Series Theme: Analogies & Parables in Matthew's Gospel
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 1. Salt
Mt 5:13 You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
I have entitled this series ‘Analogies & Parables' because I know that some people include any ‘teaching picture' in a list of Jesus' parables and yet it seems to me that mostly Jesus real parables were mini-stories, but he didn't limit himself to just using such mini-stories to illustrate his teaching, he also used pictures or analogies as well. An analogy in a dictionary is “a resemblance in some aspect which the imagination finds in two or more things that are essentially different”. In our starting one we find Jesus calling us ‘salt' We are not sodium chloride but he is teaching us that something about our lives, as his followers, will be similar to the effects and usages of salt.
The fact that Matthew writes, “ Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable,” (Mt 13:34) means we should not be surprised that in his Gospel there are about forty of these analogies and parables. Now there are various things that naturally flow out of this verse above.
First , in this opening analogy, Jesus speaks to his followers and starts with the word, “You” which sounds fairly obvious but whatever he means by calling us salt, he means we , and not unbelievers, are salt, i.e. salt is different from non-salt, we are to be different from non-believers. Now, as I say, this may sound somewhat obvious but some believers are ashamed of being different from their non-Christian neighbour and the reason for that, I suggest, is that they have never taken in the reality of the person Jesus has made them when they came to him and were born again. The presence of the Holy Spirit, indwelling us, means that we will automatically be different as we allow Him to live out Jesus' life from within us. This is a fundamental starting point.
Second , later in the verse, he speaks of this chemical that has lost its saltiness being “ no longer good for anything,” which puts the emphasis on salt being used to do good. Jesus' point in this Sermon on the Mount, starting here in chapter 5 of Matthew, is that believers, his followers, are to have a good effect in this world. This is a ‘Fallen World' now Sin prevails in it since the Fall, but Jesus is not happy to leave it like that. When he died on the Cross he didn't just do it to save individuals (although that was part of it), he did it so that those individuals who were saved would have an effect on this world, an effect that changes this world for good. When we look back, particularly to the last two centuries, at the lives of Christians and what they achieved, we see there were those concerned to educate the illiterate, who were some of the first to establish proper schools, we see those who were moved by compassion for the sick who set up hospitals, and in more recent decades, hospices for those terminally ill to be lovingly cared for, and we see those who were concerned at abuse of workers who were some of the first to establish unions to counter those abuses. In many and varied ways, the Christian Church has worked into society and brought good for all.
Third , continuing with what salt does, we see that it can have a purifying effect because of its own purity which was esteemed in ancient days. In the same way that light pushes back darkness (which we'll see in the next study) so our purity can have a purifying effect in the community to which we belong. Our love, our goodness, our compassion, our honesty, our integrity, all these things have a purifying effect where we are out there in the midst of our community, when people know the reason why we hold to all of these things – we are Jesus' followers.
Fourth , and flowing on from that, salt was used as a preservative in ancient times, and our presence, likewise, in society is to have a preserving effect. Sadly we have not been very good at that in the past century or so which is why our influence has become less in many parts of the world, and in many situations we have been marginalized. This is not so only in places around the globe where the Holy Spirit has been allowed to enliven the Church and its witness. We need to regain a closeness with the Lord whereby His love, His power and His revelation is seen in our lives, impacting the world around us and preventing decline as well as purifying.
Fifth , a third effect or usage of salt is to lend flavour to things. Is the reality of our local community that our presence is welcomed, our presence adds something which is really good for society? In a world of stress that desperately turns to ‘mindfulness' techniques from Eastern religion, do those around us find we are those who come with peace and serenity? In a world that takes millions of tablets to stave off depression, do those around us find we are a people of joy and lightness? This is the flavouring effect.
Sixth , modern science tells us that a right balance of salt in our diet is essential for health and wellbeing. It seems there is always controversy about how much. At the time of writing a recent study has challenged the long-held belief that too much salt raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and has said that too little will do that. So do our lives bring a balanced input bringing health and well-being to our communities?
Seventh , there are disputes among scientists as to whether salt can genuinely loose its saltiness but perhaps the truth is that when sodium chloride is affected by other chemicals it ceases to be pure sodium chloride and so Jesus' point remains – unless we hold to the characteristics of salt, we will lose our impact on this world, the impact Jesus wants us to have. Other people seek to change the world for good by politics or by charitable works, but outside of Christ these things tend to self-centred and godless effort and fail to bring true life to the world that only Jesus can bring. Ultimately, it is Jesus in us, the Holy Spirit in us, when given free reign in our lives, who brings these various effects of salt to bear on our world. What does this simple little analogy say? We are designed to be world changers. May we be that!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 2. Light
Mt 5:14-16 You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
In these three verses Jesus uses 3 analogies and then concludes with an instruction. The three are light, a city, and a lamp on a lampstand. Now most Christians are aware of Jesus' own claim, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” (Jn 8:12) but fewer are sure that Jesus said, “YOU are THE light of the world” to US, to all his followers. In order to unpack this amazing claim we should perhaps ask, 1. What does light do? 2. How can we say we are the light of the world, what is our source of light? and then 3. How does that work out in practical terms in everyday life?
1. What does light do? In its very simplest way, light illuminates otherwise dark places to reveal what is there. Now there are various outworkings or results of that, but that is basically what light does. So what are those outworkings. Imagine you wake up after a long period of being in a coma and you are in absolute darkness, and then suddenly a light is turned on. What happens?
Well first of all the light shows up what is there, how things are, what is going on around you, if you like. Light reveals the condition of the room or the world, the state of the world that was previously hidden in the dark. Now from that, second , light therefore reveals a) what is bad and b) what is good, in the world (room) round about you. (Remember, we are only dealing with general principles first of all.) Also, third , light will show how movement is possible, where you can go. In the dark, possibilities are unclear. As soon as a light is turned on – or the sun comes out – pathways become clear and obvious, a door from the room becomes obvious.
2. What is Our source of light? Well obviously it is Jesus or, to be more precise, the Holy Spirit living within us. If we are to ‘shine' it is to be him through us. Of myself, I have nothing that can shine in the dark, but with him within me I will shine in the dark. Because he is the light of the world and because he lives in us, we become the light of the world. We aren't usurping his position to say that, we are just letting him express himself through us, thus revealing light.
3. How does this work practically? Well, we said that light reveals the world, reveals what is good and bad and also reveals possibilities for change and movement. So, OK, first we reveal that the real world is not only material. It is both material and spiritual. Our lives are to have a spiritual dimension, a spiritual expression that says to the watching world, “Hey, this is reality, are you experiencing this and if not, would you like to?” Second , by the love and goodness of our lives we will a) show up others (not to be negative but to show that ‘bad' contrasts with our ‘good') and b) show there is an alternative to their ‘bad'; it is possible with God's directing and empowering and enabling to live ‘good'! Third , by presenting a good, wholesome example or alternative to so much of what is happening around us – and why we can be living like this – we reveal a possibility that can be reached out for, a relationship with God that was made possible by Jesus dying on the Cross and his Holy Spirit now being available for us today.
So much for the basics, but that is just the first phrase. What is this about a city on a hill and a lamp on a lampstand? Well they are both illustrations of putting light where it can be seen, and where it can shine out over a bigger area. To the person whose inclination is to hide away and keep out of sight, and to the recluse who wants to go and live in the desert to avoid the pollution of the ‘world', this comes as a direct challenge: get out there where you can be seen, be the person God has called you to be, full of love, full of grace, full of goodness, full of humility, but full of courage and boldness. Shine! Don't be ashamed of who you are. You are in fact God's poster-people, those He wants to display to the world.
Yes, those we show up will be defensive and hostile but that is more their problem than ours. Others will see and think and ponder and realise they are unhappy with the life they live and wonder about yours and why you are like you are – and they may just ask, what is it that makes you like you are? That's why the apostle Peter wrote, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15)
That needs a little thought and preparation. Think how you can give a short testimony of how you have experienced God's love, in a gentle and respectful way, not brash or arrogantly. Think how you can tell that it has been a learning exercise, to realise God is there for you and that He loves you, that you can learn about Him from His word, and talk to Him in prayer. Some people are hard-hearted and callous about God and won't want to know, but others, those who ask you questions, have seeking hearts. They are the ones who, when they see what you do or say, and the way you do it or say it, may be stirred by your “good deeds” and open their hearts to Him and become one who praise and glorify Him.
To conclude, if you want to see a classic response to the amazing testimony of God's good provision, read the Queen of Sheba's response to King Solomon when she went to visit him. Find it in 1 Kings 10:6-9. Solomon not only demonstrated the wonder of what God had done, but by her language it is clear that he had explained to her all about the One he followed, and as he shared, she believed. That was light being shed.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 3. Treasures in Heaven
Mt 6:19-21 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
There are fine lines in Jesus' teaching between analogies and practical teaching. We said analogies are word pictures that convey a truth. Parables are word stories that convey a truth. Then there is what we might call ‘extreme' or exaggerated teaching to make a point. Since our previous study, in Matthew there is talk about being dragged to court (5:25,26) and Jesus' listeners would have understood that picture but it is a real one that can arise with relational breakdowns. Then there was the suggestion of gouging out your eye (5:29) or cutting off your hand (5:30) but these are just extremes that Jesus might not want us to go to, but are nevertheless real possibilities that convey the seriousness of what he is talking about – but they are not analogies.
In speaking of both material and spiritual values, in our verses above we have a half-way example. Verse 19 refers to real, material, practical treasure, not the sort of thing from pirates' tales, but anything on which we place immense value: our houses, our cars, our expensive possessions etc. But I believe these ‘earthly treasures' can include fame, celebrity status, success in worldly terms. When you get old and infirm none of these things are of any value to you; rich food is forbidden you, flashy clothes hang badly on you, a big house means there is more space for you to hobble into but not enjoy, and a flashy car is only good to be driven in by another.
But then we come to talk about “treasures in heaven” and here we move away from material things to spiritual things, and we need to think what the picture of material treasures conveys to help us understand what spiritual treasures might be. But first let's emphasise and highlight this other dimension. First, our lives as Christians are all about how we relate to God. Teaching on a rich foolish man who dies before he can enjoy his possessions, Jesus taught, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Lk 12:21) Look at that expression, “rich toward God”. The JB Phillips version speaks of “not rich where God is concerned”.
As much as God has provided a wonderful world for us to live in and enjoy, a material world, the things He values in us are not material, they are spiritual. The apostle Peter wrote about this other dimension, this other way of thinking about life: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you.” (1 Pet 2:3,4) Whatever of lasting value will not be found in this material world, but in eternity, and that is our hope, our inheritance we look forward to. So what are the contrasts between the material and spiritual values.
1. Self versus God: The very first thing that comes to mind, that speaks about values in the two worlds, is our relationship with God. The unbeliever spends their whole life in godless pursuit of ‘things' that will bring pleasure to them, things we've already suggested above. Imagine in your street where you live there are two people, a next door neighbour who becomes your best friend, and with whom you spend much time and get to know very well, and another person down the road who has only remained on nodding acquaintance with you, who refused your overtures of friendship. Suppose they both emigrated to the other side of the world, both to the same town. Now imagine years passing and you visit that place on the other side of the world and make a point of looking up your old friend. When you see each other. you hug and smile and laugh and all the wealth of your long friendship comes to the fore and you are exchanging memories and enquiring about the intervening years and so on. Now, out and about you happen to come across the other person and there is mutual recognition. You pause and express pleasure politely but it has nowhere to go because there is little between you, you are poor in terms of relationship. Isn't this how it is with God today – and when we see Him face to face?
2. Getting versus giving: The Jews of Jesus' day knew this ‘treasures in heaven' expression and one of the things they understood was that a life of value was a life of giving – giving hospitality, showing care and compassion, meeting the needs of others. While the person of the world is focusing on getting and achieving, to build personal pleasure or personal kudos, the citizen of the kingdom of heaven places themselves at the disposal of the King of Kings, to bless His heart and to bless those He sends them to. For some it will be to help the poor, for others helping the disabled, for others helping the aged, and so on. But it will always be God-focused, God-directed, otherwise it is simply activity to please the self.
3. Character: The other thing the Jews understood about values, was that true values had to do with character. It starts, as we've just seen, with either being self-centred or God or others-centred. To use another analogy, I think it is like our lives being a tree of self. All the fruits that grow on it are fruits of self: pride, arrogance, selfishness, anger, lust, greed, covetousness and so on (see a list in Col 3:5-9). When we come to Christ, this tree with all its ‘treasures' (for those were the things we valued and held onto) is cut down and a new tree starts to grow in its place. The only trouble is that those old fruits want to be born again to new shoots and so in the apostle Paul's terms we have to “put them to death” and consider us dead to them (see Rom 6), but it is a lifetime process, coming to recognize these shoots that make an appearance and need dealing with. At the same time the new tree grows with new fruit, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, forgiveness etc (see Col 3:12-14). All of these new fruits are also ‘treasures' that please the Father.
I have recently studied afresh the end time as shown in the book of Revelation and paused up over the phrase, “the book of life” (Rev 20:12) which is the record of our lives. Although I think this prophetic picture isn't about a literal book but is about the knowledge that God has of us throughout our years of existence, I believe it will be a record of all the ‘treasures' we have accumulated in the spiritual realm – the many ways we responded to God in faith, the way our hearts of love for Him developed, the way we took His promptings and blessed others, the way our character changed over the years, these are the things that are important to God and will be shown to be things of everlasting value, that will help make us the eternal beings we will be. Like the next door neighbour in my illustration, when we eventually meet with God, it will be all these sorts of things that will be the things He reminds us of, and praises us for, these are the things we take into the place “on the other side of the world” that mean anything there. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 4. The Lamp of the Body
Mt 6:22,23 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
In our two verses above there is a whole bundle of ideas packaged in picture form. The first one describes the eye as a lamp. Let's just stop it there a moment. A lamp sheds light, it illuminates, as we saw in a previous study. Now this lamp illuminates the body. What does that mean? What do our eyes do? Light hits the back of them and is basically transferred to the brain where it is translated into images. This ‘lamp', our eyes, illuminates our mind, our thinking, but here's the thing, we already have a whole bunch of what are called ‘presuppositions', assumptions we already have, beliefs about a whole range of ideas. Now we sometimes talk about people being ‘open' or ‘closed' to new ideas and so when our eyes pick up new things the mind is either open or closed to what it is seeing.
The Message version's paraphrase starts these two verses as, “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light.” That's lovely. The more you are open to what you see, and yes, you may question what you see, but that is different from rejecting it outright, the more there is likely to be light (understanding) shed in you. Two people can see the same thing and interpret it differently. The mind interprets what the eye sees. Atheists, for example, tend to despise Christians as muddle headed, deceived idiots, instead of seeing goodness, kindness, love, hope, wisdom, generosity etc. They fail to see all those good things.
The reality of what Jesus is teaching in these verses is that when your eyes pick up something (you see) and the mind translates what it sees, it can either be good or bad. The ‘light' coming through your eyes is translated by your mind and so the state of your mind is critical. In natural terms cataracts hinder light getting to the receptors at the back of the eye, they distort vision, they distort what the mind ‘sees'. Now when we are faced with people or circumstances, there are similarly things that will distort what we are seeing, things that will skew our understanding. Things that distort are prejudice, jealousy, self-centredness, low self-esteem, defensiveness, unforgiveness. All of these are revealed by the way we think of and talk about others – who are poor, different, rich, celebrities, people we like or dislike. (and the reasons for those responses may be completely illogical.)
The light you and I get is a combination of the light waves that hit our receptors plus the understanding our mind gives to what it sees. If our mind is full of anger, hatred, bitterness, hostility etc. then Jesus calls this ‘darkness'. Remember in a previous study we spoke about darkness as an experience that shuts down our lives, hindering us living freely, stopping us going where we want, doing whatever we want, being a different people; darkness locks us in, it acts as a prison. All those things above that we said distort our vision – prejudice, jealousy, self-centredness, low self-esteem, defensiveness, unforgiveness, anger, hatred, bitterness, hostility – all these things lock us down, inhibit us, stop us growing and developing. Whatever ‘light' appears to come in through our eyes, is immediately shut down by these things and that light is in fact, darkness. Our verses above concluded, If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! The JBP version puts it, “ If all the light you have is darkness, it is dark indeed!” The Message version puts all this together and says, “ If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!”
So when Jesus speaks about our eyes, he really means our sight combined with the understanding we have. If that understanding is locked down by prejudice and all the other things we've listed, then whatever gets put before us, whatever we see, is distorted, is turned to darkness, bad, negative thoughts. The Internet has allowed us to see this so clearly. Go to so many chat-rooms or follow the comments at the end of newspaper articles and, if it is the first time you've ever done it, you'll be shocked by the hostility, the anger and the bitterness that is so often poured out of minds that are closed except to their own tunnel-vision view of life.
The truth is that life can be harsh, it can be unfair and it can leave us wounded, and it can, therefore, leave us with distorted vision. Without naming names, I have observed the public comments of more than one crusading atheist and seen their perceptions distorted by bad childhood experiences. What follows is a life of tunnel vision where they focus all their energies, not on studying the evidence with an open, intelligent mind, but on propping up their tunnel-vision views. I have come across great Christian thinkers who just shake their heads in disbelief at some of the amazing things that come from distorted vision of these locked-down atheists.
In these two verses Jesus is giving a warning with such graphic language but it is picture language that really needs thinking about and for the hard-hearted or close-minded that will not happen. Sometimes people need a crisis to bring them to the end of themselves before they will allow light to change their thinking. Some may never let that happen, but others will. Our role is simply to be light, as we saw previously, to give people the best opportunity to see something good from God, something that might just penetrate the darkness which at the moment locks them down, something that may truly help bring changed thinking that results in an opening up to the Lord.
So to conclude: for ourselves, check yourself out and make sure you have none of those negatives we spoke of earlier that will inhibit your life, inhibit your understanding and distort all you see or hear - prejudice, jealousy, self-centredness, low self-esteem, defensiveness, unforgiveness, anger, hatred, bitterness, hostility. If you recognize any of those things confess them to the Lord and ask Him to rid you of them, by helping you understand the wonder of just who you are, loved by Him with a purpose and a plan He has for you for good.
In respect of other people, perhaps people who you have shared with in the past, but with no fruit, persevere and pray and seek to be the very best witness of the love of God that you can be. Seek Him for His grace, His power and His revelation to be that, and then watch this space! He will not only work through you, but start bearing down on that person so that eventually they will one day say, “I see it! I can see! That's wonderful” Believe it, pray for it, work for it, and expect it. Amen? Amen!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 5. The Plank & the Speck
Mt 7:3-5 "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.”
These three verses, which are fairly obvious at first sight in what they say, actually get their meaning from the two verses that precede them: “ Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Mt 7:1,2) That is Jesus' basic teaching: don't judge others. Why? Well, two answers are given, the one (v.3-5) following the other (v,1,2) and it is important to see both.
The first reason (v.1,2) why we should not judge others, is because even as you judge others, so God will then judge you. When you dare to judge others you present yourself before God and He will check your worthiness to judge. He knows about the other person already, but now we are causing Him to look at us and weigh us. The moment He dangers, I have concluded after watching this for many years, is that those of us who are leaders and does this, the second reason comes into play: we're probably just as bad if not worse than that person we are judging. This is what the picture language in our three verses above conveys. Let's look more closely.
The focus of this picture is yet again the eye. In the previous study we read, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” (Mt 6:22) and we considered how the eye here means both the light waves being received plus the interpretation of them by the mind, and together they speak of how we receive things into our lives and how we respond to them. So the subject of Jesus' present teaching looks at this other person and identifies some character fault in them. They are critical of them.
Now Jesus is the master-teacher and he observes something in human behaviour that I have seen at various times in people: those who are critical of others so often think they have the answers to the others: “you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,” (v.4). One of the biggest counselors, are tempted to think that we are God, we have all the answers to the misdemeanors of the flock! There are two stages in observing those around us: first, there is discerning where they are in Christ and, second, what we then do with that. Let me explain further.
Many years ago when I was a young Christian, the Lord allowed me to run a Sunday evening activity in my flat (apartment); this was long before I was married, and each Sunday evening about forty young people congregated there and we did (as Wimber said) the ‘stuff'. We sang, we worshipped, we listened to God and so on. Now here's the thing: as every person arrived and came through my front door, I ‘knew' exactly where they were at with God. Now this was all so new to me that I just took this for granted and didn't try and do anything with what I knew. Today, after many years experience, I recognize I have revelatory gifting. I used to think I had the answer for people, but today I have learned better – He has. My role today is simply to love people with God's love. That may mean simply accepting them as they are, it may mean simply listening to them, it may mean simply being a friend, it may mean bringing a word of encouragement, or it may mean bringing a word of revelation to strengthen, build or comfort – but only as He leads, as He inspires.
What have I learned over the years? We've all got defective sight! I'm not sure what mine is at this moment, but I can guarantee that I have a speck or a plank in my own eye; the trouble is that until God points it out, we're not aware of it. Having said that, many people are self-aware, they do know that everything is not perfect. Whenever I ask someone, “Hi, how are you?” if they know me and trust me, they may be honest enough to say, “Well, mostly OK, but you, know, not everything is perfect,” and I take steps to help them realise that we're all the same, so no judgment, but should they need help, I'm there for them.
What are likely specks or planks, things that hinder our vision, things we probably even aren't aware of? Well, on the basis of the way Jesus is teaching here, they tend to be things that build our ‘superiority' – I'm all right, I would never sin, I could never deny Jesus, I don't need any help, my marriage is perfect, my kids are perfect, my job is perfect, anything in fact that inhibits us seeing reality, life as it really and truly is. And why do we have and tolerate and perhaps ignore these things? Because in one way or another we are insecure, we are not totally convinced of God's love for us, we may come from a church that preaches law rather than grace and so deep down, when we are given all these goals – you ought or you should – we find we fail or don't achieve them and are left feeling guilty, and guilt is so often accompanied by fear (fear of being found out, fear of being revealed as a less-than-perfect person demanded by the preacher) and guilt and fear are the two greatest stumbling blocks to love and faith.
How can we remove such specks (small things) or deal with planks (big habit or attitude issues)? First of all realise you are loved by Jesus exactly as you are – he knows everything there is to know about you and your foibles and failures and he still loves you. (Yes, he wants to help you with them, but he still loves you as you are at this moment – with them!) Second, be honest about your less-than-perfect side. Face the truth. Here is something I would like to deal with. Third, share with a friend and ask them to pray for you. Often sharing such things puts them in perspective and helps us see ways through to dealing with them. But remember, the first ‘plank' may be a condescending attitude that looks down on lesser mortals around us, negatively assesses them and knows ‘just what they need'. That needs removing first, and it is probably only with God's grace and revelation, so talk to Him about it first – and then watch the transformation. Be blessed.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 6. Pigs and Pearls
Mt 7:6 "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”
I think we sometimes take for granted what we read and if things don't appear to ‘flow' we just accept them as separate ideas that come into the minds of the writers. What, for instance, is the connection between this present verse and what has just gone before it?
In the start of what in our Bibles is chapter 7, Jesus has instructed us not to judge others (v.1,2). Then he gave a picture warning about the fact that when we do judge we forget the things that are wrong in our own lives (v.3-5) and so we arrive at verse 6 which brings balance to Jesus' teaching and might be summed up as, “But nevertheless, be discerning!” Looking back at verse 1 this would clarify the meaning to be, “Don't write off other people,” and goes on, “for the minor things in their lives when you have bigger problems yourself.” So how do we get to that?
In this picture-filled verse we have on one side things that are sacred and pearls, and then on the other side, not to give such things to dogs or pigs who will have no appreciation of them, and will even destroy them. Sacred things and pearls are easy; they are simply things that are precious, things of great value, things we should be careful how we handle, careful to look after.
Dogs, in Jesus day, were more often than not, not pets but wild, feral creatures living in the streets, scuffing in the mud looking for food scraps. If there were dogs in domestic use, they would be kept outside and used for guard purposes. Scripture has references to dogs snarling and cleaning up refuse on the streets (see Psa 59:6, Ex 22:31, 2 Kings 9:36). Indeed they came to be used as terms of abuse of enemies. Even in the New Testament they are used in a derogatory manner (see Phil 3:2, Rev 22:15). Pigs, of course, were a rejected meat and their behaviour in a sty is well known, scuffing in the mud and filth. Jesus can't really find any worse examples of those who scuff in the mud and are careless about what they encounter. It is almost like he is saying, “Can you think of worse place to leave or even lose your most precious things? You know how these two creatures would treat them, so whatever you do, be discerning and don't leave your sacred things and your things of great value to those who will have no respect whatsoever for them but will simply scuff them in the mud until they are either destroyed or lost.”
So who are such people? Does this refer to the Gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God ? Is Jesus saying don't share with some people. There is a little instruction that appears three times in the Song of Solomon: “ Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.” (Song 2:7, 3:5, 8:4) i.e. love is something that grows, that awakens so don't push it (lover) until the other is ready. There is a suggestion that times change in the life of a person and we need to be sensitive to those changes. Thus, if you watch the life of a person over many years, you may see that, whereas they were totally hard against the Gospel in their earlier years, as they have got older and wiser, they have come to see their need and become more open to listen. When we realise this, we realise how important it is when we desire to be Jesus' witnesses, that we learn to catch the leading of the Holy Spirit, for otherwise we will plough in and seek to sow seeds of faith on ground that is utterly hard and maybe even covered with thistles and thorns, things that utterly oppose our message. (see Mt 13:18-23)
There will be some people whose hearts are utterly hard and whatever God does, they will not turn. Pharaoh who opposed Moses was one such person. We might say, however, that even such people deserve to hear the challenge from God, but even with them it is imperative that we take the Lord's leading at every step.
Jesus himself demonstrated this. With doubting Thomas Jesus gave him a second chance (Jn 20:24-28) because he knew him and knew given another chance, he would believe. With Peter who had utterly failed Jesus, he spoke words of renewal to him in a different place, later on, knowing Peter would rise again (see Jn 21). But then contrast this with Herod who had heard the message a number of times (Mk 6:20). Jesus, knowing he was closed, said not a word to him (Lk 23:9). When Jesus sent his disciples out, he instructed them not to waste their time on those who rejected their message (Mt 10:14-16). Later the apostle Paul was to adopt the same approach – share the word, and when it is rejected, move on! (Acts 13:45,46, also 18:5,6).
The same message comes through a number of times and in different ways in the New Testament: be discerning, sense who the Lord is sending you to, and if your word is rejected, move on, there are plenty of other people out them to speak to. How often, I wonder, do we get bogged down in evangelism in our churches because we target one group and despite rejection stay focused on them, while perhaps another group is far more open and we are missing them. Jesus' teaching is clear: don't judge people and write them off, but on the other hand be discerning and recognize people are at different stages of openness (and this does change with time) and so don't keep on sharing the gospel when it is being rejected, but move on to the next person Jesus wants to put before you. Yes, maybe, one day, possibly after the passing of years, you may be able to go back to that prior person whose heart is now open. Work on the long-term, be discerning – like Jesus.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 7. The Father's Provision
Mt 7:9-11 "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Again we need to see the context to catch the full import of these three verses. Immediately before Jesus has encouraged his followers: “ Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Mt 7:7,8) Immediately before that, as we saw in the previous study, he had spoken of us not dropping what we had that was sacred, or our ‘pearls', before dogs or pigs, and that might lead some to think, “Hold on, what have I got that is sacred, what have I got that are the equivalent of precious pearls?” That leads us to realise that there is more in the Christian life to be appropriated than we have at the moment – and this is always true, there is always more to come from the Lord.
But how do you get this ‘more'? By asking, by seeking, by knocking on God's door, so to speak. The tense of those verbs is ongoing so it means keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. Now many people don't realise this and they settle for what they have and settle into a state of inactivity and immobility, but the truth is that we are called to be seekers. Why doesn't the Father just give it without us asking? Well asking is a sign of spiritual health and it also brings about a closeness in relationship with the Father so, yes, as we mature there is always this balance, there is always this tension between being contented with what God has made us but a yearning for more of Him, more of the expression of His kingdom, more of the experience of His Holy Spirit.
But there is a problem. Now in this year of writing (2017) there has arisen a new term used in the media – false news, or fake news. It means things that are said publicly as if they were true but in reality they are false. Now in spiritual warfare this is nothing new for the Bible tells us that Satan is a deceiver; he deceived Eve at the start and he seeks to deceive whoever will listen to him. Now many of us have listened to him unwittingly and so we have heard such ‘fake news' as “God is a harsh, judgmental God. God doesn't love you, you are a nobody, you are a failure in life, nobody loves you.” And all of that is untrue! But people believe it, which is why Jesus spoke out the words in our verses above.
He has just encouraged us to be seekers of more, to keep on asking and keep on knocking at God's door but the problem is that we are reticent to ask because we've listened to the enemy's ‘fa ke news' and we need to get over that. So Jesus asks us to think about any normal family: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”
Imagine the picture. A little child comes in tired and hungry from school, say, and says, can I have something to eat please? The father goes outside, picks up a rock and brings it in and places it on a plate and puts it in front of him on the table. Oh, come on, Jesus' listeners would have protested, no dad would do that! OK, replies Jesus, let's change the picture then, let's make it a living thing. The child asks for a fish and so dad goes out and finds a snake and puts it on a plate before him. Oh, come on!!! A loving dad wouldn't do that!
OK, says Jesus, think about this. There's nothing special about this dad, he's the same as any other human being, a sinner, basically evil when it comes to it. Now you are telling me that this dad wouldn't ever do something so unkind to his son, so why do you think your Father in heaven is less than this dad? Why is Father going to hold back on giving good gifts to His children when an earthly father doesn't do that? We might add, think of all the evidence of the whole Bible that tells us that God has blessed and blessed and blessed His people. Think of all the good He has done for you. Think of the salvation He has granted you – earned by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, imparting sonship, forgiveness, cleansing, righteousness, and power, teaching and direction of the Holy Spirit. All this was free, you didn't do anything to earn it. You didn't go looking for it, He came looking for you, He initiated everything.
This is a serious argument. Why do so many of us think, I'm nobody, I'm nothing, I'm a failure? Answer: because it is true – but it is only half the story. The other half is the things we listed near the end of the previous paragraph. Jesus has got so much more he wants you and me to enter into but we don't get it because we don't keep on asking, seeking and knocking for it, because we listen to the likes of the crusading atheists with their ignorant rantings and believe the fake news. No, we are NOT unloved, No, God is NOT a harsh God. He is a loving heavenly Father and if He holds back, it is because He wants to strengthen your heart, strengthen your resolve and draw you closer to Him.
Go back to that Old Testament ‘equation': “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psa 37: 4) When we delight in Him, when we make Him the focus of our lives, then He starts putting desires on our hearts and as we start recognising those desires and asking and asking for them, so He grants them. There is so much more just waiting for you, but it starts with this ‘equation'.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 8. Doors & Destinations
Mt 7:13,14 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
These, I suspect, well known and much preached on verses, present us with two problems. The first is that it is difficult to see how they follow on from what goes before or what follows after; what is the progression of thought, either in Jesus as he spoke these things or even, perhaps, in Matthew as he compiled these sayings? The second that follows on, is that because of this there are few clues, if any to help us interpret these verses. Let's try to catch an overall sense of what Jesus has been saying in this chapter to see if we can apply that sense to these verses.
He starts by talking about a people (his followers) who do not judge and write off others (v.1), a people who are aware of their own failures (v.2-5), a people who have been entrusted with sacred and very precious things from God (v.6), things which seem to stretch on into the future and which are appropriated when we pray – ask, seek, knock (v.7,8), a people who are encouraged to ask by the love of their heavenly Father (v.9-11). He finalises this picture of his followers by summing up their behaviour as follows: “ So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (v.12) So what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. That is the challenge so far.
It clearly is a different world, a different way of living and it obviously has to be entered into so the start of our two verses is not surprising: “Enter through the narrow gate.” If you enter a club or an association or any other grouping, there are entry requirements. The requirement here is to come in via a ‘narrow gate'. Narrow? As opposed to what? A wide gate and a broad road. Oh. So what's the difference? The destination. The wide gate and the broad road “leads to destruction”. Ooops! So what is the destination of this ‘narrow gate'? Life! (v.14) Right. What else are we told? When it comes to the wide gate and broad road, “many enter through it”. And the narrow gate? “Only a few find it.” Wow!
So one way leads to life and the other way leads to destruction. But we were thinking in the first 12 verses of chapter 7 of the life for Jesus' followers? Yes, that is the way of ‘life', NOT destruction (and both are equally important to realise.) So what is this ‘narrow gate'? Well, I think preachers often speculate about what it means but actually it is spelled out in the remaining verses of this chapter.
First of all Jesus gives a warning against ‘false prophets', anyone who brings a teaching or revelation that is not from God. How do we know it is not from God? It is contrary to the rest of Scripture. You'll know these people, says Jesus, by the fruit of their lives. Are these still self-centred and godless individuals or are they godly and full of the fruit of the Spirit? If they are the former, ignore them. That is the precautionary warning that comes first. Our guide is first, foremost and last, the Bible. Any teaching contrary to it, stay away from!
But then comes the definition of the narrow gate: “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (v.21) The narrow gate is complete submission to the will of God. We will go on tomorrow to see how Jesus spells this out in the first real parable in this book of Matthew, but for the moment we can stop with this. Jesus lays down a whole variety of criteria that he expects to see in his followers, lack of judgment of others, self-awareness, receivers of all God's gifts, childlike seekers of all the Father has for them ahead, a people who look for the good for all. That is what it is like in the kingdom of God and the only way in to all this is by surrender to the will of God, complete abandonment of self-will, a giving in to what God wants. That is the narrow way. (Obviously, by comparison, the wide gate and broad road is just doing your own thing, contrary to God's ways and God's wishes).
It doesn't matter whatever other interpretations we have of the Christian life, all of Jesus' teaching in the amazing Sermon on the Mount (ch.5-7 of Matthew) is summed up in this one thing: his followers obey what he teaches and are utterly submitted to the will of the Father. If we don't do that, everything else we do – going to church, trying to impress God and others with our respectability and spirituality – is utterly meaningless. That is the power of these words of Jesus in these verses.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 9. All about fruit
Mt 7:16 B y their fruit you will recognize them
In the previous study we summarised the earlier verses in this chapter as follows: what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. That was followed by the analogy of two ways ahead – a narrow gate leading to life and a wide gate leading to destruction, and the challenge was to choose which one to go through, with the consequences that follow. The wide gate and the broad road look inviting and easy but they are deceptive. In the next study we'll see the two house builders and the temptation of building on sand, because it looks easy, but that is deception which will lead to destruction. This same idea comes through again and again – be careful, everything is not as it seems; there will be consequences that follow choice and they may be bad!
Now in this same vein, Jesus uses two different language pictures (not stories, not parables, but analogies) that are all about appearance. In the first one he warns about people who are deceivers: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (v.15) False prophets (and the Bible has a number of warnings against listening to them) are those who speak wrong, false, deceptive and untrue words but the bigger issue about them, according to Jesus, is what they are like on the inside.
They look good on the outside; they come in disguise, he says, as if they had put on a sheepskin. Sheep, after all, are placid and easy going creatures, nothing to worry about. These people make out that they are like this, but they are deceivers because, on the inside, says Jesus, they are ferocious wolves. Now why the analogy of wolves? Well wolves are predators that are out for themselves and they get their food, their means of living, by pulling down and destroying other creatures. They separate the individual sheep off from the flock and then bring it down. False prophets speak false words for their own benefit, that they might get a reputation, get given money and a position; ultimately they are out for self. The untruths they speak are the sort of words that people like to hear: you are not guilty, God won't act against your sin, and anyway what is sin, we're all free to do what we like, it will be all right, be yourself, live as you wish.
But Jesus has a very simple way of checking them out: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (v.16a) Look at their lives, are they full of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22,23), are they holy? Look at the fruit of their teaching; do you see lives that are godly and good and holy? If you look back in history you will find many ‘philosophers' or maybe authors or poets or artists who were feted by society but their lives were a mess. Look at leaders today, whether they be spiritual or politicians or simply what are called today, ‘celebrities'. Look at their lives. How many have just one wife, how many have an orderly family, how many show the fruit of righteousness? By their fruit you will know what they are really like.
Then, to emphasise this point, Jesus uses the analogy of fruit: “Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” (v.16b) i.e. think about bushes and trees that bear fruit. He continues: “Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (v.17,18) It is a very simple analogy: good fruit comes from one sort of tree. A healthy fruit tree, we might say, bears good fruit. Bushes, trees or shrubs that carry thorns don't bear the fruit we can eat, fruit that is good. Apples come from apple trees, not from fir trees. Pears come from pear trees not briars. Beware pushing the analogy too far because blackberries, gooseberries etc. come from spiky, prickly bushes – but nevertheless you know the bush they come from.
Look at the fruit and you'll know the bush or tree. It is so obvious that the spiritual analogy is simple to apply: good fruit of the Spirit doesn't come a bad heart. Bad things – selfishness, self-will, denial of God's truths, bending of God's truths, lust, envy, covetousness etc. etc. don't come from a good heart. And bear in mind, Jesus adds, what happens to trees that are supposed to bear good fruit but don't: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (v.19) The implied warning is very obvious: God will hold us accountable and it doesn't matter what we ‘say', it's the fruit that reveals the sort of people we are. He concludes a second time: “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (v.20)
Now put all this into context. Previously he warned about the only valid way of entering the kingdom of God , a kingdom with specific behaviour, good behaviour, righteous behaviour. It doesn't matter that there is a wide gate and a broad road – they are deceptive and lead to destruction. In the parable that follows, don't worry about the fact that the sand looks smooth and flat, it's not safe to build on it, it is deception that leads to destruction when storms come. And now in our present verses, don't just accept everything by the words you hear. Think about it. Look at the fruit of the lives of people who teach questionable things. Look at the outworking of their teaching. There are good, God-given ministries that we are to follow and there are imitations who pretend to be the same, but aren't. Look at their backgrounds, how they got here, and where their teaching takes us. Good comes from God and godly ministries, and brings more godly fruit. Bad flows from self, with untruths that bring further self-orientated but godless living. Beware!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 10. Consequences and Choices
Mt 7:24,26 Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock….. everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”
The parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock (for it is a parable, a story rather than mere word comparisons of the analogies we have seen so far) is probably the most famous story that any child who has been to Sunday School will have learnt – and perhaps even sung about. The story is about making choices and the consequences that follow and in it is that, it is just like the analogy that Jesus spoke about a few verses earlier – going through the narrow gate of obedience brings life, compared to going through the wide gate which leads to destruction. That too was about choices and the consequences that follow. That cannot be emphasised enough in respect of this present parable and as such it goes to the very heart of everything about the Christian faith – which is all about making choices, and the consequences that follow.
The starting point though, of this very comprehensive little parable, is the nature of two men – a wise man and a foolish man, and they are shown to be what they are by the choices they make and the consequences that follow. It is a mystery why people are like they are. Some argue genetics, others argue upbringing, but the reality is that we each have free will and although there may be either hereditary or training (or lack of it) that suggest to us certain paths to take, we each have free will and sufficient intellect (at least for the vast majority) to decide which path we want to take. Very often the path follows very shallow or brief thinking, but the ability is there, even though we may not use it to its fullest extent.
Before we go any further, it is perhaps worth checking this as a broader scriptural teaching. Solomon wrote, “ He who sows wickedness reaps trouble.” (Prov 22;8) and “he who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward .” (Prov 11:18) which, combined may be the reason for the apostle Paul's teaching: “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:7,8) It is the same teaching as we find here, although here we are left thinking a little more about the nature of the ‘destruction'.
There is nothing unusual about this matter of making choices for it appears in many ways in life. Economics is sometimes defined as the ‘science' of making choices as to how to use scarce resources. Sometime politics is said to be how to make choices for the best running of society. Psychology is about how all behaviour is or is not a matter of choice. When it comes to spiritual choices they prove to be the most significant of all because they not only affect the present but also the eternal future.
So we have two men, a wise man and a foolish man and in Jesus' story they both decide to build a house. One builds his house on rock and the other on sand. This is not rocket science, this is stuff that any child can understand. But then a storm comes along with torrential rain, and the obvious happens. The rain just runs off the rock but washes away the sand and so the second house collapses. It is a patently obvious story.
Now what is it all about? Jesus makes it very plain for he prefaces both halves of the story with the explanation: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (v.24 and “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (v.26) It's all about listening to Jesus and then making a choice – whether to obey his instructions, or not.
But Jesus doesn't just say building on rock is smart and building on sand is stupid, he spells out why it is – because we live in a world where storms come and the foundations are tested. Ah! This is at the heart of this story – the foundations, rock and sand as we've already seen. One can withstand storms and one cannot. Obeying me, says Jesus, means you can withstand the storms of life. Disregarding my teaching means the storms of life will bring you down. So two things to be further considered: what are ‘the storms of life' and what is the teaching of Jesus?
Well ‘storms of life' occur because we live in a fallen world and they can be things that just naturally randomly happen because the world is not working as it was when God first made because of the effect of sin, even on the physical world (which few of us understand). They can be literal storms, floods, hurricanes etc., things that cause physical damage and may destroy our homes or our businesses. But they may also be things that are caused by the sinfulness of mankind and so we may bring them on ourselves because of our own folly, or others may seek to bring them on us. In the month I write this the world has known cyber attacks which in the UK means dozens of hospitals were shut down putting lives at risk and causing immense inconvenience. The sinfulness of mankind. We have also in the UK a terrorist bomb killing and maiming dozens, specifically targeted at young people and children. The sinfulness of mankind. Because we live in this fallen world, we can get caught up in the outworkings of such things – ‘natural' or man-made. These ‘storms of life' can include physical illnesses or infirmities, mental breakdowns, relational breakdowns and so on. They can all be things that threaten to bring us down in misery or collapse. How do we cope with such things?
So what is Jesus' teaching? Repent, turn away from your self-centred and godless life and turn to God. Receive what Jesus has done for you on the Cross so that your sins may be forgiven, you may be adopted into God's family and receive the power of His Holy Spirit into your life as a new power source. Sometimes we call that power source ‘grace', His ability imparted to us to enable us to cope with whatever comes along and to rise above it. THIS is why Christians can survive while their neighbours subside into a heap of misery, this is why when there are national catastrophes it is so often Christians who rise up and provide solace, care, concern and help.
It is not because they are good in themselves, but because they become the instruments of God who wants to bring these things, help to people who are suffering. Why doesn't God stop these things, people often say? Because you demand independence and so He respects you enough to give it to you, and so He won't leap in to counter every wrong thought, or wrong deed that unleashes harm – but He is there the moment you turn to Him and seek Him. He doesn't want harm to come to you, but He respects the choices you make – to build on rock or sand and, if you built on sand, He will be there if you cry out to Him when your life fell around your ears – but how sad that it has to come to that sometimes!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 11. A Question of Authority
Mt 8:8,9 The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, `Go,' and he goes; and that one, `Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, `Do this,' and he does it."
Before I start, we need to restate the overall context of Jesus' teaching and repeat what I said in two earlier studies: what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. The difference of the ‘two kingdoms' will now be seen in an amazing way in what now follows.
Now I realise I am stretching the boundaries of these studies because this is not a case of an analogy used by Jesus, but it is clear from what follows that he thoroughly approves it: “ When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (v.10) This Roman centurion understood something about Jesus beyond anything Jesus had found in his own people. To understand the parallels implied in these two simple verses, we see on one hand the centurion's perception of Jesus and then, on the other hand, the parallel of his own experience. It is easier to take his experience first and then apply it to Jesus.
This man is a centurion, not very high up in the Roman hierarchy but sufficiently high to have learned about authority in the army. As anyone who has been trained in the army knows, authority and obedience to it is essential. When a command is given, it is imperative that it is obeyed. Authority is the right and power to command and to be obeyed. It is built in very early on in the Forces by strict discipline that requires punishment for failures to obey implicitly. In the Roman army that discipline was about as strict as you may find anywhere in history. When the one above you issued a command, you obeyed! If you didn't then you suffered. The point was that this man knew all of this and knew that when authority existed it WOULD be obeyed.
Now perhaps we should pause a moment to remind ourselves of the context, the situation involving this man. He comes to Jesus: “Lord," he said, "my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering." Jesus said to him, "I will go and heal him." (v.6,7) There it is. He comes to Jesus and addresses him with respect. He reveals his need and Jesus says he will meet it. It is at that point the man reveals his humility and awareness of the reality of his life: “The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” (v.8a) i.e. implied within this may be, “I am not religious and holy like you. I am a rough soldier who kills people. I have no right to demand anything of you,” but then all that is overcome by a combination of his concern for his servant and what he knows about Jesus.
The outworking of this is seen in his following words: “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed,” (v.8b) and he goes on to explain his understanding of authority. In it he is saying, “I know all about authority, and I know about you, and in the same way that when I command my men they have to obey, so when you command sickness to leave I know it will obey you and go.
Somewhere between all that he had no doubt heard about Jesus, and his personal knowledge of authority, he had put two and two together and realised that Jesus, in the spiritual world, exercised this same authority and brought about healing in the physical realm. Somehow, we might suggest, the Holy Spirit had released faith in him, in his understanding of who Jesus was, and therefore he knew that Jesus authority could bring the healing his servant needed.
The parallel here (it's not really an analogy but a close cousin to it) is a most remarkable one that shows us in a unique way what it means to say that the Son of God has such authority. Jesus spoke about this at various times. One well known time is when the man was lowered through the roof and Jesus first forgave his sins, which upset some of the religious observers: “Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, `Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . ." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." And the man got up and went home.” (Mt 9:4-7) If Jesus declares it, it is so.
He also imparted that authority to his disciples: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (Mt 10:1) which perhaps was the grounds for John to be able to record later, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12)
After his resurrection we read, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee , to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, " All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mt 28:16-18) And because of that he was able to send the disciples out to continue doing what he had been doing: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:19,20) In the context of the incident with the centurion, note the strength of his words: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That has echoes of authority within it.
John shows us that this wasn't a matter of following a set of rules, but learning to live under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, doing what the Father did: “Jesus said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working…. I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:17,19) It's all about relationship, not rules or ritual. When we have that relationship, we will have that authority and we will do what Jesus did.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 12. The Divine Doctor
Mt 9:11,12 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and `sinners'?" On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
The analogy within these verses is so simple and yet if you said to any ordinary person, “You're sick!” they would quite probably be offended. However, the truth of these verses goes right to the heart of the human predicament: we are all of us contaminated by this thing called Sin, a propensity to be self-centred and godless, not a physical ailment but equally an ailment, one that affects the heart (the centre of a person's being, not the muscle that pumps blood around the body), one that is spiritual and having far greater effect that any physical ailment might have.
Jesus had been meeting with tax collectors, those collaborators with the Romans who were hated by the people at large, and ‘sinners', the low life of society we might say today. This caused critical comment from the self-righteous Pharisees, guardians of the Law and of society's ethics. Jesus overheard their critical grumblings and gave the above explanation. He clearly portrays himself as a doctor in this analogy, and doctors go to sick people and sinners are sick people.
Now we should never use this analogy as an excuse for sin because there is a distinct self-will element to it; we can run with this propensity that I referred to or seek to resist it, and when we fail to overcome it (as Paul explained in Romans 7), we turn to Christ to empower us to overcome it (see Romans 8). Nevertheless it is a good analogy. Sin is a sickness. Think about this.
Sickness is an unnatural or abnormal physical or mental state of ill health. I use the word ‘unnatural' because the natural state of a human being is to have good health and illness is an attack on that caused by either a deficiency of some kind or an attack by a disease or infection. Something is working in the human body to bring it down, to limit its actions, to prevent growth and proper development, even to destroy it. Now think of each of these descriptions and apply them to Sin.
Sin is unnatural or abnormal. It is not how God created the first man and woman; they had no sin, but the moment they disobeyed God – they sinned – Sin became an inherent part of human nature, an outworking of the human will. It's heart is ‘self' and its outworking is godless unrighteousness i.e. it is always in respect of God. In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son the son comes to himself and says, “ I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” (Lk 15:18) Sin is always against God, and may be against another human being.
The apostle Paul demonstrated the power of sin when he wrote, at length, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Rom 7:14-20) You can't make it more clear than that! If a person has the flu, you know there is no point saying, “Come on, snap out of it, get up, get on!” Even worse, imagine them with, say, typhoid fever or malaria where they might be delirious. How pointless it is just demanding they ignore it and get on with life!
Now this is the same reality with Sin. You can try to be as nice as you like but ultimately you will still be self-centred and godless. You may try to be religious to overcome this propensity but in reality it is still self-effort that ignores God's remedy, and is thus godless! The truth is that we are sin-sick and we need a doctor. Now imagine a doctor is called to the home of a seriously sick child. The parents will want to know two things: first, what is the illness and, second, what is the remedy for it?
So doctor Jesus comes to the world to confront it with the fact of its sickness. He does that by demonstrating his utter goodness which shows up even the top religious leaders and makes them really upset. He also does it in his teaching and his call to people to receive his Father's love and rule. But what is the remedy for this sin-sickness? It is twofold? It is to receive Jesus' redeeming work on the Cross whereby our sin, shame and guilt were all taken by Jesus, and it is also to surrender to him and receive his Holy Spirit to be born again, empowered by his Spirit to enable us to rise to new heights with a new life that puts Sin to death (Rom 6:11) and whenever the enemy seeks to resurrect it, we reject it and turn away from it and to God (Rom 6:12,13). THIS is what Jesus came to bring.
So why did he not go to the Pharisees, why the tax collectors and sinners? Have you ever noticed that human tendency to denial? Symptoms arise in your partner and you point them out. They deny anything is wrong. The symptoms persist and you continue to point them out. They continue to deny them until they get to a level where they interrupt life and have to be faced. We referred earlier to the fact that the Pharisees were self-righteous, and that was true of the chief priests etc. as well. They thought they were righteous because they were religious, even though the religion they had was a far cry from anything God had instituted to help Israel .
However, when it came to the tax collectors and ‘low life' they knew exactly what they were like and when a life-belt was thrown them they grabbed at it. Zacchaeus was a classic example of that (see Lk 19) as were many others of that grouping. They just needed Jesus' unconditional love and acceptance and they came running into the kingdom to receive the ‘healing' that only heaven can provide – unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, cleansing and adoption.
It is a simple little analogy but a powerful one, especially as you see Jesus working it out with these particular people. Now although the primary work is done at our conversion, the ongoing ‘healing' process goes on for the rest of our lives. Theologians call it sanctification and once the overall ‘disease' has been dealt with and its power broken, the ongoing process deals with deep down attitudes that may still surface to be dealt with, or has to confront ongoing opportunities for us to get it wrong when confronted with difficult situations or difficult people. It will only be by God's grace and His love flowing in and through us, will these times of conflict and temporary failure be reduced. It is an ongoing process and He continues to love us every day until we come face to face with Him, then to be with Him and enjoy Him and be enjoyed by Him for eternity. Hallelujah!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 13. A Celebration Time?
Mt 9:14,15 Then John's disciples came and asked him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
Later on in Matthew, Jesus uses a full-blown parable about a wedding and the bridegroom, but here we have but a cursory reference to a bridegroom and are left to draw our own conclusions. This isn't so much about the bridegroom as the circumstances surrounding him. This particular reference is immediately followed by two other analogies that all have the same thought behind them: there are times and seasons for doing certain things and we need to understand them.
This first one is provoked by John the Baptist's disciples coming to see Jesus and they cross examine him on the apparent absence of spirituality of his followers. John, obviously, demanded a somewhat ascetic and austere lifestyle which included much prayer and fasting. If Jesus is the expected Messiah, as John had suggested, wouldn't he demand at least as much from his followers?
Now I believe this verse 14 is as dynamic and explosive today as it was then. It challenges the true reality of spirituality: will you have a God-focused spirituality or a godless spirituality? You see, that latter one was very common then and is very common now. People shy away from the word ‘godless' because it is normally used in quite a harsh way, but it simply means the absence of God in someone or something. As bizarre as it may sound, you can fast and be godless! How many people who fast, enquire of the Lord first to see if He wants them to fast? Fasting is one of those things (which is right when God says to do it) that so often can be almost a superstitious means of bending God's arm to get Him to do what you think ought to be done. It can be a very ‘religious' activity that is man-centred. Before we apply this more widely today, let's see Jesus' teaching.
He implies, and you have to be a bit slow not to see it, that he is the bridegroom and his followers are the guests at the wedding. Note in this analogy believers are not the bride, although that is the wider teaching of the New Testament (e.g. Rev 19:7,8). Now nothing about Jesus' ‘wedding' is spelled out here, his listeners are just left wondering, but in general a wedding (even more so in those days where the celebrations might last for days) is a happy time, a time of great celebration, a time of much laughter and gaiety. Now none of those descriptions fit what we normally think about when we consider a time of fasting.
It's almost as if Jesus might have said, “Guys, be serious. Think about this. What are your times of fasting like? Go on, be honest. They are serious times of abstinence and quite often that is a real discipline and a time of real natural weakness. Look around you and see what is going on here. The sick are being healed by their hundreds. Deaf people hear, dumb people speak, lame people walk, demoniacs are delivered and even sometimes the dead are raised. This is the kingdom of God in action and I tell you, none of these people standing around getting healed are going to stand there mournful and go away and have a time of fasting. They are into serious rejoicing!!!!”
So what sort of church do you and I belong to? What sort of Christian experience do we have? Where people are being regularly saved and their lives being transformed, where the sick are being prayed for and are healed, where God's wisdom is being used to bring transformation to difficult and trying circumstances, where revelation comes to reveal the wonder of the kingdom of God , these will be places of constant rejoicing. Yes, there are appropriate times to seek the Lord and maybe even fast (and yes, I have done my share in the past), but actually WHEN Jesus is truly Lord and is expressing the kingdom of God through his ‘body' today, then joy is the most common currency in the life of God's people. If you are part of a body (the church) where there is little spontaneous rejoicing, it is probably because we are not letting Jesus be Lord and we are stifling his Holy Spirit and so are seeing little fruit of transformation.
Twice the apostle Paul spoke of God's kingdom in these terms. “ For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17) and “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power .” (1 Cor 4:20) When the power of God is expressed through Jesus' present-day body, joy always follows. The opposite is also true: when joy is absent it is so often because of the absence of God's power, the absence of Jesus moving in the midst.
This particular analogy is not about the relationship of the bride to the bridegroom, but it is about the nature of life with Jesus. It is life transformational and if it is not, we have lost something and there is indeed cause to grieve and to fast. When we start believing the New Testament and opening ourselves to be available to the Lord to move through, then transformation will come and it will bring with it rejoicing and celebrations, like those seen in a Jewish wedding feast. May it be so!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 14. New and Old
Mt 9:16,17 “ No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
In the previous study, of the two verses before these, we saw Jesus was contrasting the world of the religious with the world of the kingdom of God . Some reading that may feel threatened or defensive because so much of modern church life in the West is NOT like the celebration of new, transformed life that Jesus implied through his analogy of the wedding feast, but the analogy is still there and is now being repeated twice by the next two analogies we now have before us.
In the first one he speaks of a piece of new cloth and an old garment. It is that simple. The point he is making is equally obvious: new material will yet shrink when it is washed while the old remains exactly as it was when it is washed, and so you don't try patching the new into the old because it will tear the old. Now the problem here is that Jesus is teaching by implication and he does not apply what he is saying to the situation around him, yet it is fairly obvious what he means.
The ‘old garment' that is unchanging must be Judaism with its powerful leadership in the chief priests and the temple hierarchy, who wanted to maintain the status quo and were thus annoyed at Jesus who they saw as a threat to their established ways, the traditions of the religion. By contrast, the ‘new material' must be the life of the kingdom that Jesus was bringing. It was full of life, full of action, full of transformation, noisy, vibrant, exuberant and unpredictable. I don't know if that is how you see Jesus' ministry but that is how it was. Every time another person was healed there would have been rejoicing and all the words above would apply. The life that Jesus was imparting that brought transformed lives also meant that it wasn't just a physical change but a whole life outlook change.
Life in the temple carried on day after day with no change. Life with Jesus was one of complete change. If you were one of Jesus' disciples traveling with him, you never knew what the coming day would bring. For example, one day it meant healing a leper (8:3), then healing a centurion's servant with a word (8:13), then the healing an old lady (8:15), but then they would leave it all and cross the Sea of Galilee and confront and deliver two demon possessed men (8:32) then, crossing the lake again, healed a paralytic on a stretcher (9:7), then comes feasting at tax-collector Matthew's house (9:10) – all those things led up to this teaching. Imagine you were one of Jesus' disciples and let's assume all these things happened on the same day (maybe they didn't), when you got up in the morning you wouldn't have ever guessed all those things could happen. It was a completely unpredictable life as Jesus sought to work with his Father (Jn 5:17,19) expressing the kingdom of God on the earth. No, this was clearly a ‘new piece of material' and it wouldn't fit comfortably in with the ‘old garment' of the life of the establishment. See that last word – ‘establishment'. It means those who are established, those who are set in their ways. If our church services are ‘established' with the same thing week in, week out, we are more akin to the temple priesthood than to Jesus.
But then he adds a second analogy which makes exactly the same point: new wine and old wineskins. They just don't go together is what he is saying. New wine is still unstable and changing and even may be effervescent. If you put it into old wineskins which are stiff and rigid and try and contain it, the life of the new wine will just split the skins and pour out. Isn't that what happens every time a new denomination springs up? The old order gets rigid but as the Holy Spirit keeps working in some, they can no longer tolerate the old and they break out and form some new group. Sadly, and almost inevitably, that new group eventually settle down and becomes rigid and so the conflict continues – and it IS a conflict as the life of God pushes against the rigid boundaries that men so often establish.
Remember the context of all this was John the Baptist's disciples coming to cross examine Jesus (9:14). Already they had settled in their thinking that John's severe way was THE right way and so they had trouble with the life and vibrancy of what was happening with Jesus. Later John, in prison, was to send some of his disciples to Jesus to enquire of him, possibly to introduce them to Jesus so they could move on now John's ministry had ended. When they questioned Jesus about who he was he replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:4,5) Look again at that summary of Jesus' ministry and envisage the joy etc. that accompanied it. This was the new wine and so it was no wonder that it upset the ‘old wineskins' of orthodox Jewry.
This was Jesus' way of explaining to John's disciples on the earlier meeting how incompatible the life he was bringing was with the more orthodox ways (praying and fasting) of the established religion of Judaism. He didn't actually say it, but the question still hangs in the air – which would you prefer, the day by day, never changing humdrum religion of law and ritual, or the life-transforming ministry of Jesus with its accompanying joy and exuberance, excitement, energy, and liveliness? Will we simply settle for the old, stable and unchallenging and unchanging ways of traditional religion, or will we seek the Lord for an outpouring of his Spirit as he continues to do today what he did then? Be careful how you answer because new wine cannot be controlled and is often unpredictable – but it is life from heaven and it is the expression of the will of God on earth!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 15. Sheep and Shepherd
Mt 9:35,36 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
The analogy of us as sheep and Jesus as shepherd arises a number of times in the New Testament. This comment from Matthew about Jesus' compassion and the harassed and helpless sheep is only seen elsewhere in Mark's Gospel (Mk 6:34) so it is probable that that is where Matthews gets it, but he sees its application in what is happening. This may not actually be an analogy that Jesus uses here but it clearly fits with his wider teaching which we will see as we go on.
The picture of a shepherd is a fairly obvious one: one who looks after the sheep, cares for them, protects them, guards them, binds up their wounds, and leads them to places where they can eat and drink. The shepherd feels for his sheep and so it should be no surprise that it is compassion that moves him to act on behalf of the sheep and heal them.
We also see his compassion when faced with a crowd in Mt 14:14 which provokes him to heal them. He also had compassion on the hungry crowd before feeding them in Mt 15:32 as well as in respect of two blind men on the roadside (Mt 20:34). Mark also shows his compassion in respect of a leper who he cleansed (Mk 1:41). Luke tells the story of the Prodigal Son and compassion made the father run to greet the son (Lk 15:20). Compassion is a primary characteristic of this shepherd and it was that which so often stirred him into action to bring healing, cleansing and deliverance. It was Jesus heart going out to the widow of Nain that appeared to provoke him to act and raise up her dead son (Lk 7:13-15) and it was Jesus' ‘pity' that the father of a young demoniac appealed to (Mk 9:22) and was also key in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:33).
Jesus spoke out his heart when he taught, “ Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28,29). These are the words of the gentle and compassionate shepherd, offering help to all are worn by the ways of life.
Speaking into the religious life of Israel at that time, Jesus recognized the loads that were imposed on ordinary people by the religion imposed by the Pharisees and he came to the ‘weary sheep' to lift off such loads: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt 23:3,4) He, by comparison, came to make the loads that we carry appear light as he pulls alongside us and shares the weight.
We will leave many of the references to Jesus being the shepherd to later studies but simply note it was a key analogy. At the end Jesus, warning the disciples what would happen, did it by referring to the prophetic scriptures: “Then Jesus told them, "This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: " `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee .” (Mt 26:31,33 quoting Zech 13:7) a clear reference to what would happen when he was arrested and taken away, tried, and crucified.
When Moses, aware he had not much time left, appealed to the Lord to provide another to follow him, he prayed, “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num 27:16,17) The Lord immediately appointed Joshua who we tend to think of more of a general leading the army, and yet it is the picture of a shepherd that Moses uses, perhaps having come to the understanding that that was what his role had been for the last eighty years – first as a shepherd of literal sheep in Midian, and then as the shepherd of Israel. Yet the picture of a shepherd was mostly attributed to the Lord Himself (see Psa 23:1, 28:9, 80:1) and the picture of shepherds in the life of Israel was a familiar one in the books of the prophets.
Now in the New Testament, it will come up again and again. For the people of a land with many sheep and many shepherds it was an easily understood analogy and one we will see again and again. It was left to John, writing many years later after much reflection, to remember Jesus specifically teaching: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” (Jn 10:11) summarizing his position and his activity on behalf of his ‘sheep'.
In the previous study we noted Jesus' words to John's disciples. See in them the heart of a shepherd: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:4,5) In Luke's Gospel a summary of Jesus' coming ministry is revealed through the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Lk 4:18,19 citing Isa 61:1,2) These are the words for the shepherd who had come from heaven to reach out to those who were “harassed and helpless”, telling them that the time had arrived for their lives to be changed by the power of God, and confirming the truth of those words by the power he brought.
How are we today? Harassed and helpless? Harassed simply means stressed and hassled and under pressure from the burdens of life. The outworking of these things means a weariness, often a heaviness, and these things are not uncommon in the pressures and concerns of life in the twenty-first century. The answer: “ Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28,29). Amen.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 16. Four Creatures
Mt 10:16 I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
Four analogies packed into one short verse! The thing about Jesus' teaching, whether by parable or simple analogy, was that he used illustrations that his listeners would understand; here with four well-known creatures. But before we focus on each creature, we need to check out the context which is particularly important here and will add depth of meaning to the above verse.
The chapter starts out, “ He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (10:1) Yes, Jesus is sending out his ‘disciples' and making them ‘apostles'. He is turning learners into ‘sent and anointed ones'. But there is something more here: he is pushing them out of their comfort zone. So far they had been mostly observers, but now it was their turn to do the stuff. They were being sent out to convey the love of God in very practical power ministry – driving out demons and healing the sick. This is very real ‘faith stuff' because it utterly relies upon God. No God, no deliverance. No God, no healing. Perhaps the corollary in respect of many modern churches bears thinking about?
So this is the context: they are being sent out to do what Jesus does and in this they will be confronting the enemy and the ‘world' with the truths and power of the kingdom. But there is a problem: not everyone will gladly welcome them. There were so many schisms in the Jewish society of that day, so many political or religious groupings, that almost certainly they would encounter opposition and hostility from some of those groups, apart from general people who simply might not want to know.
Thus, Jesus first sums up the situation they face: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” The truth is that when the early church went out they faced a number of oppositions, and although initially some of these may have been minor in this first foray into the world, they would become greater and greater as the Gospel spread around the world, as is testified in Acts and in secular history. Jesus' teaching as recorded by Matthew in following verses, clearly shows that he is talking about the big picture of history and not just about the coming few days.
First, there was misunderstanding. For example, with communion they were accused of cannibalism. Second, there were accusations of creating family divisions – Jesus himself warned about this reality. Third, there was defensive opposition from rulers – the Caesars often demanded divinity and when Christians failed to give them that, they persecuted them. Fourth, the ethical demands of Christianity would make unscrupulous employers or business men hostile to the demands of Christianity. Fifth, there would be other specific religious groups who would be hostile to the competitive challenges coming from Christianity. Sixth, and far more generally, Satan would no doubt stir up rejection, hostility and resentment against the Christians who brought the demands of Christianity to challenge ‘self' in the individual.
Such people in opposition, who bring hostility that ranges from outright persecution to simple rejection, are the ‘wolves' Jesus refers to here. Wolves, we have commented before, are ravenous creatures who desire to bring down other creatures and destroy them. Modern crusading atheists are, I believe, just like this. They want to destroy Christian faith and undermine Christian beliefs and relationships. Now all this sounds pretty negative, especially when Jesus calls his disciples – who he is sending out to confront wolves – a bunch of sheep. Again, we have noted previously that sheep are pretty inoffensive and harmless, i.e. they rarely attack and are often prey to predators. Humanly speaking, they haven't got a chance! However, two thousand years later, those ‘sheep' can be found in every continent of the world and even in countries that are blatantly hostile to the Gospel.
So how do these sheep cope against this sort of opposition? First because we have been given authority (and power) from on high (10:1) and the Lord is with us. Moreover, when difficult circumstances arise, He will be there and His Holy Spirit will enable us (see 10:19,20) i.e. the Lord's presence and provision will always be there for us.
But there is also a human responsibility involved: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Satan, coming in the form of a snake in the Garden of Eden was known for his cunning. But Jesus is specific here and says be ‘shrewd'. Shrewd means be insightful, astute, wise, smart, i.e. be alert to your surroundings, understand what is going on and operate with the wisdom God gives you as you seek Him for it (Jas 1:5). When confronted by impregnable fortresses of unrighteousness in the middle of our societies (like Jericho - see Josh 6), seek the Lord for His strategy to bring it down. Read the accounts of David and his dealings with enemies and learn his key strategy – to inquire of the Lord (e.g. 2 Sam 5:22-25). Get revelation!
The reference to being “innocent as doves” conveys the picture of simple humility and absence of guile. Guile is human cleverness as distinct from the godly wisdom we have been considering. Human wisdom gets hostile and defensive but that is unrighteous and that has no place in our dealings with the world. We often quote it but Peter's advice is applicable here: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Note first the word ‘prepared'. This suggests we would be wise to understand the basics of our faith and also be able to give a simple testimony of our experience of the Lord. But note also the way we are to reply to people who question us: “with gentleness and respect”. That's the ‘dove' part! Not hostile. Not belligerent. Not arrogant. Gently and respectfully. When we operate like this with the grace of God, He will always back us up and be there for us.
If you think the picture of sheep being confronted by wolves is not good news, read again the story of David versus Goliath (1 Sam 17). This giant scared the life out of Saul and all his army, but a young man arrived on the scene who knew his God and knew what the Lord had done for him and knew that this giant was abusing God and was therefore in major trouble – and he just made himself available to God for Him to use him to bring down this scary character.
Key things to remember: 1. God is with you. 2. You are His servant. 3. His intent is to deal with the enemy. 4. He will give you all you need to deal with this enemy. 5. Don't do it in your own strength or wisdom but with His grace, His revelation and His power. Done!
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 17. John what?
Mt 11:7,8 As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes?
If any one needs the reminder, we are studying the pictures that Jesus used in his teaching ministry as seen in Matthew's Gospel. We arrive at a point where John the Baptist's disciples have come to question Jesus and, now having received answers, they leave. The onlooking crowd watch with interest, and Jesus takes the opportunity to challenge them as to exactly who John was.
If Jesus lived today, imagine him using a PowerPoint presentation and it is as if he clicks up on the screen a series of pictures and asks the crowd about each picture as he asks them so say who John was. After all, they had gone out into the desert to the Jordan river to see and listen to John, so he starts by asking them, "What did you go out into the desert to see?” Why did they go? What did they find when they got there?
Click. First picture: “A reed swayed by the wind?” (v.7b) Had they gone out to the Jordan to just look at the reeds on the riverside? Was John just another ‘reed', something quite ordinary? Not really! A shaken reed is often used as a picture of someone who is unsure of themselves, a doubter? Was that John? Definitely not! So, “If not, what did you go out to see?” (v.8a)
Click. Second picture: “A man dressed in fine clothes?” (v.8b) This would have produced a laugh. Definitely not! No, “John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4) No, John had had a rather wild look about him. This was no rich man, but a poorly dressed man who lived off the produce of the land. Jesus prods their thinking: “No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces,” (v.8c) No, they definitely hadn't gone out to see royalty. “Then what did you go out to see?” (v.9a)
Click. Third picture: “A prophet?” (v.9b) Well yes, I suppose so. We hadn't had a prophet in the land for well over four hundred years, but from all we've been taught, yes, John fits the mould of a prophet.
Click. Fourth image. A question mark. “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (v.9c) What? More than a prophet? How can you have more than a prophet? What does more than a prophet mean?
Click. Fifth image, just the words, “A Messenger”. “This is the one about whom it is written: " `I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (v.10) Ah yes, the last book of the scrolls, Malachi, spoke of this: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.” (Mal 3:1) If they had regularly attended the local synagogue from childhood, they would have been taught this. But there is also this surprise link to this messenger for after he has come, “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple” Wow! The messenger precedes the Messiah! What is Jesus saying? Is he saying he's the Messiah?
Click. Sixth image. Another question mark. Jesus is now in full teaching mode: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (v.11) Hold on, let's take all that in. John is greater than anyone previously born???? Why? He was just a messenger you said. But what messenger? The messenger who stands at the open doors to the room where all are gathered and proclaims in a loud voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the President of the United States .” (or “her Majesty the Queen, Queen Elizabeth the Second” or whoever the other very important dignitary it is) or in this case, “the Long Expected Messiah”. Ah! John was greater than any other previous human being because he had the unique privilege of ushering in the ministry of the Son of God, the long awaited Messiah!
But what about, “least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” ? Well, any one of us who now take the name of Christian, is a child of God, uniquely born of the Spirit of God. Even John wasn't that! We had better follow through Jesus' teaching. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” ( v.12). Of the paraphrase versions I think the Living Bible puts it best: “And from the time John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing until now, ardent multitudes have been crowding toward the Kingdom of Heaven.” John had stirred a hunger in the lives of many, to get right with God (hence being baptized by him). As someone has well said, “the kingdom of heaven is not for the well-meaning but for the desperate.” The word ‘forceful' above' could be ‘urgent', people who have come to see their need and been utterly convicted that they must do something about it – NOW!
Jesus comes to the end of his ‘slide presentation': “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” (v.13) Yes, the Law spoke and the Prophets spoke about the coming one, the Messiah, who will, according to Malachi be proceeded by Elijah, so….
Click. Seventh image. A photo of John overprinted with one word: “Elijah”. “if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” (v.14) That's it. You've been faced up with the ministry of John. Not just a reed, something ordinary, someone unsure of himself, not a rich, influential personage, not even ‘just' a prophet, but the Lord's Messenger, the herald of the Messiah, the ‘Elijah', the heralding prophet that Malachi spoke about. He has come; the Messiah has come. Got the picture?
Pictures and more pictures as Jesus seeks to help us take in truth. Why do we preachers (and why have I) so long focused on rules and principles when Jesus gives us such a clear example of how to get into people's minds? Use pictures. When we try to convey the Gospel to others, do we use principles or do we convey it in picture terms, because that is what the Gospels are – a treasury of pictures. Aren't they wonderful! Isn't the Lord wonderful that He hasn't given us a book of laws or principles but a story book, true stories, but a story book nevertheless, because He knows that most of us operate in pictures in our minds and in our imaginations. How wonderful. Thank Him for that.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 18. Marketplace Children?
Mt 11:16-19 To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: " `We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." ' But wisdom is proved right by her actions."
Our verses above continue directly on from the previous passage that we considered yesterday. John's disciples had come and gone and Jesus turned to the onlooking crowd and asked them what they thought of John, giving then various possibilities ending with the prophet Elijah.
But he's going to face how many of them, the religious ones, had spoken about John. Not everyone had accepted him and been baptized. The Pharisees and perhaps some of those from the Temple had gone along to see what was happening, what sort of person he was and did he fit their way of thinking. Many had been negative about him and so Jesus confronts them with this using this picture language.
He likens them to children playing in the market square. You've no doubt seen exactly the same sort of thing. One child wants to play one game and another wants a different game and whatever suggestions are made, they don't seem to be accepted. These children each want to get their own way. That is a sign of immaturity. Look at the detail.
These children, he speaks of, are sitting in the market place. This is their place, their playground, and they challenge and call to other children (v.16). They have tried playing together but there was no agreement. They point out the suggestions they had made: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.” (v.17a) They had suggested a happy play time, perhaps playing parties, involving dance and rejoicing, but no, they hadn't wanted to do that. So they had suggested playing at funerals: “we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” (v.17b) In other words, there was no pleasing them – and that is the point of his illustration.
He explains it in relation to John and himself. First John: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon.” (v.18) John had had this austere life style, which was too much for the soft-living religious elite from Jerusalem , so they accused him of being demonic. Basically they said he was mad, living out in the desert so sparsely, and ranting like an Old Testament prophet but not having any link or any authority from the religious officials of Judaism in Jerusalem . No, they had not liked him and so they abused him and wrote him off.
And then Jesus had come along with a completely different life style, and they were critical of him: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." (v.19a) They held such a high moral and spiritual (but not in reality) view that they looked down on all that Jesus, did, especially the way he met with and ate with the low life of the land, which we have considered in an earlier study.
Nothing will satisfy these critics because they ARE critics, first and foremost, and everything else follows from that. Very often there are people who have settled in a particular lifestyle or particular life attitude and it is one that is determined to see the worst of everything and be critical about whatever they can be critical. I believe the media (TV reporting and newspapers) often appear to be like this in the way they report and challenged, first one thing, then another. Nothing, but nothing, that the government can do will be right. The media have so often become the Pharisees of today, declaring a moral high-ground that looks down on and demeans any who do not utterly agree with them (or their proprietor directing in the background). It is a sad sight.
But in respect of Jesus, consider what he has been teaching in the studies we have done, all in response to the coming of John's disciples: first that his ministry is not a time for mourning (9:15), then that the old traditions will not sit comfortably with the life he brings (9:16,17), and now that it doesn't matter whether it was John's austerity or Jesus' joyful freedom, the religious traditionalists are just not going to be happy!
I have lived through a period of history where many new ministries have arisen and the Lord has brought much new teaching to the Church. The example I usually cite is that of the teaching on ‘the body of Christ'. It must have been forty years ago that I first ever heard anyone speak on it and it took the subsequent Charismatic Movement and the Restoration Movement (you've never heard of these – you have some reading to do on recent Church history!) to develop these, but some forty years of so ago, it was an unknown teaching, but it was there very obviously in the Bible.
Out of all this comes the question, how do we react when a new ministry arises somewhere around the globe that attracts the Christian media? Cautious openness, I suggest, is the best approach. Remember the “by their fruit you will know them” test. But does it bring real, genuine life, life transformation for the deaf and the blind, cleansing for modern day lepers, goodness and love into society?
But, Jesus concludes, “wisdom is proved right by her actions.” (v.19b) The JBP paraphrase puts it, “ Ah, well, wisdom stands or falls by her own actions,” and the Message puts it, “Opinion polls don't count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I like that. Watch to see how it will all work out. If the characteristics of God, His love and goodness are in it, that's a good start. If it brings love and life and goodness and righteous freedom in people, that is a good sign. If it's weird and a bit freaky, watch from a distance and the fruit will become obvious.
Ultimately when this sort of questioning arises, check your own life and the life of others against the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22,23 and then check and see if Jesus' ministry, summarised either in Mt 11:5,6 and Lk 4:18,19, is in operation. This is really all about holding a careful balance between being open to all that Jesus has for us, and discerning that which is not quite right (or even right off mark!). But, at the end of it, may we not be like Jesus' ‘market-place children' who can never be satisfied by whatever doesn't conform to our own self-centred wishes.
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Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 19. The Ploughing Team
Mt 11:28-30 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Years ago in our church, we had an elderly gentleman who was a ploughman. For years and years he had gone out with a plough and team, mostly one horse I believe, but sometimes two. It is difficult to find a ploughman these days except one who drives a tractor. Horses are a thing of the past and only come out for the annual ploughing matches as a rare exhibition, and they will go soon. In Jesus' day, the sight of two oxen drawing a plough behind them was a common one, and it is this to which Jesus now refers.
It is a very simple and obvious picture that everyone would know about and understand: two oxen linked together by a big wooden ‘yoke' which kept them together. The context for these verses appears somewhat disjointed at first sight but careful reading makes sense of the progression.
The chapter opened with Jesus' summary of his ministry as he explained it to John's disciples (v.4-6) and goes on to explain that John was in fact the messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah (v.7-15). But then he turns on the religious elite from Jerusalem and chides them for never being satisfied with either John or he (v.16-19) and goes on to challenge those places who refused to believe him even when they saw his miracles (v.20-24). There was indeed a hardness around, founded in the religiosity of the nation, that often refused to accept him and yet, despite all this, he knew it was the childlike at heart who would accept him (v.25,26) and, indeed, accepting him would only come through revelation from the Father (v.27). It has all been about belief in Jesus, accepting his ministry (v.4-6), accepting John's descriptions of him (v.7-15), not quibbling about him (v.16-19) and having childlike faith to believe (v.20-26) being open to the Father's revelation (v.27). To those who will believe, he now makes this offer seen in our verses above.
He recognises how so many of them feel in the face of the stone-wall all opposition from the religious elite of the Pharisees and the religious leaders of Jerusalem : “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.” (v.28a) Later he was to denounce those groups who opposed him, for the burdens they laid on people with the Law: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt 23:1-4) Those ‘guardians of the law' taught the law but didn't follow it. Instead they interpreted it in minute detail and made it ever harder to follow until life was one long wearisome adherence to negative laws, and giving and giving to the religious establishment (the priests).
To these wearied people of Israel who have had enough of this hard and harsh religiosity he says, we might imply – don't rebel, don't kick it all over, but instead come to me and find something completely different “and I will give you rest.” (v.28b). I have to say, I have often found the same approach in some parts of the Christian Church today: here are the rules you are to follow, and no guidance is given as to how the individual may do this and not fall to failure and guilt. It may sound too simple but it is the truth: we come to Jesus, not to rules, we come to a living Holy Spirit empowered relationship, not to a religion filled with ritual. “Come to me,” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” It is rest from all this struggle and striving to achieve to be good, to be religious, to be righteous, to be holy. Where those things are demanded they so often come instead of the introduction to the wonderful love of the Lord which is to now be our prime motivating force, enabled and reinforced by His blessing in our lives by his Spirit. Jesus now explains how this can be by this picture language.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” (v.29a). The yoke, as we've said was that timber piece made to hold the two oxen together. Jesus pictures himself as one of the oxen and we are the other. The yoke of those days was purpose made for the particular oxen so it fitted well, was comfortable and did not chaff. When he goes on to say, “For my yoke is easy,” (v.30a) the Greek word for ‘easy' can also mean comfortable and well-fitting. When he explains. “for I am gentle and humble in heart,” (v.29b) he is portraying a picture of an oxen that is not rough, not pulling all over the place, not causing difficulties for its partner, but one who is placid and easy going, purposeful in its task, and easy to walk alongside.
Walking with Jesus is to be a pleasant experience, not a stressful burdensome experience caused by the haranguing of the religious leaders of the day. So-called religious leaders so often harangue their flock, driving them from behind to keep to the rules, instead of lovingly walking alongside, sharing the burdens of life, painting visions of the days to come which are reachable, and equipping and enabling the flock to reach their full potential in God. When we come to Jesus, and make him the central focus of our Christian experience, “you will find rest for your souls.” (v.29c) That is to be the outcome of this controlled walk with Jesus, held by his yoke, not being able to run ahead with impatience or drag behind with anxiety. We find rest for our souls. When David the psalmist wrote his famous shepherd psalm he wrote, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” (Psa 23:2,3) It is the same beautiful picture of the life the Lord wants for us, one where we are brought to rest and are restored.
And to conclude this picture he adds, “my burden is light.” Jesus has a burden? Well, actually, I think he has two. The first, pulling the plough, is a picture of doing his Father's business but as he taught, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does,” (Jn 5:19) it seems to me it is the same picture as conveyed here – the Father is working and the Son works alongside Him. In Proverbs there is that beautiful picture of wisdom personified, i.e. the Son, working with the Father in bringing about Creation (Prov 8:22-31) where he says, “I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence.” (v.30) It's the same picture and everything about it conveys joy and pleasure being alongside the Father in what was not an arduous task, doing His will. The emphasis is on his awareness of his Father's presence, not the ‘work'.
Jesus' second burden is you and me. He carries all the loads put upon us and he is strong enough to do that, so when we share with him, it feels light, because he is the one leading the way and carrying the load. It's his strength that pulls the plough; we just walk alongside. Now isn't that an amazing picture!
Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 20. Values
Mt 12:9-12 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" He said to them, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."
I realise that this is stretching the parameters of our present brief and what we have here is more a comparison than an analogy, but it is a close cousin, so here goes. The account is simple: Jesus goes into a synagogue on a Saturday, the Sabbath when the Law said God's people should refrain from work to be able focus more on Him. In the synagogue Jesus is attracted by a man with a shrivelled hand. From what follows it is clear that some Pharisees are also there in the synagogue and they clearly see Jesus' interest in this man and so, guessing what is on his mind, ask him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” They do it, we are told, because they were “Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.” (v.10).
It is in the light of this – and Jesus knows their hearts – that he asks them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (v.11) It was generally accepted that if your property was under threat you could take action – even on the Sabbath – to save it. He pushes the logic of the situation: “How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (v.12) Now see what follows: “ Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (v.13,14)
It is a very simple and obvious comparison and really was one that had no reply other than, “Yes.” That's what you would think, but the reality was far from that. In fact it was quite bizarre! These Pharisees, these ‘guardians of the Law', are so concerned to uphold the Law and so incensed by Jesus disregard for their twisting of the Law, that a) they disregard the wonderful fact that Jesus CAN heal people, b) they show no care or compassion for the man with a real physical need, the shriveled hand (which would have limited his ability to work) and c) they actually want to kill Jesus for doing good – or perhaps more for the fact he had shown them up for what they were – heartless, cold and callous.
Now Jesus used the comparison of sheep and a man to point out that, before God at least, a man is of so much more value – but this clashed with the rigid ideas prevailing among the Pharisees who were looked up to by many for their lives given over to protecting and upholding God's word. So rigid had they become that they lost perspective and Jesus simple comparison sought to refocus them, but their self-righteousness rejected that attempt and indeed simply stirred their hatred of Jesus even more.
Jesus, in our example verses above, wanted to heal the man. He could have waited until the next day but he did it on the Sabbath to challenge this loss of perspective of the Pharisees. The call of these verses in this study is not to be a heartless and callous Pharisee as we seek to uphold God's design for mankind, and not to miss the opportunities that there are to speak graciously and reveal the love of God in the face of standards that are utterly ungodly.
Let me explain more what I find on my mind. Our role as believers is to be salt and light in this world, as we've seen in previous studies, but the danger is that if you had put this to the Pharisees they would have claimed that that was their role as well. They were there, they would have said, to preserve the word of God and to purify it from casual usage and, indeed to ensure that it was being used to purify people's lives – and all of that may have been true – except the issue is the way you go about doing it.
So rigid had they become in their pursuit of the word of God that it meant that they lost sight of the fact that people are precious to God and are in fact more important than rules. Mark has Jesus teaching, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:17) This issue of the Sabbath law – and remember it was there in the Ten Commandment and thus of significant importance – was an example of where the Pharisees focused more on the letter of the Law but failed to remember that God gave the laws of Moses for the benefit of the people. God wants to bless people with a time of rest, He wants to help them overcome the temptation to make life only about work. So here they were on this day of blessing from God and what greater blessing could you have that healing this man?
How do we value people? To these Pharisees this man was almost invisible, they didn't care about his disability, they just saw him as an opportunity through which to attack and show up Jesus. Their anti-Jesus agenda got in the way of this man's need. Their anti-Jesus agenda got in the way of seeing that Jesus had come with the power of God to bless people – through healing. Now we don't have an anti-Jesus agenda but we do have agendas that are anti-other-people's-life-styles.
We may be absolutely right in feeling negative about a particular lifestyle or behaviour – and in this increasingly godless world there is going to be more and more that runs contrary to God's design – but can we make sure we never lose sight of the fact that these are ‘people', those made in the image of God, and their weird and wrong lifestyles are simply a symptom of their godlessness and their lost-ness. They desperately need saving, they desperately need God's love and if they don't find it in us, where will they find it? Merely because Jesus met with and ate with tax collectors and the low life of society, it didn't mean he took on their beliefs, their attitudes, their lifestyles. No, he remained the pure Son of God while he was open to them and showed that God's love rose above individual ethical demands, to show the recipients that there was in fact another way to living than the way they had (which many of them despised anyway and longed to be free of!)
Keep the moral values but not at the expense of losing sight that these are people who God loves (even if He doesn't love their lifestyle!!!) and He has come to redeem them. May it be so.