In Matthew 4 we are introduced to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (starting with the imprisonment of John the Baptist). From that point, Jesus begins to ‘preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ and to heal and deliver the sick and oppressed. The Kingdom’s arrival is both proclaimed and demonstrated. Matthew then unpacks the two-pronged ministry in chapters 5-9. In chapters 5-7 we have a summary of how Jesus’ declared the arrival of the Kingdom, then the following narrative block (ch 8,9) illustrates Jesus’ demonstration of the Kingdom’s arrival with ten mighty deeds.
That there are 10 mighty deeds listed is no coincidence. Matthew is illustrating the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry by placing it within the context of his people’s story (the story of Israel). Here, Matthew takes Jesus, who just gave a ‘new law’ on a mountain (like Moses on Sinai), and makes another Mosaic connection. In Exodus, God at Moses command, gives 10 signs that are designed to illustrate both to Pharaoh AND Israel that Yahweh truly is Israel’s deliverer. In similar manner Jesus shows his credentials as the newly reconstituted Israel’s (the one including faithful Gentiles) true deliverer. What follows are several healings (a leper 8:1-4, a servant from long distance 8:5-13, Peter’s mother-in-law along with others 8:14-17, a paralytic 9:1-8, a chronically ill woman 9:20-22, two blind men 9:27-31, and a mute man 9:32-34), deliverances from demonic oppression (8:28-34), a resurrection (9:18-26), and a truly amazing demonstration of divinity (calming the storm 8:23-27). Many of these signs become the very things that Jesus both commissions His followers to perform in ch 10 and uses to validate His identity to the imprisoned (and likely disillusioned) John (ch 11). Given that Matthew has gone to great lengths to structure his gospel in a particular way (these aren’t a random list of actions), what is it that he is trying to say about Jesus and the Kingdom He is ushering in? Continue reading For Whom Does Freedom’s Bell Toll – Matthew 8, 9
Western political-cultural (including religious) discourse in recent centuries (though, I’m sure the practice goes back further) centers on making caricatures of the opposition. As I’m sure you know, a caricature is a stylized drawing that exaggerates certain features in order to convey a message about the subject (their stupidity, inflexibility, silliness, etc). Of course, this can be done in the way we verbally describe an opponent or their view. Sometimes we call it ‘building a straw man.’ It works well on TV and talk radio as well as in college lecture halls and pulpits. In the face of short attention spans engaging the general public requires polarization, controversy, and oversimplification. Subtlety and shades of grey rarely translate well when bottom line emphasis require media & presenters to simply tell people what to think rather than help them learn how to think. My greatest challenge in the pulpit is balancing the fact that most people want things boiled down to 1-3 simple things to do or believe when the Bible itself is a collection of documents – each of which are closely tied to its particular cultural setting. Understanding it well requires an appreciation of very foreign, long past cultures, history, and literary genres. Narrative and sophisticated word-play are not part-in-parcel with our culture. The push to translate what’s happening often leaves pastors marginalizing complex individuals and opponents in Scripture – often to the point of allowing our listeners to simply dismiss them. As a result we miss out on the subtle connections we ought to be making with ourselves, our churches, and our culture at large. Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than with the Pharisees (and later ‘Judaizers’) in the New Testament.
Continue reading Caricatures – Making Straw Men out of Pharisees
I remember growing up and being taught in school the importance of ‘critical thinking.’ It’s a valuable skill to be able to look past the face-value of things and see what’s going on behind the veneer (of course, this can sometimes become a problem with interpersonal relationships where we’re supposed extend the benefit of the doubt – not everything is political or agenda driven). However, in practice (at least in school), it rarely accomplished the goals the instructors stated. Instead it degenerated to one of two things. First, critical thinking was only applauded if it resulted in an outcome consistent with what the instructor was looking for (usually), otherwise it was marginalized (not everyone feels that way …. really I thought that was the point of an argumentative essay, that’s just your opinion …. no matter how much documented research was provided from well-respected sources). Second, in practice, it usually simply became a fancy name for criticism – a skill I’ve mastered. I think the subtle difference between ‘critical thinking’ and ‘criticism’ is akin to the difference between ‘evaluating’ and ‘judging.’ Clearly the writers of Scripture envision the church (and individual Christians) judging situations at some level. Yet, at the beginning of ch 7, while not forbidden, ‘judging’ itself is certainly brought under the microscope. Continue reading Hounds and the Holy, Pigs and Pearls
How we look at something going in will often determine our experience as we go through it. Growing up, my parents always talked positively about school. When I started kindergarten I expected that it would be a positive experience – and it was. The expectation continued throughout my school years. When I started music lessons or sports teams, my parents gently coached me ahead of time. They cautioned that it would take a lot of work over a long time to become good (be it violin, piano, swimming, soccer or baseball). They emphasized other positive aspects of the activity if they suspected that I might not be ‘a natural’ (I wasn’t in sports, I did alright in music). As a result, while I still had unrealistically high hopes, I was able to persevere and enjoy the overall experience even when I was clearly not the best midfielder, shortstop, freestyler. In his introduction to the Kingdom of Heaven, Matthew records several cautions throughout the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ designed to help give his readers a proper perspective as they look upon the dawn of a New Age. We’ve looked at some of these cautions already (the expectation of persecution, for example, at the end of the Beatitudes). But here we find two sets of instruction that help re-direct our perspective on the practical concerns of life and the character God.
Continue reading The Stuff of Life and Our Assumptions About God’s Character
It’s amazing how church-goers can come to such different conclusions about the Christian life. In chapter 6 we run into a few statements that, on the surface, completely contradict what Jesus says just a chapter earlier – and all part of the same sermon (now that my not shock you, but I at least try to keep things consistent within any given sermon – but all bets are off for the following week). The statement that we give priority to will often determine how we practice our faith – unless there’s another compelling factor that isn’t being considered. Consider Jesus words in 5:16 – In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (ESV). Seems simple enough. Now, lets look at what Jesus says in 6:1 – Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward before your Father who is in heaven (ESV). Similar sentiments are present in a few verses with regard to prayer, and later with fasting. Okay, good works and righteousness are essentially synonymous in this context, so which is it? Do we let people see our good deeds so that God may receive glory or do we only act in private before God alone and await our reward? These seem to be mutually exclusive concerns if we accept everything in a strictly wooden manner. Continue reading Show vs Substance – Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most familiar passages of the New Testament. The teachings here (or in the roughly parallel, but not identical, accounts in the other synoptic Gospels) are widely referenced as forming the core of Jesus’ message. While not always read well, they form the teachings of Jesus that most western Christians, and even many non-Christians, can effectively summarize. A few posts ago, I gave a few guidelines for reading this ‘sermon’ well. As with all Scripture, understanding context is imperative to reading well. Interestingly, all the issues raised in this ‘sermon’ are directly connected to misrepresentations of God and religious life on the part of the scribes and Pharisees. Whether directly stated or not, Jesus clearly has his sights focused on these groups in every one of the little passages that make up these sections. To ignore what the scribes and Pharisees were saying about these matters is to miss much of Jesus is getting at. Most of the issues addressed in the balance of chapter 5 are all representative areas where the Pharisees and scribes consistently looking for loopholes while dealing with the ‘practical realities’ of life. The loopholes are necessary because, in their mind, no one could live up to the standard, as a result, God would never send Messiah and the New Age would never come (the assumption is that the nation must keep Sabbath perfectly before Messiah could come – this would include adherence to Torah). As we take a quick look at these issues, keep in mind that Jesus has just announced the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven (the Beatitudes), insisted on the Kingdom’s public proclamation (salt and light) and taken a shot at the scribes and Pharisees by insisting on a level of righteousness that exceeds theirs. Continue reading Looking for Loopholes – Matt 5:21-48
The Christian life is full of contrasts. Across the broader church, those contrasts can seem like outright contradictions. It’s confusing for both young and mature believers within the fold, I can only imagine the confusion for outsiders looking in. For those in traditions similar to mine, you’ve likely heard an appeal to live the Christian life in the following manner: take a string, 3′ long, draw a circle, and endeavor to live within it. The metaphor is pretty clear, don’t see how close to ‘sin’ you can get without ‘falling’, but live close to the center, close to Christ. I like the point, I don’t like how many apply it (usually accompanied by finger-pointing and looking down the nose & the inability to engage the world lovingly with the Good News). The view often embraces what I believe is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of holiness (another subject for another day). On the other hand, we sometimes get statements like the following: wine is proof that God loves us. The person I heard this from is very serious Christian – devoted to personal holiness, and a Biblically conservative scholar who would disapprove of drunkenness. The good professor is not some 22 yr old, recently converted ‘bar hop,’ out to prove just how messed up the rest of the church is (although I’d like to see a few more like this in my church, ideally with at least the willingness to engage in open conversation, not just monologue). In the end, however, both statements are actually a product of some serious theological refection (although the second is a lot more fun to throw out there).
Matt 5:17-20 begins a familiar section that looks like a ‘second law’ (intentionally drawing parallels to the Law of Moses). How we understand this passage is likely to determine how we understand the rest of the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ It determines whether we understand the rest of Jesus’ statements in this section as a declaration of freedom and life or a tighter set of restrictions to follow. For the sake of background, the remainder of chs 5-7 contains touchstones to the wider range of issues covered by the Law and later expounded by the Prophets and Writings. They cover a cross-section of life concerns within this New Kingdom, especially as they might relate to the old ‘provisional kingdom’ (life as national Israel under Torah). We find relational ‘hot button’ issues (anger, adultery, divorce, etc – the rest of ch 5), expressions of personal piety (generosity, prayer, etc – ch 6) with a few cautions and a mini ‘blessings and curses’ section (wise & foolish builders) in ch 7 (an intentional reference to Deuteronomy and the establishment of ‘national Israel’). These are statements intended to help a first century near-eastern Jewish audience, with all its distinct underlying assumptions, to understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. How well they help us gain insight into the Kingdom is in no small part related to how well we’re able to get inside their mindset (a task the church has struggled with from very early on and one I don’t claim to have nailed down, but we try nonetheless). Continue reading New Kingdom, New Law?