From today’s reading of Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9:28-62

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astonished at the majesty of God. – Luke 9:37-43 (ESV)

In the parallel passage in Matthew 17 the disciples ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast out the demon. His explanation to them is very simple: “Because of your little faith”. This is as good an explanation as any for almost every failure and misstep in my life. Oh, this great puzzle of faith!

Have you ever thought that Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples here, and in many other places, is harsh? It reads that way, doesn’t it? “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you?” He seems exasperated, and there’s no doubt he is. But why?

I don’t know about the disciples, but I do know about me. Perhaps my problem is similar to theirs. I think I often get faith wrong. I see it as a work, as something to conjure. After all, if I need more of something, I need to work for it, right? I often see faith as currency, and the more the better so that I can buy God’s successes.

It’s illustrative that just a few verses later in Luke 9 Jesus places a child in front of the disciples as an example of what it means to be great in the Kingdom. And in the next chapter of the Matthew passage he says this:

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3-4 (ESV)

One of the great shocks of being a parent is realizing how much faith your little ones have in you. It is a pure faith. They know you have what they need, and they aren’t shy about asking for it, smiling and eyes wide with expectation. In a healthy family there is no fear in the asking, and there is acceptance (albeit with some drama inevitably) of the answer, yes or no. Most importantly, there is no sense of work in the asking. The child knows she has no money on her own to buy the toy, so she goes to the only one who does have the money and might be willing to buy it, her mom or dad. A child’s faith is bold, because the focus of a child’s faith is squarely on her mom or dad. This faith is also wise; placing faith in the one with the resources is the only thing that makes any logical sense.

I think this simplicity of faith is often lost as we grow older and begin to take on resources of our own. The focus begins to shift from the Lord to ourselves, and this begets the effort, the work, the mental gymnastics that masquerade as faith so often, not to mention the caution, the hedging of the bets that accompany these wolves of work wrapped in the sheep’s hide of faith.

Jesus is exasperated by his disciples’ lack of faith, I believe, because they had, for quite some time, been physically with the Incarnate Faithful One, Jesus himself. Jesus was engaged in living a faith-filled life before his Father and pointing them to the same life of dependency and childlike trust. They had seen the results of this true, pure, golden faith over and over again.

Mark 9 records this interaction between Jesus and the demoniac boy’s father:

“if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9:22-24 (ESV)

Amen brother. Lord help my unbelief.

I think Jesus is exasperated with me because faith is, in ways I still need to fully grasp, very simple. I’m the one who’s making it hard. I need to put my faith in Jesus. Because he can do it. He can do anything.

“O woman, great is your faith!”

From today’s reading of Matthew 15 and Mark 7

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. – Matthew 15:21-28 (ESV)

I have always found this passage to be a little hard to read. It seems out of character for Jesus, doesn’t it? At least up until that last verse.

But there are clues here into the heart of Jesus and the heart of his mission. A question one might ask: what was Jesus doing in the district of Tyre and Sidon anyway? According to commentaries I’ve consulted, there aren’t any other records of his acts in Tyre and Sidon except for this one act of blessing on behalf of this Gentile woman.

Have you ever noticed how many examples of the prayer of desperation in the Gospels come from the lips of parents interceding for their children? This woman comes to Jesus desperate, with no resources in herself to deal with the oppression and suffering a demon has wreaked upon her daughter.

I don’t know all the nuances behind the term “dogs” to refer to Gentiles, although I know that was a common epithet used by the Jews of that time. I don’t know if Jesus smiled at her when he said it, as an encouragement to her to continue to press into him for this blessing, although that is how I imagine the scene playing out.

Here’s what I do know: the needs of women in the culture of the time were not considered important, and it was hard to get lower in the eyes of a Jewish man than to be a Gentile woman. The disciples seemed to consider her a nuisance, and wanted her sent away. As Jesus said himself, she wasn’t even in the people-group that he had been sent to minister to. But in all the district of Tyre and Sidon, she is the only one who’s blessing at the hands of Jesus made the record of the Gospels.

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

This woman of great faith and courage entreats the Lord for just a crumb of his grace and mercy. She, a parent with a desperately oppressed child seeks healing from the one our heavenly Father has sent to redeem his wayward, oppressed, and desperately lost children. And for her audacious, humble courage in approaching the Lord she receives not only instant healing for her daughter but honor throughout the ages from the Lord himself:

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”

Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but I like to think, and believe that the evidence supports, that he went all the way to the region of Tyre and Sidon just to minister to this woman of Gentile race. He did this to show that there really are no “dogs” under the table; all are welcome to come and feast at the table of his grace.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 (ESV)

“Go and learn what this means”

From today’s reading of Matthew 9-10

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:9-13 (ESV)

So much of the opposition and astonishment of the religious leaders toward Jesus can be boiled down this way: You don’t look or act the way we thought you would look or act.

He didn’t. He didn’t on purpose. What are we to make of this?

Jesus could have been more sensitive to the needs of the Pharisees for a messiah who was more like them. He would certainly have enjoyed more support for them if he had engaged in a righteousness that aligned more closely to theirs.

But that would have been shooting way too low. Jesus used the religious leader’s righteousness as a yardstick of what “falling short” means. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees . . .”

Teachable moments abounded in Jesus ministry. He continuously confounded the pious onlookers: “Doesn’t he know what kind of woman she is?” “How come you don’t ceremonially wash?” “Healing on the sabbath? Don’t you care about the law?” “Why don’t you or your followers fast?”

“Why are you eating with them? Don’t you know how bad that looks?”

To all this Jesus replies “Those who are well have no need of a physician”. The irony in this statement is that both Jesus and John the Baptist before him had communicated repeatedly and emphatically to the religious leaders of that day that those leaders were not well. But they didn’t have the ears to hear it. Yet Jesus, in his grace and patience, continues teaching.

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” Mercy becomes anemic in the heart of the self-righeous, self-made man, and must be re-awakened. Otherwise we will fail to recognize Mercy embodied when he is standing right in front of us.

Thank you Lord for being our Immanuel, for being with us! Thank you for coming and befriending sinners such as we are. We had no power to attain you, so you came and attained us. We are all of us, each and every one, a lonely Matthew, sinful and needy and poor. You, friend of sinners, have come and spread a feast for us in the presence of our enemies, anointed us with the royal oil of your Holy Spirit, and filled our cup to overflowing. What manner of love is this?

May we never bar the way of escape for others. May we never cut the chords of grace for others once we have received it for ourselves. May we never look upon another human being and think “not one of us”. And, Lord have mercy! – may we never judge you for going where we fear to go and mingling with those we fear to mingle with.

May humbled hearts receive your teaching: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”

Thank you so much for your mercy upon me.

“Come, let us return to the LORD;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes early away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;
there they dealt faithlessly with me.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
tracked with blood.
As robbers lie in wait for a man,
so the priests band together;
they murder on the way to Shechem;
they commit villainy.
In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
Ephraim’s whoredom is there; Israel is defiled.

For you also, O Judah, a harvest is appointed,
when I restore the fortunes of my people. – Hosea 6 (ESV)

Greater than Jonah

From today’s reading of Matthew 12:22-50 and Luke 11

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. – Matthew 12:38-42 (ESV)

The Lord Jesus refused to do signs to gain position with the powers that be. He simply wouldn’t do it. The signs and wonders Jesus performed were for the good of those healed and set free, and for the glory of God. They were not for those well-integrated into the upper echelons of power and self-sufficiency, but for those who had come to the end of themselves and had no resources left but to call on the name of Jesus. While Jesus’ fame spread early in his ministry because of the signs, the signs weren’t the point; this is one reason why Jesus would often tell those healed and set free to not broadcast the event.

The signs weren’t the point. Jesus was, and is. That’s why in this passage he so fervently refuses the request of the scribes and Pharisees to do a carnival trick for them. They are only going to get one sign out of him: the sign of Jonah.

You probably are familiar with Jonah, that famously reluctant Old Testament prophet who sailed as far away from the Lord’s calling for him as was possible and still ended up fulfilling the mission of God after a three day come-to-Jesus meeting in the belly of a whale. Jesus here asserts that he is the greater, the better Jonah.

Here is the sign that the scribes and Pharisees will receive, the greatest sign in history: like Jonah, Jesus will spend three days in the heart of the earth, dead and buried.

But he will be there only three days! On the third day he will rise again, alive and glorified forever, our great Cornerstone, but the great rock of stumbling and offense to those who seek salvation in political power and their own righteousness. He will be exalted to the right hand of the Father and every knee will bow and tongue will confess that he is Lord!

How much greater is that sign than what they requested of him! It is the only sign an evil and adulterous generation will receive, and it is the only sign they really need. In Jesus death, burial and resurrection is everything needed to cleanse away the evil in our souls and replace it with Christ’s righteousness, and to take away the idolatry of our spiritually adulterous hearts and replace it with the faith, hope and love that are themselves gifts of the risen Savior.

It’s the greatest sign of the greatest and only Savior of the world!

As many of us often do, the scribes and Pharisees seriously undershot and under-asked when making their request of the Lord because they were seeking the thrill of a sign, rather than Jesus.

Rest for your souls

From today’s reading of Matthew 11

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:25-30 (ESV)

“You will find rest for your souls.”

The rest Jesus speaks of is not a physical rest; many of us in the affluent West live lives of comparative physical luxury, rest, plenty and convenience that would be the envy of royalty in past ages. Unfortunately, the curse of our fallen nature and fallen cultures is one of spiritual, mental and emotional unrest. The entirety of human history is one of striving; a “striving after the wind” as the author of Ecclesiastes would say.

Jesus offers to us what we have always wanted. We don’t earn it through intellectual effort; in fact, the good news of this rest is hidden from the wise and understanding and revealed to those with the faith of a child. We don’t earn it through moral effort, that endless pursuit to fill our sash with the merit-badges of righteousness, to clean ourselves up to become presentable to God. We don’t earn it through physical effort, the self-denial and self-punishment that characterizes so much religious activity. We don’t earn it at all.

This is such good news. God has delivered all things to Jesus. Jesus is the answer to the deepest need and longing of our hearts; to be found once again in our long lost garden of fellowship with our Creator. Jesus is the revelation of God to us and he calls us to quit turning over the same unfruitful furrows and to submit to his lordship and learn from him. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

We don’t earn it. We bring no qualifications. We’re not the “best and the brightest”. This good news of rest from Jesus flies in the face of all the human wisdom, philosophy and striving that we have been immersed in our whole lives. But it is the only way to finally become what we were created to be: fully known and fully loved children of God.

Come to Jesus. He will give you rest.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-31 (ESV)

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen”

From today’s reading of Matthew 12:1-21, Mark 3, and Luke 6

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

– Matthew 12:15-21

Matthew here quotes from Isaiah’s great vision of Jesus in Isaiah 42:1-4. Isaiah’s prophetic utterance follows and contrasts with the Lord’s words about the futility of idols in the previous chapter which ends like this:

Behold, they are all a delusion;
their works are nothing;
their metal images are empty wind. – Isaiah 41:29

Is this not a message for the ages?

Behold, they [idols] are all a delusion, their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind.

Then . .

Behold my Servant!

Our idols are indeed an illusion, but most of us spend far too much of our time chasing after them, these shiny, metallic distractions of empty wind.

Why? We have a designed-in longing for Jesus, but fall easily for the counterfeit, many times because the counterfeit is easy, compared to what we perceive is the cost of following the Lord. But Isaiah cries out here, behold Jesus!

He is the only one who brings the justice that we desperately long for. Idols offer distractions and false hopes. Jesus has promised, and will in truth, make everything new and make everything right.

Our world is full of the noise of our idols. Behold Jesus; he is not brash, doesn’t raise a ruckus and a spectacle in the streets, doesn’t shout-down his opponents. Yet he is the Final Word, and will one day silence the noise.

From the heavens you uttered judgment;
the earth feared and was still,
when God arose to establish judgment,
to save all the humble of the earth. Selah – Psalm 76:8-9

And if you are broken, wounded and burned out; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench. He is the great Healer, and he will heal you.

“Many followed him, and he healed them all”

Behold him, and hope in his name.