Further conversation on Matthew 7:13-14: Forgive me for backtracking, but I would like to respond to a comment about these verses. I said I think they are intended more for encouragement than judgment. However, some experience them more as judgment than encouragement. I certainly understand that point of view, and these verses have been used doctrinally to say that not many will make it, so WATCH OUT! I really appreciated these words from The People’s New Testament Commentary. “The ‘many’ and the ‘few’ are not informational, but hortatory. They function not to give a doctrinal statement on how many will be saved, but to exhort and admonish lagging disciples of the urgency of decision which must be made anew every day.” Matthew has put together his gospel for a small group of people, a group that is distinguishing itself from other Jews and from the Roman society in which they also live. The Jesus community in Matthew’s theology is to live a distinctive life in response to what God has done (and continues to do) in Jesus – a life of peacemaking, gentleness, mercy. All the original readers of Matthew’s gospel would have seen themselves already as a part of a unique and narrow way, something distinct from the wide roads of the Roman Empire. Matthew uses these words of Jesus, which will appear in slightly different form later on, to encourage those who have already found the way to hang in there, even when it is hard. Remember, this is but one image Jesus uses. Just a few chapters later, Jesus will say, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:30).
Matthew 12:1-14: Here we have two stories that should be seen in the context on an on-going debate within Judaism about the Sabbath. In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, and of Matthew’s, keeping the Sabbath was one central element of faithful Jewish practice. That being said, it was also generally agreed at that time that human good took precedence over strict interpretation of Sabbath practices. However, there was debate about the exact application of this notion. If healing did not involve a life threatening condition, might it wait until after the Sabbath? This was a live question in Jesus’ and Matthew’s day. Jesus weighs in on the debate by making a strong case that mercy trumps strict observance. At the heart of Sabbath practice is mercy and justice. Sabbath recognizes that human beings are more than their work, that their very existence is a joy to God and is to be celebrated. Sabbath practice, especially when extended to “Sabbath years,” speaks of justice, as during Sabbath Years debt is to be relieved and special attention is to be given to the poor. If mercy and justice are at the heart of Sabbath, shouldn’t Sabbath practice reflect this, allowing for feeding the hungry and healing the hurting? These stories not only take a position on debates about the meaning of Sabbath, but they assert the authority of Jesus to make such interpretation. This was a threat to other religious authorities, and they began plotting to destroy Jesus. A note in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible helps us understand such a reaction. “Doing mercy and good challenges the elite’s control of the Sabbath by putting the needs of the marginal and desperate ahead of their self-serving system.”
Matthew 12:15-21: In the face of such strong opposition, Jesus withdraws. He does not go into hiding, rather he chooses to concentrate on his healing work rather than on debate with some Pharisees and other religious authorities. Matthew uses verses from the prophet Isaiah to help give a theological reading of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is understood as a suffering servant. Interestingly, the verse speaks of bringing hope to the Gentiles.
Matthew 12:22-32: The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees resumes, and it is inevitable that it would. Jesus continues his work. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place. Certain Pharisees try a new tactic to discredit Jesus. If he casts out demons it is only because he is in league with them. Jesus responds with wit and wisdom. He makes a bold claim – “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God [Matthew until this time has used a more indirect phrase – ‘the kingdom of heaven’] has come has come to you.” That is precisely Matthew’s assertion of what happened in Jesus, the kingdom of God. God’s dream for the world breaks into the world in a remarkable way in Jesus and how a person responds to that makes all the difference for their lives here and now. Yes, there is an “afterlife” dimension, but this was not Jesus’ primary focus. “Jesus’ message and mission were not about ‘heaven,’ not about how to attain a blessed afterlife…. Rather, his mission was about the character of God, the way of centering in God, and the kingdom of God” (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 143-144). Jesus wants people to join in his work of gathering people into God’s work in the world. If you are not about this gathering work, you are probably scattering. Then come two verses which have created tremendous consternation among Christians for centuries – verses that refer to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as something that “will not be forgiven.” These verses are not speculative statements about unpardonable sins, but in the context of Matthew’s gospel, they are a word of judgment against those opposing Jesus in the story. Another way of stating what Matthew seems to be saying is this: “If you don’t see God’s Spirit working through Jesus, how can you receive the blessings of the Spirit’s work through Jesus?” You can’t. You’ve closed yourselves off from what God is doing in Jesus. Eugene Peterson’s rendering of verse 32 is helpful here. If you reject the Son of Man out of some misunderstanding, the Holy Spirit can forgive you, but when you reject the Holy Spirit, you’re sawing off the branch on which you are sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives. Sinning against the Holy Spirit is not something you do once, and then can never be forgiven. It is refusing to receive forgiveness from the one who offers forgiveness. If you then open yourself up to being forgiven, you are no longer “sinning against the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew 12:33-37: Jesus has already used the image of the tree and the fruit in the Sermon on the Mount. Here the focus narrows. Jesus asserts that one’s words and one's heart correspond. This is a direct criticism of the words spoken by the Pharisees in the previous section – attributing Jesus healing work to Beelzebul. The broader implication is that a transformed heart is reflected in one’s words. There may be a little test in here for us. Pay attention to you words. How do they reflect what’s going on in your heart, your soul, your life? How do they indicate some need for inner change?
Matthew 12:38-42: It is amazing, given all that Jesus has done, that some scribes and Pharisees ask for yet more signs. Jesus seems to lose patience with their spiritual tone deafness or color-blindness. The sign of Jonah is a little ambiguous. Was Jesus referring to Jonah’s preaching which when offered led to a change (repentance), or to Jonah disappearing into a great fish? Matthew more clearly than Luke (11:29-32) focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is helpful to remember that the gospel writers were writing well after Jesus' life. They know the end of the story and put hints of it into the earlier story of Jesus. Luke’s version does not allude to the death of Jesus at all. The primary point of this text is the recalcitrance of the scribes and Pharisees in the story. God is at work in Jesus and they do all they can to avoid making a decision about their lives in light of this. Perhaps our lives have been like that sometimes.
Matthew 12:43-45: This is a cryptic saying. In a culture where demon possession and disease were often linked, it was the experience of persons that diseases could recur and come back even more strongly than before. The saying about the wandering demon may make some reference to such experiences. The basic point is that one’s situation can get worse, and so can one’s spiritual situation. In the context of the on-going dispute between Jesus and some of the religious leaders, these verses are probably yet another way of saying these people are missing out on what God is doing in Jesus.
Matthew 12:46-49: This chapter, so filled with conflict between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his day, ends on a note that is positive, but not unambiguously so. While some of the religious leaders have turned away from Jesus, other persons have chosen to follow – to let him lead them closer to God and to doing the work of God in the world. Then there is a more difficult word. Jesus’ family (mother and brothers) want to speak to him. He responds by saying that his real family are those who are about God’s purposes in the world. Those who respond to God and God’s Spirit in Jesus are a new family. It would be unfair to say that Jesus does not care about his family at all, but he makes it clear that there are other loyalties that are even deeper. Jesus is not easily placed into the camp of a champion of “family values.”