Matthew 02 – The Refugee Child

Would you turn the Christ Child away?

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

I learned something about myself today.  For many years now, denying refugees entry to the country has really upset me.  And it is upsetting, but why did I feel it so personally when there are so many causes to which we can rally?  No one in my family has fled their country in over 300 years.  I do not have any close friends who arrived here as refugees.  I chalked it up to the tender heart that often comes with motherhood and seeing my babies in all babies.  That, for sure, is part of it, but I realized with this passage that what really gets under my skin is the enormous hypocrisy of it all.

In this chapter, Jesus, our Lord and Savior, flees persecution and ends up a refugee in Egypt.  People have often drawn this analogy before, and there’s even some pretty good art to illustrate this, just Google “Joseph and Mary refugees.” But really that is just another drop in the bucket of Biblical history.  There’s several examples in the Old Testament of people fleeing famine, including Abraham.  Lot was escaping social unrest when he fled Sodom and Gomorrah.  Moses led all his people out of Egypt as refugees.

Jump ahead to more recent Christian history and you see mass emigrations of Christians to avoid persecution at several points in history.  Lutherans were burned at the stake in England as heretics while others fled the country.  Cecilius Calvert, a founder of the Maryland colony, sought to establish it as a safe haven for Roman Catholics when favor swung back towards reformers. Coptic Christians in Egypt still face very real and deadly persecution.  Here we have just three of a myriad of examples of Christians becoming refugees.

Not to mention, Jesus himself tells us to welcome strangers.  I referenced this line from further on in Matthew in my first post, but it bears repeating: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25:35) There is some argument as to who that “stranger” is, some say it solely meant other Christians in need.  If someone wants to be that narrow in their interpretation, I don’t think I can change their mind.  But I still admonish those who believe such an interpretation for not letting in the many Christian refugees who come to our borders.

I wish there were the border equivalent of “innocent until proven guilty.”  Perhaps “asylum-seeker until proved otherwise.”  I don’t know the logistics that would go into this, at the very least it would require a lot of temporary housing, but I think it could work.  Shit, it might even be a nice little local economy boost. There have been many studies citing how immigrants actually improve the economy.  Forbes even published an article to that effect two years ago. Additionally, all that government spending on building projects, then the personnel requirements for all the actual work with immigrants would mean many more people shopping at the grocery stores, coffee shops, and Main Streets of these would-be immigrant reception towns. So there’s my economic justification along with my spiritual one.

The long and short of it is, I just do not see how someone can call themselves a Christian and also say we need to build a wall, or refuse the Syrians, or whoever comes knocking, quite frankly.  Would you turn the Christ Child away? If the Divine is in all of us, then you are, every time you say no.

***

I’m going to spend some time with family in the next few days and will be sharing a post or two on Proverbs I saved for exactly this occasion.  Then I’ll be reading Genesis, because starting at the beginning again seems like a good idea for the New Year.  Peace and Joy to you and yours this Christmas and New Year!

Matthew 01-Evolution of Church and State

Changing the interpretation of laws.

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac,

Isaac the father of Jacob,

Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,

Perez the father of Hezron,

Hezron the father of Ram,

Ram the father of Amminadab,

Amminadab the father of Nahshon,

Nahshon the father of Salmon,

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of King David.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,

Solomon the father of Rehoboam,

Rehoboam the father of Abijah,

Abijah the father of Asa,

Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,

Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,

Jehoram the father of Uzziah,

Uzziah the father of Jotham,

Jotham the father of Ahaz,

Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,

10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,

Manasseh the father of Amon,

Amon the father of Josiah,

11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

12 After the exile to Babylon:

Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,

Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,

13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud,

Abihud the father of Eliakim,

Eliakim the father of Azor,

14 Azor the father of Zadok,

Zadok the father of Akim,

Akim the father of Elihud,

15 Elihud the father of Eleazar,

Eleazar the father of Matthan,

Matthan the father of Jacob,

16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[g] (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Merry Christmas!  Look, look, we’re (kinda) talking about the birth of Jesus!  Actually, I have to apologize, this post isn’t very Christmas-y, but let’s say it’s how the Spirit moved me, so I’ll follow that lead.

My thoughts today actually come more from the introduction to Matthew than the passage itself.  In addition to reading the Bible I also love reading about the Bible, and that’s why I love my NIV study Bible, with it’s extensive notes, so much.  As you can probably guess from the thorough genealogy, Matthew is very interested in documenting persuasive proof that Jesus is the Messiah.  Really, Matthew can be seen as a legal statement in Jesus’ behalf.

The mixture of religion and law is an idea that bothers most Americans, but in truth religion and law have been influencing each other for most of human history, and the idea of a division is historically young.  Much of the Old Testament is concerned with laying down laws that were both spiritual and practical in nature.  Also, many OT prophetic accounts are written to mimic the way treaties were written contemporaneously. So the fact that Matthew arranges his gospel as a legal argument makes sense for his original readership-mainly, Jews of the 1st century AD.  According to my NIV study notes, Matthew is arranged into five main sections, some think to mirror the five books of the Pentateuch, with this genealogy as an appropriate introduction.  Additionally, Matthew makes the most references to OT scripture, citing it nine more times than the other gospels.  Mirroring the Pentateuch, a “who’s who” genealogy, and Old Testament references would all be persuasive arguments for a Jewish audience.

The nice thing about laws is that they can be interpreted.  Joseph, upon hearing Mary was pregnant out of wedlock with not his child, had the right to divorce her and have her publicly stoned.  Again, according to my NIV text notes, engagements at the time were much more binding than they are today, so yes, you could technically be divorced before you were even married.  But even before he found out exactly whose child it was, Joseph decided to interpret the law in a more humane manner. He was “faithful to the law” (1:19, and another appeal to original Jewish readership) but “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.”  That’s pretty big of Joseph.  I think a lot of people, finding evidence that their Betrothed cheated on them – because again, this is before the angel’s big revelation, so that has to be what Joseph is thinking – would make a bit more of stink.

Interpretation of the law can lead to change. Let’s pivot back to secular law for a bit.  Often times changes in law are contentious – sometimes it even leads to outright war – but they do change over time.  Pulling from America’s own history: slavery (except as punishment for a crime, I know, I know) is outlawed, women can vote, and we have free speech (the Bill of Rights are amendments to our Constitution, remember!).  At the time these were hot-button issues, but I think now just about everyone would agree that these are good ideas.  And we’ve tried some not so good ideas and gotten rid of them. Well, at least I think so.  Remember Prohibition? I, for one, am glad I can have my evening cocktail.

This country has a lot of work to do.  Sometimes I wish I could jump forward 300 years to see what the new issues of the day are.  I’m hoping that queer acceptance will just be a given.  Can you imagine if someone from 1692 Salem came to the present and ask us how we solved our witch problems?  That’s not (and never truly was) a problem, and I have hope that one day that will be true of gay marriage and the associated rights.  I also don’t know how gun control is going to play out, and it might get ugly, but I think in the end we’ll settle on the right decision.  Like I said, this country has made a lot of bad mistakes, but with good people fighting for what is right we keep moving forward, even if it’s slowly.

Let me step down off my political soap box and get back up on my religious one.  All this talk about laws and laws changing really does have to do with Bible study and finding love in the Bible, and here’s how: Interpretation changes. Laws, both secular and religious, change.  Jesus himself came to change the law.  He over-rode a whole covenant, which is some serious law upheaval.  All of the changes I’ve listed, both secular and religious, have lead to greater inclusion, greater acceptance.  Well, except for ending Prohibition, but I still think it’s a good one.

Maybe you’re not ready to have your laws changed.  That’s understandable – Joseph literally needed an angel from God to tell him to do so.  But we can all start by interpreting laws – secular and religious – a little more humanely. That was a conclusion Joseph came to all on his own.  And perhaps that first step of kindness is what will help us find God in ways we could never have imagined.  Joseph was the adopted father of Jesus, of God made man.  Our revelations probably won’t be of that magnitude, but they will still happen.  All we need to do is take that first step.

Matthew 14 – An example of Jesus’ Humanity

It’s not a moral or spiritual shortcoming to have fear, or doubt, or sorrow.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

I love it when things like this happen – just last post I was talking about reading the Bible looking for Jesus’ humanity, and here is a perfect example.  You’ve probably heard of both miracles written here – feeding the crowd and walking on water, I certainly have, but I never paid attention to where they fell in the timeline of Jesus’ life.  They happen right after John the Baptist is beheaded. While both miracles are awe-inspiring, what really moved me upon this reading were the two small allusions to Jesus’ own personal grief.

First, 14:13: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” Isn’t this our first instinct when we feel loss?  When I lost my cousin, who was just six weeks younger than me, I was doing my study abroad in Italy.  I was walking to my first class of the day with a friend and my cell rang.  It was mom, which was immediately confusing because it would only be about 4 am her time.  She told me what happened, and all I could think about was getting away, out of the street where all these people were.  I just dropped my stuff and turned back to the apartment.  Fortunately my friend was there to gather it all up for me, but I think if I had been alone I would have done the same thing – just focused on getting away as quickly as possible.  And that was just a crowded street where no one was seeking me out. I can only imagine how much more Jesus felt the need to have a moment alone when everyone around him is constantly calling his name.

Second, in 14:23: “He went up a mountainside by himself to pray.” Again, he is seeking comfort.  Have you ever prayed in sorrow? Even angrily? That totally counts.  We don’t know what his words were, if they were angry, or full of loss, or seeking guidance, but I certainly can imagine any or all three of those.  Also, I love that he went up a mountainside to pray – into the solace of nature.  Sometimes if I’m getting overwhelmed I’ll leave the girls with my husband (or if he’s not here, in front of an Elmo’s World) and just step outside to be alone for a few minutes.  It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or freezing cold or dark, just being outside and hearing the wind in the trees or looking at the sky seems to help, and it often leads me to prayer.  So I love seeing that Jesus seeks out nature as a part of his spiritual practice, as well.

Writing this post, I’ve come to a realization.  I’ve only read nine chapters so far, and three of my posts have been about either doubt or grief.  Doubt seems like the opposite of faith, but here it is, all over the Bible.  Grief is the opposite of joy, something we’re “supposed” to have if we believe in Jesus, but it looks like even Jesus grieves.  There are a lot of passages in the Bible (we’ll get to them) that basically say “do not worry” or “stop crying,” and personally I’ve always felt I’ve come up short in my own Faith when I give into doubt or grief, but now I’m beginning to think not so much.

I think God recognizes our human emotions.  I use a lot of parenting analogies because God is our Father and also I’m in the thick of small-child parenting, but they work well, so here’s another:  I know Marienne is afraid of getting her hair washed.  She hates the water over her head.  Now, I know that it’s not going to hurt her and there’s nothing to really worry about, but I also recognize her fear as something real to her.  I try to help her overcome her fear, but I don’t belittle it.  I think that is the lesson we can take away here. It’s not a moral or spiritual shortcoming to have fear, or doubt, or sorrow.  God knows our hearts, and is here to show us we do not need to be afraid, but only when we are ready to learn that lesson.  Marienne will eventually grow out of hating hair-washing.  Maybe one day we’ll all grow out of being doubtful.  But both processes are a journey, and there is no need to rush things.

***

I’m going to bounce back and forth a bit in readings the next week or so.  Sunday is still in Advent, so I’ll read Isaiah 8, where Immanuel (another name for Jesus) is listed in prophecy.  Then back to Matthew 1 on Wednesday since we’ll officially be in the 12 days of Christmas, then back to Isaiah 9 with another Jesus prophecy.  Then on the last Sunday of the year I’ll jump back to Matthew 2, and we’ll have rounded out the early chapters of Matthew.

Matthew 11-Jesus speaks to John the Baptist

Even John the Baptist had worries and doubts.

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[e] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

One of the beautiful things about Jesus is that he can be many things to many people.  For example, I have a friend who taps into the mystical side of Jesus and is a big believer in the laying on of hands to heal sickness in Jesus’ name.  I feel awkward doing that, but by no means do I think she is wrong or weird to do so – that’s her Jesus.  At least at this time in my life (who knows what will change down the road), I’m more interested in finding the humanity in Jesus.  He’s a BFD, like, the BFD, and I find that overwhelming sometimes.  I in no way want to downplay his divinity, but I just find his human side easier to identify with.  All this to say, I often read the Bible, especially the New Testament, searching for little tidbits that speak to the living, breathing person being written about.  The one who got hungry, and tired, and annoyed, who had friends with whom to share joys and sorrows, who doubted, and who may have been a little bit like me.

This chapter doesn’t speak so much to Jesus’ humanity as to John the Baptist’s, which really struck me, because he’s another I’ve always thought of “more than” me.  Jesus even says in this chapter “there has not risen anyone higher than John the Baptist.” (11:11) Yet Jesus also says “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John the Baptist].”  Just to be clear, Jesus isn’t trashing John, its just that John is part of the old covenant, and Jesus ushers in a new covenant with God.  And this passage is all about Jesus conveying that message to what must have been a worried John.

As the beginning of the chapter informs us, John is in prison at the time of this event.  It gets into the details of why elsewhere, but basically he was saying stuff about the king’s wife that they didn’t like.  He’s in jail because he displeased the king.  His whole mission has been to prepare the way for one greater than him, and here he is, stuck in prison.  He knows Jesus is out there (he’s already baptized him), and he suspects Jesus is the one for whom he was preparing.  If I were John, I’d be suffering a moment of doubt right now. Out there is the person who is supposed to usher in a new age, change the world, and here John is, the main messenger of the age, languishing in prison.  What thoughts might have been going through his head, with all that time to just sit and think in a dreary cell.  “Is Jesus actually the Messiah? Has all my work been for nothing? Why am I still stuck here? Is there more I need to do? How will I do it from here? Did I understand God right?”

So John sends his disciples to straight up ask Jesus if he is the one they’ve all been waiting for.  And Jesus whole response is an acknowledgement of John’s job well done to completion.  First, Jesus addresses John (through his disciples) directly.  To paraphrase 11:4-6: “Look at all these miracles, dude.  Don’t lose faith.”  Jesus is recognizing John may be feeling a little discouraged right now and bolstering him.

Then, as John’s people were leaving, Jesus turns to the crowd.  This next section of Jesus’ speech seems to speak not only to the crowd, but to John.  “What did you go out in the desert to see?” He asks both parties in 11:7, “A prophet?” For the crowd, that means John the Baptist.  For John, I think it means Jesus.  Then, Jesus publicly affirms John’s importance, within earshot of John’s disciples.  “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you,” Jesus quotes from Malachi.  I love that quote.  It acknowledges both John’s and his own importance, and I think it is a quote John would appreciate hearing.

Most of the rest of the chapter can be read as giving John validation and closure.  Again, Jesus isn’t knocking John’s work saying those in the kingdom of heaven are more important, he’s saying “look, the old order is over.  You’ve done it, you’ve brought it to a close.  Now I’m here to start the new one.” He calls John the new Elijah (11:14, and high praise), and denounces those who didn’t listen to him (11:18), and calls woe unto the cities that don’t repent.  John was all about repentance, and I like to think it’s Jesus way of not only speaking to the crowd, but conveying a special message to John, one that basically says, “You did all you could, buddy.  Some people just don’t get it, and it’s not on you.”

Jesus closes by praising God and offering a sweet, gentle, comforting invitation to follow him.  Of course those words are for us, but could they also be especially for John? Why not? “Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (11:29) Start to finish, this was a message for John.

And I can only imagine how John must have felt receiving it. Here he was, worry, worry, worrying in his cell, and Jesus sends him an answer to all his questions, asked and unasked.  I’m here. You did it. You may rest. If this isn’t an example of Jesus’ love then I don’t know what is.  I find it comforting as well, to know that Jesus loves us just this much, if not even more so.

Matthew 03-The Bible in Context

Advice for reading through uncomfortable passages.

 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

So far the subtitle of this blog could be “leaning into your discomfort.” Now here comes John the Baptist, talking about repentance, which I’ve always thought of as an uncomfortable act.  People used to self-flagellate and wear hair shirts as a way of repenting. Yikes.  Now I’ve never done that, but my general conception of repentance has been an idea of feeling really sorry. But my beloved NIV footnotes describes repentance as “a radical change in one’s life as a whole.”  And that sounds like a much healthier and more effective definition than mine, and way better than whipping you’re own back bloody.  But even so, radical change, in the sense of repentance, requires examining our current beliefs and actions, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable.

That in and of itself isn’t any huge revelation.  I think most Christians of any stripe talking about repentance are expecting it to go hand in hand with at least a little bit of self examination.  But if we’re talking about radical changes in behavior through self examination, let’s talk about some radical evolution of thought at the same time, and how reading the Bible in context can guide us on our spiritual journeys of radical change.

I listened to a new podcast for the first time ever last night, called The Bible for Normal People.  In the episode I listened to, host Pete Enns brought up the fact that the Bible needs to be read in context.  To paraphrase, he reminds us that the Bible pre-supposes cultural norms that simply aren’t true for most people today.  Just recently I’ve had two brief comment/social media discussions about the importance of Biblical context, and even touched upon it a few posts back, in Malachi 02. Basically, it’s important to remember that while the Bible is a divinely inspired book, it was still written by humans.  Well-intentioned and seeking God, for sure, but fallible and imperfect nonetheless.  They were influenced by the culture of their time.  Sometimes that means that rules and cultural norms that applied to them simply aren’t applicable today, such as polygamy and slavery, which Pete Enns listed as examples.  So it’s important to remember that when we read certain passages, especially those dealing with rules and behavior.

Let me be clear-I’m not advocating a complete rejection of all Christian ideals and traditions.  Far from it.  What I am advocating for is doing away with dogmatic rule-following for the sake of rule-following.  In this chapter John the Baptist does the same thing, calling out the Pharisees and Sadducees in 3:7-10.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two influential and educated groups of Jewish society who were strict rule-followers, and tended to be separatist and elitist – not really things Jesus will be down with when he gets into his ministry.

In order to not be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, I think we need to dig deeper into the Bible than just the surface meanings of the texts, and look for the universal truths. I believe that our primary responsibility is one of love and acceptance, and to find Biblical proof of that I started this blog.  The Bible is a vibrant treasure trove of guidance, and to see it as static does it a disservice.  It is there to be used as a tool in our spiritual journey, as we examine our thoughts and actions to see if they are in keeping with Christ’s true teachings.  The Bible was at one time used to provide justification for slavery.  You don’t see many advocates for that, anymore, and yet the Bible hasn’t been thrown out. Changing our minds on topics like gay marriage, women in the priesthood, and more doesn’t mean that we’re throwing away the Bible.  As long as we are thoughtful in our opinions, seeking God as we form them and reading the Bible for it’s deeper truths, then I see no problem with new interpretations.

Self examination can be really uncomfortable.  So can repentance.  But it doesn’t have to mean the end of joy and love.  Instead, it can be the starting point for it.  Next time you read something in the Bible that makes you uncomfortable (the verses that get my hackles up are always the ones admonishing women to be subservient), examine it.  Remember the context in which those verses were written, and look for the greater truth.  Doing so will bring you into deeper conversation with God, into a deeper knowledge of yourself, and into a deeper knowledge of your own faith.

***

I’m totally not ignoring Jesus’ first lines of the Bible, like literally the first words he ever speaks, as our Bible is arranged.  I just really like the telling of this story in Mark even better, so I want to discuss it a little later on, and keep the focus of this blog post on reading the Bible in context.  Don’t worry, he talks a lot in Matthew 11 and we’ll discuss what he says next post.