Friday, September 30, 2011

Matthew 21:18–22

Matthew 21:18–22 (ESV): Jesus Curses the Fig Tree


In this passage Jesus passes by a fig tree, and, being hungry, looks for figs on it, but there is nothing on the tree but leaves. So he curses the tree, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” (verse 19 (ESV)).

The tree immediately withers, and the disciples marvel at it, wondering how it withered so quickly. Jesus’ answer to them is another very familiar passage to most of us:

And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (verses 21–22 (ESV))


Matthew’s stories are sometimes a bit condensed; other accounts of this story in the Gospels have Jesus and the disciples finding the tree withered the next day, whereas the account in Matthew makes it sound like the withering happens instantly. It doesn’t mean that Matthew’s account is inaccurate; the point is that the tree withered in an unnaturally short period of time, which amazed the disciples. Matthew’s focus is simply on other things, rather than focusing in on the details of how quickly it happened. (A tree withering in one day is “at once.”)

By this point in his ministry Jesus has performed a lot of miracles, so it’s interesting that the disciples “marvel” at this one, where he simply causes a fig tree to wither. I wonder if it’s because this is a curse—something Jesus didn’t do often—and we humans like to see shows of power. Jesus has miraculously healed and fed people, and demonstrated his authority even over demons, but in this instance when he curses something and the curse takes place, it hits home in a unique way because of the way we sometimes view things. I also think of Luke 9:51–56 (ESV), when the Jesus and the disciples face opposition and James and John ask Jesus if he wants them to “tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them”—which, of course, he doesn’t, and you can almost feel the disappointment of James and John.

At the end of this passage Jesus again talks to his disciples about faith, and tells them that whatever they ask in prayer they will receive, if they have faith. That caveat is pretty important. I do not see this passage as promising that we can have anything we desire if we just pray for it—or if we just pray hard enough for it, or if we just believe hard enough that God will do it. “Faith” is not just believing something with all your might. In the Biblical context, faith is inextricably bound up with who God is, and trusting in Him. This verse doesn’t make God into a genie, that will grant us wishes as long as we believe hard enough. It does tell us, however, that if our “faith” is correctly focused we can never go wrong; if I want what God wants, how could I possibly not be satisfied? It’s interesting to also contrast this with 17:14–20.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Matthew 21:12–17

Matthew 21:12–17 (ESV): Jesus Cleanses the Temple


In the last passage Jesus had been wildly praised and rejoiced over by the crowds on his way into Jerusalem. In this passage Jesus has the city and now enters the temple, where he immediately drives out all who are buying and selling there (the money changers and the ones selling pigeons/animals for sacrifice). And he tells them why:

He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (verse 13 (ESV))
These are quotes from Isaiah 56:7 (ESV) and Jeremiah 7:11 (ESV).

People then start bringing the blind and the lame to him, still in the temple, and he heals them. And then the children start crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (verse 15 (ESV)). The picture Matthew presents is one almost of chaos, and the chief priests and the scribes don’t much like it. Out of all that’s happening they focus on the children, and ask Jesus if he hears what they’re saying, probably expecting Jesus to correct the children. Instead, however, he reinforces that they’re correct in what they’re saying:

… and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
  you have prepared praise’?”

(verse 16 (ESV))

After this he leaves Jerusalem and goes to lodge at Bethany (reported in verse 17 (ESV), as any Simpsons fan will know).


One might wonder why there are people buying and selling in the temple in the first place—it sounds crassly commercial even to modern-day ears (and we’re all about crass commercialism)—but I think there was a reason behind it that was at least understandable: Not everyone lived close to the temple, so in order to come to the temple and make the appropriate sacrifices, it wouldn’t have been feasible to bring the appropriate animals with you. So they’d be available for sale closer to the temple. Plus, since people are from many different regions, they wouldn’t all be using the same form of currency, they’d be using currency from wherever they lived, so they would need a way to change their money to the local currency as would be used in Jerusalem, in order to buy the appropriate items for sacrificing. All of this is well and good; I don’t think Jesus would have had an issue with this. However, it’s the profit that people are taking in each of these transactions. “You’ve come from far away? Well then, you’ll need to change your currency to the local currency—and I’ll just take a commission off of that, thankyouverymuch. Now, you need to buy some pigeons for a sacrifice? Well my friend here can sell you some—at a rate that’s not much more than you’d pay elsewhere (depending on your definition of ‘much’).” People are coming to worship God, and are being ripped off and taken advantage of.

We can probably all agree to that. Now here’s an extra credit question: how much profit by these money changers and animal sellers would be too much? Would any profit be acceptable? How does that translate to modern times; how much profit is too much when selling Christian music? (Not just CDs, also sheet music for songs you’ve written for worship.) How about Bibles: how much profit is too much when selling the Word of God? Is it ever right to make a profit off of the Word?

As mentioned above, I get the impression that when the chief priests and scribes point out to Jesus what the children are saying that they’re probably expecting Jesus to correct the children. It is very clear what is being said, when they call Jesus “Son of David”—they’re saying he’s the Messiah. I think the religious leaders are expecting Jesus to tell the children something like, “Now now, I’m just a prophet—don’t confuse me with God, or His Chosen One.” Instead, Jesus reinforces what the children are saying. He’s telling the chief priests and scribes that the children have it right—he is the Son of David!

I always try to put myself in the place of the religious leaders: if Jesus really was a prophet sent by God, then he’d hold God’s Scriptures up very highly. If Jesus were to blaspheme, not only would it be proof that he wasn’t sent by God, it would be just cause to have him stoned to death. If, for example, healing people on the Sabbath had actually been a sin, then when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath it really would have been proof that he wasn’t sent by God. (Maybe not good enough proof on its own—when we look at some of the people God used in the past, they weren’t all perfect—but it would have been at least a piece of evidence.) The Pharisees and chief priests and scribes had it right, in a sense: if Jesus was committing all of these sins—or he committed any sins—then he wasn’t the Son of God, and shouldn’t have been followed. The problem was that their definition of sin didn’t mesh with the way the Scriptures defined sin, and so they thought he was sinning when he actually wasn’t. It is interesting, though, that the religious leaders in this passage try to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt. (At least, from their perspective.) When the children start calling him Son of David, they give him the opportunity to correct the children, which, in their minds, would allow him to avert what they would have considered to be blasphemy. (And, again, for anyone other than Jesus to have taken on that title, it would have been blasphemous.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Matthew 21:1–11

Matthew 21:1–11 (ESV): The Triumphal Entry


In this passage Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and when they get close Jesus sends two of the disciples into a nearby village to get him a donkey and its colt. He tells them that they will see the donkey and its colt as soon as they get to the village, and they are to simply take them—that if anyone questions them on it, they should simply tell them that “the Lord needs them” (verse 3 (ESV)), and the questioner will drop their objections and let the disciples take the animals.

So the two disciples do as Jesus has told them, and when they return with the animals they spread their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. (The passage says that Jesus “sat on them” (verse 7 (ESV)), and based on the context one might think that maybe it means he sat on the two animals, but the ESV Study Bible says that, based on the Greek, the “them” being referred to is the cloaks, not the animals. Even without a working knowledge of Greek, common sense should probably lead us to the same conclusion.)

The crowd takes the disciples’ example, and starts spreading their own cloaks on the road for the animals to walk on, while others do the same with branches from nearby trees. The excitement builds from there:

And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (verses 9–11 (ESV))
Matthew tells us that this is all taking place to fulfill a prophecy given in Zechariah 9:9 (ESV).


We should not think, based on this passage, that all of these people who are rejoicing at Jesus’ arrival are actually his followers. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that many of these same people will be calling for his crucifixion in a few days—whether because of a change of heart, or because of mob mentality. (In fact, mob mentality probably plays into this scene as well.) Most of those who are giving any thought to this are thinking that Jesus is coming as a political and military leader, who will free the Jews from the Romans; when that turns out not to be the case, they turn on him. With the benefit of hindsight we know that Jesus’ real purpose on this planet was far better than political goals.

However, regardless of the true motives behind this praise and exultation, and regardless of how short-lived it is, it’s also engineered by God. We are told in Luke that even if the people hadn’t cooperated, “the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 (ESV)). For one brief moment Jesus is being treated as the king he truly is, not because he is tired of serving us—his biggest act of service is still to come—but perhaps as a reminder that he is not just a servant. He is the mighty king, not just of Israel, or the world, but of everything.

And yet… when I read this passage, I don’t usually read it with joy or exultation (though perhaps I should). I read it in more of a melancholy mood, as I contemplate what is about to come. I read it with the realization that the people involved don’t even understand what they’re cheering for—but that if they did, they might cheer all the more. This praise and worship and exultation of Jesus was deserved but short-lived. Hopefully in our Sunday worship services and other events where we corporately worship God we are carrying on this exultation, and doing it with proper motivations in our hearts. We do, after all, have the Holy Spirit, and He will help us to worship God in a way that these people couldn’t have dreamed of.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Matthew 20:29–34

Matthew 20:29–34 (ESV): Jesus Heals Two Blind Men


Another fairly short—and simple—passage: On his way to Jericho a great crowd is following Jesus, and he passes by two blind men who are sitting by the roadside. When they realize Jesus is passing by they cry out for him to have mercy on them, but the crowd tells them to shut up. They cry out all the more, however, and Jesus asks them what they want. They respond that they want their eyes to be opened, so Jesus takes pity on them and touches their eyes; they immediately receive their site, and follow him.


I don’t know why I did the entire synopsis this time, instead of just advocating that readers follow the link and read the text…

One has to wonder: with such a great crowd following Jesus, how loud did the blind men have to be shouting for the crowd to actually tell them to shut up? (The text says that they told the men to “be silent” (verse 31 (ESV)), but it’s essentially the same thing.) Other than that, there isn’t anything to my eyes that’s remarkable about this particular healing incident which sets it apart from others; Jesus takes pity on two blind men, and heals them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Matthew 20:20–28

Matthew 20:20–28 (ESV): A Mother’s Request


In this passage the mother of two of the apostles—James and John—approaches Jesus, and asks him if her two sons can be allowed to sit at his right and his left in his kingdom. He tells her that she doesn’t know what she’s asking, and asks her (I think rhetorically) whether they are able to drink the cup that he is going to drink. They answer Jesus that yes, they are able—and since it says that “they” answer, it means that James and John must have been part of the conversation, it wasn’t just their mother asking this on their behalf, unbeknownst to them. Jesus doesn’t argue this point with them, since it’s true:

He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (verse 23 (ESV))
Of course the other ten apostles hear about this, and get indignant with James and John. (Probably because they didn’t think of it first, based on Jesus’ response.) But Jesus calls them together, and tells them that even though Gentile rulers lord it over their underlings, and exercise great control, the disciples are not to act like that. Whoever wants to be great should be a servant, and whoever wants to be first should be a slave—just like Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.


When Jesus talks about “drinking the cup” that he is going to drink, he’s talking about his fate, or his destiny, as appointed by God. He’s essentially asking James and John if they can follow his fate. When we read this, of course, we immediately think of his death on the cross.

This is another passage that probably just washes right over us, for the most part, because we’ve read it so many times, and it’s now become part of our culture that humility is something to be treasured—under the right circumstances. (We seem to value humility, but we also, contrarily, value forceful leaders.) Perhaps part of our problem, part of the reason this passage doesn’t strike us as maybe it should, is that we tend to forget who Jesus really is—how big, powerful, and awe-inspiring God is. The God who created the universe, and keeps it going in His power. The God who knows all of our thoughts, at all times. The God who can do whatever He pleases, and the idea of trying to stop Him from accomplishing His purposes is… laughable. That God came to earth, as a man, and made himself a servant. Jesus would have been within his right to demand all people everywhere to bow down to him, and he had the power to enforce it if there would have been people who would have refused. Or to simply smite them. Don’t want to bow down to me? Poof, there’s a puff of smoke where once a person was standing. Or maybe a pillar of salt, for more dramatic flair. Jesus is God. But because of His love for us, He came to earth as a servant, and allowed himself the ignominy of death on a cross, in punishment for our sins.

When we consider who Jesus is, and how much He had to lower himself to become our servant, the idea of we ourselves becoming servants for our fellow humans shouldn’t seem like such a big deal. Do I feel it’s a big deal to lower myself to the status of a servant? How much bigger of a deal was it for God Almighty to do so! It’s an insult to Him for me to consider myself too great to be anyone’s servant.

So do you want to be “first”? Then make yourself last. If you want to hear “well done, good and faithful servant” from God, then you have to make yourself a servant—not just to Him (which is difficult enough, since we’re so proud and stiff-necked), but to those around you.

I find it interesting that Jesus tells James and John that they will drink his cup, but that they’re still not going to know their place in the kindgom of heaven. The same could be said of any of us; we know we’re not going to be sitting on the twelve thrones that the apostles will be sitting on, but other than that we don’t know what it’s going to be like in the kingdom of heaven. But it’s not our place to worry about that; we become God’s servants and follow Him, and let Him take care of the details about what the next life will be like.

Matthew 20:17–19

Matthew 20:17–19 (ESV): Jesus Foretells His Death a Third Time


This is a very short passage, which can be read quicker than giving a synopsis.


I don’t have much to say about this passage, except to note how blunt Jesus is being about his death and resurrection. It’s like the end is coming very soon, so he really wants them to get it. “Look, I’m going to be delivered to the scribes and Pharisees, they’re going to condemn me to death, the Gentiles are going to mock, flog, and crucify me, and on the third day I’m going to rise.” He can’t be more explicit than that.

And interestingly, no reaction is recorded from the disciples. I really wonder how they reacted to this. They were probably hesitant to disagree with him, after Jesus rebuked Peter in 16:21–23, but does that mean they believed Jesus? What did they make of this “rising on the third day” business; did they understand it, or did they think it was metaphorical? It seems so blunt, here, and yet their reaction when he really was delivered over to be crucified indicates that they either didn’t understand after all, or they just plain forgot in the heat of the moment. I’m sort of thinking it was a combination of both; since they didn’t fully understand, they set Jesus’ words aside, but then after the resurrection, when they did start to understand, they started to remember Jesus’ earlier words, which now made more sense. (See, for example, Luke 24:1–12 (ESV).)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We won’t be getting to Jesus’ death and resurrection for a while…

Friday, September 16, 2011

Matthew 20:1–16

Matthew 20:1–16 (ESV): Laborers in the Vineyard


This passage continues on from the previous one (see below). Jesus tells a parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to a guy who wants to hire labourers for his vineyard. He goes out first thing in the morning (which would be around 6 A.M., if it matters) to hire some, and agrees to pay them a day’s wage (a denarius). He goes out again at 9 A.M. and sees some more labourers there, and hires them to join the first labourers in his vineyard. He goes out yet again at noon, at 3 P.M., and finally at 5 P.M., each time finding more labourers and hiring them to go work in his vineyard.

Then when evening comes he instructs his foreman to pay each labourer his wages, starting with the last ones hired and going up to the first. So he does, and when the people who were hired at the end of the day come forward they’re paid a denarius, which leads the people who were hired at the beginning of the day to expect that they’ll be paid more, since they’ve been there all day, but to their surprise they also receive a denarius.

They don’t take this well, and they start grumbling against the vineyard’s owner; some people had only worked an hour, whereas they worked all day long in the heat of the sun, and yet the ones who were hired last were paid the same wages. The owner, however, defends his actions:

“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (verses 13–16 (ESV))


There’s a very important word at the beginning of this passage: “For.”

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” (verse 1 (ESV))
That means that this passage not only continues on from the previous one, but explains part of it. We should look at it in more context:

… And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. … (verses 19:23–20:1 (ESV))
Why will many who are first become last, and many who are last become first? Because the kingdom of heaven is like a man who hired some labourers to work in his vineyard, and paid them all the same wage regardless of how much work they had done to “earn” it. (I put the word “earn” in quotes for a particular reason, which I’ll get to next.) That’s what the word “for” indicates at the beginning of verse 1. Both of these passages can teach lessons on their own, but only when you read them together will you get Jesus’ full meaning.

Obviously in this passage Jesus is talking about salvation. This is why I put the word “earn” in quotes; in real life, when a labourer agrees on a wage with his boss and then does the agreed upon work the payment of that wage is earned. It’s exactly that: a “wage,” not a “gift.” If the boss didn’t pay the wage he’d be doing something wrong; when the wage is paid, it’s not out of the goodness of the boss’ heart it’s simply what’s owed. But Jesus is using this metaphor to talk about salvation, and that’s when the whole wage concept falls apart: Salvation is not earned, it’s a gift from God. And since we haven’t earned it, but He has simply granted it to us out of the goodness of His own heart, out of His generosity and Grace and love, we don’t exactly have a right to question Him on how He grants it—to us or anyone else.

It’s why the workers in the parable were so perplexed, and it’s why the parable doesn’t make a lot of sense financially speaking—the guy who owned the vineyard would have been smarter to pay the labourers less and less as the day went on:
  • 6 A.M.: a denarius
  • 9 A.M.: 75% of a denarius
  • Noon: half a denarius
  • 3 P.M.: 25% of a denarius
  • 5 P.M.: 8% of a denarius
And I think that’s why Jesus chose a parable concerning wages to make his point: so that we’d be specifically comparing salvation with wages, and seeing explicitly how they’re not the same. Does it make sense for God to reward people more when He saves them earlier in life, and reward people less when He saves them later in life?

So what if a person comes to Christ at at a young age, spends their whole life living up to His standard as best they can, tries to please Him throughout their whole life, and their neighbour “lives like the devil” his whole life, repenting on his deathbed and coming to Christ a second before he dies… do they both get the same salvation? Enter the same kingdom of heaven? Yes. Is this fair? No—but not for the reasons you might be thinking. It’s not “fair” that either of them are granted salvation. Neither of them earned it; they both deserve to go to Hell. That’s what everyone deserves. But God, in His mercy, sent his Son to die on their behalf, so that even though they earned Hell they are given salvation as a gift. As it says in Romans:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 (ESV), emphasis added)
Is it somehow “more fair” for the person who lived a good life their whole life to be saved than for the “live like the devil” guy? Actually… no. Even the person who lived a good life their whole life only did so as a result of God’s Grace, and through His strength, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. That person still hasn’t “earned” anything; it is all a gift from God. Not just the initial salvation, as outlined in Ephesians 2:1–10 (ESV), but all of the good works done after that are also a result of His work.

In fact, this passage offers a great ray of hope for people who are not saved, regardless of the life they’ve lived and how long they’ve been living it: There’s still hope. As long as they’re still able to make a decision, they could make the right one and choose to accept the gift God is offering them. We never know when Jesus might ask them (quoting verses 6–7 (ESV)), “’Why do you stand here idle all day?”, and have them answer, “Because no one has hired us”—but now we’re ready to do your “work.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Further Thoughts on Matthew 19:16–30

After the long diatribe in the post for Matthew 19:16–30 my fingers were too sore to type a post for the next passage. (That’s not true at all, I just didn’t have time over the last couple of days to do a post, but it was fun to say.) Instead, I’ll elongate the diatribe, by mentioning a point I’d kept meaning to mention while I was writing the last post and kept forgetting.

I mentioned a couple of times that one of the reasons wealth is such a hindrance to becoming a Christian (and a hindrance for the Christian to live a godly life) is that we value our wealth more than we value God. But I neglected to mention another reason that wealth hinders (or prevents) our relationship with God: we place too much trust in it. When we’re wealthy we start to lose sight of the fact that we need God; that we depend on Him. We get used to the fact that we can use our wealth to get anything we want, buy ourselves out of any situation, or fix any problem. Do I want something? I’ll buy it. Do I have legal problems? I’ll get a lawyer to get me out of it. We lose any concept of being dependent on God, or, perhaps worse yet (because it’s more insidious), we get an idea that we need God for “big things,” but we can take care of the “little things” ourselves. The more wealthy we are, the more our wealth can do for us, the less we feel we need Him for.

It’s easy to think of the ultra-rich when I give a description like that but it’s all a matter of degree, isn’t it? I think everyone in the “first world” suffers from this, at least to some extent. We may not feel we can buy ourselves out of any situation, but neither are too many of us in danger of starving on a day-to-day basis. We don’t feel utterly dependent on God for our next morsel of food just in order to stay alive. If I were to lose my job today, and not get another one, I’d be okay for quite a while before I’d start to get so desperate that I’d feel I’d need to depend on God just for food to stay alive. As Christians we all know that we’re dependent on Him—that even what we have was given to us by Him—but there is still a deep-rooted part of us, I’m convinced of it, that believes we’re self reliant. There’s a part of me that believes I’ll go home and have dinner tonight because I worked “hard” and earned the money that I used to buy my own food. Oh, and thanks, God, for giving me the talents You gave me that I used to earn my own money to buy my own food that is now mine. (And my wife’s. She can have some too.)

On a related point, much as we claim to believe that everything we have really belongs to Him, I think on a deeper level we really believe that what we have is ours. That when we give our tithes and our offerings on Sunday, or when we give to the poor, that we’re not distributing God’s own money as He wishes, but we’re giving to Him, out of our own generosity.

I think this is why people who are “spoiled” throw tantrums over things that seem so trivial to everyone else. When you can get anything you want, any time you want, it suddenly becomes a big deal if there’s something, anything, you can’t have. It’s hard to process; “What do you mean I can’t have it? I can have anything!” And again, it’s a question of degree. The more you have, the more you’re able to do whatever you want whenever you want, the more strange it will seem to you when there’s something you can’t have. For example, I grew up in an area (and in a time) when there weren’t any 24/7 stores around. If you wanted to buy a snack, you’d do it Monday–Saturday, 9–5, and you’d keep it at home until you needed/wanted it. If you felt like a snack in the “off hours” and didn’t have anything in the house, you’d make a mental note to get something the next time you could. It wasn’t a problem, it’s just the way it was. Now I live in Toronto, and there are stores everywhere that are open 24/7, so I’m used to the idea that at any time of the day or night if I get a craving for something I can go somewhere and get it. However, if I get up and drive to a store and they don’t have the particular thing I had a craving for, I’m in danger of getting annoyed, or even angry. “They don’t have plain Ruffles chips?!? What the f***?!? What kind of lousy management does this store have that they don’t keep plain Ruffles chips in stock??? I am never coming here again! Do you realize that I now have to get in my car and drive another 5 minutes to find another store that has Ruffles?” I’m not saying I immediately go psycho like that, but I am in danger of being annoyed, and it’s because I’ve convinced myself that I can have that thing any time I want; it throws me off when I can’t. I don’t think it’s very Godly to be annoyed because a store doesn’t have the particular snack I have a craving for; there is absolutely no concept in my mind, at that moment, that everything I have comes from God, and that He perhaps doesn’t want me to have a bag of chips right at the moment—or that He simply wants me to drive 5 minutes further along to the next store.

We have an idea in our society that “God helps those who help themselves.” This is so commonly believed that I’m sure many Christians think it comes from the Bible, yet not only is it not from the Bible, is is not really a Christian attitude at all—in fact, it’s the reverse of what the Bible teaches us. We are to be dependent on God. Not when we “have” to, but always, for all things. It is not a failing to do so, it is recognition of the fact that He is in control of everything, big and small. We were created to worship Him, and part of that is recognizing how He delights to care for us, in big things and in small things. The more we try to depend on ourselves, instead of depending on Him, the more it harms our relationship with him.

And the more wealthy we are, the more danger we are in of doing exactly this: trusting in ourselves (and our money) instead of trusting Him.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Matthew 19:16–30

Matthew 19:16–30 (ESV): The Rich Young Man


In this passage a man approaches Jesus to ask him what “good deed” he must do to have eternal life. Jesus answers with a list of commandments the man must follow:

And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (verses 17–19 (ESV))
But the man isn’t phased by this list of commandments; he tells Jesus that he has kept all of these commands, and asks Jesus what he still lacks. Jesus’ response is pretty familiar to most of us:

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (verses 21–22 (ESV))
At this point Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that a rich person can only enter the kingdom of heaven with difficulty. Which is an understatement, because he then then pushes the point even further by saying, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (verse 24 (ESV)). This astonishes the disciples, who wonder who, then, can possibly be saved, if it’s so difficult for a rich person to be saved. He tells them that with man this is impossible, but that all things are possible with God.

Peter then reminds Jesus that the disciples have left everything to follow him, and asks him, “What then will we have?” (verse 27 (ESV)). To me this sounds like Peter trying to curry Jesus’ favour, but Jesus’ response is very heartening:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (verses 28–30 (ESV))


The first interesting thing I note about this passage is that the man’s question to Jesus is what “good deed” he must perform in order to have eternal life. Knowing what I know now, if I were reading this passage for the first time I’d expect Jesus to say to him something like, “There is nothing you can do—God demands perfection, and you can’t attain it as a human. Instead, you should simply trust me!” But Jesus seems to go along with the man for a minute, listing out some commandments for the man to follow. Of course Jesus knows what the man’s response is going to be, and this exchange is as much for our benefit as it is for his; he wants the man (and us) to realize that no matter how good, how perfect, we think we are there are still areas of our lives that simply do not live up to God’s standards. In the man’s case it’s his wealth, which he doesn’t feel he can give up—even in exchange for eternal life—while in our cases it might be something different. (Although, in North America, wealth is often going to be a pretty good bet.)

In a sense, though, Jesus does start out with something akin to what I was thinking: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” True enough! There is only one who is good—God Himself. Why is the young man thinking about what he has to do, when he should be thinking about whom he should trust? But don’t we all do that? If it weren’t for the intervention of the Holy Spirit, none of us would get past that notion, and none of us would be saved. Thanks be to God!

Interestingly enough, I once had a Jehovah’s Witness try to use this verse about who is “good” as proof that Jesus isn’t God. (Just in case you’re not familiar, one of the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that Jesus is an angel, not God.) When Jesus says, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” this man was taking that as proof that Jesus is saying that only God is good, whereas he (Jesus) is not good—just like the rest of us. From a Christian standpoint, if this were the case—if Jesus weren’t “good,” the way that God is good—then His death would not have been enough to pay for our sins because He’d have his own sin to pay for, and the human situation would be hopeless; we wouldn’t be able to have a relationship with God because He is too holy, and our sin wouldn’t allow us to be near Him. Jesus had to be sinlessly perfect in order to be an acceptable substitute for us. Perhaps Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was “sinlessly perfect,” but not “good”—but then I’d have trouble understanding what is meant by the word “good” in this case, as it would have to be something better than sinlessly perfect.

Christians see this verse as a mini presentation of the Gospel: “Why do you ask about what is good?”—if you’re concentrating on what you have to do, then you’re missing the point of the Gospel; “there is only one who is good”—and therefore you need to trust Him in order to be saved.

When the man tells Jesus that he has kept all of these commands, we could probably argue him on the point. Does he really, truly, love his neighbour as he loves himself, for example? To the level that God requires? Probably not, but that’s not Jesus’ point. I think he’s purposely giving the man a list that the man will think he does keep, because the point is what the man asks next: What does he still lack? Even though he sees himself as keeping the commandments, he knows that something is still missing. He knows that there is something deeper that’s not right; he doesn’t know what it is, but he can sense that his relationship with God isn’t yet perfect. As I say, Jesus could have quibbled with the man about whether he really keeps those commandments as well as he thinks he does, but Jesus was more interested in getting to the heart of the matter: Okay, this man feels he’s obeying the commandments, but does he actually have a heart for God, a relationship with God? Does he really value God above anything else? No, the man doesn’t keep the commandments perfectly (even if he thinks he does), nobody does, and that’s why we need to trust in Jesus. The man’s problem is that he values his wealth more than he values God; he’s not going to get into a deeper relationship with God if there is a danger that God is going to require him to give up that wealth!

When Jesus tells his disciples how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven they are astonished at his teaching; I wonder if we lose sight of how astonishing this teaching really was. After 2,000+ years we’re used to the idea, having had this message from Jesus preached countless times over the millennia. At the time—I think even more so than today—it would have been accepted teaching that people who were rich were so because God had blessed them. Therefore, since He had blessed them so much, it would be natural to assume that they would already be in His good books, and on the inside track for heaven. In fact, it’s probably pretty safe to say that there wouldn’t be much distinction between “blessing” and “reward” (I don’t know that even modern-day Christians would all be able to explain the difference), so people might very well have assumed that rich people were probably very good, and that their riches were a reward from God for their having pleased Him. But then Jesus floors his disciples by telling them that it’s actually harder for a rich person to get into heaven, not easier. And the reason? Well, it’s the same reason this rich young man went away sad: wealth often has an unhealthy hold on us, especially when we already have it and don’t want to give it up. There are definitely those who are not wealthy who are obsessed with becoming wealthy, but as a rule those who have it are much more obsessed with not wanting to lose it. It’s why you’ll find that, as a rule, wealthy churches have less giving than poor churches; as a rule, wealthy people are less generous with their money than poor people; as a rule, wealthy people are less likely to support social assistance programs (preferring instead that people would “pull themselves up by their boot straps”). I know these are all generalizations (that’s why I keep saying “as a rule”), and there will always be exceptions, but I think the exceptions are just that: exceptions.

But it’s not just fear of losing what you have; it’s also where your priorities lay. Which is more important to you—which has a more prominent place in your heart—God, or your possessions? If you’re rich, you will have to be on your guard that your wealth doesn’t get in the way of your relationship with God, and it will make it more difficult for you to have a relationship with Him than if you weren’t rich.

Which brings us to the famous “camel through the eye of a needle” verse:

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (verse 24 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
There is a sort of… I guess “legend,” about this verse, which started around the year 1000 A.D. when some preacher (I have no idea what his name was) gave a sermon, and said that when Jesus said “the eye of a needle,” he was actually referring to a gate in the Jerusalem city wall, called the Needle Gate, which was apparently fairly short, so in order to get a camel through it the camel would have to duck down very low. So according to this legend Jesus wasn’t literally saying that it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven, he was saying that it’s harder for a camel to go through “the Needle Gate” than for a rich person to get into heaven. He (the preacher) then pushed the metaphor a bit further, talking about how we can’t come to God until we get on our knees in humility before Him, similar to how the camel would have to duck down to go through the gate.

As I say, this story is very popular so you may have heard it before, but it’s hogwash. There was no “Needle Gate” in the Jerusalem city wall, and Jesus was really, literally, saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into heaven. There are a couple of reasons why this story doesn’t even make sense:
  • In order for this story to be true, we have to assume that the people who built the wall were so stupid that they didn’t even know to build a gate that was tall enough for a camel to go through. We love thinking that we’re smart and people in ancient times were stupid, but this is just too dumb for words. It’s like someone today building an overpass over a highway and making it tall enough for cars to drive under but not trucks.
  • If Jesus were simply talking about some gate that camels had to kneel down to go through—if his point was that you have to be humble and kneel to come before God—the disciples’ reaction would make no sense. Look at their reaction in the text:

    “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” (verses 24–25 (ESV))
    That reaction makes sense, to me; Jesus is telling them something that’s essentially impossible, and their reaction matches it. Now imagine that this story about the Needle Gate was correct, and try to match the disciples’ reaction to it:

    “Again I tell you, in order to be saved you have to get on your knees. Like how a camel has to sort of duck to get through this gate.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
    Does that reaction make any sense?
Essentially this story tries to minimize Jesus’ point. “It’s difficult for a rich person to enter heaven, but not that difficult.” But Jesus is saying that it’s nearly impossible for a rich person to enter heaven.

“But wait,” someone might say, “isn’t it impossible for anyone to get into heaven? Isn’t that why Grace is required? So don’t rich people rely on the same Grace from God that the rest of us need to get into His presence? If something is already ‘impossible,’ then does it really matter in this situation if it’s somehow ‘more impossible’? And even Jesus himself says, in this passage, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” Ah, well played! It is impossible for anyone to get into heaven on their own—the death of Jesus is required, and the Grace of God is required for us to accept the gift He bestows on us. However, let’s not forget that Jesus is saying something in this passage. (That might seem like an obvious sentence, but in this day and age I don’t think it is.) However hard or even impossible it is for anyone to enter the kingdom of heaven, it’s even harder for a rich person to do so—and based on Jesus’ camel through the eye of a needle metaphor, it’s much harder. We try so hard to make it so that it’s not bad to be rich, or to yearn for riches, and we try so hard to minimize what this passage is actually saying, that we’re in danger of ending up with an interpretation where Jesus doesn’t actually say anything. “When Jesus says that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, he’s not actually saying that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Er… then what is he saying, when he says that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven?!?

I think the reason we react against this passage—the reason why the silly “needle gate” story is so attractive to us—is that we want to be rich. We all want to be rich. I don’t know if it’s even just a North American thing (although I suspect it’s worse here); this might be a universal thing. I know that, personally, when I first read this passage, my thoughts were something along the lines of, “Well, he said it’s really, really hard, but he didn’t say it can’t be done! So you can be rich and still get into the kingdom of heaven.” And it’s true, a rich person can enter the kingdom of heaven. But consider how wrongheaded that approach is: I really want to be rich, so I want to make sure that I can do so and still be a Christian. Perhaps the better way of looking at it would be: Why would I set my heart on anything that would make it more difficult to be a Christian?!? Why would I want anything that would make it harder to have a relationship with God? Why would I want anything that would make it difficult for me to even “get in” in the first place? (And remember, Jesus is saying that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven—he’s not just talking about our daily struggles, and saying that it will be harder for a saved rich person to live a life pleasing to God, he’s talking about how impossible it is for a rich person to even be saved in the first place.)

Many, many commentators will be quick to point out, when talking about a passage like this, that it doesn’t mean that being rich is sinful. That riches, in and of themselves, aren’t bad, it’s what you do with them—or what you let them do to you—that’s bad. Which is, technically, correct. We immediately start thinking of Old Testament examples of kings who were very wealthy, and how that wealth was blessed to them by God. But my question is this: so what? Okay, so being rich isn’t, in and of itself, sinful. What does that mean for us, practically speaking? Does it mean that we should then ignore everything Jesus warns us about being rich, and chase after it? This passage essentially boils down to Jesus telling us that it’s harder to become a Christian if you’re rich than if you’re not; is our reaction then to say that we’re going to strive after riches anyway, and take our chances? Does that seem rational? Or does it seem like we value something else above God—just like the man in this passage did? There is no being in the universe who knows better what it takes to accomplish salvation, and He is saying to us that it’s vastly more difficult to save a rich person than someone who is not rich; why would we ignore that, and chase after it anyway? Put another way: why is wealth so frigging enticing to us? Because to be clear, I’m not railing against wealth in and of itself, I’m railing against our deep, burning desire to be wealthy, or to hold on to wealth we already have. Why do we want it so badly that we try to explain away passages when Jesus warns us against it?

At the end of the passage Peter takes this to its logical conclusion: if it’s so dangerous to be wealthy, does that mean that God will reward those who give up riches? (He doesn’t use the word “reward,” but it seems to me that that’s essentially what he’s asking Jesus.) And Jesus does indicate to Peter that those who give up riches—along with family, land, etc.—will be rewarded in the next life. I think we have to be somewhat careful, though, not to fall into legalism either. We don’t want to start to think that we can start to earn God’s favour by giving up worldly possessions and living an ascetic life. We shouldn’t be chasing after wealth, but I don’t see an indication in the Scriptures that we should be living as monks either. Unless we have a reason to; if we decide to give it all up and become missionaries in a country or location where we won’t have any wealth of our own, maybe. The point is that we should not let our wealth—or our desire for wealth—own us. Whatever we have is not ours in the first place, it’s God’s, and we should be willing to do with it what He wants us to. That might mean giving some of it away to help others. It might mean giving it all away to help others. Giving it away to try to earn your way into His favour will not work because nothing we do can earn our way into His favour; if anything could, Jesus wouldn’t have been required to die on the cross. But if you are truly His child, if you are truly following Him, then if He tells you to give some or all of it up, for His purposes (whatever they may be), then you will do it willingly and joyfully, because you want to make Him happy more than you want to keep what you have.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Matthew 19:13–15

Matthew 19:13–15 (ESV): Let the Children Come to Me


In this passage children are brought to Jesus for him to lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples try to rebuke the people, but Jesus tells them to let the children come, for “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (verse 14 (ESV)). He then lays his hands on them, and goes on his way.


I don’t have too much to say about this passage; children are another example of a group of people who wouldn’t be given too much respect in Jesus’ day (or ours), along with women, so it’s not surprising that the disciples would not want Jesus “bothered” by them (my word, not a quote). Jesus has already told the disciples that they are to be like children, in 18:1–6, but apparently they thought he was just being metaphorical and that they could dismiss actual children.

A couple of useful points from the ESV Study Bible notes:
  • Laying hands is “[a] traditional manner of blessing children in Israel, especially when passing on a blessing from one generation to the next (cf. Gen. 48:14 (ESV); Num. 27:18 (ESV)).”
  • On children, and expanding the discussion from 18:1–6: “Children serve as a metaphor of the humility necessary for entrance into the kingdom of heaven.”

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Matthew 19:1–12

Matthew 19:1–12 (ESV): Teaching About Divorce


In this passage Jesus goes to a particular place where he is once again followed by a large crowd, whom he starts healing. The Pharisees then come to test him by asking him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any cause” (verse 3 (ESV)). Jesus’ answer goes to the heart of the matter (if you’ll pardon the pun):

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (verses 4–6 (ESV))
I think the Pharisees believe they now have Jesus trapped. In verse 7 (ESV) they ask him what I assume is a gotcha question: If that’s the case, then why did Moses “command” one to give a certificate of divorce and “send her away”? (You can almost hear them saying “Aha!”) Jesus tells them that Moses “allowed” divorce because of humans’ hardness of heart, but it was not like that “from the beginning.” He then takes it even farther:

“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (verse 9 (ESV))
The disciples don’t seem to have been expecting this answer from him, for they respond that in this case it would be better not to marry at all. His answer to them is interesting:

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (verses 11–12 (ESV))
See below for thoughts on this last statement.


It’s interesting that the Pharisees would use this particular point of law with which to test Jesus, since there was disagreement even amongst themselves as to if and when divorce was permissible. The ESV Study Bible has a useful note on this point:

There was a significant debate between Pharisaical parties on the correct interpretation of Moses’ divorce regulations (Deut. 24:1 (ESV)), as noted in this excerpt from the Mishnah, Gittin 9.10: “The school of Shammai says: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her. … And the school of Hillel says: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him. … Rabbi Akiba says, [he may divorce her] even if he found another fairer than she” (see Mishnah, Gittin 9 for an example of a Jewish certificate of divorce and the terms required for remarriage; see also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 4.253 for the phrase “whatsoever cause”).
So it wouldn’t exactly have been a slam-dunk for them to catch Jesus out in something they disagreed with, since they already disagreed with each other! However, based on the disciples’ shocked reaction to Jesus’ position on divorce, it seems that the prevailing opinion was more toward the idea that a man could divorce his wife very easily, for little cause. When he says that it is not intended that a man should ever divorce his wife, although it is permissible in the case of infidelity, they seem to feel the risk is not worth it—it’s better not to marry at all than to take the chance of being stuck in a lifelong, bad marriage. Perhaps our cultures aren’t so dissimilar in some respects after all; indeed, this seems to be the flip side to the prevailing sentiment in North America in the 21st Century: marriages don’t last anyway, but it’s okay because if your marriage goes sour you can simply get a divorce and get out of it.

When Jesus takes a hard line on divorce, it seems to me (as stated above) that the Pharisees think they have him: Moses allowed divorce, and Jesus is saying people shouldn’t divorce, so therefore Jesus doesn’t understand the Law, and must not be from God. (And there is a definite logic to that: If Jesus didn’t understand the Law they would be right—he wouldn’t be from God!) He shows, however, that not only does he understand the Law, he also understands what’s underneath the Law, and what is really important vs. what is not. This comes out even in the wording of their questions and his answers; they say “why did Moses command one to get a certificate of divorce,” and Jesus says “Moses allowed divorce.” There’s no command to get a divorce, it’s something that God allows in dire circumstances (i.e. infidelity), because He knows how difficult it is for humans to deal with that kind of betrayal. If your spouse commits adultery and you’re not able to deal with it, then you’re permitted to get a divorce. (The implication being that if you can deal with it, it’s better if you can actually stay in the marriage.) The Pharisees and teachers of the Law have twisted this allowance, for dire circumstances, to be a general thing, allowing divorce much more permissibly, and Jesus is pointing out to them that this is not how God views marriage; in God’s eyes, when two people marry, they become one flesh, and should not be separated.

As an aside, I also find it interesting the way Jesus phrases this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (verse 8 (ESV), emphasis added). Why is Jesus using the second person here? I don’t think he is referring specifically to the Pharisees, I think he’s talking generally about humanity, because this law was handed down in the time of Moses long before these Pharisees were born. But in this instance he’s not identifying himself with the rest of humanity. I suppose it’s because this really, truly doesn’t apply to Jesus. He can’t say, “because of our hardness of heart,” because Jesus has no sin, so obviously his heart wouldn’t be hard.

The ESV Study Bible notes also point out that this verse about hardness of heart doesn’t indicate that Jesus means only hard-hearted people would ever get a divorce, but rather that it is the hard-hearted rebellion against God that causes the defilement of marriage in the first place. In fact, although it seems clear that it would be better to stay married even in the case of infidelity, I would never take a hard line on that with someone who had been cheated on. If I knew someone who had been cheated on, and they were going to get divorced for that reason, you would not catch me advising that maybe they might want to stay together; I would definitely support them if they wanted to stay together, but I’d understand them not wanting to stay together. Infidelity is so serious that it is the one reason God will permit “one flesh” to be broken apart; He understands how devastating adultery is.

In fact, He understands it very well: considering that marriage is a picture of the relationship between the Church and God, and considering how often He uses adultery as a metaphor when the Old Testament Israelites set Him aside for other gods, it shouldn’t be surprising at all that He understands very well what humans go through when they’ve been cheated on.

When Jesus says “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given,” the ESV Study Bible says that by “this saying” he is probably referring to the disciples’ statement that “it is better not to marry”—in which case his statement makes a lot more sense to me. He is, in fact, correcting them: Only for some particular segments of the population—people who are eunuchs or who have chosen celibacy—is this statement true. Celibacy is a valid alternative to marriage and fidelity, but Jesus indicates that for the majority of people marriage is the right way to go.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Matthew 18:21–35

Matthew 18:21–35 (ESV): The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant


In the last passage Jesus talked about how to handle the situation when a fellow believer sins against you. In this passage, and I assume in response to Jesus’ words, Peter asks him: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (verse 21 (ESV)). Jesus’ response? Not seven times, but seventy times seven. (The footnote indicates that this could also be translated “seventy seven times,” but the actual number isn’t important, since it’s clear that Jesus is not being literal; he’s essentially saying that when we’re forgiving someone who is sinning against us we shouldn’t be counting the number of times we forgive them.)

He then tells a parable to make the point. He says that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to” a king who is settling his accounts, and comes across a servant who owes him “ten thousand talents,” which, according to the footnote, would equate to about 200,000 days’ wages for a labourer. (For those who aren’t good at math, assuming that a labourer were working every single day of his life, that would equate to over 500 years’ worth of wages—not including leap years and that type of thing.) The person is not able to pay, so the king orders him to be sold—along with his wife, children, and possessions—to repay the debt. But the servant falls on his knees and begs the king for patience, saying that he’ll repay the debt. The king has pity on him, releases him, and even cancels the debt altogether.

Then, when the servant leaves the king’s presence, he comes across a fellow servant, who owes him a hundred denarii (which is about a hundred days’ wages). The first servant seizes the second servant by the throat and demands payment, and the second servant begs for patience so that he can repay the debt, but the first servant refuses and has the second servant thrown into jail until he is able to pay the debt.

This makes it back to the king:

“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” (verses 32–34 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
Jesus sums up by saying:

“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (verse 35 (ESV))


As usual I’m relying on the ESV Study Bible for background material, and they mention that according to Jewish traditions at the time forgiving someone three times was sufficient to show a forgiving spirit. They further mention that these traditions would have been based on passages such as these from the Old Testament:

“Behold, God does all these things,
  twice, three times, with a man,
to bring back his soul from the pit,
  that he may be lighted with the light of life.”

(Job 33:29–30 (ESV), Elihu speaking)


Thus says the LORD:

  “For three transgressions of Damascus,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
  because they have threshed Gilead
    with threshing sledges of iron. …”

Amos 1:3 (ESV)


Thus says the LORD:

  “For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
  because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals …”

Amos 2:6 (ESV)

Therefore, the ESV Study Bible points out, when Peter suggested forgiving his brother seven times, he probably thought this was very forgiving indeed—more than double what would have been considered at the time to be very Godly and forgiving!

However, what Jesus wants us to see in this passage is how much we ourselves have been forgiven by God, and use that as the basis for how forgiving we should be to others. Notice the types of numbers that are being used here; the first servant had a debt to the king that could never possibly be repaid. Over 500 years’ worth of wages required to pay it back? The number is astronomical; there’s no way that a servant would ever be able to pay it back. So the king, out of the goodness of his own heart, forgives the debt. The second servant still owes a large amount, it’s not negligible, but it’s nothing compared to the number that was forgiven of the first servant.

The parallel to the gospel is obvious. We are sinners and God is holy—it would be impossible to ever pay for our sins to His satisfaction, to allow us into His presence. So He “forgave” that “debt”—except that He isn’t just holy, He is also just, so that sin had to be paid for somehow. So His Son, Jesus, takes the punishment that we deserve, our “debt” is paid, and we are allowed into his presence. Something we could never have accomplished on our own, just like the first servant would never have been able to pay back his debt of ten thousand talents to the king.

The application is equally obvious. When we consider all that God has forgiven from us, through no deservedness of our own, forgiving others shouldn’t seem like a big deal. Considering the amounts of money involved, it seems so over-the-top petty for the first servant to be forgiven over 500 years’ worth of wages and not forgive 100 days’ worth of wages, and similarly it should seem petty to us to have been forgiven an entire lifetime’s worth of sin by God, and then not forgive a fellow Christian who sins against us. In fact, verse 35 says that the Heavenly Father will not forgive us if we don’t forgive others from the heart—forgiveness is such an essential aspect of a changed heart that if we are not forgiving it is a sign that we’re not saved at all. If someone claims to be a Christian, yet refuses to forgive, then that person needs to examine their heart and determine if they really are saved or just fooling themselves. Serious stuff!

Does this mean that any time a Christian fails to forgive another Christian it’s proof that they’re going to Hell? No, I don’t think so. We’re still fallen sinners, and we still fail to live up to our calling on a regular basis. But if someone consistently fails to forgive others, it’s not a good sign. It may be that the person hasn’t actually come to grips with how much has been forgiven of them by God—and it may be that the person hasn’t come to grips with that because they haven’t been forgiven at all.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Matthew 18:15–20

Matthew 18:15–20 (ESV): If Your Brother Sins Against You


This passage continues on with Jesus talking about sin, but he changes the focus now: What if your “brother” (meaning another believer not just your actual biological brother—and not necessarily even male) sins against you? What should you do? Yes, of course, you should forgive him—we all know that—but that’s not Jesus’ focus in this passage, he actually has some very practical advice. (Not that forgiveness is somehow impractical, but modern-day Christians, myself included, have a habit of putting the word “practical” in front of things that we can do, and somehow implying that things we don’t physically do—like when we are to pray and wait for God to act—are somehow not “practical.” Anyway…)
  1. We should go to the person, privately, and tell them their “fault.” If s/he listens, then great! Or, as Jesus says,

    “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (verse 15b (ESV))
  2. If they don’t listen—i.e. if they refuse to repent, or maybe they are continuing in the sin, whatever it is—then take one or two others with you and talk to the person again. Jesus adds, “… that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (verse 16 (ESV)), which is an allusion to Deuteronomy 19:15 (ESV)—which shows that even though we’re not under Old Testament laws (especially the civil laws handed down to the nation of Israel), many of the principles still apply. If we get to the next step of the process—if the brother or sister being corrected still refuses to listen—this should not become a simple personal disagreement between two people.
  3. If they still don’t listen, then take it to the church. Jesus doesn’t specifically outline how one is to do this, but by the context it seems that the entire church should somehow be involved in telling this person that what they are doing (or what they have done) is wrong, and needs to be repented of.
  4. And finally, if the person still doesn’t listen, they are to be to the church “as a Gentile and a tax collector”—that is, they are to be like an unbeliever, which is to say that it is not to be assumed that they really are a Christian.
Jesus then finishes the passage by telling us why the church has this kind of authority:

“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (verses 18–20 (ESV))


The actual text of the passage keeps using the masculine; if your brother sins go talk to him and if he doesn’t repent bring others to talk to him, etc. etc. I’m using gender-neutral wording, not because I’m trying to be politically correct but because I don’t want people getting the impression that this passage only applies to men. (Let’s be honest, there are a lot of strange ideas about gender in the 21st Century Church.) But it really reads so much easier if we just use the masculine and be done with it…

Let’s go through Jesus’ advice, piece by piece.

First of all, our first action should be to talk to the person directly, one-on-one, and try to sort the matter out privately. Remember, Jesus started out the passage saying “If your brother sins against you,” (verse 15 (ESV), emphasis added)—if at all possible, we should try to fix things privately. This isn’t about getting holier-than-thou, it’s not about making yourself look good in front of others (or making your brother or sister look bad), it’s not about our seemingly endless hunger for gossip. It’s about “winning your brother.” It’s about genuinely caring about the spiritual well being of this brother or sister in Christ, and wanting to help. If we always approached things this way, I’m sure people wouldn’t mind being corrected as much as they do. (They still wouldn’t like it, but it wouldn’t be as bad.)

The next stage in the progression, if the person doesn’t listen, is to bring one or two others with you and try again. Again, we’re trying to keep this as private as possible—we’re not bringing in the whole church (yet)—we’re just trying to get this person to see the error of his or her ways. The ESV Study Bible points out (and it makes sense to me) that the “witnesses” mentioned here are not witnesses to the sin that was (or is being) committed, but witnesses to this confrontation; if things still progress, and the next phase has to occur, it is better to go to the church with these two or three people who can all say together, “we talked to the person, and s/he wouldn’t listen, and refused to repent” or whatever the situation is. Deuteronomy is talking about witnesses in a legal case; according to Old Testament law, the testimony of one witness is not enough evidence to convict someone of a crime, and similarly, if we need to bring things before the church, the testimony of one person is not to be enough for the church to kick that person out. Jesus doesn’t want us to get into situations where one person can decide to get another person kicked out of the church; there has to be evidence. It is, of course, still possible for two or three people to concoct a story to get someone kicked out of a church—we’re fallen people, and even Christians are not above this—but this isn’t meant to be foolproof; it’s a simple guard against one person arbitrarily trying to start calling the shots. In any case, if we are to get to the next step in the progression, the church has to show care, compassion, and fairness, but also take God’s Word seriously; we have to try and ensure that innocent people are not punished, and that guilty people are—or, to put it another way, we are to value justice. (“Justice” in the proper sense of the word, not meaning “vengeance”—we are to be just, as God is just.)

The next stage is to bring the matter before the church. (I keep saying “church,” not “Church” with a capital C, because this is a matter for the local church to handle—it’s not like all believers everywhere are going to weigh in when your brother or sister sins against you.) As mentioned above, Jesus doesn’t say how this is to happen, but somehow the church is to try and get across to this person that sin is being committed, and needs to be repented of. (By the time it gets to this level it seems like an ongoing sin that’s happening, not a one time thing that happened and needs to be repented of.)

Finally, if the person won’t listen to the church, they are to be treated like a non-Christian, which would usually involve removing them from church membership, having them no longer have any kind of leadership role they might have had, and whatever other disciplinary action might be in the local church’s constitution (assuming it has one). In our post-modern society, this might seem harsh—not the part about removing them from church membership, but the part about assuming that they’re not Christians. “Surely people make mistakes,” we think. “Who are we to judge?” But Jesus’ answer would be that yes, people do make mistakes, but if you are truly saved, you will repent of your mistakes. Again, that’s the whole point of this progression: not to put on our executioner’s hats and look down our noses at someone, but to lovingly bring someone to repentance. After all, if sin is being committed, it is damaging that person’s relationship with God, and that needs to be fixed. But if that person doesn’t repent—not after confronted about it, still not after being confronted again by a few people, still not even after having the entire local church tell them that what they’re doing is wrong—then this is no longer a case of “people make mistakes;” this is serious grounds for assuming that this person is not saved at all, because they’re showing evidence to the contrary. Of course the hope is always that the person will repent, and come back.

The last part of the passage, quoted above, takes care of the second part of the hypothetical question I just asked, the “who are we to judge?” part. In short, the answer is that we are the Church of Christ. We are believers, endowed with the Holy Spirit. What we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus takes the words he’d said to Peter in Chapter 16 and expands it to include the entire Church—God has extended His authority to us. We have His Holy Spirit, and are to be attentive to His justice here on earth. To ask “who are we to judge?” is not to be wise, seemingly leaving it up to God to decide—it is, instead, simply being cowardly and shirking our duties as Christians. It may be that we’re sometimes reluctant to get involved in a situation like this because we don’t know our Bibles well enough, and don’t feel competent to judge a matter such as this—but there’s an obvious fix for that problem, too.