Matthew 08 – Even Jesus…

A reminder for those who have trouble asking for help.

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west,and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.”

18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

20 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

21 Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

23 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

28 When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes,two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

30 Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. 31 The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”

32 He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. 33 Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men.34 Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.

There’s a lot that I should probably talk about in this post, but I think all of these stories are repeated in one of the other Gospels, so this post is really more of a note to self. I’m hoping some of you might benefit from it, too.  It is the first story that I kept coming back to.  It made me think, “if Jesus can ask for help, why can’t I?”  Jesus is essentially asking the man that he cured of leprosy for a favor:  “Please, keep quiet about this.”  There could be any number of reasons, according to my NIV notes: he didn’t want his ministry too hindered by a fame that might grow too quickly; he didn’t want to attract attention of the Pharisees too fast. But whatever the reason, Jesus wanted that healing to be kept quiet, and asked for help in keeping it so.

I have a really, really hard time asking for help.  Thank God I have good friends and family who just pitch in without asking. I’m not sure why I have so much trouble asking for help, but I think it’s something many people struggle with.  Nobody wants to be a burden, and, even though I know it’s a fallacy, the idea of sole self-reliance still holds a strong allure for me.  Additionally, asking for help means letting go of control (the clothes might not be folded just the way I do it, or the girls might watch more TV than I normally let them…you get the idea).  Finally, it’s really, really disappointing to ask for help and not get any.  I feel this is particularly true in medical settings.  We’re a relatively healthy family, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of “well, we don’t know what this is, but let us know if it gets worse,” or “there’s not much we can do for that.”  I know it’s impossible to diagnose, or even treat, every cough and cold, but I’m hoping for a little more guidance and suggestions than “we don’t know.”  Especially when I’ve dragged two sick toddlers into a doctor’s office at lunch time because that was the only appointment available.

There may still be some (OK, a lot) of “no’s,” but you’re a lot more likely to get a “yes” if you ask for help than just keep silent.  So my resolution for today is to ask for more help. Then, instead of feeling guilty about it, I’ll be grateful when it comes, hope that I’ll be able to pay it forward down the line, but not stress about that too much, trusting God’s plan.  After all, even Jesus asked for help.

Matthew 6:19-34 and 7:7-12 – Money and Worry

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

7

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

This is a rather wonky way to break things up, but I think it is best to discuss these verses altogether, as it all boils down to worrying about what money can buy.  Everything I’ve read on these passages assumes a rather privileged position of already having that money.  I’ll admit, the first question that came to my mind was, “Is saving for retirement Christian?” What about those who aren’t able to save for anything, let alone retirement?  Those living paycheck to paycheck?  The very idea of Godly saving is kind of a moot point.  We’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the easy one.  Let’s assume that yes, you do have the money.  I know, I know, we could all use more money, but hey, if you’re able to save at all for retirement, or your kids’ college, or really for anything, that means your basic needs are being met, and you have the privilege and responsibility to wonder, “If I’m saving up my earthly treasures to buy more earthly treasures, doesn’t this mean I’m serving Money and not God?”

The answer comes down to attitudes. As discussed previously, God knows our secret hearts. The question is, do we?  I don’t think saving is inherently un-Christian.  In fact, there are other places in the Bible that praise a wise man’s stores, such as Proverbs 21:20: “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.”  Let’s look closer at the example of retirement, since that’s (supposed to be) our largest savings goal.  First, I see saving for retirement as an act of love towards my children: I do not want to be a financial burden unto them in my old age.  Second, I don’t plan on just kicking back on a beach and frittering the last thirty years of my life away.  Of course I want some rest, but I’m the kind of person that cannot be happy without a project.  What that project might be, I don’t know, but as retirement draws near, I’ll be looking for that thing that gives me purpose, that keeps me young.  Perhaps it will be as “small” as just being there for my family.  Perhaps it will be something “larger,” like becoming a CASA volunteer.  Whatever it is, having some money in the bank will allow me to take on a project that may be one the world needs, but not one that could pay me a living wage.  Do you want to do nothing other than drink beer and sit on a lounge chair in your retirement?  I’ll be honest, God didn’t make you for that, and the proof is in the pudding: retirees who give up “doing stuff,” if you will, lose their health, and, quite frankly, die faster.  This article sums up the myriad of studies that prove seniors with a sense of purpose live longer.  However, if you want the freedom to pursue a passion and continue making a positive impact on the world in your retirement, then no, saving for retirement is not turning away from serving God.

Now, let’s get to the real worrying.  Again, in the grand scheme of things, I’m guessing most of you, dear readers, have your basic needs being met.  Maybe not as comfortably as you might want, but they are being met.  That being said, who hasn’t worried, in a very tangible way, about having enough money?  I recognize my privilege in that.  Yes, we have debt I’d like to clear up, and I can’t make large – or really even medium – purchases without planning for them, but I can go through the grocery checkout without worrying if I need to put some things back.  You know how many people can’t do that?  But even from this place of relative privilege, I know viscerally what it feels like to not have enough.  Just this year, with the government shutdown in January, Chris and I were in very real danger of having to deplete our savings, max out our credit cards, and possibly shut down the farm.  It didn’t come to that, but we had some stark conversations about what no contract work (on which we still rely) would look like.  As it was, our finances still took a hit.  (Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t worry, we’re fine!) Our debt went up instead of down, and we had to skip a rent payment.

In trying times it is easy to forget to pray, but this is just when we need to pray the most.  And I believe God will come through for us – I have to.  It may not be as soon (or as much) as we would like, but Xe will.  We are Xyr children, and Xe wants to see us thrive.  This small slice of the Bible contains many of my favorite verses.  High on the list is this one:

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

God wants to provide for us, but even Jesus says we need to ask.  Let’s make a parenting analogy!  I have the capacity to get my kids just about anything they want for snack.  They probably want ice cream sandwiches and gingerale.  What I’m going to give them is pita and hummus and apple juice.  And I’m going to make them say “please, Mommy” when they ask me for more.  God has the capacity to provide us with anything, but Xe’s going to provide us with what we need.  Rest assured, even if it’s not exactly what you thought you were going to to get, Xe wants to see our needs met.

Also, not worrying does not mean we can just sit back and wait for the free blessings to rain down upon us.  “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus tells us.  “They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”  True, but they also spend their whole day in search of seed.  The birds are working, but in an in-the-moment sort of way.  One of my other favorite passages (one I need to remind myself of often) is this one:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Jesus isn’t telling us to not worry at all, but just to not worry needlessly.  Perhaps this whole passage could be summed up as: Do what work is in your power, pray for God to fill in the rest, and all will be well.  Simple to say, hard to do, but I have to believe it’s true.  Let’s look at my own personal example again, of how the government shutdown effected us.  Our debt went up, but now the farm is doing better than ever before, and we are slowly working it back down.  My side hustles look like they might start making some money in the not-too-distant future, too, something I never would have expected in January, so relief is on the horizon.  As for skipping a rent payment, we are fortunate enough to live in a house owned by my very generous father in law, and he made it clear to us that he did not expect rent that month.  Now, is any of this how I would have chosen to be provided for?  No, I would have had that money and then some in the bank so I could pay down the debt right then and not have to worry about relying upon the generosity of family, but that is how God chose to provide for me.  Who knows, maybe Xe did it exactly so I could write this blog post – to testify how I know what it’s like to have to pick which bills to pay, to worry about the money running out, to have to humble myself and ask for help from family.  And how even from that low point,  I was able to trust that God would provide for me, and that you can, too.

I can hear the doubters now: “So what about all the untold millions who have died throughout history waiting for God’s mercy, for God’s provision? Did they not pray hard enough? Did God not love them?” To be honest I don’t have a good answer, and it troubles me, deeply.  The only thing I can say to that is I believe this life is only temporary, and perhaps God provided for those mentioned in ways that we cannot see or comprehend – maybe even beyond the bounds of this life and this world.  This in no way excuses the evils that mankind can visit upon each other, or grants us immunity from trying to rectify those evils, but I must believe that there is something greater at work, and that those who have suffered have not suffered in vain, but are now with God, who wipes every tear away.

My closing plea is this: Just try it.  Try turning to God with your needs.  What can it possibly hurt?  I’m not asking you to stop working, saving, paying off your debt, or even to stop wanting the things you want. Really the only thing I’m asking you is to stop worrying, and that’s behavior that even non-religious people would agree is detrimental to one’s mental and even physical health.  I know it’s hard, and the results may not be exactly what you’d thought, but try praying for what you want, what you need.  Do it with an open heart, and with patience.  Seek God first, and the rest will fall into place.

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.