Thursday, June 23, 2011

Matthew 15:29-31 - "And departing from there, Jesus went along by the Sea of Galilee..."

Jesus just got through saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" in the previous passage. But like the Canaanite woman who wouldn't be turned away, now the multitudes come running after him, and we know this crowd was largely Gentile because Matthew says they "glorified the God of Israel." Didn't they receive the memo that Jesus was only sent to the house of Israel? Haven't they heard that it's not right to feed the children's bread to dogs? Even if they have, do they care?

And Jesus obliges them. What might he be thinking at this point, seeing these desperate Gentile crowds? Well, fresh in his memory is that astounding answer given by the Canaanite woman, that even a dog like herself would happily feed on the crumbs that fall from the master's table. Her faith, humility and insight amazed Jesus, and he could not turn down her request for her daughter's healing. Prior to that encounter Jesus had had a run in with the Pharisees, who condemned the disciples for not following the tradition of washing their hands before they ate, who then became offended when Jesus pointed out how they transgress God's law to uphold the man-made tradition of corban.

So Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but the leaders of Israel are already hardening their hearts, violating God's commands in favor of the teachings of men. Meanwhile, the Gentile woman had more faith in her little pinkie than all those Pharisees put together . . . Jesus had to be thinking that the Canaanite woman is more of an Israelite than the ones who are born into the privilege. And surely these Gentile multitudes clamoring for his attention are also looking for some crumbs for themselves.

So he heals them, their lame and crippled and blind and mute. The Pharisees were too righteous and whole to have need for the Messiah. But the ones who feel so unworthy they ask only for crumbs will find themselves seated at the banqueting table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Matthew 15:21-28 - "And Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon."

The big question about this passage is why Jesus seems to give the cold shoulder to the Canaanite woman who requests his help. Her plea for her demon-possessed daughter is exactly like all the other needs that Jesus has attended to without protest. He has already cast out demons from the two men of the Gadarenes (8:28-34), raised a young girl from the dead (9:18-26), and even healed the servant of a Gentile centurion (8:5-13), so surely this woman's request isn't unreasonable.

The reason Jesus gives is that his primary mission is to the Jews, not Gentiles. He tells his disciples, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." And to the woman he is even more plain: "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs [a derogatory reference to Gentiles]." The question is whether Jesus is just being facetious in making this remark, or if he really is telling her to get lost.

Some people think that Jesus is merely engaging in verbal sparring with the woman, that while his words seem harsh he is actually encouraging her with a knowing look, and she in turn understands that she should persist in asking him to heal her daughter. In other words, Jesus gets her to play along in this conversation for the benefit of the disciples, who need to be instructed about the inclusion of Gentiles into the kingdom. The merit to this theory is that it explains Jesus' seemingly perverse behavior toward this clearly desperate woman. The one who famously offered living water to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 does not sound like someone who would reject an entreating Gentile woman so out of hand. And how else can you explain why Jesus would call her a dog? That sounds like something a Pharisee would say, not Jesus.

Yet on the other hand the text doesn't give any hint that Jesus is merely sparring with the woman, or that he is speaking "with a twinkle in his eye" as some commentators put it. Even the disciples read Jesus' body language as one of disinterest, which is why they are bold enough to ask him to send the woman away. The last time they asked Jesus to send people away, they got rebuked and ended up feeding a multitude of five thousand! So they must be reading Jesus as already annoyed by her, otherwise they wouldn't risk making this request. Furthermore, when Jesus tells them, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he is echoing his commission to the disciples back in 10:5-6 when he said, "Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans, but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

I've landed somewhere in the middle. I don't think Jesus is giving any visible encouragement to the woman, but it does seem that he is testing her. For a Gentile the woman is surprisingly educated about the Jewish faith, addressing Jesus properly as "Son of David" and even coming up and worshiping him. Perhaps Jesus knows that she is not far from the kingdom, and yet her knowledge of these proprieties doesn't satisfy him. He wants to push her. She knows she is an outsider. She knows she doesn't "deserve" the blessings of the covenant. Why should he help her? What claim does she have on him?

The woman answers that she doesn't have a claim on him, that she knows she is merely a dog beneath her masters' table, yet she points out that even a dog can lick up the crumbs that fall to the floor. By saying this she reveals her insight into the Son of David, which is that he will not turn away even the unworthy, that he is merciful to the outsider, that his blessings are so rich an unclean dog needs only a crumb to find satisfaction.

Jesus is amazed. "O woman," he says, as if her answer has pierced him straight to the heart. This woman knows that he cannot deny her, because that is the essence of who he is. She knows it. And he knows that she knows it. And now she knows that he knows that she knows it. What can Jesus do in the presence of such faith except grant her her request? "O woman, your faith is great. Be it done for you as you wish."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Matthew 15:12-14 - "Then the disciples came and said to him, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?'"

This is one of those passages that reminds you what an Asian culture Jesus and his disciples lived in. Jesus had just accused the Pharisees of religious hypocrisy and vain worship, and the disciples are horrified. "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?" Because you don't say such things against your elders, especially your spiritual leaders, and especially in public. The social norms are strict about showing respect and knowing when to bite your tongue. But Jesus seems unaware of these rules, so the disciples try to take him aside and instruct him. Jesus is like that opinionated uncle you worry about inviting over to your dinner party because he never seems to know when he's crossed a line. Even while you're glaring and gesturing and mouthing for him to be quiet, he keeps on going, offending people left and right until the whole table has fallen silent.

Jesus isn't concerned about offending the Pharisees because he's more concerned that the people listening in on this conversation not be led astray by their hypocrisy. That is why he immediately turns to multitudes and instructs them about what truly defiles a man (the passage we looked at last time). Quite often Jesus will tell people to listen to what the Pharisees teach but not imitate their behavior. This time he directly contradicts their teaching about hand washing, calls them hypocrites to their faces, and quotes a damning passage from Isaiah to underscore the accusation. He completely trashes their credibility in front of the watching crowds. It was even worse than watching Seth Meyers roast Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner last weekend.

But shouldn't Jesus care about the Pharisees too? What about evangelizing to them? What about loving your enemies? By offending them he seems to be burning bridges with them instead of trying to reach them with the truth. Interestingly enough Jesus doesn't share our concern about these things when it comes to dealing with false teachers who wield the authority of God over the masses. "Every plant which my heavenly Father did not plant shall be rooted up. Let them alone. They are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit." Yeah, he's pretty much writing them off. Don't even try to convince them, he says. They don't belong to my Father and they are blind. They might even try to lead you astray, and in your blindness you'll follow right after them into a pit.

When it comes to humanity in general, you'll hear Jesus and the apostles will say, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." But when it comes to false teachers and false prophets and tone shifts radically. All you hear throughout the New Testament regarding false teachers is, "Woe, woe, woe to them! Those sons of hell, shameless dogs, unreasoning animals, waterless clouds, stains and blemishes, hypocrites, whitewashed tombs . . . flee from them!" That's because false teachers are people who speak in the name of God but use their authority deceptively to lead the faithful astray. They are an extremely dangerous breed, which is why Jesus never tells his disciples to stick around and try to "work with them" or "come alongside them." Chances are they will lead you to believe you are making progress with them, meanwhile they are sucking you into their deception and pretty soon you end up just as blind as they. So when you recognize one of them in your midst, it is better to drop your heroic fantasies about how you are going to be the instrument of their enlightenment, and back--slowly--away.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Matthew 15:10-20 - "And after he called the multitude to him, he said to them..."

This passage contains teaching in verses 12-14 about the Pharisees as "blind guides of the blind," but let's save our discussion of that section for next time. Right now we'll look at the discussion between Jesus and Peter on what truly defiles a man.

The tradition of hand-washing before eating isn't written in Old Testament law. Most likely the Pharisees took the commandment for priests to wash before ministering at the altar of the temple (Exodus 30:17-21) and applied it universally to all Jews coming before the table to eat a meal. It's a way of ramping up the holiness of the nation, and maybe then God will be pleased to restore Israel to her former glory. Of course, not only were the Pharisees teaching a man-made tradition as if it were the commandment of God, but they were violating a true commandment of God, the fifth commandment, in the process.

But Jesus' criticism of the hand-washing tradition reaches far beyond the fact that it is a mere tradition. He attacks the entire rationale upon which it is based. He says it's not what you put in your mouth that defiles you, it's what comes out of your mouth straight from your corrupt heart that defiles you. What is shocking about this pronouncement is that Jesus is challenging the entire idea of clean and unclean distinctions as taught by the Mosaic Law. The parallel passage in Mark 7:1-23 even adds as an aside, "Thus [Jesus] declared all foods clean," though Matthew seems to be content with just planting that idea in our heads and letting us draw our own conclusions. The law delineated categories of clean and unclean to train the Israelites to think in these stark, black-and-white terms, but the law was only a tutor, an intensive training exercise to help God's people see that the true clean and unclean distinction is between a holy God and sinful men.

Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of understanding, because anyone with spiritual insight would realize that the real uncleanness the law is referring to lies within our hearts. Food has nothing to do with it. Our words betray how much evil is hidden inside each one of us, an unending stream of lust, deceit and murder. Jesus had to come to us as the clean one and take our uncleanness upon himself. He became unclean to God, rejected upon the cross, so that we could be declared clean in the Father's sight.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Matthew 15:1-9 - "Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying..."

Some Pharisees and scribes make the long trip all the way up from Jerusalem to Galilee just to accuse Jesus. News of Jesus' activities has apparently reached the top brass in the capital city, and they have sent representatives to get this loose-cannon rabbi in line. Their question, "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?" shows that their main concern is about authority. "All religious practice done within these boundaries fall within our jurisdiction, you see. Why have you not asked our permission? By what authority do you do these things? Already we see how you teach your disciples to violate our traditions, which proves that you are a fraud."

Jesus comes right back and points out that the Pharisees commit the real offense by breaking God's commandment in order to keep their tradition. While it's unclear whether Jesus is condemning the practice of all man-made traditions, he is certainly aware of how traditions can end up usurping the place of God's commandments. They may start out in a subordinate place to God's law, then they move up to become equal to it, and soon they are taking priority over it. The tradition of Corban that the Pharisees practiced allowed them to take a vow dedicating their material wealth as a gift to the temple, which then made it unavailable for supporting their parents. Sorry, Mom and Dad, the money's been given to God. Conveniently, the sacredness of the vow took precedence over the fifth commandment.

Jesus summarizes God's view of such hypocrisy in this way: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." It's unsettling to think how many unspoken traditions we have layered on top of our Christian practice that may be taking us further and further away from God's actual commands. We have such definite ideas about how a godly Christian should dress, behave, talk, serve in church, evangelize his neighbors, prioritize his time, and vote. If any of these practices take priority over God's command to "love your neighbor," I think we'd hardly notice. Part of the reason for our blindness is that we can all think of ways that liberal Christians have abused and overused the term "love" to justify unbiblical practices. And yet that doesn't change the fact that God has still commanded that we love others, and has made that command supreme. Someone else's abuse of God's command doesn't give us reason to despise the command, nor does it justify finding man-made practices to put in its place.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Matthew 14:34-36 - "And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret."

More people, more healings, more clamoring after Jesus. This short passage appears to be a bridge that leads into Jesus' next confrontation with the Pharisees in chapter 15. But before we move quickly on, let's take note of a couple of things. The disciples have only been able to get so far from the madding crowd, and their precious break has already come to an end. The only rest they have gotten was when they were in the middle of the sea, and even then with Jesus pulling stunts like walking on water, they were never able to be fully at ease.

But Jesus himself has gotten even less of a break. He had already spent most of the night praying on the mountain, then he hiked all the way down to the seashore and walked two additional miles on the water to reach the disciples' boat. By the time he reached them it was close to sunrise ("the fourth watch," 14:25), meaning he might have gotten a couple hours' sleep on the boat before he had to rise again to start his day with the multitudes of Gennesaret clamoring for him when they docked. Surely, we can add sleeplessness to the list of Jesus' sufferings during his life on earth. If you've ever taken care of an infant around the clock, feeding and changing and rocking him all day long and throughout the night, running on only a few hours' sleep at a time, take comfort that Jesus knows all about your suffering. He keeps watch with you during those long and lonely nights.

The people of Gennesaret are begging to touch even the fringe of Jesus' cloak. News must have reached them about the hemorrhaging woman who had received healing simply by touching the hem of his garment (9:20-22). You feel tempted to despise these people who treat Jesus so superstitiously, but apparently Jesus does not despise them. Somehow there is enough faith mixed in with their superstition for him to honor with genuine healing. "As many as touched [his cloak] were cured" (v. 36). Jesus had told the hemorrhaging woman "your faith has made you well" and no doubt the same applies to these Gennesarites. It is always faith that Jesus honors--and perhaps because it is the desperate faith of the sick and needy, such desperation has made their faith true enough to overcome even the superstition that would otherwise taint it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Matthew 14:27-33 - "But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid.'"

I've noticed that people like to rag on Peter. He's such an easy target. He's bold and enthusiastic. He puts his foot in his mouth and falls on his face. This is another one of those passages in which Peter becomes an object of disdain to every preacher who preaches on it. "Once more we see Peter eating humble pie." "Peter's pride gets him in trouble again." "What a dumb, impulsive thing Peter did." Etc. Peter tries to walk on water and seems to be doing well, but when his faith totters and he starts to sink, Jesus grabs hold of him and rebukes him with "Oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

But before you use this passage as an excuse to jump all over Peter for his folly, you have to also acknowledge what a remarkable person he is, how dogged and loyal and eager and naive he is in his love for Jesus. He's like a puppy dog that comes barking and rolling and tumbling at you, then in his eagerness he overshoots his mark so that he has to turn around, scramble and come right back at you again. There's something lovable about that clumsiness, that haplessness. I can't imagine that Jesus despised Peter as much as some of us do. Maybe the reason we enjoy seeing Peter's boldness get him in trouble is that we are hoping that lends some merit to our own cowardice and cold love.

Peter hops out of the boat because he wants to go to Jesus. The disciples are just recovering from the shock of thinking they are seeing a ghost, and when Peter hears Jesus' reassuring voice, "Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid," his impulse is to run to him. "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." I used to think Peter just wanted a chance to take part in the cute little magic trick he saw Jesus performing, but looking at this passage again I don't think it was such a trivial request. Peter says, "if it is you," which means he is still uncertain about whether this is Jesus. Yet if the Lord commanded him to come, Peter knows Jesus would surely give him the ability to meet him safely on the water, then Peter would know that this really was his teacher and friend. Peter is simply hungering for that assurance. He's the "jump out and run to Jesus with open arms" type, not the "wait around for Jesus to make it all the way into the boat before seeing if it's really him" type.

When Peter is focused on Jesus and on his eagerness to be with him, he walks miraculously on the water. But as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus, noticing the wind, growing anxious about his surroundings, his faith leaks out and he begins to sink. The moment he stops trusting and starts calculating, he's done for. But not quite. Even when his faith fails, Jesus reaches out with his hand and saves him. There are a lot of Christians today who think their faith is what saves them, and when things go wrong they blame weak faith as the cause. But faith is always weak; it totters and shakes the moment we take our eyes off Jesus. It is Jesus who saves you, not your faith. He saves you in spite of your little faith; he saves you from your little faith. If you feel yourself losing a grip on him, you can cry to him to save you from yourself, from all your doubts and folly, and he will reach out a hand to prevent you from sinking.