Matthew 04 – Trouble Trusting the Gospel

A symbolic portrait illustrating the kind of Messiah Jesus would be.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

This chapter can be broken into three parts: The Temptation of Jesus, the Calling of the first Disciples, and Jesus healing the sick.  I find it one of the most challenging parts of Matthew because it leaves so many questions unanswered.  For example, how did Zebedee feel when his sons just up and walked away from their work?  He was right there, mentioned in the story – we don’t get a line about his reaction?

And what about this Temptation in the Desert story?  How do we know it happened?  It is not Jesus telling this story, remember, it is Matthew.  And it’s not like Matthew was there – Jesus was alone in the wilderness.  Also, it’s not like Jesus left and returned to Matthew:  This test came before the calling of Jesus’ disciples.  I guess it makes sense that Jesus would have told them about it, just as anyone recounts interesting and relevant stories to their friends.  It just seems so stylized with exactly three tests and exactly forty days and forty nights.

Of course, if you don’t believe in Jesus (or at least, don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, even if he did exist as a person), then it is easy to dismiss this Temptation story – or even cite is as proof of the Gospels’ faults and the list it among the longer list of faults in the Bible at large.  True, it is a second-hand story and we have no way to verify it.  So that means it is possible that it didn’t happen.  Or, that it didn’t happen the way Matthew says it happened-which, honestly is what I believe.  I’ve expressed my admiration for Matthew before, and the delicacy with which he had to write this Gospel, but the guy had an agenda and bias, for sure.  I don’t think he lied, but I do think he carefully crafted this work to show how the life of Jesus fit into the teachings of venerated prophets.  This Temptation story is the perfect place to fit in scriptural references to highlight Jesus’ personal knowledge of the Old Testament and use significant and symbolic numbers (three and forty) to further solidify Jesus’ standing in the minds of Matthew’s Jewish readers.

I see this story as a symbolic portrait, kind of like the Jesus version of George Washington Crossing the Delaware River.  For those unfamiliar with it, in December 1776 George Washington did indeed surprise and defeat the British-allied forces when he crossed the river in the Battle of Trenton, later commemorated in a painting by Emanuel Leutz.  However, the crossing was at night – and I’ve never seen a night that looks like this painting; Washington’s heroic stance would have capsized the boat; and – I just learned this – the flag depicted in the painting wasn’t a design in use at that time, but it is one we all recognize as an early American flag.  Real event, idealized depiction.  Matthew (possibly) did the same thing here in the Gospel.

My NIV study notes provided excellent insight into this Temptation of Jesus story.  It reads, “The significance of Jesus’ temptations, especially because they occurred at the outset of his public ministry, seems best understood in terms of the kind of Messiah he was to be…It was, moreover, important that Jesus be tempted/tested  as Israel and we are, so that he could become our ‘merciful and faithful high priest’ (Heb. 2:17).” In other words, this story illustrates how Jesus goes through temptations just as we do, and highlights his humanity.  However, unlike us, Jesus resists all temptations, establishing his divinity at the same time.  It’s really quite an elegant piece of writing, after you sit with it for a bit.

If this little tidbit of Gospel makes you uncomfortable, seriously question your belief in Jesus, or even reaffirm your disbelief in Jesus, I get it.  It’s a passage that really challenges my faith.  But remember, not any single passage defines the Jesus’ message, or the Bible at large – we have to read in context, and look for broader themes.  In this passage, we can recognize Jesus as a real man who faced temptation – even if you see him as a fictional character you can acknowledge that those who wrote about him saw him as flesh-and-bone, not a divine apparition.  He got hungry, tired, angry; he touched people, walked on the ground (as well as the water), and spoke the common language of the time.  Even if he were fictional, he was conceived of as a real man.

I emphasize Jesus’ humanity to bring up my closing point: Jesus was a man who made a difference.  The early disciples mentioned in this chapter heard his message of love and healing, and got up to follow him, as have millions throughout history afterwards.  The chapter closes with Jesus healing the sick.  He had compassion upon those suffering.  Jesus knew suffering: he knew hunger, cold, pain, loneliness, just as we do in our own varying extents.  Even if you don’t believe in the Gospel, don’t believe in Jesus, we can still be like Jesus:  we can have compassion, we can help to heal, we can speak for the oppressed.  And that, my friends, is what I believe Jesus would want us to do.  We can quibble over whether or not he actually spent forty days in the desert, whether or not he was actually tempted by the devil, whether or not he even existed, but time spent wasting our breath on arguments that can never be resolved keeps us from making a positive difference in the world.  To everyone out there making that positive difference – to all the activists, nurses, teachers, volunteers, caretakers, and more – I just want to say thank you.  No matter what your beliefs, I see you as a sibling in Christ doing what matters.  Maybe I’m putting words into Jesus’ mouth the same as Matthew did, but I think Jesus would also see anyone (anyone) making that positive difference as a kindred spirit, as well.

Job 11 – The Endurance of Job

Job really isn’t very patient, but he does endure.

Then Zophar the Naamathite replied:

“Are all these words to go unanswered?
    Is this talker to be vindicated?
Will your idle talk reduce others to silence?
    Will no one rebuke you when you mock?
You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless
    and I am pure in your sight.’
Oh, how I wish that God would speak,
    that he would open his lips against you
and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom,
    for true wisdom has two sides.
    Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.

“Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
    Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
    They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
    and wider than the sea.

10 “If he comes along and confines you in prison
    and convenes a court, who can oppose him?
11 Surely he recognizes deceivers;
    and when he sees evil, does he not take note?
12 But the witless can no more become wise
    than a wild donkey’s colt can be born human.

13 “Yet if you devote your heart to him
    and stretch out your hands to him,
14 if you put away the sin that is in your hand
    and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,
15 then, free of fault, you will lift up your face;
    you will stand firm and without fear.
16 You will surely forget your trouble,
    recalling it only as waters gone by.
17 Life will be brighter than noonday,
    and darkness will become like morning.
18 You will be secure, because there is hope;
    you will look about you and take your rest in safety.
19 You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid,
    and many will court your favor.
20 But the eyes of the wicked will fail,
    and escape will elude them;
    their hope will become a dying gasp.”

The more I read Job (and read about Job), the less I think it is about theodicy – the justice of God existing alongside the existence of evil – and more about endurance of faith.  I think this seed was planted long ago.  The same pastor I mentioned two posts back also told me she thought that “the patience of Job” should really be “the endurance of Job,” because he really isn’t very patient with his loud complaints and bitter responses to his friends, but he does endure through his whole ordeal.

Then, a week or so ago, I was perusing through online writings on Job. I’m sorry I can’t remember if it was on Instagram with the hashtag #bookofJob, or a blog article, or what because I’d really love to link to it and give the author credit (to that person: if you find me, holler!), but the thrust of their message was, Job’s suffering was all worth it because it meant (spoiler alert) he got to meet God.  Yes, he gets his stuff and family and everything back, too, but even more than the worldly goods his faith is rewarded by the presence of God.  So, is Job’s test more of a quest, almost like a knight? Job didn’t get to pick his quest quite like a knight does, but just like a King Arthur style tale, he is tried and tested and faces hardship but wins a glorious prize for his endurance in the end.

Finally, earlier this week, I came across an article in my favorite academic journal, Vetus Testamentum. In it, author Andrew E. Steinmann argues that the central theme of Job is not theodicy, but rather Job’s “struggle to maintain his integrity and his battle to hang onto his trust in God, rather than the problem of his suffering.”  Steinmann goes on to argue that the theme of theodicy is secondary and the only safe conclusion we can draw, again to quote the author, is that “theodicy is an irrelevant exercise for human beings.  They cannot explain God’s actions because they do not have access to God’s wisdom in the heavenly court. They can only dangerously attempt deductions that are as unreliable as the deductions made by Job’s friends.” (All this from “The Structure and Message of the Book of Job, Andrew E. Steinmann, Vol. 46 Fasc. 1 of Vetus Testamentum, Jan. 1996)

Following this theme of the endurance of Job, or the endurance of the faith of Job, we can see his friends test him with their false piety, impatience and indignation.  This speech of Zophar’s is the most impatient and indignant yet.  Add his wife to the mix when she says “curse God and die,” (2:9) and we have temptation (it’s a morbid desire, but still, Job desires the grave above all else at this point – and his wife is saying he will die if he just curses God).  So Job’s faith is tried in every manner: loss, suffering, trying attitudes, and temptation.  But he endures, his faith endures.

I find this a much more satisfying explanation of the book of Job than one based solely on theodicy, exactly because there is suffering in the world.  The truth is, we don’t know why God allows suffering.  But that doesn’t mean Xe doesn’t love us, it just means we lack a full comprehension of God. I think I’ve used this analogy before: but it helps me to think of it like kids on the playground.  When I take my girls to the playground, I am watching over them, helping them.  But even under careful guidance, they occasionally hurt themselves.  It’s not that I don’t care about them, it’s just part of growing up, learning their abilities, and striving for the next monkey bar.  I patch up their boo-boos, give them hugs and kisses, and send them back out there.  If Earth is our proverbial playground, could God be doing the same for us?  Watching over us, maybe even letting us make some mistakes, in the hopes that we are growing, not just individually, but collectively? I like to think so.  I know I’ve mentioned this before (maybe multiple times), but my all-time favorite church sign is “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  This encapsulates what I think is the most important takeaway from Job:  That all of life is a quest, just like Job’s suffering was.  It is a quest of faith, a battle of endurance in which we must hold fast to God.  We may get scraped up from time to time, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our faith.  Stay faithful, and the reward is everlasting peace in the life to come.

Genesis 18 – A Compassionate God

And the importance of being instruments of His compassion.

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

First off, let’s just talk about how much flour three seahs is.  My NIV text notes tell me that’s 36 pounds!  Abraham made a ton of food.  Also, let’s talk about how long this must have taken.  If Sarah and her household have to prepare bread (which takes a few hours to knead and rise and bake), as well as slaughter and dress an animal (by hand) as well as cook it?  Hours.  So I’m thinking, if these guys came in the heat of the day, in other words mid-afternoon, they must have stayed until well into the evening.  Basically, Abraham had a dinner party with God, which is kind of cool.

But what I want to talk about a little more today is yet another example of God’s compassion.  I was always taught that the God of the Old Testament was an angry and punitive God.  For sure, there is a fair amount of punishment that goes on in the Old Testament, but even more than that there is compassion.  Again, the punishment that happens is more that of a parent correcting a child than a spiteful king condemning an unfortunate subject: He cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, but made sure they were clothed and continued to check in on them and their descendants; He set a mark on Cain so no one could further persecute him; instead of completely obliterating mankind through the flood He saved us through Noah and his family; instead of striking mankind down completely at the Babel he simply confused their plans and redirected them.  See what I mean?

Spoiler alert – Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed.  But Abraham doesn’t know this yet.  He is distressed that good people might pay the price of the wicked if God obliterates these cities.  Once again, my NIV footnotes put it beautifully: “Abraham’s questioning in vv. 23-32 did not arise from a spirit of haggling but of compassion for his relatives and of wanting to know God’s ways.  Perhaps Abraham stopped at ten because he had been counting while praying.”

And the amazing thing: God says yes to sparing the whole wicked land if there are just ten good people there.  What wonders a few good people can achieve without even realizing their impact!  Simply by existing, ten people would have saved two entire cities.

There may be some who counter this argument by saying “So where is God now in Syria? Or Yemen? Or Somalia? Aren’t there at least ten good people there?” And I unfortunately have nothing but the cold comfort of history to offer them.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed thousands of years ago: that story is finished and easy to be seen both historically and allegorically.  As to current or recently ended conflicts (and I’m including things like the Civil and Revolutionary Wars in recently ended conflicts), we are still in the middle of that unfolding story.  These stories are not finished:  We have people who can trace their lineage back to slaves in the 18th century (or earlier), veterans of World War II still living, refugees from Syria seeking asylum.  It is too raw, we are too invested, to gain any allegorical wisdom from these more current events. God’s plan is still unfolding.

That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and just say about every bad thing “it must be God’s plan.”  We should fight where we see injustices, and be living examples of God’s compassion.  This country has a lot of healing still left to do from it’s history of slavery and it’s historical exploitation of Native Americans. We can’t bring back the literally millions of people killed, but we can make space for their descendants at the table.  We can also welcome the asylum seekers who call for help at our borders. We can advocate for alternative energy, which would lessen our reliance on oil and stop adding fuel to the fire of oil-related conflicts in the Middle East but also in our own country.

What I’m saying is, we’re still living these stories.  My ardent hope is that in several hundred years we, too, can be an allegorical as well as historical story.  I hope future historians can say “The USA’s first three centuries were marred by social inequalities of almost every kind.  But the country has been a leader in global peace for just as long.”  Or perhaps they’ll say, “Global unrest was driven by a reliance upon fossil fuels in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Through the dedicated work of scientists and social activists, fossil fuels haven’t been used in over 100 years.”

One thing we can learn is from this is that I’m clearly not cut out to be a news writer.  But if you can get past my hokey headline-writing skills, just remember that these are the outcomes we are fighting for.  We are the instruments of God’s compassion.  Abraham was an advocate for the righteous in a wicked world.  Let us be the same, today.