Matthew 5:33-37 – Oaths

A passage that is like a rose blooming: the longer you sit with it, the more it unfolds.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

A super-short quote and a short-ish blog post for you this Friday.  At the time of this writing, I think I have strep – mothering little kids is not for the weak! Hopefully by the time this goes live I’ll be on antibiotics and feeling better already.  But I digress.

I love passages like this because the longer you sit with them, the more they unfold, like a rose blooming.  I’ve found four key points in this passage.  I’d love to hear if you got anything else out of it, too.  My four takeaways are:

  1. The sacredness of everything.  Heaven is God’s throne, Earth God’s footstool, Jerusalem God’s city.  Xe created everything, and therefore everything is sacred: every cloud, tree, stone, street, and person.  It’s beautiful and overwhelming to think about.  Here, Jesus talks about not using anything to swear an oath, but beyond that, we should not defile God’s beautiful creation in any way, but view it with awe and appreciation.
  2. Our lack of power.  I believe we have free will, but that doesn’t mean that we have absolute power, even over our most personal selves – our own bodies, as Jesus so eloquently points out.  We may make decisions, we may swear promises, but in reality, if God has a different plan for us, those decisions and promises may be out of our control to fulfill.
  3. Even if we shouldn’t swear oaths, our word should be our bond.  In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say.  Again, things may be out of our control.  For example, you promise to help with the school field day but then come down with a stomach bug day-of. (Can you tell my latest kids and health obsession from that example?)  But do your best.  Say “yes” if you can do something, and “no” if you can’t.  It sounds easy, but it means knowing yourself, and sometimes turning down things you really want to do.  I’ve read countless Cosmo/Oprah/Woman’s Day type articles that talk about the power and importance of saying no, and how women tend to say yes too quickly and overwhelm themselves.  Having kids forces me on a daily basis to re-learn the saying “you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”  Know your limits, and promise within them. A quick sub-point: respect other people’s limits and do not ask too much of them.
  4. Strong oaths are an invitation to self examination.  The passage ends with “anything else comes from the evil one.”  The “evil one” is Satan, and as I’ve discussed before, I’ve come to see Satan as a kind of undercover cop/moral auditor.  So, when we use the exact language Jesus is warning about here (or someone uses it to us), we (or they) are revealing something about ourselves.  The question is what are we revealing?  If someone is in a rage and says “I swear I’ll beat his head in,” (I know, extreme, but I’m having trouble being creative today and it gets the point across) we know that they are angry.  But we learn more about what triggers them so strongly, can later discuss whether it’s rational or not, and what a better solution might be.  All this is assuming it’s just letting off steam, if someone is actually about to beat someone else’s head in, you should probably call the cops.  In a few posts I’ll talk about how Jesus tells us to guard our secret hearts, and I think this passage alludes to that, too.  Swearing so strongly leaves our emotions, desires, and ambitions out there for unscrupulous people to prey upon, and leaves us susceptible to their manipulations.

May you have a wonderful and healthy weekend everyone!  I’ll finish Matthew Chapter 5 next week, God willing and health permitting.

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 01 – A Different Way to Think About Satan

More like an undercover cop and moral auditor than an eternal tormentor.

A quick word on pronouns, and my usage of them from here out:  I believe God transcends/is all inclusive of gender.  I was raised, as many Christians were, referring to God using male pronouns.  I’ll admit it is what is most comfortable for me, but I’m committed to recognizing not only the divine female within God but also the overall inclusivity of God, and am making it a practice to now refer to God (and any angels, spirits, etc discussed in the Bible) with the gender neutral pronouns xe, xem, xyr, xemself.  I realize this may be awkward for some readers, but the more we practice the better we get!  I will continue to refer to Jesus using masculine pronouns as he came to Earth as male.

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest manamong all the people of the East.

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinnedand cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”

22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Today I’m going to discuss a new understanding of Satan that I reached after reading this chapter.  But first, I feel it’s necessary to explain where I come from, theologically, when discussing Heaven and Hell and the Devil.  I don’t have a fully formed notion of “heaven” and “hell,” if they exist at all, and who is going to end up in which place.  I came of age during the release of the “Left Behind” series, and for most of my teen years was terrified of the Rapture and what came afterwards and if I would be one of those left behind or not, and firmly believed there were those who were “saved” and those who were not.

Then, after sophomore year of college, a friend committed suicide.  He was open about his struggles with mental health, and I never knew him as anything but bright, kind, generous and loving.  Seriously, everyone loved him.  And I just couldn’t imagine that God would condemn him to eternal hell for his brain being sick.  If you think about the brain being an organ (which it is), condemning someone to hell for acting out of a mental illness is like condemning someone to hell for Chrons disease, or endometriosis.  I simply could not accept this hard and fast saved-not saved, heaven-hell duality.

Also, after having kids, and knowing how much I love them even when they are driving me insane-I mean literally have to put them in their beds and walk out of the house to cool down before I go back in-I can’t imagine a loving God rejecting any of us for forever. Yes, that includes people as terrible as Stalin and Hitler.  Sure, God might be angry at us, and might punish us, but condemn us to hell forever? I just don’t see how a parent could do that.  I pray I never get tested in this, but I can’t think of one thing that my daughters could do that would make me stop loving them.  I might be deeply wounded, horribly shamed, or incredibly angry, but those feelings would still be rooted in a place of love.  And if God is much more perfect than I, wouldn’t Xe love all Xyr children, too?

Finally, the idea that hell and the devil even exist seems counter-intuitive to the idea that there even is a omnipotent, loving, good and just God.  No one can deny there is suffering in this world, and I don’t believe all suffering is part of “God’s plan,” so does that mean I have to believe that God isn’t omnipotent, loving, good and just?  Does that mean I have to believe in hell and the devil?  It’s something I’ve wrestled with, and this chapter gave me another option, which I’m excited to share with you now.

Briefly, let’s take a look at a few ways the Bible designates Satan, starting with…well, Satan.  “Satan” is not a name, or at least, it didn’t start out that way.  “Satan” is a title, it means “accuser.”  The story of Job is an old one, possibly as old as 2000 BC, and in it, the Hebrew word for Satan is always preceded by the definite article. In other words, it reads “The Accuser,” so xe is kind of like a prosecuting attorney, presenting all the facts against us.  By 600 or 500 BC the article is dropped, and “Satan” becomes an actual name, but it started as a title. Second, we’ve already seen “serpent,” in the story of Adam and Eve.  Related to this description is “dragon,” which is used in Revelations. Both are often symbols and bringers of knowledge and wisdom, if not in Western cultures certainly so in other cultures.  Additionally, Lucifer literally means “morning star.”  So, it is a harbinger of the light of day, which, to me, sounds pretty positive.  Could it be another allusion to Satan being the bringer of knowledge, or of bringing things to light?

So, with this in mind, what if we’ve been viewing Satan the wrong way?  Not as an adversary to be overthrown, but more of a combined undercover cop-moral auditor?  Still not exactly someone you want to come up against, but also not an eternal tormentor.  My new thought, after reading this chapter, is that God created Satan as an impartial witness, one who can bring the truth to light, like the morning star, one who seeks knowledge over everything else.  When viewed this way, we can see why the serpent would encourage Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge – lacking more nuanced views of God’s design (including empathy and patience) the serpent saw a direct line to knowledge and wanted to go for it, and didn’t understand why it could possibly be off limits to anyone.  Seeing Satan as an impartial truth seeker also helps to reconcile how a God who is beneficent and loving and the source of all creation can exist side by side, indeed, create-a being like Satan who is not beneficent and loving.  I’m not saying that Satan is an extension or part of God like Jesus or the Holy Spirit is, but perhaps xe is, still, an agent of God: something God created to be apart from Xyr love of mankind and creation through which Xe could judge them fairly.

Would God have tested Job without Satan’s recommendation?  I don’t know.  Xe tested Abraham’s faith asking him to kill Isaac, so maybe it’s not outside the realm of possibility.  But seeing Satan as an agent of God, instead of an adversary of God, makes the stories more similar. In both, the faith of man is being tested through great hardship.  Why does our faith need to be tested in the first place?  I honestly don’t know, but perhaps it has something to do with growth.  All good parents want to see their kids grow, and God is nothing if not a good parent. These aren’t perfect correlations, but I think the following examples still fit: I make my kids do hard things on a regular basis.  Climbing up the ladder to the big girl slide all by themselves, sitting on the toilet, and, as babies, letting them cry it out to get back to sleep were all controlled situations where I stepped back and essentially asked more of them.  Sure, I could have helped them, but they wouldn’t have grown. Job’s test is far harder than most of us will be asked to pass, but God was watching over him the whole time.  Perhaps, when being tested by the devil, or Satan, or whatever you want to call xem, we are not being tormented by a demon but instead being encouraged to grow, to achieve new knowledge, and new spiritual insight, just as Job did.

This new view of Satan also makes failure a little easier to accept.  It took Marienne months to build up her confidence to go all the way up the ladder at the playground all by herself.  Potty-training is still a work in progress.  Do I condemn my daughters because they haven’t learned certain skills yet? Of course not.  Do I continue to get them to try? Of course I do, that’s the only way they’ll learn.  So perhaps we need to cut ourselves, and everyone around us, a little slack.  We’re all trying, let’s keep encouraging each other.  Satan may be setting up sting operations for us and pointing out our failures, and possibly we’re even punished for those failures (like when I put one of the girls in time out for scratching her sister-a favorite form of combat in our house). But even then, God is there rooting us on, watching us with pride as we learn and grow.