Day 157: Matthew 17:25-27

Simon, what is your opinion? Who pays duties or taxes to the kings of this world? The citizens of the country or the foreigners?

Well, then that means that the citizens don’t have to pay. But we don’t want to offend these people. So go to the lake and drop in a line. Pull up the first fish you hook, and in its mouth you will find a coin worth enough for my Temple tax and yours. Take it and pay them our taxes.

Here’s the whole story:

When Jesus and his disciples came to Capernaum, the collectors of the Temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Does your teacher pay the Temple tax?”  “Of course,” Peter answered.

When Peter went into the house, Jesus spoke up first, “Simon, what is your opinion? Who pays duties or taxes to the kings of this world? The citizens of the country or the foreigners?”  “The foreigners,” answered Peter.

Well, then,” replied Jesus, “that means that the citizens don’t have to pay. But we don’t want to offend these people. So go to the lake and drop in a line. Pull up the first fish you hook, and in its mouth you will find a coin worth enough for my Temple tax and yours. Take it and pay them our taxes.” (Matthew 17:24-26).

So here we have another miracle of provision.  And again, the money needed doesn’t just fall out the sky.  Jesus makes Peter go out and catch a fish.  He tells Peter that if he does a little thing, trusting in God, then God will provide the temple tax.  Although the chapter ends and it doesn’t say for sure that Peter actually found that fish with a coin, but I assume it is.  I assume there was a miracle.

There is, however, another little interesting thing in this scripture that is relevant today.  The Jews of Jesus day kept the temple running through two fundraising activities.

First, there was tithing.  Everyone gave one-tenth of everything that they produced to God, and God in turn gave the entire tithe to the Levites.  The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel and it was their job to perform of all the religious duties like maintaining the worship space, performing the sacrifices, etc.  They were not allowed to own land or have other jobs so God turned over all of the tithes to them so they could have something to live on.  This is the command that God gave to Moses:

The Lord said, “I have given to the Levites every tithe that the people of Israel present to me. This is in payment for their service in taking care of the Tent of my presence.  The other Israelites must no longer approach the Tent and in this way bring on themselves the penalty of death.  From now on only the Levites will take care of the Tent and bear the full responsibility for it. This is a permanent rule that applies also to your descendants. The Levites shall have no permanent property in Israel, because I have given to them as their possession the tithe which the Israelites present to me as a special contribution. That is why I told them that they would have no permanent property in Israel.” (Numbers 18:21-24).

The tithes were usually not money.  They were commonly food or other commodities because most people were subsistence farmers, not merchants.  But it took a certain amount of money to keep things going so there was also a temple tax of half a shekel that was required of everyone.  It was a flat tax, unrelated to income.  It is this temple tax that is described in today’s scripture.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. (Exodus 30:11-13).

So the temple and all of its activities were maintained by two sources of income – tithes to support the Levites and a tax to support the temple.  This is how all of the religious activities of Israel were financed – a tithe that was based on wealth and a flat tax that applied to everyone.

Both of these sources of funding were “spiritualized.”  In other words, they were treated like sacrifices.  The people always paid the money because they thought these bribes would keep God in a good mood and ensure their survival.  Although they were “given to God”, these funds served a very practical purpose.  They were not given to the poor or cast into the sea.  Tithes served as salary for the staff (the Levites) and the temple tax served as their building fund.

Now back to the interesting thing that Jesus says in this scripture.  He says, Well, then,” replied Jesus, “that means that the citizens don’t have to pay. But we don’t want to offend these people.”

Jesus isn’t crazy about the whole temple and the sacrificial system.  He says repeatedly that God doesn’t want sacrifices.  (Days 18 and 25). God wants people to get along with each other and live in harmony.  So, Jesus sort of dismisses the temple tax here by saying that “the citizens don’t have to pay.”  He says that the Jews shouldn’t have to pay for the temple if they don’t want to.  But he agrees to pay the tax just to keep the people in charge happy.  He has to choose his battles, and he chooses to let this one go.  But not before taking a pot shot at an important social convention.  Not before saying that people shouldn’t have to pay a temple tax.

In most churches today the finances are spiritualized.  Offerings collected each Sunday are given to “God” and then church administrators decide what to do with the money.  They are usually allocated to pay for staff, operating expenses, missions, and other things.  Churches usually recommend that their membership should tithe, but most church members do not.  In the old days people were motivated by fear, guilt, or peer pressure, but none of these things work anymore.

Many Jewish synagogues, on the other hand, use a system more like the temple tax.  They pay for their seats.  Just yesterday I was in Chicago and I saw a sign at one of the synagogues – “New member rate – $100 per seat.”  I don’t know how it works after the introductory rate expires.  I supposed it’s based on income but I don’t know.  I do know, however, that it’s not spiritualized.  It’s treated as a practical matter.

One problem with tithing is that it makes the richer people seem more important than the poorer ones.  The temple tax system is more egalitarian and discourages the rich from having a more influence.  Both systems place a greater burden on the poor, who have less disposable income.

My church is struggling with maintaining a balance between these two paradigms – tithes and temple tax.  Previously they used the spiritualized approach where people were directed to pray about how much to give, but this apparently isn’t working because we have a deficit going.   This year the pastor sent out a letter stating the amount that is needed by each family to keep the church going.  It works out to $50 per week per family.  It’s just the facts.  People can give more or less, but if everyone gives less we will not have a church.  We’ve yet to see how this reality check will be received.  Hopefully it will work.  It’s a great church.

Well, nothing profound here today, just a little chatter.  Finances.  No matter how much you try to spiritualize it, there are economic realities associated with maintaining a church and its ministries.  But I always say that if a church is really doing the work of God, he will provide for it and keep it going.  He will either send some benefactors or miraculously reduce the expenses.  At our old church in Chicago, we were in grave financial trouble when someone called and said God told him to send us $10,000.  Every year.  That got us over the hump.  I believe that God can and will provide.  He will send a rich guy.  Or a wealthy fish.  One way or another he will get it done.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 156: Matthew 17:22-23

The Son of Man is about to be handed over to those who will kill him; but three days later he will be raised to life.

I’m part of a small group that meets twice a month.  One of the people in our group is a life-long Methodist who believes in reincarnation.  Wikipedia defines reincarnation as “Reincarnation is the religious or philosophical concept that the soul or spirit, after biological death, begins a new life in a new body.”   Reincarnation is an important belief of Indian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism and is dismissed by mainline Christianity as “new age” and, well, evil.  At first we had a lot of discussions about this with our friend.  We explained to her that this was not a Methodist view of things. She didn’t care in the least.  She said that she knows what she knows and

ResurrectionAs for resurrection, that is defined by Wikipedia as “the concept of a living being coming back to life after death,” either in a restored physical body or a “spiritual body”.  Growing up I thought that Jesus’ resurrection after death was a sure sign that he was super-human, the Son of God.  I was also familiar with the scriptures that say that good people will be resurrected from the dead in the end times after the second coming of Christ.  And of course I was taught that people go to heaven when they die and continue to live there in their spiritual bodies.  This belief doesn’t have a lot of scriptural justification, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.   The problem is that these different beliefs seem to be in conflict.  If I’m enjoying myself in heaven, why would I want to be physically resurrected later on earth after the second coming?  Seems like it might be kind of a downgrade.  It all seems a little muddled.

A close reading of the Gospel indicates that both Jesus and the Pharisees believed that the resurrection of the dead and reincarnation are possibilities for all people.  It seems to have been a pretty common belief.  For example, they debated whether John the Baptist or Jesus were either reincarnated or resurrected from past lives.  These are some examples in Matthew:

  • At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, 2 and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:1-2).
  • When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:13-14).
  • For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. (Matthew 11:13-14).
  • But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” (Matthew 17:12).
  • Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:29-32).

And don’t forget the Transfiguration where Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. (Matthew 17:1-3).

So on the basis of this one might say that my friend’s beliefs are more closely aligned with the teachings of Jesus than those of the Christian church.  Today’s Jews still believe in both resurrection and reincarnation.  This is from http://www.jewfaq.org:

Traditional Judaism firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence. However, because Judaism is primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, Judaism does not have much dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal opinion. It is possible for an Orthodox Jew to believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the Christian heaven, or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the messiah, when they will be resurrected.

Belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead is a fundamental belief of traditional Judaism. It was a belief that distinguished the Pharisees (intellectual ancestors of Rabbinical Judaism) from the Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the concept, because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. The Pharisees found the concept implied in certain verses.

There are some mystical schools of thought that believe resurrection is not a one-time event, but is an ongoing process. The souls of the righteous are reborn in to continue the ongoing process of tikkun olam, mending of the world. Some sources indicate that reincarnation is a routine process, while others indicate that it only occurs in unusual circumstances, where the soul left unfinished business behind. Belief in reincarnation is commonly held by many Chasidic sects, as well as some other mystically-inclined Jews.

Interestingly enough, the resurrection of the dead in some form or another is one of the things that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all agree on.  And reincarnation is something that Jews have in common with Hindus and Buddhists.  It seems to be a rather universal concept.  Something to think about.  Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

One thing for sure is that I need to tell all of this to my Methodist friend who believes in reincarnation.  She should be affirmed for standing firm in her beliefs, because her beliefs are those of Jesus.  There are many things we don’t understand, and none of it is as cut and dried as traditional Christian teachings would lead us to believe.  There are still a few mysteries out there.  Just a few.  We haven’t figured it all out.

After this scripture, it says, “The disciples became very sad.”   I hope that Jesus wasn’t too sad.  I hope that he was a little bit excited about being raised from the dead.  I hope this assurance made what was about to come a little bit easier, this knowledge that even though evil people were going to kill his body, they would not succeed in destroying his soul. I hope this assurance of the victory of life over death was a comfort to him in this most ominous and difficult time.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 155: Matthew 17:20

It was because you do not have enough faith I assure you that if you have faith as big as a mustard seed, you can say to this hill, ‘Go from here to there!’ and it will go. You could do anything!

In yesterday’s scripture Jesus was approached by a man who said the the disciples were unable to heal his son.  Jesus heals the man’s son, but not before chastising everyone about their lack of faith.  After the son is healed, the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to drive out the demon that was the cause of the problem.  Jesus responds that it is because they don’t have enough faith.

As a result of this scripture the mustard seed has become a symbol of faith.  I remember when I was a young girl my best friend Debbie had a little necklace that had a clear sphere with a mustard seed in it.  I asked her what it was and why she wore it and she said she didn’t know.   She said her mom made her wear it and she thought it was kind of cute.  I thought it was kind of cute too and I wanted one.  Hmmm…that’s the problem with symbols.  Sometimes the meaning gets lost.

So in the spirit of questioning everything, I think I should be sure I understand what Jesus was talking about when he tells his disciples that they don’t have enough faith, just to be sure I’m on the right page.  When I look up the Greek word pistis, it seems to be a direct translation to the word “faith” in English.  No surprises like some of the other words I’ve explored.

Webster’s defines faith as: “strong belief or trust in someone or something.”   I explored the nature of faith relative to healing on Day 82.  Jesus says it’s faith that heals.  While Christians often say, “Prayer Changes Things” it’s hard for us to accept that “Faith Changes Things.”  I think we are more comfortable feeling like someone is doing something for us, but I think Jesus is trying to say that our attitude, our belief, our trust actually releases change in the world.  It’s a scary concept that makes maintaining a positive attitude a grave responsibility.  I think that throughout the Book of Matthew Jesus calls on us to accept our responsibilities and use the abilities that God has given us.   Jesus wants us to embrace our faith as a powerful gift from God and use it effectively to build a better world.

Faith is elusive.  It is hard to define and difficult to maintain.  I thought it would be fun and illuminating to look at how other people define faith so here are some quotes:

  • Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  • Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof. (Khalil Gibran)
  • Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. (Saint Augustine)
  • Faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into. (Mahatma Gandhi)
  • Faith is deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time. (Oswald Chambers)
  • Faith is spiritualized imagination. (Henry Ward Beecher)
  • Ultimately, blind faith is the only kind. (Mason Cooley)
  • Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right. (Max Lucado)
  • Faith is like radar that sees through the fog. (Corrie Ten Boom)
  • Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark.  (Rabindranath Tagore)
  • Faith makes the discords of the present the harmonies of the future.  (Robert Collyer)

As for me, I would say that faith is your passport into God’s Kingdom.  That would be my quote.

My first exposure to real faith was in the early 1990s when the wife of one of the guys at work got a call that his wife Bonnie had a heart attack and was in the hospital.  I was sitting in his office when Felix got the call.  He asked a couple of questions and went back to work as though nothing had happened.  I said, “Felix, you’ve got to go to the hospital and be with her.”  He said, “No, I talked to her and she is going to be OK.”  I continued to insist that he needed to go see here.  I thought he was either being a jerk or having some kind of a breakdown.  He said he would stop by and see her after work.  I kept pestering him and I remember that he eventually turned to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “I do not need to go there.  She will be FINE.”  The look he gave me said, “Back off.”  I knew Felix well and I knew that he was a man who deeply loved his wife.  I also knew that he was a committed Christian.  I saw in that look he gave me that he refused to even entertain the thought that he might lose her.  The look said that death or devastating illness was not an option.  I still thought that he was delusional, but I backed off.

Felix and Bonnie1

Felix and Bonnie today. Happy and healthy.

In the end Bonnie was fine.  She didn’t require surgery or any radical treatment.  She is alive and well today.  Did his faith make her well?  Who knows.  Did his faith hurt anything?  Apparently not.  Would being negative or hysterical have helped anything?  Absolutely not.  I always remember that day, and I learned a lot from it.  I learned that it’s OK to have faith, trust in God, and expect the best possible outcome in all things.  I learned what it means to be a person doesn’t just talk about faith.  Felix showed me what it looks like to walk by faith.

The first hurtle is to believe that what you want to happen is possible.  You have to train your brain to believe that a good outcome is possible.  You have to believe in the power of good.  In other words, you have to be hopeful.  You need a positive attitude.  You need to be a visionary who can believe in something that hasn’t happened yet.  You need to have a positive view of the future.

The second hurtle is that faith often needs an ignition point.  This is something we can do to help each other.  When we get together and believe together in agreement, great things happen.  For example, people came to Jesus to be healed.  Even though many of these people had great faith, they still needed Jesus to touch them before the healing could occur.  Jesus said that their faith made them well, but it was also his affirming touch that made these miracles happen.  It was a partnership.

Every now and then it’s important to exercise your faith.  It might be good to do something I learned in a business seminar.  First, list 5 things that seem impossible.  You might want to pray about this for a while and see what God wants you to focus on.  The things could be either very personal (like the best solution to a perplexing situation) or very grand (like a quick cure for all cancers). Then, once you have developed your list, you can pick it up every day (or whenever you want) and address each one saying, “I have faith that….” and insert each of your impossible dreams.  While God is ultimately the source of all good things, he calls us to participate in the establishment of a better world by exercising our faith.  We need to build up our faith muscles if we want to see a more perfect world.  God isn’t going to drop it in our laps without our active participation.

OK.  Now let’s focus on that last sentence – “You could do anything….”  Jesus tells us that with just a little faith we could do anything.  We could move mountains.  With five loaves of bread and two fish, plus faith, we could feed thousands.  If we do our part, however small, God will take care of the rest.  Our part may be as small as a little spark of hope, a little positive thought.  God can move mountains with even that.  We should say that to ourselves every day – with just a little bit of faith we could do anything.  With just a little bit of faith I could do anything.  With just a little bit of faith you could do anythingTogether we could change the world, if we just had a little more faith.  Wow.  Now, what really needs to be done?  Hmmm….

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 154: Matthew 17:17

How unbelieving and wrong you people are! How long must I stay with you? How long do I have to put up with you? Bring the boy here to me!

Here’s the whole story:

When they returned to the crowd, a man came to Jesus, knelt before him, and said, “Sir, have mercy on my son! He is an epileptic and has such terrible attacks that he often falls in the fire or into water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

Jesus answered, “How unbelieving and wrong you people are! How long must I stay with you? How long do I have to put up with you? Bring the boy here to me!” Jesus gave a command to the demon, and it went out of the boy, and at that very moment he was healed (Matthew 17:14-17).

This scripture makes me so sad.  Jesus is tired and annoyed.  He says, “How long do I have to put up with you?”  A woman is pestering him because his disciples were unable to help her son.  This is not the first time Jesus has expressed his annoyance frustration and annoyance because people can’t seem to do things for themselves.

Here are a few instances:

  • Day 70: “Why are you so frightened?  What little faith you have!”
  • Day 127: “This people will listen and listen, but not understand; they will look and look, but not see, because their minds are dull, and they have stopped up their ears and have closed.”
  • Day 133: “You yourselves give them something to eat!”
  • Day 134: “What little faith you have! Why did you doubt?”
  • Day 144: “What little faith you have! Don’t you understand yet?”

These are just some of the things Jesus has told the people they could do if they had more faith:

  • Heal others
  • Heal themselves
  • Forgive sins
  • Calm storms
  • Feed thousands with a little bit of food
  • Walk on water

I wonder if he really knew how special he was?  I mean, he kept calling himself the “Son of Man,” which means “ordinary guy.”  I don’t think he was ordinary.  I’ve never heard of anyone in all of history who could consistently heal people or perform miracles the way he did.  When it comes to performing miracles, most of us just kind of putter along without all of our cylinders firing. Our own faith, and our ability to stir up faith in others, kind of comes and goes.  Jesus, on the other hand, was roaring along like a Lamborghini.  He never misfired.  He is never left standing there looking like a fool wondering why someone didn’t get healed after he prayed for them.

Nowadays when our sputtering ministries start running smoothly it’s a huge event.  They call it “revival” or “renewal” or “a visitation” or whatever.  Word spreads and people start coming from all over the place to experience it and be in the midst of it.  But these events and visitations never seem to last very long, and not everyone experiences the blessing.  Not everyone gets healed. Not everyone is transformed.

It was all just so easy for Jesus.  It’s hard to be around people like that.  People who can do things so naturally.  When I was growing up there were a lot things I was pretty good at.  For example, I was good at school and I was pretty musical.  But my best friend Stevie and her sisters had a whole different skill set. Being around them was an exercise in inadequacy for me.  It seemed like they were always trying to get me to do something I was absolutely incapable of doing.  Like throwing a Frisbee.  I am probably the only person on the planet who can’t throw a bleeping Frisbee.  Or roller skating.  They tried so hard to teach me how to roller skate.  It was for my own good because the main social activity in Junior High was skating parties and I was a total disaster on skates.  It was ridiculous.   There they were, skating backwards and doing spins while I spent my time hanging on the railing or clutching my partners.  And then there was water skiing, or in my case face skiing.  They kept trying to teach me and it was hopeless.  I couldn’t jump on a trampoline either.  Those girls had really good balance.  And don’t forget diving.  They were like little fish.  I later learned to swim but I never got the hang of diving.  It was always painful for me – belly flops and water up my nose.  They thought I was just being neurotic or something.  I was not neurotic.  I was inept.  And I had really bad balance.

Later in life I realized that people often do not appreciate their own gifts and talents.  We think that just because something is easy for us, it’s easy for everyone.   We assume that others who lack proficiency in our particular skill are being lazy or not really trying.  We say, “What’s the problem?  Anyone can do that!  It’s easy!” Like cooking.  Or holding down a job.  Or getting places on time.  Or pubic speaking.  Or nursing sick people back to health.  Or taking criticism. Or singing.  Or throwing a Frisbee.  This is, of course, not the case.  Instead of being grateful for our special gifts we take them for granted.

I think Jesus was tired of repeating himself.  I guess he thought that after he gave us the Sermon on the Mount and then a few demonstrations of the power of faith, everyone would catch on and be able to do all of the things that he could do. It’s been 2000 years and we still haven’t caught up with him.  He would still be saying, “What little faith you have!”  This same thing is often true for young pastors who enter the ministry with great enthusiasm and optimism for changing the world, only to find the world is not that easy to change.  That TV commercial a few years back about herding cats is spot on when it comes to changing the world.  Ministry is a lot like herding cats.  It just doesn’t work that well.

I think that at this moment of Jesus’ apparent irritation and discouragement about the state of the humanity, it would have been nice if someone would have sung some good old Gospel music to him.  I think he would have been able to relate to the opening lyrics of “His Eye is On the Sparrow”:

Why should I feel discouraged / Why should the shadows come

Why should my heart feel lonely / And long for Heaven and home

I think he was discouraged.  I think the shadow of Jerusalem and his impending death were weighing on his soul.  I think he felt lonely and isolated, and I think he was longing to be with his Father in heaven.

Jesus, it’s been 2000 years and we still may not be able to do what you showed us how to do, but we are still trying.  We may not be able to figure it all out, and we understand how frustrating we are to work with.  But we do love you and we want to know, we want to understand, we want to make it all work. There are many of us here who aren’t going to give up. No, we are going to keep working on what you tried to teach us get it right and make you proud.  Jesus may have been a Lamborghini and I may be more like an old Ford Fiesta held together with duck tape, but I if just keep putting along I’ll get there eventually.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 152: Matthew 17:11-12

Elijah is indeed coming first and he will get everything ready. But I tell you that Elijah has already come and people did not recognize him, but treated him just as they pleased. In the same way they will also mistreat the Son of Man.

The disciples have just witnessed the miraculous Transfiguration of Jesus (See Day 151).  He began to glow, then Elijah and Moses appeared, and then the voice of God announced that God is pleased with Jesus and that he wants everyone to listen to him.

Now, just having seen all this, including the appearance of Elijah, they ask Jesus this question: “Why do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah has to come first?”

It seems a little strange.  Here they have just seen this fabulous miracle, and this is all they have to say?  Idle theological chit-chat?  Why don’t they reflect on what they have just seen?  Why don’t they ask Jesus about what just happened? Aren’t they interested in what Moses and Elijah had to say? I mean, it seems like a pretty vapid question.

Jesus replies with an appropriately sardonic response.  He affirms that Elijah “is coming” and “will get everything ready.”  Then he says that Elijah “has already come” and people didn’t recognize him.  Then he alludes to his own upcoming death once again.

I already reflected on Elijah on Day 105.  He was one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament.  He is known for the many miracles that accompanied his ministry, and is credited for standing up against the evil regime of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab. His task was to make Israel a safe place for the other Jewish prophets and worshippers.  It is perhaps for this reason that the Jews surmised that a resurrected or reincarnated Elijah would eventually return and prepare the way for the Messiah, who would come and get rid of all of the world’s unpleasantness.

Many people of Jesus’ day believed that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah.  While Elijah came to liberate Israel from an evil monarchy, John the Baptist came to urge the Jews to confront their greatest enemy – themselves.  One might say that he came to get the people to repent and make Israel safe for all people of good will; to make it safe for love.

So the disciples asked why they teach that Elijah has to precede the Messiah and the obvious answer is that someone needs to prepare the way.  But what answer does Jesus provide?  None.  He does not answer their question. He ignores it.  Instead he addresses the reality of the situation.  They killed John the Baptist, and they will kill him also.  Why?  Because he has observed that the people don’t want to receive God’s message to humanity.  They don’t like what God has to say.  They are not yet ready to live in the Kingdom of God.

Meanwhile the disciples sit around debating theological precepts and prophecies, ignoring the significance of everything that’s going on around them.  It’s really not so different today. Jesus has told us what we need to know.  Maybe we all need to stop being preoccupied with irrelevant theological arguments and start focusing our attention on loving others.  Maybe we need to stop running from the truth.  You can’t stop God’s truth by killing his messengers, or by blocking out his voice with religiosity and other worldly distractions.  We need to listen to what Jesus has to say, assimilate it, and focus our efforts on living it out.

Most of all we need to stop waiting.  Jews are still waiting for Elijah, the Messiah, and the New Age.  Christians are waiting for the second coming of Christ, the end of the world, and the Kingdom of God.  Waiting doesn’t work.  Jesus tells us repeatedly that waiting accomplishes nothing.  We already have everything we need to make the world a better place.  We need to stop waiting and start doing.  We have everything we need to start releasing the power of love.

Why does Elijah have to come? To me, Jesus is saying it doesn’t matter.  It is what it is.  Elijah came as John the Baptist.  He was abused and killed. Jesus says that he came to give us the keys to the Kingdom. He says that he, too, will be abused and killed.  Elijahs and Messiahs can come and go but it doesn’t matter if the people aren’t ready to receive them and move ahead.  None of the prophecies matter if all the people want to do is sit around and watch and wait and nit-pick and chit-chat about theology.  I think he is telling them that he’s seeing too much talk and not enough action.  Or maybe too much of the wrong kind of talking and the wrong kind of thinking.  That’s what I get out of it.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 151: Matthew 17:7, 9

Get up. Don’t be afraid! Don’t tell anyone about this vision you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from death.

These are the words that Jesus spoke at the time of the Transfiguration, one of the great mystical stories in the life of Jesus. Here’s the entire tale:

Six days later Jesus took with him Peter and the brothers James and John and led them up a high mountain where they were alone. As they looked on, a change came over Jesus: his face was shining like the sun, and his clothes were dazzling white. Then the three disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. So Peter spoke up and said to Jesus, “Lord, how good it is that we are here! If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was talking, a shining cloud came over them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”  When the disciples heard the voice, they were so terrified that they threw themselves face downward on the ground. Jesus came to them and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid!” So they looked up and saw no one there but Jesus.

As they came down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Don’t tell anyone about this vision you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from death.” (Matthew 17:1-9).

Wow! What a story!  There is so much here to reflect on that it’s hard to know where to begin!

Jesus takes three of his disciples with him to the top of a mountain, and while the disciples were watching Jesus suddenly begins to glow.  Notice how it says his clothes turned white.  On the nit-picky side I have think about how Jesus is shown wearing white inn nearly every artistic depiction I’ve ever seen.  If he started out in white then this transformation wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic.  I don’t think Jesus probably dressed in white.  I’m sure he dressed very simply.  In brown.  And then it turned white.

OK I got that out of my system.  Of course I am reminded of Moses, who also used to go to the top of a mountain to meet with God.  Here is the story of what happened when Moses received the God’s commandments, the first 10 installments in the “Law of Moses.” The proper interpretation and application of the Law of Moses was the centerpiece of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Moses stayed there with the Lord [on Mt. Sinai] eating and drinking nothing. He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

When Moses went down from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, his face was shining because he had been speaking with the Lord; but he did not know it. Aaron and all the people looked at Moses and saw that his face was shining, and they were afraid to go near him. But Moses called them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the community went to him, and Moses spoke with them. After that, all the people of Israel gathered around him, and Moses gave them all the laws that the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he covered his face with a veil. Whenever Moses went into the Tent of the Lord’s presence to speak to the Lord, he would take the veil off. When he came out, he would tell the people of Israel everything that he had been commanded to say, and they would see that his face was shining. Then he would put the veil back on until the next time he went to speak with the Lord. (Exodus 34:28-35).

Notice the similarities between this scripture and the Transfiguration.

  • Moses and Jesus both were both trying to lead their people to a better place.
  • Moses was tasked with leading people to the Promised Land. Jesus was sent to invite people into the Kingdom of God.
  • Both Jesus and Moses were given very difficult assignments.
  • Jesus and Moses both went away to a special place to meet with God.
  • Moses met with God to receive the Law.  Jesus was tasked with clarifying and properly implementing the Law.
  • After meeting with God they glowed.  Their faces shined.
  • While Moses and Jesus remained completely calm in the presence of God, those around them were very afraid.
  • Jesus went to a special place to speak with God.
  • Both Moses and Jesus to some extent concealed their experience.  Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone.  Moses concealed his face with a veil.  It was a in some ways a personal, private experience.

One unique element of the Transfiguration is that God gives Jesus the same blessing that he received at the time of his baptism way back at the beginning of his ministry:

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. Then heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and lighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased” (Matthew 4:16-17).

Compare this to the Transfiguration:

While he was talking, a shining cloud came over them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!” 

Almost the same, but with one major differences.  The second time it’s not just a blessing for Jesus.  In the Transfiguration of Jesus there is also an important instruction for the disciples – “Listen to him.”  Just for emphasis, let me repeat that.   God says, “Listen to him.”   He doesn’t say, “Worship him.”  He doesn’t say, “Follow him.” He doesn’t even say, “Obey him.”  No.  He says, “Listen to him.”

We don’t know what Moses and Elijah, who have apparently been resurrected for this occasion, said to Jesus on that mountain.  Their appearance must have been a great encouragement to Jesus, who believed in both his resurrection and the resurrection of others from the dead.  He believed that life goes on after death, a fact that he proved when he himself rose from the dead.

I’m sure both Moses and Elijah encouraged Jesus to stand firm and complete his mission with courage. Moses and Elijah were both tested to their limits, and I’m sure they had a lot of good advice for him.  And the very appearance of Elijah was a sign of great things to come.  In Jewish tradition Elijah was the one whose return was a sign of the coming of the Messiah and the beginning of the New Age.

I am trying to be obedient to God.  I want to hear what Jesus has to say, which is why I’m doing this blog.  In case you weren’t with me from the beginning, my goal was to reflect on the words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew.  Only his own word, the words that would have been highlighted in the old “red letter” Bibles that I grew up with.  I am addressing every single word that he speaks, in order, omitting nothing.  I am trying my best to listen to him, and to understand what he had to say, and assimilate it all.  If I want to make what Jesus has to say the centerpiece of my faith, then everything else in the Bible or the teachings of the church must be secondary.  I want to make Jesus’ concerns my concerns.  I don’t want to waste my time on anything else.  Jesus’ concern was love and kindness.  He said that when the Law interferes with those things, then the Law is not being properly applied.  He said it was all about love and kindness, not legalism.  That’s what was important to Jesus, so I want that to be the most important thing to me.

Transfiguration by Henry Martin

Transfiguration by Henry Martin

Peter wants to capture the moment.  He wants to build tents for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus so all of them will remain there.  He wants to prepare a place for them.  He is still trying to keep Jesus from going to Jerusalem and confronting the forces of evil.  He wants to freeze this glorious moment in time.  But like all transcendent experiences it is fleeting and ephemeral.  The important thing is not the experience.  The important thing is the work that awaits Jesus in Jerusalem.

The Transfiguration.  Here’s the Google definition: “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state”.  A great blessing.  A great sign to Jesus that God is with him all the way.  A transformation into a beautiful, spiritual state.  God may lead you into the fire like he led Moses, Elijah, and Jesus – but he will always equip you for the journey.

We all know people who have gone through very difficult times.  I recounted my own transformational experience on Day 53 that released me from crippling fear.  I have heard so many stories from others about how they received a special word from God or were visited by an angel during a time of trial.  Haven’t you known someone who radiates joy and peace even though they are gravely ill?  All of these people have had their own transfiguration experience.  God reached out and elevated them to a more beautiful, more spiritual state.

I guess that’s why Jesus tells us not to worry.  He knows that God is with us.  In fact, one of the names that he has been given by the church is “Emmanuel,” or “God with us.”  His very presence here on earth was a sign that God loves humanity and great plans for humanity if only we would begin to step up our game.  That was the message of Jesus.  This was what he preached, taught, and demonstrated through his ministry.  God is with us, but like the disciples we have our part to play.  God says we need to LISTEN to Jesus. We need to listen to Jesus because his voice leads us into the heart of God.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 150: Matthew 16:27-28

For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will reward each one according to his deeds.

I assure you that there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Son of Man come as King.

“The Second Coming of Christ.”   Another important Christian concept. Here we have the first of the four references to it in Matthew.

For something that is so terribly unclear, many people think they know everything there is to know about the second coming. Including the actual date – which gets pushed back further and further as the dates come and go.  In reality this scriptures and others like it are all prophetic language and no one can definitively say with authority that they can accurately separate the predictions from the metaphors.  Who knows? Not me, that’s for sure.  But this is the next scripture and I’m not skipping any of them so I’ll express what few thoughts I have about it.

The disciples have just found out that Jesus intends to go to Jerusalem, where he will be killed.  Jesus wants them to man it up.  In yesterday’s scripture Jesus said, “If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me. For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. Will you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not! There is nothing you can give to regain your life.”  He calls on his disciples to keep going with the mission that God has given them all, carrying on the revolution of love and kindness.

In this first reference to a second coming, Jesus says that he will come again before all of those in his present company have passed.  It seems like this second coming is probably a reference to his resurrection three days after the crucifixion.  Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead, not just for himself but for anyone.  Then, after the ascension he says he will make sure that the disciples will be rewarded for all of their hardships suffered for his sake.  And he will be in charge.  Everyone will be following him.  That’s the way I read this one.  Oh, and notice that it doesn’t say he will punish them if they are bad.  He will reward them for their faithfulness. He says they will be vindicated for having faith in him and his message.

There is a lot about the second coming in the Book of Revelation, but there are only three more references in the Book of Matthew where he talks about it in his own words.  All of these references are more apocalyptic:

  • Jesus said to them, “You can be sure that when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne in the New Age, then you twelve followers of mine will also sit on thrones, to rule the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28).
  • Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky; and all the peoples of earth will weep as they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. The great trumpet will sound, and he will send out his angels to the four corners of the earth, and they will gather his chosen people from one end of the world to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31).
  • When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the righteous people at his right and the others at his left. (Matthew 25:31-33).

Once again I can’t help but notice that he uses that term “Son of Man” in all of these references.  (For more on the term “Son of Man” see Day 74). The term means an ordinary person, everyman, humanity in all its frailty – as opposed to the Son of God, a Messianic figure who is fully divine.

Like most Jews, Jesus’ disciples were waiting for a Messiah to come and rescue them.  I think these scriptures affirm my presumption that Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t actually claim to be the Messiah that they were expecting (See Day 145).  Conventional wisdom, then and now, is that when the Messiah comes, everything is magically transformed without any effort on the part of humanity.  Jesus never says that he himself will do this for us.  He doesn’t have any magical fairy dust to sprinkle on the world to make everything sweetness and light. He doesn’t have any cupid’s bow and arrow to shoot at people to make them love each other.

He implies, through his use of “Son of Man,” that the New Age, the Messianic Age, the Kingdom of Heaven, or whatever you want to call it must be built by ordinary men, humanity in all its frailty. I think he is managing their expectations.  He seems to be saying through all these descriptions that the coming of the New Age is going to be a process.

I have often thought that the “Son of Man” coming as king or coming in glory refers to a time when a new generation of people assimilate and embody Jesus’ teachings with their lives.  He would then “come again” through those enlightened people and they will triumph over the primitive forces of darkness in the world.

Somewhere in all of this prophetic imagery there is hope for a better time, a better world.  Jesus is assuring his followers that although he is going to die, God’s plans for a glorious future are still intact.  God has a way of making good things happen and there’s a happy ending for planet earth somewhere along the line.  But as of today we’ve still got a long way to go. I think we need less waiting and more doing.

What does this scripture say to you?