A Fishy Story

Please read Matthew 17:24-27 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Because of the law of love, keep the law of the land.

  1. The problem as the tax collectors saw it. (17:24)

The tax collectors saw Jesus and Peter as being delinquent on their taxes.  That was the presenting issue anyway.  I suspect this was a trap set for Jesus.  The passive aggressive way the question is framed supports this view.  Also, the Gospels mention several occasions when Jewish leaders tried to catch Jesus in an error or taking sides in a hotly-debated issue.  Kind of like our media!

This event happened in Capernaum, Jesus’ usual home when in Galilee, the province north of Jerusalem in Judea.  The word “tax” doesn’t actually appear in verse 24.  It literally says “two-drachma coin,” which was the temple tax rate.

This was the only tax collected by the Jews not the Romans.  The Romans were historically lenient when it came to religious observances that did not compromise imperial taxes and/or loyalty to the empire.  Interesting fact: even after the Jewish temple was destroyed in 72 AD, the Romans continued the tradition of the “temple tax,” but they used it to find their temple to Jupiter!

We might call this a “head tax;” if you’ve got one, you’ve got to pay it.  It was commanded in Scripture: see Exodus 30:11-16.  It is also mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:6+9, where it is called “atonement for your soul.”  That sounds important!

One drachma was a day’s wage for a typical worker.  Imagine me showing up on your doorstep once a year and hitting you up for two day’s income.  It might not bankrupt you, but it wasn’t painless either.

Commentator William Barclay explains the need for the tax:

“The temple at Jerusalem was a costly place to run.  There were the daily morning and evening sacrifices each of which involved the offering of a year-old lamb.  Along with the lamb were offered flour and oil.  The incense which was burned every day had to be bought and prepared.  The costly hangings and the robes of the priests constantly wore out; and the robe of the High Priest was itself worth a king’s ransom.  All this required money.”

(The Daily Study Bible Series, Matthew, p. 168.)

  1. The problem as Jesus saw it. (17:25-26)

Jesus’ saw the problem as being the tax collector attempting to collect from Peter and Himself a tax from which they were exempt. The encounter started with the tax collectors jumping Peter at the door.  Maybe they were trying to surprise Peter and intimidate him?  Peter may’ve been intimidated or surprised and he blurted out, “YES, HE DOES,” then went inside to make sure He did.

Jesus overheard; I imagine the tax collectors made a loud accusation, trying to make Jesus look bad in front of the folks that typically gathered outside any place He settled.  When Peter came inside, Jesus commented: “WHAT DO YOU THINK, SIMON?  FROM WHOM DO THE KINGS OF THE EARTH COLLECT DUTY AND TAXES – FROM THEIR OWN SONS OR FROM OTHERS?”

The answer was obvious, and Peter got it; “FROM OTHERS” he replied.  This was true; it was the habit of kings of the day to excuse members of their family from paying taxes.  Jesus’ first point is that the king’s kids are excused from paying taxes.  This was one of many examples of the powerful oppressing the needy.

His next point is that He is Son to a much greater King; the very God who commanded the tax be collected!  Jesus’ knowledge of His unique place came early in life.  In Luke 2:49 we see that Jesus, as a 12 year-old, referred to the temple as “MY FATHER’S HOUSE.”  As God’s Son, He was not – according to usual standards – required to pay any taxes.

A third point is that if this tax really was “atonement for the soul,” He needed to do no atoning, because He was not guilty of sin. There was no separation between God the Son and God the Father. No offering was needed.  Just the opposite; Jesus IS our atonement!  In His sacrifice on the cross we find our sin forgiven and our relationship with God restored.

He turned the occasion into a teachable moment, revealing two things about Himself.  First, Jesus is LORD.  “THEN THE SONS ARE EXEMPT” Jesus said to Peter, continuing the dialogue (26).  As the Son of God, Jesus was not required to pay that tax.

When we accept the Lordship of Jesus, we accept His right to rule over our lives and offer ourselves in service to Him.  Ironically, it is in this surrender that we realize true freedom.  As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:17; NOW THE LORD IS THE SPIRIT, AND WHERE THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS, THERE IS FREEDOM.

Second, Jesus revealed that He is LOVE.  Jesus went on to say, “BUT SO WE MAY NOT OFFEND THEM…” (27).  The Gk word for OFFEND is skandalizein.  It meant to be a “stumbling block, a reason for sin, an obstruction in someone’s path.”  We must carefully guard against bringing offense or scandal if it’s at all possible.

A basic moral principle is the “preciousness of others.”  It’s based on Phillippians 2:3; DO NOTHING OUT OF SELFISH AMBITION OR VAIN CONCEIT, BUT IN HUMILITY CONSIDER OTHERS BETTER THAN YOURSELVES.  Jesus was under no legal obligation to pay their tax, but He did pay it, out of love.

  1. Jesus’ solution to the problem. (17:26-27)

The customs of the day did not require Jesus to pay the tax – the law did not apply to Him.  However, He voluntarily paid the tax because of the greater law of love.  Even though it was just tricky tax collectors setting a trap, He voluntarily paid the tax.

He performed a miracle to prove His legal exception and His true nature.  This miracle drives some people crazy.  The whole coin and the fish thing sounds like – well, like a fish story!           After all, why not just reach in His pocket and give Peter two coins?

First, pockets hadn’t been invented yet.  The French did that hundreds of years later.

Second, when we do what anybody can do, how does God get any glory out of that?  Miraculous and supernatural things serve as better evidence for God than everyday things.

Third, I picture the crowd outside waiting on the results of this confrontation and understood it to be a demonstration that will literally show them who is boss.

Jesus sent Peter out to the lake, which was probably nearby.  “Go fish” He said.  The first fish to bite would have something special in its tummy.  Peter was to take the coins he found there and use those funds to pay their taxes.

People who are troubled by these verses have not taken time to think it out or have a nutty predisposition against miracles.   Some think they are too smart – too “scientific” – to believe in miracles. Others think it depicts Jesus as misusing His divine power.

They’re both wrong.  Every Gospel miracle had a shared purpose: to show people Jesus is God’s Son.  The purpose of this miracle is no different.  Only the occasion is different.  Jesus claimed to be God’s Son and then proved He was by means of this miracle.

  1. How does this help you pay your taxes?

Go fishing – what can it hurt?  You will likely find this is a one-time event and won’t be repeated for you.  Notice that the fish had exactly what was needed, no more.  God supplies our “daily bread” without wasting any extra “dough.”

He supplies our needs, not our “greeds.”  Biblically, the ideal is that we can be self-sufficient enough to be generous with those in need and support God’s work too.

It can help with your attitude if you follow Jesus’ example of  humility and love.  Love for others is the second greatest command.  Jesus showed love by sincerely attempting to avoid causing offense to the legalistic crowd hung up on his taxes.

Because of the law of love, keep the law of the land

I’ll admit: on the outside this story reads strangely.  One commentator wrote that he’d been ashamed of the story because it felt so contrary to our reasonable and scientific culture.  It can feel silly to moderns who are so proud of their brains and have put their trust in science.

It is my prayer that we’ve looked more deeply.  With God’s Spirit we’ve seen this event through the eyes and ears of the people on the scene when it happened.   Hopefully it will make more sense and be visible to us as a time when Jesus used an unusual circumstance to teach very typical lessons on who He was and how we are to live like Him.

While it is a “fish story,” it is true and a parable of sorts that reminds us about God’s provision for us, our provision for each other, and our responsibility to see God in the details of daily living.

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Mad IS Hell

03a-angry-little-girl

(Image retrieved from http://sp.meucantinho.org/pictures-of/faces/angry/angry-faces-avatars.htm on 8/21/17.  Happy Eclipse Day, everyone!  Here’s a little gal who didn’t get to see the eclipse!)

Please read Matthew 5:21-26 in your Bible.  I mostly used the NIV for my research.  After paroxysms of hate that convulsed in Virginia and its aftermath throughout the world, I don’t think any explanation of WHY we need to study anger management would be required.

Jesus taught that anger can be murder on relationships.

Context (What’s going on in Matthew?)

This is the first of a series of six teachings Jesus introduces with the words “YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID” or some variation on that.  His purpose was to contrast the Old Covenant or agreement between God and humanity with the New Covenant He brought into being.  The New is, in each of these six cases, better than the old.  In this case, the New Covenant went beyond a mere legalism about murder to address the root cause: anger.  Jesus definitely raised the ethical standard.

Comment (What’s going on in these verses?)

  1. Anger is a dangerous emotion (vs. 21-22).

Our ethics of anger begins with affirming the sacredness of human life.  Jesus began this section by reminding them what the Old Covenant demanded – “YOU HAVE HEARD THAT IT WAS SAID…‘YOU SHALL NOT MURDER’” (v. 21).

The word MURDER does not refer to all killing, but only to the taking of a life that is not first commanded by God.  Remember we’re talking about the Old Testament (OT) here.  In the OT, God occasionally called for wicked people to be killed.  Since God is perfect in His knowledge and judgment, we can trust that He only called for the death of those who were actually guilty and deserving.  No exceptions.

Remember also that human life is sacred to us because God said so.  We are under His commands in all things, including the taking and preserving of human life.  Because we have only lived under the New Covenant, we can be uncomfortable about Bible passages where God commands killing.  We have to remind ourselves that God commanded different things to His people under different covenants and get over it.

The phrase SUBJECT TO JUDGMENT refers to the penalty for murder as required by the Law: death by stoning.  For example:

– Genesis 9:6 ESV = Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

– Exodus 20:13 ESV = You shall not murder.

– Numbers 35:30-31 ESV = If anyone kills a person, the murder-er shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of 1 witness. You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.

Jesus then contrasted the old standard with the new: “BUT I TELL YOU THAT ANYONE WHO IS ANGRY…WILL BE SUBJECT TO JUDGMENT.”  MURDER is still a sin under the New Covenant, but the change is that anger is now understood to be just as much a sin.  We find it easy to condemn murder because we’re so rarely guilty of it.  But we are routinely guilty of getting angry and so that hits closer to home.

Because human life is sacred, anger is as serious a sin as murder (v. 22).  The sacredness of human life is a principle fundamental to all civilization.  Every nation and religion must begin here.  Building on that, Christians are guided by a secondary principle called “the preciousness of others.”

– God says all life as precious because it is His.

– All life should be taken only with the most serious and righteous reasons.

– But human life is especially precious for these reasons: of all the created beings, only humans were created in the image and likeness of God.  Only human beings were given dominion over creation.

When we observe these two principles, it is easy to see that hatred is as violent and as ungodly an act as murder.  In fact, MURDER is most often motivated by anger, isn’t it?

Jesus explained that God’s new ethic was of a higher standard by reminding His listeners of current ethical practices (v. 22).

Firstly, when someone called someone else RACA, they risked the penalty of the court.  This word meant “empty” and was considered an expression of contempt.  (This may be a similar usage to our referring to an unemotional or inhumane person representing a corporation or bureaucracy as an “empty suit.”)  It was considered an example of a slip of the tongue, something said in the heat of the moment, but not really meant to harm the person’s feelings or reputation.  The worst discipline they might experience is the embarrassment of a rebuke from the Sanhedrin, their religious court.

Secondly but worse, to call someone a FOOL put one in danger of hell-fire.  The Jews considered this a more serious offense, a deliberate attempt to hurt the other person’s feelings and/or reputation.  Instead of the court, this kind of angry act put the person directly under God’s condemnation with the much more serious consequence of being destroyed in hell-fire.  Giving vent to anger in this way assumes the offender is an unbeliever and still under the wrath of God.  That was the way Jewish theology trended.

Rather than split hairs in this way, Jesus simply condemned all angry acts, teaching they are just as ethically serious as murderous acts.  As reluctant as we are to commit murder, we ought to be equally reluctant to do anything motivated by anger.

  1. Conflicts need to be resolved as peaceably and as quickly as possible (vs. 23-26).

To impart a sense of urgency, Jesus gave two examples: worship and litigation.

WORSHIP (23-24).

Relationships are so important to God that He would rather have you interrupt your worship than leave it unresolved!  THINK ABOUT IT!  In this one instance, even your most important relationship – your relation-ship with God – will take a back seat to getting that angry conflict resolved.

There are two reasons for this.  One, no one can legitimately worship God while hating their brother. (See 1 John 3:11-15.)  Two, nursed grudges and/or a bevy of burned bridges betrays a lack of true faith.

LITIGATION (25-26).

The practicality of Jesus’ advice to SETTLE MATTERS QUICKLY ought to be obvious enough for all of us.  Jesus offered a sensible reason if an ethical reason hadn’t been good enough: it’s cheaper and easier to settle out of court than it is to battle it out in court and potentially LOSE.  Would you rather put your trust in man’s law or God’s grace?  If you are a believer, grace is always better.  In choosing grace over law, all parties may have to give up their “rights” and forgive the “slights” they’ve suffered in order to compromise, exchange forgiveness, and move forward.  The way of Jesus is the way of grace triumphing over the law.  This is just as true in relational matters, in conflict resolution, as it is in any other area of life.

This is not found in the text, but please indulge me in a personal theory.  Here is another practical reason for resolution: unresolved conflicts are the leading cause of emotional dysfunction.  If we want victory over depression, to manage our anger, or overcome a host of challenging mental and/or emotional conditions; resolving longstanding conflicts is a good place to begin.

How to attempt quick and peaceable resolution?  Here’s one method.

1) FIRST, stop what you’re doing and make reconciliation a priority.  Approach it with a loving heart and a gracious spirit, aimed at reconciliation.  (Motives that have anything to do with “getting even” or “teaching them a lesson” are doomed to fail.)

2) SECOND, plan the context of the reconciliation attempt.  Choose a date, time and place that is agreeable to both parties and will be free of distractions.  That includes allowing for plenty of time.  A personal, face-to-face is the standard unless that’s plainly impossible or majorly inconvenient.

3) THIRD, declare in plain language your intention to reconcile.  Saying out loud and meaning it are necessary.

4) FOURTH, state the other person’s position and feelings.  Correct each other gently and compromise until you arrive at a mutually understood and accepted definition of the problem.

5) FIFTH, give and receive forgiveness for the wrongs mutually recognized in the previous step.

6) SIXTH, compromise on a way to avoid this kind of misunderstanding in the future and provide ways to avoid giving this offense(s) again.  This should include ways to respectfully approach one another to voice future concerns.

7) SEVENTH, extend and receive forbearance, which is “forgiving in advance.”  Realize that as much as you are working to avoid it, future offenses are going to be made.  Everyone should stop taking themselves so seriously and forgive in advance.  Commit yourself to forget the past offense in a way that will not require you to suffer it again in the future.

There are as many ways to resolve conflicts as there are “experts” who write about conflict resolution.  What I’ve shared with you is a summary of what I’ve seen and learned and used in my life and ministry.

The method is not important.  What is important is that we move to resolve our differences in a way that relieves us of anger.  We talk about being as “mad as hell.”  Jesus taught that being mad IS hell; it is a sin that finds its origin in Satan and, if unresolved, may find its conclusion in him as well.

We show we take the sin of anger seriously when we act to resolve conflict situations.  We show we are followers of Jesus when we choose love and grace over anger and law.

Our Orders are Simple

Please read Matthew 22:34-40 in your Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

label

(Retrieved from http://www.awesomeinventions.com/funny-product-instructions/ on 8/14/17.)

Here are some actual label instructions on consumer goods.  I find myself wondering how anyone thought these were necessary or wise.

On a bag of chips:
You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.

On packaging for an iron:
Do not iron clothes on body.

On children’s cough medicine:
Do not drive a car or operate machinery after taking this medication.

On most brands of Christmas lights:
For indoor or outdoor use only.

On a child’s Superman costume:
Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.

On shin pads for cyclists:
Shin guards cannot protect any part of the body they do not cover.

A parking lot sign:
Entrance only. Do not enter.

Rules on a elevated train track:
Beware! To touch these wires is instant death. Anyone found doing so will be prosecuted.

On a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle:
Some assembly required.

On a can of pepper spray used for self defense:
May irritate eyes.

On a TV remote:
Not Dishwasher safe.

On a mattress:
Do not attempt to swallow.

<Retrieved from http://funnytab.net/doomed on 8/10/17.>

Is it possible modern life is just too complicated?  Is it possible that common sense has become so uncommon we really do need these kinds of warnings?

For all our sakes, I want to take a few moments to take a look at Jesus’ version of a “life hack;” the way He simplified the commands of God.  Ten Commandments?  Still too many.  He got the whole matter down to TWO.  Just two commands to keep, and those who do reveal themselves to be His disciples.  This morning we’ll take a brief look at what these commands are and how they serve as our operating instructions for LIFE.

First, let’s note these commands are part of Jesus’ response to a misleading question (vs. 34-36).

Jesus is days from being killed.  He is in the city of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith, having entered it with a very public parade and a equally public confrontation in the temple. The religious authorities hate Him and He has racheted up the pressure with these tactics, forcing their hand, so they are trying to find something they can use to discredit Him in the eyes of the people.

Matthew 22 records a series of four encounters where these religious leaders tried to trap Jesus in His words.  Our passage is the third of the four.  In this case, they want to draw Jesus into a long-standing argument about which of God’s commands was the most important.  As this was something godly people had debated for years, they were hoping that Jesus would take a stand that would alienate at least half His listeners, as His answer would not agree with theirs.  They probably didn’t care what Jesus’ answer was, they just wanted him to say something they could use to irritate a percentage of His followers.

Their question was posed by a LAWYER and theologian in one (AN EXPERT IN THE LAW) – need I say any more?  While a theological question like this may sound innocent to our ears, these people lived in an entirely different culture.  In our culture, questions of Bible interpretation have not been a deciding factor in mainstream policy decisions since the Civil War.  But in this culture, these questions had a great influence on all parts of life.  The way a person answered this question guided economic, political, and moral decisions.

Second, let’s see what Jesus’ answer reveals about following God (vs. 37-40).

It reveals something about our priorities.

Jesus said THE FIRST AND GREATEST COMMANDMENT is to love God.  God comes first because of who He is; as our Creator and Savior, He is the most deserving object of our love. God comes first because He is the highest good.  We help others and ourselves more when His love is the foundation of our attitudes and actions.  God comes first because He shows us by Jesus’ example what love is.

He also said the second most important command is to love our NEIGHBOR as we love ourselves.  Love for NEIGHBOR takes priority over love for self but does not eliminate it.  We are to be unselfish but we are not called to be anyone’s doormat.  Love for self is included.  Hatred of self leads to all kinds of disabilities and problems.  Yes, the Bible calls us to self-denial and self-control, but that’s to eliminate selfishness, not self-preservation or self-love.

The point is, we can’t really love God or anybody else without loving ourselves too.  It’s a matter of keeping our priorities in proper order.  There is a place for self-love and it is third place.

Life gets messed up and we fall into sin when we get these priorities out of order. Too often, we have it exactly backwards; we put self first, then others, then God – if we think about Him at all.

Jesus’ teaching reveals something about the nature of love.  Our LOVE is to be all-encompassing; WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. Our most common mistake is we love with only part of who we are.  We think it’s OK to give our SOUL to Jesus, but we want to reserve our MIND for science, and our HEART for worldly things we enjoy.  The Bible repeatedly tells us that a partial commitment is really no commitment at all.  Love is not real until it involves all of who we are; no reservations.

LOVE is also “all-encompassing” in the sense that is the motive for all good actions.  This is what Jesus meant when He said in v. 40, “ALL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS HANG ON THESE TWO COMMANDMENTS.”  Or, to put it another way, “Love is the heart of what God wants from us.  The rest of the Bible is commentary on how to love.”

Our LOVE for each other is shown by taking care of others like we care for self.  Few of us are completely selfish; most of us care to some degree about the welfare and opinions of others.  (Completely selfish people might be called “sociopaths.”  Experts tell us only 1% of the population are currently in that fix.)  Though some of us take better care of ourselves than others, most of us do what we can to be healthy and happy.  Jesus is telling us that’s a rough guide on how to love others.

This is Jesus restating the Golden Rule; “Do to others what you want others to do for you.”  He is telling us the standard of care for our neighbor is the kind of care we normally require for ourselves.  We are to stop being selfish and treat others with the same care and respect we’d treat ourselves.

From Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37) we understand Jesus defined “neighbor” as everyone nearby and in need.  In short, our “neighbor” is everyone else.

There’s an enormous amount of biblical material on this subject, but for our purposes, we can characterize the nature of love by the objects of our love.

Love for God is obedience.

Love for each other is unselfish service.

Let’s Stick with God’s Simplified Instructions

“A preacher was speaking about all the things money can’t buy. ‘Money can’t buy happiness, it can’t buy laughter and money can’t buy love’ he told the congregation.

Driving his point home he said, ‘What would you do if I offered you $1,000 not to love your mother and father?’

“A hush fell over the congregation. Finally a small voice near the front, raised an important question, ‘How much would you give me not to love my big sister?’”

<Retrieved from https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/the-great-commandment-steve-greene-sermon-on-christian-love-87624 on 8/11/17.>

There you go.  Even with good intentions, the preacher complicated this matter of who to love and how to love.

God is so good to us.  In this passage, Jesus made love as simple and as accessible as possible.  Why complicate anything in this life, but especially something as essential as love?

The answer to that question is, of course, that when complicate something we most often have some ulterior motive: we have something to sell or something to hide.  We’re trying to fool ourselves or somebody else.

This kind of love is not just words or sentiment, it is words and sentiment manifest in action.  It is making a sacrifice in order to meet a need, be a friend, redeem our time.  The kinds of sacrifices love may require include:

Time,

Money,

Getting outside our comfort zone,

Forgiving,

Associating with unlovable people,

Changing,

Being inconvenienced.

What we get in return is greater than our sacrifice.  God loves a lover.  Be that lover.

Shakespeare, Jesus, and Lawyers (Part Two)

Please read Matthew 15:1-20 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare the following remarks.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

Legalism is an attempt to hide behind the law or manipulate its details to force your will on others.  There are some peculiar laws on the books around the country, so pick your hiding spot carefully.  Here are a few humorous examples.

In Huntington, West Virginia, firemen may not whistle or flirt at any woman passing a firehouse.

In the entire state of Georgia it is illegal to use profanity in front of a corpse lying in a funeral home or in a coroner’s office.

In Boston, Massachusetts, no one may take a bath without a prescription.  I wonder who polices that law?

In Norco, CA, all persons wishing to keep a rhinoceros as a pet must first obtain a $100 license.

This one is true too: in Wichita, Kansas, before proceeding through the intersection of Douglas and Broadway, a motorist is to get out of their vehicle and fire three shotgun rounds into the air.  I’m looking for a volunteer to try that one out!

Owners of flamingos in Juneau, Alaska, may not let their pet into barber shops.  How does anybody in Juneau GET a flamingo?

In San Francisco, California, it is illegal to pile horse manure more than six feet high on a street corner.  Based on what little I know about San Francisco, I’d guess politicians are allowed to stack it as high as they want.

I’m sure there is an interesting story behind all these laws, explaining how they got on the books.  But the point simply is this: man-made laws are vulnerable to misuse.  They are not the ultimate authority in the life of believers.  Our allegiance is primarily to the laws of love that were instituted in the Old Covenant and affirmed by Jesus in the New.

REVIEW from Part One

  1. The Picky (1+2).

The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law (lawyers) were “picky” in the usual sense that they fussed over details, abused the Law to further their own ends and in the unusual sense that they were trying to pick a fight with Jesus.

  1. The Pig in a Poke (3-9).

As per the usual meaning of this expression, the Pharisees and lawyers were attempting to convince Jesus and everyone within earshot they were handling a serious problem.  Jesus exposed their hypocrisy instead of accepting their definition of “serious.”

NEW for Part Two

  1. Prodding the People (10+11).

Sometime in this brief conversation a CROWD had formed. What Jesus intended to be a private rebuke became a “teachable moment” when He turned to address the CROWD as well as the disciples and the religious leaders.

He used the religious professionals’ complaint about hand-washing to teach the people about true discipleship.  For our sake, here’s what the Law of Moses taught.

One, “defilement” was a condition of spiritual and moral impurity (aka “uncleanliness”).  The word literally meant “to make something common.”  That means that something that had previously been sacred (devoted exclusively to God; special), was now just “ordinary.”

Two, the Law penalized the unclean/ defiled sinner by putting the offender out of the temple and sometimes outside the community too.  In the most serious situation, the Law required the offender put out of LIFE.  (Jesus’ quote of Leviticus 21:17 in verse four is an example of the ultimate penalty.)

Three, there were detailed laws about how an unclean/defiled person could become clean again.

The Law made an abstract concept like “sin” concrete & costly by requiring an animal sacrifice to cleanse the guilty party.  This is one appeal of legalism; it’s easier to think concretely than abstractly.

In contrast, here’s what Jesus said: “Food eaten with unwashed hands does not make the eater a sinner.  Instead, the things that come out of the mouth (i.e., our words) are things that make us sinners.”

  1. The Parable (12-14).

The scene changes again between vs. 11+12.  Jesus and His disciples went into a private home where they could question Jesus.

We forget that the Jews of Jesus’ time had a begrudging respect for the Pharisees: they were seen as “super religious” in a culture where religion was still seen as a good thing.  Even so, people didn’t to follow their example: it was just too demanding.

This explains the deference of the disciples in verse twelve, where they asked, “Do you realize what you’re saying is making these guys mad?”  They were also curious about this new, more assertive attitude Jesus showed.  Otherwise, who cares?  After all, you can’t live your life worrying about all the opinions of all the people.  Making decisions to avoid offense is one of the worst bases for making decisions.

Jesus needed to relieve them of the assumption that these people were reliable spiritual guides.  That’s why His reply in vs. 13+14 is so unequivocal.  It is as if Jesus replied, “You think that was offensive?  Check THIS out!”  What followed was a two-part parable (as Peter identified it in verse fifteen).

The PARABLE promised that God will set things right.  In this world, hypocrites may be allowed to prosper, but sooner or later, God Himself will uproot them.  Two chapters earlier, Jesus gave an extended parable about a wheat field where that was later sown with weed seed.  He explained that the wheat represents the true children of God and the weeds the false and evil people who reject God.  Making a point very similar to v. 13, Jesus promised God Himself will separate the wheat from the weeds and make everything right.  As God did not write their TRADITION, anyone guided by it was NOT His planting.

Jesus commanded, “LEAVE THEM.”  He meant, “Don’t be fooled by their legalism.”  Those who followed their teaching were “the blind being lead by the blind.”  This is irony with a sharp point, folks.  These religious authorities would puff themselves up by putting others down, calling themselves “leaders of the blind.”  Jesus turns their egotism against them and says that they blinded themselves to the truth.

  1. Peter in a Pickle (15-20).

He was often the first to ask questions everyone wondered about but didn’t dare ask (as happened in verse fifteen).  Peter wondered how God would “uproot” them and/or how they would fall into a pit.

The problem with being the first to ask is that he bore the brunt of Jesus’ rebuke (16): “ARE YOU [also] STILL SO DULL?”  This sounds harsh, but this kind of language fit Jesus’ role as a rabbi: bringing rebuke/correction was part of their job.

But these statements contradict our watered-down, wimpy version of Jesus.  The Gentle Shepherd is just one side of His character.  We need to also see Jesus as a radical man who was dangerous, dragging His disciples into all kinds of troubling situations.

In vs. 17-19 Jesus drew an analogy from the obvious function of the human body in regard to eating.  Food and water are introduced to the body by the mouth, are used by the body, and then disposed of by the body.  It was ridiculous to assert this process resulted in an immoral state.

The things that DO have a moral effect are a person’s words and deeds.  For example, MURDER, ADULTERY, SEXUAL IMMORALITY, and THEFT are all sinful acts.  FALSE TESTIMONY and SLANDER are examples of sinful words.

These are the BAD FRUIT of which Jesus spoke in chapter seven.  They identify a “bad tree,” regardless of mere appearances may say.

Jesus’ teaching was that hand-washing is not a moral act.   Anyone who attempts to make their self look good by observing a legalism like hand-washing rituals is a hypocrite.  What makes and marks a person as godly or ungodly is what’s in their heart, not what’s under their fingernails.  Real faith changes us to the core; it does not settle on the skin and it does not allow evil and selfishness to be excused or exercised by something as petty as legalism.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

It would be a shame to let this opportunity go by without telling a lawyer joke or two.  Here’s some gleaned from the Reader’s Digest.

First, a bit of actual courtroom dialogue: Attorney: “Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?”
Witness: “All of them. The live ones put up too much of a fight.”

Next, a favorite diversion of ours: jury duty.  When an 88-year-old mother was called for jury duty, she had to submit to questioning by the opposing lawyers.

“Have you ever dealt with an attorney?” asked the plaintiff’s lawyer.

“Yes. I had an attorney write my living trust,” she responded.

“And how did that turn out?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Ask me when I’m dead.”

Finally, do you know who invented copper wire?  Two attorneys fighting over a penny.

<Retrieved from http://www.rd.com/jokes/lawyer/ on 6/29/17.>

We can laugh about these things and should.  Quality of life is diminished when we allow petty people to wind our crank.  Its safer to just laugh at them.

But we need to be deadly serious about legalism.  Legalism is a sin.  It is a disguise that hypocrites wear to mask their true identity.  It is a means to abuse others and/or benefit self.  It is false.  It is not of God.

Let us be done with legalism.  Let us take seriously the condemnation Jesus leveled at hypocrites and avoid being one.  Have this Scripture in mind and take an honest look in the mirror.  It begins there.

 

 

 

Shakespeare, Jesus, and Lawyers (Pt. One)

Please read Matthew 15:1-20 in your Bible.  Then examine the following to see if your spirit agrees.  I have prepared these remarks using the NIV.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

“Few people are unfamiliar with the phrase, The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. Rueful, mocking, it often expresses the ordinary person’s frustration with the arcana and complexity of law. Sometimes it’s known that the saying comes from one of Shakespeare’s plays, but usually there’s little awareness beyond that. This gap in knowledge has inspired a myth of ‘correction,’ where it is ‘explained’ that this line is intended as a praise of lawyers.

“Whoever first came up with this interpretation surely must have been a lawyer.  The line is actually uttered by a character ‘Dick the Butcher.’ While he’s a killer as evil as his name implies, he often makes highly comedic and amusing statements.

“The “kill the lawyers” statement is the ending portion of a comedic relief part of a scene in Henry VI, part 2. Dick and another henchman, Smith are members of the gang of Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne. The build-up is a long portion where Cade makes vain boasts, which are cut down by sarcastic replies from the others. For example:

JACK CADE
I thank you, good people:- there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

DICK.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

“The audience must have doubled over in laughter at this.  Far from being ‘out of context’ the usage is more true to the original than most people know.

“In fact, Shakespeare used lawyers as figures of derision on several occasions.

“As long as there are lawyers, there will be “lawyer jokes”. And lawyers will show how those jokes ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning really constitutes praise for their profession, thus by example justifying the jokes more than ever.”

(Posted in 1997 by Seth Finkelstein at http://www.spectacle.org/797/finkel.html, retrieved on 06/19/17.)

  1. The Picky (1+2).

The Pharisees & lawyers were “picky” in the usual sense that they fussed over details, abusing the Law to further their own ends. Everyone knew the hand-washing regulations were not part of the Law given to Moses but were only a tradition started by rabbis.  In Jesus’ time these rules were not widely enforced, so these guys were trying too hard to find fault with Jesus.

Here is one example of their tradition regarding hand-washing: “If a man poured water over the one hand with a single rinsing, his hand is clean: but if over both hands with a single rinsing, Rabbi Meir declares them unclean unless he pours over them a quarter-log or more.” (M Yadaim 2:1)

The Pharisees and lawyers were also “picky” in that they were trying to pick a fight with Jesus.  They wanted to make Him look like a bad Jew. Note that these religious professionals were from Jerusalem.   They went all the way up to Galilee to find Jesus and “put Him in His place.”  In spite of their effort, all they could find to confront Him about was the behavior of his disciples at dinner time.

This sounds petty to us and it was petty, but not in the minds of these religious leaders.  When people are being legalistic, petty matters are molehills made to sound like mountains.  This is a word of warning to us about legalism; it is used because it provides a cover for pettiness.  Complaints that may be true in principle but not practicality are being used this way.  Be wary of this practice.

THE TRADITION OF THE ELDERS was a body of rules written by religious leaders over several generations called the “Halakah.”  The Pharisees attached a great deal of importance to this document and attempted to meet its requirements every day.  It was so complicated that a new profession arose to help people navigate its requirements: these are the TEACHERS OF THE LAW mentioned here.  We might call them “temple lawyers.”

Literacy was still not a common skill, so these TRADITIONS were largely maintained orally; the rabbi would train his students in them by having them recite them aloud.  This rote method of teaching was the main way these TRADITIONS were preserved in succeeding generations.

  1. The Pig in a Poke (3-9).

Continuing our earlier connection with English literature, we understand the expression “buying a pig in a poke” to be an old English phrase that refers to buying something without seeing or knowing anything about it first.  A “poke” is another word for sack.  (The word “pocket” is derived from it – a “pokette” is a small sack.) It is not wise to buy without first opening the sack to check the condition of the pig!

The Pharisees attempted to sell Jesus a “pig in a poke” in their criticism of His disciples’ lack of hand washing etiquette.  However, Jesus wasn’t buying it.  He opened the sack and exposed the contents.  Jesus exposed their legalism as hypocrisy – choosing their own traditions over God’s Law

God’s Law was clearly stated: children are to honor (obey) their parents.  Exodus 20:12 is the 5th Commandment; “HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER, SO THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG IN THE LAND THE LORD YOUR GOD IS GIVING YOU.”  Jesus also quoted Exodus 21:17 which gave the penalty for violating this commandment: death.  Think God takes this seriously?  Yes, He does.

Jesus said this clear command had been nullified by a tradition created by the kind of people who were accusing Him.  Leviticus 27:9+16 allowed for property and real estate to be designated as “Corban,” a state of dedication to the Lord (see Mark 7:11).  This was to last until the next Year of Jubilee.  Perhaps on this basis, they created a rule that a man could dedicate assets to the temple.  If so, when his parents appealed to him for help, he could say to them, “I’d love to help you out, but my property is given over to the temple and I’m strapped for cash.”

With that kind of clear self-interest, the religious leaders created a way to make money and an excuse for the living to refuse all requests for philanthropy.  In our time, it would be a combination tax shelter and charitable trust.  Or it might be “fraud.”  Jesus’ point is simple; hypocrites will attempt to wallpaper their crimes in pages from law books in order to excuse their violations of God’s Law and/or make themselves appear godly when their hearts are nowhere near God.

In case you’re not yet seeing it, let me assure you this is a full-bore rebuke by Jesus.  It is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus referred to the Pharisees and lawyers – or anyone – as HYPOCRITES.

Jesus quoted from Isaiah 29:13 using the Word of God to expose the true intent of their hearts.  In effect, He rebuked them saying, “You believe you’re preserving traditions, but in reality, you’re guilty of the same hypocrisy the prophet Isaiah exposed.”

They replaced true faith which resides in one’s heart with superficialities.  Instead of enacting the will of God, they misused the Law to force their will on others.  The result: their worship was wasted because the rules they followed were just human notions, not the will of God.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

We must understand what legalism is.  I offer the reader five views of the subject that will attempt to define this sin and enable us to avoid manifesting it in our daily living.

Legalism is a complicated attempt to create rules that make us look good while relieving us of the hard work of character.

Legalism is an attempt to cloud the condition of the heart by burying the matter in complications.  It is the old “smoke and mirrors” approach to misdirection.

Legalism mimics God’s Law, but is thoroughly man-made.  It is thereby not authoritative for all who believe.

Legalism misuses tradition by asserting that the old ways are the only right ways.

Legalism is selfishly motivated and attempts to please one’s self; where true righteousness is focused on God and desires to please Him.  We humans seem to have an infinite capacity to make excuses and manipulate words to justify self and/or condemn others.  We need a higher authority.

The Jewish religious leaders in this passage are long dead and so are some of their teachings.  But the practice of legalism is alive and well.  It has users in the Church and outside it; the dogmatism of “political correctness” is a modern manifestation of legalism.

Indeed, the practice of legalism is so common (inside and outside the Church) and its consequences are so serious, the Lord has impressed on me the necessity of studying this passage in detail.  Part Two will examine further aspects of Jesus’ condemnation of legalism.

Love Without Limits

(Please read Matthew 18:21-35 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Those of us of a certain age will recognize the name W.C. Fields, the rest of you will have to google it.  A famous comic actor in the black and white era of motion pictures, Fields played mostly grumpy old men in his movies.  It turns out that off-screen, he was a grumpy old man and a drunken rascal.

W.C. Fields was also a notorious atheist.  That’s why a friend of his was astonished to discover Fields, at the end of his life, reading the Bible.  He asked Fields, “Why in the world are you reading the Bible?  Are you looking for answers?”

The comedian replied, “No, I’m looking for loopholes.”

Looking for loopholes.  That pretty well describes human nature doesn’t it?  We want maximum gain with minimal effort.  We expect to be rewarded above and beyond our lukewarm commitment and selfishly motivated actions.  Justice and mercy are things we want when they benefit us, but are far less concerned about them for the sake of others.  Particularly for people whom we do not happen to like.

The last time I preached on this passage was 20 years ago.  At that time, God was using a peculiar method to teach me about mercy.  God used Woofie to give me daily opportunities to show forgiveness.

Woofie came into our lives as “Wolfie;”  we changed her name to make her sound less aggressive.  The change of name had no effect on her nature, however.

Woofie was the poster dog of the local Humane Society.  Really.  She was a stray who’d been hanging around a cemetery, barely eking out a living, in bad shape when she was caught.  Life on her own did not prepare Woofie to be a house dog.

She loved everyone in the family and hated all other life forms.  She was a barker.  A jumper.  She bolted every chance she could get, so we had to devise an elaborate and strong pulley system to let her outdoors.  One of her favorite tricks was to walk up next to Melanie and bump her with her backside, sending Melanie, then a toddler, sprawling and bawling on the floor.  When we watched a movie and ate popcorn, she would bark angrily if you didn’t frequently flip a kernel her way.

The story has a happy ending.  Woofie lived with us for more than a decade.  She peacefully lay down to sleep one day and never awoke again.

What eventually made the difference was love.  And forgiveness.  Lots and lots of forgiveness of her canine sins.

Now, twenty years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation.  We adopted Rue from the Sioux Falls Humane Society just before Christmas and her list of doggie offenses is growing.  I must be a slow learner to have to go through this again!

  1. The occasion: Peter asked a question.

Rabbis (Jewish teachers) are and were tasked with applying the Law of Moses to everyday life.  When they did so, they tended to use a very legalistic approach.  They taught that a person might be forgiven three times for a repeated sin.  On the fourth occasion, however, no one was required to  forgive something a fourth time.

It’s possible that when Peter offered the number SEVEN, he was surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus had commanded in 5:20. (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”)  Or Peter may’ve settled on SEVEN since that was seen as “the perfect number,” the number for God.  (Six is the number for man; always one short.)  In either case, Jesus had just been talking about the steps in restoring fellow church members from sin to forgiveness and this sparked Peter’s questioning mind.  He wanted to know if there were any loopholes in this matter of forgiveness and restoration.

In the first part of His answer, Jesus one-ups Peter and adds a second seven.  (In some texts it’s plus seventy, in others, it times seventy.  Since we’re NOT dealing with a legalism here, the difference makes no difference.)  Jesus sometimes uses humor and exaggeration to make His point and I believe that’s what’s happening here.  SEVENTY-SEVEN and 490 are both ridiculous numbers if you intend to make it a law.  Who would have the capacity to keep such a command?  How would keeping an exhaustive count of offenses make anyone feel better or make you more godly?

No, SEVENTY-SEVEN is obviously a metaphor for a limitless number.  Once they’ve had a chuckle over the first part of His answer, Jesus goes on to tell them a story that will justify effectively limitless forgiveness.

  1. The one main point of the parable: “Forgive one another as you have been forgiven by God the Father.”

We will show how Jesus’ parable develops this truth in just a moment.  For now, we note the large strokes.

The KING is God the Father.  Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, He forgives the massive, impossible-for-us-to-fix debt of our sin.

We are the unforgiving servant when we take out our petty anger on the people around us, who are represented by the FELLOW SERVANT.

The unforgiving servant had no mercy, so he received justice instead; justice in the form of judgment.  The warning in v. 35 could not be clearer: people who are unwilling to forgive will miss out on God’s forgiveness.

  1. The sub-points of the parable:

One: The debt the king forgave was impossible to repay.  In Jesus’ world, it was possible for servants of a KING to amass a debt in the course of their service to the king.  They were tasked with managing their master’s assets and logically their management wasn’t always successful.  In such cases, the master didn’t write a loss off, but held the manager accountable, counting the loss as a debt owed him.  (This system sounds a bit like riding a tiger; choose carefully which end you face!)

Even so, this amount is another purposeful exaggeration: Jesus used an impossibly large amount of money to create the impression that the debt was impossible to repay.  For context, I refer you to a 2010 article by Philip Massey who calculated the debt to require 200,000 YEARS of labor to repay.  The 2010 equivalent, his math said, was $7.04 billion.

– OR, the net worth of Bill Gates.

– OR, more than the national debt… in 1917!!

<Retrieved from http://chimes.biola.edu/story/2010/oct/27/parable-two-debtors/ on 1/6/17.>

The king did the math and realized that even if he sold this man’s entire family into slavery (as he did in v. 25), it would not make a dent in his losses.  His original motive must’ve been to get what he could and make an example of this servant and his horrible mismanagement of the king’s funds.

He orders the servant and all his family and possessions seized for the debt.  Our sympathy may naturally go to the servant, but think about it: if the indebted servant realized the debt was impossible to pay, his pleading with the king to be PATIENT, promising to repay all, was a lie.

Let’s note the character of the KING on the basis of his response to his servant’s plea.  His character is substantiated in v. 27: it was PITY, not the empty promise of repayment that motivated the king to cancel the servant’s debt.  Let there be no doubt this king is a figure symbolizing God the Father.

– Each person’s sin is an insurmountable debt, a problem we can’t fix.

– Not because of our empty promises to be good, or anything else we can do, the debt is cancelled.

– Does this help you understand the incredible seriousness of your sins AND the depth of God’s forgiveness?

– Remember, the money is a metaphor; the actual situation is even more dire, for the wages of sin are DEATH (RMS 6:23).

Two, the debt the servant did not forgive was tiny in comparison.  The modern value of A HUNDRED SILVER COINS would be up to $45,000.  That is a princely sum for most of us, I would guess, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to $7.04 billion.

This is a third exaggeration, a sum chosen carefully by Jesus.            On the one hand, it is not so small a sum of money that a person could easily forgive the debt and not miss it.  A needy or greedy person would be motivated to insist on repayment.  On the other hand, it is not so large a sum that it compares at all with the debt this servant’s master had JUST CANCELLED.

In v. 29, the second servant’s plea reads almost exactly the same as the plea the unforgiving servant has just made with the king.  Here Jesus is using irony to make sure that we connect the unforgiving servant with the one who owed him money.  The unforgiving servant takes the place of the KING and the second servant takes his place.  Though the debts are very much different, the situation, through the wording, is very much the same.  What is different is the outcome.

It is a terrible, immoral deed that the unforgiving servant does to his peer, throwing him in prison over this comparatively tiny debt after he has been forgiven so much (30).  What he did was as illegal as it was immoral.  According to the law of the land, you could not sell a person into slavery for a debt that was worth less than the person’s life.  In other words, the unforgiving servant was trying to not only recover his debt, but make a profit too.  This detail exposes the unforgiving servant as greedy, not needy.

Three, the king’s justice is an example of God’s justice.  The injustice of the unforgiving servant’s actions was not lost on his peers.  Jesus says they were GREATLY DISTRESSED (31).  Probably at some personal risk, they went to the KING and told him what had happened.  This makes even more sense if the actions of the unforgiving servant are illegal AND immoral.

In vs. 32-34 we are pleased to see that this KING, who was so good-natured as to forgive such a massive debt, also had a good sense of justice.  He was indignant at the unforgiving servant’s actions and rebuked him for his pettiness, his unwillingness to demonstrate the same kind of mercy as he had recently received.

In righteous anger, the KING delivered a just condemnation of the unforgiving servant.  The word translated in the NIV as JAILERS is really too tame a choice of words.  It should read “torturers.”  The justice and mercy of the KING are a stark contrast to the greed and injustice of the unforgiving servant.

Four, let unforgiving folk be warned (35).  God’s justice is perfect; He knows who is guilty and the punishment always fits the crime.

This warning could not be more clear.  Unforgiving people betray the true status of their soul as themselves being unforgiven.  There is a cause and effect relationship between being shown mercy and giving mercy.

This warning could be more serious.  Our eternal destination is at stake.  Just as the unforgiving servant was handed over to the “torturers,” so can an unmerciful person expect only the wrath of God.

This warning could not be any more certain.  The unforgiving servant was exposed and justice was rendered.  He may have gone away from his first encounter thinking he’d fooled the king but his true nature emerged and he was dealt with justly.

Several years ago, on a beautiful spring day a man walked along a country lane to enjoy the sun.  He chanced upon a farmer plowing his field with a mule.  He was having a tough time of it.  The mule was not very responsive.

The visitor waved to the farmer and motioned for him to come over to the fence.  The farmer mopped his sweaty brow as he came over to the fence to greet his friendly visitor.

“Say,” the visitor said, “I’m not one to tell a man how to do his business, but I think that mule would be more cooperative if you’d say ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw’ to him when you wanted him to turn.”

The farmer considered this advice for but a moment and replied, “Reckon that’s so, but that mule kicked me five years ago and I haven’t talked to it since.”

Holding a grudge against people makes about as much sense, doesn’t it?  As this parable makes plain, grudge-holding and all forms of being unforgiving and unmerciful have no place in the life of a follower of Jesus.

Instead, just the opposite is true.  A claim to faith by a person or a church is proven by a character of mercy.  This quality of a fellowship (church) is also necessary to attract and retain new people in a church.

Turns Out You CAN Go Home

(Please read Matthew 2:19-23 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I used the NIV to do my research.)

Matthew 2:19-23  X  “Turns Out You CAN Go Home”  X  EBC = 12/25/16

One of the offbeat things that 2016 brought us is “fake news.”   This is something entirely fictitious masquerading as an actual news story.  People put this stuff on the Internet for various reasons, but the common factor is that it’s fake.

In case you missed it, there was an example of fake news in the Twin Cities just last week.  Some guy got it in his head that the new stadium was a waste of tax payers’ money and should be opened up as a shelter for the homeless on that especially cold night.  So he “tweeted” that it would be.

A friend of his “re-tweeted” this as if it were a real news item.  That fellow had 14,000 followers, many of who “re-tweeted” this item as if it really were accurate.  Announcers calling the Minnesota Vikings game on TV talked about it during their broadcast, and the whole messy lie took on a life of its own.

Other examples abound.  Fake News is nothing new.  Anybody here heard about Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds?”  It has been suggested that dead children and grieving mothers in ISIS video are just actors.

Having more access to information does not necessarily mean we have more access to the truth.  It means that, more than ever, we have to exercise good judgment to discern what is true.

As believers, we have an alternative to “fake news.”  For about 2000 years we’ve been calling it “good news,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tim Stanley wrote an article entitled “Sick of fake news? Try the ‘good news’ about Christmas” for the London Telegraph.  I like his take on our more wholesome alternative to fake news.

“How do we test if faith is real? Look at what it produces. It is outwardly, indisputably more beautiful and magnificent than its secular alternative.   As my evidence, I won’t just cite the eyewitness accounts or the corroborating evidence from Josephus or Pliny. No, I cite love.

“You’ll think I’m mad. Love is just a concept, say the philosophers, or an evolutionary quirk, say the biologists. Society doesn’t seem very interested in talking about it; it’s out of style. The news, fake or otherwise, is dominated by evil.

Stanley cites a letter from an American agnostic who found a surprising alternative in Christianity: “Right now, I am struggling to accept the basic Christian doctrines (virgin birth, resurrection, second coming) because I feel the Christian tribe may be the right tribe for my family. We just finished watching a BBC miniseries about the birth of Jesus, which was so beautiful and moving compared to secular TV. My nine-year-old really enjoyed it.”

“That the events of two thousand years ago inspire all of this suggests, to me, that there has to be something to them. People wouldn’t turn their lives around over a myth – any more than the critics of Christianity wouldn’t waste so much energy trying to debunk a childish delusion. We do this big Christmas festival thing for a reason. Because deep in our soul, we connect the love on display in the nativity with our own needs and experiences.

“Some people have found 2016 depressing. It’s had its ups and downs. But evil trades in doubt and we should resist it. The fake news is that mankind is lost. The good news is that it can be saved.”

<Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/23/sick-fake-news-try-good-news-christmas/ on 12/23/16.>

  1. This event itself.

Verses 19-22 relate the third dream.  For the first and only time Joseph hesitated.  The angel’s message from God was simple; there was no longer any threat to the Christ-child, so it was time to come home.  King Herod died in 4 B.C.  This makes it possible that he did not live long after ordering the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem.

By Herod’s own will and the prerogative of Caesar Augustus, Herod’s kingdom was divided between his surviving sons.  Matthew recorded Archelaus was given jurisdiction over Judea (Jerusalem), Samaria, & Idumea (south).  His brothers Philip II ruled Galilee (north) and Antipas Galilee and Perea (middle).

The angel’s command was to go to THE LAND OF ISRAEL, which Joseph understood as being Judea, a province ruled by Archelaus.  Joseph was concerned about his family’s safety if they settled anywhere in Judea. He had good reason to be concerned: when Archelaus was king over Judea, he ordered the killing of 3000 people during the observance of the Day of Pentecost.  This massacre caused widespread rioting and got Archelaus in a great deal of trouble with Rome.  Later, in AD 6, a joint delegation of Jews and Samaritans went to Rome and pleaded Augustus to remove Archelaus from power.  Caesar agreed, and banished Archelaus to the frontier – the middle of Europe – in a place that would be called “Vienna.”  Archelaus was replaced by a governor appointed by Rome, which is where Pontius Pilate will come onto the scene when Jesus is grown to manhood and accused by the Jews of treason.  (Pontius Pilate was the fifth man to hold that title.  He was no great statesman and could be ruthless like Archelaus.)

Clearly, this account in Matthew 2 happened before Archelaus’ banishment.  No doubt reports of this grave abuse of power reached Joseph and other Jews living in Egypt.

God heard Joseph’s concern and sent a fourth dream, diverting the Holy Family to the province of Galilee, which was ruled by Antipas, not Archelaus.  Antipas was no real prize either, as the Gospels tell us he was the man who would order the death of John the Baptist and interrogate Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

The fourth dream and Joseph’s compliance are recorded in vs. 22+23.  Put yourself in Joseph’s place for a moment: all these dreams.  Are you worried about sleeping?  Do you lay down and think, “OK, what’s it gonna be tonight?  More angels bossing me around?”  So the family settled in Nazareth.  In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems like Nazareth is a new community, but Luke tells us it was the place from which both Joseph and Mary originated.

If you were looking for a place to “hide in plain sight,” Nazareth was a good choice.  It had a population of just 500-1500 people.

  1. The significance of the event.

The safety of the Christ-child is the most significant outcome.   Having preserved Him from Herod’s rage, the infant Jesus is now preserved from the lethal tyranny of Archelaus.

It proves that returning to Bethlehem was out of the question.  It was in the territory ruled by Archelaus and he was deadly crazy like his father.  It would have been the first place Archelaus would have looked if he followed up on his father’s bloody crusade against the new king.  Most importantly, growing up in Bethlehem was simply not God’s plan.

Another significant aspect of event is the fulfillment of prophecy (23).   Matthew is not directly quoting any single Old Testament prophet and that is why he used the plural term PROPHETS.  His statement is a summary and restatement of Scriptures he memorized from the Hebrew version of the Old Testament and that is a partial explanation why we can’t find this quote directly in the Old Testament.

Nazareth was an obscure town 70 miles north of Jerusalem.  It was a place of lowly reputation, especially among the city folk in Jerusalem.   For example, in John 1:46, Nathanael asked “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  He found out something good had come out of Nazareth; Jesus.  He would go on to become one of Jesus’ disciples.  Another example: in Acts 7:25, when Christians were referred to as “the Nazarene sect,” it was intended as an insult.

Some people denied Jesus was the Messiah based on their false assumption that He was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.  It became a point on which they sneered at Jesus (John 7:41-43).

Finally, in this event some scholars see a repeat of the Exodus.  In the original Exodus, the nation of Israel was delivered from slavery to Egypt.  While it is true Jesus also came out of Egypt, but unlike the Israelites, He was tested in 40 DAYS, not 40 YEARS, and He was faithful to do the entire will of God.  He left Egypt a child, not a slave.  His mission was not to found a new nation, but appeal to God’s people to believe in Him as their Messiah and so be saved.

With more than a tad bit of cynicism, Arden Dier reported on a recent event that does not portend well for the new year.  This prediction is based on a relic that bears an odd resemblance to a “Magic Eight Ball.”

“According to legend, a woman collected the blood of Saint Januarius, or San Gennaro—the once pious bishop of Naples who was beheaded as Christianity was under attack around AD 305—and preserved it in a glass vial, reports Seeker.  Then a ‘blood miracle’ in 1389: the congealed blood liquefied. The archbishop of Naples now performs this ‘blood miracle,’ shaking the vial in front of thousands until the blood liquefies.  This occurs on three significant days each year, the most recent of which should have been Dec. 16. (Mount Vesuvius erupted on that day in 1631, and Naples was said to have been protected by the saint.) And yet last week, it didn’t.

“One website claims that when the blood miracle—which is ‘not quite sanctioned by the Catholic Church,’ per the Week—has failed to work, 22 epidemics, 19 earthquakes, four wars, and various other tragedies have followed. When the blood last failed to liquefy in 1980, an earthquake struck 30 miles from Naples, killing 2,400 people. The blood also remained congealed in 1939, the year World War II began.

“But ‘we must not think of calamities,’ says the local abbot, per the Catholic News Agency.  ‘We are men of faith and we must pray.’”

Whether this report worries you or not, having faith and praying is always good advice.  I can absolutely guarantee 2017 will be a good year if you commit to being more faithful and give more time to prayer.  It may not be “good” in the way you’re envisioning right now, because that’s up to God to decide.  But I hope we can all agree that any year which sees us drawing closer to God is a good year in the most important sense.

These first two chapters of Matthew are secretly about Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph.  We have seen how God guided Joseph by supernatural means – through his dreams.  It would be easy to be cynical and discount dreams, just as we might find the “Blood Miracle of Naples” to be a little hard to swallow.

Instead, let’s give credit to Joseph for being faithful and obedient.  Let’s give glory to God for the greater miracle of the life of Jesus.