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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What's Wrong with your Garden? It has Weeds in it! Matthew13:24-43

It probably seems as strange to you as it did to me at first when I saw the sequence that Matthew put these parables and Jesus' explanation of two of them—last week the story of the sower, today the story of the wheat and the weeds. In each case the story is told, then there is something else recorded, and then the story is explained. Why not put the explanation right after the parable? Clearly Matthew was not just forgetful or inept! He must have had a reason. 

The reason has to do with Matthew's symmetrical structuring of the entire parables discourse (ch. 13). In verses 1-23 he also began and ended the segment with the telling and the explaining of the parable of the sower, bracketing a section in the middle (verses 10-17) highlighting the purpose of Jesus' parables: selective communication to true disciples. 

Here too the telling of the parable (verses 24-30) and its explanation (verses 36-43) serve to bracket the intervening material, so as to form an interpretive framework for it. The parable of the wheat and weeds is about the spiritual conditions that will prevail between the time Jesus spoke this parable and his coming again to set up the kingdom of God. At that time the wheat (believers) and weeds (unbelievers) will be separated and judgment will be passed. This is what John the Baptizer described as Jesus' task in inaugurating his kingdom. But what John could not see at the time was that there would be a long interval of time between Jesus' first coming to die and rise again, and his second coming to judge and set up his universal kingdom on earth. In the meantime the form that God's kingdom will take is described by the intervening parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. So first I am going to focus on the frame—the parable and its explanation by Jesus—and then on the intervening description.

Responsible scholars of the gospels are coming to the conclusion that in order to understand Matthew's (or Luke's) interpretation of the Lord's parables, we must pay careful attention to his structure, sequence and context. A good explanation of this interpretive approach can be found in Charles H. Talbert's Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), pp. 162-65. 

Both Matthew's original readers and today's readers are also expected to react to the stories and allow them to adjust our thinking and challenge our attitudes and current behavior. A reader's initial reaction may differ from his final one after hearing the entire parable and reflecting upon it. For example, the initial reaction to the sower parable might be shock or even outrage at the apparent waste of the seeds that fell in the wrong places. The initial reaction to the parable of the wheat and weeds might also be horror at the thought that the "enemy" has ruined the field owner's field. but as the story unfolds, readers see that the weeds do not choke out the wheat (as the thorns in the parable of the sower), but merely co-exist. The reader's attitude changes then from horror to curiosity: what is the story telling us about why we should not fear the mixture?

The Parable of Weeds Among the Wheat, 13:24-30

In Jesus' first parable there was a single sower, a single seed, but multiple locations where the seed fell, and multiple results. In this parable there are two sowers, two kinds of seed sown, a single location (one field), and a mixed resulting product. The contrast could hardly be more stark. 

In this parable the first sower sows "good seed". In the first parable all of the seed as good, but it isn't called "good" because no "bad" seed will later be mixed in with it by another sower. In the parable of the sower, some of the locations where the seed fell were good and others not so good. The adjective "good" is necessary in this case, because a second sower will come at night and secretly try to sabotage his crop by sowing bad seed—that is, "weeds"—in his field. This second person is described as "an enemy." We aren't told why the enemy was sowing the weeds. Did he hope to ruin the first man's crop? The weeds do not crowd out or reduce the growth of the wheat.  It may be that he thought the field owner would not know how to handle the resulting mixture, and the wheat would become unusable.  

The field-owner's servants were perplexed when they saw the weeds appear. At first they wondered if their master had used inferior seed that already had a mixture of weed seeds in it. But the field owner knows what has actually happened and tells them that an enemy has done this. The servants offer to go into the fields and try to uproot the weeds in their immature state. But the field owner knows that there is a danger that some wheat will be mistaken for weeds and uprooted. This he does not wish to happen. When the wheat is fully mature at harvest time, it will be much more easily distinguished from the weeds. Then it will be easier to separate the two. The weeds will be gathered first and burned. Then the wheat will be harvested and stored in his barn. 

The field-owner is a wise and experienced man. He has turned what his enemy thought would be a problem into a potential advantage, for the collected weeds at harvest time can be used as fuel! His advice is good, and the servants do as they were told.

How is this a picture of the kingdom of Heaven? Jesus gives his explanation after he has sandwiched in two more parables which we will discuss tomorrow. Those parables elaborate on the peculiar conditions that will characterize the period in the kingdom of God when the wheat and the weeds are growing together in the same field and their separation at harvest time has not yet come.

Jesus' Explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, 13:36-43

This is how Jesus explained the parable. Notice first in verse 36 that Jesus only explained the parable privately to the inner circle of his disciples, not publicly in front of the crowds, and that he gives the explanation only after his disciples ask him for one. 

In the first parable the sower could be Jesus in his Galilean preaching, but it could also depict his disciples in both their present and future preaching. In this parable the sower is Jesus himself. Whereas in the first parable the seed was the message of the kingdom, the word of God, in this one the good seed are believers whom Jesus "sows" in the world. Jesus says clearly that "the field is the world." In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus called his disciples the light of the world (Matt 5:14-16) and the salt of the earth (5:13). Here they are the good seed, put in the world to grow mature and show the edible product of their good works. The enemy of the Sower is Satan, the "evil one," who sows unbelievers and opponents of the gospel of the kingdom in the same field, which is the world. The harvest is the end of the world, and the reapers are the angels of God. At the end of the world, God's angels will gather out of the living and the dead those who do not believe, and they will be taken off to punishment, symbolized by the burning of the weeds. The believers will be left in the earth, where God's kingdom will now take its final form, in the new heavens and new earth (Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev 21:1). 

Just as the field owner is not afraid that the side-by-side existence of his "good seed" and the enemy's "bad seed" in the world will do harm, so Jesus tells his disciples that there will be true disciples and opponents of the gospel side-by-side in the world until the very end, and that God is not worried about this situation. In fact, he deliberately allows it. Why?

This is where the function of the parable that we mentioned above becomes important. The story asks hearers this question and invites us to ponder it. For Jesus (or Matthew) to give us the answer would destroy that purpose. God wants you and me to think about that question and formulate our own answers. If I tell you mine, you might give up thinking about it yourself, thinking that "the teacher is better able to answer that than I am." 

Now how about the material that Matthew sandwiched between the telling of the parable and Jesus' interpretation of it?

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast, 13:31-33

 31   He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matthew 13:31–33 NRSV)

As in other parables of Jesus, here too we need to guard against reading too much into the details of the parables. A pair is given together, which means that they elucidate each other, and that only those details of each that fit the other should be considered part of the message of the stories. Therefore, although in other contexts Jesus may use yeast as a symbol of something bad, since mustard seed in the companion parable is not something bad, we shouldn't read that meaning of yeast in here.

Nor should we try to read anything into the fact that in the first story the actor is a man and in the second a woman. The gender of these is simply determined by their activities: planting was usually a man's work, while making bread a woman's.

What the two stories share is that something that starts very small quickly grows to something big that fills everything.

How does the kingdom of God fit that? It began with Jesus and twelve Jewish men—something very small and inauspicious, but when it is finished at the Second Coming of Jesus, it will encompass the entire creation. All of God's fresh new beginnings in history were small at the start: Noah and his sons after the Flood (Gen 6-9), Abraham called out of Ur of the Chaldees to begin the people of Israel (Gen 12), Jesus and the Twelve to begin the Church. This is also always the case for pioneer missionaries: one has to begin with just a few.  

These then are parables of hope to those who at that time saw the growing opposition to Jesus' teaching and ministry of healing by the powerful Jerusalem establishment. The little nucleus of God's kingdom represented by Jesus and his followers appeared very inauspicious. Jesus was teaching his disciples that in spite of the increasing opposition by the scribes and Pharisees, God's kingdom would grow phenomenally, and that they would be a part of that growth.

But even today, after twenty centuries of evangelization and the spread of Christianity in the world, it is by no means filling the earth. A very large portion of the earth's population is still non-Christian, and not just "neutrally" so, but actively promoting alternate faiths. Should we despair? Should we listen to the non-Christian voices in the world who insist that we are entering a "Post-Christian World," and that within a matter of another century Christianity will virtually cease to exist? These parables are the Lord's word to us that his gospel will triumph in the end, not because we are so successful, but because he is the Lord of history and of Creation, and his purposes will never fail.

The Use of the Parables, 13:34-35

 34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:34–35 NRSV)

Earlier in this chapter (13:10-17) his disciples asked Jesus why he always spoke to "them" (that is, mixed crowds containing hostile critics) in parables, and Jesus himself gave his answer: It was to allow selective communication to open minded and sincere hearers, while masking the meaning from the hostile. Here an additional reason is given, this time not given by Jesus himself but by Matthew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It was to fulfill a passage of Old Testament scripture—Psa 78:2—which Matthew quotes in verse 35. It is worth our time to read together the context of that verse in Psalm 78, for it is informative in view of the context of Jesus' ministry in Galilee as Matthew has described it.
 1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. 2 I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, 3 things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. 4 We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.   5 He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; 6 that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, 7 so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; 8 and that they should not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.   (Psalms 78:1–8 NRSV)

One can argue that this context describes a situation not unlike what Jesus faced and a similar purpose of God in selective communication. Those whom He wishes to "give ear" and from whom he does not want to "hide" the message, are called "my people" (verse 1). In Jesus' setting it is difficult to see the hostile critics as "my people," but easy to characterize the receptive ones, heeding the words of the prophet and messiah Jesus as God's people. From such souls, who are called true "children," the meaning of the parables will not be hidden (verse 4).  But to those who are like their ancestors "a stubborn and rebellious generation … not faithful to God" (verse 8) their true meaning is hidden: they have become "dark sayings from of old" (verse 2). Part of what was selectively communicated by Jesus was the significance of his miracles. So in Psalm 78 what God selectively communicates to the faithful are "the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done" (verse 4).

Critics of Matthew often criticize him for manufacturing fulfilled prophecies, quoting passages out of context that hardly apply to Jesus. But surely we can see here from the context of the verse that Matthew cited—the part that he did not quote—that his interpretation of it was on the money, that the Holy Spirit led his mind to a true prophecy of Jesus. 

Check back on Thursday the 29th for the next segment of Matthew 13.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Jesus Explains the Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13:18-23

Jesus Explains the Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13:18-23

18 “But you—hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:18–23 NRSV adapted)

The first word in verse 18 is the word "you" (plural). Jesus is reminding them that they are in the category of sincere believers who can understand the parables. They are the fourth type of soil that will receive the words and produce fruit. Nevertheless, he will now tell them how the details are to be understood, and they can compare this explanation with how the Spirit of God had enabled them to hear it when Jesus first spoke it. The first category of soil represents those who hear the message and do not understand how it applies to them. And because they do not see what they need to do—put their faith in Jesus—the words remain inactive until they are soon forgotten. The birds in the story represent "the evil one" who is Satan. But he cannot take away the words from anyone in category four who sees how the message applies to himself and responds in faith. 

The second category of soil is the shallow soil over a rocky subsoil. This kind of person has an inadequate understanding. He knows that some kind of reform or repentance is needed in his life, and he makes that change. Perhaps he makes a "profession of faith," but it is not real. All it takes to make him give up is some opposition. Others mock him, he finds it is not a popular thing to do to follow Jesus openly. He loses friends. So he just abandons his once newfound faith. 

The third category—seed falling among thorns— is similar to the second. There is an initial positive response to the message. But other interests and ambitions compete with the calling to follow Jesus. Career, a marriage prospect, a better job—all seem hampered by what a full commitment to Jesus entails. So the Jesus commitment is dropped—or "put on hold."

The fourth category is where Jesus' inner circle—minus Judas—belongs. Individuals in this category not only hear, but understand fully what the commitment will entail and enter it with their eyes wide open to the inevitable sacrifices that will come. These individuals are productive—some more than others. But here, unlike in the parables of the talents, Jesus doesn't seem to scold those who produce less than others. The point is that they all produce

Today in general—and especially in the kind of academic circles I travel in—there is a premium put on "understanding" and "knowing" lots of facts. We live in an age of instant information. Some refer to "information overload" as the plague of our society. Every kind of information is available, it seems, on the Internet, and can be accessed from anywhere conveniently by smart phones and tablet devices and headphones.  But the kind of "understanding" that Jesus put a premium on—that which he said would characterize his true disciples—is not acquired in such a mechanical manner. It requires thinking hard and deeply about the decisions that must be made every day of our lives. It requires not only deciding what is the right thing to do (based upon the teachings of Jesus and the rest of scripture), but also thinking hard about the likely cost of doing things that will not always be popular. I don't mean to imply that the right thing is always to be equated with the unpopular choice. There may be rare times when most of your friends and associates will agree with you as to what is best to do. But my experience is that most of the time the popular road is not the road that Jesus walks and we who love him must follow. 

Let each of us today make it our prayer that God will give us daily that practical wisdom and courage to do always the right things, the things that Jesus did when he was on earth and would do again today if he were walking the earth in a human body.

Check back on Tuesday the 27th for the next segment of Matthew 13.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why Jesus Chose to Speak in Parables, Matthew 13:10-17

10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (Matthew 13:10–17 NRSV)

When Matthew writes in 13:3 that "he told them many things in parables, he probably was not restricting himself to those that he recorded in chapter 13. Many scholars think that this was Jesus' favorite way of teaching. 

The stories made his points more vivid, because the listeners could relate to the scenes from daily life in which they were couched. They all knew what it was like to have some of their seed eaten by birds, and other parts wither under the heat of the sun. They all knew how frustrating it was to use good seed for sowing and yet find weeds growing up among the wheat as the seed germinated and put forth plants. 

But using parables had another advantage for Jesus. We have seen how critics dogged his tracks, either to kibitz or to try to catch him in an error. These were malicious and dangerous men, against whom Jesus had to guard himself while simultaneously continuing his public ministry to the receptive people in his audiences. Parables enabled him to communicate selectively and to make himself immune from any serious charge by his critics, who could never prove what his intentions were by the stories. In verse 9 Jesus invites his sincere hearers to hear and understand, while insincere hearers will be baffled and unable to understand. 

We can thank God for the honesty of Jesus' disciples. For if they had not come to him and asked questions about his teaching, we might never have his explanations ourselves! 

When the disciples ask "Why do you speak to them—not "us"—in parables?" they imply that Jesus used parables more with the crowds than in the intimate circle of his loyal followers, the Twelve. The focus may be even narrower: since in his reply Jesus contrasts "you" with "them", the "them" may actually refer to the hostile and unbelieving critics in the crowds, not just to the crowds as a whole. 

Jesus ornamented this basic answer with a proverbial expression—"to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" (verse 12)—and a passage from the prophet Isaiah which had found fulfillment during Jesus' Galilean ministry (Isa 6:9-10). 

It is uncertain if Matthew regarded the Isaiah passage as a prediction of the Pharisees or merely an example of a timeless phenomenon which accompanies every prophetic announcement of God's truth. What was true in Isaiah's day was true in Matthew's time, and remains true today. 

But Matthew chose well the passage that he presents, for it closes with the words "that I should heal them."  The context in Galilee during Jesus' ministry there was one of God healing individuals among his people selectively on the basis of their willingness to hear and understand. We can see already, before Jesus explains the parable in detail, that the first three kinds of soil represent the kind of individuals who also did not understand God's words to Isaiah and the other prophets, because their hearts were hard. 

What makes people close their hearts to God's message today? Certainly part of the reason lies in the easy availability of substitutes: amusements and pursuits that can take our minds off the void in our lives that estrangement from God leaves. Entertainment remains today, as in earlier generations, one way to keep people from thinking hard about their lives. But ceaseless engagement with TV, the Internet, sports, sex, alcohol and career can only be effective so long. Sooner or later, in the privacy of a person's bedroom or study he/she will have to come face to face with the solitude of a life without God at its center, and with the uneasy sense that he/she has no relationship with God to give assurance of life beyond the grave. We, as the friends of such people, cannot know their inner lives—what it is that blinds or distracts them—but we can love them, pray for them, and continue to remind them of the love of Jesus shown in his life, his death and his resurrection from the dead. We are his voice to them, his hands to minister to them. 

In verse 16 Jesus reminds his hearers how privileged they are, because God has opened their eyes to understand the words of his teaching, turn in faith, and be healed. How seldom it is that we who do understand Jesus and listen to his teaching give thanks for this unusual privilege. In verse 17 Jesus points out that many godly individuals in earlier times—even prophets—would have given anything to be able to see the works and hear the words of the promised messiah. Imagine how delighted Noah, Abraham or Moses would have been to be allowed to belong to that band of Jesus' disciples! Or David! Or Elijah! Yet you and I have that privilege today every time we pick up our Bibles and read record of Jesus' teaching and his deeds. It is amazing how much we take for granted, when we neglect this unique privilege. 

Check back on Friday the 23rd for the next segment of Matthew 13.

Monday, September 19, 2011

How to Understand the Parable of the Sower - Matthew 13:1-9

The Setting, 13:1-2

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.  2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. (13:1-2 NRSV)

It is just as easy to see too much in an incidental remark, as to see too little. On the "too much" side, some interpreters see profound symbolism in Jesus' sitting "by the lake/sea," while the "too little" crowd dismiss any significance, saying that it simply "happened that way." One wonders if these verses were intended to give the setting for just the first parable or several. Verse 36 clearly indicates a change of scene, and it is possible that there were other changes of location earlier in the chapter. 

The Parable of the Sower, 13:3-9

 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13:3-9 NRSV)

Many scholars think that this was Jesus' most important parable and perhaps one that he told and re-told. It is one of only two that the gospel writers recorded an explanation from him. The other was the parable of the weeds among the wheat. 

The story is short and straightforward. A farmer takes his seed and goes into his fields to sow. What happens to the seeds, all of which are presumed to be healthy, depends on the place where they fall. Four locations are mentioned, of which only the fourth produces good and lasting crops. Seed that fell on the other three—on the beaten path, on shallow soil with rocky subsoil, and among thorns—is prevented from realizing its potential. 

Jesus will later explain the details to his disciples, but Matthew doesn't record that explanation right away, because he wants us to focus for the moment on the more general, overall meaning. Irrespective of what each of the three unfruitful locations represent, the point is that even the best of seed can only produce, if it falls on the right ground. Right away, we see that Jesus is foreshadowing what he will soon explain to his disciples about why he uses parables. Like the farmer's seed, the same words of Jesus will be heard by different people, and each will hear them distinctively.

 Quite a few hearers will not receive them in faith and with the understanding that God gives to sincere listeners. Therefore in the parable three-fourths of the seed does not produce. But a minority of his hearers will have hearts prepared by God to hear him rightly and understand, and believe, and begin to live transformed lives. 

Most of us are not pastors or evangelists. But what we say and do in the course of our daily living is nevertheless a kind of "preaching" to those who know that we profess to follow Jesus. We should seek to communicate the very words of Jesus in both the language of our speech and the language of our deeds. But even if we walk and talk like Jesus, and do it the same with everyone we know, only some will have the God-prepared hearts to learn and grow from it. We should concentrate on walking and talking like Jesus—that much we can control. We cannot control the results, which are in God's hands. 

Many of us have loved ones—perhaps our own parents or children—who have no desire to believe in Jesus or to follow him. It may be inexplicable to us why they cannot see and feel as we do. But we should not give up praying for them, for God can touch a person's heart late in life just as well as he can early. And their apparent unresponsiveness should never cause us to wonder about the truthfulness or the power of the gospel itself. It is—and always shall be—"good seed." And we should never hesitate to scatter it on the "soil" of people's hearts with confidence.  Let us cling to God's promise about his word in Isaiah 55:

10 As the rain and the snow 
   come down from heaven, and do not return to it    without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:    It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Check back on … for the next segment of Matthew 13.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What's Your Real Family? Matthew 12:46-50

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:46-50 NIV)

Having despatched the Pharisees, Jesus was met with another problem. His mother Mary and his brothers were standing on the outer fringe of the spectators, obviously not interested enough in what he was doing and saying to come close and sit at his feet with the other disciples. Yet they presumed to interrupt his "doing good" ministry in order to claim a private audience with him. They thought they had a privileged claim on him. 

This was a "teaching moment." It was time to teach his disciples by his own personal example that their real "family" was the community of believers and their true Father was in heaven. 

Does this mean that we can just forget about the commandment "Honor your father and your mother"? No. Definitely not. But one must always ask what honors them most. If your parent is not a believer, then he or she doesn't yet have the greatest gift you could give him or her. Responding to your parent's needs with generosity, kindness and love is one way that you can introduce him or her to Christ's own love. But if your parents ask you to abandon your faith or put Christ second in your life, it does them no favor to comply. You have to show them by your decisions that God is first in your life, and because He is first, you will make them second—not third, fourth or even last of all! Since your love for them is energized by your love for Christ, to let them usurp Christ's place will eventually rob them also of your love for them, for he is the source of that. 

Life is about priorities. Because someone or something is not your top priority does not mean that he, she or it is not important at all. 

Jesus loved his mother and brothers, but God had called him to minister to another "family" as well, to which—if they believed—his mother and siblings could also belong. 

We will return to this subject when we come to Matthew 15:1-9.

Check back on Monday for the next segment on Matthew 13.

Friday, September 16, 2011

How to Keep Demons from Returning After You've Cleaned House, Matthew 12:43-45

43 “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked gener (Matthew 12:43-46 NIV)

In 12:22-27 Jesus drove a demon out of a suffering man, which precipitated the attack on him by his Pharisee critics. Still on the subject of exorcizing demons, Jesus warns his critics that superficial and legalistic "cleaning house" such as their generation of Jewish leaders were engaged in cannot permanently rid them of evil. That generation of Jewish leaders prided themselves in ridding their nation of the idolatries that brought on the exile to Babylonia. And years after their return from exile under Ezra and Nehemiah, they had fought long and hard against the idolatry that their Greek rulers had sought to impose upon them by force. The brave Maccabean family led the fight and won. That idolatry was the worship of false gods, the equivalent of "evil spirits." These evil spirits had now been evict from Israel. But Jesus warned them: evil spirits temporarily evicted could and would come back. The worship of physical images of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses was easy enough to recognize as "idolatry." But they had replaced these idols with others of their own making: the worship of rabbinical traditions.  Only repentance and acceptance of God's messiah would permanently expel evil from their hearts, replacing the traditions of men with the pure Word of God, and replacing law-keeping as a means of cleansing from sin with faith in the sacrificial death and resurrection of the son of man, Jesus.

What "idols" have you created for yourself? Are there goals and aspirations in your life that are obscuring or taking the place of the one goal that we all have: to follow Jesus and please him?

Check back tomorrow (Saturday) for the next segment of Matthew 12.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What is the Sign of Jonah? Matthew 12:38-42

The Sign of Jonah, 12:38-42
 38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” 39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:38–43 NIV)

After Jesus' critics have denied the authenticity of his divine power in healing and exorcism, they have the audacity to come and ask him to give them a miraculous "sign" that would prove he was sent by God. What did they think they had been seeing day after day but such signs? 

Since they were so obviously insincere, Jesus simply refused to oblige them with any additional "proof." But he did give them an additional warning. There would be one more truly great sign: the sign of Jonah

What did Jesus mean by "the sign of the prophet Jonah"? The first part of his explanation is that, as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish and afterwards emerge alive, he himself would spend parts of three days and nights in the grave and afterwards emerge alive. His death and resurrection would be the one great sign that he would give them.

But he doesn't stop at this point. the sign if not just the "sign of Jonah," but "the sign of the prophet Jonah." After emerging alive from three days in the belly of the great fish, Jonah went and prophesied to the wicked people of Nineveh, and they repented! Admittedly, Jesus death and resurrection, which constitute the great sign, have not yet occurred. But Jesus anticipates the fact that hard-hearted critics of his ministry will refuse to repent and believe, even after being confronted by this great sign. So he cites two stories from the scripture of pagans who repented: the men of Nineveh who repented at Jonah's preaching, and the queen of Sheba who came from the ends of the earth, because she recognized the great wisdom of Solomon. But Jesus is greater than both Jonah and Solomon, and yet these Pharisees refuse to repent and believe. Thus at the last judgment, these two pagan groups will pass judgment on these sanctimonious and proud custodians of the law of Moses for not repenting at the preaching, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus, who is much greater than Jonah or Solomon. 

How about you and me? We live 2000 years after the advent of the Son of God. We have not only his teachings and miracles, his death and resurrection, but also the New Testament writings and the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us understand and apply the scriptures. How do we respond to Jesus every day? Is every day for you a fresh encounter with this Son of David and Son of Man? Is "repentance" in the sense of spiritual renewal your daily experience? If not, why not? God's mercies are "new every morning." And those "mercies" are mediated through our daily contact with Jesus through reading the Bible and praying. 

Check back tomorrow (Friday) for the next segment of Matthew 12.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jesus' Powers over Satan and the Demons, Matthew 12:22-37

 22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” 25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house. 30 “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. 33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:22-37 NIV)

People in Jesus' time attributed disease and disability also to demons, and there was a popular and lucrative profession in expelling demons from those who suffered from disease and disability. In the popular mind, therefore, it was a very short step from healing the man with the withered hand and expelling demons from a deaf mute.  Although Jesus didn't advertise himself as an exorcist, he had the power to expel demons and to heal. It was part of "doing good" that was the hallmark of his ministry. What infuriated his critics was the effect that this activity had on the crowds. They wondered if such a man might be "the son of David" (verse 23). What was the connection here? Nothing in the promises of God to David in the scripture indicated that his "son", the messiah, would be a healer (2 Samuel 7). 

No one really knows the answer to that question, but I have my own theory.  There are hints in scripture, resulting in widespread post-biblical stories, that David's son Solomon, as part of his legendary "wisdom" also knew how to heal and do miracles, including exorcism (see pages 102-4 in Lidija Novaković's book Messiah, the healer of the sick: a study of Jesus as the Son of David in the Gospel of Matthew). These Galileans may have known such stories. When they saw Jesus' healings and miracles, they were reminded of the Solomon stories. But "son of David" also meant the messiah, and they were certainly able to put the two together. 
How could the critics silence this growing belief? Well, they reasoned that, just as the Egyptian magicians in Moses' time could duplicate Moses' miracles in order to oppose the plan of God (Exod 7-9), so someone in their own time might use demonic powers to do counterfeit miracles and healing. It was the sort of claim that it would be difficult to disprove, which was why they used it.  

But in verses 25-29 Jesus uses logic to show how ridiculous this quibble was. "Is Satan helped by my driving his demons out of their victims?" He asked. "Of course not! No kingdom—like Satan's—could survive, if its ruler destroyed his own troops." The principle, Jesus said was that he had come to destroy the kingdom of Satan. In the temptations in the wilderness told in chapter 4, he had "bound the strong man." After succeeding in doing that, his Galilean ministry of healing and exorcisms was the plundering of the Strong Man's household.  In verse 30, he applies the same logic to himself and his own followers: You cannot say you are "for" me and attack my deeds and those of my disciples. You are either totally for me, or totally against me. So declare yourself and be honest with these people who hear your criticisms. Do you want all of my healing miracles to be undone?

In verse 32 Jesus follows up with an important warning. In other contexts he had said that it would be better for a person who caused a single disciple to lose his faith to be thrown into the sea with a huge boulder tied to his neck (Matt 18:6 and parallels). That is the principle repeated here. If criticism of the Son of Man had no corollary in the people's faith in him as the messianic Savior, it might be forgiven. But since declaring his messianic miracles a fraud had an inseparable link to the people's ability to believe and be saved, that action could not be forgiven. This "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" simply put means denying the one basis for salvation. That is why it cannot be forgiven. No salvation is possible, if Jesus is unable to heal and save.

Check back tomorrow (Thursday) for the next segment of Matthew 12.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jesus Avoids Hostile Confrontations and Notoriety, Matthew 12:15-21

Withdrawal from Hostility, 12:15-21

 15 Aware of this [= that his critics were now planning to kill him], Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, 16 warning them not to tell who he was. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:  18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. 19 He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. 20 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. 21 In his name the nations will put their  (Matthew 12:15-22 NIV)

Because Jesus' answers and his action of healing the man with the withered hand embarrassed—perhaps even humiliated—these critics, they began to plan how they might do away with him! As long as he lived, taught, and healed, he would be a perpetual "thorn in their sides," a constant hindrance to the prevailing of their laws among the common people. 

In verses 15-16 Matthew tells us that, when Jesus became aware of their intentions, he gave them a wide berth. Jesus knew already that eventually he must be put to death in Jerusalem, but a premature death at the hands of these vicious critics would not fulfill God's redemptive plan. 

He was undeterred from continuing to heal and teach the crowds that followed him, but he ordered them not to make a big to-do about him and claim that he was the messiah, for the appointed time for that announcement was still ahead (26:45; cf. John 7:8).  In verses 18-21 Matthew quotes Isaiah 42:1-4, as being fulfilled by Jesus' behavior: not aggressively promoting himself as the messiah, nor taking retaliatory action against those who intended him harm. For he was more than the royal messiah, son of David; he was also the "servant of Yahweh" described in Isaiah, and that role required meekness, suffering and death for the sins of his people. By quoting this passage from Isaiah 42, Matthew hopes not only to show that Jesus fulfilled the servant's role in non-retaliation, but also in bringing God's salvation to the Gentiles as well. 

Check back tomorrow (Wednesday) for the next segment of Matthew 12.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Can It Be Wrong to Do Right on the Sabbath? Matthew 12:9-14

Healing the Man with the Deformed Hand, 12:9-14
 9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a deformed hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” 11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill  (Matthew 12:9-15 NIV adapted)

Implied in Jesus' answer in the preceding section to the criticism against himself and his disciples for plucking and eating the ears of grain was that—like David of old, and the priests in the temple in his own day—they were on "the King's business." So here we will see what that business was. Jesus and his disciples enter a synagogue on the sabbath day, and encounter there a man with a withered arm. In the Old Testament the law prohibited a man with any physical disability to serve as a priest, but there was no exclusion of such a person from the synagogue worship. Still, there was something contradictory in Jesus' mind between a person truly seeking to worship God, and his not being whole. Jesus' critics could see that it was his intention to heal this man, even though the man had not requested it. These men were always looking for ways to catch Jesus in a violation of God's law. So they put the question to him: "Does God's law permit healing on the sabbath?" They have in mind that, since according to the rabbinical traditions incidental plucking of grain could be considered professional labor as a harvester, so also incidental acts of healing might be considered plying the trade of a physician on the sabbath day. If Jesus admits this, he will at least be kept from doing what he clearly wants to do to the man with the withered hand. If he denies it, he can be accused as a lawbreaker.

Jesus' answer does not appeal directly to a scripture passage. Instead, he asks them if they would not rescue one of their sheep that fell into a pit on the sabbath. It is almost certain that they would have agreed. Yet this act would not be to save the sheep's life, since spending a day in a pit without food or water would not kill the sheep. Rescuing the animal would simply be a kind and sensible thing to do. It would be both irrational and insensitive to refuse, just because it was Saturday! So also, the withered many might wait until the "doctor's office" was open on the morning after the sabbath to be healed. But is that kind and reasonable, when Jesus has the power to heal and the man needs it? This man had worshiped for years in their synagogue as a disabled man, and these critics had never lifted a finger or a prayer to seek his healing. Now they quibble that Jesus should wait another day to heal him! So the final principle that Jesus gives is this: "It is (always) lawful to do good on the sabbath." 

Jesus is talking about what is “lawful,” not what is required … if it were absolutely true that failure to do good is always evil, there would be no possibility of any rest at all. Jesus’ rhetorical question therefore has a narrower focus: Was the Sabbath a day for maleficent activity—like their evil intentions in questioning him—or for beneficent action, like the healing about to be done? (Carson, Matthew).

If it is not only legal, but good to do good on God's holy sabbath, how much more so is it good to do good on every day of the week. Jesus' critics were looking for pious excuses not to help people in need. We too must be careful not to use pious excuses to avoid doing good for our God.

Check back tomorrow (Tuesday) for the next segment of Matthew 12.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What's Wrong with Plucking Grain on the Sabbath? 12:1-8

Some Pharisee Critics Argue with Jesus, 12:1-21

Since Luke reports that the episode of healing the man with the withered hand took place on a different sabbath (Lk 6:6), Matthew has grouped two incidents in which some Pharisees criticized Jesus' activities on the sabbath together.

Matthew also places his record of both of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees about the Sabbath (12:1-14) right after the Lord’s invitation to the weary and heavy-loaded with life’s trials and with the added burden of Pharisaic accretions to the law, to come to him and take his yoke of discipleship upon them and find “rest” (11:28-30). Now “rest” is precisely what the Sabbath is all about (Gen 2:2). But here we see Jesus’ critics doing precisely what Jesus’ invitation was intended to relieve the weary and heavy-laden of: laying on them extra burdens that went far beyond what the scripture actually required (Matt 23:2-4)! Furthermore, their criticisms show that they have failed to understand the meaning of the key verse quoted here by Jesus: “I desire mercy more than sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). These critics have no concern for the hungry and weary disciples of Jesus or for the man with the withered hand. Their only concern is that they impose their view of the law of Moses on all Jews and force conformity to their way of life on everyone. In so doing they show themselves to be blind to God’s truth.

Concerning the Sabbath, 12:1-14

Example 1: Plucking Grain, 12:1-8
 1   At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” 3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sa (Matthew 12:1-9 NIV)

Verses 1-2. Jesus is challenged here by the Pharisees for allowing his disciples to violate their rules of sabbath observance. It was a matter of interpretation, since the Old Testament teaching was not precise as to what constituted forbidden "labor" on the sabbath day. But the rabbinic tradition of the Pharisees classified picking even a few ears of grain as "harvesting" and rubbing the ears to release the kernel (mentioned in Luke, but not in Matthew) as "milling." Both of these activities were considered "labor." As a rabbi, Jesus would be expected to know and honor this interpretation and to teach and enforce it with his disciples. His failure to stop them and teach them not to do this would be a failure on his part as a Pharisaic rabbi.

Verses 3-8. Jesus' reply and justification for his disciples' actions consists of three different arguments, all utilizing different precedents.

The first (vv 3-4) appealed to something that David did when he was fleeing from King Saul, accompanied by his men. The story is found in 1 Samuel 21. Arriving at Nob, a city inhabited by priests, David and his hungry men were in need of food; so they requested it from the high priest, Ahimelek. Led to believe by David that he and his men were on an official mission of King Saul, Ahimelek was glad to assist them. But lacking any unconsecrated bread, he offered him some of the consecrated bread that was being replaced by fresh loaves. According to the law (Exod 25:30; Lev 24:5-9) this bread was for the exclusive use of the priests themselves.  Since Saul considered David to be a rebel and pretender to the throne, he later executed Ahimelek himself and the other priests for giving food to David, since in Saul's eyes it was an act of treason. But nothing is said in the biblical text to indicate that for David to eat this particular bread was a violation of the law. And since the high priest himself offered it to David, Ahimelek himself—and perhaps others in that day—understood the law to mean that these loaves were for the needs of the priests, but they might share them with others in need.

The analogy Jesus wishes to draw is that in both that case and the present one there is an eating that according to one interpretation of the law of Moses could be considered a violation, but which the high priest Ahimelek (acting for God) permitted in the case of David and his men. David and his men were not just any hungry men. At that time David had already been anointed in secret as God's chosen king for Israel. But a rejected king—Saul—was resisting God's will and seeking to kill God's anointed king. Like David, Jesus is God's "anointed one" (Greek meaning of "Christ"), and is at this very moment being persecuted wrongly by the Pharisees, who are filling the role of Saul who opposed the new thing that God was doing through David. They too are plotting his death.

According to Mark and Luke, Jesus concluded his case by claiming that the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath. Matthew, however, includes a second argument, that seems to have been prompted by a Pharisaic objection that the illustration of David did not come from the sacred Torah, the law of Moses: it was just a story about something David did, and was therefore not a real source for legal permission. So Jesus' second example comes from the Torah itself. According to the Torah, God allowed the priests in the temple to do work on the sabbath in order to make it possible for others to worship God and find forgiveness and healing. Implied is the fact that he and his disciples were doing just that on this Sabbath, as they made their way through the fields to another place where they would teach and heal.

"Yes," his critics may have answered, "but that exception concerns only the temple!" So Jesus replied, "Something greater than the temple is here." By this he may have meant the kingdom of God, which he was proclaiming, or he may have meant himself as the messiah. But there was more to be said.

Next (in v 7) Jesus put his finger on the heart of his critics’ problem, when he cited Hosea 6:6.  He had already quoted this verse to them in 9:13. There too, as here, neither Mark nor Luke chose to include this saying by Jesus.

From the viewpoint of the Pharisees, the verse should have read "I desire sacrifice and not mercy," or at least substantiate the conclusion that sacrifice (obedience) is more important than mercy. Yet Hosea, speaking for Yahweh, put the emphasis upon mercy (Hebrew hesed, "steadfast love") even to the extent of denying the absolute importance of sacrifice. Mercy is a better way of obeying God than sacrifice. Some things are more important than strict obedience to the letter of the law. At its heart, Jesus' healing ministry was about mercy—the granting of unmerited favor to the unworthy. The "religion" of the Pharisees would have left such needy people under an unbearable burden of extra requirements—weary and heavy-laden and without hope.

By failing to understand God’s system of priorities, which put mercy above sacrifice, these critics have committed the grave sin of condemning innocent persons (verse 7, the Greek for "the innocent" is plural), because the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath. What does this mean? According to all three synoptic gospels, this was the final defense Jesus gave for his and his disciples’ actions here. It must be of primary importance. Jesus often used the phrase “the Son of Man” to describe himself. Others—even his closest followers—never used it of Jesus. Nor do any of the other New Testament writers. This is strange, if the phrase was meant to be a title, like "Christ" or "Son of God." 

It is hotly debated just what significance this phrase had for Jesus himself. Some think it indicates his status as the representative Man, who alone could assume the guilt of humanity and atone for it in his death. One could hardly object to that truth, but is that what "the son of man" actually meant in Jesus' mouth?

Others think it refers to the passage in Daniel 7:13-14 (LXX) where a figure called “one like a son of man” appears in the presence of God, who is called “the Ancient of Days” and receives a kingdom. When at his trial before the High Priest Caiaphas, Jesus stated that they would someday see "the son of man" (meaning himself) standing at the right hand of God, they proclaimed that he had blasphemed (Matt 26:63-65). But was the blasphemy Jesus calling himself "the son of man" or because he claimed he would be standing at God's right hand? The upshot is that we simply don't know for certain what specific meaning Jesus invested in the phrase "the son of man," when he used it to refer to himself. 

Nevertheless, when in this passage Jesus—using the phrase "the son of man" to refer to himself—claimed to be "lord of the sabbath," he was also clearly claiming God-given authority to determine what was appropriate activity on the Sabbath day. 

Instead of criticizing him, his critics should be coming to him as the lord of the Sabbath to inquire how they might obey and worship God appropriately on this his holy day. They should heed the invitation that he had given earlier to those who were “weary and heavy-laden” and come to him for true Sabbath rest. But unlike Jesus’ disciples, these critics had no true hunger to know God. They would not come to him to find spiritual food and true rest from their frantic efforts to justify themselves by the law.

Check back tomorrow (Monday) for the next segment of Matthew 12.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Matthew Study to Resume Next Sunday

This is to alert readers who are not on my personal mailing list that the study series on the Gospel of Matthew, which paused for the summer months, will resume next Sunday with a posting on Matthew 12:1-8 ("What's wrong with plucking grain on the Sabbath?").

So "tune in" on Sunday to continue our interesting journey through the life of Jesus as seen and transmitted by the Apostle Matthew (also known as "Levi"!).

For the next six months or so I will be dividing up the weekly lesson into smaller parts, so that there should be a new posting every few days (not daily!). So check back more frequently than you have done previously, or you may miss one. If you think you did miss one, check in the bottom righthand side of the web page for the "Blog Archive" from where you should be able to retrieve and read a past posting.

Also on the righthand side of this page you will find a heading "Subscribe to Yom Yom," which has a pop-down menu allowing you to have the frequent but irregular postings sent to you via e-mail on either your laptop or your smart phone.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Opposition in Galilee to the Messiah, Part 1 — Matthew 11

[With this lesson the Matthew series takes a break until the fall.]

Jesus' Answer to the Baptizer's Question, 11:1-6
1 Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities. 2 When John heard in prison the deeds of the Christ (i.e., messiah), he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

1 The "instructing" of the Twelve seems most naturally to refer to the instructions for mission in ch. 10, although it is possible that the earlier teaching to larger groups (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) is included.  The Greek conjunction de introducing verse 1 means "but," and shows that contrary to what might be expected, although Jesus sent the Twelve out in order to multiply his own personal ministry, he continues to visit towns in person as well. The nearest obvious antecedent of the word "their" (in "their cities") is "his twelve disciples." It was to the cities of the Twelve that Jesus now went, that is, the cities (or towns) that the Twelve had visited, as forerunners of Jesus. This means that the Twelve—like modern "advance men"—by visiting many Galilean towns had singled out for Jesus the towns that had been more receptive and those that had not.

2-3 It is somewhat surprising that what John the Baptizer heard were "the deeds of the Christ (i.e., the messiah)," since Jesus was not yet calling himself the messiah to the crowds, or even to his own select circle. Perhaps it is Matthew who simply calls the deeds of Jesus "the deeds of the messiah", since Jesus is about to identify them as such in the next few verses. But if the reports that came to John really did indeed claim that these deeds showed Jesus' messiahship, he might have been perplexed by this characterization, since his prophecies about the "coming One" were of judgment and clearing the threshing floor of sinners. Was he then totally wrong about Jesus being the messiah? Or was his information about the messiah's activity wrong?
We should also not miss the importance of the fact that John was now in prison and would soon be executed (beheaded!) by order of Herod Antipas. Would the messiah allow his forerunner to be treated this way?

The wording of John's question "Are you the one who was to come, or should we wait for another?" covers both possible mistakes: If the answer is that Jesus is the one who was to come, it means John's concept of the messiah's role needed correcting. If he was to wait for another, then John had mistaken Jesus for the messiah.

4-6 But Jesus doesn't just answer, "I am the one who was to come." Instead he gives John a summary of his activities to date—thus confirming (or correcting) whatever reports had come to John in prison—and concludes with the words "Blessed is he who takes no offense at me." Why would Jesus' activities cause offense? We have already seen in chs. 8-9 sporadic instances where Jesus' words of forgiveness to the man he would heal aroused offense among some of the scribes, and we will see in chs. 11 and 12 much more focused opposition and offense. The decision will be John's whether or not he will reject Jesus as the messiah.

How did Jesus expect John to decide? Presumably the same way that the Twelve and the crowds were expected to decide. His actions were all driven by love and compassion and holiness, and his powers could come from only one source: God. If he were falsely representing himself as the messiah, would God be giving his these powers? Furthermore, it was predicted in the Old Testament that the coming One (whether he be called the "king" or the "seed of David" or the "Suffering Servant" or whatever term prophecy chose) would perform such acts of healing and raising the dead (e.g., Isa 35:4-6; 61:1).
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”   5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  (Isaiah 35:4-6)
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  (Isaiah 61:1)

Part of John's perplexity was the fact that the messiah's predicted actions—releasing those oppressed by sin and its consequences, and bringing judgment—were to be carried out in two comings of the messiah. Although in a sense Jesus carried out judgment in his first coming, it is particularly in his second coming that he will execute judgment in its final and complete form. The judgment of Satan and the victory over death are anticipated in the crucifixion and resurrection, but prior to that all that John could see were the glimpses of judgment exhibited in Jesus' power to expel demons.

Did Jesus' words to John succeed in resolving his doubts? The gospels don't tell us, but I like to think that they did.

Jesus' Estimate of John, 11:7-15
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!  (Matthew 11:7-15 NRSV)
This section too begins with Greek de "but," which calls attention to the fact that Jesus corrects a possible false impression that his previous words to John's disciples might have created. He does not  minimize the importance of John.

7-9a Apparently, Jesus spoke these words to John's disciples in public, for he then turns to the listening "crowds". Did they think that Jesus was now rejecting John? If so, how should they choose between the two popular reformers? They admired both men.

Jesus' first questions to the crowds have to do with their false estimate of John and their motives for admiring him. When they went out to hear him preach, what drew them? Was it his ascetic ways and blunt forthright language? Was it his Elijah clothes? These things were the outer accouterments of prophets, true. And John was indeed a prophet. Prophets could be mistaken at times. Samuel anointed Saul as Israel's first king and only later had to reject him and replace him by David. Was John too mistaken about Jesus?

9b-15 What then was John's true role? Jesus will now tell them in amazing terms.

9b-10 First of all, John was not only a prophet, he was much more (v 9). His role is that of the "messenger of the covenant" promised by Malachi in 3:1. According to Mal 3:1, this messenger will prepare the way for God's own coming to his temple. But as Jesus paraphrases the verse here, the words spoken by God are addressed to the messiah as "you" and "your face." The coming of God himself in the person of the messiah ("you) will be sudden—so sudden that without the messenger's announcement it could not be prepared for. John's role as that messenger was to prepare Yahweh's people for his own coming to them in the form of the messiah.  With these words Jesus corrects the crowds' assessment of John as merely another reforming prophet. His questions that they had heard were not idle curiosity: they were proper for him to to ask, since his role was to introduce the messiah.

11 Secondly, John stood in a unique period of transition between the Old and the New Covenants and as such had a different status in each. In the Old Covenant economy there was none greater than he: not Abraham, not Moses, not David, not Elijah, not Isaiah. But in the New Covenant economy—what is called here "the kingdom of Heaven"—every member enjoys a higher status than John's role in the Old Covenant. Don't misunderstand! In this second sentence Jesus doesn't mean to say that John as a believer in God's eternal kingdom will always be inferior to you or me. It is merely that even the highest role in the pre-kingdom era pales in comparison to being in that kingdom. It is better to be in this kingdom than to be Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah and Isaiah (all rolled into one), anticipating it.

Why does Jesus add this second statement? In the first statement he corrected a possible underestimation of John—no one greater than he. But in the second he opened the opportunity to all who heard him to become something even better than John: to become members of the kingdom of God.

12 Verse 12 is one of the more difficult verses in the Bible to understand. Several translations and interpretations have been offered. Some think the reference to violence here is positive: people have been so eager to enter the kingdom that they have been beating the doors down to get in. Others think the reference is negative: the kingdom has drawn near in the persons of John and Jesus, and opposition has become intense. In the light of what the gospels tell us about John's and Jesus' ministries, we can see both processes occurring. John was very popular, and many came to be baptized by him. Jesus too attracted large crowds and was acclaimed by many. But John was now in prison and would soon be executed on a whim of Herod's wife, and Jesus was already beginning to feel the attacks on his deeds and teachings and claims mounting in intensity.  Once again, the Greek conjunction de "but" introduces verse 12. The contrast is this: although in the Old era no one was greater than John, and membership in the kingdom confers even higher status and rewards than being John, yet from the time John appeared down to the present there has been resistance and opposition to the kingdom message of John and Jesus. Why does Jesus say this at this point in the narrative? Chapters 11 and 12 will be devoted to showing the intensification of opposition to Jesus. John's question, although quite legitimate, gives us a taste of what his enemies might have seen a crack in Jesus' armor: even his own forerunner now has doubts about him! Jesus' hearers should therefore know that all of this is in God's plan.

13-14 The word "for" which gives an explanation is not explaining the violence, but Jesus' earlier statement about John's status straddling the two eras. John stands at the turning point of the two eras: the law and the prophets (i.e., the Old Testament scriptures and the rules governing life in that era) were in force up to John. Since he is the Elijah who was to come, he introduces the new era. The prediction that an Elijah figure would come to introduce the new era of the messiah is found in Malachi 4:5.

5   Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.

Israel's Dissatisfaction, 11:16-19
16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
Two small details of language are easy to miss in reading this short section. First, Jesus is not addressing the fickle people directly. In vv 18 and 19 he uses the words "they say" (not "you say"). And secondly, he is not passing judgment on the whole Jewish people, but only "this generation," referring to the majority of people living in Galilee and Judea at that time. As Jesus will use the term "this generation" elsewhere in Matthew, as well as in some other gospel passages, it is an ominous sign that portends what will be God's terrible judgment in AD 70, when he will permit the Romans to destroy the temple and much of Jerusalem as well.

Why were Jesus' contemporaries so unable to recognize him? There are various ways to approach that question, and the suggestion offered in these verses by our Lord is only one of them. In fact it is merely a symptom of a more fundamental issue that we will return to in verses 25-27. Jesus says here that they had their own plans for what God should do. They were like children inventing games for which they set their own arbitrary rules, and then complaining that other children didn't do as they were told. One minute the inventors of the game played one tune and demanded laughter and merriment, and the next they abruptly changed the tune and expected instant mourning.

Furthermore, they failed to recognize that John and Jesus had totally different roles in God's plan. John was to be the ascetic prophet, who denied himself everything, abstained from wine, subsisted on locusts and wild honey, and fasted often. Jesus was to be a friend of tax collectors and sinners. In order to do so he enjoyed table fellowship with them which entailed sharing their wine and good food. He didn't make fasting an important part of his own life or that of the Twelve. The fickle critics of both men accused them of going to extremes: John was allegedly demon-possessed, while Jesus was called a glutton and drunkard. In Jewish views of that day gluttony was often considered a sign of a reprobate (such as Esau who sold his birthright to Jacob because he was a glutton, Hebrew ballāʿ), or as one unable to control his appetite or resist any temptation (Hebrew gurgĕrān). These two assessments amounted to the same thing: men who were thought to be "demon-possessed" (as critics called John) or who were called "gluttons" (as they called Jesus) were false prophets and false teachers of the God of Israel. There is even a hint that labeling Jesus "a glutton and a drunkard" implies that he was like the incorrigible son who according to the law of Moses should be executed by stoning:
18   If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.  (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Jesus' final words in verse 19—"but wisdom is vindicated by her deeds"—means the same thing as his earlier quoted statement "a tree is known by its fruit." Jesus' deeds were all to heal and help, to free from sin and its effects. His critics only sought to maintain the status quo of suffering and despair.

Oracles of Judgment, 11:20-24
20   Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
In the preceding section Jesus has been telling his loyal disciples about outsiders who are unsatisfied with him, and passing judgment on him as one worthy of God's death penalty for a "rebellious" son. Now he turns the table on his critics. And although he directly addresses the towns in which there has been inadequate response, calling them "you," he may be doing this, as we might say, in absentia. That is, Matthew doesn't necessarily imply that unbelieving residents of these three Galilean towns were in Jesus immediate audience. A prophet can address directly a remote audience.

Elsewhere in the gospels we read that Jesus also denounced Galilean towns for their failure to repent, contrasting them with the pagan city of Nineveh, which repented when it heard the prophetic denunciations of Jonah (Mat 12:41). But here he doesn't use a contrasting example. Instead, he cites cities famous for the totality of their destruction. Sodom (and also Gomorrah, which Jesus doesn't mention) were destroyed when God sent fire down from heaven upon them. Tyre and Sidon were destroyed by Alexander the Great, and their destruction was predicted centuries before in Old Testament prophecy. In neither case were they called upon to repent, nor were miracles performed in them as a warning. This is Jesus' point, for he claims that if they had received such warnings of their wickedness and seen miracles such as he performed in Galilee, they would have repented and been spared.

What does Jesus denounce the residents of these Galilean towns for? "Repenting" means changing what one believes and does, abandoning what displeases God and conforming to what does please him. It means a complete turn-around. But Jesus doesn't give a list of specific sins here. He doesn't even say—in so many words—that failure to believe in him as the messiah is their sin. Matthew expects us to fill in the answers from our general knowledge of Jesus, obtained from all sources. Jesus has taught a rigorous form of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). He has implied in chapter 8 that such a righteousness can only come from individuals acknowledging—like the blind, deaf, lame and demon-possessed who came to him in chapter 8—that they are spiritually impaired and need to be made whole through faith in Jesus. Those two steps are what most of the audiences in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum had refused to do. Perhaps they were entertained by Jesus' novel interpretations of the law in the Sermon on the Mount, and they were certainly amazed (and perhaps entertained) as they watched his healings and exorcisms, as one might munch on a bag of popcorn while watching magic tricks. But if they ever actually grasped what was needed to change in their own lives, they simply refused to heed.  
Isn't that so often the response of our "generation"? Church services and radio and TV programs provide a kind of "entertainment." But the viewers, like the children in Jesus' parable want to control everything. They don't want to find themselves confronted by God or put in a position where they must make serious changes in the way they think and act. Perhaps, before we nod our heads in agreement that these First Century Galileans (or "Jews") were really wicked and deserved every bit of the disaster that Jesus warned them of, we should go back and re-read Matthew 5-7 and ask ourselves if these standards really do characterize the way we think, act and live. Repentance isn't something that a follower of Jesus does only once in his or her life. It is a discipline as important as our daily hygiene. What have you repented of today? What has God shown you that you need to correct?

To Whom Does God "Choose" to Reveal Himself?, 11:25-27
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. 27 All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." (Matthew 11:25-27 NIV)
Above, I asked the question: "Why were Jesus' contemporaries so unable to recognize him?" and suggested that there was a fundamental reason that underlay the surface reason that people had their own expectations which made them only respond to what they thought God should do.  That reason is what Jesus mentions here. It is not one that appeals to most people. It seems "unfair" of God. Why would a loving God ever hide truth necessary for salvation from anyone? And why would the Son of God only choose to reveal God to certain people and not to others? Perhaps the clue is in how Jesus' words describe those to whom saving truth is hidden. They are the "wise and learned" who are described as the opposite of "little children" (v 25). This suggests that the Son of God will always "choose" to reveal God the Father to anyone who in heart and mind is what he calls "little children." The choice then—in spite of the surface impression of v 27—is not ultimately God's but ours. We can choose to be either "wise and learned" or "little children". Here we must make a very important distinction from the context. These "little children" (the Greek word nēpioi means literally "infants") are not the same as the "children" (the Greek word here paidia is a different one, referring to older children, perhaps teens or pre-teens) described in verses 16-17. The "infants" (or "little children") of v 25 are innocent and trusting, while the older "children" of verses 16-17 show themselves by their behavior to be selfish, mean and fickle. People who consider themselves "wise and learned" are often the most reluctant to change their thinking on any important issue.

So while we might agree that God always takes the first step in opening the hearts and minds of hearers of the gospel, although the terms "hidden" and "chooses to reveal" sound a lot like Calvinistic teaching on election, what Jesus is teaching here is something less complicated and abstruse. It is that God always reveals himself to those wishing to learn from him. The most appropriate parallel elsewhere in the four gospels is Jesus' words in John 7:17 — "If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority."

An Invitation to Rest, 11:28-30
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light"
Following his words of judgment on unresponsive and unrepentant hearers of his teachings and witnesses of his healing and exorcisms, and following immediately on his putting his finger on the crucial issue of whether or not one is willing to learn from God and change one's behavior, Jesus invites his hearers to exchange their heavy burdens and their weariness with life and with the powerless legalism of the Pharisees for a new kind of sharing life's learning and working with himself, and thus entering a profound kind of "rest" in the midst of exertion. For Galilean farmers "rest" for a work animal meant taking off the yoke at day's end and feeding the animal. Jesus liked to use startling ways of conveying truth through apparent contradictions. Here he suggests that real "rest" was not taking off the yoke, but putting it on. How can this be? Because the yoke he invites us to put on is what allows him to share all our burdens. A yoke was a device that permitted two animals to draw the same vehicle or plow. When Jesus is yoked to me, he does most of the pulling, I'm just a beneficiary of his strength. This is an amazing reversal of the normal use of this metaphor. In the Old Testament God prohibited his people from yoking together an ox and a donkey (Deut 22:10), because the unequal pulling power would cause pain and injury to the animals. Paul used the same metaphor to counsel Christians not to marry non-Christians (2 Cor 6:14) This too most often will cause pain and spiritual injury to both parties because their goals in life and the principles that guide their daily decisions are so radically different. But here is the unequally yoked pair, par excellence! Yet it causes no injury or pain: quite the contrary. Yet the inequality is only one of power, not of goals and principles. On the contrary, when we take Jesus' yoke on ourselves and learn of him, we daily become more like him in our responses to irritations and problems. Instead of fuming and complaining and cursing them, we receive them as Jesus received the irritations, rebuffs, false accusations and injuries that he experienced daily.