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.

Genesis 01 – Not Talking about Climate Change

You don’t have to believe in climate change to be an environmental steward.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God calledthe vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place,and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

It’s been a while since I read Genesis.  This really is a lovely passage, isn’t it?  I’m truly rediscovering the beauty of the Bible through this blog project, which is an unexpected bonus.  Look at all the beautiful, good things our loving God gave us to rule over – “the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  (1:28) As regent-stewards made in God’s image, the entirety of the Earth are our subjects.

This means two things. First: we can expect service from them, which we do without thinking through service dogs, livestock animals, even relying upon pollinators for our fruiting plants.  Second: we are responsible for their well-being.  And that’s what I want to focus on today, out of all the beautiful possibilities of this chapter, I want to talk about stewardship, particularly environmental stewardship, since, as a farmer, it’s a part of my daily life.

This is not a discussion about climate change.  This is a discussion that transcends climate change.  If you don’t believe in climate change, or if you believe it’s happening but humans have nothing to do with it or can’t do anything to stop it, please don’t stop reading here – because you are exactly who I need to be on board with this.  I’m not even going to mention the term “climate change” for the rest of the post!

You see, God not only blessed us and urged us to “be fruitful and multiply,” (1:28) but he also blessed the animals that preceded us in the same way, in 1:22. As rulers of this Earth, it is our responsibility to help them do so – to help the beings of this planet live to their fullest expression.  Sometimes, we’re not very good at that.  Plastic waste in the oceans getting stuck on marine wildlife causes many to die. Oil spills destroy habitats. Concrete eats up more and more wild areas, forcing us into direct competition with many larger animals, like wolves and bears and coyotes.  Growing up, we never heard the coyotes in Virginia and rarely saw bears.  Now, since Charlottesville has seen explosive growth since I was a kid, you can hear coyotes almost nightly at my parent’s house. Also, my parents can’t put out the trash for pickup until and hour or two before, because bears will rip through it.

I’m not advocating for a full stop on all development and creature comforts.  That’s unrealistic.  But, regardless on your environmental beliefs, I think we all can agree that we haven’t been very good stewards of late.  And that needs to change.  So I urge you to find a few more simple ways to help the animals under our care, meaning, all the animals in the world.  This doesn’t mean the hippie environmental freaks are “winning” or that you’re succumbing to governmental or societal control of your personal choices.  It means that you are doing the Godly work of caring for the Earth given to you to rule.  We clean up our house when it’s messy, right?  Shouldn’t we clean up our kingdom, too? We know our houses aren’t permanent.  We hope they last a good long time, maybe even past our children’s lives, but how many residential dwellings are still in existence and in use from 500 years ago? Even 200 years ago? The Earth is going to last longer than that, even if it, too, isn’t permanent.  So it’s even more our responsibility to make it a good, green place while we have it, for as long as we have it.  Regular maintenance extends the life of  a car, a house, a person….why not the Earth, too?

Where to start, then?  I’ll be the first to admit, I could be doing more.  I still use plastic – juice is just a fact of life in our house, as are kids’ lunches with little plastic containers of applesauce, pudding, and whatever I can get Marienne to eat.  But I’m trying.  Let me share some examples from a busy, cash-strapped family that may inspire you: I make all our own bread now, and thus haven’t brought a one-and-done bread bag into the house (or trash) for months now. Also, I switched our toothbrushes from plastic to fully compostable bamboo. We use disposable diapers, but they’re 80% biodegradable.  We recycle what we can (it’s limited where we live) and compost as well.  And I call my representatives.  I called them last week to request a fast and wall-free solution to the government shut-down, and am getting in the habit of calling them regularly to voice my opinion.  That one is totally free, but may have the most impact as policies towards the environment are formed.

Finally, if you feel so moved, you can donate to lobbyists in line with your own environmental views.  I touched upon feelings some may have that Big Money and Big Government are strong-arming your decisions.  The influence is real, just not where you may think.  Did you know that fossil fuel and transportation lobbying groups outspent environmental lobbyists by a factor of 10:1 between 2000 and 2016?  That’s over ONE BILLION dollars spent buying your and your representatives’ opinion by those that would benefit most from environmental deregulation.  You can read about it yourself here. Just think about that objectively for a minute.  If you think popular opinion is being influenced by the tree-huggers at the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund (who only spent a combined two million on lobbying last year), how much more do you think popular opinion is being swayed by Exxon and BP?

Sorry, I’m going to mention climate change one more time, but just to say – forget about climate change. Let’s focus on being good stewards.  And part of that means holding ourselves and the companies responsible for oil spills, soil degradation and loss of wild space to higher standards than we are currently doing.  Solutions are out there – wind and solar energy, green-roof buildings, and low- or no-emission vehicles could all become just a regular part of life, if we support them.  You don’t have to believe in climate change to support them, you just have to believe that it is your responsibility, as a child of God, as a ruler of Earth, to take good care of all its inhabitants, from the fish in the sea to the birds in the sky.

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This is a list of organizations that focus at least in part on lobbying for environmental conservation.  I like some better than others, but again, this is about choosing what speaks to your heart.  Additionally, you can find your representatives and their phone numbers here.  If you call them, mention I’d very much like my husband working again so can they please open the government back up.