shall be flung out into Harmon,
says the Lord.
Come to Bethel—and transgress;
    to Gilgal—and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three days;
bring a thank offering of leavened bread,
    and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
    for so you love to do, O people of Israel!
says the Lord God.

Amos 4:1-5 (NRSV)

In a common type of prophetic warning, Amos points out that Israel observes the Torah laws for worship (sacrifices, tithes, offerings), but this display only makes God angrier because they oppress the poor and the needy.   Interestingly, for Matthew’s purposes, this is followed by a long list of things God had done (punishments) before Israel, yet they did not repent.

Are any or all of these facets behind Jesus’ parable?  With the mustard seed, the imagery very strongly recalled the idea of oppressors being cast down so Israel could be exalted.  Does his use of leaven recall, like R. Alexandri’s prayer, deliverance from an oppressor so that Israel would return to faithful service?  Does it recall the warnings and promise of Amos, that the leaven of true faithfulness would be a condemnation against a corrupt Israel who would not repent despite what God was doing in their midst?

Did he just pick leaven because it spreads fast and takes over?

Jesus does not tell us, and unlike the parable of the mustard seed, his language can’t be closely mapped to Old Testament usage.

The one thing we can say with some confidence is that, like the parable of the mustard seed, the focus is clearly on something that begins as small and insignificant, yet grows to spread throughout the whole shebang.  Just as a little yeast leavens all the flour, even though there is much more flour than yeast at the beginning, so, too, will the kingdom of God fill the world, despite its apparent size at the beginning.

A hopeful teaching that would be important to would-be Jesus followers at this point in Matthew.  It would be easy to get discouraged at the lack of response.  Jesus does not tell them that the numbers don’t matter, nor does he talk about quality over quantity.  His declaration is that this tiny bundle of faithful Israel will grow and spread throughout the known world – Abraham’s promise renewed.

Consider This

  1. Did early church history bear out Jesus’ analogy?  How did such a small, insignificant movement in a backwater Roman province end up swallowing empires?  What were the actual historical mechanisms by which this happened?
  2. In our contemporary world, we generally think of the “spread” of Christianity as sending people with a message to tell people who have not heard it.  This was certainly part of how the kingdom spread in the early church.  Was it the only part? What can we observe in those early centuries of church growth that have an analogy, now?
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The Mustard Seed: Matthew 13:31-32

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Matthew 12:31-32 (NRSV)

This is a mini-parable sprinkled in with explanations of some of the larger parables.  The overarching context is the response Jesus is (or isn’t) getting to his message and works.  He is talking about this phenomenon in stories so that only the people who come to Jesus in faith will be able to understand what he’s talking about.  The rest, by refusing to accept Jesus’ rather forthright message and demonstrations of the kingdom having come will continue not to listen or believe and become signs that the judgement on that generation is imminent.

In this parable, the aspect Jesus brings up is size.  The mustard seed is chosen because it starts very tiny and grows into a big plant.  Mustard bushes can get anywhere from 6 to 20 feet tall and very broad.  Jesus wasn’t trying to make a scientific classification, here, but visually speaking, they can easily get to the size of trees.

This is the main point of the parable – the growth.  Something that seems incredibly small ends up growing into something incredibly huge.  This is an important thing to keep in mind considering that Jesus’ following, overall, has been small – much smaller than he’d like.  This parable tells us that the seed that appears small in Jesus’ ministry will, in time, grow very large.

But Jesus does not just pick a small thing that becomes a big thing.  The imagery he uses is also pulled from the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament, mighty trees are used as symbols of powerful rulers and their empires.  Take, for example, Ezekiel’s message to the king of Egypt regarding how God judged Assyria:

Whom are you like in your greatness?
Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon,
with fair branches and forest shade,
    and of great height,
    its top among the clouds.
The waters nourished it,
    the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
    around the place it was planted,
sending forth its streams
    to all the trees of the field.
So it towered high
    above all the trees of the field;
its boughs grew large
    and its branches long,
    from abundant water in its shoots.
All the birds of the air
    made their nests in its boughs;
under its branches all the animals of the field
    gave birth to their young;
and in its shade
    all great nations lived.

Ezekiel 31:3-6 (NRSV)

In the rest of the chapter, God hands this great tree over to invading nations who cut it down, and it gets sealed up in the underworld.  God then threatens to do the same to Egypt.

But you see the image – the tree grew above the other trees, the birds of the air lived in it, and it overshadowed the other nations.

Similar imagery is given to Nebuchadnezzar in a dream about his impending fall (and restoration):

Upon my bed this is what I saw;
    there was a tree at the center of the earth,
    and its height was great.
The tree grew great and strong,
    its top reached to heaven,
    and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.
Its foliage was beautiful,
    its fruit abundant,
    and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
    the birds of the air nested in its branches,
    and from it all living beings were fed.

Daniel 4:10-12 (NRSV)

Perhaps, however, the passage most closely connected to Jesus’ parable is in Ezekiel 17, where God uses the image to proclaim the future exaltation of Israel:

Thus says the Lord God:

 

I myself will take a sprig
    from the lofty top of a cedar;
    I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
    from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
    on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
    I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
    and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
    in the shade of its branches will nest
    winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
    that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
    I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
    and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
    I will accomplish it.

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

He brings low the high tree and makes high the low tree.  God will bring down the other empires so that He might exalt Israel.

It’s good to note that all of these passages have in common the actual progress of world events.  These are historical kingdoms that will be brought down with other nations, and new kingdoms rising in their place.  They do not reflect (primarily) spiritual conditions or matters of the heart, although obviously these outcomes are predicated on the pride and lack of repentance by the pagan nations and the faithfulness of Israel.

We have to take this seriously when we are reading Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom.  If we make the kingdom Jesus is talking about a primarily spiritual state of affairs, we have bypassed a lot of the point of using this imagery to begin with.  Granted, he could be using the images in a new way, but do we have any indicators that he is doing so?

The Jesus portrayed in the gospels is, in fact, looking for the toppling of wicked power structures to be replaced with the righteous.  It is a vision that is every bit as political as spiritual.  The ruling powers of the present evil age are going down, and the heights they occupied will be given to the faithful.

You don’t have to be a history buff to know that Jesus ends up displacing both the Temple power structure and the pagan Roman Empire.  The Temple is destroyed and is a great heap of stones to this day.  Despite increasing persecution, the religion of Jesus grows until Caesar himself – Constantine – declares Jesus to be Lord of the Empire.  Whatever you think about the success of that project or the modern day spiritual vitality of Rome, you can go to Rome, today, and see very quickly who took control of that city.  These are historical realities that happened in the story of the people of God, and they are just as pivotal to our history as some of the great events written about in the Bible.

Who ever would have foreseen a day when the Sanhedrin would preside over dust?  Who ever would have foreseen a time when Rome’s Caesar would bend the knee and confess the lordship of Jesus Christ?

Well, Jesus did.  The seed that started as the smallest of all seeds grew into a mighty tree that covered the nations, and love it or hate it, the history of the world hasn’t been the same since.

Consider This

  1. The Roman Empire as an Empire is gone, although obviously powerful influences still remain.  The Church has spread throughout the world, although the power Christianity once wielded in society is rapidly vanishing.  What images do you think capture the situation of the Church, today?
  2. What kinds of things threaten our existence, today, and what do you think will overcome them?  Do you think we should look for contemporary political leaders to follow Christ, or do you think the circumstances of God’s people will change in other ways?

The Wheat and the Tares: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (NRSV)

This is another parable where the explanation is separated from the parable, in this case by more, smaller parables, so I put both texts here side by side to deal with them in one go.

Like the first parable of the sower, we have a sower sowing seeds that spring up into the kingdom.  In this parable, the seeds are not the announcement of the kingdom, but the faithful remnant themselves, thus bringing back around the traditional “seed” imagery of Second Temple Judaism.  The sower is the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure from Daniel 7.  In this vision, the Ancient of Days is enthroned on the earth.  He destroys His enemies with fire and gives an everlasting kingdom to the Son of Man.  In the vision, the Son of Man is explained to be the holy ones of Israel – the faithful remnant.  Jesus will take this image for himself – he is the seed, the faithful remnant, and the recipient of the kingdom – the first born of many brethren.

This characterizes Jesus’ activity.  He is out and about reclaiming and re-creating faithful Israel.  A fiery judgment is coming from God, and after this happens, the kingdom will be established and the righteous will dwell in it forever with Jesus as king.  By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus is importing a whole host of meaning and expectations from the Old Testament to explain who he is and what he is doing and why.

But while the sower is sowing faithful children of God, the enemy is sowing weeds.  One might wonder, as do the workers in the parable, why they do not just go through and destroy the weeds.

So, one aspect of this parable is that it answers an eschatological question that faithful Israel surely has.  They are under the rule of evil people, many of which are Israelites, themselves.  There are a lot of weeds in the garden of God.  Why hasn’t God done anything about this?

The answer is given to us in the parable.  If the weeds are gathered prematurely, it will destroy the wheat as well.  It is better to wait until both are ready for harvest, then the weeds can be gathered and destroyed and the wheat can be gathered into the master’s barn.  The long time when the weeds and the wheat grow together is actually for the sake of the wheat – to wait until the time is right when the wheat can be safely gathered and unharmed by the destruction of the weeds.

A similar sentiment is given to believers in 2 Peter:

But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.  But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient [on your account], not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:7-9 (NRSV)

God is holding off on the day of judgement so that He does not destroy believers-in-progress.

Paul expresses a similar sentiment in his letter to the Romans:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 9:22-24 (NRSV)

In this argument, God is delaying the day of judgement so that he might gather both Jews and Gentiles to Himself and not just believing Jews.

So, we see in the New Testament a certain theodicy: why does God not simply judge the wicked and get the whole thing over with so the faithful can enjoy a better world?  The answer appears to be: because doing so prematurely endangers the very people who would otherwise be brought into that new world.

When is this appropriate time, then?  We are not told the specific day or hour (or year), but Jesus explains it is the “end of the age.”

We need to be careful about equating that phrase with “end of the world” or “end of time” or “end of history.”  An age is simply a span of time defined by some notable characteristic.  Even in modern English idiom, we talk about the Stone Age or the Age of Enlightment or (erroneously) the Dark Ages or the Atomic Age.  An “age” is not the entirety of history; an age is a span of time where a present, definitive set of circumstances is in place.  It can be a very long or even a very short period of time (in Jonah’s prayer, he says he was in the belly of the fish for an age), but it is not all time forever.

So, when we hear Jesus talking about this age, or the end of the age, or the age to come, our default should be that Jesus is talking about the present state of affairs, the end of that state of affairs, or the coming time when a new state of affairs will be the case.  This is perhaps why Jesus identifies the field as the kosmos – the present world system.

Jesus is telling us that, even though we don’t know when exactly this will occur, the present age and its powers and values and dominions are facing an imminent end set by God’s timing.  When the clock runs out, everything that was evil and oppressive in God’s kingdom will be exiled from that kingdom and destroyed, and the faithful children of the kingdom will find themselves in a new, prosperous existence.

At this point in the narrative, Jesus is concerned about Israel.  He came to save his people.  He sends his disciples to the lost sheep of Israel and explicitly commands them to avoid the Gentiles.  While Jesus may foresee a broadening of this mission in the future, that is not his focus when he tells this parable.  The boundaries for it are the destiny of Israel in the world, just as the vision is in Daniel 7.  For a more detailed exegetical look at this, I direct you to Andrew Perriman’s excellent article “The Parable of the Weeds and the Question of Hell.”

Paul and the other apostles, seeing the conversion of the Gentiles that Jesus anticipated, foresee that this principle may happen to Israel first, but it will roll out to the rest of the Empire as well.  John in his Apocalypse sees this happening to Israel first, then happening to the Empire, and then – at the very end – happening to all creation.  But at this point in the story, we are looking at Israel, the people in Israel, faithful and unfaithful, and what is to become of them.

And in Jesus’ mind, Israel right now is a mixture of good seed (faithful children of God) and weeds that seek to choke them out (unfaithful children of the devil).  They have to grow together for a time so that the good seed can reach its fullness, but when that time comes, they will be separated, the weeds will be destroyed, and the world will look very different.

And this is what happened.  In AD 70 and the few years prior, Rome fell upon Judea with a vengeance.  The Temple was destroyed.  The holy city that God promised would bear His name with a Davidic king on the throne forever was looted and shattered.  According to Josephus, all the Christ-followers packed their bags and fled the city before this destruction occurred.  It may be difficult for us to conceive of this event as the end of an age and the beginning of a new one, but that is because we do not live in the ancient world, we are not first century Jews, and Jerusalem and the Temple and everything around all that just isn’t very important to us.

If you live in America, a very loose analogy would be 9/11.  While the World Trade Center did not have the significance to Americans that the Temple did to first century Jews (although probably not too much less, considering our cult of money) and New York as a whole stayed intact and does not have the significance to Americans that Jerusalem would to a first century Jew, that event left an impact on the national psyche that was very significant.  In a flash, airport security completely transformed and our national enemy shifted from Communism to Radicalized Islam.  Politics, economy, defense, and even our national fears and prejudices were dramatically shifted after that event.

If you multiply that by several degrees, then you might begin to perceive the impact AD 70 had for Jesus’ audience.  Imagine ISIS thoroughly sacking Washington D.C. and destroying all the monuments and buildings and edifices of government, then they sweep through America and establish a fundamentalist totalitarian government based on their version of Islam.  If you are American, would such an event be worthy of apocalyptic language?  Would that constitute the end of an age and the beginning of a new one?

It is true that things were not all sweetness and light for the children of the kingdom after AD 70.  Certainly much persecution was lifted after that event, but then the people of God’s chief persecutor became the Empire, and this dynamic proceeded to play out on that stage, albeit in a different way than anybody at the time of Matthew 13 might have expected.

All these things are ancient history to us.  The urgency of Jesus to his original audience in this parable and its immediate application to their situation does not embrace us in the same way it embraced them.

At the same time, we, too, look at the crises experienced by the people of God in the world, and we, too, wonder why God isn’t doing something about it.  We wonder if there’s any particular reason we should keep testifying to this God and serving Him when He seems so silent and the world continues to do what the world does as if He isn’t there at all.

What Jesus said to those Israelites two thousand years ago gives us an important insight into the mind of God – He will allow a bad situation to exist for a time for our sakes.  We may not be able to see on our side of the fence how this is working to our benefit or anyone else’s, but Jesus tells us that it is.

And even if such benefits seem elusive to us, there’s one thing that history has definitely established – that God will not allow such things to go on indefinitely.  He will act, and when He does, the world will not be the same.

Consider This

  1. What ongoing “wheat and weeds”-like situations do you see the church experiencing, today?  What about other events in past history?  How did they turn out?  Can we learn anything about the way God works in these situations?
  2. One of the reasons given for God’s delay is to wait for the fullness of repentance and a return to Him.  What implications might that have for our own piety?  How about the church’s proclamation?

Hearing, They Do Not Listen: Matthew 13:10-17

Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

Matthew 13:10-17 (NRSV)

In this passage, Jesus’ disciples ask him why he speaks in parables as opposed to just plain teaching, and the answer is not what we’d expect.

What we’d expect is something along the lines of what teachers or public speakers might tell us – stories are effective tools for getting your point across.  They create analogies the listeners can relate to, concrete circumstances around abstract concepts, and dramatic or funny moments that help the point really stick in the mind.  I have been to thoroughly secular workshops on teaching that often mention Jesus and his parables in this regard.  Good teachers use stories.

Jesus’ purpose, however, appears to be exactly the opposite.  He tells parables because his audience won’t understand their meaning.  He is seemingly trying to be obtuse on purpose – a behavior I personally find very frustrating when I run across it.

This seems a little disruptive to our ideas about Jesus and his work.  Doesn’t Jesus want people to embrace the coming kingdom?  Doesn’t he want Israel to repent and be saved through the coming disasters?  This seems inconsistent with the general vibe we’ve been getting from Jesus up to this point, where Jesus seems fairly direct and urgent with his message.

One possible option is that Jesus didn’t say this.  Perhaps Matthew in his zeal to indict Israel at the time put this in the story.  Or perhaps a later scribe added it.  This passage drops right in the middle of Jesus telling and explaining a parable, so it’s not a stretch initially to think it might be an artificial insertion.

This seems unlikely, however, because this passage shows up in similar, if shorter, forms in all three synoptic Gospels.  What’s more is that we don’t have manuscripts where this passage is absent.  So, it seems unlikely this is Matthew or a later scribe giving us a helping hand.  Even if Mark made this up, it seems unlikely that both Matthew and Luke would go, “Yep, that sounds about right to me,” and just drop it in without giving it a second thought.  It’s a jarring thing to say, and the additional detail Matthew provides seems to indicate he at least thought about what he was doing and not just copying Mark by rote.

Another possible option is that Jesus wants the spiritual and faithful remnant of Israel to hear what he is saying and respond, but he wants to obscure this from those he plans to fall in the judgement.  This would give the passage a very strong Calvinistic slant – even stronger than Calvin’s own commentary on the passage.  The idea here is that Jesus wants the elect to hear and repent but the rest will not be able to understand him.

This may not be an attractive tack to everyone, but it’s not without precedent.  For example, we think of Jesus’ mentor John the Baptist yelling at the Pharisees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  There’s this sense that John, having already decided the Pharisees and scribes are worthy of condemnation, doesn’t want them to wriggle out of it with repentance and baptism.  Perhaps Jesus has a similar view?  Perhaps he has already cordoned off in his mind some of Israel who is destined for judgement, and he does not want them to repent and escape?  Maybe the reason he chooses so many agricultural/farming metaphors for his parables is that they are far more likely to be understood by the oppressed of Israel and far less relatable to the wealthy and powerful.

This is possible, and there are some general themes there that are sort of pointed in the right direction, but there are some troubles with this view as well.

One is that Jesus’ own hand-picked disciples also never understand him.  If Jesus’ plan is that “outsiders” won’t understand him, but the faithful will, this plan blows up in his face in a big way.  Nobody understands Jesus with any sort of regularity.  The disciples routinely misunderstand Jesus and need to have things explained to them.  In fact, this very passage arises because the disciples don’t understand Jesus and want him to speak more plainly.  So, if the idea is that we have a spiritual group of “understanders” and an unspiritual group destined for judgement, we’d be forced to conclude that Jesus really called that wrongly, because nobody seems to spiritually understand Jesus with the exception of the occasional “outsider” who shows more insight than the people you’d expect.

Another is that, theologically, Christians generally believe that Jesus is the clearest example of the image of God in a human being.  While we might debate about how active a role God plays in biblical episodes of judgement, we can all generally agree that He doesn’t like it.  The God of both Old and New Testaments expresses that destruction of even the wicked is distasteful to Him.  He demonstrates that He is receptive to a contrite heart, and in at least one example (that Jesus cited back in Matthew 12) forgave Israel’s oppressors when they repented.

I think our best option is to pay very careful attention to Jesus’ answer.  He does not speak in parables to intentionally cause people to misunderstand; he speaks in parables to fulfill the situation described in Isaiah 6.

The situation outlined in the early chapters of Isaiah is that Judah is threatened by what remains of the rest of Israel allied with Syria.  This is a situation that God says has been brought about by the widespread injustice practiced by all of Israel, and although Judah is portrayed more kindly, she, too, is subject to the same critique, especially her aristocracy.  Therefore, the Lord will call for Assyria who will sweep through the land, putting an end to Israel and Syria.  However, Assyria will also come against Judah as punishment for her sins as well.

Later, we read that God will not abandon Jerusalem to Assyria and will put down that empire as well, also granting a great king to Judah who will rule with truth and righteousness and restore peace to the land.  But first must come the trials and judgement.

It is into this situation that the Lord commissions Isaiah to bring His word to Judah, and this is how that goes:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people:

 

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:8-13 (NRSV)

This passage is actually tricky all by itself, but notice that the lack of understanding isn’t due to Isaiah speaking in parables.  Instead, the people are already in a state of not understanding, and Isaiah declares this to them.  He tells them directly, “Keep on being blind!  Keep on seeing what God is doing and not getting it!”  The lack of understanding among the people is something for Isaiah to proclaim and keep on going.  Isaiah will continue to warn the people and point out what is happening to them and their allies, and Judah will keep on ignoring him.  This state of affairs is both a sign of and a justification for the judgement of God.

In other words, Isaiah does not use tricky language to confound his audience.  He/God is quite literally declaring that, no matter what he says or does, the people will continue not to get it.  They will continue not to respond, and Isaiah’s preaching will just make the problem that much sharper.  Here’s a guy screaming that Assyria is coming in response to Israel’s idolatry and injustice, and the people around him go, “Hm.  That’s interesting.  Say, do YOU think Assyria is coming in judgement against our idolatry and injustice?  I don’t think so.  Seems a little outlandish to me.  Anyway, I’m off to keep adding to my house until I consume the land of my impoverished neighbors!”

See, the people’s lack of understanding aren’t a result of what Isaiah is saying; Isaiah couldn’t be clearer.  It is the fact that Isaiah’s proclamations produce such a widespread lackluster and unbelieving response that let us know that God’s judgement will surely come.

If you’ve been tracking with me through Matthew 12, you can probably see where this is going.

Jesus is also experiencing this as a prophet.  He is proclaiming an imminent judgement and need to repent, and return, he’s getting, “Say, do YOU think the Temple will ever be destroyed because of our unbelief and our unholy alliance with the oppressors of our people?  I don’t think so.  Anyway, I’m off to charge people a money exchange fee for sacrifices so I can kick some back to the Empire.  There’s an addition I want to make to my house to make it look more like Herod’s.”

Matthew has been on about this for at least a chapter and a half, if not more, and you can see how this fits in.  Jesus quotes Isaiah, not because he is actively trying to create the situation of Isaiah 6, but because his situation is exactly what’s being described in Isaiah 6 and portends the same future outcome.  So, Jesus leaves behind the clear preaching and replaces it with a sort of riddle – the parables – which are much harder to understand.  They are a tool for Jesus to proclaim the grim reality of Israel’s situation.  “Doesn’t matter what I say.  You won’t believe.  So, now I’m going to tell these cryptic stories, and your failure to understand them is a sure sign that the judgement will come.”

Now, that alone might not be the best tactical choice.  I mean, why?  Very few people are believing your preaching.  Ok, I get that.  I get that you’re frustrated.  But how does it accomplish anything to start preaching in parables, instead?  Haven’t you virtually guaranteed nobody will understand you?

Yes, he has.  Except for one thing – the people who are listening to Jesus and responding in faith have the opportunity for Jesus to make the parables clear to them.

I don’t want to steal my own thunder, but Jesus will quote from Isaiah a bit later in the chapter to say this: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (v. 35b)

The seeing and hearing the disciples are blessed with are not their own spiritual insights into the parables.  Like the rest of Israel, they do not understand what they hear.  But what “the rest of Israel” doesn’t have is Jesus to open their eyes and ears.

Here’s how Jesus introduces his explanation of the parable of the sower: “Hear then the parable of the sower.”  He then proceeds, not to tell the parable of the sower (he already did that), but what the parable means.  The people who desire to understand Jesus are rewarded with Jesus giving them understanding.

And so we see that Jesus’ followers are not smarter than unbelieving Israel.  They are not more spiritually sensitive.  They aren’t wiser.  The Holy Spirit is not doing something in their elect brains that isn’t happening for the non-elect brains.  They are, left to their own devices, just as in the dark as everyone else.  Jesus’ parables are just as cryptic to them as to anyone else.

But what they do have is the conviction, the trust – the faith, if you will – that Jesus has the truth and is who he says he is and is their only hope.

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:66-69 (NRSV)

And in this way, the differentiator between faithful and unfaithful Israel comes into sharper focus.  The differentiator between those who will make it safely through the judgement and those who will fall in it becomes clearer.  It has nothing to do with who knows the Bible better or who can decipher wise but puzzling sayings.  It has nothing to do with a certain group who has more of the Spirit at work on them than another group.  In fact, even though these lines practically tend to fall between the rich and poor because of their respective attachment to the world system as it is, it actually has nothing specifically to do with being rich or poor.

It is simply this: do you believe that Jesus is who he says he is and that the message he brings is true?

Consider This

  1. Jesus says that his followers are blessed because they have access to the truths Jesus is opening up to them.  For most of her history, those who would be Christians were not able to read or have their own copies of these explanations.  It may seem a bit silly, but have you considered the blessing it is that we have such ready access to Jesus’ explanations of the kingdom that was coming?  What are we doing with that blessing besides writing awesome blog articles?
  2. Do you believe the differentiator that emerged between those who would make it through the judgement and those who would fall in it is still, more or less, a valid differentiator today?  What are some things we tend to consider differentiators that might not be?  How might this affect the message we bring to the world?

A Sower Sows: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (NRSV)

The same day that Jesus has been frustrated with the response he’s gotten from his own people, he tells a parable about sowing seeds and the various kinds of results.

I put Jesus’ explanation of the parable next to the parable.  In the narrative in Matthew, these are actually separated.  Jesus does not initially explain the parable, but after his disciples ask why he speaks in parables, Jesus answers them and goes on to explain it plainly.

Because Jesus explains his own parable, there’s not a whole lot else to add, but some context for this parable may help us to get a firmer grasp on what it means for the word of the kingdom to go out and what Jesus foresees will happen.

In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the imagery of “seed” represents God’s faithful remnant being sown in the world.  This may go back to the “seed” of Abraham, but regardless, the agricultural version is a well-known image in Jesus’ day.  A little later, for instance, Jesus will tell the parable of the wheat and the tares and explicitly identifies the good seed as “the children of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:38).

The idea is that God’s faithful remnant are a “seed” people who get sown in the world and grow into a rich harvest.  How, then, does this image get connected to “the word of the kingdom?”

The latter chapters in Isaiah are chapters about the return of faithful Israel from exile.  They have been captives, but God has kept His promise and liberated them, brought them back to the land, and the other nations will see what God has done and become worshippers, themselves.  The seeds that were sown spring up in a rich harvest throughout the world.

In Isaiah 55, this image is pulled together with God’s word:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11 (NRSV)

In the context of Isaiah 55, “my word that goes out from my mouth” refers to God’s promises to Israel.  They are not just empty words; they are a covenant that causes Him to act.  He made promises to Abraham, and He will see it through.  If His people are captured, He will liberate them.  If they are exiled, He will return them.  If they are threatened with the sword, He will save them.  If they are killed and dispersed, He will revive them and bring them back together.

The promise (word), the people, God’s actions, and the end result – these are the dynamics and expectations that get packed into an image of a sower sowing seed in the world.

This is what Jesus sees himself as doing.

He is proclaiming a restoration of the kingdom – a return from exile in the sense of uniting faithful Israel and liberating her from the curse that her sins have brought about.  He proclaims what God is doing in word and validates it with deed.  The expectation is the faithful remnant will be delivered and, although Jesus does not explicitly state this, it is quite possible he foresees that the Gentiles will see what God has done and respond by becoming worshippers, themselves.

But the hitch in Jesus’ parable is that the seed is not necessarily producing a harvest.  There are some who hear the news of the kingdom and don’t understand what’s going on.  There are others who are initially happy to hear the kingdom has arrived, but they cannot endure the persecution and trials they are about to experience.  There are yet others who are actually well off under the present circumstances and prefer the known comforts of wealth and power in the present age under Rome than some hypothetical future under king Jesus and the kingdom of God in the next.

These are not hypothetical categories for Jesus.  We have seen these very categories of people addressed elsewhere in Matthew.  Some, like some of the scribes and Pharisees, do not perceive Jesus as the promised Messiah and his actions as ones of liberation and restoration.  Others, such as the crowds who follow Jesus around temporarily or sort of flirt with following Jesus at a distance will not be able to abide the coming persecution and trials.  And Jesus makes no bones about this – enduring to the end could mean losing one’s family or life.  Others, such as Herod or the Sanhedrin or Temple officials, are benefitting from the present state of affairs and prefer that to the arrival of the kingdom of God.

Jesus doesn’t give us hard numbers, here.  We don’t know what percentage of people fall into what categories, but we get the idea that it is far more common for the word of the kingdom not to produce a result than actually to produce the intended result, and this captures Jesus’ frustrations from chapter 12 – all Israel should be delighted that the kingdom has come and be ready to believe Jesus, repent, and weather the coming judgement, but the reality is that few are.

But then there is the seed on good ground.  This seed is dispersed, but it takes root and grows into fruit far beyond a single seed.  This is the faithful remnant of Israel.  These are the people out of whom the kingdom will be made – a tiny seed that will grow into a harvest that fills the world – a miniature Israel that will be in the world what Israel was always meant to be – a harbinger of future glory that, in her present circumstances, is also an incarnate warning to the rich, the powerful, the self-righteous, the proud, the oppressor.

Yes, the effective response and growth may be smaller than Jesus was hoping, but he is no less convinced that God will deliver on His promises and this project will be successful.

Consider This

  1. Jesus outlines a few different reasons why news of the kingdom does not have the desired effect.  Do you struggle with some of the things Jesus outlines?
  2. It could be argued that the kingdom has filled the world, and we are in a sort of post-Christendom state of affairs.  How does this affect our presentation of the news of the kingdom?  Can we take some comfort from this parable as we look at the response around us?

Mothers and Brothers: Matthew 12:46-50

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:46-50 (NRSV)

Jesus has been talking about his disappointment with the relatively faithless response he has gotten from his own people, contrasted with his belief that Gentiles and pagans would have received Jesus in faith if they had experienced his ministry among them – a belief that not only seems to occur in reality in isolated incidents in Matthew, but has also occurred in Old Testament history.  In the Old Testament, Israel historically exiled and killed her prophets, but the pagan city of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes, and the Queen of Sheba traveled to learn from Solomon.

This is the backdrop for Jesus’ seemingly harsh statements about his own family.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, we read another harsh saying of Jesus, that he came to set family members against each other, and whoever loved their family more than Jesus was not worthy of him.  As we looked at that verse against its backdrop, we saw that Jesus was talking about upcoming days of persecution against Jesus’ followers.  In those days, some would take them in and care for them, while most would help drag them to synagogues and put them on trial – even family members.  So, Jesus wasn’t saying, in a vacuum, that he wants people to fight with their family members and make sure they love him more than them; he was asking his potential followers to count the cost.  He was warning them that persecution was coming that would even cause family members to turn against them.

Similarly, here, we have to read Jesus’ comments against the flow of Matthew’s narrative.  Here, we have been looking at how Jesus’ own people largely have not responded in faith – only a relative few.  Most have been hostile, suspicious, or apathetic.

In this passage, Jesus makes the same point, but bringing it closer to home.  Jesus’ kinsmen are not those of Israel who are biologically related to him, but those of Israel who respond in faithfulness to their God.

This may seem jarring enough to us, but it would have been even more jarring to a Jewish audience.  One of the commandments is: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”  It is the first commandment with a promise, the apostle Paul notes.  By honoring father and mother (which means following their faith and instruction), the Israelites will remain in the promised land a long time.  If they fail to keep the ways of their ancestors, they will be exiled from it.

So, this is kind of a big deal.  There are some laws in the Old Testament regarding families and relationships that may seem very harsh to us in modern times, such as the death penalty for an unruly son who is uncontrollable, but we also have to understand how closely connected the concept of biological lineage was to national faith, inheritance, and destiny.  If you have a generation that rebels against their parents and follows their own way, worshiping other gods and doing whatever is right in their own eyes, this breaks Israel’s covenant with YHWH and invokes the curse.

This puts some extra heat on Jesus’ observation: the heirs of Israel’s promises are not those who keep the Law by rote – they are faithful Israel who repent and follow the path of Jesus.  This is a similar observation that the apostle Paul will make as he explains how God is still keeping His promises even though most of Israel has rejected His Messiah.

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

Romans 9:6-8 (NRSV)

In Romans (and Galatians, which is basically Romans Lite), Paul draws a contrast between the Israelites who keep the Law but do not have faith, versus the Israelites (and Gentiles, for that matter) who have faith.  The latter group, Paul tells us, is the Israel of God who will inherit the promises given to the patriarchs because they share the faith of the patriarchs.

And this is the point Jesus is making with his striking statement.  We know Jesus cares about his biological mother and brothers.  He is not giving us permission to blow off our families if they do not meet our standards of obedience to God.

What he is demonstrating to the crowds is that true Israel – his true kinsmen – are defined, not by biology, but by faith (a faith that will, in fact, be shared by his actual mother and brothers).

Consider This

  1. What defines the people of God?  Does this apply to you?  What did the patriarchs look forward to?  What does it mean for those promises to be yours?
  2. What does it look like to be the people of God in the world today – to continue the family of Abraham well past the ages described for us in the Bible?

 

They’re Baaaack: Matthew 12:43-45

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

Matthew 12:43-45 (NRSV)

This interesting analogy comes to us toward the end of a larger section where Jesus is expressing his frustration at the response that he’s getting from Israel.  Or isn’t getting, depending on how you look at it.

Jesus is doing wonders and miracles.  He is healing people and casting out demons, forgiving their sins.  He is liberating and restoring the lost of Israel in almost every way they can be liberated and restored short of an actual insurrection against the Roman Empire.  Jesus does foresee a clash with the Roman Empire, but he believes it will end in disaster for the Jews.  The only hope he offers is for the people to repent and follow his path, which will take many of them literally out of the region, but for all he offers hope of God’s protection and resurrection.

But Jesus also believes that this disaster will actually give way to the rule of the Son of Man – that figure in Daniel 7 to whom the Ancient of Days grants an everlasting kingdom.  Jesus believes he is this person – the promised Messiah who will usher in a new age for Israel, but the fulfillment of this plan requires, first, a terrible tribulation and judgement.

The works Jesus is doing are more than enough to validate his message and establish his identity, so we can understand his frustration.  You’d think with all the healing and exorcism that the religious in Israel couldn’t wait to get behind him.  Instead, he’s getting rhetorical traps, suspicion, accusations, and the extremely obtuse, “Ok, sure, but can’t you give us some kind of sign?”

This prompts Jesus to compare Israel unfavorably to historically pagan Gentile nations, some of whom were outright enemies of Israel, declaring that they would have repented and had faith and avoided the disaster that would befall them.  He even refers to a time when this actually happened and the people of Nineveh responded to the preaching of Jonah and were saved.

The reason I recap all of that is, when we look at the analogy in our passage, we want to make sure that whatever we say this passage means, it should probably fit into the larger point Jesus is making.  It’s a point about people who are witnessing the deliverance Jesus is bringing, but they do not turn to him in faith, and are therefore signing their own death warrants in an upcoming disaster.

Because of this, it’s unlikely that Jesus’ statement about evil spirits is meant as a sort of bestiary entry on Spirits, Unclean – as if the point of this is to give us information on how demons behave after you cast them out and what to watch out for.  As if Jesus stopped right in the middle of talking about the faithlessness of that generation to give us a small discourse on demonology.

No, Jesus clearly identifies what he’s saying as an analogy, and specifically an analogy for that wicked generation.  This is all conditioned by Jesus’ specific historical situation when he says this.

The analogy Jesus sets up is of a person who has an unclean spirit cast out of him.  The unclean spirit leaves, and the man has a reprieve.  He enjoys a period of sanity that he can use to put his life back together.  The problem is that the spirit that was cast out gets tired of wandering and decides to come back and finds that their human host hasn’t been idle.  Their life is orderly once more (I hope we can agree that Jesus is not being literal, here – you do not come back to a human being to find them “swept”).  The spirit is not cool with this turn of events and calls his friends, and now the man is in even worse trouble than he was when the spirit was there, originally.

I think this passage is best explained if we understand Jesus to be talking about Israel’s current oppression.  The evil spirit is metonymy for Israel’s situation prior to the coming of Jesus.

We have seen, before, that the physical ailments, the sinfulness of the people, the evil spirits, and the Roman Empire are all different aspects of the same thing to Jesus.  Sometimes the connections between these things are implied; sometimes they are overtly stated (cf. Mark 5:9).  It is no good to try to make Jesus a minister of the “spiritual” distinct from the “physical” or the “political.”  It is all a ball of wax to Jesus.  Israel is under the curse of the covenant, and as such, is suffering holistically.  Poverty, demons, pagan rule, sickness, and sinfulness are all facets of a greater whole.  They are the lions that form Oppression Voltron.  They are the teenagers whose rings summon Captain Enslavement.  I’m running out of my childhood cartoon analogies, here.

But now Jesus has come.  The sicknesses are being healed.  The sins are being forgiven and people are repenting, embracing lives of faithfulness.  The unclean spirits are being cast out.  And Rome?  Well, Rome’s days are numbered – slated to be defeated by the exaltation of Jesus as king, but there is some road to cross before we get to that stage of the liberation.  We see bits and pieces of it with stories like the centurion’s faith in Jesus.

So, the spirit is being cast out.  Israel has a time of respite and healing.  This is precisely the time to turn to Jesus in faith – the very thing one would hope would happen if Jesus cast a spirit out of someone.  Jesus performs these signs showing that he is the Savior, and you believe him and follow him in faith.  Makes perfect sense.

Except that isn’t what’s happening.

Yes, among the people are those who are doing this.  But, by and large, Jesus is rejected by his own people.  They do not believe his claims.  They do not trust him in faith.  They do not believe his warnings.  Instead of his acts of deliverance being a catalyst for national repentance and obedience, they are a time of unbelief and persecution.

And because of this, those spirits are coming back with a vengeance.  Israel may have been suffering before Jesus showed up, but that will be nothing compared to the devastation that will occur when those evil forces come rushing back in – on that day when they feel they have been “away” for too long.

Historically, this is what happens.  Under Nero’s reign, false prophets and rebels stir up the people, even going so far as to attack and kill other Jews, stirring up rebellion against Rome until, as Josephus describes it, “all Judea was filled with the effects of their madness.  And thus the flame was every day more and more blown up, till it came to a direct war.” (Of the War, Book II, Chapter 13, v. 7)

And then Rome sweeps over Judea and destroys Jerusalem.

What we must keep in mind is that Jesus says that present, evil generation listening to him is like a man who is cleansed of an evil spirit and has a season of recovery, but then the spirit and all his buddies come rushing back in to create an even worse state of affairs than they originally had.  This isn’t about demons; this is about the unbelieving generation who will not repent despite the healing happening in their midst.  A much, much worse situation is waiting for them.

Consider This

  1. Although we do not have Jesus walking among us healing people and casting out evil spirits, what works have you observed in the world where people are being liberated by the things that oppress them – physically, spiritually, politically, economically – any and all of those?
  2. What do such works tell us about what God is doing?  How do they help us interpret His works in the present?  How ought we to respond?

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?

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 people 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?