Humor’s Tale of Hope

Only Matthew tells the story.

After Jesus’ burial, his enemies said to Pilate: “We remember [Jesus] said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised . . .  This last deception will be worse than the first.”

There’s a bit of humor here I think.  The eleven fled when Jesus was arrested.  They were nowhere to be found at his trial (except for Peter and John and one of them denied him).  They kept their distance at his crucifixion and locked their doors after his death.  Evidencing cowardice during his life, would they become courageous now that he was dead?

Another bit of humor is to be found in the word “secure.”  It occurs three times in three verses.  Christ’s enemies want the tomb secured.  Pilate gives orders to make it secure.  The tomb is made secure.  At least . . . as secure as it can be made.  It would appear even Pilate had a bit of insecurity about the security of that tomb.

Those who know the story cannot help but smile at all this.  Not even death can keep Jesus in the ground.

When the temptation to doubt creeps into your life – and it will – and the resultant fear comes hot on its heels, remember this one thing: the tomb is empty, just as Jesus said it would be.  Whatever is challenging your life, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead is looking out for those who are his.  There is no power that can foil God’s will for the life that trusts in Him. No matter how painful that trusting might become, whether the sun comes up tomorrow or not, a new day will dawn, because the Son is risen.

Saturday, October 18. Matthew 25 – 28

How shall we explain the empty tomb?

Did Jesus simply faint on the cross but, in the coolness of the tomb revive and escape? If yes, could he really have had the strength to overcome the posted guard? Preposterous! But the tomb was empty.

Perhaps Jesus was never really buried! But Pilate and Jesus’ enemies knew he was buried and they wanted to make sure he stayed buried. That was the reason for the guard. But on Sunday, the tomb was empty.

Perhaps Jesus’ disciples stole the body! But how could such a poorly equipped lot overcome the contingent of Roman soldiers? Perhaps the soldiers were sleeping on duty.

Yeah. That’s it. Soldiers sleeping. And that’s the story Jesus’ opponents told, the story that persisted after Jesus’ resurrection. But it was a lie as thin as tissue paper. Had the soldiers slept, they would have been punished – perhaps killed. But they were not. Had the disciples stolen the body, breaking the official seal of Pilate, they would have been hunted down and executed. But they were not. How do we explain these anomalies?

Eventually the truth came out, and everyone in Jerusalem knew the story. The lie was created by Jesus’ enemies, Israel’s religious elite, and secured, like Jesus’ betrayal, with money. The soldiers had to be paid to lie, but Jesus’ disciples go out and spread the word – for no gain at all – simply because the story was true.

The great commission is the mission of every Christian, to not only be a follower of Jesus, but to make other followers of Jesus. The process involves teaching the story of Jesus, baptism in the name of Jesus, and obedience to the word of Jesus. It involves a changed life that spreads the change by teaching and example. Only those who make this mission their own can truly say God rules in their lives.

Friday, October 17. Matthew 22 – 24

Matthew 23 will bring to a climax Jesus’ dealings with his enemies. There, the Lord will pronounce judgment on them for their hypocrisy. Before we get to that conclusion, we have the rejection of Jesus by his enemies in chapter 21, and the challenge to Jesus by those enemies in chapter 22 with, ultimately, Jesus establishing his authority as the Son of God at the end of that chapter.

Chapter 22 is occupied in the main with the challenges to Jesus’ authority. Three groups of opponents, Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law come to pose (what they believe are) unanswerable questions to Jesus. Jesus bests them at their own game every time.

Then Jesus goes on the offensive: “Who is the Messiah”? he asks the Pharisees (who got the whole confrontation started in the first place). They reply that he is simply a descendant of David. Jesus replies with scripture: “How can he be just David’s son when David, speaking of the Messiah, calls him ‘Lord’?” Though the Pharisees refuse to answer, the point is plain: they refuse to acknowledge the authority of the messiah. Here the questions stop, but the opposition does not. They are determined to have their way even if their way violates scripture and leads to murder.

Through it all, Matthew makes a subtle point: Christians, like everyone else, have their customs, traditions, preconceived notions and prejudices. All of these get in the way of God’s rule and when they do, we cease to be God’s kingdom. The focus should be on loving God first, and then loving our neighbor. Both of these have to be done God’s way, not ours. When we are inattentive to the greatest commands, we have more in common with the opponents of Jesus than with his disciples.

Wednesday, October 15. Matthew 16 – 18

You’re going to find 17:24-27 difficult.

Not that it is difficult to read: the story is rather straight-forward.

It’s not even difficult to understand. We get the basics.

The difficulty comes in Jesus’ meaning and application.

Tax collectors deputized by the temple in Jerusalem arrive in Capernaum to collect the annual temple tax. This tax was required by every Jewish male over twenty years old for the support of the temple and its programs. The tax was not mandated by the law of Moses, but came about during the days of Nehemiah (10:32-33). Some groups opposed the tax and refused to pay but even though neither Jesus nor Peter had paid theirs, Peter was certain Jesus would not object.

Jesus used the occasion to teach Peter a lesson about “place.” Those who sit in seats of power seldom tax themselves or their family. They tax others. Families are exempt. Jesus observes that since he and his disciples are royalty, they too are exempt.

This is the part that is difficult.

Followers of Jesus are really citizens of another kingdom. God’s kingdom. They are members of the royal family. Whatever their nationality, their citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven. We must act different from the world and not subject ourselves to its influence or rule.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to file your 1040. Jesus says we pay taxes and submit to human structures to keep from “offending” people of the world and causing trouble. Never forget who you are. Always remember to act accordingly and be gracious in your actions and responses to the requirements of the world. That’s the way real princes and princesses life.

Tuesday, October 14. Matthew 13 – 15

Chapter 13 of contains the third teaching section of Matthew it is mostly parables. A “parable” differs from a “fable.” Both are stories with meaning beyond the story itself, but the difference lies in the fact that a parable can be a true story; a fable never can. We have an example of a fable in Judges 9. There, Jotham tells a story involving talking plants. The story has meaning, but it is not a true story.

A parable on the other hand is a story taken from everyday life. It can be a true story, and you never know whether Jesus is simply drawing on his observations about life, or if he really has someone in mind.

In this only teaching section where Jesus addresses the crowds rather than just his disciples, Jesus deliberately speaks in such a way as to obscure his message. He admits to this in verses 11-15. In his explanation, he says the message is obscured because of the hearts of his listeners are hardened against his message. They aren’t seeing the way he sees, nor listening to what he has to say.

In reaching lost people, Christian people are often accused of using “religious” language – unintelligible to the unchurched. I believe our critics are correct, but I also believe there is little way around this. Our perspective is different from the unchurched. So is our value system. It is difficult for them to understand us. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reach them. After all, even Jesus’ disciples had difficulty understanding what Jesus was saying. But in time, they got it. To reach lost people, we have to be aware of how much separation there really is between us and build bridges to help them cross, recognizing that ultimately, we are dependent on God for success. That’s what the parable of the mustard seed is all about.

Saturday, October 11. Matthew 2 – 5

The Sermon on the Mount is the first and largest “behavior” section in Matthew and as such provides the foundation for everything that is to follow. It can be divided into parts, easily seen in the reading:

1) Introduction – the fundamentals of a holy heart. 5:1-20
2) Misinterpretations corrected – Jesus addresses improper behavior coming from a misinterpretation of the Law of God. 5:21 – 48.
3) Negative commands – “Don’t do this” 6:1 – 7:6
4) Positive commands – “Do this.” 7:7 – 20
5) Conclusion – the wisdom of obedience. 7:24 – 29

There is an important point you should not miss in the “Introduction.” Matthew points out that Jesus’ ethical requirements are no different from those in the Old Testament. In fact, all of what are called the “beattitudes” can be found in the Old Testament. Jesus didn’t come to do away with the ethical code of the Old Testament, but to make it possible. The ethical code of the Old Testament will endure, Jesus says, “until heaven and earth passes.”

Saturday, December 7. Matthew 25 – 28

Two things stand out to me in Matthew 26 and only Matthew mentions them.

The first is Judas’ question: “Is it me?”

In all probability, Jesus and his disciples were reclined at a “U” shaped table with space in the middle for serving. The most honored spot (as you faced the open end of the “U”) was on the left at the end of the table. This was the apostle John’s place. John would recline on his left side and Jesus would be behind him so that when John leaned back, he would be leaning on Jesus’ breast and at the Lord’s right hand (see John 13:25). Behind Jesus was Judas (at the Lord’s “left” hand – another honored spot). It would be fairly easy for Judas then to ask Jesus “is it me?” without calling attention to himself, and it’s why Peter, at the other end of the table, directly across from John , would not have heard Jesus’ answer. What must have gone through the traitor’s mind, learning that Jesus knew of his betrayal?

What a man Jesus was! So secure in his knowledge and self and heavenly Father that he could give an honored seat to such a treacherous backstabber as Judas. But you see this confidence again in the garden in the second instance. Peter pulls his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Jesus rebukes Peter and warns: “All who live by the sword will perish by the sword.”

Only in Matthew.

Remember that Matthew’s readers have been a persecuted lot. There’s more about persecution in Matthew than any other gospel. No doubt some would be tempted to lash out at their tormentors. But they must not. Their future, and ours, is as secure as that of the Lord’s. We can afford to be magnanimous toward and vulnerable before our enemies, knowing that twelve legions of angels stand at the ready to deliver us if it is the Father’s will.

And if it is not His will?

Either way, we rest securely in God’s hands.

Friday, December 6. Matthew 22 – 24

The word “religion” occurs only five times in our English Bibles (NIV) – and then, only in the New Testament.

So what is a “religion”?

It is fundamentally a philosophy of belief by which one engages in a relationship with deity. The practice of religion tells you a lot about the deity involved, but religious practitioners seldom reflect on that – a point well made in chapter twenty-three.

After debating with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and experts in the law, Jesus turns to address their religion – a faith bearing only scant semblance to that required by God in the Old Testament. In their devotion to God, they do their religion to be seen, respected and honored by their peers – rather than to honor and worship God. They make their own words inconsequential, as opposed to the word of their heavenly Father which is of total consequence. They pick and choose which commands to obey, neglecting the most important for the most convenient. They pay more attention to perception than substance and they align themselves with the traditions of their forefathers ignoring the short comings of those very ancestors.

This “woe” section of Matthew is a warning to all who claim the Christian faith: it may not be faithfully practiced unless it is practiced faithfully, from the heart, in response to God, giving oneself totally to the will of the one who made all things. If we are not going to do this, religion, any religion but especially ours, is but a sham and not worth the time and effort. Some religion is not better than none.

Thursday, December 5. Matthew 19 – 21

It is interesting that Matthew would, between the two very forceful texts about marriage and wealth, sandwich a little account about children being brought to Jesus (19:13-15).

We should remember that little of the gospel accounts are chronological, in other words, the account about the children doesn’t occur there in Matthew’s gospel just because it happened between the test of the Pharisees about divorce and the question of the rich young man. These stories are strung together as they are because they speak to the value system of the kingdom of heaven.

Children were far less valued in the ancient world than they are today. A child had no right to live unless his father formally accepted him, and many unwanted children were simply thrown away. Orphanages and foster care was unheard of – and would have been thought to be madness in the ancient world. So, when Jesus gave priority to children (as in “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”) in chapters 18 and 19, Jesus was announcing a changed value system – God’s. He does it a different way at the end of 19 and in 20 when he asserts: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Humankind has always been somewhat ambivalent about marriage. There are lots more bad marriages and broken marriages than good ones, leading most people in our age to say “why bother?” We are nearing the point where “living together” has just as many adherents as “marrieds.” But God’s value system says marriage is important, a life-long commitment, serious business that, when messed up, endangers one’s soul.

On the other hand, humankind has never been ambivalent about money. More is better. Rich is good. Yet Jesus says “it’s difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Wealth is the sort of thing that tends to run your life, and it’s always squeezing God out.

Those longing for the kingdom of heaven will never be at home with a worldly value system. And those who prize what the world prizes will find themselves less interested in letting God rule their lives.

Wednesday, December 4. Matthew 16 – 18

Matthew 16 contains the first of only two references to the “church” in the gospels. The second one is in chapter 18. Something new is appearing here, signified also by name changes. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, because he was to be the father of a multitude. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, also the new name of the coming nation of God. Peter’s name change here signifies another change: God’s kingdom would be known as the “church.”

Much ink has been spilled on the reference to the foundation of the church. Jesus says Peter’s new name is “rock” (Peter) and upon “this rock I will build my church.” Was the foundation to be Peter? The word for “Peter” in the first instance, however, and the word for “rock” in the second instance, while both meaning the same thing, are none-the-less, two different words. One (“Peter”) is masculine, the other (“rock”) is feminine. If Jesus meant Peter was the rock on which the church was founded, why didn’t he use the same word?

Better is the interpretation that the foundation of the Church is the “Christ, the son of the living God” whom Peter confesses. This adheres exactly with the teaching of the apostles (1 Corinthians 3:11).

Of greater interest is Jesus’ comment about the “gates of hell” not prevailing against the church. For some reason, most commentators presume this means hell will not overcome the Church. And yet, the text does not presume hell is the aggressor. The Church is the aggressor. The gates of hell are not the weapons of hell, but the protection of hell.
For far too long the Church has lamented the impact of the world and the forces of evil on Christ’s kingdom. But the Church was never intended to be a passive victim of Satan. The power of Christ is to prevail – if we will but use it. To “rescue the perishing and care for the dying, snatching them in pity from sin and the grave” is our mission. The gates of hell stand against us, but they will not prevail – if we will but persistently and purposefully press our cause. It’s when Christians sit back and do little to nothing, faithlessly bemoaning our imagined vulnerabilities that Hell’s gates open and we become the victims.

We must stop playing “defense” and get on the offensive.