Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Subversive God (Getting to Know Jesus, One Chapter at a Time, Part 15)

A pattern is emerging as we take this fresh look at Jesus chapter-by-chapter in the Gospel of Matthew. It goes like this: Jesus offers God's grace--God's charitable and undeserved acceptance--to all people. Then religious leaders, most especially the Pharisees, oppose Him strenuously.


Because grace is utterly subversive to conventional human religiosity, especially to those mired in religious legalism. Religious legalists see faith as something we do, a lifestyle of good deeds and pious acts we perform that earn us heavenly brownie points.

The Bible with which Jesus' first-century Judean contemporaries were familiar showed that righteousness--rightness with God--isn't a status we earn, but a gift to those who trust God and His promises. The patriarch of Biblical faith was Abraham, whose behaviors weren't always exemplary. But Abraham trusted God and God's promises and the Bible says that God "reckoned" that trust as "righteousness."

But for the religious legalist and most of the human race, God's way of doing things, is deeply offensive to human pride. From the beginning, the weakness of the human race has been our desire to "be like God": in control, in charge. It was the temptation to be like God that first lured Eve and Adam to rebel against God's explicit instructions designed to make their lives good.

We even want to be in charge when it comes to God. Our pride demands that we control the road to our salvation, not God. We try to turn our whole relationship with God into a business arrangement, putting ourselves on an equal footing with the Creator of the universe: I discharge certain acts, we arrogantly say, and God has to let us into His kingdom.

Religious legalists are especially prone to this way of thinking. The more good deeds they perform and the more outward signs of piety they exhibit, the more superior, smug, and self-righteous it makes them feel.

There's nothing wrong with good deeds, of course. Even Jesus' earthly brother, James, writes that "faith without works is dead," meaning that a relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ is bound to show up in how we live our lives. It seems to be Jesus' teaching that the closer we grow to Him and the more we surrender our lives to Him, the more involuntarily will His goodness and love be expressed in the way we live each day.

But that wasn't enough for Jesus' critics. It never is for human beings, overtly religious or not, who insist on being gods themselves. We see this theme throughout much of Matthew 12.

Matthew 12:1-14. Jesus is challenged by Pharisees, traditionalists who touted the law as the way to be right with God. The Pharisees often get a bad rap. Although they were unrelenting legalists and were among Jesus' earliest and most ardent opponents, they had some views similar to Jesus. They believed, for example, in the importance of the Scriptures and unlike the other major sect if influential first-century Jewish teachers, the Saducees, in a bodily resurrection for believers.

The term Pharisees seems to mean pure ones or separate ones in Hebrew. To their credit, the Pharisees were devoted to thorough study and explication of the Scriptures, then composed solely of the Old Testament. But they often used their knowledge as a mallet on the religiously-gullible whom they bullied.

As our chapter in Matthew begins, Jesus' disciples, who are hungry, pass through fields of ripe grain and, as was allowed by God's law, effectually "harvested" some of it, grabbing the heads of grain, rolling them between their fingers and thumbs, and eating them. The Pharisees don't argue with the disciples' right to pluck the grain. But they do object to this "harvesting." This, the Pharisees said, was work and it was a Sabbath day when work was prohibited.

In His response, Jesus points back in memory to one of Judaism's greatest heroes, King David, described in the Old Testament as "a man after God's own heart." The Pharisees, because of their knowledge of the Scriptures, were bound to accept the validity of the precedent Jesus cites. Jesus says there was a point when David and his companions were hungry and ate bread from the altar of God, which as Jesus puts it, "no one but priests were allowed to eat." (First Samuel 21:1-6)

Jesus' whole point is that God's laws aren't created so that we can tote up records as religious goody-two shoes. They're meant to delineate the places within which life is godly and good. It's also designed to cause us to see our distance from God's plan for us and turn to Him for forgiveness and empowerment for godly living.

But when a strict adherence to the law threatens life or the doing of compassion, we should opt for life and love.
Citing another example--of a person working to pull out a lamb who has fallen into a ravine on a Sabbath day--Jesus says that it's entirely okay to give God's love away and to discharge the practical acts that common sense would indicate to be necessary even if it may technically violate another of God's laws. The highest law is the law of love. The Pharisees, of course, are enraged by Jesus' comments, counting them as further evidence to be used against Him.

Matthew 12:15-21. Jesus points to Isaiah 42:14, the opening verses of the prophet's famous Servant Song, foretelling the coming of a Suffering Servant Who would redeem the fallen and the hurting. Written many centuries before Jesus' birth, Jesus here makes clear that He is the Servant foretold by the prophet. At the end of these words, Isaiah (and Jesus) say that the Servant brings hope not only for God's people, the Jews, but also to believing non-Jews, Gentiles, or as The Message paraphrase fashions it, "far-off unbelievers."

Matthew 12:22-37. This is an intriguing section of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus encounters a man filled with a demon who is also blind and deaf. He casts out the demon and restores the man's sight and hearing. That's a good thing, right? Expressive of God's love and power?

But the Pharisees by now, are apoplectic in their revulsion of everything Jesus does and says. Convinced of their own righteousness and that Jesus has failed to attain their high and holy status, they accuse Him of healing and casting out demons with the power of the Devil.

Jesus' response was alluded to by Abraham Lincoln in his famous "house divided" speech. As Jesus uses the image however, it pokes fun at the Pharisees' absurd assertion. If, Jesus is saying, the power of hell is being used to bring God's goodness and healing into people's lives, it would only demonstrate that the devil's dominion is rife with civil war and would simply fall apart. The devil would be playing into God's hands; so, God is the winner no matter what. "But," Jesus says, "if it's by God's kingdom that I am sending the evil spirits packing, then God's kingdom is here for sure."

Alluding to the Pharisees' accusations against Him, Jesus says:
"There's nothing done or said that can't be forgiven. But if you deliberately persist in your slanders against God's Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives. If you reject the Son of Man out of some misunderstanding, the Holy Spirit can forgive you, but when you reject the Holy Spirit, you're sawing off the branch on which you're sitting, severing by your own perversity all connections with the One who forgives." (Matthew 12:31-32)
The take-away for us, I think, is that through Jesus Christ, God offers forgiveness and new life to everybody. But if we refuse to allow the Holy Spirit, through God's Word, other people, or our daily experiences, to either convict us of sin or convince us that we can be forgiven and empowered for better and everlasting living through Jesus, we're doing the same thing the Pharisees do in this passage. In effect, we saw ourselves off from the branch of rejection and pride on which we've chosen to perch.

Matthew 22:38-44. The next segment of the chapter begins almost comically. Jesus has just used the very power of heaven to free a man from a demon and restore his sight and hearing. But the Pharisees approach Him and say:
"Teacher, we want to see your credentials. Give us some hard evidence that God is in this. How about a miracle?"
As Homer Simpson would say, "Doh!" Were the Pharisees deliberately obtuse or were they, as is far more likely, such legalists that they couldn't allow the Holy Spirit to help them see the truth about Jesus' identity and the new life He offers?

In His response, Jesus alludes to the Old Testament prophet Jonah. God commissioned Jonah to go tell the people of a city called Nineveh that God had plans to destroy their town. But Jonah hated the Ninevites and was certain of God's kindness and grace. He was sure that if he told the Ninevites what God's plans were, they would turn from their sin (repent), ask for forgiveness, and walk with God. Jonah didn't want that. So, as someone has said, instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah took a Mediterranean cruise. Displeased with Jonah, God caused a storm that only stopped after Jonah told the passengers and crew of the ship he'd boarded to throw him into the drink. He was, famously, swallowed by a large sea creature and was in the belly for three days. Finally, Jonah was vomited onto land. Once he made it to Nieneveh, Jonah probably made a stunning sight. (He was probably plenty smelly, too.)

Jesus' point: The only sign you people are going to get from God is the same one the people Nineveh got, a person who emerges from entombment after three days. Jesus, of course, is alluding to His crucifixion and resurrection.

Those two events are the ultimate confirmation of His identity as God and Savior, of His power over sin and death, and of His capacity to offer forgiveness and new lives to those who believe in Him.

Matthew 12:43-45. This is a passage I want to address in a separate post at another time.

Matthew 12:46-50. The chapter closes with Jesus saying that earthly familial relationships are of a lower priority than our relationship with Him. If our families ask us to turn our backs on Christ or His call to love God and love neighbor, we must be willing to turn our backs on our families. Stark words. But Jesus isn't asking us to do anything He wasn't willing to do Himself. He never does.

Check out the previous 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...

The Conflict Deepens

Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ

No More Religion!]

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