Matthew 21 – Growing from Criticism

Steps to analyze and act upon criticism, whether it be constructive or otherwise.

We’re getting into some long chapters here, just FYI – keep reading!  There’s a lot of good stuff in them.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,

“‘From the lips of children and infants
    you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”

17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus replied, I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’]?

43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

This chapter holds Jesus making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed as a king.  A donkey is considered a royal mount, or even more specifically, a mount for the son of a king, which is fitting as Jesus is the son of God.  In addition to Zechariah 9:9 (the prophetic verses Matthew references here in v. 5), there is also an established Old Testament tradition of kings’ sons and households riding donkeys.  Judges 10:4 and 12:14, and 2 Samuel 16:2 all portray such.  Donkeys are gentle beasts, and used in contrast to war horses, like a metaphor for peaceful rule.  Additionally, throwing capes and palms on the road is an act of homage to royalty. So Jesus, and the crowd surrounding him, are really making quite a stir with this entrance.

While this is important to the linear story that is Jesus’ life, my focus today will be on the rest of the chapter, because in it I think we find the true instruction.  We have three examples of rebukes from Jesus.  The first rebuke comes when Jesus clears out the temple, expressing his anger and dismay at their “pay to pray” attitude. The second rebuke, and my favorite, is Jesus causing the fig tree to wither.  It is my favorite because I think we see a bit of Jesus humanity peek out.  By this point, Jesus has been doing a lot of travelling.  He is up early in the morning, going back to the city for what promises to be another long day, and hasn’t eaten yet. Seeing that fig tree from a distance he must have felt some relief, but then when he realized it didn’t have any fruit, he became angry.  How many times have you gone to a McDonalds and tried to order a shake when their shake machine was down?  I bet Jesus’ disappointment was akin to that feeling, and so he cursed the fig tree.  The third rebuke and longest example is Jesus back and forth with the Pharisees.  This takes place in a common teaching form at the time, with a question being answered with another question, along with two parables.  And while the end of the chapter states that the Pharisees start looking for a way to arrest Jesus, I believe that Jesus was truly trying to reach them on their level, if you will, in a way that would speak to their hearts.  These are learned men, remember, and they value discourse, which is what Jesus offered them here.  The tragedy is they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept it.

The question I was left with, after reading this chapter, is how to graciously accept a rebuke, a criticism, or correction, and grow from it? How do we avoid being like the fig tree, that withers, or the Pharisees, who get angry?  As someone who is quick to get defensive, I’m probably not the best person to answer this question.  But, I have Google, and if you, like me, struggle with growing graciously from criticism, here’s a few steps for you to follow:

  • First, don’t give in to anger.  This is probably the hardest step, since when someone tells us we’ve done something wrong, our first instinct is to defend ourselves.  But not giving into that first impulse of anger, indignation, or defensiveness allows us to analyze what we’ve just heard.  It’s totally OK if you need to separate yourself from the situation.  If the person criticizing you truly wants to see change, they should be able to accept it if you say something like “I hear what you are saying, but I need a moment [or whatever length of time you need, within reason] to process this.”
  • Now that you’ve established a rational headspace, you can determine whether or not the criticism offered you is, indeed, constructive or just a personal attack.  Constructive criticism offers ways to improve.  That might mean offering a solution for you to work towards, or just pointing out behavior that needs to change without relying on guilt and blame.  Guilt, blame, and general belittling is not constructive criticism, that’s just a personal attack.
  • If the criticism you received is constructive, great, you can work towards improving the situation, enrolling the help of your critic if appropriate – say, for example, if your spouse says they’re feeling like you never have time for them. In that situation, you have to enroll the help of your critic to come to a solution.  But if the criticism you received is a personal attack, you can still learn from it.  Try to stand in the critic’s shoes.  Perhaps they were just speaking out of anger that doesn’t really have anything to do with you, and you can dismiss it.  Saying a quick prayer of forgiveness and blessing for the critic sounds really hokey, but I find it helps me put it away.  But sometimes people can reveal truths to us in their anger or frustration.  Do your co-workers often get defensive or even combative with you on projects? Perhaps you are the one being overly bossy or pushy, and need to work on your soft skills a bit.  Stepping back and thinking the criticism through with a clear head and honest desire to better yourself will help you determine if there is a kernel of truth fueling the criticism, constructive or otherwise.  Also, talking it over with someone you trust can always help.
  • The final step is to grow!  Spouse feeling neglected? Make time for them!  Coworkers being uncooperative? Reach out to ask them how they think things are going.  Indignation and anger without analysis and action are going to get us nowhere, we’ll just stay stuck in a rut where things get worse.  God doesn’t want us there.  Remember, if we view God as our loving parent, Xe wants nothing more than for us to grow and mature.  And by learning from our experiences with others, even and maybe especially the criticism they offer us, we will grow in our relationships – not only with each other, but also with God.

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.