Archive for the ‘Matthew’ Category

What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”

February 17, 2010

What does the adage "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first" have to do with the workers in the vineyard?

Reference: Matthew 20 Matthew 20:16

Question:

What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”  And what does it have to do with the parable of the vineyard workers?

Answer:

The meaning of Jesus’ curious statement about the first and last role reversal has everything to do with the parable that precedes it.  I have said in previous posts that parables should not be treated as strict allegories.  In other words, we should avoid assigning a specific meaning to every element of a parable.  However, there are some overwhelming first-century symbols that cannot be overlooked.  In this parable we find just such a symbol… the vineyard.  Remember, we need to hear this parable as the first century listeners would have heard it.  Considering that important interpretive note, the idea of the vineyard takes on a potent meaning that cannot be ignored.

The vineyard was an analogy for the people of Israel (see Isaiah 5 or Psalm 80). The vineyard was a symbol of Israel and its promised prosperity.  With this knowledge the message of the parable becomes much clearer.  Thus the workers who come late still get to take part in the reward of the vineyard and its owner. Jesus is communicating a radical message to the leaders and the people of Israel that says, ‘the Kingdom of God has been opened up to the Gentiles too’.  The nation of Israel may have been first, but that doesn’t mean that others cannot receive the blessing.

Thus, when Jesus says “those who are last now will be first, and those who are first will be last” we must interpret it in light of Jesus message about Jews and Gentiles.  This is more than just a comment on pride and humility.  Jesus is suggesting that the ones who show up later, the Gentiles, have just as prominent a place in the kingdom of God as the Jews.  The trouble is that this does not sit well with those who were already there.  In Verses 10 and 11 one can see the discontent of the workers who showed up first.  It is there that you get a sense of what it means for the first to be last.   For those who think they deserve more and they get less, it feels like losing.  But what Jesus is really saying is that there is no distinction between those who arrive early and those who arrive late (Jews and Gentiles respectively).

Today this message applies to the Church.  Sometimes the Church can be so closed off from the world.  The message for those of us who know Jesus already is that we should long for all people to partake in the same reward that we ourselves receive when we follow after Jesus.

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The Parable of the Wedding Feast. How do I interpret this parable?

February 3, 2010

Reference: Matthew 22:1-14

Original Question:

Could you please explain the end of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13. All the people who were coming to the feast  were wearing wedding clothes, except one. First, how did the guy without the clothes get into the feast? For us the feast means the feast in heaven and the wedding clothes are our new life in Christ. So can I get into heaven without putting on the new clothes?  Or was the reason to throw the man outside not for wearing the wrong clothes but because he couldn’t reply to the King’s question? He calls the man Friend, so he wasn’t mad at the beginning of the conversation.

Modified Question:

How do I interpret this parable (and others)?

A note on interpretation of parables:

The interpretation of parables is not an easy task, and this parable is considered by many to be THE MOST DIFFICULT to interpret.  Unfortunately parable interpretation is a difficult task that scholars have made even more difficult for centuries by ‘over interpreting’ the parables.  The tendency of most people (including historical smarties) is to apply allegory to the parable where it does not belong.  Allegory is a literary device that uses elements of a story to represent elements of real life.  The Wizard of Oz for example, is an allegory.  The Tin Man represents the industrial revolution, the Scarecrow represents the midwest farmer, etc.  Almost every character and setting in the story has some symbolic meaning.  Some parables have allegorical elements, but we must resist the temptation to allegorize the parables.  Usually they are simple stories that have a specific intent.  They are not all-encompassing allegories in which everything has some hidden meaning.  Jesus was not trying to speak in some hidden code.  Thus, in this parable, we should be slow to assign specific allegorical meanings to each element and instead ask the simple question, What is Jesus’ message here?

To do so though there are some things we need to know…

The Parable of the Feast in Matthew (an Explanation)

“Friend, where is your wedding garment” - 14th Century Russian icon of the 'Parable of the Feast'. Note the man on the right being bound and thrown out in the street.

First of all, we need to know WHO Jesus is talking to.  This will help a great deal with our understanding.  Remember, he’s not talking to us, though once we have come to an understanding of Jesus’ intent we can apply it to our lives.  For now though, Jesus is talking to some first century Palestinian audience.  Most likely he is addressing this parable to the religious leaders of Israel.  We can gather this given the context and tone of the previous parable, the immediate transition from the previous parable, and the opening of this parable “Jesus told them”, we can assume that “them” refers the religious leaders that he was already pissing off in chapter 21.

Secondly, we need to understand who this parable is about.  Like the previous parable in chapter 21, it is likely that this parable is also about the priests and Pharisees, though we might be able to apply this to the broader population of Israel.

Lastly, this parable is eschatological (see other posts dealing with eschatology).  It has to do with God’s coming kingdom.  We can gather this from the language of banquet and feast.  These terms would have been synonymous with the end times for first century listeners.  So also is the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” which would have been synonymous with judgment and the end.

Even with this little bit of knowledge we can begin to piece together the intent of this parable.  Essentially what Jesus is communicating to his listeners here is that it is often those who we may not expect who will be invited into the Kingdom.  Imagine what this would have been like for the Pharisees and teachers of the law to hear.  They think that they are a shoe-in for heaven, they think that they have lived there lives perfectly and all their ducks are in a row.  Jesus has other ideas though.  He sees a group of people who think that their merit and their Jewish-birth-status will earn them salvation.  They think that they are already there at the feast, but the reality is that they haven’t even responded to the invitation.

For us the message is simple. “The Kingdom is like a prepared banquet, and to refuse its invitation is to encounter judgment” (Snodgrass, 320).  It is a harsh message to be sure.  We would probably like it better if Jesus was more “nice guy” and just let everyone come without the whole destruction and killing part.  But remember that our God of grace and love is also a God of justice and judgment.

At the end of the parable we still need to deal with another part that can be a bit confusing.  The last 3 verses (Matt. 22:11-13) are thought by some to be part of another parable that was added on to this one.  Whether or not that is true, we still need to deal with the intent of what Jesus was trying to say, when he talks about a man who was at the feast without the proper clothes for the wedding feast.

Fortunately we have already dealt with who Jesus is addressing and to what the parable is referring.  In this apparent addendum to the parable we are dealing with a man who has shown up without proper wedding clothes.  Likely his clothes are his every day dirty clothes.  Some of us may be tempted to equate the wedding clothes of the other guests as “being clothed in the righteousness of Christ” or something similar, but that is the kind of allegorizing that we should avoid.  We need to deal with Jesus’ intent toward a first century Jewish audience, not our own external understanding and Christian imagery.  “What is important is that the man made no preparation to wear something fitting to the feast he chose to attend” (321).  Simply put, this man in his dirty clothes represents those unrighteous people who make no preparation for the coming Judgement of God.  Again, these are harsh themes, but they are important for us as we look toward the return of Christ and consider our own preparation and the pursuit of those who are far from God.

Because of the complexity, length, and two-part nature of this parable it has more than one theme.  It has three…

1. The refusal of Israel’s religious leaders to respond to the invitation to the banquet.

2. The gathering of the kingdom of God

3. The separation that takes place at Judgment.

There is no need to assign specific meaning to the man’s non-response at the end, or the king’s initial reference to him as ‘friend’.  The important thing is that he showed up for the banquet unprepared and he was Judged accordingly.  This is a hard teaching for us but the message for our lives should be very clear.  We need to be ready for the banquet.  Christ promised that he would come “and come quickly” (Revelation 22:12 NASB).  Our task is to ready our lives and the lives of others that we meet. Whether we like to hear about God’s Judgement or not does not make its reality any more or less real.  Fortunately, our salvation is based not on our merit but on Christ’s work on the cross.  Our readiness then, is the product of believing in him.  If we believe in him, our lives will reflect the kind of clothes we are supposed to be wearing to the banquet.

See Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass

Does Jesus show a preference to Jews over Gentiles?

February 2, 2010

Reference Verse: Matthew 15:22-28, Mark 7:24-30

Question:

Jesus’ reply is that he doesn’t help gentiles and only helps God’s people.  Why does he wait for her to beg and then reluctantly help her?

Answer:

Was Jesus rude to the Gentile woman?

As much as we would like to, we cannot remove Jesus from his culture.  He was a first century Palestinian man of the Jewish faith.  When we interpret Jesus we must interpret him through that lens.  Thus, we cannot come to scripture with our preconceived notions about how he is supposed to behave.  Ultimately such a thing almost is impossible to do, but as GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle”.  And when we interpret scripture, we need to know that Jesus doesn’t usually fit our mold, as much as we’d like him to.

Jesus’ response to this Canaanite woman (Syrophoenician in Mark) is a tough one to swallow for obvious reasons.  We usually have a picture in our mind of a warm and loving Jesus who tells stories to little Children.  But here he seems downright rude.  He basically refers to non-Jews, and this woman in particular as ‘dogs’.  Certainly not a term of endearment!  One of the interpretive difficulties that we face here is that we only have the text from which to judge the conversation.  There is no way to discern the tone of what Jesus and the woman are saying.

What if, perhaps, Jesus said this seemingly harsh response with a hint of sarcasm and a twinkle in his eye?  He replied to the woman’s request, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  To which the woman, with keen understanding about the culture, bantered back with Jesus wit for wit by saying “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  If looked at in a different light the conversation can take on a whole new character.

We often take Jesus’ tone to be so serious that we have a hard time imagining that he could have wit, or a sense of humor.  But given the woman’s response, and what we know to be true of Jesus love and compassion for the marginalized in society, this scenario is perfectly legitimate, and perhaps most likely.

That said though, we still need to wrestle with the issue of Jesus and his call to serve the Children of Israel first.  Remember, that the nation of Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all people (Genesis 12: 2-3; Galatians 3:8).  When Jesus came he was definitely not rejecting the Gentiles, on the contrary, he went out of his way to care for them (John 4) and they went out of their way to seek him for healing (Matthew 8:5-13).  Still though, Jesus was sent as a Jew, to the Jews.  He came urging the Children of Israel, and the leaders of Israel to remember their call to the nations.  In Mark 15 Jesus’ anger toward the teachers of the Law reached its limit when he overturned the tables in the temple.  This was not in response to the practice of selling things in the temple, it was in response to the fact that Gentiles were being excluded from Temple worship, even though the Temple was supposed to be “a house of worship for ALL nations.”  So clearly, Jesus was not exclusive in his teaching or healing, but still, his mission was to the Jews.  This was even reflected in his sending out of the 12 disciples in Matthew 10.  There he gave them explicit instructions only to go to the “lost sheep of Israel”.  Only later after Jesus death and resurrection would the message be sent to the rest of the world.  Jesus ministry was to the Jews, but the Holy Spirit and the Church would be given a mission to the whole world.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus says to his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But note that this was after his death and resurrection.  Through his blood, Jesus brought reconciliation to Jews and Gentiles.  So he could say to his disciples in Matthew 28, to “go into ALL the world”.

In the Gospel of John there is another strange interaction between Jesus and some Gentiles (John 12:20-23).  A group of ‘Greeks’ came seeking Jesus, but rather then speaking to them, Jesus speaks to His disciples and says “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory”.  Weird, right?   Something significant occurred when those Greeks showed up to see Jesus.  When these ‘unclean’ gentiles came to Jesus, it signified to him that something was about to happen, namely, his crucifixion.  Gentiles were coming to him, and it was time to make a way for them to receive the full blessing of Abraham.  Ultimately it would be Jesus death on the cross that would break down the barrier between the Jews and the rest of the world (See Galatians 3:26-29).

Jesus was a radical who did radical things.  And through him, dividing walls like those between Jews and Gentiles were torn down.  But we must be careful not to interpret Jesus inside the vacuum of our own limited understanding of culture and the world.

Why aren’t the disciples allowed to tell that Jesus is the Messiah?

January 28, 2010

Reference: Matthew 16:20

Question:

Why aren’t the disciples allowed to tell that Jesus is the Messiah?

Answer:

In the verses preceding Jesus’ command to the disciples that they should not tell anyone that he is the Messiah, we see two very good reasons why they shouldn’t.  In short, even if the disciples (namely Peter) are correct in their belief that Jesus is the messiah, that does not necessarily mean that they have any understanding of what that really means.  Following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus points to the fact that Peter did not come to this conclusion on his own (Matt 16:17).  Rather, it was from God that Peter understood this.  Without the Holy Spirit it would be impossible for the disciples to proclaim the truth about Jesus.

Thus, Jesus is basically saying, “hold off for now” but it’s only a few chapters later that Jesus is saying, “go tell the whole world”.  In chapter 16 however, they’re still not ready.  They still don’t have the full story about the Messiah, i.e. Jesus’ death and resurrection, and they still don’t have the Holy Spirit to sustain them in spreading that message.  Peter proves this only a couple verses later when he rebukes Jesus saying that he would never be put to death or raised to life (Matt. 16:21-22).  Unlike Peter and the disciples, we do have the whole story, and we do have the gift of the holy spirit, so to us Jesus does not say “don’t tell,” to us he says “tell everybody!” (Matthew 28:19-20).

What did Jesus mean when he said “many here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom?”

January 27, 2010

Reference: Matthew 16:28 “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Question:

What is this talking about? Is Jesus talking about his resurrection or about the 2nd coming?

Answer:

This question calls for me to use my favorite pseudo academic phrase.  Here it comes….are you ready?… “scholars have been debating this question for ages.”  There I said it, and it actually made me feel a little smarter, though it probably didn’t change the reality of my condition.  All that to say, I can tell you what I think, but there are other people who are way smarter than me who have come down on every side of this debate.

Let me cut to the chase, I don’t think that Jesus is talking about his resurrection here, nor do I think he is talking about his 2nd coming.  It seems unlikely that Jesus would say to his disciples and the others gathered there that “some” of them would be alive at his resurrection, especially since it only happened about a year or less following this event.  Similarly, it is unlikely that Jesus would be talking about the second coming because that hasn’t happened yet, and all the men and women who he was talking to are now dead.  Thus, Jesus must have been referring to some other significant event.  But what?

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 70 AD.

The statement is an eschatological one.  Thus it has to do with the coming of God’s kingdom, and the end times.  But note that Jesus does not say that, “they will see the Son of Man coming INTO his kingdom”, it says “they will see the Son of Man coming IN his kingdom.”  That little preposition is important.  It means that Jesus’ presence will be here IN his kingdom as it is made manifest here on earth, it does not mean that his kingdom is here and Jesus is coming INTO it.

So what significant event could Jesus be talking about here.  Clearly Jesus is referring to something that some of the people listening to Jesus will experience, but others will not.  It is toward this that I submit the 3rd interpretive option, the view that Jesus is referring to the distraction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD  This was an historically and escheat logically significant event that occurred about 40 years after Jesus spoke these words to the disciples.  Thus, many of those who were there would have lived to see the day that Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed.  Jesus himself predicted this very event in Matthew 24.  This event was significant in that it closed the chapter on Temple worship which was no longer necessary.  Jesus had become the temple, and his Holy Spirit had now been given to us, thus the temple was present with us and in the church.

Therefore, when the Temple was destroyed it was a powerful, eschatological, signifier that the kingdom of God was coming into the world, and Jesus is “IN his kingdom.”


Did Jospeh and Mary have sex after Jesus?

January 13, 2010

Question:

I was reading in Matthew 1:25 that Jospeh and Mary didn’t lay with one another until the birth of Jesus, so my question is.  We know that Jesus had siblings and it is implied that Joseph and Mary had sex according to Matthew 1:25, why do Catholics insist that Mary never had sex ever?

In matthew 1:23
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

Answer:

Mary is a very important figure in our faith, but it is important that we do not regard her more highly than we ought.

Yup.  I’m sure that the blessed mother and Joseph did their wild husband and wife thing after she had given birth to the Son of God.  Though I would imagine that they waited approximately 6 weeks in accordance with their doctor’s recommendations.

As you mentioned, Jesus did have other brothers and sisters.  The catholic tradition concerning the perpetual virginity of Mary has to do with a couple things.  One, catholics hold Mary in very high esteem, some merely in a Saint-like status, others likening her to a kind of deity.  This tradition existed from early church history some even believing that Mary was more than just a righteous woman, but a woman so beautiful that God himself was smitten with her.  Two, because of the low regard of the flesh, and sexual intercourse, as a result of the dualism of ancient Greek culture (i.e. soul = good, flesh = evil) it would have been hard for some early Christians to imagine that Mary had engaged in such a carnal activity as sexual intercourse.  This of course has hints of heresy all over it, it contradicts what we find in scripture (as pointed out above), and it disregards the high esteem that scripture holds for sex within the context of marriage.

Mary was not a deity, nor was she sinless, she was a young woman who was living her life in pursuit of God, and as such, she was blessed with one of the most unique and important blessings any woman has ever known.  But this blessing did not come without pain and suffering.  Like many other women who have experienced the tragedy of losing a child, Mary had to watch her own son butchered on a Roman torture device.  And while we believe that he rose again, the experience of watching her son executed must have been the most heart wrenching moment of her life.

Jesus did have brothers and sisters though (e.g. see Matt. 12:46, 13:55) and they weren’t born of a virgin, so you can do the math on that one. Some catholic scholars try to explain this away by calling into question the meaning of “brothers” in these texts, but these arguments come off as quite a stretch.

“I haven’t seen faith like this is all Israel!”

January 12, 2010

Question:

In Matthew 8:10 Jesus said that:”… I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!”  Since Jesus is God he’s been present since the be beginning of all time, does that mean the there’s never been somebody in Israel with faith like this officer?

Answer:

There are two things going on in this question.  One is a question of Jesus’ omnipresence (presence everywhere all the time), and one is a question of the centurion’s faith.  But what is the verse about?  That is the most important thing.

Jesus uses the Centurion as an example of great faith.

There is no doubt from scripture that Jesus was omnipresent God, present from before the very beginning.  In John 8:58 Jesus says, “before Abraham was born, I am”.  This is not only a statement of Jesus’ deity, but of his presence all places at all time.  But Matthew 8:10 is not a moment where Jesus is trying to emphasize his omnipresence, rather it is a moment where he is trying to emphasize the centurion’s great faith.  The response of people hearing Jesus say these words would not have been, “wow, this guy must really be faithful because Jesus is God and he would really know who the most faithful person in history is.”  No, their response would have been, “really?!?! a gentile? a roman centurion has greater faith then a jew?!?”  Jesus statement has shock value because he is not only pointing out that a non-Jew can have real faith, but he is also indicting the Jew’s around him who have not seen him for who he really is.  Instead, the least likely of people has correctly identified Jesus as the God and Lord that he is.


Why is it so important for us to understand that God was fully human and fully God?

January 7, 2010

Question: Why is it so important for us to understand that God was fully human and fully God?   It seems like there is a lot of confusion by other religions on this one.  Isn’t the Bible clear on this one?

Answer: Scripture is very clear that Jesus was fully God and fully human, and this is one of the foundational pieces of our faith.  But that’s not the question here, the question is “why is that important?”  Like the doctrine of the Trinity it is very difficult to understand, but very important to our faith.  Below are some reasons why.

Heresies about Jesus’ nature, and their problems…

1) Jesus is not human because the physical world is evil:  This heresy has existed since the first century.  It suggests that the physical world, including our flesh, is evil but the spiritual world is good.  This is a common view among ancient Greeks.  Thus how could Jesus be a part of the physical world if he is God?  This view goes directly against the fact that God created us and said that we were “very good.”  Jesus came to redeem creation not reinforce the idea that it is evil.

2) Jesus only appeared to be human:  Another danger of the belief that Jesus was not human is that it suggests that Jesus likely would not have experienced the pain and anguish of human life and death.  This could lead to the belief that Jesus only faked or acted out the pain and suffering of his death on the cross which goes directly agains one of the core elements of our faith.  Jesus suffered and died, he lived and experienced our pain, and took on the pain of crucifixion for the sake of those he loved.  Not to mention that if he only appeared to die they what need is there for a resurection, and if there is no resurrection there is no hope for all of us who are under condemnation.

3) Jesus was a human adopted by God: This heresy (called adoptionism) is the idea that Jesus was not God but was a human adopted by God.  In other words, he was a very special human.  These people often hold to the idea that Jesus was a good example for us because he was such a good man.  This view is very dangerous though because it robs the Gospel of all its power.   The Gospel says that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation, it is a gift from God through His Son Jesus.  This view reduces the ‘gospel’ to self-salvation which is no gospel at all.  It’s the idea that by following the example of a good man we can be saved, but this is completely contradictory to our faith.

Those only represent a few of the problems/heresies that have threatened the true understanding of Jesus Christ.  It is important that we not make Jesus anything less then God neither can we make him anything less than human.

“If Jesus Christ was not God there would be no particular reason to suppose he cannot be surpassed.  People who settle for a merely functional [theology of Christ] will inevitably begin looking for another Christ or at least allowing for a the possibility of many Christs…at the same time, we must remember that he was and is not only truly human, but also the true human.  From Jesus Chrsit we learn not only the will and Character of God but also our own humanity” (Olson, 242).

That is precisely the reason why Matthew starts off his Gospel with a geneology from Adam to Jesus.  It points to his humanity.  It starts with the first, yet corrupted, human and ends with the perfected human in Jesus.

Reference from The Mosaic of Christian Belief, Roger E. Olson

Was Herod the king jealous that baby Jesus was born? Why?

January 1, 2010

Question: Was Herod the king jealous that baby Jesus was born?  Why?

Yes.  Herod was a puppet king, placed in power by the Roman Empire.  But he was a king non-the-less, and like most kings he wanted more power not less power.  Then out of the east come some wise men on pimped out camels and fancy gifts, and these guys didn’t come to see king Harod, they came to see some other king.  Can you imagine what he was thinking?  Another king?!? Here?!?!

Jesus represented a new Kingdom, and his coming (though misunderstood) represented a threat to other powers, be they kings like Herrod, or spiritual authorities like the Pharisees and teachers of the law later in the gospel.  It was more than just jealousy that Harod felt as he ordered the massacre of hundreds of babies in Jerusalem, it was fear.  Fear of losing what was most important to him, his power.