Restoring Israel: Matthew 15:29-31

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Matthew 15:29-31 (NRSV)

In both this passage and the one that follows, it’s unclear exactly where Jesus is and who constitutes these crowds.  Unfortunately, this is kind of important.

The reason we get into ambiguity is mostly because of Mark 7-8.  Toward the end of Mark 7, Jesus is going to the Sea of Galilee by traveling through the Decapolis region.  This region was almost certainly Gentile at the time.  During this leg of the trip, Jesus heals a man who was deaf and had trouble speaking.  It seems to be an example of Jesus healing a Gentile, especially underscored by the fact that Jesus heals him away from the crowd and instructs all the witnesses not to tell anyone what just happened – a common thing Jesus does when he doesn’t want the Gentiles to get wind of what he’s doing.

Mark tells us that in those same days, Jesus feeds a crowd of 4000, which is the miracle that follows today’s passage in Matthew.

Because of this, many commentators on our passage believe the healings described in Matthew happened to Gentiles.  Certainly, in line with Matthew’s narrative, this would make a certain degree of sense.  Jesus has just had a woman convince him to heal Gentiles, so it would be a very interesting continuation of the story to have Jesus go on to perform healing and exorcisms among a great crowd of Gentiles and even, as we’ll see, perform another miraculous feeding that mirrors his miraculous feeding to Jews in the previous chapter in Matthew.

What’s more, our passage points out that the crowds “glorify the God of Israel,” which many readers think supports the idea that this crowd was Gentile, because why else would Matthew point this out?  Of course Jews would glorify the God of Israel.  What would be startling and newsworthy would be if Gentiles were healed by Jesus and, as a result, began to glorify Israel’s God.

If this is what the text is trying to portray, then what we have here is a very dramatic foreshadowing of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God.  Now, Gentiles are receiving the healing, restoration, and liberation that was promised to Israel at the hands of Israel’s Messiah, with the end result being that these Gentiles turn to Israel’s God.  It should be noted that these Gentiles do not become disciples of Jesus, nor do they seem to join up with Israel in any way, but what we would have here is an incident of Gentiles being exposed to the miracles of Jesus and responding in faith, which is something Jesus has speculated would happen.

What’s more, this is an eschatological hope anticipated in the Old Testament – not the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of Israel, but their conversion to / glorification of Israel’s God when they witness the deliverance of Israel.  For example:

On that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the Lord of hosts raises against them. And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the plan that the Lord of hosts is planning against them.

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.

On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Isaiah 19:16-25 (NRSV)

In the prophetic imagination, God is going to deliver Israel from her Gentile oppressors and put her back on top, and when this happens, those same Gentile oppressors will turn to the Lord and become a people to the Lord.

We still have to get through things like Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to see these hopes come into their own, but if Jesus is healing and casting demons out of Gentiles and they are, in turn, glorifying Jesus’ God, we may be seeing this happen in a small scale, foreshadowing way.  We have to keep in mind that, if this is what Matthew is showing us, this is the same Matthew who repeatedly highlights Jesus being sent to Israel and keeping his ministry hidden from the Gentiles.  We have to keep in mind this would be an exceptional episode, and because of its exceptionality, it draws our attention to what it says.

It’s also quite possible this is happening to a crowd of Jews, not Gentiles.

Bringing Mark’s gospel into play does not give us a clear cut indicator of what’s going on here in Matthew 15.  Firstly, there’s been some recent scholarly disagreement as to whether or not Mark 7 is meant to indicate Jesus is passing through the midst of the Decapolis region, sticking close to the border, or is at least at the border by the time the events happen.  I currently take the reading that Jesus is going through the middle of the region, but it’s possible that reading is wrong.

Secondly, Mark 7 tells us the route Jesus took on his way to the Sea of Galilee, but our passage begins with Jesus already traveling along the Sea.  We don’t actually know where he is now with respect to the Decapolis.  Mark’s “in those days” doesn’t really help us out, because that just means “around that time,” not that it happened on the same day.

So, by the time we get to our passage, we’re fairly disconnected from the background of Jesus healing the deaf man in Mark 7.

Regarding the healed people glorifying the God of Israel, well, Jews would glorify the God of Israel and would actually be more likely to do so than Gentiles.  But there’s another reason why Matthew might think it was significant to point out that a crowd of restored Jews would glorify the God of Israel.

We need to keep in mind that the mission of Matthew’s Jesus is to the lost sheep of Israel.  Jesus is not ministering to devout, faithful Jews.  He is reclaiming the lost ones.  He is recovering an Israel that has largely abandoned her God because she considers herself abandoned by Him.

We have already seen a number of places where Jesus is shown in Matthew to be a new Moses (including the feeding of the 5000), and it’s noteworthy that Moses believes that Israel won’t know who their ancestral God is:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13-15 (NRSV)

Moses is on a mission from Israel’s God to deliver Israel from her oppressors, but Israel has forgotten her God and has to be reminded.

What we may be looking at, here, is not a foreshadowing of God’s plan for the Gentiles, but rather a dramatic deliverance and reclamation of the lost of Israel.  Jesus said in the passage before this one that he was sent to the lost of Israel.  Of course, in the passage before this one, he also heals a Gentile.

Finally, we also have to take into account that a large display of Jesus ministering to Gentiles would be rather discontinuous with everything we know about Jesus’ ministry up to this point.  There’s no way he can keep this quiet (there are 4000 of them), so some dramatic display of healing to the Gentiles that everyone will talk about is pretty jarring, not just for Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry but all the Synoptics, really.

If you’re paying attention, you might have noticed that the “shockingness” of this story is both an argument for a Gentile crowd and an argument for a Jewish crowd.

Well, welcome to the wild, wonderful world of historical reconstruction.  When we do history, two truths have to be reckoned with:

  1. By definition, the things that are most likely to happen are what usually happen.
  2. When unlikely things happen, they’re worth noting.

Much disagreement among historians comes down to how this tension plays out.

On the one hand, it would be really irresponsible of a historian to accept all reports of highly unlikely events as historically accurate.  I’m not just talking about dramatic miracles, here, but even events that seem unlikely given the time or the culture or the people involved because they’d be inconsistent with what we know.  Generally speaking, responsible history work sticks with determining what was most probable.

On the other hand, we all know that improbable events are a… heh… normal part of reality.  Think about your own life.  Is everything that happens to you the most statistically probable thing?  Is everything you do or say completely consistent with your general character or culture or situation in life?  You probably don’t go an entire day without something discontinuous happening to you, and that’s just a day in the life of one person!  And when those things happen, you make note of them, don’t you?

So, this is the problem.  Jesus healing a huge audience of Gentiles in the midst of a mission very clearly defined as being to Israel with a self-conscious effort to keep Gentiles from finding out about it would be really out of sync with what we know about Jesus.  On the one hand, that makes it unlikely the crowd was Gentile.  On the other hand, it’s exactly the unlikeliness of it that would motivate Matthew to record it.

Personally, I’m inclined to think the crowds were Gentile.  I think that explains why Matthew bothered to include this story and, when we get to the passage about feeding the four thousand, I think there’s some numerical symbolism that bears this out.  I think there is a nice, narrative connection between Jesus insisting on a mission to Israel only, then a woman talking him into extending his healing to a Gentile, and then this act of mercy to Gentiles on his way back.  I am inclined to think of this story as a shocking foreshadowing – much like the story of the Canaanite woman.

However, I’m very on the fence and could easily be persuaded the other way.  This story serving as a reinforcement of Jesus’ mission to recover the lost sheep of Israel is more consistent with Matthew’s narrative and the second Moses imagery is also very consistent with Matthew.  What we’d be seeing here is a powerful incarnation of God’s fulfillment of His promises to His people as they are healed, freed from spiritual profession, and the lost detritus of Israel begin to praise the name of their ancestral God once more, also fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.

And who knows?  Maybe Matthew left out definitive, identifying information on purpose.  Maybe we’re supposed to come away with both truths – the hope for the Gentiles and the salvation of Israel – found pictured here in the ministry of Jesus.

Because whether the crowd is Jewish or Gentile, one thing is clear: Jesus is restoring them.  He is healing their sicknesses and diseases and will even feed them, and when they experience the good he is doing for them in their midst, they glorify the God of Israel.

How do you like them apples, J-Mac?

Consider This

  1. What does this story show us about Jesus’ concepts of salvation, deliverance, and redemption?  What implications might that have for the work of the Church in the world?

Thrown to the Dogs: Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)

Well.  Talk about your un-Jesus-y moments.

This little story is a jarring pebble thrown into our placid, quiet pool of What Jesus Must Be Like.  In it, he ignores a woman’s cries for deliverance for her daughter.  When she keeps after him, he emphasizes that he is only here for the lost of Israel.  When she continues, he dismisses her with something of an insult.  Finally, her persistence seems to win him over, and her daughter is healed the moment this happens.

This story seems so jarring to us that a very common tactic to deal with it is to assume that Jesus is deliberately staging this whole thing for the purposes of addressing a Jewish misconception.

In this way of reading the story, Jesus’ actions and words do not reflect his own views or intentions, but rather they reflect the views of the Jews around him – that Gentiles are dogs that aren’t worth helping.  Jesus sort of dramatically/sarcastically pretends to have these views, himself, only to reveal at the end that he (and other Jews) should view Gentiles as neighbors worth helping and treat them accordingly.

I remember attending a presentation by Don Richardson when I was in college.  This was the tack he took with the passage, and he narrated this with gusto, having Jesus winking to the woman as he talked and the woman catching on to what Jesus was doing and proceeding to play her part.  And, you know, Matthew’s gospel does not have stage directions in it, so we don’t really know Jesus’ tone of voice or other contextual actions as he said and did these things.

This is a legitimate reading of this story, and I don’t really have any arguments to demonstrate this story can’t be read that way or shouldn’t be read that way.  I would certainly advise a couple of things for those who want to take this route:

  1. If this passage is meant to show Jesus not really believing something he says, be prepared to explain how you can tell the difference, especially when it comes to looking at other passages that are difficult sayings of Jesus.
  2. Make sure you can establish your case on the basis of the source material and not just initial distaste for the idea that Jesus might, in fact, actually think these things.

You see, when we find passages in the gospels that don’t seem to fit what we think Jesus was like, that may be our cue that we’re not reading the passage correctly, but it also might be our cue that our understanding of what Jesus was like isn’t entirely correct.

“Oh come on,” I hear my imaginary reader protesting.  “Jesus was the perfect image of God in the world and, as such, would definitely not have retained the cultural views of his people toward Gentiles.  That’s petty, prejudicial, and racist.  What’s more, Jesus was on a mission to reconcile all of humanity to God, not just Israel.  His mission was universal.  The idea that he would limit his deliverance to Israel and deny it to Gentiles is just really inconsistent.”

Ok, imaginary reader, I hear you, and those are good points.  In return, I would offer that the Jesus we are shown especially in Matthew’s gospel is not primarily a transhuman Jesus out to save all humanity but is primarily a Jewish Jesus who, at this point in his ministry, sees his mission mostly if not exclusively as a mission to recover Israel.  He may foresee ramifications this will have for the rest of the world, and we definitely see that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, but Jesus’ views of Jew and Gentile are shaped by Judaism and we will see that Matthew has taken pains to show us that Jesus’ pre-Resurrection ministry is focused on liberating Israel.

Are Gentiles Dogs?

In Jewish tradition, the primary distinction between Israel and other nations is that the Jewish people took on the yoke of Torah.  There is no particular sense that Jews as a race are somehow superior to everyone else.  In fact, some traditional stories have the Jews only accepting the Torah under duress, while others point out that it was precisely the lack of any special features of the Jewish people that made them the ideal people for God to have as a nation of priests so that His own power and faithfulness would take center stage (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-11).

Nevertheless, the Torah itself makes plenty of distinctions between Jew and Gentile and even will contrast God’s expectations for the Jews with the normal behavior of the Gentiles.  For instance, Deuteronomy 18:14: “Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.”

Laws concerning Gentiles extend into the realm of clean and unclean, with Gentiles being denied entrance to the Temple.  It was certainly possible for Gentiles to convert, but to do so, they had to be circumcised, take on the whole yoke of Torah, and leave their lands to live and travel with the Jews.

So, right from the get-go, in the very Torah itself, Israel is elevated (not through any merits of her own) to a special status with God giving her a role of ruler and priest over the other nations.  These other nations are basically lawless idolaters who will corrupt holy Israel if they intermingle.  This principle is carried out symbolically into laws about food and fabric.

Very early on in rabbinic writings, we see the perspective that Gentiles even outside of Torah can follow the laws God set down for Noah.  They can fear the true God and they can obey Him in this general sense and even enjoy His favor if they choose to do so.  But the perspective on Gentiles as a whole is very negative.  As you look at the interpretations of laws that depend upon reciprocation, for example, the traditions assume Gentiles won’t hold up their end of the bargain.

One of my favorite examples of this is Siman 153:2 of the Yoreh De’ah that sounds like something your mother might say:

An Israelite should not be alone with a Gentile; they are idolaters and may commit bloodshed.

Yoreh De’ah 153:2 (translation mine)

So, even though the issue is not so much about race as it is about relationship to Torah, the general perspective found in the Torah and traditional commentary on the Torah is that Gentiles, being apart from the Law and worshiping false gods, are not to be trusted and, given the opportunity, will probably screw you over.

Unfortunately, history mostly seemed to bear this out in terms of Israel’s relationships to the other nations, and by the time we get to Jesus’ day, Israel had suffered much at the hands of Gentile rulers, and they were currently under an oppressive Roman regime in their own land.

While we might envision Jesus rising above all this, we do well to note that this would not be the first time Jesus refers to Gentiles as dogs, and even pigs.  If you don’t think Jesus is referring to Gentiles in general in that passage, he’s referring to somebody, right?  So, unless we’re willing to say that Beatitude is a sarcastic statement where Jesus is just taking on the stereotypical views of his day in order to contradict them (which is possible), then we need to reckon with the possibility that Jesus might actually mean what he says here in Matthew 15.

I think at least part of our distaste is because of the insults that we associate with referring to someone as a dog or a pig.  But the reason dogs and pigs can be used to describe Gentiles in the first century is not because dogs and pigs are ugly or fat or worthless – it’s that they’re unclean animals.

Dogs, especially, in Jewish law and tradition, are viewed not only as unclean, but they are seen as prone to violence.  Portions of the Talmud require dogs to be chained because they are unpredictable in their violent tendencies.  Elsewhere in the Talmud, a person who trains up dogs is called “accursed.”  These traditions continue in Jewish teachings even as late as the 12th century, where the Mishneh Torah requires all dogs to be chained because of their propensity to do harm.  It’s only the 16th century where we begin to see distinctions made between safe and unsafe dogs.

So, yes, Jesus comparing Gentiles to dogs in a proverb is derogatory, but it may not have the same insulting connotations you and I are used to.  In Jewish law and tradition, dogs are both ceremonially unclean and unpredictably prone to violence.  It is those characteristics that make them a first century image for Gentiles.

Is Jesus Only Interested in Helping Israel?

In our passage, Jesus says that he has only been sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  The two, powerful forces that make this seem out of character to us are that we already have a story in place of Jesus coming to bring salvation to all mankind, and that we know the end of the story.

Never ever underestimate the power of the narrative you have or I have in our heads about what the Bible says.  Many times, that mental narrative takes the place of the actual Bible, and when we read the actual Bible, our preexisting idea of what the Bible says is a huge controller of how we read the text.  This is so much the case that many people frequently fail to differentiate between “what the Bible says” and “what I understand the Bible to say,” especially in discussion.  So, if I have a different theological view than you do, it’s not that I understand the relevant texts to mean something different than you do, it’s that I’m deliberately disregarding “what the Bible says.”

So, when we come to this story already having a narrative about a universal Jesus on a universal mission to secure eternal life for all mankind, passages like this almost demand to be read in a way to make the tension go away.

In addition, we know that the mission draws in the Gentiles.  We know Jesus in Matthew will tell his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, and we know that people like Peter and Paul take their message to the Gentiles.  Perhaps because, today, the followers of Jesus are by far and away more Gentiles than Jews, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that God including the Gentiles in His people and promises is a huge shock to all parties concerned and plays a dominant theme in many Pauline writings.

Because of these powerful, existing perceptions, we can easily read these things backward into the whole of the gospels and assume that Jesus’ mission has always meant at all times to be directed at all mankind.

But is this really the picture Matthew has painted for us?

Right from the outset of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph and says of Mary:

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NRSV)

At the stage in history Matthew 1 is describing, “his people” means Israel.  You could possibly argue it down to “faithful Israel,” but it would make no sense to argue it up to “all mankind” or “all who will become followers of Christ in the future, Jew or Gentile.”  While theologically we might refer to all Christ followers as “Jesus’ people” these days, it would be hugely anachronistic to read that back into Matthew 1.  That would be like saying everywhere the Old Testament says “Israel” it actually means both Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus because that’s how Paul and Peter will later use the term.

Joseph would certainly have understood this as Israel as would any of Matthew’s readers.

This is carried into Matthew 2, where the magi show up looking for “he who was born king of the Jews,” and the priests tell Herod Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, quoting Micah 5 and telling him that the Messiah has come “to shepherd my people Israel.”

The phrase Jesus uses here about the lost sheep of Israel is actually one he’s used before:

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.”

Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

It is true Matthew gives us an occasional example of a Gentile showing faith.  For instance, the Roman centurion:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

Matthew 8:5-13 (NRSV)

But this does not mark the inclusion of Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry.  This event actually happens before Jesus tells his disciples not to proclaim the kingdom to Gentiles.  The reason this story stands out is that it’s an exception.  Jesus uses it as an indictment against Israel.  The point of the story isn’t, “Now I will begin to liberate the Gentiles,” the point is, “Even this heathen has more faith than you guys do.”

It’s also noteworthy that Jesus is amazed at this.  He’s shocked.  He’s surprised.  He did not see this coming.  If Jesus can be surprised by the faith of a centurion, then he can also be won over by the persistence of a Gentile woman.  Maybe it seems a little crass to you that someone could actually coax a result from Jesus from constant pleading, but in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable that God is like this when He delivers justice to His people who continually cry out, so Jesus’ listeners should be encouraged to keep praying and not give up:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)

So What’s the Point Then?

Like the centurion story, this story is meant to be exceptional.  This woman disrupts the pattern, and she disrupts the pattern by displaying great faith.

This story is immediately followed by Jesus doing great healing works among “the crowds” who “glorify the God of Israel,” but none of them are singled out.  This woman is, because she’s exceptional.

And because she is a Gentile, she stands in contrast to an Israel that has largely given up and does not have faith that Jesus will deliver them.  In contrast to an Israel that has stopped praying and lost heart, this woman follows Jesus, begging him incessantly for deliverance for her daughter.  She truly believes Jesus is her only hope, and she will not let him go.

Others in Israel will pass Jesus by without giving him a second glance.  Still others will try to silence him.  But for this nameless Gentile woman, Jesus is all she has to turn to, and she will not be dissuaded by either silence or opposition.  Even when Jesus himself tells her why he won’t do it, she won’t leave him alone.  She counters his argument, and Jesus gives in to her faithful persistence.  Many in Israel will not, but this Gentile woman will.

And this calls to mind the teaching Jesus gave to his disciples when the centurion asked for Jesus’ help:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 8:11-12 (NRSV)

Like I said, there’s not really an argument against reading our passage as a sort of drama or mockery that Jesus is intentionally using to show that the views he’s pretending to espouse are false.

But at the same time, I don’t think there’s a good reason to need to explain away tensions in this passage.  I think this passage as written is actually very consistent with the narrative Matthew is laying out before us – one of a Jewish Jesus who has come to save the lost sheep of Israel.

But, oh, along the way, we see powerful examples of faith that even Israel cannot deliver – examples that instruct her and convict her and call her to like faithfulness.  And these seeds of faith will grow into a mighty tree, for the same Jesus that, today, is focused on Israel, is the same Jesus who will unleash his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all the nations, bringing Israel’s hopes for the future to their climax – a new world under the Messiah where faithful Israel has led the way.

Consider This

  1. Is it troubling to think of Jesus focusing first on Israel then bringing in the Gentiles?  Are there other passages of Scripture that indicate that God plans to deal with Israel first, then bring in the rest of the nations?
  2. Is it troubling to think of Jesus as a man shaped by his religion, his culture, and his time in history?  Why or why not?  What does it mean for Jesus to be completely, fully human?

What Defiles: Matthew 15:10-20

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Matthew 15:10-20 (NRSV)

Right before this passage, some pharisees had criticized Jesus and his disciples because they did not wash their hands before eating.  This was a tradition with a great degree of weight behind it.

Jesus points out the hypocrisy of this criticism by demonstrating at least one case where the same people criticizing him used these traditions as a way to escape their obligations as God’s Law defined them – specifically, the obligation to care for your parents.  This is an example of a very common theme in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus’ opponents will go to amazing lengths to avoid violating the letter of the Law, but they have no qualms about circumventing love.  They will not tend to the sick lest they break the Sabbath.  They will pledge their money to the Temple while their own parents go uncared for.  They will make a great display of their donations to the Temple while the poor in Israel languish.

This is the very scenario under which the nation of Israel came under judgement and what brought her to exile in the first place.  She would not listen to her prophets and did not love God with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength, and she did not love her neighbor as herself, and in this way she became a sister to Sodom.  This is the very scenario Jesus is confronting and the very situation he hopes to turn around.

As we’ve noted before, this is not some abstract clash over legalism or tradition versus Scripture.  This is a clash over the fact that the Law – something that in Jesus’ mind is supposed to be an expression of love – is actually being used to preserve power, wealth, and comfort and build prestige, fame, and ego at the expense of the welfare of others, especially the weak and hurting.  The problem is not that people want to observe the Law; the problem is that behavior that is being framed as technical obedience to God is being used to withhold sacrificial love from the people who need it most.  Thank goodness we don’t have this problem, today!

(That was sarcasm.)

Here, Jesus turns his attention to the logic of the tradition, itself, and may have even challenged the logic of the Law itself as pertains to diet.

The whole point of the tradition of washing hands before eating was about ritual uncleanness.  We know, today, that there are health benefits from washing one’s hands before eating, but that’s not where the Jewish tradition came from.  Prior to knowledge about germs and their relationship to sickness or the health issues around various meats, the Law forbade the consumption of or even contact with substances, animals, and even people that were considered unclean.

These laws were primarily symbolic in nature.  There’s nothing particularly immoral about touching a corpse, for example, but Israel was meant to be a holy nation, distinct from the corrupt world around her, and her people were meant to keep themselves holy.  These laws along with others were meant to put this principle into very tangible and visible forms, not unlike how the Lord’s Supper is a ritual that puts the presence of Jesus among us and the spiritual bonds we share with one another into visible and tangible form.

Of course, some contact with unclean materials is inevitable, and the Law made provision for this: how long were you considered unclean and how could you purify yourself?  “Uncleanness management” is not a small topic in the Law.

At the same time, as detailed as the Law might be in some respects, it’s very general in others, and it was up to the people to figure out what that Law might look like in their context.  Thus, the tradition of washing hands (along with many others) was born.

We need to keep in mind that the situation Jesus is speaking into is one where the very teachers of the Law were using the Law as a means to avoid the very greatest commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.  We may be making Jesus paint with too broad of a brush if we think of this passage as a dispassionate discourse about the pointlessness of law-keeping or the worthlessness of traditions.  It is highly unlikely Jesus thought either of those things.

But the external, technical observance of the Law as a means of protecting selfishness and power is precisely the opposite of what the laws intend, at least the way Jesus reads them.  The Law is supposed to be subservient to the tasks of loving God and neighbor; it’s supposed to guide you in the ways of doing those things, not a means of avoiding those very things.

It is this background that fuels Jesus’ quip that it isn’t what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean, but rather what comes out of their mouth.  In other words, it is the things that are inside a person that makes them unclean.  You can outwardly observe the laws about food, contact, etc. all you like, but you can’t get away from what drives you on the inside.  This has the net effect of Jesus declaring the Pharisees to be unclean while he and his own disciples are clean, despite violating the tradition of washing hands.

Understandably, this is offensive to the Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples tell him so.  This is probably because Jesus doesn’t really seem to care if he offended them or not.  We have to keep in mind that, even though there are Pharisees in the gospels who are portrayed as the bad guys, this is not the role they had in the eyes of the common Israelite.  They were the teachers of the Law who were zealous about Law keeping.  They were the ones who explained to you what obedience looked like.  They were the ones preaching convicting sermons.  They were the ones calling out all the sins of the surrounding culture.  They were the ones explaining that there was an earthquake because God was upset with homosexuality or paganism or eating bacon and the solution to all of this was to repent and follow the Law harder.

Like any such group of people, some of them were hypocrites secretly practicing the sins they decried in others, some were using their position to their own prosperity and advantage, and some were genuinely distressed over the condition of Israel and were just doing what they thought was best.  We don’t hear a lot from that third group of people in Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus, unlike his disciples, is not very concerned for the good opinion of the Pharisees.  He compares them to plants that will be uprooted, which is apocalyptic imagery that comes from the Old Testament.  Faithful Israel is a tree planted by God that will never be uprooted, but the oppressors around her are like trees that will be cut down.  The faithful are like rich wheat that God will gather to Himself, but the wicked are like chaff that will be blown away or weeds that will be consumed in fire.  When Jesus looks at this particular group of Pharisees, he sees a group that God will remove one way or another.

This may seem sort of dark to us.  Rather un-Jesuslike, perhaps.  But I think we need to keep in mind two things.  One is that none of these people are outside the bounds of repentance.  Any of these Pharisees are invited to follow the way of Jesus in faith, pursuing faithfulness out of love for God and His people, and living a life of self-sacrificial love – teaching the people in gentleness and care, forgiving those who are sinning, helping those who are struggling, caring for the sick and the poor, pouring their lives out as leaders for the good of the people.  Every encounter with Jesus or news of Jesus is a chance to respond to what God is doing in faith and put down the lives they have built for themselves to embrace a new life in the coming kingdom.

But the second thing is to realize that this removal, this judgement if you will, is not a vindictive God punishing sinful mortals, but a God who loves His people and wants to liberate them.  This oppression of poor and weak Israelites at the hands of their leaders has gone on for centuries, and God has sent prophet after prophet to warn them, followed by the calamities the covenant of the Law had in its terms, and still they will not change course.  In what sense could we say God loved Israel if He never acted to set her free?  It is clear that His obvious preference would be for these leaders to turn things around, but after generations of intractability, it doesn’t look like He’s going to get that.

And so, Jesus is not rubbing his hands in delight at the destruction of the wicked but is stating a regrettable fact: God will have to pluck up these plants.  They are the leaders of a blind Israel but they are just as blind themselves, and this is how Israel has ended up in her predicament.  Her leaders steered her in all the wrong directions.  Jesus is not making this statement up on the fly, either, as the “blind leader of the blind” was a proverb from the Roman poet Horace.

Peter, a common Israelite fisherman, is a little lost with all this talk of plants being uprooted and allusions to Roman poets, and he asks Jesus what all this means.  Perhaps he has no idea at all.  Perhaps he begins to grasp that Jesus might be describing an upcoming judgement on the Pharisees or even a possible insurrection.  He might even be getting a little excited about it.  But whether he’s totally lost or is beginning to suspect something, he wants Jesus to spell it out for him.

Jesus returns to the matter at hand, explaining clearly that it is the evil within a person’s heart that makes them unclean, not what they eat.  Food simply passes through a person temporarily, but their heart is where evil dwells.

In Mark’s version, the author makes the parenthetical conclusion, “Thus, he declared all foods clean.”  Matthew’s gospel does not see fit to make this statement, possibly because Matthew is very concerned about persuading a Jewish audience to believe in Jesus.  Matthew, you may recall, also tones down Jesus’ parable about the wine skins in comparison to Mark’s gospel.

Regardless of whether or not this might be a theological implication of what Jesus is saying, his point is not about the validity of the dietary laws in the Torah.  His point is that observing dietary laws does not make a person clean if their hearts are full of evil.

Our context is a little different in that we are not anticipating an immediate, eschatological overthrow of our religious power structure, nor do we have controversies over dietary laws.  Mostly.

But the principle of what is at stake here and how it works itself out practically is something we collectively and individually need to keep in mind.  It can be very easy to replace a Torah of love with a Torah of formal obedience and, by doing so, we become oppressors and teach others to become the same.

Jesus called his generation to a realignment.  Are you zealous for obedience?  Then listen to what God defines as obedience.  Everything we believe God has commanded us must be interpreted through the lens of love.  The acts that lead us to greater love for God and people in need, those are acts of true obedience.  The acts that lead us to a relationship with God based less on love or that show less love to the people around us, those are not obedient even if they conform to the letter.  We are misinterpreting and misapplying any commandment that removes our high calling to sacrificial love, especially for the people who need it most and “deserve” it the least.

Consider This

  1. By looking at how they lived their actual lives, how would you say Jesus’ opponents defined following God’s will?  How did Jesus define it?
  2. In what ways in your life and the life of the church has a desire for obedience led to showing less love or an avoidance of self-sacrifice?

Traditions of the Elders: Matthew 15:1-9

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Matthew 15:1-9 (NRSV)

Today’s passage takes us into an area where most of our stereotypes about Pharisees come from as hypocritical legalists.  It’s good to note that not all Pharisees were this way, however the ones that oppose Jesus’ ministry in the gospels certainly have this tendency.  But as usual in Matthew, there’s a bigger picture behind this little incident, and the quote from Isaiah gives us the clue.

First, let’s start with the offense.

In our passage, Jesus and his disciples are being confronted over a tradition that comes from the Talmud – you’re supposed to wash your hands before eating any meal that has bread.  Some scholars believe this tradition was instituted so the people would remember the priestly washing rituals that had to be performed before accepting certain kinds of offerings.

This tradition was held in very high esteem, as Sotah 4b tells us:

R. ‘Awira expounded sometimes in the name of R. Ammi and at other times in the name of R. Assi: Whoever eats bread without previously washing the hands is as though he had intercourse with a harlot; as it is said, For on account of a harlot, to a loaf of bread.

and later

R. Zerika said in the name of R. Eleazar: Whoever makes light of washing the hands [before and after a meal] will be uprooted from the world.

There is precedent for bread being treated as unclean food, as we read in Ezekiel 4:12-13 where the bread is baked over human dung.  So it was with the the tradition of washing hands before eating meals with bread.  As Sotah 4b states:

R. Abbahu says: Whoever eats bread without first wiping his hands is as though he eats unclean food; as it is stated: And the Lord said: Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean.

So, this was a traditional practice, not one that is actually found commanded in the Law, but you can see how highly esteemed this tradition was among the rabbis.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with this.  The concern behind this tradition is the symbolic holiness of Israel to God, and this is the same concern behind a rather large chunk of the Torah laws.  Jesus does not criticize having traditions or declare this tradition as bad, although he will later criticize some of the foundational ideas behind it.

What sets Jesus off is that the very religious leaders and teachers who are criticizing him for not following this man-made tradition are themselves in hypocritical violation of God’s actual Torah for His people.

For the past several centuries of Israel’s history, the corruption of her leadership had led the nation into unfaithfulness.  God sent prophet after prophet to warn Israel about this and the curses that would fall on her because of the covenant she made to be God’s people and be faithful to Him.  Always the hope of repentance and restoration was held out.

But this was not to be, as Israel did not listen to her prophets and often persecuted them and even put them to death.  Instead of those being opportunities to turn things around, they were opportunities for the nation to plug up their ears and blind their eyes that they might not respond to the warnings in faith.

It is this dynamic that brought Israel through exile from their land, the dominion of several pagan empires, the predations of Antiochus Epiphanes, and finally the oppression of the Roman Empire.

It would be a mistake to think of every individual in Israel during this time as incurably sinful.  Instead, we are to see them as a nation being steered by their leaders, and it is the corruption of their kings, teachers, priests, etc. that come into the crosshairs of the prophetic critiques.  Yes, this unfaithfulness does characterize the people in general, but it’s the leadership that takes them there.

This is why Jesus’ words to your common Israelite are generally gentle and kind, but his clashes with religious leaders or the rich and powerful tend to have a lot of animosity behind them.  Those in power in Israel should be doing what Jesus is doing – calling the nation to repentance and pursuing new lives of faithfulness to God so that they might be restored and saved through the judgement that is to come (or perhaps even avert it altogether).

It is those with authority in Israel who should be sacrificially giving of themselves, seeing that the sick and the poor are cared for, seeing that those who are spiritually struggling are made whole, seeing that neighbors are treating each other justly in love, and seeing that their people’s hearts are captured with the love of God.

But they have not done this.  Instead, they have allied themselves with the power structure of that age.  They have used their position to get money, comfort, and fame for themselves even at the expense of their own people.  And they have been at this for a very long time.

During this time, Israel’s religious leaders continued to observe certain measures of the Law (usually the religious ones – the ones that gave them their authority), even as they ignored important parts of the Law like justice and mercy, caring for the poor, the widow, the oppressed, and the foreigner.  These are all longstanding items in prophetic indictments against Israel’s leadership.

Here’s a small sampling:

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
    What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
    I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
    and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But at Adam they transgressed the covenant;
    there they dealt faithlessly with me.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    tracked with blood.
As robbers lie in wait for someone,
    so the priests are banded together;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
    they commit a monstrous crime.
In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
    Ephraim’s whoredom is there, Israel is defiled.

Hosea 6:4-10 (NRSV)

When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Know, then, that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and well-being, which I gave him; this called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.

Malachi 2:4-9 (NRSV)

And we could go on and on.  Most of the prophetic writings are full of stuff like this.  If they aren’t going after Israel’s enemies, they’re going after Israel herself.  It is clear that the unfaithfulness of the leadership has led the nation as a whole astray and, as such, she is subject to the curse of the Law, even though she may be technically observing portions of it.

In this passage, Jesus points to a practice where religious officials, instead of using their wealth to support their parents, offer it “to God” instead.  This sounds very pious, right?  Well, that’s exactly the problem.

Jesus points out that what God wants in the Law is for Israelites to honor, respect, and care for their parents.  That’s what He asked for.  The Law serves love, here.  In this case, these aren’t just Israelites in general, but your own parents.

Here, the Pharisees and scribes escape this obligation by declaring their money to be “corban” (sacrifice) – in other words, the money was donated as a consecrated offering given to the Temple for its ornamentation or operations.  Basically, this is like the money you give in your church offering with more of an official connotation.  Money given as corban was like a vow or a pledge.  That money was to be used for the Temple and could not be used for anything else.

As far as I know, there is no specific rabbinical writing that spells out that you can take the support you normally would have given to your parents and consecrate it for the Temple, thereby removing your obligation to provide for them.  Corban is talked about both in the Talmud and the Mishnah particularly underscoring how binding that vow is when you declare something as corban, and I found one passage in the Mishnah that describes the situation where someone may declare their financial benefit as corban.

So, this practice Jesus is criticizing seems to have sprung up.  Through a complex path of systematic theology, the religious teachers of his day were holding that you could take money you would have normally used to support your parents and declare it to be for the Temple’s special use, instead.  And this was honoring to God.

It doesn’t take much imagination or cynicism to figure out what interest “Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem” would have had in this practice.  Perhaps it enabled a public show of piety by giving lots of money to the Temple.  The odds are also pretty good that these exact people benefitted financially from money given to the Temple.

Whether the Pharisees do this to promote the public image of themselves as pious and faithful, or whether they do it to line their own pocketbook, the facet of the problem Jesus brings into focus is that they have neglected something the Law requires – for them to care for their parents who can no longer care for themselves.

By saying this, Jesus does what he has done countless times in Matthew.  He reveals the religious leaders of the day to be lovers of their own selves and not at all interested in the welfare of the people under their charge, while he and his disciples are working their butts off and sleeping in fields healing the sick and feeding the hungry.

In this case, Jesus’ accusers try to demonstrate his lack of faithfulness by pointing out a violation of a tradition, but Jesus shows how they have used a tradition to violate the actual Law of God – specifically, laws that would require them to give sacrificially for the care of Israel.  It is a massive failure to keep the covenant that has plagued Israel’s leadership for centuries, has led to their current state of affairs, and keeps them trapped in their current state of affairs.

It is here that Jesus quotes Isaiah 29.

Scholars are in agreement that, when you see a quotation of the Old Testament in the New, that the quotation is meant to imply the surrounding context.  In other words, those quotes entail the much larger section they came from.

Isaiah 28, interestingly enough, is about judgement coming to Israel’s leadership.  They have made themselves prosperous and drunk and they teach “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”

It is this chapter that contains the well known passage:

Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers
    who rule this people in Jerusalem.
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
    it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
    a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
    “One who trusts will not panic.”

Isaiah 28:14-16 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

I doubt this was lost on the Pharisees.

Isaiah 29, then, begins to describe a siege against Jerusalem as a result of what these leaders were doing, and the passage Jesus quotes is right in the middle of it, offering the reasons why Jerusalem is being destroyed.

I mean, how on the nose does this need to get?

Jesus is appropriating these observations about Israel for his own day.  In Jesus’ own day, the leadership is doing what Isaiah described – right that very second in fact, and in Jesus’ own day, a destruction of Jerusalem is coming in response.  This is not just an occasion to point out the hypocrisy of Jesus’ opponents, it is a warning of a coming destruction.

But the end of Isaiah 29 tells us what is to be hoped for when the smoke clears:


Shall not Lebanon in a very little while
    become a fruitful field,
    and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest?
On that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant shall be no more,
    and the scoffer shall cease to be;
    all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
    who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
    and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.

Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:

No longer shall Jacob be ashamed,
    no longer shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
    the work of my hands, in his midst,
    they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
    and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who grumble will accept instruction.

Isaiah 29:17-24 (NRSV)

Consider This

  1. What are some instances you’ve seen in out in the world or even in your own life where a particular practice or interpretation of “what God wants” seems to actually obscure or interfere with what God has revealed He wants, especially in Jesus?
  2. How much of modern Christian expression would you classify as “tradition?”  Given that traditions are not intrinsically bad, which traditions do you think keep us pointed in the right direction, and which ones have perhaps steered us wrong?

The Hem of His Garment: Matthew 14:34-36

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Matthew 14:34-36 (NRSV)

Kinneret (Gennesaret) was a prominent city going all the way back to the Old Testament stories of Israel’s flight from Egypt.  It was nearby springs, fertile lands, and rich soil.  It has been the site of several archaeological excavations that are ongoing to this day.

There is not much about this little episode that is different than other “healing the crowds” stories that we have found in Matthew.  This story does not mention casting out demons, but in Matthew’s gospel, healing the sick and driving out evil spirits are commonly found together and, I would argue, roughly the same phenomenon as seen through first century eyes.

As with the other stories, our attention is drawn to the fact that Jesus is restoring Israel.  The healing miracles are signs that the kingdom of God has come, Israel’s sins are being forgiven, and she is being reclaimed by God and restored to an esteemed state.  This is being done through Jesus.

We need to keep this in mind because the point of a miracle story is never to emphasize the miracle.  We don’t get these stories simply to show that Jesus was powerful or cool or different in some unusual way.  The miracles are signposts, and when we see a miracle story in the gospels, we should ask, “What does this miracle tell us?”

In this case, the healings tell us that Jesus is about the work of overturning Israel’s curse and restoring her fortunes, because the great day of salvation is at hand for Israel.

It’s hard not to think of Isaiah 35, which is a passage Jesus cited in response to John the Baptist when John began to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah:

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35:3-6 (NRSV)


After the destruction of Edom in Isaiah, God will have rescued His people and will return them to their land, reborn to begin being what Israel was always meant to be – a holy people bound faithfully to her God and enjoying all the benefits of that.

This is the work that Jesus is doing, and the healing miracles show us this.  They are an indicator of mission as well as timing.

This is reinforced somewhat by the crowd asking to touch the fringe of Jesus’ garment to be healed.  The fringe Jesus was wearing is an article that is required by the Torah:

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

Numbers 15:37-41 (NRSV)

The fringe is a reminder of the covenant.  It’s like a spouse wearing a wedding ring.  In this case, the tassels are a sign and a reminder to Israel that she is to follow God’s commandments and is set apart especially for Him.  After all, he is the God who rescued her from Egypt.

In Jesus’ day, Israel is suffering from the curse of the Law.  As a nation in history, she had been unfaithful to those commandments.  She was not holy to her God, but rather behaved just as all the other nations did, put her trust in them, and assimilated into their religions, ethics, and values.

One may look at people grasping at Jesus’ fringes to be healed and see here a picture of the faithfulness of Jesus bringing healing and restoration to a sinful Israel.  This is certainly appropriate.  While this is not a picture of imputed righteousness or any particular systematic theology of justification, we will see that Jesus’ faithfulness unto death is the catalyst that moves the hand and heart of God to forgive and save His people.

But it isn’t simply a picture of people passively receiving Jesus’ benefits.  They believe in what God is doing in Jesus, and because they believe, they reach out and touch and grasp.

You see, part of restoring Israel is calling her to return to faithfulness to her God and being a special, unique people before Him, distinct from the corrupt, money-hungry, accommodationist power structure of the Temple and the pagan Roman Empire ruling by might and wealth, living out their wildest excesses.

This is what it meant for John the Baptist to call people to repent and be baptized.  They were to turn away from their present lives – die to them – to be cleansed and risen to a new life – a life of faithfulness that produced the fruits of repentance.  This is what Jesus called them to, as well.

Repentance is not primarily a feeling, although it involves your feelings.  Repentance is not primarily praying for forgiveness or confessing your sins to someone, although that may be part of it.  Repentance is turning aside from one way of life to embrace a new one.  It is about leaving an old world for a new.  It is about dying to the values, practices, goals, and machinations of the world’s powers and living unto God, taking upon yourself a new calling with new values and practices and hopes for the future.  It is about stopping certain behaviors that do not match who you are and embracing new ones that do.

Jesus does not just provide a path for Israel out of her misery; he leads her on to be what she was always meant to be.  He dusts off the gem that she is and shows her that she has dignity and worth and is God’s own treasured possession, and he calls her to be that very thing.

Consider This

  1. What do the Scriptures tell us about the church (Jew and Gentile)?  What does God think of her and what has He done for her?  Who is she supposed to be in the world?
  2. There may be sins that you are sorry for and have asked forgiveness for.  Have you considered how you might make things right?  Repair damage you may have caused?  Have you thought about what new, different practices you could pursue?

Walking on Water: Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)

There are a lot of images coming together in this little story.  I won’t do any of the connections justice because there are so many possible ones, so I encourage you to look more into them and meditate on them for yourself.  I actually encourage you to do that with any of my devotions, but perhaps especially this one.  The themes are very large.

Water in general and the sea in specific play a big role in Old Testament songs and stories, and I believe Matthew may be drawing from several.

As most commentaries will point out, the sea is a symbol of untamed chaos.  At creation, everything was chaotic waters.  We sometimes talk about creation out of nothing, but the Genesis 1 narrative actually presents us with God hovering over the surface of formless waters.

Apart from the capricious nature of what could happen to you in the ancient world while you were out at sea, the sea was believed to be home to giant serpents that were cast as embodiments of the sea, itself.

For example, in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Baal does battle with Yam, a primordial sea dragon.  After defeating her, the cosmos is restored to pristine harmony and Baal builds himself a house in six days.  These themes undoubtedly show up in Genesis 1, however El does not battle with Yam, El commands Yam and Yam obeys.  El does not only build His house but an entire cosmos in six days.

But the point is that the waters represent that untamed, dangerous dark chaos that God Himself must put to rights.  This image is one of the reasons why John does not see a sea in the new heavens and earth.

By showing Jesus walking on the water, we see that Jesus has control over these primordial dark, chaotic forces similar to his ability to cast out demons.  One particular parallel of interest comes from Psalm 74:13-14:

You divided the sea by your might;
    you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
    you gave him as food for the people.

Psalm 74:13-14 (NRSV)

This is an interesting image considering Jesus has just finished feeding the 5000 with bread and fish.

It also ties in with the preceding story that Jesus calls Peter out to walk on the water with him and, at least initially, Peter does.  This shows that, by the power and authority of Jesus, his disciples also have power and authority over these dark forces.  Like the earlier story where Jesus’ disciples feed the 5000, here we have a disciple walking on the water with him, once again showing that Jesus’ power and ministry is being handed to the disciples.  Peter, who walks on the water with Jesus, is also the disciple that Jesus commands to feed his sheep.

We do, however, see Peter faltering because his faith fails when he looks at the stormy sea around him.  This is perhaps a foreshadowing of Peter’s denial that Matthew will tell us about in chapter 26.

To tie all this together, this story shows us a Jesus who wields God’s power and authority displaying sovereign control over even the most elemental forces that threaten his people.  He can walk on the water and command the wind.  Demons and corrupt Temple officials and pagan empires are nothing before this King.  And what’s more, he delegates this to his disciples.

There are many, many references to God commanding storms and waters in the Psalms.  If you’re looking for something to do in your own Bible study, you might look them all up.  One particularly famous one that gets brought up with regard to this passage is Psalm 107:

Some went down to the sea in ships,
    doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
    his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
    which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
    their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
    and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.

Psalm 107:23-30 (NRSV)

Here, God causes the storm to arrive, and when this causes some of His redeemed to panic, He calms the storm for them.  This is not really that different than the picture in our passage, today, although Jesus did not cause the storm that we know of.

This Psalm ends with:

When they are diminished and brought low
    through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
he pours contempt on princes
    and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
but he raises up the needy out of distress,
    and makes their families like flocks.
The upright see it and are glad;
    and all wickedness stops its mouth.
Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
    and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 107:39-43 (NRSV)

This has the overtones of Jesus having compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd, but this is the grand finale of a Psalm that celebrates the many ways God has helped His redeemed: bringing down the empires that oppress His people.

This, too, accurately captures some of Jesus’ mission as Matthew sees it.

The last Psalm I want to look at is Psalm 77.  In this Psalm, the author is crying out because it seems as though God will never be favorable again to Israel.  He wonders if God will ever turn His love toward her again and grieves that God’s fundamental disposition toward Israel has been changed forever.

But, then, the Psalmist reflects on how God has treated Israel in the past and reflects that God has always acted to save His people in great ways for the sake of His own holiness and reputation.  The Psalm ends with this example:

When the waters saw you, O God,
    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
    the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
    the skies thundered;
    your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
    your lightnings lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
    your path, through the mighty waters;
    yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Psalm 77:16-20 (NRSV)

This, too, captures Jesus’ mission as Israel suffers under foreign dominion.  The faithful of Israel share the Psalmist’s despair.  God has let this go on for a long, long time.  Is He done with them?  Has He forgotten them?  Have her sins finally turned Him away for the last time?

In answer to this question, the Psalmist gives us the story of God’s dominion over the seas and how He led his people “like a flock” through it.  Though God Himself did not leave footprints, he led the people with Moses and Aaron.

When we looked at Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, we noticed that Jesus miraculously feeding the people was a Moses miracle.  Jesus the new shepherd Moses was leading the flock of Israel through the wilderness and providing food for them, miraculously.  This is an act he does through his disciples.

Here, we see another parallel.  God fed Israel in the wilderness through the shepherd Moses.  God fed Israel in the wilderness through the shepherd Jesus.  God saved Israel through the stormy sea through the shepherd Moses.  God saved Israel through the stormy sea through the shepherd Jesus.  And in both stories, Jesus passes this to his disciples.

I don’t know if Matthew intended all of these things.  Maybe he intended to call to mind one of them, some of them, or all them and some passages I didn’t even mention (seriously, tons of Psalms talk about this).

But through all these possibilities, we see a central overlap that keeps coming up.  Jesus has God’s own dominion over the forces that threaten His people, Jesus will use it to save them, and Jesus will pass this power and responsibility on to his disciples.

Consider This

  1. The very next story in Matthew is Jesus healing large numbers of sick people in an important Israelite town.  What do you think the connection might be to the themes in this story?
  2. Has there been a time in your life when either you or someone else seemed, through their prayers, to affect circumstances that should have been out of anyone’s control?

Feeding the Sheep: Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)

Jesus has just been informed that John the Baptist has been executed by Herod.  Understandably, he wants to be alone and gets in a boat and heads off to some deserted location.

Part of this may simply be the grief and loneliness anyone would feel at the death of a friend and a mentor.  I had an English teacher in high school who had a big impact on me, and when I heard that he had died, it certainly affected me, even though we had not spoken in years.  Jesus is not a stoic.  When his friends die, he cries, as he did when Lazarus died.

Part of this is also what John’s death means.  It means Jesus’ own execution can’t be far behind.  Jesus has been proclaiming John’s message for some time and, because of Jesus’ miracles, he has gained a following and a notoriety that John did not.  Jesus already has powerful people upset with him, and we know that Jesus has already warned his disciples that these powers are coming for him and will come for them as well.

We also know Jesus has taken some pains to keep the opposition from building too quickly too soon.  In his early career, when he does miracles, he asks people not to tell anyone.  He wants to keep the heat low.  It’s possible that Jesus’ retreat on a boat here may be more than just his desire for solitude; it may be to get out of the public eye for a little while.

John’s execution is an escalation.  Now, these forces are not just debating with him or trying to turn the crowds against him.  Now blood is being spilled.  Jesus is next on the block, and he knows his disciples will follow not long after.

But just as it was many times in the past when Jesus tried to lay low, this plan fails.  People somehow figure out where he must be going, and they all race over there so that, when Jesus finally rows the boat ashore (hallelujah), the crowd is waiting for him.

If it were me, this is where I would mutter, “You’ve gotta be f’in kidding me.”  Jesus probably handled the situation more gracefully than that, but I can only imagine what his initial reaction must have been as he heads out on a boat to get away from everyone for a while, only to find they are waiting for him at his destination.  He must have seen them while he was still a little ways out, right?  “Wait, is that… they… oh no.”

I think it says a lot about Jesus that he didn’t start rowing in the other direction.

No, Jesus sees them and has compassion on them.  This is not the first time Matthew has used this phrase.  In fact, it shows up soon after Jesus has told the blind men he healed to keep it quiet.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9:35-36 (NRSV)

I’ve already discussed this passage, so I won’t repeat it all here.  It’s important to today’s passage, though, to keep in mind that this language is Old Testament imagery that calls to mind a lost and forsaken Israel who has been oppressed by her own leaders such that God Himself is going to punish her leaders and reclaim the people for His own, leading them Himself.

Jesus goes about healing their sick, which is a sign of their deliverance, and the hour grows late and the people need food.  The disciples want to send everyone home so they’ll have time to eat, but Jesus has them all stay in that deserted place so that he can feed them, miraculously.

Does that make you think of anything else?  The scattered Israelites in a deserted place being fed miraculously?

The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” 

Exodus 16:31-32 (NRSV)

By the miraculous power of God, Moses feeds Israel in the wilderness.  Lest we think this is just a conceit of Old Testament lovin’ Matthew, this story appears in all four Gospels, including the weird one (John).

This miracle is a sign pointing to Jesus as the deliverer who will rescue Israel from her bondage and lead her safely through the intervening wilderness, just as Moses had done ages before.

But there is a twist, here.  Did you notice it?  It’s very subtle.

Jesus does not actually feed the five thousand.  He gives the food to his disciples, and they do it.  When the people are done, the disciples also collect all the leftovers, and they collect twelve baskets – a basket for each disciple.

The need to have twelve disciples as representatives of Israel is known to the New Testament and to the disciples themselves, so much so that, when they lose Judas, they quickly need to get a twelfth disciple, again.  There has to be twelve, faithful disciples because there are twelve tribes of Israel.  This is made explicit in the image of the new Jerusalem in John’s Apocalypse, where the gates of the city bear the names of the twelve tribes and the foundations bear the names of the twelve apostles.

But what is even more interesting to me than the numerical symbolism is the act itself.  Jesus has the disciples feed Israel.

What I think we may be seeing here, right on the heels of John’s execution, is Jesus transitioning his position to his disciples.  Jesus knows his days are numbered, and it is time for his disciples to start gathering and caring for the lost of Israel in Jesus’ name.

Back in Matthew 9 when Jesus had compassion on the crowds, he lamented that he had so little help.  He wanted God to send him more helpers and, immediately after that, he sent the disciples out to cast out demons and heal the sick – the very acts Jesus was doing among Israel.

Here, Jesus blesses the food and gives it to the disciples, but the food miraculously multiplies as they hand it out and gather it back up.  While Jesus is certainly behind this miracle, the disciples actually perform it.  The headings in your Bibles should read, “The Disciples Feed the Five Thousand.”

It is hard to avoid thinking of the story in John’s Gospel when the risen Jesus is talking to Peter and tells him that, if he loves Jesus, he should feed Jesus’ sheep.  Also in John’s Gospel is the theological version of this:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

John 14:10-12 (NRSV)

And in the book of Acts, this is what we see portrayed.

It is the disciples who begin to explain present events and how they fulfill events in the Old Testament.  It is the disciples who carry the gospel to the nations and see many come to faith, both Jew and Gentile.  It is the disciples who heal the sick, cast out spirits, and even raise the dead.  The fact that they can do these things, they say, proves that Jesus is alive and the last days have come.

Along with these things, it is also the disciples who organize the believers into communities that serve one another.  It is the disciples who make sure that wealthier congregations send money to poorer congregations.  It is the disciples who make sure that factions, divisions, status differences, etc. do not exist in these communities.  It is the disciples who send people to visit the sick and those in prison.  It is the disciples who urge their people to care for widows and orphans.  In many ways that Jesus could not during his brief but powerful ministry, the disciples care for his sheep in their day to day needs and struggles.

It is also the disciples who appoint elders to care for these congregations.  Notice how Peter closes the loop:

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. 

1 Peter 5:1-4 (NRSV)

Jesus is the Great Shepherd of God’s flock.  He raised up the disciples to be shepherds after him.  They raised up elders to be shepherds after them.  And on this goes.

What we see in our passage, today, is a humble Jesus emptying himself and, in doing so, all his little lambs are fed.

Consider This

  1. How important to God is the care for the people of God?  Is it more important than evangelism?  Equally important?  A secondary priority?
  2. Is there room for “authority” in the church along the lines of those early church elders?  If not, what happened to that concept?  If so, what should that authority look like?  How should it be different from authority and power as the rest of the world defines and uses it?

Welcome to Struggleville: Matthew 14:1-12

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

Matthew 14:1-12 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But none of that actually happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome, all you suckers, to Struggleville.

Consider This

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

Jesus’ Hometown: Matthew 13:54-58

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

Matthew 13:54-58 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider This

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

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

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

Matthew 13:51-53 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erm, well, maybe not.

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

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

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

Consider This

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