Monday, January 22, 2018

20. More About Greatness

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 20: More about Greatness.

In our last chapter we began a conversation about greatness. Greatness, in the kingdom of God, has nothing to do with status or anything that can be earned, but in a persons capacity to place their trust in God. Through a series of stories and illustrations Matthew suggests that greatness was demonstrated through seeking the lost, restoring the fallen and offering to others the kind of undeserved, unmerited grace that we have experienced from God through Jesus Christ.

There were things that could get in the way of greatness.
  •     The notion that we are self made people without the need of grace.
  •     The desire to find ones meaning in ones 'stuff' rather than in God's love.
  •     The feeling that through our observance of laws or acts of service we are made good.
To begin illustrating that last point, Jesus answers a question that is put to him by the Pharisees. Let us catch up with Him as He leaves Galilee and heads into Judea. Read verses 1 - 9

Matthew 19:1-9 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."
As they have done on previous occasions, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a question that they hope will trap Him into saying something that will turn the people away from Him and towards them. Their question is about divorce. Divorce then, as now, was an issue that people had a whole spectrum of views about.

On the one hand there were those who held to a high ideal of marriage. That it was a bond that should never be broken. The historian Josephus (In 'Antiquities of the Jews') speaks of the way marriages were meant to proceed.

A man was to marry a virgin from a good family. He should not marry a slave, and certainly not a lady of ill-repute. If, after being betrothed in marriage, the husband-to-be had doubts about his intended brides purity, the brides father and brothers had the duty of defending her, and if proved innocent, the marriage would go ahead and be considered permanent. If the girl was found guilty she could be stoned to death. There were rules that had to do with cases of rape and girls who were taken advantage of. In each case the guilty parties faced severe penalties. The key issues for dispute were purity and fidelity.

This is reflected in today's religious services where there often appears phrases such as “Marriage is a high and an honorable estate and must not be entered into lightly, carelessly, or selfishly, but carefully, reverently, and with serious thought”.

In Jesus time there was also money involved. A dowry had to be paid to the brides family. Women, like children and slaves were legally considered as property. Many marriages were therefore arranged rather than based upon our modern idea of 'falling in love.'

Theoretically a man could only divorce his wife only on the grounds of flagrant immorality. That was the theory... but there's the ideal and then there's the practice. The reality was that divorce laws had become a matter of convenience, particularly among the more wealthy and privileged classes. We saw earlier in Matthew's gospel the 'goings on' of the sons of King Herod that led to one of them marrying his brother's wife, an event which cost John the Baptist his life when he spoke against it.

In reality the process of divorce had become fatally easy. There was a passage in the book of Deuteronomy, a book much loved by the Pharisees and Sadducee's, that declared 'If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive in her, then he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house.” (Deuteronomy 24:1 NET)

The strictest school of Jewish thought, the school of Shammai, were quite clear that 'offensive' meant sexual immorality and only adulterous sexual behavior was the grounds for divorce. However the school of Hillel, interpreted the phrase 'offensive' in quite a different manner. If a woman spoiled a man's dinner, or spoke disrespectfully to his parents or went about with unbound hair... all these were grounds for a divorce.

One teacher, Rabbi Akiba, went as far as writing that the phrase 'offensive' meant that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he liked better and considered her more beautiful. Not surprisingly, in a patriarchal male dominated society, the guidance of the school of Hillel was the one most favored.

If Jesus were to answer the Pharisees that He was totally against divorce, then the Pharisees would use that against Him, as there were many men among the people who favored the lax divorce laws. It would also make him an enemy of the law of Moses, because Moses said divorce was allowed. But if Jesus were to say, “Yeah. Go ahead. Divorce is fine. 'Do what ever suits you' then He would be seen as being lax in matters of morality and to have reduced marriage to little more than a frivolous commitment. Either way the Pharisees were thinking... we've got Him this time!

Jesus develops His argument along these lines. He firstly underlines what the scriptures said about the sanctity of marriage. As The Message Bible has it:

He answered, "Haven't you read in your Bible that the Creator originally made man and woman for each other, male and female? And because of this, a man leaves father and mother and is firmly bonded to his wife, becoming one flesh—no longer two bodies but one. Because God created this organic union of the two sexes, no one should desecrate God's artistry by cutting them apart."

The Pharisees come back at Him, 'Yes, yes, we know all of that, but if divorce was never God's law, why did Moses, the law giver, give clear instructions for divorce papers and divorce procedures?"

Jesus answers that Moses had not given them a law. He had granted them a concession. Moses had no intention of commanding divorce. He permitted divorce as a last resort because the whole situation of peoples relationships had become so completely disjointed from God's intentions. "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” Divorce was a gracious accommodation, not God's original intention. As Jesus explains “It was not this way from the beginning.”

So in answer to their original question 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?' Jesus gives the answer “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, (except for sexual immorality), and marries another woman commits adultery."

If you look at this account in Marks Gospel (chapter 10), Jesus says "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.” (Mark 10:11 NIV). No mention of sexual immorality. Mark then adds 'And if a wife divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:12 NIV). The phrase 'except for sexual immorality' is often described as the Matthean exception.

Why the difference in these parallel passages? The most satisfactory explanation is that Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience. If he had not put the phrase about 'except for adultery' in there, he would lose his intended audience altogether. Rather like suggesting changes in gun legislation to an NRA member. If you throw in the phrase, of course 'People kill people, guns don't kill people' then they may carry on listening to your argument! Mathew includes the 'sexual immorality exception' for the benefit of his readership, as if to say, 'Well, you all know that adultery thing... that's a given!'

Mark is writing for a wider audience, subject to different laws and within different cultures. It wasn't even possible under Jewish law for a woman to divorce her husband, so it would pointless putting that in for a Jewish focused crowd. But under Roman law... that could happen.

Matthew un-apologetically takes editorial privileges if he thinks his intended audience may not get the central message. Yet the central message in both Mark and Matthew is the same. Marriage was meant to be permanent. Moses permitted divorce because, when it comes to relationships, people mess up.

Hard words and sensitive topics. So let's put this section back into the framework of this whole section. Matthew is talking about the greatness of faithfulness and having a childlike trust in God. He is not writing a legal volume on the intricacies of divorce legislation. The Pharisees have come to Jesus with a question to catch Him out and draw Him into a debate that He couldn't win. Jesus is not playing that game. In effect He's telling them that their standards and their laws did not reflect God's original intention but their own sinful accommodation and hardness of hearts.

So where does that leave us? How should we view marriage and divorce today? My view is that we should lift up marriage as being what God intended, yet at the same time acknowledge that we sometimes enter into relationships that just don't work. Whether that is because they were never God's intention or whether it's simply because people change, I think you have to treat every situation as being unique and in every situation prayerfully seek for what is the best for all parties concerned.

Such an answer will be unsatisfactory to anyone seeking hard and fast rules. But that was the problem. Here was Jesus, being faced by people wanting to control the outcome and offering a response that actually raised more than questions than it answered. The disciples are confused and get the wrong end of the stick. Read 10-12

The disciples said to Him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry." Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others--and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."

The disciples hear what Jesus is telling them. But... not really. I can identify with that. Just when you think you've got it, it starts to slip away in another direction! They certainly hear Jesus saying that divorce was never God's idea. They also realize that relationships can be difficult, and the idea of being in the marriage game without a 'get out of jail free' card, made things impossible. So they put it to Jesus..."If those are the terms of marriage, we're stuck. Why get married?" (Message Bible)

Jesus seems to agree with them. Not everybody could live up to God's ideals for marriage. It required aptitude and grace and was a calling not to be entered into lightly. In a society that was built upon the foundation of married households, that was a radical notion. He suggests that finding a life partner and living happily ever after wasn't the only option for a fulfilled life.

Again, I like the way the Message bible transliterates these verses: “Marriage isn't for everyone. Some, from birth seemingly, never give marriage a thought. Others never get asked—or accepted. And some decide not to get married for kingdom reasons. But if you're capable of growing into the largeness of marriage, do it."

I like the way that this passage sanctifies individuals outside of the framework of relationships. It's OK to be single. It reminds us that whilst for thousands of years 'married with children' was seen as the norm, society has never been that straightforward. It offers a broader view of relationships than we might have expected in the first century.

In any discussion of marriage and divorce, eventually the question is raised, 'But what about the children?” Maybe it was also so back then, for the next passage Matthew offers us has to do with blessing little ones. Read verses 13-15.

Then people brought little children to Jesus for Him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When He had placed His hands on them, He went on from there.

In the last chapter we saw Jesus calling a child to Himself as an illustration of faith. This time parents are bringing their children to Him. The most straightforward message of this passage is that it is the responsibility of Christian parents to bring their children to Jesus that they may be blessed by Him.

I have had parents tell me in all seriousness that the reason they don't bring their children to Sunday School is that they want their children to be free to make up their own mind about religious belief when they are old enough. To deny them any instruction is taking the opportunity for choice away from them and is neglecting what scripture considers a parental responsibility.

Sure, when they are old enough the child may well decide to go own their own way. Many do. Yet to be a faithful parent, even when our children choose their own way, requires never ceasing to bring them before God in our prayers and our thoughts. And for most of us that's something we naturally do. Try and stop us praying for or kids!

As the parents press in on Jesus the disciples are concerned. If one is feeling charitable you can suggest they were worried about the immensity of the task Jesus had before Him and were seeking to protect Him. Or, if you are not feeling so charitable, you can reflect that they still hadn't got the message that Jesus actually cared for those that they thought were the least important.

Either way, Jesus makes it quite clear that He had room for the children and the concerns of their parents. He even reminds the disciples that the kingdom of heaven could only be found through having the trust and faith exemplified by such little ones. And then He blesses the children.

In the context of the early church Matthew was reminding his community that they had to make provision for their children. That every person, young or old, was welcome in the community of faith. It is our Presbyterian tradition, that we do not forbid the waters of baptism to children but welcome them as fellow members in the Kingdom of God. Infant baptism is even a way of acknowledging that if we do not have a faith like child, then we will never enter the Kingdom of God, an aspect of grace that adult baptism obscures!

It is not through our own efforts that we enter the Kingdom of God, but through our trust that God can do for us what we cannot do for our self. In many traditions that practice adult baptism a great stress is put upon making a 'profession of faith.' Such can give the impression that if only we can get the words right and say 'Jesus is Lord' then we're in. Yet Jesus was quite clear that just saying 'Lord, Lord' meant nothing unless there was a reality behind the words! It can be a fine line between a confession that is an act of self-justification and a confession that is a response to the faithfulness of God in Christ.

I don't want to enlarge on that too much, but it serves as an introduction to what comes next. A passage about a person who, outwardly seemed to be doing everything right. He's a good guy, trying to do good things. But at the end of the day, it seems this young guy is not trusting in the mercy and grace of God, but in what he himself could achieve. And to let go of that appears to be a bitter pill for him to swallow. What am I talking about? Read 16 thru 22

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." "Which ones?" he inquired. Jesus replied, "'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.' " "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

The very first lines in this passage suggest nothing was quite what it seemed. Jesus questions the mans questioning right from the start of the conversation. It seems Jesus is trying to get the man to think about what he was asking and who he was asking the question to!

The man asks “What can I do to get eternal life?” As we've seen in the previous section, Jesus didn't encourage people to put 'doing things' and 'gaining God's eternal blessing' in the same sentence. God's blessings were a result of grace not a persons personal achievement.

He wants to know why the man thinks that He, Jesus, is 'good'. As though to tease him away from the notion of his own ability to justify him self, and maybe suggest that somehow Jesus' relationship to God may be greater than the questioner realized, Jesus tells the man “There is only One” (the 'One' being 'God') who defines what the nature of good actually is. Jesus then adds that keeping the commandments was a good way of reflecting that the love of God was at work in your life. As the Message Bible has it 'Jesus said, "Why do you question me about what's good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what He tells you."

As the man is only interested in being able to do something to gain himself eternal life he spends not a moment analyzing the questions Jesus is putting to him, but gets straight to the crux of the matter of keeping commandments; "Which ones?" he inquired.

Interestingly... Jesus doesn't mention the first of the Ten Commandments (which have to do with a persons relationship to God) but reminds the man about the commandments that relate to how we deal with our fellow human beings. Is Jesus setting the man up for a fall? If so, the man plays right into the trap! There is a hint of arrogance in the young mans answer "All these I have kept." If he'd left it there our young fellow may have walked away happy, but he doesn't. He goes and asks 'What's left? What else do I need to do? What do I still lack?” He doesn't see this response coming! I'll read it from the Message Bible

"If you want to give it all you've got," Jesus replied, "go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me." That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn't bear to let go.”

The young man's problem seems to have been that whilst he had come to grips with some of the ten commandments, he really hadn't grasped the significance of the first few that Moses gave, particularly the very first one, which (as I've been giving you all these modern translations), Old King James will spell out for us. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.”

The young man had made an idol of his wealth and put that before his relationship with God. The root of his problem was that he was trusting in what he could do for himself, not trusting in what God could do for him. The framework of this whole chapter is 'greatness.' Greatness in the kingdom of God is pictured as being the trust of a child. A child has no possessions, no rights, no power, no demands... but simply trusts that His parent is going to look after him!

By giving his possessions to the poor not only would he be demonstrating his love for neighbor, but also where his true security lay. He looked like he was making a fine profession of faith, and living an upright life, but when it came down to the nitty-gritty he was found wanting.

He reminds me of a certain TV evangelist who was keen of preaching about the immanence of the second coming. He even bragged about how his earthly riches were justifiable as they were simply a way for him to experience the blessings of eternity in this life. Then the interviewer asked him why, if Jesus was coming so soon, he had so much money invested in insurance. The evangelist didn't answer that one and the interview was brought to a sudden close. What we invest in says a lot about what we really believe.

So was there something wrong with riches and wealth? The traditional Jewish view was that wealth was a sign of God's blessing and being in the Lord's favor. This teaching that Jesus is giving is a complete reversal of the accepted view. As always, the disciples have questions about that, especially when Jesus left no doubt about His views on worldly wealth. Take a look at verses 23 – 26.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Across the centuries commentators have struggled to understand the passage about a camel going through the eye of a needle. I guess many of us, like the young man, are kind of attached to our riches. Living in one of the richest countries in the world with the awareness that there are millions upon million who are less fortunate than ourselves doesn't exactly make such a statement sit easily with us!

Some early manuscripts substitute the word 'rope' for the word 'camel'. The Greek word for rope is 'kamilos', for camel is 'kamelos'. It's one letter different and whilst getting a rope through the eye of a needle is not as hard as getting a camel though the eye of a needle, it's still impossible. One commentator suggested that the way you get a rope through the eye of a needle is to unravel it and go one strand at a time.

So, we in our lives, need to allow God to unravel us, so we may in all aspects of our lives be fitted for the kingdom. The problem with that is that you then have to get all twisted up again, if you are still going to be a rope! It only goes so far.

A medieval legend suggested that there was a tiny gate in the Jerusalem wall known as the 'Needle Gate'. It was too small for loaded camels to pass through, unless they removed all their burdens and got down on their knees. Then, if they were lucky and tried really hard, they might just squeeze through.

This generated some great medieval sermon material. Get on your knees in humble prayer, unburden yourself through confession to the priest and donations to the church and then try really really hard to live a good life and you may, if fate is on your side, make it to heaven. The problem is that there is no evidence that such a gate ever actually existed in the Jerusalem wall and that Jesus doesn't suggest it was difficult for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, but pictures it as an absurd impossibility.

Another explanation was that Jesus offers two grades of discipleship. One for ordinary folk, one for an elite group of 'super disciples'. While it is impractical for ordinary Christians to sell everything and give it to the poor, those who enter religious orders, and become nuns or monks, can follow that path. The problem with that interpretation is, of course, that Jesus never suggested there could be different grades of disciple.

Yet another explanation was that this particular young man was exceptionally greedy. So Jesus asked this only of him, and it doesn't apply to anyone else. But Jesus does not distinguish between the 'greedy rich' and the 'benevolent rich'. He just says 'rich'.

The text itself makes it clear that what the disciples heard was Jesus saying that the rich couldn't make it into the Kingdom. As they held to the view that the rich were blessed by God, this didn't make any sense to them! They protest. If even those whom God was blessing couldn't make it... "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus looks them in the eye and says; "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Through the example of little children Jesus has suggested that the only way to know the life of the kingdom is through trusting in what God can do. The only path to salvation is one in which we abandon any hope of obtaining salvation for ourselves and accept the gift of grace God offers us at the cross of Jesus Christ.

Possessions are not the problem. The problem is thinking that one of the things we can posses is the kingdom of God. Rather the kingdom is something that has to posses us. We can't choose to live in the kingdom. The kingdom chooses us, lives in us and lives through us as we allow our lives to be transformed by the Holy Spirit.

The kingdom of God is not for sale. It's not something we can buy. It's not something we can earn our way into through our achievements. It's not something we can ever make ourselves 'good enough' for by keeping commandments, or by obeying spiritual laws or by excelling in any particular virtue. There is nothing we can do, through our riches, our morality, our status or our piety that offers to us entrance into the kingdom. In fact each of those things can actually be a barrier to our experiencing the life of the kingdom. Difficult? No. Impossible. We cannot save ourselves. "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

This was hard teaching. It made the disciples wonder if leaving everything to follow Jesus was really worth it! Did it count for anything at all? They have this understandable feeling that as they had given all to Jesus, they should expect something in return! That when the kingdom came in all it's glory, then surely there was a nice little corner carved out especially for them? We read 27-30

Peter answered Him, "We have left everything to follow You! What then will there be for us?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Jesus reassures Peter that when the kingdom was seen in all it's glory, he would certainly have an awesome part in things. Even mentions sitting on a throne and ruling over the twelve tribes of Israel. He suggests that whatever they had left behind would be restored beyond their wildest dreams, a hundred times over. And eternal life was a given. So, as long as they understood that this was God's doing and not theirs, they were in for a treat!

Of course there is a sting in the tale. 'Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.' It is what Eugene Petersen calls the 'Great Reversal'. 'Many of the first ending up last, and the last first.' The rules for earthly kingdoms were not the same as those for eternal Kingdoms.

The Kingdoms of the earth could be claimed through conquest, but the kingdom of heaven could only be entered by invitation. Greatness on earth was displayed through power and dominance. Greatness in the Kingdom of God is demonstrated through trusting acceptance that God alone knows what is best and through humble service of others. In the Kingdoms of Earth servants take care of Kings. In the kingdom of Heaven, the King comes to serve. According to Matthew Jesus is the 'Servant King'.

In our next chapter we shall continue exploring themes of 'kingdom' and 'greatness' and 'grace.' These are explored through a tale about work and wages. Jesus will for a third time explain to His disciples that His mission was taking him to the cross. He will again confront His disciples over their ambitions in life. And He will help a couple of blind folk to see the way.

So.... I hope you will see to making your way back into our studies next time!

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