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 27 – Jesus Died for ALL of Us

Not just the stable, middle class Christian Americans paying their taxes and mowing their lawns.

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

11 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.

15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.

19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.

21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.

“Barabbas,” they answered.

22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, KING OF THE JEWS.

38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue himnow if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[e] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Have you seen the John Fugelsang quote from a few years back (or ones like it) about Jesus?  It says “Jesus was a radical, nonviolent revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers, and crooks, wasn’t American and never spoke English; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, and anti-public prayer (M 6:5); but was never anti-gay, never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never justified torture, never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes, never asked a leper for a copay, and was a long-haired brown-skinned homeless community organizing anti-slut-shaming Middle Eastern Jew.”

I wanted to point out Jesus’ radical social ideas in contrast to Matthew’s cautious writing style, particularly in this chapter.  I’m not knocking Matthew, he is one savvy dude.  In writing his testimony about Jesus Christ he had to tread extremely carefully:  There was a burgeoning Christian movement that included both Jews and Gentiles.  So, on the one hand, he head to appeal to the Jewish tradition that some of these new Christians came from, hence the lawyer-like reference to the prophets of the Old Testament, using scripture to back up Jesus’ status.  But Matthew also had to appeal to non-Jewish Christians, and be careful not to paint Gentiles, such as the Roman Pontius Pilate, and the society from which they came, in too harsh a light. Remember, Jesus wasn’t just advocating for change within the Jewish community but in the entire world.  So how do you write about a guy who basically wants to overhaul all establishments in a way that appeals to people in those establishments?  Like I said, Matthew had a tough job!  In this chapter, we see Matthew treat Pontius Pilate very carefully, being sure to make it clear Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, recording him literally washing his hands of any responsibility in Jesus’ death.  In fact, many early (and some modern-day) churches held a favorable view of Pontius Pilate, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church even gives them a feast day.  Long story short, I think Matthew was very, very careful when writing his testimony to make sure to appeal to a broad group of readers.

I don’t think Matthew watered down Jesus’ message of radical social justice and love, but I do think it’s easy to sugar-coat Jesus into a “prize” we get to claim if we’re “good,” and sometimes Matthew’s writing can lend itself to that mindset. But Jesus is so much more than that, and wants so much more from us.  Let’s just skim over the Beatitudes from chapter 5 really quickly (which we’ll get to in more detail soon) and see all the people Jesus’ blesses.  First, it’s the people in distress: the poor in spirit – which I take to mean those struggling with any sort of mental or emotional stress, such as depression or anxiety; those who mourn; the meek – those who don’t have agency of their own and are often forgotten by society; those who hunger and thirst.  Second, it’s the people who help them: the merciful; the pure in heart – who can be anyone who loves unconditionally and provides caring service; the peacemakers; the persecuted – not just Christians but anyone bringing attention to the meek, to those who don’t have agency.  To condense, Jesus sees those at the margins of society and is actively calling us to see them too.  There were no conditions to us helping them.  They didn’t have to be Christian, or straight, or white, or sober.

Basically, everyone, and I do mean everyone, deserves their basic human rights.  If you Google “basic human rights” you’ll see lots of lists with five, seven, ten, however many items, and they’re all good lists and may have some things slightly different than this, but just a reminder, here’s a good starting point for basic human rights:

  • Right to equality
  • Freedom from discrimination
  • Right to life, liberty, and personal security (aka freedom from slavery, for a start)
  • Freedom from torture and degrading treatment
  • Right to recognition as a person before the law, and equality before the law
  • Legal rights including fair public hearing, innocent until proven guilty, no arbitrary arrest, etc
  • Right to a Nationality and the freedom to change it
  • Rights of Asylum
  • Freedom of belief and religion
  • Freedom of opinion and information
  • Right to marriage and family
  • Right to own property
  • Right to participate in government
  • Right to social security
  • Right to desirable work
  • Right to rest and leisure
  • Right to education
  • Right to adequate living standards

This doesn’t even include basic rights of life like clean water and clean air, which is a problem not just for third world countries, but in our own “land of the free and home of the brave” (everyone wave to Flint, Michigan).

Today is Good Friday, the day we remember that Jesus died for us.  Let us also remember who “us” is: not just the stable, middle class Christian Americans paying their taxes and mowing their lawns.  “Us” is the homeless, the addicts, the estimated 40 million people who are still in slavery today, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst. In two days, we celebrate Jesus resurrection, and through that, our own possibility for resurrection.  In these last two days of Lent, perhaps we could all recommit ourselves to taking care of each other.  It can be small.  Zen Habits has a lovely list of small ways to help out, which can really be as small as consciously being more patient or calling up a loved one with whom you haven’t spoken in a while.  Compassion breeds compassion.  Through this compassion, through recognizing the basic rights of all our brothers and sisters, we will act as Christ’s agents on Earth, and make it a world to which we would want to return, a world worthy of his return as well.