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 04 – Things Get Complicated

Then Eliphaz the Temanite replied:

“If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?
    But who can keep from speaking?
Think how you have instructed many,
    how you have strengthened feeble hands.
Your words have supported those who stumbled;
    you have strengthened faltering knees.
But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged;
    it strikes you, and you are dismayed.
Should not your piety be your confidence
    and your blameless ways your hope?

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
    Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
    and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they perish;
    at the blast of his anger they are no more.
10 The lions may roar and growl,
    yet the teeth of the great lions are broken.
11 The lion perishes for lack of prey,
    and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.

12 “A word was secretly brought to me,
    my ears caught a whisper of it.
13 Amid disquieting dreams in the night,
    when deep sleep falls on people,
14 fear and trembling seized me
    and made all my bones shake.
15 A spirit glided past my face,
    and the hair on my body stood on end.
16 It stopped,
    but I could not tell what it was.
A form stood before my eyes,
    and I heard a hushed voice:
17 ‘Can a mortal be more righteous than God?
    Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker?
18 If God places no trust in his servants,
    if he charges his angels with error,
19 how much more those who live in houses of clay,
    whose foundations are in the dust,
    who are crushed more readily than a moth!
20 Between dawn and dusk they are broken to pieces;
    unnoticed, they perish forever.
21 Are not the cords of their tent pulled up,
    so that they die without wisdom?’

I have a feeling that I may have alternating short and long blog posts through the book of Job, as some of Job and his friends’ speeches last for more than one chapter – example A right here. Eliphaz only speaks the first part of his speech in this chapter, the rest comes in chapter five, which I will read for Sunday, and hopefully will have a better grasp of this first exchange.  But, I can share a few interesting things I’ve learned in reading and reading about this text so far:

Remember how I said that Job is apparently very hard to translate?  Well, we’re getting into that here.  One article I found on Jstor focuses, for ten pages, solely on the opening question of 4:2: “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? But who can keep from speaking?”  In the original text, this sentence is grammatical gibberish, stretching even the artifice of poetry in its composition.  Or at least, so I am told, I definitely don’t read Hebrew.  Depending upon your interpretation, Eliphaz is either trying to gently moderate the tone of the conversation to follow, being solicitous as possible of a suffering Job and reminding Bildad and Zophar to do the same; or, Eliphaz is saying he is simply unable to keep from speaking anymore, and can’t help but disregard Job’s weariness in order to share his own counsel.  Depending how we interpret it really changes how we view Eliphaz and his character, wouldn’t you agree? (All of this from “A Friend’s First Words in Job 4:2” by Aron Pinker in the 2013 edition of Vetus Testamentum.)

Then there is the tantalizing passage of Eliphaz’s vision, in vv. 12-21.  At first blush it looks like a vision from God, but after pondering it for a moment I thought perhaps it was a false vision sent by Satan to help ensure Job’s friends would provide false or unhelpful counsel.  But then, Jstor threw even another possibility out:  Eliphaz may not have had the vision at all, but it quoting a vision of Job’s.  We already know that Job can get no rest, but later we learn more specifically he has been having nightmares and visions.  The break between chapter 4, which ends with this vision, and chapter 5, which starts with Eliphaz asking, “Call if you will, but who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?” (Job 5:1), leads some to believe that vv. 4:12-21 are Eliphaz quoting Job’s vision back at him. With difficulties in translations and apparently several different ways for ancient Hebrew to render quotations, this vision not even belonging ot Eliphaz is a possibility.  (all of this from “Job IV 12-21: Is It Eliphaz’s Vision?” by Gary Smith, in the 1990 edition of Vetus Testamentum – can you tell that’s my favorite OT study guide yet???)

Finally, the Book of Job is a very “self-aware” text, if you will – or it plays to the audience.  Again, I’m jumping ahead for the best example:  Eliphaz says to Job in 15:8, “Do you listen to God’s council?”  Of course Job hasn’t, but if this were a Shakespeare play the actor playing Eliphaz would at least wink at the audience, if not turn fully towards them to address this question.  I’m working my way through a fascinating essay about Job, about it’s use of dramatic irony (see the above example), and double-edged words.  (“Whose Job is this? Dramatic Irony and Double Entendre” by Naphtali Meshel, from the collection Book of Job: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Hermeneutics published in 2015, also available on Jstor, in case you want to read it, too).  In 4:6 we see one of the first uses of double entendre in the phrase “your hope.”  Again, I’m no Hebrew scholar, but Meshel says that the word here used for “hope” is also translated as “folly” in other parts of the OT.  So, Eliphaz can be saying “your piety is your hope” OR “your piety is your folly.”  

As you can see, my studies of Job just got a whole lot murkier.  My Sunday-school understanding of Job was “God tested Job, Job was patient and was rewarded.”  But there is so much more here!  It can be a little overwhelming, but I, for one, am glad that Job can’t be reduced to “God is good and the good are always rewarded.”  I wholeheartedly believe God is good, but to ignore the bad things in life, or even to ignore that life is complicated, like the book of Job, is an act of unhealthy denial.  I am excited to see what more I can learn in the second half of Eliphaz’s speech, and I hope you’ll continue reading with me on Sunday.

Psalm 38 – Did King David have Gonorrhea?

No one is beyond God’s love.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
    and your hand has come down on me.
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
    there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
    like a burden too heavy to bear.

My wounds fester and are loathsome
    because of my sinful folly.
I am bowed down and brought very low;
    all day long I go about mourning.
My back is filled with searing pain;
    there is no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
    I groan in anguish of heart.

All my longings lie open before you, Lord;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart pounds, my strength fails me;
    even the light has gone from my eyes.
11 My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds;
    my neighbors stay far away.
12 Those who want to kill me set their traps,
    those who would harm me talk of my ruin;
    all day long they scheme and lie.

13 I am like the deaf, who cannot hear,
    like the mute, who cannot speak;
14 I have become like one who does not hear,
    whose mouth can offer no reply.
15 Lord, I wait for you;
    you will answer, Lord my God.
16 For I said, “Do not let them gloat
    or exalt themselves over me when my feet slip.”

17 For I am about to fall,
    and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity;
    I am troubled by my sin.
19 Many have become my enemies without cause;
    those who hate me without reason are numerous.
20 Those who repay my good with evil
    lodge accusations against me,
    though I seek only to do what is good.

21 Lord, do not forsake me;
    do not be far from me, my God.
22 Come quickly to help me,
    my Lord and my Savior.

This psalm is a perfect example of why translations get contentious.  So, in my NIV translation, v. 7 reads “my back is filled with searing pain, there is no health in my body.”  But, in other translations, including the King James, RSV (basically the Catholic Bible), and American Standard Version (and maybe some others, those are just the three I checked), it reads along the lines of: “For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease; there is no soundness in my flesh.”  Based on which translation you read, we just went from a thrown back to gonorrhea.

Which one is “right?” I don’t know.  Going through some different translations, I’ve also seen v. 7 complain of not the back or loins but sides, insides, or no specific part of the body at all, just that the writer is “burning with fever.”  Is it possible David (the attributed author of the Psalm) had an STD?  Sure, he had at least eight wives, for a start.  Also, some venereal diseases can be spread through non-sexual contact-if you come in contact with someone else’s blood, for example, so it’s possible he picked something up during warfare.  I’ve also seen hypothesis that David had arthritis, which would certainly cause his back to be filled with searing pain, and can even attack your eyes-v. 10 says “even the light has gone from my eyes.” Another suggests David had diabetes, which can cause cascading health problems if not managed properly, including pain and vision problems. Maybe poor King David had all three.

Whatever his ailment, there are two lessons we can learn from this Psalm: first, prayer isn’t always pretty.  This is one long lament.  This one is a little more organized, but some of these lament psalms are pretty all over the place, which just makes them more genuine, in my opinion. When in distress, especially physical distress, who among is at their most coherent? Certainly not me!  But we don’t need to be.  God understands even our unspoken prayers, the ones we don’t even realize we’re praying. “I groan in anguish of heart / All my longings lie open before you, Lord, my sighing is not hidden from you,” vv. 8-9 say.  In other words, we have no secrets from God, he even understands our wordless sighs.  Taking time out for dedicated prayer is a wonderful practice, but don’t feel like that’s the only way to speak to God.  We can pray to him anywhere, anytime, in any way.  I whisper quick little prayers of exasperation pleading for help and patience (sometimes interlaced with more than a few f-bombs, I’ll admit) trying to get two uncooperative children out the door or any time the dogs get loose.  So like I said, prayer isn’t always pretty – but doesn’t that make it more approachable, and, in turn, God more approachable?

The second lesson is, no one is beyond God’s love.  David is a murderer, adulterer, and afflicted with serious physical problems-whatever they may be.  But he is also beloved by God.  God gave David a kingdom and extended David’s line even unto Jesus Christ himself.  In fact, Son of David is one of Jesus’ special designations.  Remembering no one is beyond God’s love is a hard lesson to keep in mind, because I find the beliefs and actions of so many people – people who call themselves Christians – to be absolutely repugnant and counter to what I believe true Christian teachings are.

But there is the double-edged sword, if you will, of that exact belief: If I believe God is above all about love, even if I think someone is not loving, I am required to be loving to them.  As I’ve said before, “loving” is not the same as giving everyone a free pass.  Even here, David recognizes this, as he believes he is being physically punished for sins of the spirit.  I get uncomfortable blaming physical ailment upon people’s “sins,” because many good people are sick through no fault of their own. As an aside, all this talk of “guilt” and “sinful folly” backs up the possibility that this affliction, is, indeed, an STD, if David is mourning his sin of coveting another’s wife (or wives).  But the point is God’s own beloved David had his fair share (or more) of rebuke and misery.  If someone is acting in a way that is harmful to others (say, promoting hate-speech against Muslims or other non-Christian groups), I will speak and act against them.  I will not, however, condemn them.  If possible, I will try to show them the error of their ways, lead by example in my own life, and, should they have a change of heart, I will rejoice with them.

I haven’t even touched upon the fact that it is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  So I will quickly, in closing.  Lent is a season when we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, resisting temptation.  I just recently learned that “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, meaning spring.  Spring is certainly a time of hope and renewal, and some may think it seems weird that such a somber period in the liturgical calendar comes at such a time in the year.  But, we also have the saying “April is the cruelest month,” and as a farmer, I now know why that is so, and why Lent occurs now. Early spring is one of the leanest times of year, something we forget in the age of supermarkets and year-round peaches.  Historically, early spring is when winter stores of food are lowest.  And while the earth is greening, there is still little in the way to harvest.  We wait in anticipation for the renewal of the Earth and the return of our Savior, watching the ground come back to life but unable to yet partake of it’s bounty.  Now is the perfect time to consume a little less, spend a little more time in prayer, and work on building a world worthy of Jesus’ resurrection on just a few short weeks.  Whether or not you practice giving something up during Lent (some years I do, some years I don’t), I do hope you’ll spend a little more time with God, even if it is just starting with praying for your lost car keys.  Remember that you are worthy of God’s love and can always talk to God, even if it isn’t pretty.