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.

Isaiah 08-The Bible as a Stumbling Block

Keeping our hearts open to God’s light.

The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”

The Lord spoke to me again:

“Because this people has rejected
    the gently flowing waters of Shiloah
and rejoices over Rezin
    and the son of Remaliah,
therefore the Lord is about to bring against them
    the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—
    the king of Assyria with all his pomp.
It will overflow all its channels,
    run over all its banks
and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
    passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
    Immanuel!”

Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered!
    Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
    Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
10 Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
    propose your plan, but it will not stand,
    for God is with us.

11 This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:

12 “Do not call conspiracy
    everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
    and do not dread it.
13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
    he is the one you are to fear,
    he is the one you are to dread.
14 He will be a holy place;
    for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
    a trap and a snare.
15 Many of them will stumble;
    they will fall and be broken,
    they will be snared and captured.”

16 Bind up this testimony of warning
    and seal up God’s instruction among my disciples.
17 I will wait for the Lord,
    who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob.
I will put my trust in him.

18 Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.

19 When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. 21 Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.

Since this is our first dealing with Isaiah, here’s a very brief background before we dive into the text: Isaiah was a prophet writing during the decline of Israel and expansion of Assyria around 700 BC.  He took a wife (the prophetess), and had two sons, the second of whom is named here.  (His son’s name means “quick to plunder,” and is part of Isaiah’s prophecies.  How’s that for some family-name baggage?) The chunk of text this chapter comes from specifically is warning the King against certain alliances, and the wrath of God if Israel doesn’t listen.  But, the beauty of all these OT prophets is that their words transcend their time, hence they’re included in our Bible.  Yes, Isaiah was warning against the Assyrians, but he was also talking about the coming Messiah, and many of his messages (my favorite being for “complacent women” in another chapter) still have wisdom to share with us today, so let’s talk about it.

Here, God is calling Isaiah to stand apart, to not be like the people of Judah or Jerusalem who have placed their trust in the wrong things. This distresses God.  These nations have “rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah” (8:6), a stream in Jerusalem and also a metaphor for God’s love and gentle commandments.  As a punishment, God is allowing the King of Assyria, characterized as the “mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates,” (8:7) to attack Israel.  Isaiah allows for a ray of hope – not all will be lost because God is with us (also the meaning of Immanuel, another name for Jesus, and why I chose to read this chapter).

What I find most interesting is that God will cause not only opposing nations but his own people to stumble.  In 8:14 he says: “For both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.  And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.”  But isn’t God also our hope and salvation? 8:13 just affirmed “the Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy.” So why would our holy God make his own people stumble?

Here’s my take on it: I don’t think he’s causing us to stumble at all, I think it’s our own fault.  God’s commandments are based in love. Yes, even the Old Testament ones, and when we wield them like a weapon we misuse his gifts to us, and end up harming ourselves even more than those we set out to harm.  This gets back a little bit to reading the Bible holistically and in context.  It’s important to read the Bible for the greater truths of love and acceptance, practices that will bring us together, rather than getting hung up, or, if you will, stumbling upon, the passages that divide.  When a Christian says “I hate Muslims” or “Gays can’t be Christians” or “Women are less than men” because the Bible says so, they are stumbling.  The word of God has become a trap and a snare for them, because their heart isn’t open to His light.

Now, before anyone calls me a hypocrite for hating on conservative Christians with that last paragraph let me just state that I don’t hate them.  Also, I believe in their belief in God.  I just think they have a lot of spiritual maturing to do.  The reason I call them out so much is because their actions are leading to the harm of others.  Intolerant attitudes lead to inequitable societies, and this often leads to violence.  That is unacceptable.  Here’s another parenting metaphor for you. Let’s just assume I’ll have one per blog-post, shall we? You expect a small child to misbehave sometimes.  Maybe a lot of times.  That small child still loves you and you still love them.  But if that child starts hurting someone else, you’re going to step in and stop it, right?  I can’t go around putting conservative Christians in time-out until they’ve thought about what they’ve done, but my earnest hope is that all of us will become a little more thoughtful about our actions, and how they impact others.

The best way to change minds is to lead by example.  “Here am I,” Isaiah declares in 8:18, “and the children the Lord has given to me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty.” In these last few days of Advent, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, let us think about how we can be signs and symbols from the Lord Almighty.  I want to prepare a world for Him that is kind, and equitable, and worthy of returning to.  That starts with acceptance and love.  Big actions, like charity work, are great.  But kind words for a trying neighbor or coworker, holding the door for the woman in a headscarf, not staring condescendingly at the non-binary person in line…all of these seemingly little actions also add up and make the world a better place.  Through these mindful little actions,  the stone upon which we once stumbled can become the foundation for our Faith, and a platform from which we can be an example to all the world.

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.