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.