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 03-Faith in Times of Mourning

God has not forsaken you.

After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said:

“May the day of my birth perish,
    and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’
That day—may it turn to darkness;
    may God above not care about it;
    may no light shine on it.
May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more;
    may a cloud settle over it;
    may blackness overwhelm it.
That night—may thick darkness seize it;
    may it not be included among the days of the year
    nor be entered in any of the months.
May that night be barren;
    may no shout of joy be heard in it.
May those who curse days curse that day,
    those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.
May its morning stars become dark;
    may it wait for daylight in vain
    and not see the first rays of dawn,
10 for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me
    to hide trouble from my eyes.

11 “Why did I not perish at birth,
    and die as I came from the womb?
12 Why were there knees to receive me
    and breasts that I might be nursed?
13 For now I would be lying down in peace;
    I would be asleep and at rest
14 with kings and rulers of the earth,
    who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
15 with princes who had gold,
    who filled their houses with silver.
16 Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child,
    like an infant who never saw the light of day?
17 There the wicked cease from turmoil,
    and there the weary are at rest.
18 Captives also enjoy their ease;
    they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout.
19 The small and the great are there,
    and the slaves are freed from their owners.

20 “Why is light given to those in misery,
    and life to the bitter of soul,
21 to those who long for death that does not come,
    who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
22 who are filled with gladness
    and rejoice when they reach the grave?
23 Why is life given to a man
    whose way is hidden,
    whom God has hedged in?
24 For sighing has become my daily food;
    my groans pour out like water.
25 What I feared has come upon me;
    what I dreaded has happened to me.
26 I have no peace, no quietness;
    I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

If you are hurting, this post is especially for you.  Let me start by saying: God has not forsaken you, you are loved. I pray that you find comfort, or at least solidarity, through this Bible verse: Even Job, a man of great faith, wept and cursed and wished for death.  What you’re feeling is normal, and, if whatever happened feels like a test of your Faith, try not to worry too much about that, just focus on getting through your sorrow.

This poem is beautiful in its anguish, something I did not notice or appreciate the first time I read through Job.  The imagery is vivid:  Even night is not dark enough for Job’s misery – he wishes a thick darkness to swallow up the (dark of) the night he was born.  He wishes he were dead.  But not just dead, never-even-been-born dead – “hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day.” (v. 16)  And why wouldn’t he?  Beyond everything else he’s suffered, now the most basic of needs and pleasures, namely easing hunger and quenching thirst, have been taken from him:  “sighing has become my daily food, and my groans pour out like water.”

I hate it when people say “God won’t give you more than you can bear,” and “everything happens for a reason.”  Statements like that make it too easy to dismiss human suffering.  The saying I do like, and that I’ve mentioned before, is “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  Hard things, sad things, are going to happen.  Maybe some of them are happening for our personal growth, but I truly believe some of them are just bad luck, too, and part of being human.  I adore my girls, but they still fall down.  I could put them in kneepads and elbow pads and not go for walks or let them play on the playground – but the occasional bumps and bruises are so worth the rest of life! 

So why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, as Job so excellently asks in v. 23?  If you have the answer, I’d love to know!  I was skimming an article just a few days ago that said there is a duality in Job we’d do well to recognize:  Job is faithful, but he is also mournful.  In other words, this question is in part a valid question: Job, and us with him, are exploring why God allows bad things to happen to good people. This is a question that any healthy faith should be able to ask. But also, this is a rhetorical question asked in anguish, a way for Job to express his distress.  I’ve written one post already about having Faith through times of Doubt, and having Faith through times of Mourning is similar.  Job curses himself and the day of his birth, and he even raises questions to God with v. 23, but he does not curse God.  Later he will plaintively make his case for being wrongly stricken by the calamities befalling him, but even in his frustration with his friends and sorrow over his situation, he will not curse God.  

We have a bird’s-eye view of Job’s story, and know things that he does not at the time he utters this lament, particularly that God has not forsaken him. Let’s try to remember that in our times of sorrow, too.  To my readers that are hurting, I’ll say again: God has not forsaken you.  Perhaps you will grow from this experience, but if you don’t that’s OK, too.  Maybe you’re sad because a shitty thing just happened, the spiritual and emotional equivalent of falling off the swing at the playground.  If it helps you cope to ask “why,” then do so, but know that you can also just mourn, as Job does, and God will listen.

Genesis 17 – Patience and Listening

God patiently waits for us to listen.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan,where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant,you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen;26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day.27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

I bashed Abraham (so renamed as of this chapter) pretty hard in my last post, and I was still in a bash-y sort of mindset when I was reading this chapter. The main question I kept asking myself was “Why him? Why did God chose Abraham? What was so special about him?”

The answer? Nothing, really, except Abraham was a ready listener.  I’ve already illuminated Abraham’s many shortcomings or possible shortcomings (twice denying his wife to save his skin, questionable faith when sleeping with Hagar…) But everything I’ve read about Abraham shows that he listened to God, and was ready to receive his message.  Sometimes he was incredulous, as in this chapter when he laughs at the idea of a man one hundred years old having a child by a woman who is ninety (17:17), but wouldn’t you laugh, too?  But when God said “leave your country” (Gen 12:1), Abraham left. When God said “I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Gen. 15:1), Abraham believed him (15:6). When God requested a sacrifice, Abraham brought it forthwith (Gen. 15:9-11). And when God made circumcision a sign of his covenant with Abraham – more about that in a minute – he did it.  Not only did he make sure he and his son were circumcised, but the Bible takes care to tell us that “all those born in his household, or bought with his money, every male in his household,” (17:23) were circumcised.

Abraham’s failures occurred in the God’s silences.  That lays the blame at God’s feet – let me see if I can phrase it a different way.  Abraham’s failures occurred when he stopped listening for God.  No, God is not going to verbally converse with us all the time, not even with Abraham, but He is still there, it’s just up to us to seek His guiding hand and follow it.  Abraham didn’t trust God when he gave Sarah to the Pharaoh.  Some argue he didn’t trust God when he left for Egypt during the famine in the first place.  I’ve argued that he was also guilty of at least impatience with God if not flat out faithlessness when he agrees with Sarah to sleep with Hagar.  But don’t we all fail in our faith sometimes? Maybe even on a daily basis?  And when faced with really dire consequences – starving to death, being killed by the Pharaoh, seeing the end of your bloodline in a patriarchal society – it’s hard to trust God’s plan.

And you know what the beautiful thing about that is?  God forgave Abraham.  His forgiveness is so pervasive it’s not even really mentioned, just implicit.  At any time God could have cut Abraham off for his faithlessness, but He recognized Abraham’s human fragility and forgave him for it. Perhaps even Abraham’s lapses in faith are even part of God’s grace: You can’t hold a conversation with a drowning man.  Perhaps God let Abraham go to Egypt, even though He was fully capable of saving him from famine, because He knew Abraham was not in a good place to listen.  But, when the time was right, God continued to talk to him, because He knew Abraham was ready.

And perhaps that is why God waited until Abraham was a full one hundred years old to make this covenant with him.  Think of your grand- or great-grand parents and all the wisdom they have accumulated over their lifetimes.  Age generally seems to give people a larger world-view. I hope, as I get older, to be less bogged down in petty details but also able to enjoy all of life’s small pleasures more fully.  Abraham, wised-up and mellowed-out, wouldn’t balk at a little genital mutilation the way a twenty-something year old man would.

Something I learned about circumcision while reading this chapter: It wasn’t unheard-of before Abraham.  In fact, Egyptians and Phoenicians were among some of the populations who practiced circumcision at the time.  At least for me, knowing that it had a certain degree of cultural norm before the Abrahamic Covenant makes it seem like a less bizarre request.  There are a myriad of proposed reasons as to why any group performed circumcision – some in direct conflict, including both to limit sexual arousal and to improve sexual performance. But Abraham’s circumcision, the one that we are most concerned with here, was to signify this new covenant with God. It is symbolic.  God said to Abraham “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, shall be cut off from his people.” (17:14)  People means family means offspring, so it makes sense that cutting the organ used for procreation symbolizes the cutting off from offspring should the covenant not be followed.

Should we still circumcise today?  I don’t have any boys, so I haven’t had to deal with that question directly.  Paul argues against it in the New Testament, others say it still holds as a symbol of faith.  I really don’t know.  It’s a topic I’ll think more upon as we cross it again, as it’s mentioned nearly 100 times in the Bible. (Thanks, Google!)

For now, I’m just thankful to have a God that is patient with us.  It is something I will try to remember when things aren’t going my way.  Sometimes things don’t go our way, that’s true, and we chalk it up to not being part of God’s plan.  But perhaps it is not part of God’s plan because he is just waiting for us to be still and ready to listen. Again, it’s not easy to quiet yourself in the midst of a crisis (whether that crisis be dealing with as little as a traffic jam or as large as car crash), but it’s something I’ll try to remember, since God always remembers me.