Matthew 12 – Do Good, not Dogma.

Let’s battle the image of the Christian Hypocrite.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul,the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Christian Hypocrite is a well-known character:  The little old church lady in her Sunday Best, piously in her pew every week but spreading wicked gossip every other day is a character used in more than one film I’ve seen.  Corrupt preachers are another common example – both in entertainment and (unfortunately) in real life – of the Christian Hypocrite.  There seem to be a lot of Christian Hypocrites in Southern literature and cinematography.  Preaching acceptance and the importance of following Jesus while being a bald-faced racist is the definition of hypocrisy and an easy one to portray as a foible to whatever virtues the main character may have.

Hypocrisy is the main thrust of Jesus’ message in this chapter. The dogmatic hang-up in Jesus’ day was this working on the Sabbath bit.  I do think we need to observe the Sabbath more: rest is good for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  I know for a fact I don’t get enough of it.  But I also think that I, and probably the Pharisees, too, missed the most important part of this commandment. It starts with “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Yes, then it goes into stipulations about not working (and making sure no one else in your household has to work), but upon reflection, the “work” part seems very secondary to the “keep it holy” part. Using the Sabbath as just one example, Jesus reminds us that God’s work is never done, and neither is our role in it.

Once again, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Jesus is reminding the Pharisees, and us, of the difference between the legalistic and elitist interpretation of Biblical law and a true following of God’s desire for mankind.  God’s people may not look or act the way we think they should.  They might not even be Christian. But that doesn’t matter to Jesus. “A tree is recognized by its fruit,” he tells us, along with “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him.”  Any outward signs of piety – going to church, mindlessly checking “Christian” in the religious preferences box, having an unopened Bible somewhere in the house, condemning those whose beliefs are different than yours – are fruitless and meaningless.  Legalistic and elitist interpretations of Biblical law are not going to win Jesus’ favor.  Providing love and mercy to our fellow man will.  Jesus himself says “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

And who provides this love and mercy?  Who is Jesus’ brother?  For sure, some of them are Christians.  But many of them are Muslim, Jewish, Buddist, Sikh, and I’d even go so far as to say Atheist.  Google “Islamic Charities” or “Jewish Charities” and you’ll see just how many of them there are, doing the same work as Christian charities: feeding the hungry, providing relief aid for victims of natural disasters and war, uplifting at-risk women and children. Aren’t these all things God wants us to do?  Aren’t these all fruits of a good tree?

So does it matter at all if we believe in Jesus? Is it only about good works? I don’t think so, but I’m not too worried about policing the secret hearts of those who are out there doing said good works.  I wrote about why I think being a Christian still matters, if you want to read my thoughts on the matter there.

My favorite part of this passage bears repeating in full:  “So I tell you, that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”  My NIV text notes say that this unpardonable sin of “blasphemy against the spirit” was attributing Jesus’ miracles to Satan, but even that can be seen as an allegory for condemning anyone’s good works throughout history.  For example: 9-11 First Responders are suffering serious health consequences to the point of death for breathing in toxic fumes during their acts of heroism, yet the 9-11 First Responders Bill still has 19,000 unpaid claims.  Ebola aid workers are being shunned or even attacked.  Aid workers dropping off water at the US-Mexico border to keep people from dying of thirst have been arrested and charged with felony harboring.  These are just a few examples of good works (and the people that commit them) being condemned.  Again, some of these people are Christian, but others are not.  No matter their beliefs in life, I think Jesus will judge them kindly for the work they have done here, even and especially because it has gone unrecognized or attacked.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can all be Jesus’ brother or sister.  Belief in Jesus helps, to be sure, but if belief is something you’re still struggling with, start with these two universally good steps:  First, don’t get hung up on dogma – your own or someone else’s.  Recognize the good that someone is doing, and leave it there.  Second, provide mercy.  Be the one who is advocating for the meek, providing water for those who thirst, feeding those who hunger.  In doing so, you will be perpetuating that two-step cycle: Someone will see your good works, and loosen whatever dogmatic restraints were holding them back.  Perhaps they will then extend that hand of mercy, and the cycle will start over again.  Mercy, not sacrifice, is the way of Jesus, and the way of Love.

Psalm 139 – Thoughts for Pride Month 2019

We are all fearfully and wonderfully made.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

I’m taking a one-post break from Matthew right now because I didn’t want Pride Month to pass me by without mentioning it, and it’s almost the middle of June!  Also, this seemed like a natural break since I finished Chapter 10 last week, and read Chapter 11 back in December, so we’ve got a gap.

Pride month is rapidly becoming one of those odd events where we focus on the celebration and not the underlying cause, kind of like Memorial Day.  All the barbeques and sales of Memorial Day and beginning-of-summer-fun mentalities seem a little tawdry when you consider we’re supposed to be remembering those who died in service of the country.  Just an example.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good party.  But the original Pride Parade was a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, when tensions between police and the gay community reached a breaking point at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

But now, Pride Month is a profitable, cool thing to do.  Businesses of all stripes are on board. Lots of straight people attend (selfie-ing away in rainbow tees).  And while this isn’t inherently bad, I have several gay friends who make a point to remind people each year that this hasn’t always been some big giant block party.  It came from a real place of pain and inequality, and people have been fighting for fifty years since Stonewall to end violence, increase awareness, and promote equality for our LGBTQ siblings.

So, in the effort to find an appropriate Bible passage to recognize Pride Month, I Googled…well… “Bible passages for Pride Month.”  Psalm 139 was my favorite hit.  “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well,”  the author says.  And really, that is something we can all say, for we are all children of God.  God made each and every one of us perfect, and knows us even before we know ourselves: “You have searched me, Lord, and know me.”  God creates us all, and knows Xyr creation, and loves each and every one of us.

This goes so much farther than just Pride, too.  I found this psalm intending to use it for Pride Month, but it immediately made me think of my Autistic daughter.  My biggest concern for her is that she will not be accepted into society the way she is.  As she gets older, her differences are becoming more and more noticeable.  She doesn’t talk to people, but her echolalia (repeating things over and over and over) is pretty constant.  I actually love it, because I get to hear her voice, and not all moms can say that about their special needs children.  It also gives me a way to interact with her, because I know the “script,” if you will, and we can do a call-and-response sort of thing.  Additionally, she has trouble regulating her voice and reactions appropriately in certain social situations and can sometimes be extremely anxious – if she’s getting overwhelmed she will scream at (and sometimes try to hit) unfamiliar people who try to talk to her. We’re working on things to make navigating this world easier for her, but I am in no way looking to “cure” her.  She is smart, beautiful, funny, and completely cherished.  God made her the way she is (not vaccines or any of the other bullshit people sometimes throw out there related to Autism), and she, too, is fearfully and wonderfully made.  As are we all.

As the psalmist says: even the darkness is not dark to the Lord.  God knows all, and knows us.  Isn’t that a wonderful thing?  We are not perfect, and yet we are:  we are perfectly loved and perfectly formed by our God.  Let’s honor that fact by loving others, no matter how they may have been formed – Christian or not, gay or straight, abled or disabled, man, woman, or somewhere in between: we are all children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.  Happy Pride, everyone – God loves us all.

Matthew 10 – Jesus Brings a Sword

Action, action, action. In the name of Jesus, action!

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—10 no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

24 “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master.25 It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

26 “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

So my Biblical memory ends at v. 30 with that warm and fuzzy bit about meaning more to God than the sparrows, feeling all special because even the hairs on my head are numbered.  All this talk about bringing a sword? Fighting among families? I definitely forget reading that, ever.  Quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with it.

Part of me wonders if Jesus even actually said it.  Remember, the whole Bible is written by people.  It may have been divinely inspired, but it was recorded by decidedly fallible humans.  Matthew was a shrewd writer, and I don’t want to say he straight up fabricated a story, but it seems so off-message from the rest of what Jesus has said so far.  My main point of contention is I find the reference to the cross a little self-conscious.  True, crucifixion was a common form of execution back then, so the disciples would have been familiar with it, and Jesus’ words in v. 38 would have had meaning to them even before Jesus was crucified himself. But knowing that this Gospel was compiled after (well after, some say) Jesus’ death and resurrection makes me wonder if time colored Matthew’s memory of the event.

But then I wonder if I’m just being comfortable, and trying to fit Jesus into my own comfortable little box.  I like thinking of Jesus as a bringer of peace, a righter of wrongs. But it is true that father and son, daughter and mother, whole families do often turn against each other in the name of righteousness.  This passage immediately made me think of our own Civil War, and all the anecdotes I heard about two brothers fighting on different sides of the same battle, or young boys sneaking away from their Confederate families to fight in the Union army.  I wonder how many people back then thought that it must be the end of times, remembering Jesus’ words.  That that war was the sword Jesus promised to bring to Earth.

It’s a disconcerting passage, but upon reflection, I think it is still in keeping with Jesus’ teaching of love.  Whether Matthew embellished it or not doesn’t even really matter in the long run, because it is urging us to do the same thing: work to spread the good news.  Even if it means a break with your family, persecution, or even bodily harm unto the point of death, work to spread the good news of Jesus.  Of course this means the Gospel, and if anyone is made a believer in him through whatever work you do, that’s great!  But I’ll tell you my favorite saying when it comes to a lot of things, but especially when it comes to evangelizing:  A drowning man doesn’t need swim lessons, he needs a life-preserver.  In other words, I think Jesus would be most concerned that we are providing everyone with enough to eat, a safe place to live and work, and access to medical care. Only then, when they’ve stopped drowning in the trials this life brings, can we discuss loftier ideals.

That doesn’t sound like it should be so controversial, right?  But try enacting those policies in this country: We have escalating tensions – and death toll – at our Southern border as people are denied entry and even denied their own needed medications.  We still have over half a million people experiencing homelessness in this country every year, and those numbers are starting to creep back up again.  Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water.  People effected by these headlines, and millions of others I haven’t mentioned, are just struggling to survive.

The best way to make an impact on these problems isn’t to preach about Jesus, but to be an instrument of Jesus, and act.  And perhaps that does mean fighting.  I still don’t think Jesus is advocating violence as a solution, but he did advocate for radical non-violent resistance. So fighting hard for what you think is right by protesting, sit-ins, or disrupting family dinner to vocally disagree with racist Uncle Jimmy may be just as Christian as serving in a soup kitchen or filling an Angel Tree wish list.  I just prefer to be on the safe side, and offer any who needs it “even a cold cup of water.”  In other words, we may never know who among us is Jesus’ disciple, so why deny anyone dignity and equality?  And if we have to be vocal to the point of strife in our support of said dignity an equality, then perhaps we ourselves will become the righteous sword of Jesus.