Children

In a conversation with a friend, they mentioned in passing something one of their children had done that disappointed them. With my usual sardonic sense of humor I immediately responded, “That was your mistake — having children!” The fact that I have no children added edge to the outrageousness of the joke.

We both laughed. My friend sighed a bit.

In the middle of the night I woke up thinking about the statement in the Bible that comes within half a dozen chapters of the description of God creating mankind.

Genesis 6: 6. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 

God’s solution to His pain was to wipe out His work in man almost completely. He found one man to start over with. And that man, Noah, would still have trouble with children.

My thoughts went to a passage I had recently read that mentions children.

Matthew 11: 16. “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17. “`We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 

That’s the way children are, of course. They can’t be any other way, can they? They don’t know any better. They’re children.

The problem they have is the same one that took out Adam and Eve. They reach a conclusion based on what they see, what they can understand, as limited as the data is.

There is also the subtle distortion of expectation. They expect a certain result from playing a flute and that is all they look for. They (and we) dismiss anything else that may be happening. If it does not fit the template of our expectation or desire, it doesn’t matter.

In my book On Pelican Wings I wrote about an extraordinary demonstration of the phenomenon that became known as “inattentional blindness,” the failure to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected object because attention is engaged on another task, event, or object.

In the experiment, people were asked to watch a video where two teams of players passed and bounced a basketball around. Viewers were asked to count the number of times the white-shirt team passed the ball to another white-shirt player. Most viewers had no trouble keeping an accurate count over a couple of minutes watching the video clip.

What nobody noticed in the middle of the video was an additional person who walked onto the court between the other players. This person was fully dressed in a bear costume and stopped briefly in the middle of the court to turn and wave at the camera!

No one had been asked to watch for someone in a bear costume. Their attention was elsewhere, expectations were elsewhere. So they missed it.

Like children who don’t hear a parent calling them off a playground.

I noticed that Jesus doesn’t seem to be criticizing the children for what they are expecting. The trouble seems to be that they call out to others and want others to conform to their own stunted expectation. They distract others from seeing what is going on.

A few verses after citing this problem in children, Jesus changed direction and gave thanks for what children could see. God Himself was revealing things to them that were hidden from others who took pride in their own clarity of vision and insight.

Matthew 11: 25. At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

God takes joy in showing His work to those who will notice it, whether they understand it or not. Viewing God’s wonders should indeed fill us with wonder.

And, apparently, God has learned the safe way to  show us His work. That way was explained to Paul.

II Corinthians 12: 7. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
8. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
9. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Children are weak. But let me speak plainly. WE are weak. I am weak. I am prone to inattentional blindness because I am looking for something else, not what God is doing. Not what He is giving me: a gift of grace and a manifestation of perfect power.

I don’t notice because the thorns are distracting me.

Matthew 19: 14. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

I am noticing that the Jesus inviting me to come near is wearing a crown of thorns.

Say hello to the bear.

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Matthew’s balance sheet

Reading slowly through the Gospel of St. Matthew, I have started to wonder if the reason God arranged for Matthew’s Gospel to be placed first in the New Testament is because, as a tax collector, he was used to working with balance sheets. Matthew does not hesitate to list expenses alongside any profits there may be in following Jesus.

You would expect any salesman to emphasize and lead with as many positive features of the product as possible. Expenses, exclusions, and limits would be shoved into tiny print in the back of the contract. He would hope your eyes glazed over before trying to read them. Instead, Matthew is including unsettling information right from the beginning.

Mary is engaged to be married. She’s joyful and excited! Then, on top of that, she is visited by an angel! God thinks she is special! Except…

Joseph concludes he shouldn’t marry her after all because of what Mary told him about that angel’s visit.

Dignitaries from foreign lands come seeking an audience with the young, poor couple. They bring fabulous, expensive gifts!

Then the local king sends assassins to kill their baby, forcing them to flee for their lives to Egypt (of all places for a Jew to seek shelter).

That’s just Matthew’s first couple of chapters. Matthew is also frank with the hard edges in the stories of others who were witnesses to Jesus. I think particularly of the mentions of John the Baptist.

Matthew is the one who notes that John expected to be baptized by Jesus and was surprised when Jesus wanted it the other way around (Matthew 3:14). John, the disciple, left John, the Baptist, to follow Jesus when he heard his first teacher calling Jesus “the Lamb of God.” (John 1:36-37) It was the whole purpose of John’s ministry to make that declaration. But John the Baptist’s life took a painful turn. Matthew, who has just been reciting Jesus’ warnings to his disciples about the resistance they would face for their witness (Matthew 10), immediately returns to the story of John the Baptist, now in prison for his witness, suffering doubts about whether he had properly identified Jesus (Matthew 11:1ff).

Jesus  went on to proclaim that “among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer.” But Jesus didn’t take any steps to release John from the prison where, shortly, he was martyred.

A balance sheet account of profit and loss.

The thought struck me that the story of John the Baptist in the New Testament is like that of Job in the Old Testament. He, too, was such a dedicated worshiper of God that God Himself bragged about him. But that is not what we usually remember about Job. There are all those losses, all that confusion and pain.

From the start, God records the profits and losses His followers experience, with His full knowledge and permission. Perhaps He has left these stories to help us take in the stunning vision of His own Son, “with whom I am well pleased,” (Matthew 3:17) dying in agony on a cross. God is completely familiar with profits and losses.

So perhaps that’s why he gave Matthew the task of introducing Jesus to the record of scriptures. Matthew was familiar with balance sheets, too.

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Immanuel’s peace

I was reading Matthew 10 where Jesus has just chosen his twelve disciples and is sending them out on their first evangelistic mission.

He instructs them on finding lodging:

Matthew 10:11. “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave.
12. As you enter the home, give it your greeting.
13. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it…”

How do you do that, I wondered. How did they do that?

At the Last Supper, Jesus talked about this gift of peace.

John 14: 27. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Jesus said he left his peace with us. How do I receive it or hang onto it?

By the end of that gathering, Jesus told them:

John 16: 33. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.”

So, in some way, receiving peace from God involves understanding what He has to say to us. That’s a key to passing the gift along to others. But it cannot be entirely an intellectual transaction. Paul spoke of the gift as being something that was greater than what our minds could comprehend. God’s peace could be sensed in both the mind and heart.

Philippians 4:7 The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I think any lack of peace rises out of unanswered questions that I have. These are not just trivial questions. I would say questions about where my food and clothing are coming from are not trivial. I think questions like these deserve answers. My life depends on them. Yet Jesus explicitly says I shouldn’t worry about them, as basic and necessary as they are.

Matthew 6: 31. “So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’
32. For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

God knows what I need. He will supply. So, why worry?

Question: is peace simply the absence of worry in my heart? Is that why Jesus tells us not to be anxious? Because it spoils his gift of peace?

Not that I am supposed to be idle. God does have something He wants me to put my heart to.

Matthew 6: 33. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

It’s doable. But my focus slips easily. It’s why Satan found it so easy to tempt Adam and Eve with good-looking food. When God bragged about how Job was holding up against Satan’s first round of attacks, Satan contemptuously dismissed it.

Job 2: 5. “Stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

When it’s my own body feeling pain, Satan expects me to loose sight of whatever peace of God I may have known yesterday.

At those moments, I must remember the Name of the one who gave me that peace. He is Immanuel, God with us. (Matthew 1:23) Has the one who came to be with me changed his mind about how much he cares for me? Has his peace disappeared just because I turned to look for peace somewhere else?

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Healing

There are five particular healings from Jesus that Matthew reports after his account of The Sermon on the Mount that have lately been on my mind. Four of these are also reported, in a different order, in the Gospels of Mark and Luke (and sometimes Mark and Luke report them in greater detail).

Looking at these five together I noticed what, at first, seemed an inconsistency. After reflection, I have ended up refining my understanding of the place of healing in the ministry of Jesus, and in my own ministry.

The five healing encounters I have in mind are:

1.  A leper (Matthew 8:2-4).

(Matthew next records a centurion’s request of healing for his servant, earning an enormous compliment from Jesus. I pass by this one for now.)

2.  Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee and casts out the legion of demons tormenting a man (Matthew says there were two men – Matthew 8:28-34).

3.  The paralyzed man lowered through the roof by his friends (Matthew 9:2-7).

4.  Jesus brings the daughter of Jairus back to life (Matthew 9:18-26).

5.  Jesus restores sight to two blind men (Matthew 9:27-30. Mark and Luke have reports of other healings of blind people different from this one.)

Here is what caught my attention, now adding Matthew’s report to those from Mark and Luke. Jesus tells the leper to tell nobody about his healing except the priest.

In Gadara, the newly freed man wants to join Jesus and go back across the lake with him. Jesus tells him no, and instead instructs him to go home and tell his family and friends what has happened to him (Mark 5:19, Luke 8:39).

Before the paralyzed man or his friends can make any request of Jesus, Jesus makes the choice for the man and declares his sins forgiven. When the scribes frown, Jesus also heals the man. Since it all happened in front of hostile witnesses, Jesus says nothing about anybody talking or not talking about it.

When Jesus raises  Jairus’ young daughter back to life, both Mark (5:43) and Luke (8:56) note that Jesus instructed her parents to tell no one about it.

When Jesus restores sight to the two blind men, he also instructs them to keep quiet about it.

To some he orders that they keep mum about their healing. Others are told to share the testimony openly. How shall we sort this out?

In the case of the centurion, it might be that Jesus did not want to start any argument about a mere Jewish rabbi giving orders to a Roman military leader.

In the case of the Gadarene demoniac, I am assuming the fellow was Jewish. There were a few Jews scattered about, living in that Gentile territory. Jesus submitted to the wishes of the Gentile majority that was asking him to leave. But he assigned the task of still announcing the good news to this Jewish man staying behind, who would be able to share that news with family and friends in the Jewish community.

Jairus and the two blind men were Jews living in a Jewish land. And Jesus did not want them talking about the miracles done for them.

I have begun to think the reason for this was given to the scribes who saw him, first, forgive, and then heal the paralyzed man let down through the roof. Jesus did not want to be known primarily as a healer. He healed all who asked. But he had a purpose, God had a purpose in granting such miraculous signs.

The purpose was “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Matthew 9:6) That was the priority. Anyone who took their healing and returned to living their life by their own desires missed the point of Jesus’ mission.

That priority explains why Jesus’ choice for the paralyzed man was to give him what he really needed, what we all need, not just what the man thought he needed most.

It explains why, as Matthew wraps up the narrative in chapter 9, he quotes Jesus saying sadly, “The harvest indeed is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (9:37) He is sad not because people are sick. He is sad because they are in darkness, “harassed and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd.”

His priority was always to fix that problem first.

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Witnesses

There is one story in the life of Jesus where two requests for his prayers got tangled up. Jairus, a synagogue ruler, had a dying daughter. He begged Jesus to come and heal her. On the way to Jairus’ house, a woman who had suffered an issue of blood for twelve years reached out of the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’s garment. She was instantly healed and Jesus stopped to find out “who touched me.” During this interruption, word came that Jairus’ daughter had died. Jesus finished speaking with the woman who had interrupted them, went on to Jairus’ home, and raised the little girl back to life.

The story appears in the first three Gospel in the New Testament (Matthew 9:18 ff, Mark 5:22 ff, and Luke 8:4 ff). I wrote separate chapters about this “interruption” episode in my book, The Mystery of Faith, exploring the faith Jesus saw in both Jairus and the woman.

The other day I was rereading the story in Matthew’s Gospel and noticed something. Matthew says that when Jairus approached Jesus, the daughter was already dead and Jairus was asking Jesus to bring her back to life. (Matthew 9:18)

If this is what happened, it means Jairus showed more faith than anybody else in the whole Bible. No one else ever thought to ask Jesus to raise the dead. And this is not the way Mark and Luke tell the story. So we have a small problem. Can we trust what Matthew says if he gets a thing like this wrong? By his own account, this incident happened after Jesus recruited Matthew to join his band of followers, so he was presumably an eyewitness. How can we answer critics who would say inconsistencies like this mean we can never believe anything the Bible says?

God gave the rule of thumb concerning human witnesses on any important matter.

Deuteronomy 19:15  At the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established.

By this rule, the two harmonious witnesses of Mark and Luke outweigh Matthew on this point. When Jairus first approached Jesus, he was asking for healing for a daughter who was near death but still alive.

Matthew usually has the shortest version of the ministry episodes of Jesus. Perhaps his tendency to abbreviate explains how he summarized this one. The real climax was that Jesus did, in fact, go on with Jairus after the other woman interrupted them. Jesus did so because he was going to raise the young girl back to life. Matthew’s headline version is not exactly incorrect. It just lacks details that Mark and Luke included. Matthew was more interested in devoting space to the teaching of Jesus. For instance, he spends three chapters (5-7) on The sermon on the Mount while Luke takes only half a chapter for his account (Luke 6). Mark skips it entirely.

We have other examples in the Bible where important historical moments were recorded more than once. The history of Israel’s experience under the rule of kings is given first in the books of Samuel and Kings, and then repeated in two books of Chronicles. And there are differences between them. For example, compare the accounts of the dedication of the First Temple: one chapter long in I Kings 6, but stretching into three chapters in II Chronicles 5, 6, and 7.

The story of the Exodus runs over four books of Moses. Highlights are mentioned in several individual Psalms (78, 95, 106 etc.).

The fact that different versions include different levels of detail does not invalidate them.

Of course, there is evidence from the beginning that humans could be fuzzy and even exaggerate their witness. God told Adam and Eve not to “eat” fruit from one tree in the Garden (Genesis 2:17). Eve told the serpent that God had said, “You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it.” (Genesis 3:3)

This tendency to drift from accuracy in their witness suggests why God said two people had to agree in their stories before any second-hand claim was to be received. Such harmony in witness claims was intended to counteract the human inclination to “improve” stories. As Jesus said, it was enough to say yes or no. Anything more was from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37)

It is also interesting to note that, when it came to providing written witnesses for His Son’s life, God doubled His own minimum.

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Four evangelist faces

St. Michael is the patron saint for the Scottish village of Linlithgow. The village has two parish churches. One is Roman Catholic, the other is Church of Scotland. Both of them are named St. Michael’s.

St. Michael’s (Scottish) has a stained glass window devoted to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the four evangelists who wrote the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament. Here is a close-up of their faces.

As was common practice in traditional church art, each Evangelist has a second figure close by. These figures have the features of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle.

Here is another example of those four figures.

I was not raised in a church that paid any attention to such old decorations and traditions. Whenever I came across this one, I always found the assortment of beasts an odd way to identify the four Gospel writers, much less Jesus himself.

Now I have stumbled upon the apparent source of this tradition.

The earliest written discussion assigning these four figures to the four Gospels dates back to the year 398 AD. It is found in the preface that St. Jerome wrote for his commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

First, he drew attention to the vision Ezekiel describes in the first chapter of his book.

Ezekiel 1:10  As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man. The four of them had the face of a lion on the right side. The four of them had the face of an ox on the left side. The four of them also had the face of an eagle.

St. Jerome next pointed to the fact that St. John reported seeing the same thing in his visions of Heaven.

Revelation 4:6  In the middle of the throne, and around the throne were four living creatures full of eyes before and behind. 7 The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle.

St. Jerome finally took note of how each Evangelist had begun their Gospel, and connected the dots with the four faces of these visions.

The first face of a man signifies Matthew, who began his narrative as though about a man: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The second face signifies Mark, in who the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness is heard: “A voice of one shouting in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The third is the face of the calf which prefigures that the evangelist Luke began with Zechariah the priest [sacrificing the cattle brought as offerings was of course a priest’s duty — RH]. The fourth face signifies John the evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God.

St. Jerome was writing only five years after bishops at a Church council had finally made a declaration of the canon of the New Testament’s 27 books, formally and finally rejecting various other documents floating around claiming authorship by one disciple or another. St. Jerome took the four faces in the Biblical visions as yet another confirmation that the four Gospels recognized by the Church Fathers were sufficient to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

…By all these things it is plainly shown that only the four Gospels ought to be received…

I am grateful to finally find such an early explanation of this long-honored tradition. Now the faces of these four images will serve me as Christian symbols and art were always intended to do: they are visual shorthand reminding me and always pointing back to what God has said in His Word, and to the gift given to us by Jesus Christ.

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Vending machines

I thought of a row of vending machines with soft drinks and snacks.

I’m hungry. I go to the first one and put in my coins. Nothing happens. Would it be smart for me to put in more coins and try again? I would not be happy to lose more coins so why throw more of them away? I move on to the next machine and get what I want.

This whole image came to me as I was pondering something Jesus said in Matthew 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.

This command comes well into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has been pointing out, over and over, that we are to live as God’s servants, meeting the needs of others as representatives of His Kingdom. Now suddenly he gives permission to walk away from that job on occasion.

As I was pondering this fact, I remembered that similar permission was granted to his disciples when he sent them out to the “lost sheep of Israel” in Matthew 10. As part of his instructions at that time Jesus told them,

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” (verse 14)

He sends them out to announce the Kingdom of God and then says it’s okay to quit at some point.

As I grew up in church, the usual thing I heard was that good Christians must go out and “win souls for Jesus.” We were not encouraged to give up, but rather told to expect rejection. Jesus is very clear about the vehemence of the opposition his disciples could expect. What was catching my attention now was that Jesus seemed to be saying there was a limit we could reach, after which it was okay for us to move along to somebody else. I didn’t need to keep shoving coins into a snack machine that wasn’t responding.

I talked this verse over with a friend who was visiting me. I could tell he was also wrestling with the tension between the command to “go and tell” and the permission to give up at some point. As we chewed it over, I realized this permission from Jesus was in recognition of another gift God grants every person: their free will.

To exercise that gift, a person must be given a choice to accept or reject. That is why we are given Kingdom pearls to share with them. Once they are offered, people have a free choice to make on what they want to do with the pearl held out to them.

Jesus described this moment in his parables about dinner invitations sent by a king to his people. (Matthew 22:1ff; Luke 14:15ff) Not everyone was interested and this did anger the king. He responds by destroying those who have rejected the invitation. There is a consequence to their decision. But it is a decision they were free to make at the time. It was only afterwords that they were sorted out and away from the ones who accepted the invitations.

No one could tell, at first, who would accept and who would reject the invitations. All the vending machines look alike at first. It is only after you act, in hope, faith, and trust, and give away your coins, that you can see what the machine will do. That information is not free at first. But once you have the information, it is simply wise to act on it. One way to identify a pig is to see how it treats an expensive, valuable pearl. A pig looking for something to feed its hunger won’t be interested. Giving it more pearls will just cost you time and money, and annoy the pig to boot.

Only God is rich enough to keep doing this. And although He knows ahead of time what the responses will be, He continues to send rain on the just and the unjust. When I studied the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1ff), I became intrigued by the way the Sower seemed to throw seed around without first checking to see if the ground could receive it. Gardeners and farmers today prepare the ground first and then sow seed, and only where the ground is prepared. The Sower in the parable judges soil condition later by seeing what it did with the generously offered seed it received. This is the Kingdom pattern Jesus pointed to for us to follow.

And if that is God’s pattern, I started to wonder if it also explained some of my experience with prayer. Jesus immediately follows up his words about pearls with this:

Matthew 7:7. Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
8. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

I’m a month shy of being three years with the aftermath of a stroke. I have prayed every day since for recovery and relief. I’m still dizzy, sluggish, shackled with damaged muscle control in limbs, throat and eyes.

As I write, a major hurricane is battering Puerto Rico, a week after Irma roared through the Caribbean. There have been prayers for mercy for them for days, including mine. Maria is still there.

There are names crowding the margins of Melanie’s prayer list. The list keeps growing because we can’t take names off very often.

The thought creeps across my mind: is God standing in front of my vending machine, waiting?? He has told me what my number one prayer request and interest should be.

Matthew 6:9 “This, then, is how you should pray: ….”

Is God simply following my lead, reflecting my own behavior back to me when I accept His freely offered grace and drag my feet doing what He has asked for? He has other vending machines He could go to. Why would I expect Him to keep shoving coins into my slot?

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner. And, yes, Father, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. That prayer request always belongs at the head of the list. And You know what Your will involves. I can barely see past my own. It’s a problem. It needs fixing before I have any right to expect, much less ask, for more grace.

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