Posts tagged Israel
In today’s reading, the author continues to develop the theme I discussed yesterday – linking Israel’s history, heroes and prophets to the revelation of Jesus Christ. In this reading, however, the focus is primarily on the ancient law, the sacrifices required and the priests who administered them.
Throughout these chapters, we are shown examples of the traditional Jewish “way” and then are told about the new way that goes even further than the old one. For example, the priests sacrificed with the blood of animals, but Jesus sacrificed with his own blood. The priests had to go back time and time again, but Jesus’ great sacrifice was once and for all.
These are important points, especially for the original Jewish audience. One of the accusations against Jesus and his followers is that they were breaking with ancient traditions, customs and laws. Here, the author tries to show how the life and acts of Jesus are actually rooted in the same foundation as the law, but go beyond it.
There is an attempt to help the reader (including us) to understand that the old law and old covenant do not compete with Jesus and the new covenant, but that they have, essentially, a common ancestry. “The Law,” as it was given to Moses, wasn’t the beginning of all morality or spirituality. God had principles prior to the law. There was a “moral ethos,” if you will, that flowed out from God even prior to the creation of the world.
It is from that ethos that both the old covenant and the new covenant flow. Like siblings or cousins united in common ancestry, these two covenants are similar, but not the same. The first was all about representation. It was a facsimile of heaven and of heavenly principles. The second covenant was something different – similar though it may have been.
The second covenant – the agreement that God made with us through Jesus – tapped in directly to the ethos of God. In this, there was no “stand-in” priest and no “stand-in” blood. There was Jesus, the high priest eternal, and his blood, the sacrifice eternal. The benefits, then, for all of us would no longer be the temporal things of this world – “stand-in” blessings – but would be the eternal blessings of heaven.
This is a big deal! We went from the playhouse to the real house, from the toy kitchen to the real thing. To be sure, that kind of transition comes with a new level of responsibility, but who would want to go back to the facsimile after experiencing the real thing? Sure, it might be more fun to “play house” than to pay a mortgage and put a new roof on a real house, but is that what you would really want your life to be like – just living in a pretend house in someone else’s living room? It’s a silly notion, right?
So, too, is the notion that we would operate under the old, temporal, stand-in covenant when we have the real deal available to us through Jesus. Like the real house and real stove, this new covenant comes with responsibilities, but it also comes with enormous freedom. Why would we ever go back?
Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet is one that is quoted often. It’s a great story of how the high-and-mighty ignore God, who, in turn, extends a hand of invitation to the lowest of the low. However, in most re-tellings of the story, the last few verses are left out. Whether this is because they don’t seem to jibe with the rest of the story or because they just add a new wrinkle which would, consequently need to be unpacked, I’m not sure. But I think these verses are actually really telling.
You see, after the chosen people – the invited guests – have ignored the king’s invitation, he offers and open invitation to everyone. Suddenly, everyone is invited. But one man accepts the invitation without making any effort to “change” – that is, he doesn’t change his clothes. Now, the implication here is not that the man is unable to afford such clothes or that he doesn’t have any. He simply didn’t put forth the effort to change into appropriate attire. Because of his laziness, he is removed from the banquet.
These lesson here is clear. God’s message was brought to the people of Israel, but they rejected it. In fact, they rejected it over and over again. Even after witnessing the birth, life and ministry of the Messiah, they still rejected God’s plan. And so, the rest of the world was invited into the special banquet prepared just for Israel.
However, being invited doesn’t make one a welcomed guest. If I invite you to my house for dinner, but you show up smelling like sewage and looking like you just crawled out of a manhole, I will probably send you home. You were invited, but the way in which you responded to the invitation tells me that you are not willing to put forth any effort.
Likewise, God expects us to put for effort when we respond to his invitation. For some of us, that may mean a complete purification of our life. Others who have less emotional energy to expend may please God simply by making an attempt to clean up one part of their life. For God, it isn’t really about the proverbial “wedding clothes.” It’s about whether or not we’re willing to take the time and expend the energy to change.
We are called to change into a better version of ourselves – a person more like the one God created. Our wedding clothes look an awful lot like the ones we were born with – they way we were before we began making decisions to crawl through all that muck and sewage. The good news is, we all have those wedding clothes and that God, in the form of Jesus, opened up a cleaning service to help prepare us for his banquet. The cleaning is free. All we have to do is ask.
Once again, there is so much to unpack in these three chapters of Matthew. However, there is one encounter that seems so out of character for Jesus that I feel the need to address is here. In chapter 15, a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus asking him to deliver her daughter from a demon. The exchange is awkward at best:
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” (Matthew 15:24-28)
What’s going on here? Is Jesus actually calling this woman a dog? How could Jesus, the guy who is supposed to be full of love and who sees everyone as a child of God call someone a dog?
But it’s not that simple. You see, Jesus here is expressing a couple of different thoughts. First of all, there is the true expression of Jesus’ mission. He did come for the people of Israel. His coming had been promised to them. They were his primary mission. His disciples would be tasked with spreading the good news about him to the rest of the world. And so, Jesus was hesitant to spread his ministry beyond Israel. However, this wouldn’t be the first or last time that he healed a non-Jew.
So, why is he so emphatic about not healing this girl that he calls her mother a dog? First, I think we have to understand that to the people of Israel, Canaanites were 2nd class citizens – or worse – who had little to no value. They were, essentially, dogs. In fact, Jesus may have use a common local phrase when he referred to them as such. But did Jesus really feel that way?
I think Jesus, here, was using a little sarcasm (as he was known to do) to teach a valuable lesson not only to the crowds around him, but to his disciples and to the religious leaders as well. Here was a woman – a Canaanite woman, a “dog” – who, because of her faith, would see her child healed by the Messiah whom the people of Israel rejected.
Jesus himself was the “children’s bread,” and it was wrong of the “children” – the people of Israel – to throw that bread away. However, if they were willing to “toss it to the dogs,” then it would nourish the dogs. If the people of Israel were going to reject Jesus, but this woman from Canaan had faith in him, then he would give her the gift that Had been meant for them.
You see, Jesus isn’t as interested in geography as he is in the condition of our heart. He doesn’t care as much about where your from as he does about where your devotion lies. In Jesus’ kingdom, there are simply those with faith and those without it. To those with faith come the riches of his kingdom. To those without, nothing. Better to be a faithful “dog” than an unfaithful child.
The prophecy of Nahum against Nineveh sounds like the sequel to Jonah’s prophecy. Indeed, Nahum’s prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction came about 150 years after Jonah’s. The difference this time, of course, is that Nineveh didn’t respond by turning to God. The result would be the destruction of Nineveh somewhere around 600BC.
While the people of Israel and all the surrounding nations would have applauded this destruction (Nineveh was truly an evil empire) I think it’s noteworthy that much of the language used against Nineveh echos that which was used against Israel. In fact, I wonder if the nation of Nineveh was not used as an example for the people of Israel.
Remember, prophecy was highly revered in Israel and prophets, even when they were unpopular, were held in high esteem. And so, here comes the prophet Nahum speaking destruction over Nineveh (good news for Israel) using the same kind of language that many prophets used against Israel.
It is as if God is reminding the people of Israel that if they respond like Nineveh did in he days of Jonah, they will reap all the rewards that a loving God will heap on his children. But, if they instead become like the Nineveh of 150 years later, even if they are hugely successful economically and socially, God will expose them for who they are and will destroy them.
It’s interesting to note that we aren’t talking about “good Nineveh” and “bad Nineveh”. Jonah’s Nineveh and Nahum’s were both known to be full of unscrupulous people. The only real difference is their response to God. In this way, these stories serve as both a warning about our actions and as a source of hope that no matter how far we stray, all God is asking is that we come back to him – to just turn toward him.
There are those who would say that God’s mercy is unfair – that for a wicked city or person to be pardoned just because they are repentant is letting them off too easy. And, in a sense, they would be right. Mercy is unfair. But it is unfair in a way that saves even the most wicked and does no harm to the most saintly. It’s a win-win…unless, of course, we’re keeping score.
In the book of Genesis, we read about the first couple, Adam and Eve, and their initiation of sin in the world. As the first humans to become defiled by sin, they would receive a great punishment – primarily the fact that the would be separated from God in the sense that the relationship they had enjoyed with him would be replaced by something less.
Here, in the book of Amos, we find God revisiting that original punishment when he speaks of a famine that is worse than a famine of food or water:
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. (Amos 8:11)
Now, you might think that a group of people who had essentially turned their backs on God wouldn’t really be all that upset if he didn’t speak to them for a while. But history has shown us that the people of Israel would become greatly distressed by God’s silence. In fact, in the time period post-Old Testament and pre-New Testament, God withdrew from his people and quit speaking to them.
And it occurs to me that famine of relationship (that’s what God was actually warning against) really is the worst kind of famine. And it’s the kind of famine that you have no ability to control. If there is a shortage of food or water, you tell yourself, “If I travel far enough, I’ll come across some water or some food. With relational famine, you are completely at the mercy of the other person – or, in this case, deity.
God wants to have a strong relationship with us. He wants to have an intimate relationship with us. And yet, we turn our backs so often and so defiantly that every now and then, he decides to take a break from us – to severe that relationship. Of course, no matter how hardened we are, at our core, we were designed to be in a relationship with him. And so, suddenly, our relationship with God, which always took a back burner in the past, now becomes priority number one – front and center in our lives.
In a way, it’s a blessing when God distances himself, because it reminds us of our need for him and of his great love for us.