Matthew 5:17-20 – The Fulfillment of the Law

Our inner hearts are more important than the external law.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Oh, what a tricky little bit of scripture.  Should we still be following Levitical law? Eschewing meat cooked with milk (bye-bye, cheeseburgers!) and not wearing cloth woven of two threads?  According to some, yes, and a surface reading of this passage would imply so.  But there are two important things to remember: One, Jesus tended to use hyperbole.  Two, in the same breath Jesus uses to reinforce the primacy of Old Testament law, he jabs at the Pharisees and their externalist approach to said law.

Is this an example of Jesus’ using hyperbole?  There’s no way to know for sure, but the use of absolutes hints at it.  A relatable example I found was when a teenager tells his parents that “everyone” is going to be at the party.  Is that true? Is the whole world going to be at that party? Of course not, but we understand that figure of speech.  So when Jesus speaks of the littlest letter and the least stroke of the pen, it’s a good hint that perhaps this is an example of hyperbole.

I love the tongue-in-cheek comment about the Pharisees.  The sarcasm is just dripping off that last verse.  Time and again Jesus comes after the Pharisees and their false piety – one that has them following the letter of the law (see what I did there???) but not the spirit of it.  The righteousness of the Pharisees was only for show.  Jesus knocks them again in a few verses for being overly dramatic with their fasting, walking through the streets purposely disheveled with ashes on their head, and urges his followers to instead “oil their beards” so that only God would know they are fasting, and thus reward their secret hearts.

I do believe that much of the Old Testament still holds true, but it’s application may change over time.  My favorite illustration of this is the cleansing of mold from houses.  This is a twenty verse discourse in Leviticus.  Mold was (and still is) a real problem in buildings, and can cause serious health problems.  People in the time of Moses, when this law was written, did not have access to modern-day chemicals and the mold-killing household cleaners that we do.  Hence intricate steps needed to be taken to isolate the mold, determine if it was dangerous or spreading, and then deal with it by literally removing parts of the house if necessary.  Then there was a cleansing ceremony involving a dead and live bird, some scarlet string, hyssop, and cedar.  Dealing with pervasive mold in houses can still be an ordeal today, but not many people would say it requires the use of a priest, a religious ceremony, and animal sacrifice.  Especially if the mold is on the outside, a good power-washing will usually do the trick.

Are we in violation of the law Jesus talks about because we power-washed the house instead of getting the local pastor to swing by and take a look?  I seriously doubt it.  God is most concerned with our inner hearts, and how the law informs our spirit.  Sitting in the same seat on the subway where a menstruating woman just sat won’t jeopardize your salvation. (Check out Leviticus 15:19-21) Also, we don’t need to cut off a woman’s hand to save her soul if she grabs an assailant’s genitals while defending herself or her family (Deuteronomy 25:11-12) What really matters is if we are kind to our neighbors, giving to the needy, and prayerful in our decisions.  The law, both that which Jesus gave us and the law of the Old Testament, when read with a discerning eye, can inform us in that.

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.

Matthew 26 – Destiny or Free Will?

God has provided the framework within which we can make our own decisions.

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.”

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

18 He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.

20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.21 And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You have said so.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”

35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

50 Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. 58 But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome.

59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60 But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.

Finally two came forward 61 and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’”

62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent.

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?”

“He is worthy of death,” they answered.

67 Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him 68 and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?”

69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.

70 But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”

72 He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”

73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.”

74 Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”

Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Jesus talks a lot about fulfilling destiny in this chapter.  In vv. 2, 12-13, 20, 23-24, 31, and 34 he tells his disciples events of the future.  He specifically says “as it was written,” (v. 24), “the Scriptures be fulfilled” (v. 54), and “that the writings of the prophets be fulfilled” (v. 56) when referring to Judas’ betrayal and his own imminent death.

Destiny – or fate, or predestination, or whatever you want to call it, even God’s Plan – is a funny thing.  Sometimes it’s comforting to believe in it.  When things are all going wrong, we can ease our troubled minds by saying, “this is all part of God’s Plan, things happen for a reason.”  I wonder about poor Judas a lot in this respect.  In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Judas seemingly acts out of his own greed.  In Luke and John, the text says Satan took control of Judas and made him betray Jesus.  If we are of the mind Judas had to betray Jesus, that it was his destiny, believing he was possessed to do so makes him a much more sympathetic figure.  But regardless of what moved him to betray Jesus, Jesus himself seems forgiving of Judas, calling him friend until the very end.  Perhaps Jesus knew Judas could not escape his role as the betrayer, just as Jesus could not escape his role as sacrificial lamb.

But if we believe in destiny, what of free will? Put yourself in Judas’ shoes for a moment.  In a world governed only by destiny, then if we were Judas, we’d have to betray Jesus, too, right?  We’d have no choice but to – we may even be possessed by Satan in order to get the job done.  No one wants to believe their personal choices are out of their control.  We want to believe that we have some agency, some ability to influence the course of our own lives.  We want to be able to say, “No, if it were me, I would not have betrayed Jesus!”

So which is it guiding the universe? Destiny or free will?  We really have no way to know, but I’m going to be super wishy-washy and say it’s probably somewhere in the middle.  Ready for yet another parenting analogy?  I plan my day with the girls.  For example, I plan to take them to the playground.  When we get to the playground, I know the girls will play, but I let them chose what to do instead of issuing a hard order of swings-slide-sandbox.  I may encourage them towards one thing or another, or stop one activity if it’s becoming a problem (such as sand throwing in the sandbox), but by and large they have their own agency within a framework I’ve designed.  And that is what I’m comfortable believing in when it comes to God, destiny, and free will:  God has provided the framework within which we can make our own decisions.  God may course correct if we make too many decisions out of line with the overall plan – taking us out of the sandbox, if you will, but we still get to make those decisions.

All of this is why I think we will still meet Judas in heaven.  He played a critical, if unenviable, roll in the Passion of Jesus Christ.  God chose him for this task because he knew it was probably the course of action Judas would take.  It was still possible for him to resist – resist greed, resist Satan, resist whatever it was that made him do it – but unlikely.  Do I love my children any less because they can’t help but act out when they’re over-tired? Or stop eating an open bag of chocolate chips left in their reach? Or even when they hit or bite each other and pull each other’s hair?  Of course not, I know they’re children, and unable of acting better…yet.  I’ll keep working with them to improve, but I’m not going to hold it against them.  It’s not a perfect analogy for Judas – I’m not encouraging my girls to hurt each other to fulfill some sort of destiny for either of them, but I think the sentiment still holds true.

So, if destiny normally makes you feel uncomfortable, think of it not as a prison, but more as the playground fence: just there to keep you safe and know your boundaries.  If free will makes you feel like you’re playing dodgeball on a playground with no fence and no parent in the median of a major highway, know that the fence and parent are there, you just can’t see them.  There’s a quote from Lisa Bevere (a Christian writer of whom I know nothing about, other than this quote) I’ve seen circulating lately, and I love it because it implies both God’s overall power but also our power to make decisions, even bad ones.  The quote is this: “If you think you’ve blown God’s plan for the rest of your life, rest in this.  You, my friend, are not that powerful.”  So go out there, make decisions.  I hope they are good ones, but, being human, you’re bound to make some bad ones, too.  Even if they are, God will still love you and is keeping an eye on what you are doing, and how it ties into the bigger picture.  And thank goodness for that, right?