Not Simple

January 31, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Matthew 14–18, Psalm 31, Proverbs 31.

Sometimes, I hate the heading markers in my Bible. While they can be helpful for some people at some times, I find more and more that they simply distract. They make it difficult to see—or to remember—that the books are books. Nowhere is this more distracting than in the gospels. The gospels are coherent books. They are not mere collections of stories, arranged haphazardly or tossed together willy-nilly; the authors had a point and purpose in what they were doing, and that point and purpose is hard to see for the constant interruptions in the text. These interruptions, not present in the original, mask the way the pieces fit together—and they mask the surprising ways they do not obviously fit together, too.

Because these are the kinds of questions we should be asking as we read through the book: Why does Matthew transition from Jesus’ rather shocking encounter with his family—the one where he proclaims that his disciples are his family in a way that his biological family is not—to the death of John the Baptist? And why from there to the feeding of the five thousand? And why thence to interactions with the scribes and Pharisees? He is going somewhere with this narrative; where? What does he want us to see?

In John 14, Jesus leaves the crowds behinds to seek respite on hearing of the death of his cousin and fellow servant of Yahweh, John the Baptizer. But then a crowd finds him, and he has compassion on them; he goes out of his way to care for them. Then, a few hundred words later, he compares a Canaanite woman to a dog, using the racially charged language of the Jews. (This should shock the reader, given how Matthew has already had Jesus praise outsiders and proclaim that the kingdom will be composed of those who were far off as well as of those who were near.) But then he blesses her for her faith. Then Matthew follows this story with another case of his feeding a multitude because of his compassion for them. Scattered through all these narratives are his interactions with the Pharisees, whom he repeatedly criticizes in the harshest terms.

Why these particular stories? Why these particular contrasts?

I think it is because Matthew aims to confound his readers in precisely the ways the disciples (Matthew himself included) were confounded. We see that they were often confused. We see that they failed to understand who he was, and then even as they began to grasp that he was the Messiah (14:32, 16:16), they continued to misunderstand what he was about. His teachings confused them, and they had to learn over and over again the same lessons. Matthew has structured his narrative so that the reader is faced with the same kinds of confounding contrasts that the disciples faced. We, too, must wrestle with this Son of Man who both overflows with compassion on the crowds and repeatedly evinces his frustration with the faithlessness of the people. We, too, must come to terms with a king who planned from the first to die rather than than to conquer. We, too, must read the riddles rightly—and marvel though we do at the disciples who did not understand his parables, if we are honest we must admit how we struggle to interpret them ourselves.

Jesus is not simple. He never was. We too often try to fit him into a neat box: the social revolutionary, or the compassionate healer, or the righteous firebrand, or the gentle savior. Take your pick, according to your social and political preferences. But he will not be so boxed in. He is all of these and more, and he is none of these insofar as none of them circumscribe him. He is righteousness and justice and peace1—which means that he thunders forth judgment, and he tenderly comforts those in need. It means that he offers sharp edges and delighted praise to the same people. It means that he marveled at the faith and the faithlessness of people whose hearts he knew before they spoke. It means that he is a mystery even as he reveals himself plainly. It means that he cannot be comprehended, but invites us to know him.

  1. A trio I borrowed from J. Clinton McCann Jr.’s description of Yahweh’s “anointed one” (that is, “messiah”) in the Psalms. See Chapter 12: Hearing the Psalter in Hearing the Old Testament, eds. Craig G. Bartholomew & David J. H. Beldman.