Friday, August 19, 2005

The Conflict Deepens (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 12)

Matthew 9

In chapter 9, Jesus performs more signs pointing to His identity as Messiah and God-enfleshed. By His lavish spreading of God's love, contrary to religious expectations, He becomes even more distasteful to the religious leaders.

Matthew 9:1-8. Chapter 9 begins with Jesus and His disciples taking a ride in the boat. As soon as they make landfall "some men carried a paraplegic on a stretcher and set him down in front" of Jesus and His companions. Peterson's paraphrase of Jesus' response and what ensues is interesting:
"Jesus, impressed by their bold belief, said to the paraplegic, 'Cheer up, son. I forgive your sins.'"
Notice that Jesus doesn't immediately heal this man. Instead, impressed by their faith in Him, Jesus grants the man and his friends something they hadn't even asked for: the forgiveness of their sins.

This points to an important principle. When, in humility and surrender, we turn to the God we know through Jesus Christ for help, we open the door into our lives to Him. When we do so, God walks in. We may think we know why we're inviting God to help us, but God knows our deepest needs even better than we do. Give God an inch and He will take a mile...and that's a good thing, believe it or not!

In the New Testament book of Revelation, Jesus' beloved disciple, John, recounts visions he received of the risen Jesus, now in heaven, and His messages for seven different first-century churches. To one church, in the city of Laodicea, Jesus says: "Look at me, I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear Me call and open the door, I'll come right in and sit down to supper with you..." (Revelation 3:20).

The paraplegic and his friends, by their act of bold trust in Jesus, had invited Him into their lives. Jesus saw their need and filled it.

But some of the "religion scholars"--scribes--weren't keen on Jesus' response to the men's faith at all. Only God can forgive sins, they reasoned. Jesus wouldn't have disagreed with them. That was why He forgave the sins of these men. But the scholars "whispered, 'Why, that's blasphemy!'" The primary definition of "blasphemy" given by Merriam-Webster's dictionary is:
"...(noun) 1 a : the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God; b : the act of claiming the attributes of deity."
These two elements of blasphemy aptly describe what the religion scholars, who saw Jesus as nothing more than an upstart preacher from Nazareth, thought of His daring to forgive sin.

Jesus, we're told, was aware of what the scholars were whispering. This triggers one of the cleverest things Jesus ever said to His opponents, a variant on the standard form Semitic argument which runs, "If this little thing, then this big thing."

Here, Jesus asks His detractors, "'Which do you think is simpler: to say, 'I forgive your sins,' or 'Get up and walk'? Well, just so it's clear that I'm the Son of Man and authorized to do either, or both...'" Then, Jesus commands the paraplegic to get up and walk, which he does.

This underscores something that we've talked about in this series before: The miracles--or as the Gospels call them in the original Greek--the signs aren't tricks meant to dazzle us; they point beyond themselves to Who Jesus is, what His authority is, and that He has brought the new kingdom of God into the world.

In the grand scheme of things, restoring the ability to walk of a paraplegic is small potatoes compared to being able to forgive sins and thereby empowering people who would otherwise be forever alienated from God, to enjoy an eternal relationship with Him. After all, a time would come when the paraplegic wouldn't be able to walk any longer and even those brought back from the dead faced eventual death. Healing only lasts so long. But forgiveness of the debt we owe to God for our sin--the New Testament book of Romans says that "the wages of sin is death"--will give us life beyond the grave.

Matthew 9:9. Later, Jesus calls a tax collector--a man named Matthew--to follow Him...and amazingly, Matthew does! A short while later, Matthew has a party for his tax collector friends and a bunch of other "disreputable characters," notorious sinners.

Tax collectors, as you probably know, practiced legally-protected extortion in first-century Judea where Jesus lived. They were like franchisees for the Roman government. They paid the Roman officials a fee and in return: (1) Were to collect a set amount of money in taxes from area residents, from which they would take a cut; (2) Could collect any amount over that set amount, all of which lined their pockets.

The Romans used citizens of Judea to collect taxes for them. The collectors were doubly despised. First, they were hated because they worked with the Romans occupying a place in Judean society similar to that filled by collaborators in occupied France during World War Two. Second, they were also hated for gouging their own people, profiting from and living in luxury because of their suffering.

Because they were so marginalized and morally indifferent, tax collectors tended to hang out with other disreputable people, among them prostitutes.

Matthew 9:10-13. In Matthew 9, Jesus hangs out with a crew like this. Not surprisingly, the "good" religious folks are scandalized. They ask His disciples, "What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riff-raff?"

A good one, Jesus insists, after hearing them. "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick?" He asks them. "Go figure out what this Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite the outsiders, not coddle insiders.'" Jesus knew the truth of what my friend, Virgil, a member of the congregation I formerly served as pastor, once said, "The church building would be an empty place on Sunday mornings if God didn't let the sinners in!"

We don't know how many of the outsiders, those who had formerly loved their rebellion and sin, left their outsider status behind and entered the kingdom of God by turning from and believing in Jesus, that day. But we do know that no one is so far from God that they can't turn from sin, receive forgiveness, and be given fresh starts with God! One-time slave trader John Newton learned this. After coming to realize that buying, imprisoning, and selling human beings was wrong, he asked for forgiveness from the God we meet in Christ and for the power to live differently. Newton's life was utterly transformed and he became a pastor, anti-slavery activist, and a composer. One of his songs celebrates God's willingness to charitably forgive all sinners. It says, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see!"

[For more on Matthew 9:9-13, see here.]

Matthew 9:14-17. Later, some followers of the late John the Baptizer ask Jesus why the Pharisees, members of a sect of Judaism to which Jesus was most closely related, went through all sorts of religious rituals, but Jesus and His disciples didn't. Jesus' answer in a nutshell, is that as long as the bridegroom, the One Who is marrying Himself to the human family through His bride, the Church, was still around, there was reason to party down.

And He says that He's about new business, expanding the kingdom of God to include people who surrender to Him from every ethnic background on the planet. You don't put new wine in old cracked bottles, He says. That means you can't contain His expansive love in old rituals or in old time religion.

Eventually, Jesus says, there may be times when religious disciplines will be helpful. But they can only be helpful if they assist us in genuinely following Him, not as some grim religious obligation. God hates that stuff!

Matthew 9:18-26. Next comes a cluster of two events that form a kind of narrative sandwich, each showcasing what happens in the lives of two people bold in their faith in Jesus. First, a "local official," grieving for his daughter who has just died, approaches Jesus and asks Him to touch her so that she will live.

As Jesus follows the man to the bedside of the dead girl, a woman, in the crowds constantly milling around Him, believing in Who Jesus is and what He can do, resolves that she will touch his robe, certain that in doing so, she will be healed. For twelve years, for as long as the dead girl had lived, we will soon learn, she had suffered from a hemorrhage that would not stop. In a culture that regarded menstruation as an impurity, this particular hemorrhage, would have been regarded as a judgment of God against the woman. Because the woman took the risk of faith, Jesus tells her, she is well.

At the house, Jesus does bring the little girl to life and no doubt to the chagrin of His opponents, news of what Jesus had done was soon all over the place.

Matthew 9:27-31. One of the recurring and comical aspects of Jesus' ministry was how He would perform a sign, tell the primary beneficiaries of His intervention not to tell anyone, and they would proceed to disregard His directive, blabbing their heads off about it.

As I've explained in an earlier installment, Jesus told people not to spread word of His signs because, apart from His crucifixion and resurrection, people might too readily become riveted on the signs as objects of adoration in and of themselves. But the signs were only meant to point people to Jesus' authority and His good intentions for the human family. They were meant to point us to the need to die to sin and rise to the new life God gives to those who take up their crosses and follow Him, assuring us that that the God capable of miraculous intervention in this life, can also give us new life beyond our graves. But of course, people couldn't keep their pie holes shut and in fairness to them, I doubt that I could have done so either.

Jesus restores the sight of two blind men and tells them, "Mum's the word." But they spread word all around.

Matthew 9:32-34. Next, Jesus casts out a demon, and His opponents, employing the kind of "war is peace" logic Orwell portrays in 1984, say, "He's probably made a pact with the devil."

Matthew 9:35-38. At the end of the chapter, Jesus is traveling towns and villages, teaching, preaching, and healing. He sees the crowds and gives the disciples a directive which I try to follow every day. Comparing the crowds of people in need of Him in their lives to a crop ripe for harvesting, He says, "What a huge harvest! How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!" [For more on Matthew 9:35-38, see here.]

[Here are links to the previous eleven installments of this series:

Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression


Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust

Jesus' Radical Ethics

Friend of the Outcasts...]

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