Being Pathetic Is the Point

A few days ago I posted an entry based on Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand from Matthew 14:5-18 (“What do you have?”). The entry that day was pretty short, but the story itself has been a great encouragement to me over the last week and especially today. The logic goes something like this:
  1. If you hang around Jesus long enough, you’ll start to notice the needs of others.
  2. Developing a Christ-like heart means not only noticing those needs but trying to meet them as well.
  3. People’s needs are more than we can handle . . . a lot more than we can handle.
  4. Though well meaning, our attempts to meet other people’s needs (because they’re so overwhelming) often results in stupid ideas focused on “helping people help themselves.”
  5. What Jesus wants is for us to offer to him (at great cost to ourselves) whatever measly supplies (gifts, services, time, talents, etc.) we have.
  6. Though in itself what we have to offer is pathetically inadequate, Jesus takes what we offer him and “breaks it.”
  7. Having been broken, our “supplies” are now ready to really be of service.

The point in all of this is simple: our inadequacies glorify Jesus. Being pathetic is the point. That’s how we know we’re doing ministry right. This doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Being pathetic still hurts (it’s vulnerable and humbling). But Jesus isn’t looking for good cooks, he’s looking for disciples who love what he loves and give what costs the most.

What Defiles a Person

Matthew 15:18-20 (cf. vv. 10-20)
“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
The actions which make someone unclean, unfit for God’s holy presence, are thing like murder, adultery, fornication and the rest. The motivations which point towards such actions give themselves away in thoughts and words which come bubbling up from the depth of the personality, showing that, whatever outward purity codes the person may keep, the innermost self of that person needs to be changed if they are to be what God intended and wanted. . . . The discussion is about what God really wants his people to be like, and how this desire can be fulfilled. Here and elsewhere Jesus is addressing the deep question . . . how can the human heart be made pure? (197).
A. Orendorff
What we do is the direct result of who we are. What this means, practically speaking, is that in order to change what we do—whether that be our thoughts, intentions, words or actions—we must first change who we are—what Jesus and the rest of Scripture calls the “heart.” Matthew 15:18-20 is in many ways a reiteration of Matthew 12:33-37:

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”

The point in both passages is that evil arises not from outside the human heart but from within it. Our greatest trouble, therefore, comes not from what is external to us—things like our circumstances, relationships, and even physical suffering—but from what is internal. Dealing purely with externals, while pressing and often necessary, is not how gospel-change works. Gospel-change begins, to use Wright’s phrase, with the “innermost self.” It focuses on the “deep question” of how the human heart can be made pure. Where such a purity can be found is the focus of Matthews unfolding story.

Whose Authority?

Matthew 15:6-9 (cf. vv. 1-9)
“. . . for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

‘This people give me honor with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
From this one little example Jesus launches his major attack on the Pharisees: they are play-actors. The word “hypocrite” literally means someone who puts on a mask to play a part. The mask, says Jesus, is the words the Pharisees use. Behind their words of piety, their hearts have no intention of really discovering what God desired. They have elevated merely human customs to the status of divine commands. In the process, they have overthrown the actual divine commands themselves.

That is why serious study of scripture remains at the heart of the church’s life and task, not least for leaders. Unless we are constantly being refreshed and challenged by scripture, we won’t have our wits about us to distinguish between healthy and hypocritical tradition—or, for that matter, between life-giving innovations and deadly one (194).
A. Orendorff
The really scary thing about Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees here in Matthew 15 is that it reveals the possibility of “honoring” God with our lips, while remaining at arms length from Him in our hearts. Just because you’re “worshipping God” doesn’t mean you’re “worshipping God.” The difference between authentic and counterfeit faith is established by how we use and submit to Scripture. The fundamental question is simply, “Whose authority are we under: God’s or people?”

In the Waves

Matthew 14:28-31
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
If the previous story (the feeding of the five thousand) can be read as a picture of Christian vocation, this story can be read as a picture of the life of faith—or, rather, the life of half-faith, faith mixed with fear and doubt, which is the typical state of so many Christians, as it was with the disciples (189)

There are many times when Jesus asks us to do what seems impossible. How can we even begin to do the task he’s called us to? . . . Of course, if like Peter we look at the waves being lashed by the wind, we will conclude that it is indeed impossible. What we are called to do—it’s so basic and obvious, but so hard to do in practice—is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and our ears open for his encouragement (even if it does contain some rebuke as well). And our wills and hearts must be ready to do what he says, even if it seems crazy at the time (191).
A. Orendorff
If the feeding of the five thousand teaches us what ministry is all about, then the story of Peter in the waves teaches us what discipleship involves. In reference to the first, ministry means allowing Jesus to break whatever measly inadequacies we posses in order to meet the overwhelming needs stacked all around us. Likewise, as it concerns the second, discipleship means allowing Jesus to meet us “in the waves” with our inadequacies (again) exposed, fearfully overwhelmed by the faith deflating odds set firmly against us.

What both of these stories teach us is that being near Jesus means being uncomfortable. Following Jesus means being exposed. Whatever we choose to call our inadequacies—whether, limitations, short-comings, or failures—Jesus is in the business taking what we have and making something new.

Sinking we cry out, “Lord, save me.” And though his answer rebukes us, he still reaches out his hand and takes hold.

What do you have?

Matthew 14:15-18
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it's already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish, they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
Think through how it’s happened. Being close to Jesus has turned into the thought of service; Jesus takes the thought, turns it inside out (making it more costly, of course), and gives it back to you as a challenge. In puzzled response to the challenge, you offer what you’ve got, knowing it’s quite inadequate (but again costly); and the same thing happens. He takes it, blesses it, and breaks it (there’s the cost, yet again), and gives it to you—and your job now is to give it to everybody else.

This is how it works whenever someone is close enough to Jesus to catch a glimpse of what he’s doing and how they could help. We blunder in with our ideas. We offer, uncomprehending, what little we have. Jesus takes ideas, loaves and fishes, money, a sense of humor, time, energy, talents, love, artistic gifts, skill with words, quickness of eye or fingers, whatever we have to offer. He holds them before his father with prayer and blessing. Then, breaking them so they are ready for use, he gives them back to us to give to those who need them (187).
A. Orendorff
What a paradigm for ministry. Standing close to Jesus, we see the need—the very real and pressing need—of the people draw toward Him. They’re there to hear and to be healed, draw by some strange mix of curiosity and hope. But they’re also hungry. Seeing their need, we simultaneously understand that what we have isn’t nearly enough. Send them away, we conclude. There’s so much to be done, so many problems, such unbelievable odds.

“What do you have?” Jesus asks.

“Not enough,” we respond.

“Give it to me. Let me break it. And well see together what miraculous things can happen.”

As the Forerunner . . . So the Runner

Matthew 14:1-2
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
Matthew has put down a marker, a signpost, halfway through his gospel: if this happened to the prophet who went on ahead, this is what will happen to the one who follows.

So he invites us to reflect, as we see the story unfold, on what is taking Jesus himself to his fate, and how we should view it when it comes. Jesus, like John, has urged people to repent. He, like John, has challenged the present powers, though he has done so more cryptically, in riddles that will only become plain and blunt when he arrives in Jerusalem. He has already had the threat of death suspended over him, not just at his birth but when the Pharisees, rightly seeing his plans as cutting clean across their own, decide they should get rid of him. And, behind it all, we learn to recognize what every first-century Jew knew well: that anyone announcing the kingdom of God was challenging a power that stood behind even Herod, the power of Caesar himself (183).

“And they took offense at him.”

Matthew 13:52
. . . coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished. . . . And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
Matthew places this incident right after the long series of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, and it’s a stark warning to anyone who might suppose that Jesus’ teaching was meant to be a matter of simple and straightforward lessons about life, morality, spirituality, or whatever, that anyone with half a bring would pick up easily. Far from it. This “teaching,” if we want to call it that, is shocking, explosive and dangerous (179).

In fact, rejection can sometimes be a strange encouragement. Provided we understand such a moment with humility, it can become a further indication, albeit a dark and negative one, that God is truly at work. If new creation and new life are going forward, those who have invested heavily in the old creation, the old ways of life, are bound to be offended (180-1).
A. Orendorff
How should we respond to opposition? Without a doubt, Scripture has a great deal more to say on this topic than the brief passage here before us. Nonetheless, Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth—“his hometown,” as Matthew calls it—can teach us at least two important truths on the subject. First, as Wright points out, the gospel is anything but safe. It is “shocking, explosive and dangerous.” This means that when the gospel is proclaimed—that is, “taught”—and embodied—implied here by Matthew’s reference to Jesus’ “might works”—trouble can't be far behind. In fact, we ought to expect trouble; we ought to expect to offend other people and even to be rejected.

Second, when offense occurs—that is, when we are rejected for the sake of the gospel—we are sharing, as Paul says, in the “sufferings” of Christ, we are “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). Here is our comfort. Here is our stability. Here is our humility. Here is our strength. To be rejected is not only to be like Christ; it is to know Christ, to be drawn near to him in intimate and life giving fellowship.

Old and New

Matthew 13:52
And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
For [Jesus], the “new” things are the extraordinary, brand new visions that the kingdom of heaven is bringing. The “old” things are the wisdom of the centuries, particularly the ancient stories and hopes of Israel. The gospel he brings—and the gospel that Matthew is concerned to tell us about—consists in bringing the two together, rooting the new deep within the old, and allowing the old to come to fresh and exciting expression in the new.

Jesus and his kingdom-message are meant to startle us; but part of the really shocking thing is that, when we blink and rub our eyes, we see that they are the true fulfillment of the long story of God and Israel, and indeed of God and the world (176).
A. Orendorff
Jesus’ explanation of what “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like” offers an abiding paradigm for both the church’s proclamation (i.e., its doctrine and theology) as well as its practice (i.e., its mission and ministry). The new, as Wright puts it, must be rooted in the old. Out of this confluence, the gospel must flow as both a truly organic expression of what is old as well as a powerfully fresh expression of what is new. This is where God’s word meets God’s world (i.e., culture) meet’s God’s Spirit.

A Strange Equality

Matthew 13:41-43
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
1 John 2:17
And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
This [shining like the sun in the kingdom of their father] won’t have anything to do with privilege or pride. All trace of that kind of thing will have gone forever. It will have to do with reflecting and embodying the love and glory of God himself; that’s what, after all, human beings were meant to do. Each human being was designed to a God-reflector.

Most human languages are inadequate at this point, and have to use pictures. . . . But it’s clear that what Jesus is talking about is a redeemed, renewed human race that is, at last, what God meant it to be: the mirror in which the rest of creation can see who its creator really is, and can worship and serve him truly (171-2)
C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
A. Orendorff
There is a strange equality at the end of all things that is at once both unthinkably chilling and profoundly staggering. What is startling about Jesus’ words is the striking uniformity that awaits, as he says, both “all causes of sin and all law-breakers” and “the righteous.” The agony of the one, it seems, is in direct proportion to the glory of the other. That this is a hard truth is evidence by Jesus’ closing phrase, “He who has ears, let him hear.” This, in other words, is something most would rather not acknowledge. This is not an easy idea to swallow; nor is it an easy truth to believe. The righteous will shine with the reflected glory of God himself; while the law-breakers, with gnashed and broken teeth, will weep. “He who has ears, let him hear.”

Waiting (Just Waiting?) for the Kingdom

Matthew 13:33
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
Jesus wanted his followers to live with the tension of believing that the kingdom was indeed arriving in and through his own work, and that this kingdom would come, would fully arrive, not all in a bang but through a process like the slow growth of a plant or the steady leavening of a loaf.

When today we long for God to act, to put the world to rights, we must remind ourselves that he has already done so, and that what we are now awaiting is the full outworking of those events. We wait with patience, not like people in a dark room wondering if anyone will ever come with a lighted candle, but like people in early morning who know that the sun has arisen and are now waiting for the full brightness of midday (170).
A. Orendorff
Tom Petty was right, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Like leaven, wheat or a mustard seed, the kingdom of God advances slowly, methodically and at times imperceptibly. Yet for all of its lethargy, the kingdom is, as Jesus’ stresses here in Matthew 13, irrepressible. It advances with a power far out of proportion to its speed.

Our “tension,” as citizens of this kingdom, is found in recognizing that we are a people fundamentally “in-between”—in-between, as Wright so eloquently puts it, the dawn and noonday sun. The kingdom is here . . . the kingdom is coming. The kingdom is now . . . the kingdom is not yet. We are a people caught between two worlds—the first, which pressing in on us with relentless force and potency, is (in John's words) “passing away”; the other, which breaks in with fits and starts, is only now coming into being. We are (despite the discomfort) a waiting people.

Yet we are not to wait as others do. Our waiting is to be marked by a joyful anxiety that acts out in tangible forms God’s impending future in the here-and-now.

Seed and the Good Soil

Matthew 13:18-19 & 23
Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom . . .

As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
That’s why the word is so important as a theme in Jesus’ ministry and in the early church. Jesus speaks God’s word, the word which announces the kingdom. As Isaiah saw, the word goes out and does its own work in people’s hearts and lives. That’s what some kinds of words do: they change the way people are, inside. . . . [T]he way to that is by hearing and understanding (166).
A. Orendorff
Three things must happen for the “word” of kingdom to be received in “good soil.”

First, we must hear. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). At the risk of sounding trite and unspectacular, this means beginning with Scripture. To hear from God, we first have to make ourselves available to God by listening to his word.

Second, we must understand. The Bible is not a talisman; it is not (as some treat it) a magical book of mysterious God-talk. Rather, the Bible is a story. More accurately, the Bible is a collection of stories (as well as various other literary styles and forms) all of which combine to tell one great, cosmic Story. Therefore, to understand God’s word we must know God’s story (and vice-versa). This means giving ourselves to the hard, laborious task of interpreting the Bible on its own terms. This means reading and re-reading and re-reading again until we finally being to understand what it's really all about.

Third, and this is perhaps the most neglected element of “good soil,” the word must bear fruit. It is not enough to hear. Nor to hear and understand. The whole point of the seed is to bear fruit. We may know everything there is to know about the seed, but until we plant it, water it, feed it and watch it grow, it has not fulfilled its purpose.

Hear. Understand. Bear fruit.

Why They Don't Get It

Matthew 13:10-13
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
The really troubling thing about this passage is . . . that now that [the kingdom] is appearing at last, it is bringing both judgment and mercy. And part of the judgment is that people will look and look and not see what God is doing. People will listen and listen to what Jesus is saying and they simply won’t be able to understand. . . . Jesus sees this happening and realizes that even this is not outside the purposes of God. . . . Judgment must fall on God’s unfaithful people before mercy can grow up instead. And, hidden within this warning, there is the promise: Jesus will himself go ahead of his people and take the brunt of that judgment on himself (162).
A. Orendorff
God’s judgment takes many forms. Normally, we think about judgment as active wrath—preeminently displayed in the chilling reality of hell. God’s passive wrath, however, is just as real and just as chilling. Perhaps the most frightening thing God can ever tell us is, “Have it your way.” This is what Jesus says his parables are all about. Those who don’t want to see will go blind. Those who don’t want to hear will go deaf. “To the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The point is they don’t get it, and won’t get it, because they don’t want to get it: “To them it has not been given.”

The Sowing Business

Matthew 13:1-3 & 9
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. . . . He who has ears, let him hear.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
Seedtime and harvest, part of God’s created order, had long been a picture of how God the creator would act to redeem his people from their sins, rescue them from exile, deliver them from oppression (157).

[N]obody would have missed the underlying meaning. Yes, Jesus was saying; what you have been longing for and praying for really is coming true. I’m here to make it happen. It’s going to be hard for you to understand, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Stick with me. Listen to me. Figure it out. Come back for more (158-9).
A. Orendorff
God is in the business of sowing. Doubtless there are more efficient ways of building a kingdom than by scattering seed. Nonetheless, Jesus insists, God is in the business of sowing. What’s more, not only is God a sower, He is a blatantly inefficient sower at that. He is generous, liberal, uninhibited, careless, even wasteful. The seed, it appears, falls without direction or intent, as likely to land on good soil as it is to land on bad. God sows not only where a return would be unlike; but where a return would literally be impossible.

How do our kingdom-building efforts stack up against this standard? Are we willing to be generous for the sake of spreading seed? How about inefficient? Are we willing to be dangerously uninhibited, willfully careless, even patently wasteful? Are we willing to give ourselves to people and projects from which a return not only seems unlikely but is quite literally impossible? Are we willing to give ourselves to the business of sowing?

Worse than Before

Matthew 12:33-37
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
[Jesus’] point was not to describe what normally happens when some is exorcized. If this is what tends to happen after exorcisms, it would be better not to do them in the first place. He was using the danger of “repossession” to make a sharp comment, at the end of the long discussion of where he got his power from, about the danger that his countrymen were facing. They had had all kinds of reforms, but unless the “house” got a new “inhabitant,” the demons they had expelled would return (154).
A. Orendorff
A number of Jesus’ parables and teachings center on the very real and unsettling danger of starting well but finishing poorly. The parable of the Sower, which follows immediately on the heels of this short illustration, serves to demonstrate this very point (Matt. 13). Many people start out well. In this case, a demon has “gone out of a person”; exorcized, expelled. From all outward appearances, the person now set free cleans house. Their life, as Jesus says, is “put in order.” They are restored, made right, rebuilt. Yet one tragic flaw remains. They are “empty.” No new inhabitant has taken up residence and so, when the same demon returns, this time with a group of his friends, the person’s condition, despite their progress, completely degenerates and quickly becomes “worse than” it was before.

There is great danger in relying on the progress we have made in life as protection from old (as well as new) demons. Our hope must rest not in our accomplishments but in Jesus Himself who not only expels our demons but takes up residence in their place. As John wrote, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 Jn. 4:4).

Words and the Heart

Matthew 12:33-37
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! [You family of snakes!] How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
Their speech—and remember that they had just accused Jesus of black magic [v. 24]—will show what’s really in their hearts. Casual words always reveal deep attitudes. . . . As a result, casual words will be used on the day of judgment as a reliable indicator of what really matters, the state of the heart (151).
A. Orendorff
Our words matter and they matter profoundly. At a surface level, our words matter because of the power they posses in and of themselves. As Proverbs 12:18 declares, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Here in Matthew 12, however, Jesus is not so much focused on the inherent power of our words as he is on their revelatory nature: our words expose (that is, they reveal) who we are. If a person’s words are evil—gossip, slander, grumbling, complaining, backbiting, course joking, angry outbursts, loveless accusations, intentionally hurtful statements, etc.—they themselves are evil. If a person’s words are good—supportive, encouraging, truthful, peaceful, loving, etc.—they themselves are good.

The point is two-fold. First, use your words to diagnose your heart. Listen to what you say and watch how you use words to either build relationships or tear them down. Second, change your heart then change your words. If your words are evil, repent. But don’t spend your energy focusing directly on changing your speech. Instead, focus on the gospel, read God’s word and mediate on how He uses language to heal and love His people. As your heart is change by God’s word, as His words affect the very core of who you are, your words will be re-shaped and follow suit as well.

Victory . . . in Jesus

Matthew 12:28-29
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
In fact (verses 29-30) what Jesus is doing is a sign of something he’s already done. If he’s now helping himself to the property of “the strong man,” it can only be because he’s already tied him up. First you have to win the victory over the satan (our minds, of course, go back to Matthew 4:1-11); then you can plunder his possessions. There is a sobering word there for all who seek to advance God’s kingdom. Are we prepared to go the long, hard route of first winning the victory over temptation! (148).
A. Orendorff
Victory within the gospel-shaped life, does not arise from what we do, from (as Wright says) “first winning the victory over temptation.” Instead, victory arises exclusively from what God has done for us (on our behalf) via His Son. The point of vv. 28-29 is to stress the objective and indicative nature of Christ’s kingdom bringing work, not the subjective and imperative nature of what we as followers must do. Jesus (not us) has bound the strong man. Moreover, this binding is a statement of redemptive fact not a moralistic command. God has (past action, on going result) “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [through the cross]” (Col. 2:15). Our action, empowered by the Spirit, occurs as a response to what God has already done, in Jesus, to win the victory for us. We fight not to win, but because One greater than us has already secured the outcome.

A Bruised Reed and a Smoldering Wick

Matthew 12:14-21
But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Nations.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
But how is the Servant [of YHWH] to accomplish his task? Not by threatening and fighting. Rather, with a quiet and gentle work healing, bearing the love and grace of God to the dark parts of Israel and the world.

[Matthew] sees Jesus as the Servant, not only when he dies a cruel death, wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, but also in the style of what he was already doing in Galilee. He was going about bringing God’s restoration wherever it was needed, not by making a fuss, but by gently leading people into God’s healing love (143).
A. Orendorff
Father, I put my faith in Jesus, the Servant whom you have chosen, the Beloved One in whom you delight. It is him whom you have anointed with Your Spirit, whom you have appointed Messiah, to declare justice—the coming of your righteousness—to the nations that walk in darkness. I place my hope in the One who does not quarrel or cry aloud, in Him whose voice is not heard in the streets. I place my hope in Jesus, for I am a bruised and damaged reed—weak and ready to break apart—a smoldering, smoking wick about to be snuffed out. I have no strength to call my own, no way to heal myself. I have no light in me by which to walk, to warm myself or light my way. Heal me, Jesus, kindle me and make me new.

Lord of the Sabbath

Matthew 12:6-8
“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Hosea 6:6
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
A. Orendorff
The contrast in Hosea 6:6, which Jesus quotes in Matthew 12:7, is between what takes place at the temple and what takes place in the heart. The first—what takes place at the temple—only makes sense if the second—what takes place in the heart—stand behind it. Jesus is not against externals. Rather, he opposes what we might call externalism, elevating the letter of the law above the spirit of the law. Jesus has come to “fulfill” the law and the prophets, to be (in this case) what the Sabbath and the temple had always anticipated and pointed toward. As “Lord of the Sabbath” Jesus interprets the Sabbath, showing us what the Sabbath is really all about. Here, the emphasis is on eating and healing, being well-fed and restored to well-being. As Mark 2:27-28 says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” This, Jesus says, is what the Sabbath is about; this is what I have come to do.

Relational Rest

Matthew 11:27-30
“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
[T]he ease and the joy, the rest and the refreshment which he offered, all spring from his own inner character, his gentleness and warmth to all who turn to him, weighed down by burdens moral, physical, emotional, financial or whatever. He is offering what he has in himself to offer.

And the welcome he offers, for all who abandon themselves to his mercy, is the welcome God offers through him. This is the invitation which pulls back the curtain and let’s us see who “the father” really is—and encourages us to come into his loving, welcoming presence (137).
A. Orendorff
Like the “great calm” Jesus brings amidst the raging storm in Matthew 8:23-27, the “rest” Jesus offers to “all who labor and are heavy laden” does not mean the cessation of all outward burdens; it does not mean our lives themselves will suddenly be marked by a great improvement in external conditions. Over and against the Pharisees, who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4), Jesus offers an “easy” yoke and a burden that is light. This rest is, as Wright says, sourced in the God-revealing person of the Son Himself. It is a relational rest, one that brings an end to all our efforts at self-justification and instead entrusts itself to the One who has, on our behalf, “fulfilled all righteousness.”

How desperately we need this rest; how desperately we need to draw near to Him in whose presence alone this rest resides; and how desperately we need to learn from Him what it means to be loved by One who is “gentle and humble in heart.”

Getting in Trouble for the Kingdom

Matthew 11:18-19
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
Jesus was up against it, and clearly found it frustrating. John the Baptist had led a life of self-denial, like the holy ascetics in many traditions. Ordinary people had found that hard to take. . . . Now here was Jesus himself, celebrating the kingdom of heaven with all and sundry, throwing parties which spoke of God’s lavish, generous love and forgiveness—and people accused him of being a rebel, a son who wouldn’t behave, a false prophet! The answer, of course, then as now, is that people don’t like the challenge, either of someone who points them to a different sort of life entirely, or of someone who shows that God’s love is breaking into the world in a new way, like a fresh breeze blowing through a garden and shaking old blossom off the trees (132-3).
A. Orendorff
Being agents of God’s kingdom is bound to get us into trouble. While God certainly calls us to different kinds of trouble, in the end, there’s just no avoiding it, after all, “A student is not above his master.” For some, like John, their trouble will be of a somber and prophetic kind—speaking truth to power and showing, by their life and words, both the seriousness of God’s standards as well as the gravity of our repentance. For other, like Jesus, theirs will be of a more scandalous and lavish kind—opening their home and lives to all the wrong people, inviting speculation and even ridicule for the kinds of friends they keep as well as the kind of actions they take. The trouble that God brings into our lives is wide enough for a variety of expressions. The bottom line is this: get ready to be misunderstood and even loathed for doing what’s right.

The Point of the Story

Matthew 11:9-11 & 13-15
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. . . . For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
The point of all this is that Jesus is offering a new way of understanding God’s timetable. In a few simple words, he is telling his hearers that Israel’s long history, from Abraham and Moses through the prophets to the present moment, was one long preparation, one long getting-ready time. Now the preparation was over, and the reality had dawned. John was indeed greatest among the preparers, but even the most insignificant person who was accepting God’s kingdom and living by it—in other words, who was hearing Jesus and following him—was “greater,” simply because they were living in the time of fulfillment (129).

The point is this: Jesus isn’t telling the crowds about John. He’s telling them about himself—but doing so obliquely (130).
A. Orendorff
Understanding Jesus means understanding the story. The story, Jesus says, is about Me. The story of Israel—what Jesus here calls “the law and the prophets”—is not a complete story. The story is not self-referential; it is not self-contained; it is not about itself. The purpose the story is to point forward, to “prophesy until John.” It’s “end” is found only in the completion Jesus himself brings as the “messenger of the covenant” who appears in the wake of Elijah’s second coming (Mal. 3-4). “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Offensive Grace

Matthew 11:2-6
Now when John [the Baptist] heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 1)
[John] was expecting Jesus to be a man of fire, an Elijah-like character who would sweep through Israel as Elijah had dealt with the prophets of Baal . . . No doubt John looked forward eagerly to the day, not long now, when Jesus would confront Herod himself, topple him from his throne, become king in his place – and get his cousin out of prison, and give him a place of honor.

But it seemed as though Jesus was working to a different script altogether. (Matthew refers to what Jesus was doing as ‘his messianic deeds,’ but part of the point is that John didn’t see them like that.) Jesus was going around befriending tax-collectors and ‘sinners’ (people whom strict Jews would regard as outsiders, not keeping the Torah properly). He was gaining a great reputation – but not for doing what John want him to do. What was going on? (125-6)
A. Orendorff
Jesus is offensive. I know that it’s cliché to say so and that often such an assertion serves more as an excuse for Jesus’ followers to be offensive rather than Jesus himself, but nonetheless the reality remains: Jesus is offensive; Jesus divides; Jesus brings “not peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34); Jesus makes people mad; Jesus insults; Jesus talks about hell, judgment and wrath and he does it all the time.

However, as today’s passage points out, Jesus also heals the lame, cleanses the lepers, raises the dead and preaches “good news” to the poor. What a strange way to cause offense. Hell-talking Jesus, well, we can understand why hell-talking Jesus might offend people. But, healing-Jesus, cleansing-Jesus, preaching-good-news Jesus? Why is that Jesus so offensive?

John’s response to Jesus’ “messianic deeds” teaches us that grace is often just as offensive as law, sometimes even more so. Grace is unmeasured, irrespective of persons, dangerous, unfair and costly. Grace gives life to people who deserve death; it heals those who deserve sickness; it forgives those who deserve condemnation; and it offends (yes, offends) those who think they can do without.