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.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Matthew 14:24-27 - "But the boat was already many stadia away from the land..."

After an emotionally and physically exhausting day, the disciples finally escape on a boat away from the crowds, even away from Jesus who has decided to spend the night praying up in a mountain. At last they have their rest. But some hours later the wind picks up and waves begin to batter the boat. Then in the dead of night they see someone walking toward them over the surface of the water. They are terrified. They think it is a ghost.

Skeptics have tried to explain away the miracle of Jesus walking on water. I heard one explanation that Jesus was actually walking along a sand bar that extended out to sea, and the disciples were fooled into thinking Jesus was doing something miraculous. But the disciples' boat would have had to be relatively close to the shoreline for that to be possible, and the text says that they were already "many stadia away from the land" and had been sailing for half the night. This suggests they were probably about a mile or two from shore. As far as I know, no sandbar stretches out that far.

What's more the fact that the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost adds a note of credibility to this account, it seems to me. If this story were made up, you would write it so that the disciples gaze out into the sea and immediately recognize that Jesus is walking on water. "Wow, look, it's a miracle! Jesus, you truly are the Son of God!" Worship, worship, worship. Right? But instead the disciples behave much more realistically than that. In order to understand this, imagine for a moment how it would be if you were to see someone walking on the sea with only the faint light of the moon and stars to help you discern what you were looking at. Seriously, put your imagination to work and try to be there with the disciples. You know that water cannot hold the weight of a flesh and blood human body, so when you see that thing coming toward you your mind would leap to the immediate assumption that this being must not be flesh and blood, but a weightless spirit. That's why the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost. It wasn't because he looked particularly white or transparent or made spooky noises; it was a primal reaction to the freakiness of the whole scene, because the human mind is programmed to interpret everything it perceives through the natural laws of physics. If you see someone walking on water in very dim light, of course you're going to react with "ghost!" and not "hmm, maybe someone is miraculously walking on water." But this is not the sort of detail you would know to put in a story that is fabricated. Because the only way you could know that you'd react this way is if it actually happened.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Matthew 14:22-23 - "And immediately he made the disciples get into the boat..."

Just a brief comment about this very brief passage before we move on to the story of Jesus walking on water. Back in verse 13 Jesus seeks to have some alone time because he hears the news of John the Baptist's gruesome execution. Yet he can't catch a break because the multitudes come clamoring after him, so he gets to work healing them and tending to their needs. It is the disciples' complaints that draw attention to how weary they all are. "Send the multitudes away," they plead. They're tired too, not just physically but emotionally they are reeling from John's death. Yet instead of turning the crowds away, Jesus pushes his already exhausted disciples to dig deep and find the faith to do the impossible: feed these five thousand men, plus the women and children.

After the multitudes are fed, all the leftovers are picked up, and the multitudes are finally sent home, Jesus puts his disciples in a boat and sends them off to the solitude they so desperately desire. Then he himself withdraws to a mountain top to pray by himself. Jesus and the disciples have long craved this down time, but it came to them only after they had reached the end of their strength. They were called upon to muster still more, so they mustered, running on fumes, and at last they are rewarded with rest.

I've had many days similar to this. The day was a rough one and I thought I was done. I'm ready to turn in but then in the eleventh hour I'm called upon to tend to some need, some emergency. One of the kids just shattered a glass full of milk on the floor. My daughter suddenly remembers a homework assignment she hasn't finished, and of course she needs my help on it. I understand that I have to be a servant, but aren't there limits to one's strength and sanity? Why is God dumping this stuff on me? He knows how tired I am, and now I'm off to serve him all cranky and resentful and irritable. Interestingly, I usually discover that I do have a second wind hidden somewhere in my reserves that comes mysteriously out of nowhere.

Why does God call you to serve him right when you feel the last of your strength ebbing away at the close of the day? I don't know, really, but I know he does that sort of thing. And I find it comforting to see that he also called upon Jesus and his disciples to serve when they were spent. Maybe it is because too often we serve him in our own strength and secretly give ourselves the credit for it. Calling upon us when we feel we have nothing to give is the only way to show us that the strength flowing through us isn't our own, and never was.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Matthew 14:17-21 - "And they said to him, 'We have here only five loaves and two fish.'"

Continuing the story from last time, the disciples tell Jesus to send the multitudes away so they could buy food for themselves. Their request may not have been entirely selfish. They may have seen how tired Jesus was, especially after hearing the troubling news of John the Baptist's execution. But Jesus would not hear of it and instead orders the disciples to feed them.

The disciples protest with, "But we only have five loaves and two fish." Yet because they bother to scrounge around, come up with a small amount of food, and bring it to Jesus, they display enough faith for Jesus to work his miracle. It is a faltering faith mixed with a great deal of doubt, and it's hard to tell whether the disciples present the five loaves and two fish to Jesus in anticipation of what miracle he might do, or to show him that his request is ridiculous. Probably it is a little bit of both. Yet Jesus knows how to take the slightest flicker of faith, even a smoldering wick of it, and fan it into an opportunity to perform wonders.

Jesus' miracle of multiplying the food for the crowd echoes a little-known miracle performed by the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44. The passage is short enough to quote in full:

Now a man came from Baal-shalishah and brought the man of God bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And [Elisha] said, "Give them to the people that they may eat." And his attendant said, "What, shall I set this before a hundred men?" But he said, "Give them to the people that they may eat, for thus says the LORD, 'They shall eat and have some left over.'" So he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over according to the word of the LORD.

Isn't it interesting that even the remark about having "some left over" parallels the way Jesus' miracle is told? Jesus is being presented as a greater Elijah/Elisha-like prophet, multiplying food for five thousand instead of one hundred. There are parallels between Jesus' situation and that of these prophets. Remember that Israel was becoming apostate during the time of Elijah and Elisha. In Elijah's time God cursed the land with a drought and in Elisha's day he brought famine upon the land, as if to symbolize the spiritual drought and famine that plagued Israel. Jesus ministered in a similar time of Israel's faithlessness. But just as Elisha was able to provide food for the one hundred who followed him during a time of mass starvation, Jesus provides both physical food and spiritual food for those who believe in him in spite of the waywardness of the Jewish nation. Even during times of spiritual leanness, Jesus is able to call forth a remnant and multiply out of their faith an abundance of spiritual blessing.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Matthew 14:13-16 - "Now when Jesus heard it, he withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by himself..."

I believe there are some portions of Scripture that you have to read with an Asian sensibility to pick up on the subtext of what is going on. By "Asian sensibility" I mean that instead of describing someone's feelings in graphic detail, like clashing bold colors splashed onto a canvas, there is a spareness of description that speaks more eloquently than a thousand words. Saying less is saying more, especially when the feeling runs so deep you don't wish to cheapen it with empty talk.

In the previous passage we learn of the horrifying circumstances of John the Baptist's death. John was Jesus' cousin, his own blood and the forerunner of the Messiah. He was a holy man, the last in a line of great Old Testament prophets, a bold preacher and a humble servant of the gospel. He fell into the hands of Herod and was slaughtered like an animal, his head paraded around on a platter at a drunken dinner party.

When the news reaches Jesus, he gets in a boat and withdraws to a lonely place. Nothing more is said about his response to John's death, yet you can imagine what he must be feeling. It is one of those classic Oriental moments when words are considered abhorrent, because there are no words to say when someone receives news like this. Jesus' silence proclaims his grief, and his desire to be alone tells how overwhelming the pain in his heart must have been.

And yet the multitudes follow him, robbing him of the luxury of momentary solitude. He does not rebuke them or lash out, instead he humbly tends to their needs. Matthew notes that Jesus "felt compassion for them and healed their sick," apparently feeling the need to explain what motivated Jesus to go out there and minister to them. Jesus wanted space, but his compassion for the people is what strengthened him for the task.

The disciples aren't delicate in expressing how they feel. "It's late and we're in the middle of nowhere. Get rid of these people and let them find their own dinner." They're depressed about the news of John too, and now they're exhausted and frustrated from having to deal with a horde of needy people. But Jesus responds with, "These people aren't going anywhere. You give them something to eat."

We'll talk about what happened next in another post, but for now it's apparent that Jesus is asking his disciples to follow in his example. This goes against the grain of what we're often told, namely, that you should give out of a full reservoir, not an empty one, otherwise you will suffer spiritual burnout. I still think that's true, but this story presents a different angle, which is that quite often you think you have nothing to give, but in fact you do. The disciples had been serving all day; they think they cannot do it for another minute. But Jesus pushes them further, and when they step out in faith they find God's miraculous provision waiting for them.

I'm sure you can relate to the disciples, feeling like you're done for the day but then God lands a brand new overwhelming task on your plate. You feel you cannot give another ounce of strength in service, but somehow either faith or compassion helps to move your sluggish heart forward, and in the end it is really God's miraculous provision that bears your weary body through to the end of the task.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Matthew 14:1-12 - "At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesus..."

This passage is about the death of John the Baptist, but it is worked into the narrative as back-story to explain why Herod is freaked out when he hears about Jesus' miracles. Herod harbors a guilty conscience for murdering John, and now he thinks God is judging him by bringing John back from the dead in the person of Jesus. We learn from this back-story that Herod feels guilty and paranoid because he executed John against his own conscience, and we also find out how he got cornered into doing it.

Herod had John arrested because John was saying that Herod's marriage to Herodias, the wife of his brother, was unlawful. Herod comes off as a spineless man, hesitant to do this, afraid to do that, wondering what people would think if he went ahead with this. He didn't put John to death because he feared the opinion of the people who regarded John as a prophet. It's a wonder he had the guts to arrest John in the first place, which makes you wonder if Herodias was really the one behind it. She knew that her husband was a weak man, and probably it was she who insisted upon John's arrest. Then when Herod hesitated to execute John, she looked for an opportunity to force his hand.

It was Herod's birthday. The wine was flowing, the dinner guests were laughing, the entertainment abounded. Herodias's daughter came and danced before the guests, probably not very modestly dressed, and Herod, feeling drunk and lustful and big-hearted, promised upon oath to give her whatever she wanted. He could afford to be generous; the girl would probably ask for some pretty or extravagant thing. But she asked for the head of John the Baptist and he was taken off guard. This was Herodias's demand, the girl herself would never think to make such a request. Yet he had promised his step-daughter before all these guests; he was caught. So he gave the order, impulsively, to maintain the good cheer of the dinner party, but inside he was grieved, knowing he would regret this once he was fully sober in the morning.

In the movies heroes die heroic deaths. They die in furious battles. They are assassinated by dangerous foes. They stay behind in collapsing buildings or exploding spaceships while the people they saved escape. But John the Baptist died a degrading, humiliating death. Sure, he was arrested for taking a stand of righteousness against Herod's unlawful marriage, but in the end he was done in by Herod's cowardice and the treachery of a teenage girl and her mother. Herod killed John almost on a whim: he made a rash oath, then he gave John's order of execution to save face. Doesn't a holy man, a prophet of God, deserve a better fate than that? At least have him die at the edge of a sword, at the hand of a formidable enemy in the midst of some valiant struggle. How could John die because a half-drunk king was tricked by his wife and enticed by his own step-daughter, so that John's head would end up being paraded around on a platter at a birthday party before laughing guests?

Welcome to the kingdom of God. Glory is for heaven, but on earth nothing is guaranteed. You might imagine that at the end of your life you will meet death in a dignified manner, lying in your bed at home surrounded by family and friends; but then again you might not. You might die alone and forgotten in a nursing home. You might die in the mud underneath an overturned car. I once read of a Christian missionary who not only met his death in prison, but it was from accidental electrocution while he was seated on a metal toilet seat. How would you like that story included in your missionary biography? Jesus himself died a humiliating death, stripped naked and pinned to a cross on public display, like some insect in a lepidopterist's collection. All of us who follow Jesus follow in that path. There is no guarantee that our ideas about dignity or pleasant storybook endings for ourselves will come to fruition, as the story of John the Baptist well illustrates.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Matthew 13:53-58 - "And it came about that when Jesus had finished these parables, he departed from there."

In the previous chapter (12:46-50) we saw how Jesus' family stood outside the house where he was teaching and asked to have a word with him, presumably to get him to stop this Messiah nonsense and come home. So we knew that Jesus must have been teaching within the vicinity of his home town, and now see him arriving at Nazareth and teaching at the synagogue he probably grew up in as a boy.

There is a saying that "familiarity breeds contempt." Well, that is exactly what's happening here. The people of Nazareth are astonished at Jesus' teaching, but not in a good way. They are not "astonished/awed" but rather are "astonished/indignant." Who on earth does this guy think he is? Sure, he might be able to "ooh!" and "aah!" everyone else, but we knew him when he was just a snot-nosed kid in diapers. The carpenter's son, right? Wife's name is Mary and their other sons are James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. Why, my next-door neighbor is married to one of his sisters! So hometown boy leaves to go out into the world, and all of a sudden he just shows up with his entourage and starts teaching in our synagogue as if he's better than us? The nerve!

There is nothing that blinds you from the truth more quickly than thinking you already know the truth. The Nazarenes assume they already know who Jesus is, which is why they completely miss the boat. The irony is that they are going to miss the boat even further because Jesus won't perform any miracles in the face of such unbelief. I can just hear them saying, "So where's all this hocus-pocus we've heard so much about? He hasn't done a thing since he's been with us. Just goes to show they were all tall tales to begin with." It becomes a downward spiral: Unbelief ---> God withholds his miracles ---> more unbelief ---> God continues to withhold his miracles ---> further unbelief, etc.

Conversely, having faith is what opens your eyes to see who Jesus is, which gives you further reason to continue believing, which then enables you to see him even more clearly. Faith and spiritual sight together form an upward spiral. We know that later on Jesus' mother and at least some of his brothers would get turned around and finally grasp Jesus' true identity. James and Judas would become leaders in the church, and both would write epistles (James and Jude) in which they refer to themselves as "bond-servants of Jesus Christ." Not blood brothers who grew up with Jesus, who try to position themselves for a book deal where they reveal the inside scoop on who the Messiah really is. James and Jude would eschew special treatment and instead take their place in the church as merely disciples of their Savior. It is really a remarkable transformation when you consider how far they came from the cynicism and unbelief of the Nazarenes in this passage. It gives you hope that with God anything is possible.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Matthew 13:51-52 - "Have you understood all these things?" They said to him, "Yes."

Jesus has just finished telling the disciples seven parables about the nature of the kingdom of heaven and asks if they understood them. I have no reason to be skeptical of the disciples' answer, "Yes." Some commentators think this was arrogance and presumption talking, but it seems to me that the disciples have been honest with Jesus about their ignorance (see verse 36 of this chapter), and after Jesus gives them further explanation he accepts their claim that they have finally understood him. Sure, maybe they haven't yet grasped the full implications of this kingdom and how much they will have to suffer for it, but they certainly have understood more than the multitudes.

Compare your own understanding of these parables to that of a non-believer. Does a non-believer seek to understand these parables? Does he view them as profound? Does he meditate on their meaning? Does he surf onto a blog to read someone else's explanation of them? See, that's the difference. And while you might not claim to understand the full implications of these kingdom parables, you do see how these stories of seeds and harvests and treasures and trees and dough and fish relate to the spiritual realties Jesus is talking about, right? If you see the connection then it's safe to say that you, too, have understood. You are a disciple.

When Jesus says, "Every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom," he is talking about someone who has made the transition from the old covenant to the new. A scribe is not merely a clerk but a teacher of the old covenant law. And so a scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom is someone who possesses true insight into the law, who understands that these things are mere shadows pointing to the substance of Christ. This scribe becomes a disciple of the kingdom because he sees that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the old covenant promises, and the answer to every longing and lament that accompanied Israel's failures.

I haven't figured out why a head of a household would be someone who brings out of his treasure the old and the new. Is he a patriarch whose life spans several generations, which is why he finds himself in possession of both old and new things? No one has bothered to explain this to me, so that is my best guess. Both old and new treasure have their special value, just like the old and new covenants. The one who treasures both can use his old-covenant-scribe knowledge to shed light on his new-covenant-disciple understanding. He can show how promise led to fulfillment, how type pointed to reality, how hope sprung from failure and grace was born out of betrayal.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Matthew 13:47-50 - "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea..."

The dragnet that is cast into the sea was probably similar to this seine net these fishermen are using in the photo. It has floaters on the top and weights at the bottom so that it spreads itself from the surface to the bottom of the sea and is dragged between two boats to capture a school of fish. Once filled, the fishermen draw it up on the beach and sit down to separate the desirable fish from the undesirable.

Naturally, the net is indiscriminate in the kinds of fish it captures, just as the gospel goes out freely into the world and invites into the kingdom all who would come. So the kingdom is a mixture of the righteous and the unrighteous, and according to this parable there is something inevitable about that. This illustration parallels a previous parable Jesus told in this chapter about the wheat and the tares, except on this point. With the wheat and the tares, it was an enemy who planted the tares among the wheat, and the harvesters waited until both plants grew to maturity before they could gather up the invading tares and burn them. Here, the good fish and bad fish are naturally mixed together, and the net sweeps them up as it finds them. There is no sinister plot to plant unwanted fish into the net. The implication is that the gospel is designed to gather a mixed catch; it is to be expected.

So from one perspective the devil is infiltrating the kingdom with his own false sons (wheat and tares), but from another perspective God knowingly casts his nets wide enough to receive, temporarily, both true and false sons into the church community (good and bad fish). Whatever Satan's plans may be, he cannot escape God's sovereign control of the situation and its outcome. God is not surprised to find the devil's children in his nets and in many ways he expects it. He has offered the gospel freely and generously. What matters is that at the end of the age the angels will be sent out to separate the righteous and destroy the wicked in the furnace of fire.

Who are the good fish that are gathered up? Looking back at the parables in this chapter, they are the good soil upon which seed was thrown, which sprouted up and yielded fruit up to a hundredfold. They are the wheat that grew to maturity in the field, distinguishing themselves from the false tares. They are the ones who gave up all their worldly goods to possess an infinitely more precious heavenly treasure. By their lives they have shown themselves worthy of the kingdom. This is not about works salvation, but about having true sight to see what really matters, and possessing true faith which produces a life reflecting the values of the heavenly place that you seek.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Matthew 13:44-46 - "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field..."

These two parables belong together as twin messages of the same truth. In the first parable a man finds treasure hidden in a field and sells all he has to buy that field. In the second a merchant comes across the finest pearl he has ever seen and does not hesitate to sell all he has to buy that pearl. Both men come across something of such great worth they are willing to exchange every worldly possession they own in order to have it. What may look like lunacy to an outsider makes perfect economical sense in their minds. The value of this discovered treasure makes everything else they own seem like rubbish. And at least in the case of the merchant, finding the pearl of great price was the culmination of a lifelong search. He would be a fool not to sell all he had in order to buy it.

To me there is no better summation of the Christian life than what is contained in these two brief parables. All that we call suffering and sacrifice is really, from the clear perspective of eternity, a smart economic exchange where you give up your copper coins for priceless jewels. Faith is what gives you the eyes to see the worth of this unseen treasure. Joy comes from recognizing the great bargain you are getting. Giving up worldly rags for heavenly robes? Forsaking passing pleasures for lasting joys? Leaving behind slavery to embrace sonship? Are you kidding? It's a deal.

But is this works salvation? Is Jesus saying that having the great treasure is conditioned upon whether you have paid the full price for it? That's reading too much into it. Jesus' narrow purpose in telling this parable is to show that the cost of discipleship is really a light and joyful burden when your eyes are fixed upon the prize that awaits you. The point is not that you literally pay for the prize, but to show through what you are willing to sacrifice how much faith you have in the tremendous value of the treasure.

But how does God's grace fit in to the teaching of this parable? It may help to understand that even before we have gone and sold everything to possess this treasure, the treasure is already freely given to us. God has already placed it in our possession. So why go and sell everything to gain what we already have? Because we seek to possess what we already possess. I'll say it again: we seek to possess what we already possess. We have it, therefore we are zealous to possess it daily, laboring to rid ourselves of the world so that we may be found to be worthy possessors. This paradox is really the secret of the Christian life, and it provides a window into the mystery of how God's grace meshes perfectly with our good works so that the former receives all the glory.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Matthew 13:33-35 - "He spoke another parable to them, 'The kingdom of heaven is like leaven...'"

The parable of the leaven is similar to the parable of the mustard seed in that both speak of the kingdom of heaven as something that starts out with small, seemingly insignificant beginnings and slowly develops into something enormous. Much of what I said in the previous post about the nature of God's kingdom would apply here also.

My initial thought with this parable was to compare yeast granules to the mustard seed and talk about how potent they both are. But now it occurs to me that the woman in the parable probably did not view yeast as something you buy from a grocery store in those little Fleischmann's paper packets that come in sets of three. When I cut those packets open with a scissors and sprinkle out the yeast, I see tiny brown granules, separate, dry, and inactive until I add warm liquid. Unfortunately, an Israelite woman in the first century did not have the luxury of shopping at her local Ralph's for such a convenience.

To be clear, here is a picture of what not to think of when reading this parable:

Yeast is actually a gas-producing microorganism that we have, with our advanced technology, somehow extracted from nature and neatly packaged in this way for the convenience of the professional baker or modern housewife, so that it could be stored on the shelf or in the refrigerator for immediate use. But all this is recent stuff. It wasn't until Louis Pasteur's findings in the mid-19th century that we even learned what caused fermentation in the first place. Certainly a first-century Israelite woman would not have viewed leaven as little brown granules that came in packets. For her fermentation was something that existed in nature, in the bubbling foam of beer for instance, or when wheat bran was steeped in wine. A messy, smelly and (in my opinion) semi-disgusting phenomenon that looked like this:

The ancients saw the work of leaven as a spontaneous and mysterious thing, perhaps even magical. Quite often yeast spores would simply be floating in the air and land on bread dough that happened to be lying out in the open, naturally causing it to rise. And once you find a source of leaven that you can utilize for your bread making, you save a small lump of the dough as a starter for the next batch. This starter dough may be what the woman in the parable hid in her three pecks of meal.

If you picture the woman hiding her lump of starter dough into a batch that produces two neat little loaves of bread, that doesn't seem like a very impressive example of the "small beginnings, great results" aspect of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is trying to illustrate. However, once you realize that three pecks of meal equals about 40 liters, which makes enough bread to serve well over one hundred people, the parable makes sense. A small lump of dough hidden in that huge quantity of meal works slowly and steadily to leaven the entire batch, much like the word of the gospel spreads from mouth to mouth and heart to heart until the kingdom of God has increased over the entire world.

Matthew once again reminds us, in dead-horse-beating fashion, that Jesus speaks these parables to confound the multitudes, not necessarily to enlighten them. Psalm 78, from which Matthew quotes, recounts the history of God's faithfulness to Israel despite being continually provoked to anger by their rebellion. It is only fitting that Jesus speaks these parables to the unbelieving multitudes which talk about how God's kingdom will continue to increase like a great tree, or like an enormous quantity of leavening dough, regardless of whether they choose to believe.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Matthew 13:31-32 - "He presented another parable to them saying..."

After seeing the total scientific accuracy of Jesus' account of the wheat and the tares, we now encounter the parable of the mustard seed which is fraught with problems. First of all, the mustard seed is small but it isn't the smallest seed of all. This doesn't bother me much since it's possible that in Jesus' time the mustard seed was viewed this way by the culture of his day. It's not meant to be a universal statement for all time. Besides, the seeds are still pretty small.

The bigger problem is that the mustard seed as we know it today doesn't grow into a tree. And even though it is capable of growing to surprising heights, it's not the sort of plant that flocks of birds would nest in. I'm sure you've seen mustard plants with their bright yellow blossoms covering an entire field like weeds.

In view of Jesus' spot-on observations about the nature of the tare (Persian darnell) in the previous passage, I can't believe he'd be this far off about the mustard plant. Maybe there is a translation problem here. Or maybe the mustard plant he is talking about is a different plant than the one we're familiar with. In any case, the plant he is talking about has a very small seed and grows into a very large tree that outstrips the growth of the plants around it, offering branches where the birds can gather and take refuge.

The kingdom of heaven is like this seed, starting with humble and seemingly insignificant beginnings. Jesus lived humbly among us and taught for only three years. He had twelve disciples and a few hundred other followers. None of these men were great by the world's standards, holding no significant positions of power in government or in the religious establishment. Jesus' popularity did not increase but diminished toward the end of his career, to the point where the mobs among whom he once ministered called for his execution. His resurrection transformed his disciples, yet there were only five hundred witnesses of even this miraculous event. Then Jesus ascended into heaven and left his disciples behind, who were armed only with the knowledge of what they had seen and heard.

It does not appear to be possible that such a man and such a ministry could change the world. Throughout history many great men have risen and gained followers, many spiritual men have claimed to perform miracles, many charismatic leaders have died as martyrs, yet their causes have died with them. Jesus' disciples only increased after he left us. Over the generations and throughout the world he continues to add disciples to his number. The kingdom of heaven is like a small seed, the smallest of all seeds, that grew up into a large tree and spread its branches over all the surrounding plants, where the creatures of the earth could go to find rest and shade.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - "He presented another parable to them saying, 'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man..."

After you're done reading 13:24-30 be sure to skip ahead to the parable's explanation in verses 36-43. We'll return to the portion of Scripture we skipped next time.

This parable of the wheat and the tares uses many of the same symbolic elements as the parable of the sower we just looked at (see the previous three posts), except here these elements correspond to different realities. In the parable of the sower the seed is the word, and when the seed lands on the good soil of a believing heart a fruitful life results. In the parable of the wheat and the tares the seed no longer represents the word, for now there are both good and bad seed. Here the good seed are the sons of the kingdom which the Son of Man sows, but then the devil comes along and sows the bad seed which are the sons of his evil kingdom. The field is the world, a neutral arena that plays no part in the outcome. So in this parable it is not the soil that determines the result, but rather the kind of the seed and who has sown it.

Jesus' audience would have known that wheat and tares bear a close resemblance to each other. For the sake of us citified folks who can barely recognize a wheat stalk, let alone an impostor, here are some visuals.

This is wheat.

This is a tare
(aka Persian darnel).

The wheat and the tare in these photos are both fully mature. Yet I understand when these plants first spring up young and tender, they look almost exactly alike. That's unfortunate since tares are poisonous. They also have stronger roots than wheat so if the two plants are sown together, an attempt to pull up the unwanted tares would also uproot the desired wheat. Scattering tare seeds over someone's wheat field is a good way to sabotage their valuable crop, which is why the practice was forbidden under Roman law. Jesus was talking about a real life problem familiar to his listeners. No wonder the landowner in the parable exclaims, "An enemy has done this!"

The only solution to the problem is to let both the wheat and the tares develop to maturity until they have distinguished themselves fully. The wheat grow heavy with grain, their stalks often bowing under the weight, whereas the tares are light and stand straight even when fully matured. Someone once pointed out that the wheat are a fitting picture of the believer: the fruit he bears that teaches him to bow in humility. The worldly tares carry no such burden.

The devil has multiplied his own sons among the true sons of the kingdom, but Jesus is willing to wait until the harvest of the world fully ripens before he comes in judgment. While the Son of Man's ability to read men's hearts might enable him to render judgment on that basis alone, he knows that the most sound and prudent judgment is rendered on the basis of visible, tangible evidence: the deeds of righteousness versus the deeds of lawlessness. Even the angels whom he will send out to reap will be able to tell which are the true and false sons of the kingdom. The unrighteous are cast into the furnace like weeds, but the righteous are gathered into the barn.

People are always asking, "Where is God?" whenever they see evil running rampant, as if God is expected to act like the police rushing about to stop every crime whenever someone dials 911. A hard reality for many people to swallow is that God purposely allows evildoers to ripen in their evildoing so that one day his judgment upon them would be fully vindicated. He is letting the tares mature into their tare-hood, patiently withholding his wrath while they blossom into their true nature. In the meantime he expects the wheat to show themselves to be wheat by being patient in the face of present injustice, returning good for evil, and forgiving transgressions. That may sound harsh, but anyone who believes in the coming Judgment would gladly bear suffering for a little while under the brief reign of evil than suffering for eternity in the furnace of hell.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Matthew 13:18-23 - "Hear, then, the parable of the sower."

Jesus tells this parable to an audience that has neither the ears to hear nor the eyes to perceive its truth, and ironically the parable is about why they are like that. A sower goes out to sow and the seed he scatters falls upon four different types of ground, producing four different results, three of which bear no fruit at all.

As I have mentioned earlier, the difference does not lie in the sower's technique of sowing nor in the seed itself, but where the seed falls. Jesus says that the seed is the word of the kingdom, so presumably the sower is anyone who proclaims the word and the ground upon which the seed falls represents the hearts of the hearers. The parable offers no critique of how the sower sows, as if the preacher should be targeting a certain type of hearer or using a certain style of speech or anything of that nature. The seed isn't faulted either, as if the message of the gospel should be adjusted to fit the various types of hearers to maximize its success. By all appearances this parable assumes the faithful, indiscriminate proclamation of the gospel of salvation to anyone who might willingly listen. The lesson is: don't think you can guess the result, because even after you've done your part, the most critical component of this equation lies entirely beyond your control.

When someone hears the word of the kingdom and doesn't understand it, the devil comes and takes away what he has heard. I used to think that the reason the hearer doesn't hear the gospel is because the devil has already taken the word away. But in view of what Jesus said in verse 12 ("whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him"), a better understanding might be that it is the initial rejection of the gospel that gives Satan the opportunity to remove it further from the heart--so it's the other way around. And God permits Satan to do this as a part of his judgment on the hearer.

Then there are those who hear the word and immediately embrace it with joy. This is scary because it sounds very much like a true conversion. I don't know of any Christian who sees a person embrace the gospel message and immediately thinks, "Hold on, let's not get excited yet. We've got to see whether or not this is rocky soil." Hardly any one of us even considers that possibility. But Jesus warns that many people's understanding of the gospel is only superficial, like shallow roots in rocky soil. Faith never takes root in the soil of their hearts, though it appears to at first, and when persecution arises like a scorching sun these once-enthusiastic types shrivel and fall away. It may appear to be a case of someone "losing their salvation," but actually the problem is that this person had only the appearance of faith. True faith had never taken root in the first place.

In the case of the seed that was choked by thorns, I'm realizing for the first time that there had to be thorns already rooted in this soil. If the soil symbolizes the heart and the thorns symbolize the worries of the world, the problem with this "heart-soil" is that it has embraced both the gospel and the world simultaneously. The seed of the gospel and the seed of worldly desire grow up side by side. But no one can serve two masters, no one can serve both God and money, so the gospel loses out. In such corrupt soil it never really had a chance to begin with.

Some Christians I used to know argued that the thorn-choked seed still represents true believers, it's just that these are "unfruitful Christians." But if Jesus says, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 7:19), how is there room for these so-called unfruitful Christians in the kingdom? Since Jesus also warned that the gate is narrow that leads to life and the path is broad that leads to destruction, I don't think we should kid ourselves by creating a novel category called the "unfruitful Christian." Jesus asks us to examine our lives for fruit to verify that our faith in genuine. If we have no fruit, then what evidence is there that we truly believe?

The heart of true faith bears fruit like seed producing a crop of a hundredfold, sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. What is this fruit? I don't think this is about merely serving at church or something task-oriented. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Most of this fruit has to do with the way you treat other people, especially when you are wronged. It's not saying, "You know you're a Christian when you're patient, kind and good to people who are good to you." It must be talking about having that fruit even with people who are harsh, selfish and manipulative, about having a love that triumphs over every circumstance, that shines the way and brings people to the truth the way you bring in a crop during harvest time.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Matthew 13:10-17 - "And the disciples came and said to him, 'Why do you speak to them in parables?'"

Jesus just told a parable to the crowds that is itself an explanation for why most of them won't be able to understand his parables. There are ironies upon ironies here. But privately to his disciples, Jesus explains what's going on in plainer terms.

The rule is: "Whoever has, to him shall more be given . . . but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him." Those who listen with the receptive heart of faith will be given yet more faith and an increasing ability to receive the truth. Those who listen with an unreceptive heart, rejecting Jesus' teaching, will become increasingly unable to find their way to the truth. The good get better, the bad get worse. So when God takes away someone's ability to hear the truth, it is a consequence of the hardness that already resides in their hearts in the first place. It is a judgment, you might say, and a sobering warning to all of us who are exposed to the Word of God on a regular basis as these Israelites were.

The function of the parable is to accelerate this process, to hasten people toward their ultimate fate, whether good or bad. For those who believe, the parable forces them to search harder for the truth, to inquire, to meditate. The truth they eventually come to understand is hard-earned and therefore well treasured. But for those who disbelieve, the parable presents only greater confusion. They dismiss the parable as foolishness and turn their backs even further on the truth. As Jesus says, "Seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear nor do they understand."

The prophecy of Isaiah tells how most of Israel progressed from bad to worse. So much history and so much revelation for generations on end, and yet the trajectory of their belief did not increase to glory but declined into judgment. At the heart of their unbelief, according to Isaiah, was their unwillingness to return to the Lord and be healed. They rejected Yahweh, that's why they refused to believe. That's why their judgment is just.

But amidst every unbelieving generation there are those few who do believe. The prophets and righteous men of Israel's day were such people, and they eagerly received what little revelation was given to them. They desired more, but the time had not yet come for the truth to be fully revealed in Christ. With Jesus' coming, the disciples are the faithful few amidst their generation. Yet they are not only blessed with hearing ears and seeing eyes but possess this blessing at a time when the all the ancient promises are being fulfilled right in front of them. We already know how their lives turned out, what an abundance of faith would be given to them in the face of sufferings and persecution, and how much fruit they would someday bear in laying the foundation for the Christian church. "Whoever has, to him shall more be given."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Matthew 13:1-9 - "On that day Jesus went out of the house, and was sitting by the sea."

Jesus has to teach this parable while sitting in a boat because he got crowded off the beach by the multitudes. Yet instead of basking in his great success as a preacher--relevant, dynamic and cutting-edge, who addresses the felt needs of today's Jewish audience--he launches into a parable that is specifically designed to mystify and discourage his hearers. Ironically, it turns out that this parable, which the multitudes don't seem to grasp, gives the explanation for why they can't grasp Jesus' parables. But we'll get to that in our subsequent posts. For now let's just make a few observations about the parable itself.

There is one sower who goes out to sow. The varied results of the sowing are not tied to different sowers, and therefore the point of the story is not the skill or technique of the sower. Nor are the results tied to the nature of the seed. This seed that the sower scatters at random is the same seed with the same potential for fruitful growth. The difference lies in the ground upon which the seed is thrown.

The road upon which some of the seed falls is hard ground. The seed doesn't sink into the dirt at all. Instead it goes bounce, bounce, bounce, and now it's just lying there waiting to get snatched up by the birds. Other seed falls upon rocky ground where the soil is thin. Oh sure, it springs up fast because the roots don't have to burrow down much, but that proves to be its downfall. Without deep roots, without any firm establishment in nourishing soil, it shrivels and dies under the first blast of the sun's heat.

Still other seed falls on soil where thorns also find a home. The seed sprouts and begins to grow, yet the growth of the thorns outstrips and chokes it. Evidently the soil is more suited for nourishing thorns than good plants. Lastly, some of the seed falls upon good soil. The dirt is soft and moist, solid roots are established, and thorns do not thrive there. This seed grows up healthy and strong so that over the years it yields crop after crop, thirty, sixty, even a hundred times over.

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Do the multitudes hear what Jesus is truly getting at? Why don't they hear? And why does Jesus speak in a way that eludes them? He'll explain more about that in the following passage.