Thursday, February 7, 2013

Jesus heals, the paralyzed man walks. Scribes blaspheme, God is glorified

As I have mentioned in a few earlier posts, chapters 8 & 9 of Matthew's gospel have been arranged in three sections of miracles, each with their own "triad" of miracles (i.e. a set of three connecting miracles). And sandwiched between each triad is a "narrative interlude" (i.e. a connecting story) about discipleship which launches the reader into the next triad. A post about this literary structure can be found here. (If you don't know what I'm describing, I recommend that you take a quick look at that post to see what I mean.) A post about the first narrative interlude can be found here, and some posts about the two following miracles within this central triad can be found here and here. The third and final miracle within this central triad -- Jesus healing a paralyzed man -- is what I will discuss in this post.

I intentionally began this post by pointing back to the literary structure because there is a central theme woven through each miracle story that remains interconnected within each triad. This will be very important to remember as we sort through Matthew's story about the paralytic. If you recall, Matthew launched this central triad of miracles with a narrative interlude which discussed two types of disciples: one was rejected by Jesus, and the other was accepted on a certain condition. Matthew describes the one who got rejected as a "scribe" and the one who was accepted as a "disciple" (Matt. 8:18-22). Immediately afterward, Jesus and his "disciples" get on a boat and head to "the other side" of the Sea of Galilee. Before they get to the other side, "Behold! There arose a great earthquake in the sea, so that the boat was being covered over with waves" (8:24).  Jesus calms the sea and it's waves, but only after he is finished rebuking his disciples for being cowards. He even calls them "Littlefaiths!"

After making it to "the other side" Jesus confronts two demonic-oppressors, and "Behold! They cried out, 'What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?'" (8:29). The demonic-oppressors beg Jesus for permission to flee from them, and again, Jesus unhesitatingly grants them permission. Immediately thereafter we find another startling exclamation made by Matthew: "Behold!" This repeated emphasis is intentional. Each "Behold!" is like a water buoy or a lighthouse in the sense that it serves as a signaling device that leads the reader from one side of the Sea to the other and back again. Notice carefully that after this second emphatic "Behold!" we immediately find the demons fleeing from Jesus into a herd of pigs and down into the sea to drown (8:32). Each "Behold!" is followed by something noteworthy and alarming, something dramatically connected to the lager journey of faith presented from one side of the Sea to the other. But in Matthew's story, this journey of faith & discipleship has not traveled round-trip yet. Jesus is is not back home yet. In fact, he hasn't even got back on the boat again!

What occurs next in Matthew' story is important. After the demons beg Jesus for permission to flee from him, and they are granted their request, this causes the people to panic and alert a bunch of other people from their pagan city. And immediately we read again, "Behold!" This time it's followed by the city people coming out to meet Jesus, and when they see him, they beg him to flee from their country (8:34). And so, Jesus, seeing their faith like that of the demons who just begged for permission to feel from him, decides to leave peacefully. These are the accounts which Matthew highlighted for us as he leads us into the final miracle of this central triad: the miraculous healing of a paralyzed man.

And getting into a boat he [Jesus] crossed over and came to his own city. And Behold!, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Have courage, my son! Your sins are forgiven." (Matt. 9:1-2)
This fifth exclamation of "Behold!" is really interesting, especially when compared with the previous four signals. This exclamation is the first positive signal! It's as though Matthew is leading his readers (us) to a reassuringly great faith, the faith of the paralytic and his friends who take the time and effort to bring a man to Jesus. In contrast with the faith of the city people on the other side of the Sea who begged Jesus to flee from them, the faith of these men is exceptional and noteworthy. But it's at this point -- which at first glance appears to be a climactic point in the larger story -- that Matthew has set us up for one more alarming account of great disappointment. Just as the reader is able to envision Jesus' own excitement after seeing "their faith," Matthew glosses over "their faith" and immediately moves on to highlight a long, drawn-out confrontation between Jesus and the Scribes.

I find it fascinating that in both accounts of Mark and Luke, we find a lot of extra details about who was carrying the paralyzed man and how many of them were carrying him, and how long it took them to get into the room where Jesus was, and because the entire house was crowded to the point of impossible access around the home, we learn how much effort these men took to bring a paralyzed friend to Jesus by cutting open the tiles of the roof and slowly lowering the paralyzed man into the house. In Mark and Luke, it is a very dramatic story with a sturdy balance between the faith of the paralytic with his friends and the Scribes with their friends. But in Matthew's account, all we get is a glimpse of great faith. It's heavily unbalanced in it's emphasis. All Matthew says is that "some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed." That's a whopping eleven words! (The Greek only has six words!)  Matthew simply grabs our attention with another "Behold!" and then glosses over "their faith" in order to talk about Jesus' confrontation with the Scribes. This leads me to believe that Matthew's main objective in this brief miracle-story is to illustrate the faith of the Scribes.

...[Jesus] said to the paralytic, "Have courage, my son! Your sins are forgiven." And Behold! Some of the scribes said to themselves...  (Matt. 9:2-3)

At this point, I bet the first century Jewish readers of Matthew's gospel were cringing at the thought of what the scribes might say. I can just picture Jews in the first century, as they were reading Matthew's gospel for the first time, rolling their eyes and thinking to themselves, "Oh no! What kind of snide remarks are they going to say this time?" Can't you picture that too? Especially after Jesus approaches a paralyzed man! Because of various passages woven throughout the scriptures, it is well known that many Jews understood some connection between sin and God's curse upon sin in the form of death, disease, suffering, and physical affliction; but Scribes were notorious for sharing a cynical view about the relationship between physical affliction and God's curse. They probably viewed this paralytic as a man completely and hopelessly cursed by God, whereas Jesus clearly sees him as a man of faith. One can only imagine the fiery distain these scribes were feeling toward Jesus as he spoke comforting words of forgiveness.

...some of the scribes said to themselves, "This man is blaspheming." But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'?"  (Matt. 9:3-5)
At first glance, our English translations appear to be pretty cut and dry. Jesus seems to be actively forgiving the paralytic, and the Scribes seem to be defending the honor of God, as they're supposed to. And if you were a faithful follower of the scribes and their teaching, you too could view their thoughts as being faithful. Yet Jesus accuses them publicly as thinking evil thoughts. They accuse Jesus of "blasphemy," but Jesus turns their accusation of "blasphemy" and points it right back at them. Why is Jesus treating them this way? Why is he reacting so abruptly? After all, what is so evil about defending the honor of God, which is what all the disciples of God are supposed to be doing?

There's actually much more going on in Matthew' story, more than what ordinarily meets the eye. The subtlety of Matthew's story is that Jesus does not actively forgive the paralytic's sin. I repeat, in Matthew's account, Jesus is not actively forgiving the paralytic's sin. Jesus is merely speaking comforting words to build up his faith as he lies there paralyzed, and the Scribes assume the worst of what Jesus actually said, as though they knew Jesus' actual thoughts and intentions. They projected upon Jesus what they wanted him to mean. They presumed that Jesus was speaking forgiving words, thereby actively forgiving his sins, when he actually was not. And Matthew illustrates this for us in a variety of ways.

First, notice that Jesus did not command, "Your sins, be forgiven!," nor did he say, "I forgive your sins," "I am forgiving your sins," or even "Your sins shall be forgiven." (And there are actual, ordinary ways of conjugating the Greek verbs in order to make these distinctions, yet Jesus chose to say something entirely different.) Jesus, in fact, spoke somewhat ambiguously.  In Greek, what Jesus chose to say to the paralytic -- in the midst of a crowded house -- could mean both "Your sins are forgiven" and "Your sins are being forgiven." And notice carefully the difference between those two. The first statement, "Your sins are forgiven," is simply a way of indicating a forgiven status which the paralyzed man would naturally perceive as words of comfort. In a more modern setting, this would be like a firefighter declaring words of comfort directly to a father about his children that have already been rescued from a fire. The firefighter could say, "Your children are saved," and there would be no doubt in the father's mind that the firefighter intended to comfort him and remove all doubt in his mind about his children. There would have to be a huge mental blockade in the father's mind for him to interpret the firefighter's words as active saving (i.e. "Your children are being saved," which would actually leave some room for doubt). On the other hand, because the words which Jesus chose to use (and what Matthew chose to record) were somewhat ambiguous, the Scribes interpreted what he said, not as "Your children are saved," but rather, "Your children are being saved." Admittedly, it's difficult to confuse the firefighter's intentions when speaking in English, but that's because the English language is weakly inflective, using mainly the bare form of a verb. However, in Greek all verbs are highly inflective, and so you can convey both meanings ("are forgiven" and "are being forgiven") by only speaking one way, with one inflection; and Jesus chose to speak that one way with one slightly ambiguous inflection: "Your sins are forgiven."

Further examination into the Greek text helps illuminate this conscious decision of Jesus to speak somewhat ambiguously. For example, when Jesus says "Have courage, my son," that is not ambiguous at all in the Greek. That is clearly a command in the Greek text. The same kind of intentional clarity is seen elsewhere in this story. When Jesus asks the scribes which is easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven," or to say, "Rise and walk," the words "Rise and walk!" are clearly commands in Greek, whereas the first saying, "Your sins are forgiven," is again an ambiguous declaration, a mere repeat of the exact same words he spoke to the paralytic. And so, this is Matthew's way of teaching us that Jesus knew what he meant by every single spoken word, and he also recognized that the Scribes interpreted what he spoke in a different way than his own intent. 

And this brings to light why Jesus accused the Scribes of having evil thoughts.  Jesus apparently recognized that they assumed the worst about what he said. Jesus was simply indicating a truth to comfort the paralytic, whereas the scribes interpreted what he said as though he was actively forgiving the cursed paralytic. Their "evil thoughts" are evidenced by their open willingness to scrutinize every word of Jesus, evaluating every detail in the worst possible light. In this light, the scribes are like the barbarians in Acts 28:4 who saw the venomous creature hanging from Paul's hand, and their conclusion was, "No doubt, this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped from the sea, yet Justice has not allowed to live." The scribes accuse Jesus of blasphemy because their assumptions seem to have a strong basis in theological fact, just as the barbarians thought their god of Justice was a theological fact.  Now, of course, it would not actually be blasphemy for Jesus to actively forgive sins, as we'll see in a moment. Jesus is most certainly God, and he has the authority to be forgiving any sins at any time as long as it's in line with his Heavenly Father's will. But the scribes are not operating under the assumption that Jesus is God, or even the promised Messiah. They are simply manifesting their unproven assumptions about Jesus as a phony and a fake.  This simple statement of forgiveness is, in their eyes, definitive proof that Jesus is not God or even Godly. For as Luke vividly adds to this account, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Luke 5:21).  And so, this "meek and mild" Jesus (as some liberal softies might say) responds to their thoughts of blasphemy:

"But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" -- he then said to the paralytic -- "Rise, pick up your bed and go home."  And he rose and went home.   (Matt. 9:6-7)

The Greek text, if extrapolated a bit more, is even more sharp and cutting. Jesus actually says, in effect, "But that you might know from now on that the Son of Man continually has authority on earth in order to forgive sins" -- he then said to the paralytic -- "Be Risen! Pick up your bed and go to your home!"

I can imagine the scribes who challenged Jesus in their hearts, taking a small gulp when Jesus first asked them what was easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven" or "Rise and walk!" They knew that Jesus was challenging their thoughts about the relationship between sin, physical affliction, and God's healing forgiveness. But I bet the scribes took a really big gulp after Jesus followed that first question with one, and only one, ultimatum. Jesus says that they "might" know, but he then leaves them with only one way to show everyone that their knowledge of God is genuinely faithful. They are given a choice to either believe or reject the fact that God has given Jesus authority on earth, from that point forward, to be forgiving sins. Big gulp. And so Jesus commands the man, "Be risen!" And we know how the rest of the story goes. The man rises, picks up his bed, and walks to his house. And "when the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men" (Matt. 9:8).

Now, there are a lot of lessons to learn from this true, historical story, only one of which is that disciples of the living and true God should never be characterized as interpreting others in worst possible light. Matthew describes those kinds of disciples as evil.  But we also learn a lot more than this. If we take a few steps back and zoom out a bit, it isn't difficult to see the overall portrait of discipleship, especially as it's highlighted by the faith of 1st century Jewish scribes who were revered as "righteous" in the eyes of many devout Jews. The last time we learned about the faith of scribes was when Jesus began his journey across the sea. And it appears as though Matthew has brought us around full circle on this journey of faith. First there were two disciples who wanted to follow Jesus and get on the boat with him, but the "scribe" gets rejected. Then we find a story about the "little faith" of his disciples, followed by the faith of demons and their corresponding city, followed by the faith of the scribes who accuse Jesus of "blasphemy" for speaking comforting words to a paralyzed man. The faith of the scribes in the end is just as blasphemous as the scribe in the beginning and the demonic faith in between. Their faith in God is just as pretentious and dead as all those who choose not to follow Jesus or are rejected by him. Their faith is worse than the cowardly "Littlefaiths." Their faith is demonic. They want nothing to do with Jesus, just like the demonic-oppressors and the pagan-worshipers on the other side of the sea wanted nothing to do with him. Their faith, if left unchanged, is the faith of a demonic city doomed to rush headlong into a sea of drowning. Their faith brings no healing to Israel because God has not given them the authority which is highly esteemed in His eyes. Rather, He has given them what is highly esteemed in the eyes of dead men. God has not even given these scribes the authority to declare comforting words of forgiveness. Instead, God exposed their false accusations as evil, their pretentious spirit as barbarous, and their skewed presumptions about Jesus' forgiving spirit as His own curse upon them. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

The King of Love My Shepherd Is

To some people, the Psalms seem to be filled with disorganized tid-bits of spiritual insights, stuffed with archaic symbolism. Many parts of the Psalms still appeal to us, but that's mainly because we associate those parts with our own unique experiences of life. We at least think those parts mean something to us, even though most of us, admittedly, haven't taken the time to research the meaning and connection within an entire Psalm, which is what the author intentionally connected piece-by-piece for a purpose. Now, I'm not trying to belittle Christian taste or interests by implying that their subjective feelings and experiences are irrelevant. God does use these Psalms to speak to our individual experiences in life. I am merely trying to highlight the importance of appreciating all the parts together in a given Psalm, not just those parts which we can identify with immediately. It really does appear that some Christians (dare I say many      Christians?) view the Psalms with a puzzled look on their face. Many Christians do not actually study each Psalm as a piece of art, much less a well-designed narrative art. 

For example, consider the Shepherd's Psalm (Ps. 23). Because this Psalm is very popular, I am quite sure that most parts of it are relatively simple to follow point-by-point, verse-by-verse, while other parts, however slight, might remain an anomaly:

* * * * * * *
A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. 
He leads me beside still waters. 
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; 
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.1

* * * * * * *

If I were a betting man, I would bet that in the mind of the average person, the sheep & shepherd metaphor remains very logical and reasonable up to the point where a table, a head anointed with oil, and an overflowing cup enter the picture. At that point it might appear to us as though the author dropped the sheep & shepherd analogy in order to talk about other pleasant circumstances in life. But actually, there really is a lot more going on in this Psalm than what ordinarily meets the eye -- a lot more imagery that remains consistent with the sheep & shepherd metaphor from beginning to end.

Below I have presented my own translation of Psalm 23, along with it's literary structure.2 By comparing the translation above with the one below, I don't intend to undermine the wonderful and thoughtfully poetic translation found in English bibles today. I simply hope to shed some more light on the literary themes which sometimes get lost in translation:

* * * * * * *
A Psalm of David.

A)  Yahweh tends me as a shepherd. I lack nothing.
   B)  He lays me down in meadows of fresh vegetation.
      C)  He guides me beside resting waters.
         D)  He brings my life back.
            E)  He leads me along the right paths for the sake of His name.
            E')  Even when I go through the valley of deadly darkness,
         D')  I fear no danger because You are with me.
      C')  Your spear and your staff, they comfort me.
   B')  You arrange a table before me in the sight of my predators.
A')  You anointed my head with ointment. My cup is well-filled.

Surely (this) generous loyal-love will pursue me all the days of my being;
And I shall be brought back to the house of Yahweh for all remaining days. 

* * * * * * *

Given this poetic arrangement, there are a number of interesting parallels. First of all, notice carefully that this Psalm begins and ends with Yahweh tending his sheep: "Yahweh tends me as a shepherd... And I shall be brought back to the house of Yahweh..." This standard bracketing device, formally known as an inclusio, is intentional, as indicated by the opening and closing repetition of Yahweh. It ends where it began, and it begins where it ended. Because of David's concluding remark about returning to Yahweh's house "for all remaining days," it is inferred that the Psalm begins with the Shepherd leading his sheep out His house. Therefore this entire Psalm is describing the daily journey of Yahweh the Shepherd who leads his sheep out into the world and back again into his house, where there is no provision lacking, no cup left empty. The flock of this Shepherd is tended very well.

Toward the end of this Psalm, David speaks of his head as having already been anointed with oil. "You anointed my head with oil," the Hebrew says (not "You anoint my head..."). This is interesting because it fits well with the imagery of Yahweh's tender care for his honored sheep and also David's delight in being a servant of God's house. To say that Yahweh has anointed his head with oil is a way for David to acknowledge his gratitude to Yahweh for allowing him to serve and dwell within His house. Here again, the imagery of a "house" to which this sheep may return daily is important. In ancient Israel, it was customary for the master of a house to provide scented, perfumed oil for his guests to freshen up.3 And here David appears to be identifying himself as a servant in Yahweh's house who is treated as an honored guest. As a servant, he leaves for a time to graze along with the sheepfold, but he returns daily to feast in the house of his Shepherd as an honored guest. David lacks nothing; his cup is well-filled.

There also seems to be an allusion to Yahweh's anointing of David as the shepherd-king of Israel. After all, David was the young shepherd who "led out and brought in Israel" during the days of Saul (2 Sam. 5:2). The people of Israel even reminded David of this at the time of his anointing as king, saying "the Lord said to you, 'You will shepherd My people Israel and be ruler over Israel.' So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before Yahweh, and they anointed David king over Israel." It was also David the shepherd-king who labored to build a "house" for Yahweh (2 Sam. 7:5). But at the same time, it was that same house which Yahweh built for David because of his faithful shepherding (2 Sam. 7:6-13). Here in this Psalm, David not only acknowledges his gratitude to Yahweh for anointing him as a shepherd-king, but also for teaching him how to be a good shepherd-king, treating him as a shepherd-king, and modeling for him the best example of a Shepherd-King that anyone could ever hope or ask for. Because Yahweh is the Shepherd-king par excellence, David lacks nothing; his cup is well-filled.

It is Yahweh the Shepherd-King who lays His sheep down in meadows of fresh vegetation and arranges a spread of food for them, even though all of this is done in full sight of nearby predators. I have translated the participle צָרַר as "predators" not only because the Hebrew word is rarely translated as "enemies" elsewhere in Scripture, but also because I was hoping to express it's more concrete meaning of binding and tying a thing without having to separate it from it's usual figurative imagery of one who causes distress and worry; hence, most translations say "enemies" because of it's connotation. (I was considering such alternatives as "snatchers," "sheep-nappers," and "trappers," but I trust that "predators" conveys the overall gist of the imagery.) David knows that meadows of fresh vegetation are surrounded by all kinds of predators, but because Yahweh shepherds him, he lacks nothing; his cup is well-filled.

It is also Yahweh the Shepherd-King who guides David alongside resting waters. Notice the placid scenery: resting waters, not fast-flowing, whitewater rapids. Not only does Yahweh provide ample opportunities for his sheep to receive refreshment as He guides them to and fro, but because Yahweh is alongside them, guiding them, there is also peace every step of the way. Yahweh's spear and staff provide comfort and assurance that no harm will befall His sheep. Yahweh is the "Shepherd and Guardian of souls" who brings the life of his sheep back home (1 Peter 2:25). Yahweh leads them along the right paths -- paths paved by the Righteous One -- for the sake of His name. Yahweh knows his sheep by name and his name is known by each one of his sheep (John 10:14). Because of this tender care of Yahweh, David doesn't need to fear the dangers which are lurking in the deadly darkness of valleys at night-time. Yahweh travels with him every step of the way back to His house. Yahweh is his Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for His sheep (John 10:11). David lacks nothing; his cup is well-filled.

But in David's eyes, Yahweh is much more than a Shepherd-King who loves his sheep and provides generously for their needs. Yahweh is generous loyal love himself; and he will pursue his sheep day in and day out with such generous, loyal-love forever. If anyone enters the sheepfold by Him, they will surely be saved and will surely go in and out to find pasture (John 10:9). 

Perhaps there is no better poetic rendition of this Shepherd Psalm than Henry Baker's attempt in 1868. It truly is a majestic form of verse and rhyme which highlights much of what I've been describing above, and it provides a suitable conclusion to this post as well:

The King of Love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never. 
   I nothing lack if I am His and He is mine forever.
Where streams of living water flow, my ransomed soul he leadeth.
   And where the verdant pastures grow, with food celestial feedeth.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, but yet in love He sought me. 
   And on His shoulder gently laid, and home, rejoicing, brought me.
In death's dark vale I fear no ill with Thee, dear Lord, beside me. 
   Thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me.
Thou spread'st a table in my sight; thine unction grace bestoweth. 
   And O what transport of delight from Thy pure chalice floweth!
And so through all the length of days Thy goodness faileth never. 
   Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise within Thy house forever.4

1.  ESV translation
2.  I considered other proposals for it's literary structure. There was only one other which provided an optical balance throughout all the verses. But I chose not to use that one because most of the thematic parallels did not line up, and it's poetic cadence is almost entirely lost because of the verse structure. The main advantage of this structure (below) is the textual balance between "Yahweh" in A and A', and the distinguishable center which stands alone by itself. See below:
A Psalm of David:
A)  Yahweh tends me as a shepherd. I lack nothing.
      B)  He lays me down in meadows of fresh vegetation.
      C)  He guides me beside resting waters.
      D)  He brings my life back.
      E)  He leads me along the right paths for the sake of His name.
               F)  Even when I go through the valley of deadly darkness, I fear no danger because  
                    You are with me.
      E')  Your spear and your staff, they comfort me.
      D')  You arrange a table before me in the sight of my trappers.
      C')  You anointed my head with ointment. My cup is well-filled.
      B')  Surely (this) generous loyal-love will pursue me all the days of my life; 
A')  And I shall return to the house of Yahweh for all remaining days (of my life). 
3.  Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications; 2011] p. 567
4.  Cantus Christi [Moscow, ID: Canon Press; 2002] p. 35

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Fathers, may I have your attention?

Fathers, may I have your attention?  

Now that I have your attention, you need to know that there is a book you need to get. The book is called Father Hunger, and it's author is Douglas Wilson. Get this book in paperback, e-book, or Mp3 audiobook, but make sure you get it somehow. Then after you get it, read it multiple times. Take it with you wherever you go for the first few weeks and read a portion of it at every break until it's text is tattooed in your mind. "What's the urgency?," you might be asking. Well, if you're a father, and you have not already read this book, you wouldn't be asking that question. And so, just to tease you a bit, read and re-read an excerpt from that book which I have provided below. Afterward, get this book. The excerpt below is under the heading, "Loving the Standard":

    If you cannot get the kids to love the standard, then lower the standard. I am not talking about God's commandments (His standards), which we have no authority to lower, but rather addressing the questions that surround what might be called house rules. Lower the standard to the point where everyone in the family can pitch in together. This is not actually lowering the standards, but rather raising the parental standard, which is the real reason we don't like it. Fathers must embrace the task of communicating, in a contagious way, love for the standard. 
    Some parents might protest that this is impossible. But what does this example teach the young people in the home?  It teaches them that nobody around here has to do "impossible" things, and since the requirement to make your bed, or to comb your hair, or to stop texting so much, are all clearly impossible, then they don't have to be done. If you want your children to be obedient, then show them how. Giving up when it seems "impossible" is not showing them how it is done. Apart from a context of love and loyalty, fatherly discipline is just clobbering a kid. And since clobbering a kid is not what God said to do, the child is learning the fundamental lesson that, in this house, we don't have to do what God says to do. Instead, we learn to be sneaky enough to not get clobbered. 
    Each member of the family is supposed to understand that the whole family is a unit. All the members are on the same team. If a family has drifted into an adversarial set of roles, then the parents have to do something to stop the game or maybe change the rules. They have to do something that works. Let us suppose the whole family is flunking high school calculus. Wouldn't it be far better to all go back to sixth grade and pass that grade together? We have to remember that the standard set in the above passages from Proverbs1 is not an impossible standard. That was not written for angels in heaven. It was written for us. These things are set before us now. There will be more on loving the standard in a subsequent chapter. 
    The hardest thing to maintain in this unbalanced world is balance. We react, we pull away, we lurch, and we tumble. We do this in many ways. And, having heard the exhortation that we should teach our children to love the standard, but if they don't then we should lower the standard, what temptation will confront us? The temptation will be to think that laziness and apathy are grace, and that defensiveness when confronted is zeal for the law of God. But loving God with all your mind, soul, heart, and strength is a love with balance. 
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother" (this is the first commandment with a promise), "that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land." Fathers, do no provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:1-4)
    Here are some of the basics of Christian living within the family. We begin with the duty of obedience. When children are young and living at home, honor entails obedience, necessarily. When children are grown and out on their own, the duty of honor remains, but it is rendered differently (Mark 7:10-13). This is obedience rendered by children in the Lord. The word for obedience could be rendered literally as "listen under" -- or, as we might put it, "listen up." This attentiveness to what parents say is described here by Paul as a form of honor, and he goes on to describe how much of a blessing it will be to the children who are taught by their parents how to behave in this way. This commandment, to honor parents, is the first commandment with a promise. The promise from God Himself is that things will go well for you throughout your long life on the earth (Eph. 6:3). And then fathers are presented with an alternative -- one thing is prohibited and another is enjoined. Fathers are told not to exasperate their children to the point of wrath or anger, and instead are told to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Note that they are not told to provoke their children to anger with the nurture and admonition of the Lord -- one excludes the other. 
    One of the things fathers can stop doing (that provokes children) is to stop experimenting on them. In construction work, one of the good things about a concrete pour is that, no matter what, a couple hours later, you're all done. This is also one of the really bad things about it. You don't want to start out with a long foundation wall and wind up with a patio. Kids are a concrete pour. The time they will spend in your home goes by a lot faster than you initially thought it would. Fathers are tasked with the responsibility of bringing them up in the Lord, which means that fathers are tasked with the responsibility of working in harmony with the nature of the child. It is, of course, debated what that nature is actually like, and so how are parents to deal with this?
    Too many Christian parents are like that old joke about the Harvard man. "You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much." Because we have successfully established the principle that parents have true authority in the home, many foolish parents have concluded that this means that anything they may happen to think about child rearing, or education, or nutrition, or training, or courtship standards, is therefore automatically blessed by God. But fathers are told not to provoke their children, because in this fallen world, this is a very easy thing to do. This is a very easy thing for Christian fathers to do. If it had not been an easy temptation for Ephesian fathers, Paul could have saved his advice for the occasional dad who really needed it. Paul does not make the mistake of thinking that authority makes folly impossible -- he cautions against authoritative folly.
    The hallmark of whether or not a father is experimenting on his kids, as opposed to bringing them up in obedience, is how open he is to the idea of someone else actually measuring what he is doing. How open is he to true accountability?  "Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding" (2 Cor. 10:12). Note that phrase "without understanding." How can you tell if parents have undertaken their solemn responsibilities as parents with a demeanor of humble confidence? "Let a righteous man strike me -- it is a kindness; let him rebuke me -- it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it" (Ps. 141:5). The question can be easily answered. How open is he to outside accountability? If he wants his children to have high levels of accountability, while he himself has virtually none, then this is the way to a bad family disaster.
    The Christian faith is a road, sure enough. But it is also a way. This means that how we walk is as important as where we walk.  If someone has questions about what a man is doing, it does not answer the concern to point at the road. It does not answer to bring out various books and websites that argue for this particular kind of asphalt. That's as may be, but there is something else going on. How does a father conjugate the verb firm? Does he say, I am firm, you are stubborn, he is pig-headed? If he does this easily, then he has wandered from the way, whatever road he is on.2

1. A few pages earlier, he referenced Proverbs 1:8-9, 3:1-4, 21-22, and 6:20-22.
2.  Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men To Love And Lead Their Families [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson 2012] pp. 168-172

Friday, February 1, 2013

I Shall Not Want

I want a lot of things in life. I want my extended family to get along better. I want my health and the health of friends & family to be better. I want to see people in my neighborhood be more considerate of each other's needs. I want to see more Christians love and serve each other. I want to see evil people and the wickedness they inflict upon society receive the righteous justice they deserve. I want to see peace in those places where there is nothing but warfare. I want to see more people help the poor, the widows, and the fatherless, not simply with handouts, but with a hand up, to lift them up and care for them. I even want all of these things to be righteous desires. I certainly hope they are all righteous desires. But when all is said and done, whether all of my wants are righteous, I know I want a lot of things.

It doesn't surprise me that one of the most popular themes plastered throughout Christian bookstores and gift shops across America is this theme of "I shall not want." And we all know the Scripture passage that this theme comes from. It comes from Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me besides the still waters. He restoreth my soul. ...Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

This theme is sometimes mistakenly understood in two ways: In one sense it's viewed as though our trust in the Lord should be so great that our desire for "things" should be minimal. Instead, we think the Psalmist is telling God something to the affect of, "I will not want (anything) because You are my Shepherd who provides all things." In another sense, it's as if the Psalmist is responding to one of God's commands, "I shall not covet" or "I shall not steal," only this time it's "I shall not want."  In this sense, we think the Psalmist is expressing some kind of desire to be obedient to the Lord's will by not  thinking wishfully.  If we sometimes think this is the point of the Psalmist, it may be because we often don't realize that the word for "want" can be used in a variety of senses, only one of which means to desire or wish some thing. But that really isn't what the Psalmist is describing in Psalm 23. The Psalmist is not communicating to God that he will not be desiring or wishing anything inappropriately in the future. Instead, the Psalmist is declaring that he lacks nothing. "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not be lacking," is the idea. In fact, the original Hebrew could even be translated as: "Yahweh shepherds me. I lack nothing."

Instead of viewing this opening verse as an expression of how pious we are or may just want to be, as though God must be comforted in knowing that we just want to let go of every desire and let God take the steering wheel of our hearts, this opening statement teaches something very different.  Just from my own brief studies in this Psalm, I have learned that there are three things which this opening statement teaches:

1) It teaches us that when we feel as though we are lacking some thing, we never really are if the Lord is our Shepherd. The basis of our assurance for never lacking any thing, is that the Lord is our Shepherd. 

2) It teaches us that the Lord is not simply a shepherd. If the Lord were simply a shepherd, that doesn't necessarily mean that he chooses to shepherd me, which is the only legitimate basis I could ever have for declaring the words "I lack nothing" with confidence. The Lord is more than a shepherd. The Lord is my Shepherd. I lack nothing because the Lord is my Shepherd. He shepherds me.

3) Lot's of people quote this Psalm in times of trouble because it's very familiar to them. It's quoted so frequently and so loosely that people often take for granted that this Psalm is their Psalm. Some people think they have nothing to worry about in death because they know this Psalm. They know that even if they were to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death," God is with them. The proof that God is with them is that they have this one Psalm memorized. But yet, many of these very same people don't live a life of trust which matches up with the claim of this Shepherd Psalm. They are really not content with many things that are lacking in life, but they talk as though God will be with them in the end and God is on their side. God is their pious excuse of hope when a lot of things are, in fact, lacking. In such sad cases, they may feel that way because they lack the most important thing in life: the Lord as their Shepherd. The opening statement of this Psalm teaches us that if the Lord is our Shepherd, not only can we say with confidence that we lack nothing and mean it, but we can also say that we have every thing we could ever desire and wish for, and mean it

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Faithful Demons

Matthew 8:28-34 (ESV) reads:

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" Now a herd of pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, "If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs." And he said to them, "Go!" So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they say him, they begged him to leave their region. 

This account is interesting in many ways, especially when compared with both accounts of Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39.  But for the sake of simplicity and brevity, and because Luke's account is identical with Mark's account in almost every single detail, I will only be comparing Matthew's account with Mark's account throughout the rest of this post. Now let's take a look at what Mark had to say about this same incident. Mark 5:1-20 (ESV) reads:

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.   Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.  The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

When both stories are compared side-by-side, a lot of details stand out. In Matthew's account, two "demon-possessed men" are mentioned, whereas in Mark's account there is clearly only one demon-possessed man. Also, in Matthew's story, just the presence of Jesus is enough to torment the demons, whereas in Mark's gospel, the man begs Jesus not to torment him because Jesus was repeatedly saying to him, “Come out of the man you unclean spirit!” 

In Matthew's account the demons beg Jesus to cast them into the herd of pigs, whereas in Mark's account two things occur: the man (possessed by demons) speaks his mind and the demons (who currently possess the man, i.e. "Legion") speak their mind. Notice carefully that in Mark's account, the man is first to do the begging. He begs Jesus not to send the demons out of the country. Perhaps that was because he understood the dangerous and volatile influence of "Legion" and he wanted to protect the people out in the country. But also notice carefully that immediately after the man speaks his mind, Legion speaks to Jesus, begging him to send them into the herd of pigs.  This is a startling difference between Mark and Matthew, and it's an important factor for understanding the main point of Matthew's story.

Also, in Mark's story, there is a surprisingly large amount of dialog between Jesus and the man, including dialog before and after Jesus casts the demons out of him. But in Matthew's story, Jesus only says one word. There is no further dialog from Jesus in Matthew's account. In Matthew's account, not only is the presence of Jesus enough to torment demons, but only one word is enough to cause them to flee from his presence. This uniquely short amount of dialog, I believe, is another important factor of Matthew's story, and is also crucial for understanding his main point. In fact, it is this uniquely short amount of dialog which helps distinguish between those who engage in dialog with Jesus and those who don't, which may, in fact, be the most important factor of this story.

Upon a careful examination of Matthew's story, there is, in fact, no distinction between the men speaking and the demons speaking. The confrontation and conversation with Jesus is always plural. "They" cry out to Jesus. What have you to do with "us," they say, and so forth. At first glance, our English translations even accommodate this plural dialog by giving the reader a very clear impression that there are two "men" who confront Jesus. But actually, upon further examination of the text, this may very well be an editorial faux pas.  The Greek text actually does not explicitly state that there are two "men," but rather that Jesus confronted two daimonizomenoi (δαιμονιζόμενοι), which is simply the plural form of a masculine word that can be translated in a variety of ways, including "demon-oppressed men," "men-oppressed-by-demons," or simply "demonic-oppressors." Demonic-oppressors is the translation that I prefer for this particular passage.1 

Further evidence points to Matthew's emphasis upon the demons and not the man (or men). Not only is there no distinction between those who speak as men and those who speak as demonic-oppressors, but this seems to harmonize well with Mark and Luke, who only mention the man (singular) possessed with many demons (plural). Moreover, when compared side-by-side with Mark and Luke, Matthew's story is clearly focused upon something other than the individual man. For example, in Luke's account, there are twenty six references to the individual man possessed with demons, and in Mark's account there are thirty four references to the individual man. But in Matthew's account, there are zero references to the individual man or even "men." All of this information leads me to believe that here, in this passage, Matthew's emphasis is upon Jesus' confrontation with demons, not a man (or men). This might be why the NRSV translates  Matthew 8:28-34 with the word "demoniacs" instead of "demon-possessed men." Matthew is describing an encounter between Jesus and demons.  

But there is more which can be gleaned from a side-by-side comparison of Matthew and Mark. In Mark’s account, this story is bound together in six distinctive sections, whereas in Matthew's account this story is bound together with three distinctive sections paralleling two emphatic “begging’s."

Notice the literary structure of Mark 5:1-20:

A)  Jesus goes to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes, and finds a man is under the control of an unclean spirit. (vv. 1-2)
B)  The man is uncontrollable & moving around, his clothing & body are cut up, and he’s not in his right mind. This man & his demons come to Jesus and beg Him for permission to flee.  (vv. 3-12)
C)   Demons flee (v. 13)
C’)  Local people flee (v. 14)
B’)  The city-people come to Jesus and they find the man sitting down, calm, clothed, and in his right mind. First they beg Jesus to flee, and then the cleansed man begs Jesus for permission to travel with him.  (vv. 15-19)
A’)  The man becomes a disciple of Jesus, and proclaims throughout the Decapolis (the country of the Gerasenes) what the Lord has done to him, and how he had been shown mercy. (v. 20)

Now compare this information with the structure of Matthew 8:28-34:

A)  "Behold!"  Son of God! Why have you come to torment us before the time?
   B)  Then the demons beg him to cast them into the herd of pigs

Center:  Jesus says “Go!” and then "Behold!" The whole herd is rushing down into the lake to drown!

A’)  "Behold!" The whole city comes to Jesus
   B’)  Then the people beg him to leave their town

After Jesus descends the Mount in chapter seven of Matthew's gospel, we find a series of wondrous stories -- true stories -- about Jesus healing and restoring his creation (e.g. the leper, the centurion's servant, Peter's mother-in-law, the stormy sea), all of which portray two common themes: 1) the authority of Jesus, testified by miracles and 2) the faith of all creation, testified by obedience to his word. Here in the midst of those wondrous stories, we learn another important lesson about authority and faith

In Matthew's story, Jesus reaches the destination to which his Heavenly Father has called him. He reaches "the other side" of the Sea of Galilee, a Gentile city filled with herds of unclean pigs and fierce demonic-oppressors who lurk in unclean tombs. But all it takes is the presence of Jesus to get them flustered. They believe that Jesus is the "Son of God" and they also believe a time of judgment awaits them, which is why they poke and prod Jesus with questions. Matthew's story is not about the faith of a man (or men) at all. Matthew's story is about the faith of demons who believe in God and tremble. They believe Jesus has authority over them, which is why they beg him, saying "If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs."  They beg Jesus for permission to flee from his presence because they have faith in his authority over them. 

But that's not all. By the end of this story, the faith of the people in this unclean Gentile city is analogous with the faith of these unclean demons (note the parallels of Matthew's literary structure: A, B, Center, A', B'). The demons don’t want Jesus to meddle with them, and the people don’t want Jesus to meddle with them. The demons don’t want to be anywhere near Jesus and neither do the people of the city. But Jesus has not come to meddle. Jesus has come to confront the demonic-oppressed faith of an unclean city. Jesus has come before the time of final judgment to show them what their final destination will be like if their faith is shaken by his mere presence. When the people beg Jesus to flee, their unclean city is sure to become the destiny of the demonic-oppressors. All who maintain that kind of faith -- a faith which rejects the Son of God -- will be cast out as unclean, and will rush headlong into destruction.

1.  This is clearly distinguishable from Matthew's use of the same word later in 9:32, which explicitly describes a "demon-oppressed man" (anthropon daimonizomenon). However, in the text before us, there is no word for "men" (anthropous) to be found anywhere. The emphasis rests entirely upon the demonic influence which is possessing, not the possessed.