[I'm now at chapter 19 in this little project.]
(Peterson's paraphrase of the chapter, from The Message, can be found here.)
Sometimes as a Christian and a pastor, there are things I wish Jesus hadn't said. These things fall into two broad categories.
First, there are those things Jesus said that make me feel personally uncomfortable.
They're the sorts of statements that nail me whenever I'm feeling righteous and holier-than-everybody.
Or, that call me to account for some sin I'd even kept myself in the dark about, but which reading his words cast a light on, a light like those big spotlights that catch sight of escapees in those prison-break movies.
Or, Jesus calls me to do something I'd rather not do, like forgiving someone against whom I have a legitimate grudge.
Or, when He calls me to give up something that I find enjoyable or makes me feel superior to somebody else, like gossiping.
Jesus' words often smack me in the forehead like two-by-fours and when reading them, my first thought is to close my Bible and pretend I hadn't really read them at all, or that I hadn't read them correctly.
Second, there are those things Jesus said that, if I repeat them or affirm them, will probably cause people to call me to task for them and generally, get me into trouble with others.
A colleague from another denomination tells me that he suspects that lots of his fellow clergy feel discomfort with the words Jesus speaks about divorce at the beginning of this chapter, for example.
"They've cut some of it out of our lectionary [plan of Bible lessons for worship]," he said recently. Then with an impish--and I think, somewhat heroic--grin, he tells me, "I always put it back in."
The words Jesus speaks in this chapter are dangerous. They can lead some to take the wrong turn of spurning Jesus because they don't like what He says. They might lead others to the kind of self-righteousness that will separate people from God if they (and any of us) aren't careful.
Everything Jesus says here comes in response to questions, some earnestly offered, others rooted in agendas designed to entrap Him and pile up "evidence" to be used against Him later. But Jesus, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove (what He once said all of His followers should be), is totally forthright as He faces down those whose questions are daggers aimed at His heart. He knows the agendas of His enemies.
He also knows the sincerity of the authentic searchers. To each, He gives straight answers.
So, put on your helmets and your body armor and delve into this chapter with me.
vv. 1-12: (1) Here, Jesus is confronted with a question by the Pharisees. The Pharisees were members of one of the main religious movements among first century Judeans. They thought, contrary to the teachings of the Bible, that one's relationship with God and eternal life are secured by adhering to rules. Jesus taught, as had the Old Testament, that while God's laws are useful guides for those who want to respond gratefully to God's love and blessings, a relationship with God comes to those who trustingly follow the God we see in Christ. (This is what the Bible is talking about when it speaks of faith.) The Pharisees were always trying to trip Jesus up. For more about the Pharisees, see here, here, and here, among other places you can google on this blog.
(2) Jesus says that the provision for divorce given by God through Moses, was "a concession to...[humanity's] hardheartedness." But, He goes on to say, "it's not part of God's original plan."
We all know that there are some marriages that must come to an end. Unrepentant adultery, indifference of commitment, and abuse all can end marriages long before judges declare unions legally finished. But every divorce, irrespective of how warranted it may be, is occasioned by somebody's sin, somebody's hardheartedness. Mature people can accept this.
One man, whose wife seemed incapable of remaining faithful to him, after going through counseling and repeatedly seeking reconciliation, finally decided that he had to end their marriage. Having prayed and counseled with the man for several years, I sadly agreed with his decision.
Often, after going through such an experience, the marital victim develops an attitude of self-righteousness. But this man told me, "Mark, I know that I had no choice but to go through with the divorce. I know too, that it wasn't my fault that she chose to live the way she did. But I also know that I brought my own sins to the table. There were things I did to sabotage our relationship. I bear some blame for the death of our marriage and it grieves me."
I told this man how healthy I thought that he was. Even when divorce is necessary--just as when war becomes necessary, or abortion, it happens because we human beings haven't quite figured out how to get along or resolve our differences. God made us to live in loving fellowship with others. He created marriage to be an indissoluble union between husband and wife.
(3) All of this points to an important truth about life with Jesus: The relationship with God that Jesus offers to all with faith in Him isn't something you can earn by abiding by holy laws. But Jesus isn't what's called an anomist. (The Greek word for law is nomos. To advocate anomia is to say that God's law is irrelevant and that what we do is immaterial.)
Jesus clearly said that God's law was inviolable. None of us is capable of perfect adherence to it. But Jesus fulfills it for us with totality. The New Testament makes clear that God expects absolute adherence to His law and that we human beings are incapable of such adherence. Christ, Who is not only God, but also a pure, sinless human being, takes our deserved punishment on the cross.
Once we have, by faith, received Christ and the new life He offers, God's law becomes a guide for those who want to gratefully respond to Him.
vv. 13-15: Children were disdained in Jesus' culture. But not by Jesus. He welcomed them and said that His kingdom was composed of people who, like children with parents or adults they trust, credulously placed themselves in His hands.
vv. 16-30: (1) A wealthy man asks Jesus what good thing he can do to "get eternal life." Jesus snares the man in the web of his self-righteousness by getting him to say that he had been obeying God's ten commandments all of his life. (Can you make that claim? I surely can't! I can't even say that about myself today or even about how I've lived or thought as I've been writing this post.)
Hearing this, Jesus wails at the wall obstructing this particular guy's relationship with God. He tells him, " go sell your possessions, give everything to the poor...Then come follow me."
In spite of behaving in an outwardly righteous manner, this man apparently had a different god he worshiped. The center of his existence was his money and all the comfort, power, influence, and ease it bought for him. He was so addicted to his god that when Jesus tried to get him to turn away from it, he turned away from Jesus instead.
Our gods may be other things beside money. The German theologian Paul Tillich, like Martin Luther before him, saw that this and other passages of the Bible demonstrate that whatever is most important in our lives is our god.
Jesus says, "Change your allegiance." Do what you must to make that happen and turn to Him. It only makes sense. Only the resurrected Savior will remain standing after all the little gods we worship are dead or destroyed. Only He can give us life with God that lasts forever!
In an earlier installment of this series, I told this true story:
A woman I met years ago told me the story of what happened to her after a little daughter died of leukemia at age 2. She and her husband had another daughter who was a year younger than the child who died. Because of the loss of the older baby and her overwhelming fear, this mother became overly protective of the younger girl. She rarely let her out of her sight and she showered her with attention and gifts.(2) A common notion in first-century Judea was that wealth was a blessing from God for those who were especially righteous. No wonder then, that Jesus' disciples were flabbergasted when He said, while watching the wealthy man walk away:
One day, when the younger girl was two, the woman was visiting with friends. Suddenly, she realized that her daughter was gone, nowhere to be found in the house. They discovered her at the bottom of the friend's pool. She'd been there for awhile and it was doubtful that the little one would live. You can imagine the mother's agony!
But then something happened as she paced in an emergency room waiting area, offering up desperate prayers to heaven. "As I prayed," she told me, "I sensed God telling me, 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'" The words, of course, are the first commandment, found in the Old Testament book of Exodus.
The woman said that she felt God was telling her that she had made her child or being a good mother her deities. She spent each day anxiously pursuing that god, trying to placate the demands it placed on her life.
Any time we allow anyone or anything other than the God we meet in Jesus Christ to be our deity, we're engaged in religion and anxiety will be the result.
When we surrender to Jesus Christ, relationship--with God and with others--replaces religion and peace replaces anxiety. Not perfectly, of course. We're human beings; we carry a lot of baggage. But Jesus brings peace, freedom, and hope. Jesus frees us from religion.
"Do you have any idea how difficult it is for the rich to enter God's kingdom? Let me tell you, it's easier to gallop a camel through a needle's eye than for the rich to enter God's kingdom."There is some dispute about what Jesus meant exactly in the use of this hyperbolic turn of phrase. Some scholars point to the fact that the small openings through which travelers arriving at a city after dark were called "the eye of the needle." These small entry points were meant to provide security to the city, typically surrounded by walls, accessible until sunset each day by gates that were locked once darkness fell. Those who wished to enter the towns once those gates were shut could enter if they unpacked their camels, making it possible for sentries to limit access and thwart attacks.
Other scholars though, say that this phrasing to describe those tiny access points to cities--eye of the needle--was only used many years after Jesus would have made His observation in Matthew 19. Jesus, they insist, had reference to the ridiculously impossible prospect of a camel getting through the eye of a needle used in sewing.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the effect of Jesus' metaphor is the same. A person of wealth confronts the peculiar temptation to rely on their cash, rather than on Christ.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with money. This is why the apostle Paul says that "the love of money [not money itself] is the root of all kinds of evil." Money is morally neutral. Our use of it and our relationship with it isn't neutral.
Most of us don't possess the capacity to resist the temptations to which money can give rise. (Which, since I constantly pray that He will allow me to remain close to Him, is probably why God has never allowed me to be wealthy.) The man who meets Jesus in Matthew 19 evidently doesn't possess the ability to relate to money as anything other than an idol.
[Here are links to preceding installments in this series:
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!
The Subversive God
Stories About the Kingdom
The Emperor Who Had No Clothes vs. the God Clothed in Humanity
So Much for Being a Milquetoast
Don't Ignore the Obvious
Watch Out for Arrogance!]