Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Matthew 12:15-21 - "But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there."

Jesus knows the Pharisees are conspiring to put him to death so he withdraws from the synagogue. He continues to heal everyone who comes to him but warns them not to make him known. This odd command of Jesus, sometimes referred to as the "messianic secret," has become the subject of a great deal of scholarly controversy. Why would Jesus want to keep his identity a secret? Why wouldn't he want his miraculous works to be known? Didn't he come to bring good news, to announce to the world that hope has arrived?

At first you might think that he fears the Pharisees' murderous plot, that he's trying to duck them to save his skin. But knowing Jesus, that can't be it. Does Jesus ever try to save himself solely for survival's sake? He has completely surrendered himself to the will of God, whether it is ministering to others during his life or submitting to death when the appointed time comes. Asking that people keep his activities a secret couldn't be an act of cowardice.

Maybe that's why Matthew inserts this prophecy from Isaiah foretelling that the Christ would come as the suffering servant. God is pleased to send him among us clothed in meekness and humility. Sure, he could easily smash his enemies, triumphing over them and putting them to shame, but instead he is patient, humble and merciful. According to Isaiah's prophecy, "He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets." He's not a rabble-rouser. He doesn't accomplish the will of God by arguing and protesting, trying to get the last word in. The Pharisees display a worldly zeal for verbal sparring, seeking to score points against Jesus in the public eye, but Jesus chooses to disengage from the conflict and withdraw.

Jesus will not rise to the bait of the Pharisees but he will stoop to identify with the lowly and downtrodden, the people whom the teachers of the Law have relentlessly beaten down. "A battered reed he will not break off, and a smoldering wick he will not put out." A battered reed has been bruised; a smoldering wick is weak and faint. These are images of the spiritually poor whom Jesus seeks. He doesn't come along and finish you off when you're on your last gasp. He doesn't kick you when you're down. Only the gentlest of hearts knows how to nurse that bruised soul back to health, or coax that dying flicker of faith back into a bright flame.

The contentious person has no use for Jesus and the brawler holds his meekness in contempt, but that hardly matters. Jesus only concerns himself with the humble who have no strength to fight any longer, who know they have no argument before a holy God. It's only when they've given up hope in themselves that they find their hope in him.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Matthew 12:9-14 - "And departing from there, he went into their synagogue."

Prior to this point Matthew's stories of healings have been about Jesus' miraculous power and the faith of the one healed. It has been a picture of what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus, illustrating our need for him and what it means to believe. But here the focus shifts away from the miracle of healing and onto the escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. The healing of the man with the withered hand is treated as somewhat incidental, for it has become an occasion for the Pharisees to accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath, and ultimately an excuse to start plotting his death.

Although the man with the withered hand never approaches Jesus, he is present at the synagogue and the Pharisees rightly suspect that Jesus will heal him. Any normal person would view an imminent healing with joyful anticipation. The warped-minded Pharisees see only an opportunity to accuse Jesus. The question they pose, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" casts Jesus' anticipated action entirely in terms of doing work on the Sabbath. What is lawful to do on the Sabbath? Is it lawful to do X or Y on the Sabbath? Let's consult our compendium of acceptable and unacceptable Sabbath activities and see which category "performing a miraculous healing" falls into.

Jesus answers the question by subtly recasting it: "It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." This is not about what can or can't be done on the Sabbath. This is about what is lawful. What is moral? What is right? What is glorifying and pleasing to God? Is it lawful to do good? Of course it is. There is no law against doing good to one's neighbor. Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

Even the Pharisees believe this. If one of their sheep fell into a pit, wouldn't they rescue it? They wouldn't hesitate to do good to an animal on the Sabbath, so how can helping a human being be a crime? No doubt, some of the Pharisees were thinking, "Oh, but you could have waited a day to heal this man. Why violate the Sabbath to do what's not urgent?" But the example of rescuing a sheep on the Sabbath instead of waiting a day also exposes their hypocrisy. They'd rescue the sheep right away because it's the merciful thing to do. Likewise, you should have mercy on a fellow human being who is worth more than an animal, and part of mercy is that you don't hesitate to relieve them of their suffering.

So Jesus goes ahead and heals the man, and the Pharisees storm out of the synagogue and conspire to destroy him. For them the law of God isn't about righteousness or mercy or loving one's neighbor. It's about having a big stick to keep people in line. When Jesus defies their authority, they see him as a threat who must be eliminated at all costs. For all their talk about righteousness, they now find themselves discussing the murder of the Son of God. It is a terrifying blindness that convinces them that they are glorifying God even as they run headlong into insanity, power-mongering and bloodlust.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Matthew 12:1-8 - "At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields..."

The disciples of Jesus are accused by the Pharisees of picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath. The concern is not about eating from someone else's field, but breaking the Sabbath by doing the work of plucking grain. It may sound crazy to us, but the Pharisees had all kinds of rules on what was considered "work" on the Sabbath, which really started to infringe upon other more important aspects of the Law, like loving people. Jesus gives five arguments in succession on why the Pharisees are going about this the wrong way.

First of all, Jesus says, it's obviously okay in certain instances to violate what is holy if it serves a pressing need, as David and his men ate the consecrated bread while they were fleeing from King Saul in 1 Samuel 21:1-8. Nothing in this account hints that David was guilty of any sin, so it must be that his and his men's need for food in that desperate situation took precedence over whether the food they ate was "properly" lawful.

Secondly, the Law itself teaches that the priests break the Sabbath all the time. The priests have to serve in the temple, right? That's work, right? You're not supposed to work on the Sabbath, right? Therefore the Law teaches that the priests can break the Law. Hmm, it sort of hints that keeping the Sabbath isn't the be all and end all of our entire existence.

So human need trumps persnickety law-keeping, and even the Law teaches that work must be done on the Sabbath. Now Jesus goes on to argue his third point, which is that his own presence on this earth changes our entire understanding of the Law. Jesus' arrival signals that all the Old Testament shadows are giving way to something greater, that he is the true temple, priest and Sabbath rest.

And that means, jumping forward to Jesus' fifth argument, that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. The Old Testament Sabbath law is merely a foreshadowing of the true Sabbath rest that Jesus would bring: "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest" (remember this from our previous passage?). Jesus came to give us rest from our labors under the Law. If you have kept the Old Testament Sabbath in view of that messianic fulfillment, then you understood the point; but if you have made the Sabbath a task-master to further oppress the weary, you have perverted it.

Which is why Jesus quotes from Hosea 6:6 in his fourth point, "I desire compassion and not sacrifice." The Sabbath rest is about having compassion on needy and desperate, upon sinners who seek to be free from the burden of their guilt. By extension the Sabbath should be an occasion for having mercy upon any kind of need, whether it is a need like David's, or the need of priests to do their holy work, or even the need of the disciples to breakfast on their journey with Jesus. That the Pharisees go around using the Sabbath as a club to bludgeon people and build up their own self-righteousness demonstrates just how far astray their blindness has led them from the truth.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Matthew 11:28-30 - "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."

Just as the Father is pleased to reveal himself to the unsophisticated and simple-minded and hide from the wise and intelligent, so he is pleased to invite the weak and weary to himself, not the strong and successful. The invitation "Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden" may sound like Jesus is just saying, "If you ever need help or find yourself in a jam, I'm there for you." But it's so much more than that. He's not saying, "Even if you're weak, you can come to me." Rather he is telling us that you can't come unless you are weak, unless you have thoroughly given up on yourself. He does not offer himself to the proud and self-sufficient but says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart." In order to have him you must learn his ways of humility, otherwise you will never see how spiritually destitute you truly are, how much you are in need of the living water he offers.

We like to think we are perfectly capable of living our own lives and, sure, once in a while we might need Jesus' help, but even then we are careful to ask him for the kind of help that we think he'd be willing to give. We're very calculating about all this. Coming to him with this prayer request would be silly, whereas that request is too hard to answer. I could ask him for this one here, something that he wouldn't mind providing me, which I'm half expecting is going to work out by itself anyhow. But this will never do. The strong and capable cannot fully rest in Jesus' arms, cannot come to know his heart of gentleness and humility. And so Jesus veils himself from the proud but reveals himself to the poor and needy. It's another way that he blinds some but give others the sight to see.

Once you do see him with eyes of humility, you no longer have to bear your own yoke. Jesus willingly takes the burden upon himself. Whatever burdens have weighed upon you, you no longer have to carry alone, whether anxieties or demands or responsibilities, Jesus wants to take them from you. He gave them to you in the first place so that you would come to grips with your own frail limitations, and now he takes them from you so that you will know the freedom of relying on his strength alone. Years after Jesus ascended to glory, Peter remembered the teaching of his Lord and summed it up this way: "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Matthew 11:25-27 - "At that time Jesus answered and said, 'I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth...'"

That God would hide his mysteries from the wise and intelligent and reveal them to babes sums up the heart of what he is all about. He is the God who deals with us through paradox. He sent his Son to show that the weakness of God can overcome the strength of the Devil, and that the sufferings of God can bring greater blessings than the glories of the world. Likewise he desires to reveal his secrets to the humble and uneducated to show that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.

"Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight." Why does it please God to identify with the lowly and despised? Here is my best intuitive guess. Put yourself in God's shoes. He is the almighty one. No one resists his will. He is the beginning and the end of all things, he has the final say. But he also seeks to glorify himself before angels and men. Now, at the end of redemptive history we know that the victory will belong to him, but how will that victory be achieved? God is not willing to achieve victory using his raw power, just smashing the Devil and his demons and anyone else who defies him. It's too obvious, and it doesn't do justice to the fullness of who he is. So he allows himself to be beset, to be mocked, to be delayed by the workings of evil for a time. Through it we see a different side of God that we never could have imagined before. A God who suffers. A God who is patient in the face of evil. A God who makes his home in the hearts of the weak and sinful and ignorant. By doing so, somehow his power and holiness and wisdom seem that much richer. All the hidden depths of God character are revealed and glorified in a way that could not have been otherwise. The angels who already worship and praise him do so with greater awe.

"No one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him." This is the Father whom the Son reveals to us: the God who seeks out the lost, enters into our sorrows, cleanses our filth and carries away our diseases. If you recognize this God you have been given true sight, you've been healed of your blindness. But if you only know a God who is hard and demanding, nothing but a relentless display of fearsome power, you haven't truly seen him. You're still stumbling around in the dark.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Matthew 11:20-24 - "Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his miracles were done..."

In our previous passage Jesus was already condemning "this generation" for acting like fickle children, but now he pushes the envelope further by pronouncing a frightening judgment upon the Israelite cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. They did not believe the many miracles he had performed among them, and now there is nothing left to reveal except the wrath that their unbelief deserves.

Nothing is scarier than hearing Jesus pronounce woe upon people. Jesus is our only hope anywhere, ever. Outside of him there's nothing, no escape, no plan, no recourse, no alternative except to head straight for your doom. He is the trapdoor out of the fiery furnace, the eject button out of the nosediving plane. If Jesus condemns you, it's like hearing a life raft condemn you to a drowning.

The ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon were great centers of trade. According to Isaiah 23:3-9 Tyre was a city known for its wealth, beauty and honor, the way you'd think of a London or Paris today. Ezekiel 26-28 recounts God's judgment upon Tyre, humbling her great pride and defiling her splendor through the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar with his Babylonian army. By comparison the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida were little podunk towns, villages really. They weren't wealthy and extravagant. They weren't great metropolises that were "playing the harlot with all kingdoms of the earth" as Isaiah said of Tyre. Yet because these cities rejected the Messiah who appeared to them in the flesh, performing signs and miracles in their midst, their sin would be judged more harshly than even the pagan decadence of Tyre and Sidon.

Capernaum receives the worst condemnation because Jesus says it will be judged more harshly than Sodom. I don’t know if Sodom's sins were objectively worse than Tyre’s and Sidon's, but certainly the mention of Sodom would have a greater emotional impact on the average Jew. To say you are worse than Sodom, now them's fightin' words. It's something someone would say along with an insult about your mother. Except here Jesus is not trying to pick a fight, he's deadly serious. The people of Capernaum evidently prided themselves on their piety. They thought they would be “exalted to heaven” when in fact they would “descend to Hades.” Jesus is just trying to get through to them about the reality of their situation.

I’ve puzzled over Jesus’ statement that if Tyre, Sidon and Sodom had seen these same miracles that he’d performed in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, they would have repented and saved themselves from judgment. The question is, if such repentance were possible for these cities, why didn’t God give them that chance? It’s hard to say what kind of repentance Jesus is talking about here, but I imagine a repentance similar to Ninevah’s when Jonah preached to them. Ninevah saved itself from destruction for a time, but when it later returned to its wicked ways God’s judgment came swiftly (Nahum 1:14). The rule is that your judgment is harsher when you sin against greater revelation. Is it possible, then, that even though cities like Tyre, Sidon and Sodom could have repented with exposure to greater revelation, yet God chose to spare them the greater judgment that would have awaited them had they gone back like Ninevah did to their old ways? Jesus says that Judgment Day would be “more tolerable” for these cities since they didn’t sin against revelation the way Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum did. It’s strange to think that Judgment Day could be tolerable for anyone, or that God might be sparing certain sinners a worse fate by withholding his revelation from them, but now we’re treading into mysteries beyond our understanding.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Matthew 11:16-19 - "But to what shall I compare this generation?"

When you read this passage to yourself, it helps to imagine the children speaking in a taunting, snotty voice: "We played the flute and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn." Jesus says this unbelieving generation is like those children. Nothing you do satisfies them. Everything you do is subject to their criticism. You did this. How come you didn't do that? You did that. How come you didn't do this? They also feel entitled to set the agenda. You will dance when we say you dance, and you will mourn when we say you mourn.

John the Baptist hailed from the old covenant era. He was the last of a long line of Old Testament prophets who practiced the asceticism and repentance that was appropriate for those who waited for the Messiah's coming. John had put off worldly things. He lived in the wilderness. He dressed in camel's hair. He ate a frugal diet of locusts and honey. In other words he took on the posture of someone preparing to meet his Lord and his Judge because, well, he was. Yet most people saw only a crazy man. So extreme. So out there. Must be demon-possessed or something. "For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, 'He has a demon!'" The eyes of unbelief are always looking for reasons to reject the messengers of God.

But John was kind of crazy-looking. Are you sure you want to say that people rejected him out of unbelief? John probably looked like the equivalent of today's homeless person shouting out in the street as if he were on drugs. He didn't exactly package his message to appeal to the demographics he was trying to reach.

Fair enough. Enter the Messiah and see how people respond to him. Jesus is not out there wandering in the wilderness but comes straight into town where people live. He's wading through the crowds, he's going to people's weddings, he's making the wine flow, he's the guest of honor in every home that will open its doors to him. That's because his arrival means the time of mourning and waiting and longing is over. The bridegroom is here, let's get this party started. It's a time of celebration, the kingdom of God has arrived. The king himself has arrived. No more of John's extreme practices and extreme diets and extreme everything. Happy now?

No, of course not. Now comes the criticism about the Messiah's overindulgence. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!'" How can this social butterfly be the Messiah? Where's the self-deprivation of John? Where's the fiery judgment for sinners that John talked about? Huh? Huh? Huh? All of a sudden everyone's so concerned that Jesus is not acting like John, and this becomes an excuse for not believing in him. Never mind the fact that they never believed John in the first place.

Unbelief is like that, too smart for its own good. I'll never be fooled. I see through your tricks. I know what you're up to. Even if I have to contradict myself, it's better than being taken in. But in reality it's acting like children who idly make fun others just because it makes them feel superior. They don't even know what they want, but they do know that they're determined to be unhappy with whatever you give them.