Matthew 21 – Growing from Criticism

Steps to analyze and act upon criticism, whether it be constructive or otherwise.

We’re getting into some long chapters here, just FYI – keep reading!  There’s a lot of good stuff in them.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,

“‘From the lips of children and infants
    you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”

17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus replied, I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’]?

43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

This chapter holds Jesus making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed as a king.  A donkey is considered a royal mount, or even more specifically, a mount for the son of a king, which is fitting as Jesus is the son of God.  In addition to Zechariah 9:9 (the prophetic verses Matthew references here in v. 5), there is also an established Old Testament tradition of kings’ sons and households riding donkeys.  Judges 10:4 and 12:14, and 2 Samuel 16:2 all portray such.  Donkeys are gentle beasts, and used in contrast to war horses, like a metaphor for peaceful rule.  Additionally, throwing capes and palms on the road is an act of homage to royalty. So Jesus, and the crowd surrounding him, are really making quite a stir with this entrance.

While this is important to the linear story that is Jesus’ life, my focus today will be on the rest of the chapter, because in it I think we find the true instruction.  We have three examples of rebukes from Jesus.  The first rebuke comes when Jesus clears out the temple, expressing his anger and dismay at their “pay to pray” attitude. The second rebuke, and my favorite, is Jesus causing the fig tree to wither.  It is my favorite because I think we see a bit of Jesus humanity peek out.  By this point, Jesus has been doing a lot of travelling.  He is up early in the morning, going back to the city for what promises to be another long day, and hasn’t eaten yet. Seeing that fig tree from a distance he must have felt some relief, but then when he realized it didn’t have any fruit, he became angry.  How many times have you gone to a McDonalds and tried to order a shake when their shake machine was down?  I bet Jesus’ disappointment was akin to that feeling, and so he cursed the fig tree.  The third rebuke and longest example is Jesus back and forth with the Pharisees.  This takes place in a common teaching form at the time, with a question being answered with another question, along with two parables.  And while the end of the chapter states that the Pharisees start looking for a way to arrest Jesus, I believe that Jesus was truly trying to reach them on their level, if you will, in a way that would speak to their hearts.  These are learned men, remember, and they value discourse, which is what Jesus offered them here.  The tragedy is they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept it.

The question I was left with, after reading this chapter, is how to graciously accept a rebuke, a criticism, or correction, and grow from it? How do we avoid being like the fig tree, that withers, or the Pharisees, who get angry?  As someone who is quick to get defensive, I’m probably not the best person to answer this question.  But, I have Google, and if you, like me, struggle with growing graciously from criticism, here’s a few steps for you to follow:

  • First, don’t give in to anger.  This is probably the hardest step, since when someone tells us we’ve done something wrong, our first instinct is to defend ourselves.  But not giving into that first impulse of anger, indignation, or defensiveness allows us to analyze what we’ve just heard.  It’s totally OK if you need to separate yourself from the situation.  If the person criticizing you truly wants to see change, they should be able to accept it if you say something like “I hear what you are saying, but I need a moment [or whatever length of time you need, within reason] to process this.”
  • Now that you’ve established a rational headspace, you can determine whether or not the criticism offered you is, indeed, constructive or just a personal attack.  Constructive criticism offers ways to improve.  That might mean offering a solution for you to work towards, or just pointing out behavior that needs to change without relying on guilt and blame.  Guilt, blame, and general belittling is not constructive criticism, that’s just a personal attack.
  • If the criticism you received is constructive, great, you can work towards improving the situation, enrolling the help of your critic if appropriate – say, for example, if your spouse says they’re feeling like you never have time for them. In that situation, you have to enroll the help of your critic to come to a solution.  But if the criticism you received is a personal attack, you can still learn from it.  Try to stand in the critic’s shoes.  Perhaps they were just speaking out of anger that doesn’t really have anything to do with you, and you can dismiss it.  Saying a quick prayer of forgiveness and blessing for the critic sounds really hokey, but I find it helps me put it away.  But sometimes people can reveal truths to us in their anger or frustration.  Do your co-workers often get defensive or even combative with you on projects? Perhaps you are the one being overly bossy or pushy, and need to work on your soft skills a bit.  Stepping back and thinking the criticism through with a clear head and honest desire to better yourself will help you determine if there is a kernel of truth fueling the criticism, constructive or otherwise.  Also, talking it over with someone you trust can always help.
  • The final step is to grow!  Spouse feeling neglected? Make time for them!  Coworkers being uncooperative? Reach out to ask them how they think things are going.  Indignation and anger without analysis and action are going to get us nowhere, we’ll just stay stuck in a rut where things get worse.  God doesn’t want us there.  Remember, if we view God as our loving parent, Xe wants nothing more than for us to grow and mature.  And by learning from our experiences with others, even and maybe especially the criticism they offer us, we will grow in our relationships – not only with each other, but also with God.

Job 05 – Virtue Signalling with Eliphaz

Go through life like a dog: If you can’t eat it or play with it, just pee on it and walk away.

“Call if you will, but who will answer you?
    To which of the holy ones will you turn?
Resentment kills a fool,
    and envy slays the simple.
I myself have seen a fool taking root,
    but suddenly his house was cursed.
His children are far from safety,
    crushed in court without a defender.
The hungry consume his harvest,
    taking it even from among thorns,
    and the thirsty pant after his wealth.
For hardship does not spring from the soil,
    nor does trouble sprout from the ground.
Yet man is born to trouble
    as surely as sparks fly upward.

“But if I were you, I would appeal to God;
    I would lay my cause before him.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
10 He provides rain for the earth;
    he sends water on the countryside.
11 The lowly he sets on high,
    and those who mourn are lifted to safety.
12 He thwarts the plans of the crafty,
    so that their hands achieve no success.
13 He catches the wise in their craftiness,
    and the schemes of the wily are swept away.
14 Darkness comes upon them in the daytime;
    at noon they grope as in the night.
15 He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth;
    he saves them from the clutches of the powerful.
16 So the poor have hope,
    and injustice shuts its mouth.

17 “Blessed is the one whom God corrects;
    so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.[a]
18 For he wounds, but he also binds up;
    he injures, but his hands also heal.
19 From six calamities he will rescue you;
    in seven no harm will touch you.
20 In famine he will deliver you from death,
    and in battle from the stroke of the sword.
21 You will be protected from the lash of the tongue,
    and need not fear when destruction comes.
22 You will laugh at destruction and famine,
    and need not fear the wild animals.
23 For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field,
    and the wild animals will be at peace with you.
24 You will know that your tent is secure;
    you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.
25 You will know that your children will be many,
    and your descendants like the grass of the earth.
26 You will come to the grave in full vigor,
    like sheaves gathered in season.

27 “We have examined this, and it is true.
    So hear it and apply it to yourself.”

It looks like there’s a lot of wisdom here, right? As my NIV text notes so wonderfully put it, “The problem is not so much with what the friends knew but with what they did not know.”   Poor Eliphaz is being made to look quite the pompous fool, a little reminiscent of Hamlet’s Polonius.  Polonius is the character with the famous one-liner “to thine own self be true,” which is, indeed, great advice.  He’s also a scheming, overbearing windbag and generally crap father.  Basically, Polonius was virtue signalling, and Eliphaz is kind of doing the same thing.

What I love about this passage though is that Eliphaz doesn’t even know how right he is.  God will indeed save Job from seven calamities (a figurative number just meaning “a lot” not necessarily seven exactly), his property and health will be restored, and his children will, indeed, be many.  Even his parables are spot on without realizing it.  Eliphaz talks about his a fool’s children being “crushed in court without a defender.”  (v. 4)  Well, with Satan as “the Accuser” in the heavenly court, that is basically what happened to Job’s children.  The only difference is that Job isn’t a fool, and has God as his defender.  And through all his long laments in this chapter, Job is “laying his cause before Him,” as Eliphaz counsels him to in v. 8.  If Eliphaz weren’t so busy pontificating then maybe he could see that Job is already doing exactly what he said to do.

One of my favorite pieces of advice I’ve received from my MIL is, “go through life like a dog: if you can’t eat it or play with it, just pee on it and walk away.”  It’s silly on the surface, but good advice at it’s core – kind of the opposite of Eliphaz self-righteous “if it were I” talk of this first speech.  And that, I think, it what we can learn from this little Biblical episode:  We are going to come across trying people.  But, as Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata says, “even the dull and ignorant, they too have their stories.”  Let us glean what truths and good we can from people, even if we aren’t in full agreement with them.  I know it’s not always easy, but we don’t have to take their foolishness to heart.  In fact, in the next chapter Job is about to call Eliphaz out on his bullshit.  So yes, listen to what people have to say, but then weigh it against your own life, your own conscious; talk it over with God.  If it doesn’t hold water, then leave it.  You’ll be better off.