Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Day 12: Encounters with Skeptics

Summary: Chapter 12

  • Lord of the Sabbath

  • Healing on the Sabbath?

  • The Chosen Servant

  • Casting Out Demons

  • He Who is Not with Me is Against Me

  • Good Tree, Good Fruit

  • Give Us a Sign

  • Who is My Mother?

An overall theme for this day might be, “Haven’t we covered some of this ground before?” Indeed, we have! Perhaps the events and questions that arise once again will give us new opportunities to see deeper into what our Lord wants us to know. There are also a few instances of what might be called, “discontinuities” – where the subject apparently shifts, without being clear as to why.

I’m going to try a new format – new, at least to this blog. Rather than posting the entire chapter, and then following it with comments, each day (for now, anyway) will begin with the chapter summary and some introductory comments. Then, each subdivision will begin with the text from the Gospel for that day, followed by comments. That might make things a little more coherent. I’m open to suggestions, if there is something you’d like to see here.

Lord of the Sabbath

12:1 At that time, Jesus went on the Sabbath day through the grain fields. His disciples were hungry and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 12:2 But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said to him, “Behold, your disciples do what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 12:3 But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him; 12:4 how he entered into God’s house, and ate the show bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 12:5 Or have you not read in the law, that on the Sabbath day, the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless? 12:6 But I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 12:7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 12:8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

It was a violation of the Mosaic law to do any work on the Sabbath. Indeed, there was even a limit set on how far you were permitted to walk on the Sabbath. As such, the Pharisees – whose focus, remember, was on strict adherence to the Law – had ample grounds for the charge they made against the disciples. They were harvesting grain (work); they were rubbing the grain between their hands to remove the husks, a crude form of threshing (work); and they were walking in the fields (which was also classified as work). In response, our Lord reminds them of a time when David, while fleeing from King Saul, entered the temple, and ate the bread that the Law required to be placed on the altar in the Temple. Fresh loaves were put out daily; and the old loaves were then reserved to be eaten only by the priests of the Temple.

This incident is found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. It is interesting to note that David went to the Temple to ask for something for his men to eat. When the priest, Ahimelech, told David that the only bread they had was the showbread, David asked if some could be given to his men. Ahimelech said this was possible of the men had not touched women – that is, if they were not ceremonially unclean. When David replied that his men were not unclean, Ahimelech gave David the bread for him and his men to eat. How was it that Ahimelech could do this? He recognized that the ceremonial law could be set aside to meet genuine needs; and that compassion for others is the foundation upon which the Law was established. The Pharisees seem to have forgotten this, in their zeal to obey the outward requirements of the Law. Our Lord also questions the Pharisees on the apparent contradiction of the Law that regularly took place on the Sabbath. No work was to be done, yet the priests of the Temple made the sacrifices appointed for the day – which was, after all, their work. So, clearly, the “blanket prohibition” against work of the Pharisees was lacking in understanding; something that becomes all the more clear in Isaiah 58:6-7, where the Lord, through the prophet, says that an acceptable day of fasting – required in the Law – is one on which wickedness ceases, the yoke of oppression is removed, and bread is given to those who are hungry. Biblical scholars that they were, the Pharisees thus were not ignorant of how the Law could be interpreted along the lines our Lord set before them.

In verse 7, we come to the first of the repetitions of incidents, when our Lord tells them, as He did in chapter 9, verse 10, that they do not understand the command of the Lord, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” This, too, is guidance into the proper interpretation of the Law. More than that: The place of the Law for the people of God is changing; for the Lord Who gave the Law has now come into the midst of His people; the Lord Who ordered the keeping of the Sabbath is the Lord of the Sabbath.

Who is the “Son of Man?” It is a title that Jesus (and only Jesus) uses, presumably, in reference to Himself. The prophet Daniel has a vision in which he sees someone he describes as, “like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” who is brought to the “Ancient of Days,” and given sovereign power, glory, and authority to act. The son of man, says Daniel, shall be worshipped by all nations in a kingdom that will never end. (Dan. 7:13-14)

Healing on the Sabbath?

12:9 He departed there, and went into their synagogue. 12:10 And behold there was a man with a withered hand. They asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?” that they might accuse him. 12:11 He said to them, “What man is there among you, who has one sheep, and if this one falls into a pit on the Sabbath day, won’t he grab on to it, and lift it out? 12:12 Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath day.” 12:13 Then he told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out; and it was restored whole, just like the other. 12:14 But the Pharisees went out, and conspired against him, how they might destroy him.

The controversy about the Sabbath continues in this pericope. In the synagogue (where the Pharisees taught the Law), Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Once again, the Pharisees question Him, for now it is not His disciples who have worked on the Sabbath, but the Lord Himself. His reply is straightforward: using the example of how no one would hesitate to do “work” by rescuing a farm animal of his, He makes the point we need to know: It is, in fact, lawful to do good on the Sabbath day. For this, the Pharisees begin to conspire against Him.

The Chosen Servant

12:15 Jesus, perceiving that, withdrew from there. Great multitudes followed him; and he healed them all, 12:16 and commanded them that they should not make him known: 12:17 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, 12:18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen; my beloved in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my Spirit on him. He will proclaim justice to the nations. 12:19 He will not strive, nor shout; neither will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 12:20 He won’t break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a smoking flax, until he leads justice to victory. 12:21 In his name, the nations will hope.”

The closing verses here are a quotation from the book of the prophet Isaiah (42:1-4). This is one of four “servant songs” found in Isaiah. These “servant songs” are interpreted as references to the Messiah, whose coming the Jews still await, but whom Christians identify with our Lord Jesus. The word, “Messiah” means “the Lord’s Anointed One” – the same meaning as the word, “Christ.” Why would the Lord direct the crowds not to tell anyone who He was? This takes place repeatedly in the Gospels. (See, for example, ch. 8:4) Some commentators say that this was to avoid being seen primarily as a miracle worker; or that He did not want the teaching aspect of His mission to be overshadowed by miraculous healings; or that He did not want to provoke a response that would result in His death before His mission had been completed. St. John Chrysostom tells us that He did so to teach us to avoid boasting about anything we have accomplished, even in the service of God. Instead, we are to give the glory for anything we have been able to do to God, Who has given us life, and the abilities and opportunities to do what we might otherwise be tempted to take credit for ourselves.

Casting Out Demons

12:22 Then one possessed by a demon, blind and mute, was brought to him and he healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. 12:23 All the multitudes were amazed, and said, “Can this be the son of David?” 12:24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “This man does not cast out demons, except by Beelzebul, the prince of the demons.” 12:25 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. 12:26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 12:27 If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your children cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 12:28 But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. 12:29 Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man, and plunder his goods, unless he first bind the strong man? Then he will plunder his house.”

The crowd, witnessing the Lord casting out a demon that had made a man blind and mute, asks, “Can this be the son of David?” This title was one by which the Jews regularly referred to the Messiah. (We first saw this title in Matthew 1:1 – “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”) The Pharisees repeat the accusation they made before (in Matt. 10:25) – “He casts out demons by the prince of demons” – Beelzebul. (See the discussion about this name in the entry for chapter 10.) Our Lord replies by pointing out the logical fallacy of their argument – how can Satan’s kingdom survive if those who serve him – the demons – are also cast out by him? Our Lord is also not the only person who is casting out demons; remember, the twelve were given this ability when they were sent out on their missionary journey in chapter 10. He then confronts them with the reality of the situation, which they did not seem to want to face: if it is illogical for Satan to cast out his servants, then it is only possible for them to be cast out by the power of God; and since this is taking place in their presence, it can only mean that the kingdom of God has, as foretold by St. John the Baptizer, and proclaimed by our Lord Jesus, come into their midst. He then reinforces the point with the example of the person who enters the house of the “strong man” – Satan – and ties him up, so as to plunder his house. This we understand as what will take place when our Lord descends into hades, breaks the bars of the gates of death, and leads from there the souls of those held captive by death. He enters the house of the “strong man”; binds him; and plunders what had, until that time, belonged to him. St. John Chrysostom, by the way, points out that it is not that Satan is “strong”; rather, this speaks to the tyranny he had over us, which is based upon our transgressions.

He Who is Not with Me is Against Me

12:30 “He who is not with me is against me, and he who doesn’t gather with me, scatters. 12:31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. 12:32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in that which is to come.

Keep verse 30 in mind; we’re going to encounter a verse that appears to directly contradict it. Not right away; but we’ll get there, by God’s grace. The verse means exactly what it says, by the way. But what is the “blasphemy against the Spirit” that will not be forgiven?

Some commentators say that the context of this part of chapter 12 suggests that this sin is giving Satan credit for the miracles done in the power of the Holy Spirit. St. John Chrysostom sees it as being aware that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that demons are cast out, but denying this and instead saying that it is done by the power of Satan, as if ignorant of the truth. Granted, these descriptions are almost the same; but the deliberate choice to ignore the truth and proclaim a lie, as St. John points out, means that those who have done so have hardened their heart; and this to such a degree that, like the angels, those who commit this sin will refuse to change their minds, and repent – and so there is no forgiveness for them.

Good Tree, Good Fruit
12:33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt; for the tree is known by its fruit. 12:34 You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. 12:35 The good man out of his good treasure brings out good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings out evil things. 12:36 I tell you that every idle word that men speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. 12:37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Does this really need any explanation? I didn’t think so!

Give Us a Sign

12:38 Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 12:39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, but no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah the prophet. 12:40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 12:41 The men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, someone greater than Jonah is here. 12:42 The queen of the south will rise up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, someone greater than Solomon is here. 12:43 But the unclean spirit, when he is gone out of the man, passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and doesn’t find it. 12:44 Then he says, ‘I will return into my house from which I came out,’ and when he has come back, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 12:45 Then he goes, and takes with himself seven other spirits more evil than he is, and they enter in and dwell there. The last state of that man becomes worse than the first. Even so will it be also to this evil generation.”

This is an interesting exchange, because, in fact, signs of the Kingdom were being presented – for those who wanted to see them. Remember the dialogue between our Lord and the disciples of St. John the Baptizer at the beginning of chapter 11. What signs? “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:5) Why, then, do the scribes and Pharisees given the answer set forth here?

The scribes are the teachers of the Law; the Pharisees are strict followers of the Law. Of all those in Israel, these groups should have been best equipped to recognize the Messiah when He came; but instead they are called an evil and adulterous generation, for they had not kept faith with God and the covenant God had established with them. Even so, our Lord tells them what to look for, by citing events they should have known for themselves: Jonah, who was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights; and who then went to the city of Nineveh, and warned them of the wrath of God about to come upon them – to which they responded by repentance and amendment of their ways, and so were spared. They believed the prophet of God, even without any miraculous sign – and now one greater than Jonah has come to them, and they will not believe. This is why the people of that pagan city will condemn the people of God who did not recognize when the Messiah had come. So, too, the queen of the south, who came to King Solomon to learn of earthly matters as understood by his great wisdom. Yet the Christ, Who possesses a wisdom of things of heaven, otherwise inexpressible, is not welcomed by those who should have known Him, and so they are condemned.

Who is My Mother?

12:46 While he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, seeking to speak to him. 12:47 One said to him, “Behold, your mother and your brothers stand outside, seeking to speak to you.” 12:48 But he answered him who spoke to him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 12:49 He stretched out his hand towards his disciples, and said, “Behold, my mother and my brothers! 12:50 For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Here again, we have a very straightforward presentation. In the services of the Orthodox Church, we often hear this passage read for the feasts of the Theotokos. It is not, as some non-Orthodox interpret this, a rejection of the importance the Church has always had with respect to the Mother of God; rather, it is an expansion of the privilege of being considered a member of the household of our Lord, which cannot but also include the virgin who gave birth to Him – His Mother. What is the criterion for being included? All those who, as did our Lord, do the will of God are members of His household, He being our older brother – and if we are related to Him, then we are also related to her – right? Of course, right!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

No comments: