Tag Archives: Identity of Jesus

Matthew 17: 1-13 The Transfiguration of Jesus

Carl Bloch, The Transfiguration of Jesus (1865)

Matthew 17: 1-13

Parallel Mark 9: 2-10; Luke 9: 28-36

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Mountains in Matthew’s gospel are places of revelation, and this vision where Jesus is transfigured before the disciples continues the trend of giving insight into Jesus’ identity. The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain to test his identity (4:8); the Sermon on the Mount puts has several echoes of Moses on the mountain and shows Jesus relation to the law; Jesus prays on a mountain prior to walking the water, saving Peter and being worshipped by the disciples (14: 29); and great crowds meet Jesus at a mountain and he feeds them (15: 32-39). In this scene which evokes multiple scriptural resonances we are again confronted with the identity of Jesus and asked to reconsider the meaning of what it means for Jesus to be the Son, the Beloved one.

Peter, James, and John are set aside as a select group within the disciples who are allowed to be present for this moment of revelation, but they are also ordered to keep this vision secret until after the resurrection. We are not given any insight into why these three disciples are selected to ascend the mountain with Jesus, but they will be the group within the disciples that are present for some of the critical moments, but they will not prove to be the ideal observers and participants in these moments. As Stanley Hauerwas notes,

Jesus will also ask Peter, James and John to be with him in Gethsemane, but there, when he is in agony, they will find it hard to be present with him (Matt. 26: 36-46). Their need to be touched will continue. (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 156)

Peter, James and John share common characteristics with all the disciples: they are not people who have easy insight into the identity of Jesus, they are ‘little faith ones’ who need to journey behind Jesus and ask questions to understand. Yet, they are precisely the people that Jesus invites to share these moments that reveal who Jesus is and the faith and understanding they have makes them open to these revelations in a way that the scribes have not been.

The primary echo of scripture in this scene is Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai. In Exodus 24, Moses takes with him Aaron, Nadab and Abihu along with seventy elders who see God, but then Moses goes up into the cloud and waits for six days before God calls and speaks to Moses. The time marker at the beginning of the transfiguration story, along with the three named disciples and the overshadowing cloud all echo the experience of God in this scene, but remarkably Peter, James and John are invited to come all the way up to this place where the presence of God overwhelms them. We also hear that Moses is changed by his time in the presence of God and that his face was shining, and the people reacted to this change with fear. (Exodus 34: 29-35) The scene may place Jesus in resonance with Moses, but the introduction of both Moses and Elijah into the scene speaking with Jesus and the note that Jesus’ face is shining like the sun and his garments are literally ‘white as the light’ while Moses and Elijah are not described in a similar way places Jesus above both of these two exemplars of the faithful ones of God.

Peter’s ‘enthusiastic error’ to desire to construct a tent or tabernacle for Jesus, Moses and Elijah to become a fixed dwelling place for Jesus, the law and the prophets (Hays, 2016, p. 352) is a continual temptation for the generations that will follow Peter in confessing Jesus as Christ/Messiah, son of the living God. Matthew certainly dedicates more space to confession of who Jesus is, to understanding his identity in relation to the law and the prophets, but confession without following behind tends to lead the disciples to misunderstanding the content of Jesus’ identity and what it means for them. The multiple ways in which Matthew reveals the connection between Jesus and the God of Israel may be difficult for the disciples, both original and modern, to grasp but we are invited to be in the place of awe and wonder where heaven and earth come together to not only reveal the identity of Jesus, but the proper response. In the presence of the ‘sound from the cloud’ the disciples’ response is one of fear and to fall on the ground, while Jesus’ encouragement to them will be not to fear and to rise up.

Peter is silenced by the presence of God in a manner that would be familiar to those who know the way God appears in the Exodus narrative. God descends on the mountain as a cloud and a sound that is described in ways that emulate both thunder and a volcano speaks the words that Moses, the elders and the people of Israel hear. In this scene the bright cloud descends upon Peter, James, John along with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and the ‘sound from the cloud’ (the NRSV’s rendering of phone as voice instead of sound is understandable but doesn’t capture the overwhelming and terrifying nature of the scene’s echo of the LORD speaking in Exodus. The disciples’ action of being silent, fearful, and reverent are appropriate when they realize they are in the presence of the God of Israel, but in the midst of this theophany (encounter with God) they hear the voice of God declaring not only Jesus’ identity as “my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” but also the correct response to Jesus, “hear him.”

The words which come from the bright cloud are rich in resonance both within Matthew’s story, but also within the language of scripture. In Jesus’ baptism the ‘sound from the heavens’ declares Jesus as ‘my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and we now have this direct revelation from God a second time of this exact identity. The Son of God title comes directly from the mouth of God and from the mouth of those directly opposed to God’s work in bringing in the kingdom of heaven (see my discussion on the title Son of God here). Additionally, there are two significant resonances in scripture in this title declared from the cloud. The first is from Genesis 22 where God commands Abraham:

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. Genesis 22:2

This scene which is pivotal in the book of Genesis because it places the covenant between Abraham and the LORD at risk, the LORD is asking Abraham to offer up the long-awaited promise of God back to God, after God has bound Godself to this promise. Hearing the echo of this scene may help those with attentive ears to be prepared for Jesus’ journey to a different mountain where the Son of Man will suffer at the hands of men. The other echo an attentive ear may hear is Isaiah 42:1

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

The additional imperative to “hear him” also echoes Deuteronomy 18: 15:

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet[1]

These echoes point to Jesus being a prophet like Moses, the suffering servant of Isaiah, and the beloved son of the speaker, like Isaac to Abraham all within this divine pronouncement from the cloud. Jesus radiates with the same brightness as the terrifying and bright cloud where the presence of God approaches, and the scene is overwhelming for Peter, James, and John who bow their faces to the ground and are fearing exceedingly.

The disciples have been commanded to hear Jesus and after touching them, an observation unique to Matthew’s narration of this story, the disciples are invited to ‘rise up’ and to ‘not fear.’ Upon rising up they see only Jesus, no longer transfigured, inviting them to continue their journey down the mountain. They are commanded to remain speechless about this vision until the Son of Man ‘rises up’ from the dead, and only then can they tell what happened on the mountain. They were never to stay there for long, they were invited to see and hear and wonder in new ways who this one they follow is and to continue to hear him while they can. The disciples may be speechless about what happened on the mountain, but they have enough understanding to ask for clarification about the expectation of Elijah’s coming.

The scribes who study the scriptures have enough insight to know that the scriptures point to Elijah’s coming, but without faith that is open to God’s emissaries at work they are unable to interpret the meaning of John the Baptist or Jesus within God’s action. These disciples have enough faith to understand once things are explained to them. Both John the Baptist and Jesus will suffer at the hands of those who have eyes but cannot see or ears that do not hear. The word here for ‘suffer’ is pascha, the word we get Paschal (like the Paschal lamb of Passover). Peter, James, and John hear an extra reminder that Jesus’ path will be one that will involve suffering at the hands of those unable to see as they journey down the mountain to the crowd and disciples waiting below.

[1] In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the words are ‘hear him’ (autou akousesthe) the same verb used in Matthew.

Matthew 16: 21-28 The Way of the Cross Part 1

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 16: 21-28

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Titles in Matthew’s gospel, while important and demonstrating some understanding of who Jesus is, can only take us so far. In the previous section we have the titles Son of Man, Messiah/Christ and son of the living God all applied to Jesus, as well as the prophetic identity assigned to Jesus by the crowds. But these titles only have meaning in the context of how Jesus will inhabit these titles: Jesus will be prophetic but is not limited to how John, Jeremiah or Elijah enacted that identity; Jesus will be Messiah/Christ/King but not in the way that Peter or many others expect; and Matthew continues to hint that the title Son of God and Son of Man reflect more than just one divinely appointed. People of great faith, like the Canaanite woman or the centurion may have unique insights into what Jesus’ presence means for their situation, but for those called to be disciples one can only understand Jesus’ identity in relation to his teaching and actions as they continue to follow his path.

The focus now turns to Jerusalem. Although the next couple chapters involve actions and teaching in Galilee, it becomes a farewell tour of places and locations where much of the ministry of Jesus has occurred, because now for the first time Jesus indicates Jerusalem as the final destination of his ministry. Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, and it is natural that the Messiah of the Jewish people should go to Jerusalem and take up the seat once occupied by David. Yet, Jesus does not describe the journey to Jerusalem as a coronation but rather a road of great suffering and death. This first of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering and death in Jerusalem drastically changes the triumphal scene of Peter’s confession. Even though we hear Jesus’ state he will rise after three days it isn’t surprising that this is not understood by his disciples any better than the sign of Jonah was understood by the Pharisees and Sadducees.

M. Eugene Boring insightfully recognized that Peter’s action of taking Jesus aside and rebuking him could be read as Peter misunderstanding what Messiahship meant to Jesus, personal love for the person of Jesus and wanting to spare him from suffering or both. (NIB VIII: 349) What Peter intends as a blessing, the Greek ileos is better translated ‘God be merciful’ rather than ‘God forbid’, asking God not to bring this suffering upon Jesus becomes instead a stumbling block. Words of mercy intended to protect God’s anointed instead become words of temptation to pull the chosen one from what is necessary. Peter may misunderstand, but his words evoke compassion for Jesus.

Yet, even these words of blessing can become twisted to attempt to alter the way that Jesus embodies the identity of Messiah and Son of God and to become a stumbling block (scandalon). The title of Satan returns us to the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4: 1-11, where the devil attempts to test Jesus’ identity as Son of God. The devil’s temptations to avoid suffering, to give a sign and to take up worldly power all seem at odds with this necessary path to Jerusalem where the only sign is the sign of Jonah and suffering will come from those who wield religious and political power. Satan as a title for the devil originates with ‘the satan’ which is used as a title in Job 1-2 for ‘the accuser.’ Now Peter, albeit unintentionally, occupies the role of accusing Jesus of misunderstanding his place. Now Jesus turns to Peter to correct him.

There is a contrast between Jesus’ dismissal of the devil in 4:10 and his words to Peter in 16:23. In both cases Jesus tells the tempting one to go away (hupage) but here Jesus adds a location “behind me.”  Peter is called to occupy the position of following Jesus as one who learns rather than being dismissed like the devil or left behind like Pharisees and Sadducees. Peter will have to learn that his understanding of divine and human things are incorrect and that God’s way will be learned by following this Messiah who moves towards the suffering and death rather than towards human conceptions of power and glory.

Jesus’ words to his followers about denying themselves, taking up their cross and following were challenging to his initial followers but perhaps even more so in our culture that avoids suffering at all costs. Leszak Kolakowsky’s description of our culture as “a culture of analgesics” where we are “entertaining ourselves to death” by our endless distractions (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 211) rings true. The modern world presents many ways to numb and distract ourselves away from our callings and to present us with alternatives to a life that is difficult but ultimately worth dedicating ourselves to. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in a Detroit speech in 1963 that, “I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live” resonates with this calling of the men and women who follow the path of Jesus to be willing to take up their own crosses, deny the distractions and stumbling blocks and well meaning friends who try to change their paths and to place their life in the service of something worth living and dying for.

In a culture of revenge, where violence is repaid with more violence, Jesus calls his disciples to a way of life that ‘turns the other cheek and loves one’s enemies.’ We, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, are called into a discipleship which walks the path that Jesus walks. The crosses we bear may be different, the suffering we endure may be unique to our position and our time, but we do this as part of a community of people who desire to follow Jesus. There may be times where those who are among us, often for well intentioned reasons, place a stumbling block before us or who point us to the myriad of distractions and numbing agents that are a part of our culture. There may be times where the tempter attempts to turn us away from the path that leads to the cross.  The word the NRSV translates as life is psuche which is normally rendered ‘soul.’ The Hebrew people didn’t have a concept of a ‘detachable’ soul which goes into the afterlife, but the ‘soul’ was the very essence of what one’s life. The concept of selling one’s ‘soul’ in Hebrew would be to betray the life one is called to live instead of being a transaction where one damned one’s immortal life.

Ultimately there is a hope beyond the present that this life of discipleship yearns towards, some experience of the kingdom of heaven’s infiltration into the earth. Jesus’ words about the coming of God to reward those who choose this life of denial to find their lives embodies a hope for God’s action to overturn the injustice of the world. In Jűrgen Moltmann’s memorable phrase, “A theology of the cross without the resurrection is hell itself.” (Moltmann, 1981, pp. 41-42) This path of suffering without hope would merely be some masochistic philosophy and this suffering should produce not only a hope, but in Paul’s words a ‘hope that does not disappoint us.’ (Romans 5:6) The path which involves taking up ones cross involves a hope that the follower will share in the glory of the Son of Man coming in his glory. How Jesus’ early disciples heard the promise that some of those standing there would not taste death before Jesus came in his kingdom could relate to the Transfiguration, paradoxically the cross, or the resurrection, but as those who still attempt to follow the path of the crucified Lord we also hope in our own way to experience both moments of insight into the glory of God and some future realization of the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 12: 22-45 The Spirit of God in an Age of Unclean Spirits

Jonah By Unknown – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection: entry 453683, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32908844

Matthew 12: 22-45

Parallel Mark 3: 22-35, 8: 11-12; Luke 11: 14-15, 17-23, 12: 10, 6: 43-45, 11: 16, 29-32, 24-26

22 Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. 23 All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” 25 He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? 27 If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 29 Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “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. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

This is a long section to address in one section, but the interconnectedness of the narrative and pronouncements are tightly intertwined to prepare us to again understand the authority of the one whose teaching Matthew wants us to hear. This conflict which initiates around the presence of unclean spirits in this generation not only invites us to consider the spirit that Jesus is working through but also how the followers of the Pharisees have been unable to deal with the deeper spiritual problem of an ‘evil generation.’ There is no place of neutrality in this conflict between the present evil age and the approaching kingdom of heaven, and to misunderstand the signs of the kingdom of heaven’s advent is where blasphemy lies. John the Baptist, Jonah, Nineveh, the queen of the South and even the followers of the Pharisees are called as witnesses to the nature of the one who stands in their presence announcing the binding of the strong man in his house.

The healing which begins this section once again sets the stage for another conflict over authority between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. Their accusation of Jesus casting out demons by the authority of Beelzebul, ruler of demons, echoes Jesus’ warning to his disciples in Matthew 10: 25 that “if they call the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they align those of his household.” Within the crowd they wonder if Jesus might be the ‘Son of David,’ the hoped for royal figure to reignite the hope of the Davidic line. Jesus’ demonstrated ability to bring healing to those afflicted by the evil spirits of this age places him as one with power to bring about changes for those in this generation. The Pharisees response to Jesus’ power is to link it with the power that is enslaving those of this generation, Jesus is in league with the demons themselves, it is all some sort of demonic trick to lead the chosen people astray. Jesus is accused of being a sorcerer or magician who by alliance with unholy powers is threatening the unity of the holy people.

Jesus’ answer to these Pharisees argues that their accusation is absurd and again invites them to see that instead of being aligned with the evil spirits his work is evidence of the Holy Spirit. If there is infighting in the demonic kingdom of Satan or Beelzebul then they are weakened by that infighting and the forces oppressing this evil generation can be easily swept away, but all evidence instead says that they are firmly entrenched against God’s kingdom. In a statement that can be read a couple ways Jesus tosses the question back to the Pharisees, “If I cast out by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers (literally the sons of you (implied Pharisees) cast them out?” Perhaps there are other exorcists of the Pharisees who have been able to bring relief to some of the people, and people would look to those with religious authority to deal with all manners of affliction, but I think it is more likely that this points to the ineffectiveness of the Pharisees followers in addressing the manifestations of the demonic in their midst. Jesus may, instead of pointing to the existence of successful Pharisaic exorcists, be pointing to their impotence in the midst of the forces they face and how their attempts to create an ordered world have only made a more attractive homes for the demonic forces to end their sojourn and to make their home. Jesus has demonstrated that he has the power to heal and to liberate those enslaved by the forces at work in this generation and now is the time to plunder the house of the strong man.

The lack of success of the Pharisees against the forces of this time testifies against them while it points to the Spirit of God at work in Jesus’ ministry as the Son of Man. There is space for misunderstanding who the Son of Man is and how exactly Jesus and the Lord the God of Israel are connected, but to judge the work of casting out demons, healing the blind and lame, of setting the captives free as the work of demonic spirits rather than the divine Spirit is to misunderstand the kingdom of God completely. Just as these Pharisees consider Jesus’ ministry a danger to the unity of the people, Jesus views their resistance to the kingdom of God as that which scatters the lost sheep of Israel. To remain committed to the way things are is to be remain aligned against the kingdom of God. Jesus’ harsh words about ‘this evil generation’ are intended to bring about repentance so that even these Pharisees and scribes might turn towards God’s approaching kingdom.

The conflict also points, again, to another side of the identity of Jesus. Jesus in addition to the titles Son of David and Son of Man we now have a stronger linkage with the Spirit of God being active in Jesus and as a demonstration of the kingdom of God’s presence. Somehow in the presence of Jesus the Spirit of God is active and the kingdom of God is present as demonstrated by the actions of healing and exorcism. Yet, many of these Pharisees will remain unable to discern in Jesus the presence of God’s kingdom or the activity of the Spirit of God. In the spirit of the quotation from Isaiah 42 in the previous section, the Gentiles will be the ones who will see and judge the faithfulness of this generation. Like the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15: 21-28 who will show great faith in Jesus while these Pharisees show no faith even though the works in their presence should have demonstrated which Spirit Jesus was acting in and the power of the kingdom of God.

Jesus then follows this response with words that echo John the Baptist’s earlier condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see him at the Jordan in Matthew 3: 7-10. Both John and Jesus have called the people to repentance and both have been resisted by both religious and political leaders. I do think one key to understanding the accusation of these Pharisees as a ‘brood of vipers’ and ‘bad trees that bear bad fruit’ is their alignment with the forces at work in this time. They are unable to speak good and do good because they are too deeply rooted in the soil of the way things are. They are too heavily invested in protecting their power in the current order to embrace the approach of the new power of the kingdom of God. Instead of recognizing and out of the storehouse of the good bringing forth additional good words and fruit in the presence of Jesus they have only their own storehouses of scarcity to bring forth the words they speak and the lack of action against the demonic forces at work in their world. Yet, there is a time where their words and actions will be judged as either righteous or in need of judgment.

Jesus wants not only some legalistic moral perfection, but instead the law is interpreted in light of a merciful righteousness. One’s speech and actions flow out of one’s heart and the wise community of disciples has sunk their roots deep into the practices of mercy to yield this desired fruit. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there will be the imperative to act towards those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek and hungering and thirsting for righteousness as well as those who are oppressed by those spirits which are aligned against the kingdom of God. Some of those aligned against God’s kingdom may act piously but not righteously. The Pharisees are accused of “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on others.” (Matthew 23: 4) while Jesus invites others to take his yoke which is “easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 30). Jesus continues to act to lift the burdens of the oppressed of this time, while the Pharisees are accused of only making their burdens heavier.

Ironically, after the healing, Jesus is asked for a sign. Jesus responds with the ‘sign of Jonah’ where he will lie in the earth for three days, like Jonah lied in sea creature for three days while God waited for his repentance. One the one hand, the story of Jonah is the classic story of the outsiders (Gentiles) understanding and repenting while the insider (Jonah) remains unrepentant unable to embrace the mercy and forgiveness of God. On the other hand, the story of Jonah is a story of divine patience where God refuses to give up on God’s recalcitrant and unforgiving servant. One greater than the prophet Jonah who could made the people of Nineveh is here, so perhaps there is still an opportunity for the recalcitrant people of the lost people of Israel and even for these Pharisees. Perhaps they too can be transplanted into good soil and the brood of vipers can become those whose merciful storehouses can be opened those in the community around them who need their fruits of mercy.

Just as Nineveh who repented at the proclamation of Jonah will judge this generation so too will the queen of South, or queen of Sheba, who came seeking the wisdom of Solomon in 1 Kings 10 judge those unable to perceive the wisdom of God.  The introduction of the queen of Sheba probably raised eyebrows. One reason is highlighted by Anna Case-Winters, “It is somewhat surprising in the patriarchal culture to present a woman as judging in the divine court, and a foreign woman at that.” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 171)  Yet, Matthew highlighted foreign women who in the genealogy who made a place for themselves in the story of God and also shortly we will see a foreign woman demonstrate great faith unlike those here. Like the Ninevites who understood the opportunity of repentance in the proclamation of Jonah, or the queen of Sheba who recognized wisdom in Solomon these women will stand in contrast to these Pharisees and scribes who fail to recognize Jesus’ proclamation, power or wisdom.

The neat orderly world of the Pharisees where there are people who are beyond the reach of mercy and the violent peace of Rome is accommodated makes for a place where the demonic can play. The spirits, even if they are cast out find their previous hosts even more welcoming in the light of these practices. Ultimately the practices of the Pharisees have proved unable to prevent the pillaging of the people of God prior to the approach of one greater than Jonah, Solomon, or David who acts with the power of the Spirit of God. Continuing the practices that have allowed the current order, which is opposed to the kingdom of God, to flourish will not bring about the repentance of this generation or the exile of the demonic forces which oppress it. Only one who can bind the strongman, who can overpower the well-entrenched devilish forces at work in the world, can bring salvation to the lost sheep of Israel and hope to the Gentiles. We are invited to ponder the identity of the one who works with the authority of the Holy Spirit and who embodies the kingdom of God, but more than merely pondering the identity we are called to recognize the power that is at work in the actions of the Son of Man and to respond with repentance while sinking one’s roots deep into his merciful practices of righteousness.

Matthew 11: 1-15 Jesus and John the Baptist: Identity, Time and Authority

Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Salome, Guernico (1591-1666)

Matthew 11: 1-15

Parallel Luke 7: 18-28

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 what the Messiah was doing, 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.”

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!

Jesus concludes the instructions for his disciples, and we return to narrative where we are again confronted with the question of Jesus’ identity and authority. In chapters eight and nine we were drawn in a rhythm of stories of acts of power which disclosed Jesus’ identity and authority combined with stories interjected which point to the character of discipleship under Jesus. After Jesus completes his instructions for his disciples his encounter with a group of John’s disciples returns us to the reflections upon Jesus’ identity in chapter eleven which will use language strikingly similar to some other New Testament authors and link into themes in Paul (in this section), John (in the next section) and again Paul (in the final section). While Matthew may not develop these themes in the same what that Paul or John will it does at least allude to some common language and understandings about Jesus’ identity already being present in the time of the compilation of Matthew’s gospel and continues to point to Jesus’ identity being greater than even a title like Messiah (or Christ) can encompass.

The opening verse of chapter eleven transitions us from the instruction to narrative in a pattern commonly used in Matthew’s gospel (see also 7:27; 13:53; 19:1 and 26:1). The language of this transition is also similar to the language that Deuteronomy narrates Moses using at the end of each of his teaching of the twelve tribes of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:1, 31:24 and 32:45) and further heightens the connection between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples.  The translation of the Greek teleo here as ‘finished’ is appropriate and contrasts to the normal translation of the same term in Matthew 5:48 as ‘perfect’ which I address at length in that section. The word translated ‘instruction’ (Greek diatasso) has a firmer sense of commanding, ordering or directing and it reinforces the position of Jesus as one to give orders and to send out these followers into the prepared fields for harvest. Jesus may have completed giving instructions to his disciples, but he now moves towards the continued proclamation of the kingdom of heaven and teaching about how to live as a community under that kingdom to the cities on his journey.

Jesus has sent forth his disciples but in the presence of the crowds he receives the disciples of John who come to him and question his identity. John has heard in prison of what Jesus is doing, and the words behind the ‘what the Messiah is doing’ is literally the work of Christ (Greek erga tou Christou). Christ and Messiah are the same word (Messiah is the transliterated Hebrew and Christ is the transliterated Greek) and it refers to one who is anointed to rule. While Christ or Messiah or the Latin Rex all refer to kingship and John the Baptist’s reference to the work of the Christ probably indicates an understand Jesus in terms of the awaited king to reestablish the Davidic line and bring about the renewal of Israel. Yet, the works that Jesus is doing is not the work of a warrior king, like David, (at least not against the armies of Rome) but rather there is a different quality to the work of Jesus. John’s query through his disciples asking, “are you the one?” provides another query into the identity of Jesus and its meaning.

Jesus’ answer refers to the works narrated in chapters eight and nine, but their form also points back to language of Isaiah, particularly 35: 5-6:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.  Isaiah 35: 5-6a

Being the Messiah or the Son of David is redefined in terms of healing rather than military conflict. In fact, the opposition to the kingdom of heaven’s approach will be by those who use violence to bring about peace. The kingdom of heaven is not the violently maintained Pax Romana which is enforced (often brutally) by the legions of the empire or the kings and rulers of the various provinces of the empire. The Christ as embodied by Jesus embodies both the characteristics of a prophet like Elijah or Elisha (who would heal and even raise the dead), a Moses who can give instructions to the nation of Israel but also a king with authority.

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples ends in another beatitude, like the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, where “blessed (happy) is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As I mentioned when discussing the beatitudes in Matthew 5, this takes us into the rhythm of wisdom literature where one is ‘blessed’ to be like the saying illustrates. Wisdom is going to be introduced in our next section, but here we are also by the Greek skandalizo which is the verbal form of skandalon used by Paul, for example in 1 Corinthians 1: 23:

but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block (skandalon-scandal) to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

Paul will in 1 Corinthians allude to the wisdom of God, which is Christ crucified, and as we will see as the conversation continues between Jesus and the crowd we will also be brought into an identification with Jesus and the character of wisdom. Here it is worth having one’s ear open to the identity being alluded to as Jesus redefines the expectations of Messiah initially in terms of healing and then highlighting the ‘offense’ that will cause many to choose the path of foolishness rather than wisdom.

As John’s disciples depart Jesus returns to the crowd to talk about the identity of John by extension his own identity. Jesus rhetorically negative responses about what the people went into the wilderness to encounter John the Baptist is a pretty direct jab at Herod Antipas. A reed shaken by the wind probably alludes to the coinage Herod Antipas issued which uses reeds on them. Reeds are common in Israel and while they are blown about by the wind because they are unreliable for strength. Jesus may be referring to the way Herod Antipas was ‘battered’ by John’s prophetic condemnation of his relationship with Herodias. This is sharpened by the ‘soft robes’ description. The word ‘soft’ can also be translated ‘effeminate’ which would be a strong criticism indeed in the ancient world. Herod is subtly accused of being weak, unreliable and non-masculine. John the Baptist is the contrast to Herod Antipas (even though he is imprisoned by him) and his role is that of a prophet and specifically the prophet sent to prepare the way.

Matthew uses scripture to point us to the identity of Jesus in surprising ways. Here he uses the same passage Mark quotes in relation to John the Baptist (see Mark 1:2 where Mark misquotes this as Isaiah). The reference is to Malachi 3: 1:

See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

The use of Malachi is important because it is the end of Malachi where the hope for a return of Elijah comes:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. Malachi 4: 5-6

John the Baptist’s identity is linked to Elijah who prepares the way for the coming of the LORD, the God of Israel, and by at least allusion Jesus is linked to the LORD. Messiah as a title is insufficient for who Jesus is in Matthew’s gospel. It, like the Son of David, Son of God, and Son of Man it points to a portion of Jesus’ identity but ultimately needs to be redefined in the terms of the ‘works of the Messiah.’ John the Baptist may be greater than any who came before him, but in the dawning kingdom of heaven even the least of its citizens are now greater than John for they are a part of a new thing. The crowd hearing the proclamation of Jesus stand at a critical time for they are seeing what the prophets and the law and John the Baptist all prepared the way for. What they are seeing and hearing is the fulfillment of the prophetic and covenantal hope of Israel.

Verse twelve and thirteen can be read multiple ways. The NRSV renders ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came.’ In translating this there are two significant issues: first in the kingdom of heaven’s ‘suffering violence and being taken by force’ and secondly in the sense the prophets and the law ‘prophesied until John came.’ The first passage the Greek biazetai kai biastai arpazoousin auten is behind this phrase. Biazetai and biastai are a related verb and noun. While the NRSV’s translation of third person singular passive biazaetai as ‘has suffered violence’ is the traditional rendering of a verb that indicates entering by force it can also mean that the kingdom of heaven has entered forcefully or entered in power and in resistance to that power violent men have tried to force their way into the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven does come in power as illustrated by the healings and Jesus’ authority of sin, the demonic, creation and even death demonstrated in the previous chapters, but it will not be established by violence. There are conflicting visions between those who are looking to Jesus in terms of a traditional king or emperor whose peace is maintained by military force. Jesus himself will be seized by violent men and they will attempt to maintain their power through their violence. There is a conflict between the kingdom of heaven and those violent men who maintain the kingdoms of the earth, and the kingdom of heaven is not powerless, but it will not respond like a king or emperor. The second translational issue is whether the law and prophets have ceased their function after John came and that prophesy is at an end. I would keep the Greek word order and render the phrase ‘the law and the prophets up to John prophesied.’ There is a temporal aspect to this Greek phrase but the way the English rearranges the words in the NRSV can be read as John the Baptist bringing an end to prophecy where the Greek simply states that those who came before John and including John prophesied.

Moving back out of the translational reeds we do have in this exchange between the disciples of John, the crowds and Jesus a continued reflection on who John the Baptist is and by extension who Jesus is. John the Baptist, for those willing to hear is Elijah, and Jesus is the one for whom Elijah is preparing the way. Messiah or Christ as it is applied to Jesus needs to be understood in relations to the ‘works of the Messiah’ demonstrated by Jesus. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims and reigns over is not a kingdom created by violent men like the conquests by David or Caesar, but it is not without power. Its power may seem like foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews in Paul’s language. Continuing in Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians and preparing us for the next section this ‘Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God’ is the Jesus who will be the one crucified by violent men is also the one in whom this paradoxical power of the kingdom of heaven resides. This power that allows, “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.

 

 

Matthew 8: 28-34 What Sort of Man is This Part 2

14th Century Slavic Inscribed Fresco from Vyoskie Dechany (Serbia)

Matthew 8: 28-34 What Sort of Man is This Part 2

Parallels Mark 5: 1-20, Luke 8: 26-39

28 When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31 The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32 And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. 33 The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. 34 Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ encounter on the other side of the Sea of Galilee with demoniacs is significantly shorter than Mark’s (and Luke which follows Mark’s narration) with the naming of demon as ‘Legion’ being omitted. Matthew will regularly deviate from Mark’s narration for structural, theological and perhaps here social reasons. This is another story where comparing the differences in the stories can illuminate some of the subtle ways Matthew is constructing his gospel to help the disciple understand who Jesus is and what it will mean to follow him in a world of competing loyalties.

The first obvious difference between Matthew’s narrative and Mark’s is the number of people who are possessed. In Matthew there are two, where in Mark (and Luke) there is only one. Structurally the number of demoniacs gives us a structural clue linking this story to the story of the two blind men in Matthew 9: 27-31 (also the second miracle story in a group of three). Both the demon possessed ones and the blind ones see what others cannot. These two loud and fierce demoniacs which have made that portion of the country of Gadarenes their domain understand who Jesus is in a manner that his disciples in Matthew’s gospel do not yet.

As readers we have heard Jesus identified as ‘Son’ in the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:17) and will also hear this identification at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5) spoken from heaven. Now from the mouths of demon possessed we hear the same linkage as Jesus is titled Son of God. We have already seen Jesus’ power over demons, disease and even the elements but this is the first time we hear the demons speak. As Stanley Hauerwas can state:

Demons recognize the Son because they—more than we—are able to recognize what threatens them…. The disciples fear Jesus’ absence as he sleeps in the boat; the demons fear his presence. (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 97)

Ironically, the demons speak truthfully because they realize that Jesus’ presence is a threat to their domination of their hosts and the area where they are able to overpower others who would transgress the area around the tombs. They know that their time is coming to an end and that the kingdom of heaven is approaching, but they view Jesus’ action as a premature incursion occurring before the appointed time.

The most significant difference in Matthew’s narration is the exclusion of the conversation around the naming of the demon. There may be multiple reasons that Matthew does this. Matthew may be attempting to demonstrate the authority of Jesus and his ability to cast out the demon without its name (obtaining the name of something was considered powerful in the ancient world and this is one of the reasons that the name of God was never spoken). There may also be a social reason for the exclusion of this portion of the scene. Many scholars designate Antioch as the place where the gospel of Matthew was written. As I mention when writing about this passage in relation to the gospel of Mark the combination of Legion and the herd of swine could ask some very provocative questions about the relationship of Rome and the demonic. If Matthew is written near Antioch, it would also be near the Legion X Fretensis (one of two Roman legions in Syria) whose primary emblem was a swine. Matthew, while holding the tension between the kingdom of heaven and the empire of Rome, does not intentionally exclude Rome and even its soldiers from coming under the influence of the kingdom of heaven. I think the gospels in general and Matthew in particular do not portray Jesus as advocating for conflict between Jerusalem and Rome and any resistance is non-violent. Matthew may view the linkage of the demonic with the legions as language that was too near the revolutionary overtones used by zealots in the lead up to the Jewish War (66-73 C.E.) that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

Miracle of the Gadarene Swine by Briton Reviera (1883)

The community around the two demoniacs has found a way to cohabitate with their presence as marked by the large herd of swine nearby. The demons beg Jesus to cast them into the herd of swine and Jesus grants their plea. Even demons may beg Jesus for mercy. Immediately the herd rushes into the sea and we are connected back to the previous narrative where demonic (or at least dangerous powers) are at work on the sea but in the presence of Jesus the sea remains undisturbed. The casting out of the demons and the death of the herd of pigs causes the swineherds to return to town and to relate what they saw occur. Again, the irony of the story is strong when the whole town comes out to greet Jesus like a visiting dignitary but on seeing him, they but instead of welcoming him they ask him to depart their region. Like the demons they do this from the posture of begging, but Jesus hears and heeds their request.

This scene across the sea takes place among the Gentiles, and here Jesus is not met with great faith (unlike the Centurion or the Canaanite woman). Yet, the disciples, the little faith ones who get into the boat with him are left with another identity to ponder and another way in which Jesus demonstrates his power over the forces of the demonic. The kingdom is not welcome everywhere in Matthew’s story, nor will Jesus’ disciples always be welcome.  Jesus does not force himself on this community of the Gadarenes which is not ready to receive the gospel, nor will he put pearls before those who choose swine with demons to a reality where demons are driven away. Jesus does not condemn the community, but he does depart. The community chooses the world they know over the kingdom of heaven, but even those who attempt to follow Jesus may choose what is safe rather than having faith in the Son of God. But sometimes even those who are directly opposed to the kingdom of heaven bear witness in their own strange way to who Jesus is, and so demons can speak in harmony with the voice from heaven in declaring Jesus as ‘Son of God’ and disciples upon returning to the boat are left to wonder what sort of man this Jesus of Nazareth is.