Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Matthew 10:17-20 - "But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts..."

Jesus started out by giving instructions to his disciples for this short-term mission he's sending them on, but now he begins to launch into an epic sermon on the persecution believers will suffer to the end of the church age. He says they will first deliver you up to their synagogues, the religious court, then they will deliver you up to governors and kings, the secular court. And actually this is what happened to Jesus. He was arrested and brought before the high priest first, then he was delivered up to Pilate. The same happened to Paul. He was seized by the Jews and brought before the high priest, then he was brought before the governor and the king "as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles."

By putting the religious court first, Jesus seems to be hinting that if you're following him, you'll find yourself on the opposite side of some powerful religious establishment. You see that in his ministry. He tends to get wary when the Pharisees come around. He instructs his disciples to follow their leaders' teaching but not their example. And while he utilizes the temple and synagogues as a places to gather and teach, he doesn't speak of them with particular reverence. In his mind leadership positions and places of worship are institutions of men. "Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues." When it comes to persecuting Jesus' followers, the religious leaders will be the first in line, not the atheists or secularists. It is they who will deliver you up to the secular authorities.

When human beings set up their courts, particularly a religious court, they are seeking to imitate the judgment of God. The true court of judgment is in heaven above, but the earthly courts can have that same feeling of doom. And when a trial is conducted in a religious context it can be extremely intimidating. There is comfort in knowing that Jesus has already faced such a court both before the high priest and before Pilate. When he says not to become anxious about what to speak because his Spirit will give us the words, he is not just drawing from his divine wisdom but from his human experience.

It is incredible to think that he, the Creator and Lord of the universe, once stood before a human court to be pronounced guilty by wicked men. And yet when it comes our turn to be condemned in a similar fashion, though we are more deserving of judgment and he was not, Jesus' only thought will be to comfort us in our distress. Whatever we might suffer in this life, Jesus has already gone before us so that he could walk beside us when no other friend would.

Monday, August 30, 2010

These next eight weeks

The next eight weeks I will be preparing lectures for our church's women's retreat. During that time I'll be posting here only once or twice a week, instead of the usual three times, to create space in my brain to focus on writing the lectures. Thanks for your understanding.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Matthew 10:16 - "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves..."

Jesus sends out his disciples with no worldly possessions into the hostile cities of Israel to preach a message of repentance and sacrifice, of abandoning self-righteousness and embracing meekness. They will touch unclean lepers. They will heal those believed to be cursed of God for their sin--the blind and lame and demon possessed. They will be accused of blasphemy and sorcery. Through all this they must depend upon the kind hospitality of a handful of true believers who will receive and protect them in their homes. If they are persecuted and rejected they must do nothing to their enemies, only shake the dust off their feet and walk away.

I think one of the main reasons we Christians fail to act like Christians, to love and give and forgive as we ought, is that we haven't grasped that Jesus calls his disciples to be vulnerable in the midst of hostility. Somehow we think that we would love if only it were safe to, that we would give if we weren't taken advantage of, and we would forgive if only the other side would promise never to sin again. We feel we can be better Christians if our spouses weren't so selfish, or if our non-Christian parents would stop pointing out our faults. It seems justified to argue with, or even attack, gays and atheists and liberals and feminists because they've been hostile to us. Loving your enemies and giving freely are a nice sounding platitudes, but sometimes they just aren't practical. Jesus must be naive or something.

But it's not so. Jesus knows that he sends his people out as sheep in the midst of wolves. A wolf in the midst of sheep is bad enough, but sheep in the midst of a pack of wolves is about as perilous as it gets. That's the kind of situation into which he calls us to act like Christians. The dangers we face may be less overt than what the first century disciples faced, but they are connected by the same spiritual thread. There is a spiritual hostility that rises up against the Spirit of Jesus that makes you want to either retreat or lash out, instead of confront from a position of meekness and weakness. You'd rather flee from the wolves or shoot at them than be sent by the Lord into the midst of them.

If Jesus weren't aware of the dangers, he would never have said "therefore, be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." There is a shrewdness he wants us to adopt that doesn't employ evil tactics but looks for opportunities to escape danger. Jesus would sometimes slip away from the mob just as they were about to stone him. The apostle Paul got out of a scourging by informing the authorities that he was a Roman citizen. He also escaped the judgment of the Sanhedrin by announcing his belief in the resurrection, causing a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

There is something about putting yourself in harm's way for the sake of the gospel that enables God to fight for you, to open up for you a way of escape, if that's his will. You don't need to compromise your innocence by resorting to violence or threats. Your life belongs to Christ anyhow, so there's no point in fighting for it. You don't need to do anything but be watchful when the walls start closing in, and see if the Spirit shows you where you might find a passage that leads out to safety.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Matthew 10:9-15 - "Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts..."

The disciples have freely received, now they are to freely give. Jesus sends them into the cities of Israel as the first "faith missionaries." That is, they are not to have their means of survival planned ahead of time or be concerned about how to support themselves, but only minister and trust that God will provide for them in their journey. They aren't even supposed to accumulate provisions along the way that might ensure security for even a few days. No extra cash, no bag to store stuff in, no extra clothes, sandals or staff.

The missions field presents enough difficulties without having to leap into it by total faith. Even the apostle Paul relied on the trade of tentmaking to support himself through his missionary career. But you can understand why Jesus had the disciples take this approach. For one thing, they were following in Jesus' own example, the one who had no place to lay his head. But for another, imagine if they had accepted gold, silver or copper coins, or gifts of extra clothing for doing these miraculous works of healing. Even if these were given as gifts and not payments, how would the disciples appear to be any different from a traveling circus that goes about amazing and entertaining people in exchange for money? To freely give tells the crowds that they themselves have freely received, and points people's attention to the Giver of all things.

How, then, are they to survive? Jesus tells them they may accept offers of hospitality, but even this allowance serves a dual purpose. The hospitality they find in any given city will obviously be the means through which God provides them with food and shelter, but it also becomes the gauge that tells them whether worthy souls dwell there. If the disciples are welcomed, they should stay and minister; if they're not welcomed, they should move on. They will know they are welcomed if their greeting of peace (think: benediction) is received. The remark of one commentator stuck with me here: "The peace which they wish to the household goes out and is effective; but it is not automatic, and a wrong attitude in the receiver will result in its return, like an uncashed cheque."

Jesus concludes, "And whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city." Such harsh words. Shake off the dust of their feet? Worse judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah? Just because people rejected a single opportunity to hear the gospel? Yet you have to remember that these are the cities of Israel. Since ancient times they were supposed to be preparing for this day when the Messiah would come. Their entire history has been a long journey of bearing the hope of God's promise up to this climactic point. And being the covenant people of God is a double-edged sword. While it is a privilege to be chosen and set apart, to be enlightened with knowledge and entrusted with the sacred traditions, if the Messiah should come and find that you've despised your privilege, betrayed trust and loved darkness more than light, it would have been better if you'd never been entrusted with those things to begin with. It would have been better if you'd been like Sodom and Gomorrah and rejected the way of God in ignorance. The most severe judgment is reserved for the apostate, not for the heathen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Matthew 10:5-8 - "These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them, saying . . . "

On the heels of saying, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few," Jesus as the Lord of the harvest sends out his twelve disciples. We're used to this harvest passage being quoted as we send out missionaries into the far corners of the earth, but here Jesus forbids the disciples from going to either the Gentiles or the Samaritans. They are only to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Why? By the time Matthew wrote this Gospel, the church would have already consisted of Jew and Gentile Christians. Why risk offending the Gentile hearers of this Gospel by reporting how Jesus excluded Gentiles and Samaritans in his very first commissioning of the disciples?

I'm not sure the Gentile Christians of Matthew's day would have been offended. They would have understood that Jesus came into the world to fulfill the promise made to Israel long ago through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, about a land where they might find everlasting rest and about being a people more numerous than the stars of the heavens. The entire history behind that promise is recorded in the story of the Old Testament: the birth of the nation of Israel, their covenant with God, how they broke that covenant repeatedly, their exile into a foreign nation, their return to a destitute land, and how God yet desired to keep the ancient promise, this time through a new covenant.

The gospel that today blesses the entire world came to us first through the promise made to the Jewish people. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus makes it a priority to proclaim the message of salvation to Israel. Since ancient times they had been waiting for the Messiah's arrival while the rest of the world walked in darkness. But now that the Messiah has arrived, will he find faith left among his own people?

"And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons." Jesus transfers to his disciples the authority to do everything he's been doing up until now, and I'm sure the disciples got a kick out of having such extraordinary power in their own hands. But the reason Jesus gives for sending them on this mission is meant to keep them in a humble state of mind: "Freely you received, freely give."

Usually I just gloss over this part of the passage. Yeah, yeah, freely receive, freely give, it's better to give than to receive, sure. It sounds like a moral truism you find at the end of one of Aesop's Fables. But I don't think Jesus is speaking in general terms to the disciples, as if he were saying, "Look at all that I've given you, now you go and give back to the world out there." I think he's talking about something more specific, that the reason he wants the disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons is that they themselves have experienced the healing of their sickness, resurrection unto life, cleansing from leprosy, and freedom from bondage to Satan. Maybe not physically but spiritually. The sickness was in their hearts, they were dead in their sins, their spiritual leprosy had estranged them from God, and they were enslaved to the devil's will. All the healings they had witnesses up until this point were like parables of their own need for Jesus to make them whole. As Jesus' disciples they should have grasped this, and so he sends them out not to inflate their egos or give them a chance to wow the crowds, but with the understanding that they are just freely giving what they themselves have freely received.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Matthew 10:2-4 - "Now the names of the twelve apostles are these..."

I spent more time trying to figure out who the twelve disciples were and all their different alternate names than I did drawing any spiritual meaning out of this text. So let's talk about how we can get all these names straight. Matthew lists the twelve disciples as: Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot.

Now let's open it up for questions. Wasn't there supposed to be another Judas? Yes, the other Judas is mentioned in Luke and John. Judas or Jude is thought to be another name for Thaddaeus. Think of him as Judas/Thaddaeus. And what about Nathanael? Don't I recall a Nathanael in there somewhere? Yes, Nathanael is mentioned in John's Gospel and is thought to be another name for Bartholomew. Think of him as Bartholomew/Nathanael.

If you can get those two problem areas straight there should be no difficulty in memorizing the twelve disciples. (Unless of course you already have it memorized through a Sunday school song that you learned as a kid, but I didn't grow up in Sunday school so I have to come up with some other device.) My device is to memorize the names either as pairs or as repeats. The first eight names belong in four pairs and are easy to remember because every list in the Gospels presents them together.

Peter (Simon) and Andrew
James and John
Philip and Bartholomew (Nathanael)
Matthew and Thomas

Peter and Andrew and James and John are brothers of course, but I don't know why Philip and Bartholomew and Matthew and Thomas are always paired up. I just know that your ear just gets used to the rhythm of hearing their names spoken together.

The last four names are repeats, that is, they repeat another name in the list. You just need to remember which names show up twice:

James (son of Alphaeus)
Simon (the Zealot)
Judas (also Thaddaeus)
Judas (Iscariot)

For me it's easier to remember that there are two Judases and that the good Judas has the alternate name of Thaddaeus, than to remember that there is a guy named Thaddaeus and then try to figure out where he fits into the whole scheme of things. Simon the Zealot, of course, is a repeat of Peter's other name, which isn't hard to remember since Jesus often addresses Peter as "Simon Peter."

So in sum there are four pairs of names and four repeats. Four and four. Now, can you list the twelve disciples without looking?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Matthew 10:1 - "And having summoned his twelve disciples, he gave them authority over unclean spirits..."

When I'm watching a movie about a master and his disciples, there's a certain narrative I expect to see that goes something like this. Potential disciple approaches master and requests training. Master reluctantly agrees. Disciple goes through a rigorous training program where he must prove his worth. Through many doubts and moments of despair, disciple emerges fully trained to the master's satisfaction. Lastly, disciple must show he is at least equal to the master's ability, either through some competition or confrontation with an adversary. The movie "Kung Fu Panda" did a great job of parodying this standard storyline.

We've covered nine full chapters of Matthew and the storyline has gone nothing like the movies. Jesus calls his disciples, they don't approach him or try to convince him of their worthiness. Then as Jesus goes around doing his astounding miracles and attracting all sorts of acclaim, the disciples are almost invisible in the story. We haven't heard anything about their "training." We haven't heard about certain ones who are emerging as more potential than the rest, volunteering bright comments to show how enlightened they're becoming. The only major part the disciples have played so far was when they freaked out during the storm as Jesus slept in the stern of the boat. Not a very convincing snapshot of their potential.

Now we come to chapter ten and suddenly Jesus is handing them the authority to do the same miraculous deeds he's been doing up to this point, casting out demons and healing every kind of disease and sickness. Where did that come from? What did these guys do to show they are worthy of such a gift? Couldn't Matthew or the Holy Spirit or somebody at least make a better effort to convince us that these guys deserve to hold such incredible power in their wimpy little hands?

It doesn't make for a good Hollywood script because the plot line must be written so that the viewing audience is convinced that the Great Gift of the Master is being placed in the hands of a Worthy Recipient. The guy with the piercing intellect or the knowing look in his eye. The one disciple who didn't panic as Jesus slept during the storm. But no, there are no standouts. They all panicked, they've all been lackluster.

And maybe that's exactly the point. Jesus calls unspectacular, unimpressive, lackluster disciples, who will probably allow this transfer of powers to go completely to their heads and think it implies that they are much more awesome than they really are. Jesus knows that too, and yet he still lets them go and minister in his name. So it is with us. Jesus gives us everything first, then it's only much later on that we realize how little we deserved it, and even now how little we deserve to be serving in his name.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Matthew 9:35-38 - "And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages..."

We're used to seeing Jesus interacting with people on a one-to-one basis, responding to their needs, drawing out their faith, giving them comfort. But here we get an unusual glimpse into what he feels when he looks out at the multitudes of people around him. They are the lost sheep of Israel whose spiritual state is no different than the state of humanity in general. They are harassed and "thrown down" the passage says. They are lost, aimless, distressed, and without guidance. Jesus sees straight into their souls and he feels compassion.

Jesus' response may not come as a big surprise to us, but what is surprising is how loathe we are to imitate it. Perhaps we've been led astray by all the wrong examples. When a street preacher stands on a corner and preaches to the multitudes, what's his message? Condemnation, of course. He sounds like he views himself as standing amidst a filthy swarm of rats, urging them to get clean like him. Or when Christians band together against perceived outsiders--homosexuals, pro-choice advocates, liberals, secularist, atheists--our general attitude toward them is one of fear and suspicion, even loathing. We may understand that it's not right to have those attitudes toward individual people, but somehow we feel more justified in feeling that way toward them as a group.

Which is why it really is surprising that Jesus would feel compassion for the multitudes. He doesn't use the fact that they are an impersonal mob to excuse himself from feeling anything other than how he ought to feel toward each of them individually. And we know that what he feels isn't sentimental, the way you look at starving children in Africa on television while soft music plays in the background. Jesus knows this is the mob whose violence he would eventually succumb to. And he has compassion on them.

"The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few," Jesus says. "Therefore, beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest." Here is the second surprising part of this passage. The harvest is obviously the multitudes, ripe to be brought in through the preaching of the gospel message. They belong to the Lord of the harvest. So why does the Lord ask us to ask him to send out workers into his own harvest?

For some reason the Lord of the harvest isn't interested in doing the work alone. He wants his workers to bring in the harvest. He wants workers to come forward so he could send them. He even wants to be asked to send those workers in the first place. At every step he wants to compel us to be involved with him, even though he could probably do it himself, even though he knows if he waits around for us he will always be short of help.

Why? Jesus is obviously not a pragmatist. He doesn't have an eye toward just accomplishing the work, but views the work of the kingdom as a process that includes us in the joy of his labor, which ultimately is a way of drawing us closer to himself. Beseeching the Lord to send out workers into the harvest can start to work in your heart, until you aren't just asking him to send someone else, but you're willing to be that someone who is sent. And it doesn't end there. So often you hear missionaries talk about starting out on the missions field focusing on the service they want to render to the Lord. But somewhere in the middle of it all, it becomes not about merely serving him, but knowing him through serving him. And by the end they begin to wonder whether knowing him was not the entire point of being called into missionary service in the first place.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Matthew 9:32-34 - "And as they were going out, behold a dumb man, demon-possessed, was brought to him."

Our last passage ended with Jesus warning the formerly-blind men not to tell anyone about their miraculous healing. Since the opening of chapter nine Jesus has had his first confrontations with open hostility, beginning with the scribes who grumbled about his pronouncing forgiveness upon the paralytic, and then the Pharisees who complained about his eating with tax collectors and sinners. It's possible that Jesus tends to be more secretive about his miracles where there's unbelief, and perhaps that's why he charged the blind men he'd healed not to say anything. Of course they went around spreading the news anyhow and, sure enough, guess who shows up to spy out Jesus' activities? The Pharisees come ready to put their own spin on the miracle Jesus does with the mute, demon-possessed man.

This story of healing is different from the others we have read up to this point because the emphasis is not on Jesus' interaction with the man (or, I should say, the demon who controls the man). The demon is cast out and the mute man speaks--Matthew is rather blasé about it. Matthew instead wants to draw attention to the contrasting reaction Jesus gets from the crowds and the Pharisees. The crowds say, "Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel." But the Pharisees say, "He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons."

Sometimes you think, "If I just tell everyone about what Jesus did for me, or about the miraculous answer to prayer I received, or if I bring people to hear the word preached at church, then they'll want to become Christians too." But as you can see from this passage, not everyone who sees Jesus really sees Jesus. We are all like the blind men of the previous passage, waiting to be healed of our spiritual blindness. When the crowds see Jesus' miraculous powers they marvel, but only as those who see in part. As for the Pharisees, they are not only completely blind, but they don't even know they are blind, otherwise they might have asked to be given sight. They are in the worst possible spiritual state: blind, yet thinking they can see. The evidence of their utter blindness is that they call Jesus' miracle an act of black magic. Where there's white they see black and what is black they call white. A holy act of God is an act of the devil in their eyes, and their own wicked self-righteousness is pleasing to God in their minds.

The crowds marvel, but Jesus knows that is different from believing and following him as a true disciple. Jesus is never enamored by the applause of crowds. He knows they yet hang in the balance, and at some point each individual must decide for himself or herself what to make of these things. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus has come to strike the hearts of the multitudes and divide them to either one side or the other. And with the Pharisees having chosen their side, you can already see it happening. Is Jesus the Son of God or the ruler of demons? Are these holy miracles or devilish magic? Shall we hail him as king or crucify him as evil?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Matthew 9:27-31 - "And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him..."

Two blind men come after Jesus crying, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" They must have had a guide to help them because they managed to get as far as following Jesus all the way into the house he was entering. What house is this? No explanation is given, but back in 9:1 it says Jesus had arrived at "his own city." It's possible he is still in his hometown and has gone back to his family's house where he grew up, which is why there's no explanation about it. Just a guess.

Once again Matthew emphasizes in the telling of this story the faith of the people Jesus heals. Over and over Matthew has shown us different degrees and expressions of people's faith in Jesus. The leper who says, "if you are willing you can make me clean," the centurion who says, "just say the word," the disciples who say, "save us, Lord!" the paralytic who implores in silence, the synagogue official who says, "lay your hands on my daughter and she will live again," and the hemorrhaging woman who thinks, "if I just touch his garments I will be healed."

Here in this story the blind men demonstrate faith by calling Jesus "Son of David," a messianic title. Furthermore they follow hard after him, even to the point of intruding into someone else's house. And yet Jesus demands more. He wants to know specifically whether they believe he can heal their blindness. He says to them, "Do you believe I am able to do this?" They answer, "Yes, Lord." Jesus touches their eyes and says, "Be it done to you according to your faith," and their eyes are opened.

When I first became a Calvinist, my understanding of the sovereignty of God ramped up about tenfold. It was awesome. But one of the difficulties of believing in such an all-knowing, all-powerful God is that prayer doesn't seem to fit in very well with that understanding. If God knows all my needs and has the ability to provide for all that I need, and if he even knows what I need before I think it or name it, and has known it even from the beginning of time, why on earth should I take the trouble to pray to him about it? Dear God, just do it. Why should I have to say it? Why should I put myself through the suspense of asking for something and waiting to see if you'll give it to me and getting disappointed when I don't receive it and holding out hope that maybe you'll still answer and all that bother? You know. You see. I'll just let you do your thing, and that way I don't have to pray to you about what I need all the time, okay? Thanks. Amen.

And yet there stands Jesus before two blind men who have gone through a great deal of trouble to gain an audience with him. He knows their need and sees it plainly, yet still he wants them to say, "I believe you can heal me." For him it is not enough to be treated like a power-dispensing machine, like some blind force of nature that rains on you when you're feeling thirsty and shines on you when you're feeling cold. With Jesus it has to be personal. He wants you to come to him and say, "I need you to do this. I believe you can, I know you can." He wants you to claim him. That's what belief is, isn't it? It's saying, "Not only do I believe you can do this for anyone, but I believe you will do this for me, because you're mine, and I'm yours."

Being a Calvinist may help you understand that God knows all things and has decreed from eternity past the history of the universe from the beginning to the end. But one thing theological knowledge will not tell you is whether you belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to you. That's something you can only find out by seeking a relationship with him. You have to come to Jesus and say, "I believe." You have to bring your blindness to him and say, "Lord, open my eyes so I can see you." You have to get up and to follow him. That's why these Gospels were written, to instruct us about what's truly important in the Christian life. Nothing else matters by comparison.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Matthew 9:18-26 - "While he was saying these things to him, behold, there came a synagogue official..."

A synagogue official with tremendous faith approaches Jesus and asks him to do a miracle that until now is unheard of. He requests that Jesus raise his daughter from the dead. Jesus doesn't protest, he follows the man as if this is just a normal request. But on the way he encounters a woman who has, in some ways, greater faith than the synagogue official.

You might remember from a previous passage the centurion whose faith Jesus commended because he said, "Just say the word and my servant will be healed" (8:5-13). He didn't need Jesus to come to his house and lay hands on the servant. He knew Jesus' word would be enough. Well, here we have a woman who doesn't even ask Jesus to look at her, speak to her, or acknowledge her in any way. Incredibly, she believes that if she only touches the fringe of his cloak, she will be healed of an illness she has suffered with for twelve long years.

You have to wonder why the woman was fearful of drawing attention to herself. Jesus obviously senses her fear because he assures her with the words, "Daughter, take courage." Maybe she heard that Jesus is on his way to attend to a little girl, and she doesn't think her problem is important enough to bother him with. She could be thinking, "I've been suffering with this bleeding for years. I won't hold the teacher up. The little girl's death is more urgent." In other words the woman is looking for a drive-by healing and, incredibly, she believes it would work. It does. What she doesn't bargain for is Jesus turning around and addressing her. "Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well." Jesus is not satisfied to let her slip away, as if the amount of time he ought to give her depends upon the urgency of her situation--kind of like the way you're treated at the emergency room. He doesn't just want to do something for her; he wants to establish a relationship with her. He calls her his "daughter."

Now if Jesus calls this woman his daughter, he has certainly laid the same fatherly claim upon the synagogue official's daughter. He hasn't forgotten about her. When he gets to the house, hired musicians and mourners have already overrun the place. Whoever was left in charge of the household apparently didn't have the same faith as the synagogue official. They were already moving ahead with funeral plans. Jesus doesn't like to do miracles in the presence of unbelief so he asks the crowd to leave so he could tend to the girl. They laugh.

They laugh because he tells them "the girl has not died but is asleep." They think he's being ridiculous but what Jesus means is the miracle has already been accomplished. He has already saved her. Oh, the girl is dead all right, but she's not dead in her sins. Her father's faith has saved her and so now, though she is physically dead, she is spiritually alive. Her death is merely the sleep of someone who is waiting to be awakened at Jesus' resurrection call.

When Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up as if from sleep, that is exactly how it will be on the day of our resurrection. We'll be asleep, as it were, in our graves, waiting for Jesus to waken us. And when we do awake it will be just like getting up in the morning from a good night's sleep, except we will feel more refreshed and alive than we have ever felt before. We open our eyes to a new life. We will rise up with glorified bodies that will never require sleep again.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Matthew 9:14-17 - "Then the disciples of John came to him saying..."

Even though John the Baptist has been thrown into prison (4:12), his disciples are still hanging around and faithfully practicing his teachings. But then they notice that their practice of fasting is more in sync with the Pharisees' practice than with the disciples of Jesus, who don't fast at all. Hmm, they say to themselves, what's wrong with this picture? We're on Jesus' side, not the Pharisees'.

They seek Jesus out to ask him about it. "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answers, "The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?" By referring to fasting as mourning, Jesus explains the purpose of this Old Testament practice. You fast because you are mourning, and you are mourning because of your sin. David fasted over his infant child who lay on the brink of death because of his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:15-23). Esther and her people fasted for three days before she risked her life to make request of the king (Esther 4:15-17). Esther and the Jews mourned because all their lives were in danger, but ultimately they understood that their sin, which had brought them into exile, was the root cause of their perilous situation.

So when you get down to it, fasting is mourning that the Messiah has not yet come. The Answer to all your griefs and sorrows has not yet arrived. But if he has arrived, why still mourn as if he were away? That's the point of Jesus' parable about the bridegroom and his attendants. When the bridegroom is here the attendants are joyful, but when he is taken away they will mourn again. Here = happy. Not here = sad.

The Old Testament is all about waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. The whole story is colored with sorrow and longing for better days. The arrival of Jesus, however, signals the beginning of something new. The New Testamant era is the time of rejoicing because the Messiah has come to bear away our sins. That's what Jesus is talking about when he gives the analogy of how you don't sew a new patch onto an old garment, or pour new wine into old wineskins. The new situation doesn't mesh with the old practices. A new patch will tear away from the old fabric and newly fermenting wine will bust out of brittle old wineskins. Likewise the good news of the Messiah's arrival doesn't mesh with fasting and mourning for the Messiah to come. He has come. Stop mourning.

Jesus refers to a time when once again "the bridegroom is taken away from [the attendants], and then they will fast." Jesus kind of hints that the practice of fasting still remains today in his temporary absence, but he also makes clear that his coming has transformed the practice into something new. We live in a time when Jesus is both absent and present, when we both grieve and rejoice. Like Paul says we are "as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things" (2 Corinthians 6:10). That's because Jesus has established his kingdom in our hearts though he has not yet established it in the world. So we live with one foot in this reality and another foot in that reality. Sad and yet happy. Having reason to fast, and yet never again fasting with the same sorrow the Old Testament saints once had.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Matthew 8:9-13 - "And as Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew..."

Matthew, the author of this Gospel, makes a short cameo appearance here and reveals that Jesus called him straight out of a tax booth to be his disciple. This is no minor revelation. The tax collectors, as you may already know, were Jews commissioned by the Roman government to collect taxes from fellow Jews using whatever means possible. The Roman government would offer tax collecting jobs to the highest bidders, and whatever amount the tax collector took above and beyond the required taxes he could pocket for himself. The whole system was set up for abuse. Tax collectors were hated not only for being greedy extortioners but, worse, they worked for a powerful Gentile oppressor. They were traitors to their own community, the people of God.

When Jesus calls Matthew out of his tax booth, we might be wondering why he does not first lay down certain conditions about discipleship, or coerce him into making promises about reforming his life. "Don't you know what you'll have to give up to follow me? Are you serious about cleaning up your act?" But notice how unnecessary all that is, because for Matthew the act of following Jesus is leaving behind his old life. As soon as Jesus says, "Follow me!" Matthew obeys by abandoning his tax booth.

But shouldn't Matthew at least get the old cost-of-discipleship lecture about "foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head"? Or, "let the dead bury their own dead"? A scheming crook like him deserves the same hard-nosed treatment the others got, doesn't he? Maybe it wasn't necessary to tell a tax collector like Matthew how lonely and ostracized he would be from family and friends if he followed Jesus. He was already lonely and ostracized because of his wickedness and guilt. A man like him would have nothing to lose and everything to gain by following Jesus. The cost would seem like the lightest burden compared to the precious gift of being loved by Jesus and given a clean conscience. Matthew sees right away the value of what he is being offered, and Jesus doesn't need to laboriously spell things out for him as he does with most people. Maybe that's why Jesus likes hanging out with sinners like Matthew. It's a lot less work.

Well, why stop there? Matthew goes out and invites all his tax collecting friends to meet Jesus, and they bring along their friends of similar reputation, and pretty soon there's a dinner party in full swing with Jesus as the honored guest. The Pharisees, of course, are offended. I suppose it would be like Jesus befriending an abortion doctor, who then invites his abortion doctor friends to meet Jesus too, and they show up at the house with their gay and lesbian friends. That might ruffle a few feathers. But Jesus feels at home with this crowd. He has come to speak the language healing and wholeness and forgiveness, words that make sense to people who are in tune with their own sickness, brokenness and guilt.

And yet the point isn't that these people are worse sinners than the rest. Rather, due to public scorn for their particular sins they have been targeted and abused, and thus have been brought to a more humble awareness of their need. So when Jesus says to the Pharisees, "It is not the healthy who need a physician but those who are sick . . . I did not come to call the righteous but sinners," he speaks somewhat ironically. He is using the Pharisees' own categories of dividing people into the healthy and the sick, the righteous and the sinners. If the Pharisees insist they are healthy, then they have no need of a physician, right? Why take offense that the physician goes to the very people whom the Pharisees would agree are sick?

The story illustrates a fundamental principle to keep in mind when relating to Jesus. The only sin that will keep Jesus away from you is the sin of thinking you are doing too well to need him. The more you feel your need of him, the closer he draws to you, but the more you scorn neediness in yourself and others, the more distant he will become. Greed, lust, selfishness, uncleanness, moral weakness, unfaithfulness, cowardice, laziness, and generally irritating behavior--none of this can ever be your undoing before Jesus, as long as you confess it before him. It's the refusal to confess that will undo you. That's the only real difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee in this story. One has had the benefit of human hatred to make him see his need, while the other has had the curse of human praise to blind him to his.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Matthew 9:1-8 - "And getting into the boat, he crossed over and came to his own city."

Up until this point in the Book of Matthew, Jesus has not had a confrontation with people who diametrically opposed his ministry, but that is all about to change once he arrives at his hometown. Sure, back in the Gerasenes the people were afraid of Jesus and wanted to be rid of him. But in this passage Jesus will have an encounter with scribes who actually believe his holy words to be blasphemy. What Jesus brings from heaven they will attribute to the pit of hell, while their own hell-bound righteousness is, to their minds, the very pathway to heaven. Satan strategically positions his most vicious servants in Jesus' hometown, perhaps to strike a blow at his morale.

And yet there are also people of great faith. A paralytic is borne to Jesus on a stretcher by friends. Jesus acknowledges "their faith," that is, not only the faith of the paralytic but of his friends, who took the trouble because they believed in Jesus' healing power. However, Jesus does something unexpected. Instead of immediately healing the paralysis, he says to the ailing man, "Take courage, my son, your sins are forgiven."

Now, the commentators I've read all say that this forgiveness is a completely unasked for blessing. The man came for a healing, and yet Jesus just decided to give him a surprise gift that totally caught him off guard. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. Of course I don't have to worry about the Tyndale people or anyone else editing this blog, but at the same time I hope I'm not being too out of line here. I just have this idea that Jesus almost always responds directly to what people actually desire, because he wants them to seek him in faith. I don't think he plops stuff on their laps that was never on their radar screen in the first place.

As we've seen before Jesus responds to weak, hesitant faith as well as to panicky, near-hopeless faith. So when he says to the paralytic, "Take courage, my son," I have to believe that he was responding to some tremulous faith he also saw in this man's heart. Some cry of the soul. Some near-fainting hope. The man must have wanted forgiveness of his sins, and yet could he dare to ask? You can imagine how this situation might have arisen. His friends say, "Hey, Jesus is in town. Let's get you healed." The man can hardly protest since his paralysis puts him entirely at their mercy, so off they go. And yet he knows that his real paralysis his found in his own sinful heart, the spiritual paralysis of being totally unable to keep God's law. So there he is before Jesus, surrounded by friends who want his physical healing, and he wants it too, yet there is something he wants even more but cannot bring himself to say. Jesus sees it. He tells the man to take courage because he will receive the desire of his heart. "Your sins are forgiven."

If Jesus answered the unspoken desire of the paralytic's heart, he is now quick to turn his mind-reading powers the other direction to answer the unspoken grumbling of the scribes. They accuse him of blasphemy in their hearts so Jesus asks, "Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'?" Now if the question were, "Which is easier to do?" then forgiving a man's sins would be harder, for Jesus would someday pay an enormous price to ensure that forgiveness. But he is asking about which is easier to say. That is, which can you get away with just saying because there's nothing you can do to prove it? Certainly it is easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven." But to show that he never says anything that isn't backed up by reality, he commands the paralytic, "Rise, take up your bed and go home." The fact that the man actually did it shows that the forgiveness Jesus had pronounced was real too. It shows that his words are never empty.

There is something ironic about the crowd's reaction to this miracle. They "glorified God who had given such authority to men." It would seem that Jesus is just a man in their eyes to whom God had given authority to forgive sins and heal. If he is just a man, just a spokesman or a human medium through whom God could channel his powers, then they are missing the point. The authority to forgive and heal does come from the Father above, but it also centers upon the person of Jesus, because as the Son he is the revelation of the Father. Jesus is not a divinely anointed man. He is the Son of God who has clothed himself in humanity, who reveals the character, will and desire of the Father.

And yet the crowd is right to glorify God "who had given such authority to men" because even if they are misunderstanding who Jesus is, they recognize that if God has given a man this power, then they have an advocate on their side. A man who can forgive sins is so much more accessible than the transcendent God. He is someone you can talk to and touch, who knows all your human struggles, who can draw from his personal experience to relate to you. If a man has been given authority from God to forgive, then this is revolutionary indeed.