Matthew 12 – Do Good, not Dogma.

Let’s battle the image of the Christian Hypocrite.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul,the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Christian Hypocrite is a well-known character:  The little old church lady in her Sunday Best, piously in her pew every week but spreading wicked gossip every other day is a character used in more than one film I’ve seen.  Corrupt preachers are another common example – both in entertainment and (unfortunately) in real life – of the Christian Hypocrite.  There seem to be a lot of Christian Hypocrites in Southern literature and cinematography.  Preaching acceptance and the importance of following Jesus while being a bald-faced racist is the definition of hypocrisy and an easy one to portray as a foible to whatever virtues the main character may have.

Hypocrisy is the main thrust of Jesus’ message in this chapter. The dogmatic hang-up in Jesus’ day was this working on the Sabbath bit.  I do think we need to observe the Sabbath more: rest is good for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  I know for a fact I don’t get enough of it.  But I also think that I, and probably the Pharisees, too, missed the most important part of this commandment. It starts with “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Yes, then it goes into stipulations about not working (and making sure no one else in your household has to work), but upon reflection, the “work” part seems very secondary to the “keep it holy” part. Using the Sabbath as just one example, Jesus reminds us that God’s work is never done, and neither is our role in it.

Once again, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Jesus is reminding the Pharisees, and us, of the difference between the legalistic and elitist interpretation of Biblical law and a true following of God’s desire for mankind.  God’s people may not look or act the way we think they should.  They might not even be Christian. But that doesn’t matter to Jesus. “A tree is recognized by its fruit,” he tells us, along with “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him.”  Any outward signs of piety – going to church, mindlessly checking “Christian” in the religious preferences box, having an unopened Bible somewhere in the house, condemning those whose beliefs are different than yours – are fruitless and meaningless.  Legalistic and elitist interpretations of Biblical law are not going to win Jesus’ favor.  Providing love and mercy to our fellow man will.  Jesus himself says “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

And who provides this love and mercy?  Who is Jesus’ brother?  For sure, some of them are Christians.  But many of them are Muslim, Jewish, Buddist, Sikh, and I’d even go so far as to say Atheist.  Google “Islamic Charities” or “Jewish Charities” and you’ll see just how many of them there are, doing the same work as Christian charities: feeding the hungry, providing relief aid for victims of natural disasters and war, uplifting at-risk women and children. Aren’t these all things God wants us to do?  Aren’t these all fruits of a good tree?

So does it matter at all if we believe in Jesus? Is it only about good works? I don’t think so, but I’m not too worried about policing the secret hearts of those who are out there doing said good works.  I wrote about why I think being a Christian still matters, if you want to read my thoughts on the matter there.

My favorite part of this passage bears repeating in full:  “So I tell you, that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”  My NIV text notes say that this unpardonable sin of “blasphemy against the spirit” was attributing Jesus’ miracles to Satan, but even that can be seen as an allegory for condemning anyone’s good works throughout history.  For example: 9-11 First Responders are suffering serious health consequences to the point of death for breathing in toxic fumes during their acts of heroism, yet the 9-11 First Responders Bill still has 19,000 unpaid claims.  Ebola aid workers are being shunned or even attacked.  Aid workers dropping off water at the US-Mexico border to keep people from dying of thirst have been arrested and charged with felony harboring.  These are just a few examples of good works (and the people that commit them) being condemned.  Again, some of these people are Christian, but others are not.  No matter their beliefs in life, I think Jesus will judge them kindly for the work they have done here, even and especially because it has gone unrecognized or attacked.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can all be Jesus’ brother or sister.  Belief in Jesus helps, to be sure, but if belief is something you’re still struggling with, start with these two universally good steps:  First, don’t get hung up on dogma – your own or someone else’s.  Recognize the good that someone is doing, and leave it there.  Second, provide mercy.  Be the one who is advocating for the meek, providing water for those who thirst, feeding those who hunger.  In doing so, you will be perpetuating that two-step cycle: Someone will see your good works, and loosen whatever dogmatic restraints were holding them back.  Perhaps they will then extend that hand of mercy, and the cycle will start over again.  Mercy, not sacrifice, is the way of Jesus, and the way of Love.

Matthew 10 – Jesus Brings a Sword

Action, action, action. In the name of Jesus, action!

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—10 no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

24 “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master.25 It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

26 “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

So my Biblical memory ends at v. 30 with that warm and fuzzy bit about meaning more to God than the sparrows, feeling all special because even the hairs on my head are numbered.  All this talk about bringing a sword? Fighting among families? I definitely forget reading that, ever.  Quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with it.

Part of me wonders if Jesus even actually said it.  Remember, the whole Bible is written by people.  It may have been divinely inspired, but it was recorded by decidedly fallible humans.  Matthew was a shrewd writer, and I don’t want to say he straight up fabricated a story, but it seems so off-message from the rest of what Jesus has said so far.  My main point of contention is I find the reference to the cross a little self-conscious.  True, crucifixion was a common form of execution back then, so the disciples would have been familiar with it, and Jesus’ words in v. 38 would have had meaning to them even before Jesus was crucified himself. But knowing that this Gospel was compiled after (well after, some say) Jesus’ death and resurrection makes me wonder if time colored Matthew’s memory of the event.

But then I wonder if I’m just being comfortable, and trying to fit Jesus into my own comfortable little box.  I like thinking of Jesus as a bringer of peace, a righter of wrongs. But it is true that father and son, daughter and mother, whole families do often turn against each other in the name of righteousness.  This passage immediately made me think of our own Civil War, and all the anecdotes I heard about two brothers fighting on different sides of the same battle, or young boys sneaking away from their Confederate families to fight in the Union army.  I wonder how many people back then thought that it must be the end of times, remembering Jesus’ words.  That that war was the sword Jesus promised to bring to Earth.

It’s a disconcerting passage, but upon reflection, I think it is still in keeping with Jesus’ teaching of love.  Whether Matthew embellished it or not doesn’t even really matter in the long run, because it is urging us to do the same thing: work to spread the good news.  Even if it means a break with your family, persecution, or even bodily harm unto the point of death, work to spread the good news of Jesus.  Of course this means the Gospel, and if anyone is made a believer in him through whatever work you do, that’s great!  But I’ll tell you my favorite saying when it comes to a lot of things, but especially when it comes to evangelizing:  A drowning man doesn’t need swim lessons, he needs a life-preserver.  In other words, I think Jesus would be most concerned that we are providing everyone with enough to eat, a safe place to live and work, and access to medical care. Only then, when they’ve stopped drowning in the trials this life brings, can we discuss loftier ideals.

That doesn’t sound like it should be so controversial, right?  But try enacting those policies in this country: We have escalating tensions – and death toll – at our Southern border as people are denied entry and even denied their own needed medications.  We still have over half a million people experiencing homelessness in this country every year, and those numbers are starting to creep back up again.  Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water.  People effected by these headlines, and millions of others I haven’t mentioned, are just struggling to survive.

The best way to make an impact on these problems isn’t to preach about Jesus, but to be an instrument of Jesus, and act.  And perhaps that does mean fighting.  I still don’t think Jesus is advocating violence as a solution, but he did advocate for radical non-violent resistance. So fighting hard for what you think is right by protesting, sit-ins, or disrupting family dinner to vocally disagree with racist Uncle Jimmy may be just as Christian as serving in a soup kitchen or filling an Angel Tree wish list.  I just prefer to be on the safe side, and offer any who needs it “even a cold cup of water.”  In other words, we may never know who among us is Jesus’ disciple, so why deny anyone dignity and equality?  And if we have to be vocal to the point of strife in our support of said dignity an equality, then perhaps we ourselves will become the righteous sword of Jesus.

Matthew 09 – Mercy not Sacrifice

Everyone deserves care.

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town.Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

18 While he was saying this, a synagogue leader came and knelt before him and said, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 Jesus got up and went with him, and so did his disciples.

20 Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. 21 She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”

22 Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment.

23 When Jesus entered the synagogue leader’s house and saw the noisy crowd and people playing pipes, 24 he said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. 25 After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up.26 News of this spread through all that region.

27 As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

28 When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”

“Yes, Lord,” they replied.

29 Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; 30 and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” 31 But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region.

32 While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. 33 And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

34 But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Jesus spends some time talking about people’s faith while healing them in this chapter.  He forgives the sins of the paralytic before he heals him, he tells the bleeding woman that her faith has healed her, he straight up asks the blind man if he believes that he, Jesus, can heal him.  Faith is wonderful and can do some amazing, even miraculous, things.  But I want to make something very, very clear: Faith is not a prerequisite to care, and this chapter does not prove otherwise.  Everyone deserves care.  There is a very specific reason Jesus focuses so much on faith and healing in this section.

Framing these questions of belief are two instances of the “teachers” (other learned men of some authority) and the Pharisees grumbling about Jesus.  First they say he blasphemes by forgiving the sins of others.  Which, when you think about it rationally, is kind of out there.  Anyone who forgives someone else’s sin is basically taking on the power of God.  I think it’s a power God wants us to share, because forgiveness is better for everyone involved. But that’s not the only reason Jesus told the paralytic his sins were forgiven.  He was making a point because he knew the teachers were watching.  He straight up tells them “But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on Earth,” and then turns around and lifts the paralytic up.  Jesus is showing those who doubt, whose hearts may be hardened, that he has power over body and soul.  But they don’t listen, because once again at the end of the chapter, instead of being amazed by the miracle of speech being restored to a mute man, the Pharisees say Jesus’ drove the demon out by the power of the “prince of demons.”

Every single one of these healings, including the one where Jesus asked the blind man not to say anything, was watched by or relayed to the Pharisees.  Jesus was making a bold claim that he was the Son of Man, with authority on Earth.  By linking questions of faith with these closely-watched and much talked about healings, Jesus was making it clear that it was through God he was able to do these things.

But I think the part of the chapter we need to focus more on is when Jesus says “it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick…I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  For I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.”  The chapter also closes with Matthew reminding us that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them.”  He didn’t ask them what church they went to, or say they needed to come back more sober, or ask what health insurance they’d be using.  He healed them.  He had compassion on them.  He had mercy on them.  He sought out the sinners, including Matthew himself. (Tax collectors, such as Matthew, were often despised due to their corruption, and for siding with the Romans against their own people.  They were more like mobsters than accountants.)  Through Jesus’ mercy, they became believers.  He may have asked a few if they believed to make a point to the Pharisees, but the more important thing is he healed them.  Regardless of station in life-from the completely helpless paralytic to the Synagogue ruler-Jesus healed them.

Forcing someone to believe isn’t leading them to true faith.  Showing compassion, regardless of situation or predicament, in the name of Jesus Christ is a far more effective way to show the world what he is all about.  I remind you again: Jesus tells us plainly, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  We need to show mercy to those who need it.  We don’t have a major leprosy problem anymore, nor do we encounter the demon-possessed on a regular basis (I don’t think), but we still have people that society ignores, belittles, and shoves out of the way: addicts, sex workers, homeless, and those struggling with mental illness are just a few examples.  Instead of looking down our noses at them we need to help them.  This is why I particularly like the Housing First approach to ending homelessness, where homeless individuals are provided housing immediately, and only after that is achieved do they begin addressing issues of substance abuse or mental health from a stable environment.  It’s also why I like Planned Parenthood, because it is made very clear from their mission that they are there to serve women no matter what their situation, not judge them for it.  We need more programs like this, especially in and around the health care industry.

The “sinners” of Jesus’ time often weren’t “sinners” at all, but rather at the mercy of medical ailments we now fully understand.  A woman suffering a bleeding condition and a paralytic man wouldn’t be considered sinners by the majority of society today.  I pray that we are soon able to treat the “sins” of mental illness and addiction as matter-of-factly (and under full, affordable insurance coverage) as hypertension or near-sightedness are currently treated.  And how will that happen?  It will happen faster if more of us are willing to sit with the sinners and tax collectors, as Jesus was.  If we provide them with mercy, instead of sacrificing them to the system, we not only show them that individually they are of value, but also show society at large that everyone matters.  Are you, or is someone close to you effected by homelessness? Sexual violence? Mental illness? Chronic conditions? Addiction? STDs? Then speak up.  Let society know that everyone in these groups is worthy of compassionate, merciful care.  Jesus thought so, so we should, too.