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 14 – Truths vs. Greater Truths

Seeing the forest through the trees.

“Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
    Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
    No one!
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
    and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
    till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.

“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.

13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16 Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.

18 “But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
    and as a rock is moved from its place,
19 as water wears away stones
    and torrents wash away the soil,
    so you destroy a person’s hope.
20 You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
    you change their countenance and send them away.
21 If their children are honored, they do not know it;
    if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
22 They feel but the pain of their own bodies
    and mourn only for themselves.”

There are some who think v. 12-14 are at the very least innocently mistranslated, but possibly even changed completely and intentionally, to more fully support the idea of resurrection.  Indeed, I got excited when I read that passage – “I will wait for my renewal to come.”  Isn’t that what we’re taught, as Christians, to wait for?  I mean, the return of Jesus is the renewal this whole Christian “thing” is all about, right?

So let’s say that this passage has been manipulated.  I can totally believe that: before they were codified into a collection we now call “the Bible,” these stories (especially a really old one like Job) were oral traditions that were retold and later written down in a centuries-long game of telephone, if you will, so things were bound to change, at least a little.  But does that mean we should totally scrap it?

In short, no.  But this is a good time to plug in a little reminder about reading the Bible in context, which can be easy to forget, especially in a project like this with a laser focus on one chapter at a time.  Is it true that the key passage of this chapter has been manipulated to fit an agenda?  Quite possibly yes.  But how does it, and this chapter at large, fit into the greater truths the Bible is trying to convey to us?

Taken as a whole, this chapter – and most of Job’s three-chapter speech here – aren’t really about renewal and allusions to resurrection, but about God’s infinite power and the insignificance of humans in the face of such an almighty force.  I think two verses from chapter 12 could serve as Job’s thesis in this three-chapter speech: “To God belong wisdom and power, counsel and understanding are his…to him belong strength and victory, both deceived and deceiver are his.” (13:13, 16)  So, even ignoring the potentially problematic passage, we have our first greater truth: God is great.

The second greater truth takes a little inference, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.  The second greater truth is that even though we are “like a fleeting shadow” in our mortality, we are important to God, God sees us.  In this chapter alone Job mentions God watching man three times: in vv. 3, 6, and 16.  In all of Job’s the chapters making up Job’s speeches so far, God watching man is mentioned nine, possibly ten times (in v. 7:8 he could be referring to his friends or to God when he says “you will look for me but I will be no more”).  True, it is mostly in a negative sense, more like a kid with a magnifying glass over an anthill than a beneficent Lord, but we must remember the place of pain and lack of understanding from which Job is speaking.  In fact, because of his suffering Job is extra important to God.  Remember, the cause of all this suffering was a wager between God and Satan – so Job’s actions through his suffering are of keen interest to the celestial court of this story, even if Job’s days are just as fleeting as the rest of ours.

So if God is great (Greater Truth One), why are we important to God (Greater Truth Two)?  I honestly don’t know.  But perhaps the key to that mystery lies in the Greatest Truth: that God is love.  We may not understand all of God’s ways, but even with all the suffering we see in Job, all the suffering we see in the world, we can know that we, our insignificant, flawed, mortal, fleeting selves, are important to a power much greater than our own.  God is watching us, all the time.  Xe sees our successes, and rejoices with us, Xe sees our failures, and mourns with us.  One, or even hundreds, of controversial translations in the Bible cannot dissuade me from that fact, because I can see the forest through the trees, or in this case the truth through the words, and it bears repeating one more time: God loves us. God loves you.  Praise be to God.

***

I’m going to switch gears here because we’ve reached a good stopping point in the cycle of speeches between Job and his friends. I’m setting aside the Book of Job until next Lent and reading Psalm 6 and Psalm 32 in the remaining time before Holy Week, which starts a week from today.  During Holy Week I’ll read corresponding Gospel passages, specifically Matthew 21, 26, and 27.  Then for Easter I’ll read Matthew 28, if you want are reading along (or ahead) as we go.

Job 13 – God’s Awe-Inspiring Love

We are fallible and fleeting, but God loves us.

“My eyes have seen all this,
    my ears have heard and understood it.
What you know, I also know;
    I am not inferior to you.
But I desire to speak to the Almighty
    and to argue my case with God.
You, however, smear me with lies;
    you are worthless physicians, all of you!
If only you would be altogether silent!
    For you, that would be wisdom.
Hear now my argument;
    listen to the pleas of my lips.
Will you speak wickedly on God’s behalf?
    Will you speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show him partiality?
    Will you argue the case for God?
Would it turn out well if he examined you?
    Could you deceive him as you might deceive a mortal?
10 He would surely call you to account
    if you secretly showed partiality.
11 Would not his splendor terrify you?
    Would not the dread of him fall on you?
12 Your maxims are proverbs of ashes;
    your defenses are defenses of clay.

13 “Keep silent and let me speak;
    then let come to me what may.
14 Why do I put myself in jeopardy
    and take my life in my hands?
15 Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him;
    I will surely defend my ways to his face.
16 Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance,
    for no godless person would dare come before him!
17 Listen carefully to what I say;
    let my words ring in your ears.
18 Now that I have prepared my case,
    I know I will be vindicated.
19 Can anyone bring charges against me?
    If so, I will be silent and die.

20 “Only grant me these two things, God,
    and then I will not hide from you:
21 Withdraw your hand far from me,
    and stop frightening me with your terrors.
22 Then summon me and I will answer,
    or let me speak, and you reply to me.
23 How many wrongs and sins have I committed?
    Show me my offense and my sin.
24 Why do you hide your face
    and consider me your enemy?
25 Will you torment a windblown leaf?
    Will you chase after dry chaff?
26 For you write down bitter things against me
    and make me reap the sins of my youth.
27 You fasten my feet in shackles;
    you keep close watch on all my paths
    by putting marks on the soles of my feet.

28 “So man wastes away like something rotten,
    like a garment eaten by moths.

This blog is all about radical love, how we should radically love each other and how God radically loves us.  Believe it or not, God’s incredible love for us is exactly what this passage illustrates.

“I desire to speak to the Almighty, to argue my case with God,” Job declares in v. 3.  When you think about it, that’s rather impertinent.  Can you imagine being charged with a crime and demanding to go straight to the Supreme Court?  You’d be laughed at and denied.  But with God we can do this.  We can go straight to the highest court, if you will, and argue our case.  Job knows he is not perfect, even that he doesn’t know all the ways of God, but he still has faith: “Though he slay me, yet I have hope in him. I will surely defend my ways to his face. Indeed, this will surely be my deliverance, for no godless person would dare come before him!” (v. 15-16) Job wants to bypass his useless friends with their “proverbs of ashes” and go straight to the source to confess his faith, examine his shortcomings in God’s eyes, and make his case for salvation.  Which is what we should all do.  Now, not all of us are going to have a vision of  God come to Earth in a storm to answer our cries in person as Job does later on, but we can still do what Job does, in prayer, any day, any time.  No need to even make an appointment – God is always there, ready to listen to us.

And speaking of listening, Job really does some raging in this speech.  This is the first time Job speaks sarcastically and angrily to his friends (actually last chapter was the first time, but this chapter is a continuation of the same speech, so it still counts).  His tone towards God is less angry, but still plaintive, to be sure.  Job makes a demand of God in v. 20: “grant me these two things,” and accuses God of making Job Xyr enemy (v. 24).  It’s easy to forget, since Job is so eloquent, but not only is he in sorrow, he is in pain.  How many of us have lashed out in sorrow or pain?  Saying things we don’t really mean, or just being unable to see past our own misery?  Often, we lash out at those nearest to us.  And, just like a good friend, God doesn’t take it personally with Job.  Xe knows it is Job’s pain speaking.  Xe is not going to hold Job’s angry words against him in the end.

And there-in lies the wonder of it all.  For in the grand scheme of things, we are just windblown leaves or dry chaff, as Job points out.  I distinctly remember learning in 7th grade that if you took the whole history of Earth, from the time it was formed 4.5 billion years ago, and condensed that history into a year, then all of human history–and by that I mean the first homo-sapiens, not just recorded history–fits into the last half-hour of the last day of that year.  Now take the whole history of the galaxy, which scientists say is 14.51 billion years old, and we’re barely even a blip.  Yet for being almost nothing, God loves us.  Xe decided the world was not complete without us, and created us in Xyr image. We are fallible and fleeting, but God loves us, every single one of us.  It’s as unrealistic as us being able to love individual snowflakes as our own children, but for God, it is possible.  And that is truly awe-inspiring, and worthy of our love and thanksgiving in return.