Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Thoughts on Matthew

For some months, I've been reading and re-reading and pondering and posting about the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. I thought it would be good to just create a set of links to those postings, so here they are:
Not Skipping Over Matthew 1
The Great Foreshadowing
Blasphemy Against The Holy Spirit
Invited But Not Chosen
The Scary Parts of Matthew
The Law of the Heart
Why Was Jesus Unclear?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Why Was Jesus Unclear?

One of the lessons I learned in journalism school was to write with blunt clarity. I don't always achieve that goal, but communicating clearly has long been one of my ideals. Therefore, it has been a bit bothersome to read through the book of Matthew in the New Testament and find that Jesus was often unclear, and that he was intentionally unclear.

As you probably know, Jesus often taught in parables. Some of these were reasonably clear, but some were not. Even his close disciples did not always understand (13:36).

Less well known, I suspect, is that Jesus also spoke in what I will call "contrasts."

By contrasts I mean that he taught that if you find your life you will lose it and if you lose your life you will find it (10:39); that you should not judge (7:1), and you should judge (7:6 - judge who is a "dog"); that you should be afraid of God (10:28) and that you should not be afraid of God (10:31); that you should let your good deeds be seen by men (5:14-16) and that you should not let your good deeds be seen by men (6:1); that if you exalt yourself you will be humbled and if you humble yourself you will be exalted, and so forth.

The meaning of some of these contrasts is clear, but like some of the proverbs, some require thought. Take the command not to judge and to judge. I think that means not to pass any sort of ultimate condemnation on anyone, but on the other hand to use good judgment about who will be receptive to hear the gospel. I think fearing and not fearing God means to have a deep, trembling respect for God, knowing he has the power to put people into hell, but to also know that he loves his children, so those who love him need not have any fear for their ultimate destiny. And regarding the commands to let your good deeds be seen by men and not let them be seen by men, I think this means not to do anything to bring glory to yourself, but make sure God alone gets the credit for the good deeds he inspires you to do. But read them yourself and see what you think.

Anyway, this method of teaching was no accident. Jesus was perfectly well aware that much of what he was saying required thought to understand, and I think that's what he wanted.

But why?

I've pondered this and have come up with a number of reasons, some of which are speculative, but, I think, likely. So let me share them with you.

- The person who hears a parable is forced to think - at least if he wants to understand it. But some people are not interested in understanding, so, by speaking in parables (or contrasts), Jesus mercifully protects uninterested people from learning yet more truth that they would then become responsible to God for acting upon (13:11-12).

- Jesus wanted to create a group of disciples - beyond the inner core of twelve - and this kind of teaching probably divided people into two camps. First, the "Bah! He's talking nonsense" group, who would walk away, and second, the group that says, "Hmm. Interesting. I think I understand, but maybe I should talk to the disciples to see what they say." So some walked away, but others, those who had a thirst for God, hung around and pondered and asked questions. These became disciples.

- Parables have a delayed-release effect: not everybody instantly understood what Jesus meant; some people figured it out later, maybe after discussing it with friends. This was a good thing because Jesus wanted to keep things under control. He didn't want a crowd to get all excited at his teaching and try to make him an earthly ruler or otherwise disrupt his mission. I think that is why he often discouraged people from telling about his miracles. By letting his message sink in slowly, he stopped people from acting in a moment of wild enthusiasm.

- While his parables and contrasts may have taken people a while to figure out, they are very memorable. They are dramatic and stick in the mind until a person is ready and willing to think them over. There are few things more worthless than a forgotten lesson.

- Jesus is training his disciples to take over when he leaves. By giving the people parables but giving the disciples the inside information on the meaning of these parables (13:11), Jesus gives the disciples authority, because anyone who has knowledge about a topic just naturally has authority in that realm. So Jesus isn't trying to deprive the people of the meaning of the parables and contrasts, but he wants that information to come through the disciples so they have authority to lead when he is gone ("What is whispered in your ear," he tells them, "proclaim from the roofs" 10:27).

Also, I think that implied in all the contrasts and parables of Jesus is the command to think. If you don't think, you won't understand his teaching, and if you don't understand it then you can't obey it.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Law of the Heart

One passage in the New Testament book of Matthew that confused me for a long time was the passage in which Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (5:17). How, I wondered, does that mesh with Paul's teaching about it being faith, and not keeping the law, that results in salvation (Rom. 3:27-28, Rom. 4:13-15, Gal. 5:4, etc.)?

I thought maybe "fulfill" was a round-about way of saying "abolish," but Jesus goes on to say that "until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen" will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." Heaven and earth haven't disappeared, and while it is not entirely clear to me what the "everything" is that Jesus is referring to, it seems pretty clear that it involves wrapping up heaven and earth, and they haven't been wrapped up. Plus, Jesus warns that the person who breaks the commandments and teaches others to break them will be the "least in the kingdom of heaven." And finally, in verse 5:20 he adds that "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

I think my discouraged reaction is probably the same reaction as those who heard Jesus say this the first time: "I can't do that! Those Pharisees are fanatics. They spend every living moment following this huge laundry list of rules." But then, as these people listened to Jesus, I think a lot of them said, "Ahhh! I see what you mean."

Okay, so what does Jesus mean?

I believe he means that the Pharisees were on the wrong track; that obeying the law is not a matter of obeying a complex tangle of rules, but it is a matter of the heart; it is a matter of looking through the outward rules to the real intent of the law, which is love and faith. I think it is this tangle of outward legalisms that Paul objected to when he rejected the law; he certainly did not reject faith and love (1 Cor. 13).

So let me try to defend this view.

I found three places in Matthew where Jesus sums up the law:

1. In his conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (7:12).

2. In 22:23 Jesus says the most important parts of the law are to exercise justice, mercy and faithfulness.

3. And his grand summation, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (22:37-40).

So, the first two of these examples strongly imply love, and the third example makes it explicit. The law is to love and love is from the heart. So, to outdo the Pharisees in obeying the law, love God and love people from deep in your heart.

When I understood that, it made a lot of Jesus' teaching in Matthew a lot clearer.

Some examples:

- Jesus looks below the surface of the law against murder, to the heart, and condemns anger and hatred (5:21).

- It isn't just the physical act of adultery; looking at a woman lustfully is a violation of the law against adultery. Again, Jesus looks at the heart.

- Give to the poor secretly (6:1-4) and pray to God secretly (6:6) and fast secretly (6:17-18). Jesus is saying not to make a show of doing these things because what is important is the attitude of your heart.

- Jesus profusely praises the centurion for his faith (8:10) and later that of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28). Again, Jesus focuses on what is in the centurion's and Canaanite woman's hearts.

- When Jesus "worked" on the Sabbath by healing a man with a shriveled hand (12:9-13) he was obeying the true meaning of the Sabbath, which was instituted in love by God as a day of rest and recovery. Jesus brought recovery to the man with the shriveled hand.

- In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (20:1-16) Jesus seems to be saying that the amount of work the workers did is not the key thing; the key thing was a matter of the heart, that the workers were willing to work for the landowner.

- Jesus condemns the chief priests and elders (21:23, 23:32) because they did not believe; again, a matter of the heart.

- When Jesus tells the rich young man (19:21) to give away all he has, this instruction is not in the Old Testament and Jesus isn't making a general rule that the rich can't enter heaven (in fact he says the rich entering heaven is possible with God - 19:25-26), but he tells the rich man this in order to take him down to his heart; to show him that he values his riches more than God.

- In the parable of the different kinds of soils (13:3-23), the seed in the rocky soil does not sink its roots down to the nourishing soil, the heart. The man represented by the rocky soil had some sort of a joyful experience, but it was a superficial experience, not the same as faith rooted in the heart.

- Similarly, in the parable of the ten virgins (25:1-13), I think the five virgins who did not have enough oil for their lamps represent those whose faith is inadequate because it does not reach down to a reservoir of faith in their hearts; it is just a fluffy surface experience. If the oil does indeed represent faith, that would explain why the wise virgins could not lend them oil - because you can only have enough faith to save yourself; other people can't borrow your faith to save themselves - they need their own.

I could cite other examples, but to sum up, let me quote Jesus' defense of his disciples, who ate with unwashed hands. Jesus said that it isn't what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean; it's the things that come out of the mouth, because ..."the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'." (15:18-20)

For Jesus, it is what is in your heart that counts.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Scary Parts of Matthew

One of the things that bothered me as I read and pondered the book of Matthew in the New Testament over the past few months is that it seems so easy to go to Hell.

In the book, Jesus repeatedly warns of judgment and Hell and speaks of people being unworthy of him, a lot of times for things I've done ... sometimes repeatedly. Things like not showing mercy (5:7), being angry with a brother (5:21-22), thinking adultery (5:27-30), judging others (7:1), not standing firm in my devotion to Jesus (10:22), disowning Jesus (10:33), loving family more than Jesus (10:37-39), not being prepared for Jesus' return (25:12), not using the talents God has given me (24:50-51), failing to be kind to the poor (25:34-46), etc.

A casual reading of Matthew can be very disheartening, but I think a more careful reading flips that around completely and should be very encouraging for the Christian.

Let's take the example of judging others. Jesus says that if you judge others you will be judged. Well... I'm afraid I have judged others, probably quite a few times.

But in reading this (and similar passages) I forgot to consider that there have not only been times when I have judged people, but there have also been times when I have not judged them. So am I in trouble because of the times I was bad, or am I okay because of the times I was good?

Well, Jesus makes it clear that he does want perfection from us (5:48), but he knows we will fail and need forgiveness (5:7, 18:32-35). He also knows that the student is not above his teacher, but Jesus is satisfied if the student is simply like his teacher (10:24-25). And, of course, he knows that "the spirit is willing, but the body is weak" (26:41).

I found these verses pretty much persuaded me that I'm not doomed, but what finally convinced me that I'm okay despite my very checkered past is the story of Peter.

As you may recall, Jesus said that if you deny him before men, he will deny you before the Father (10:33). Well, Peter denied Jesus big time! (26:69-75) though at other times he acknowledged Jesus. And yet despite Peter's denial, Jesus accepted Peter! If obedience had to be perfect, Peter would have gone to Hell.

Whew! There is hope.

But don't for a minute get the idea that I believe my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds so I go to heaven. Not at all! I believe that in all these (formerly) frightening passages, Jesus is really talking about what's in our hearts (though let me defend that assertion in an upcoming post). I think Jesus means that if we have faith, it will express itself outwardly, and if your faith does not express itself outwardly, then you don't have faith at all, so quit kidding yourself, and those threats of Hell apply to you.

In other words, if you have faith, you will show mercy (5:7); you won't be angry with your brother (5:21-22); you won't think adulterous thoughts (5:27-30); you won't condemn others (7:1); you will be firm in your devotion to Jesus (10:22); you will acknowledge Jesus publicly (10:33); you will love Jesus more than family (10:37-39); you will be prepared for Jesus' return (25:12); you will use the talents God has given you (24:50-51); you will be kind to the poor (25:34-46); and so forth.

Not perfectly, of course, but if you have faith in Jesus it will show.