Do I really understand who Jesus is and how a follower of Jesus thinks and acts? Do the words I read in the Gospels resonate as true and worth applying to my life? Below are my initial reflections, the first in a series of posts I plan to write looking at the teachings of Jesus in each of the Gospels. Matthew shows us that being a follower of Jesus is rooted in a lifestyle of dependency, humility, and mercy. This is apparent by comparing those who opposed Jesus versus those who admired Jesus. Surprisingly, it is those of us who are most devout who might be blinded to our own opposition to the ways of God.
What those opposed to Jesus said when they encountered him:
- Jesus is a fraud.
- “By the ruler of demons he casts out demons” (Matt 9:34).
- “He is Beelzebul” (10:25).
- “He does not cast out demons except by the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons!” (12:24).
- “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you” (12:38; 16:1).
- “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23; see also 21:15-16).
- Jesus is a sinner.
- “This man is blaspheming!” (9:3).
- “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (9:11).
- “Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:18).
- Jesus disrespects God’s laws and teaches others to violate them.
- “Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath” (12:2).
- “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (12:10).
- “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders?” (15:2).
- “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” (19:3).
- “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (22:17).
- “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her” (22:28).
- “What is the greatest commandment?” (22:36).
Overwhelmingly, the people who said these things to Jesus were the official religious leaders. Today, these leaders are dismissed as mean-spirited. In Christian circles “Pharisee” is often synonymous for “legalistic.” Surely, we would never make the mistakes they did. But contrary to how we normally characterize these men, they were highly concerned about following the ways of God and sought to act in the best interest of the people. Jesus was an oddity who popped up out of nowhere saying and doing unconventional things. They were concerned about potential harmful false teaching. Their questions to Jesus about religious laws were meant to assess and expose any fraud. These were men who were conscientious about regularly praying, tithing, and evangelizing (23:15, 23). In fact, they were recognized by others as being righteous (vv. 27-28). In most people’s estimation the leaders appeared to be upstanding men.
The point: Those who oppose Jesus can, by all appearances, seem to be upstanding followers of God. In fact, if you consider yourself on the “right track” you may not be correct in that self-assessment. The religious leaders believed that they would never be like their forefathers who killed the prophets (23:30). They fully believed they were on the right side of history. Sound familiar? How often do we say, “I would never be like that.” So where did these men go wrong? We gain a clue by juxtaposing what they said with the responses of followers of Jesus.
What those who admired Jesus said when they encountered him:
- Jesus is who he says he is, the Messiah.
- “Lord” (8:2, 6, 25ff).
- “Son of David” (9:28; 15:22; 20:30).
- Help me!
- “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (8:2).
- “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish” (8:6).
- “Lord, save us! We are about to die!” (8:25).
- “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her and she will live” (9:18)
- “If only I touch his cloak, I will be healed” (9:21).
- “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” (9:28; 20:30).
- “Lord, save me!” (14:30).
- “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” (15:22).
- “Lord, help me!” (15:25).
- “Lord, have mercy on my son, because he has seizures and suffers terribly” (17:15).
How come some people recognized Jesus as the Messiah and others didn’t? The primary difference between the religious leaders and the others is seen in the concerns each group brought to Jesus. The leaders were focused on dissecting doctrine and proper conduct. The others, usually marginalized or foreigners, were focused on their frailty and need for help. What happened is this: a focus on living life based on rules led to a propensity toward self-justification and pride, while a focus on frailty led to a propensity toward dependency on God and humility.
How many of us like to ask for help? Isn’t our tendency to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps? Don’t we prefer knowing what boxes to check so we can assure ourselves we are in the right? Perhaps that is why it often takes being at our most broken to get help. The marginalized or heartbroken have nothing to lose. They have already lost everything and are desperate enough to say: “Have mercy on me! Help me!” Notably, God wants to help us. In fact, a crucial trait of a follower of Jesus is dependency.
Instead of dependency on God, the religious leaders depended on rules to justify themselves (19:16-20; see also 20:1-16). Why would anyone do this, especially if by all accounts one is trying to please God to the point of intense study of Scriptural commandments? I suspect some did not feel worthy of God’s mercy and believed they had to earn approval, while others felt an aversion to dependency. Either way once we use rules to measure our worth, we do the same to others, blocking our ability to be compassionate toward weaknesses. The focus is placed on “measuring up” rather than on mercy. This is why the religious leaders became more concerned about a perceived Sabbath violation than if someone was healed of an injury (12:9-14). No exceptions could be made to the rule, not even for a good cause.
Jesus did not respond by overturning God’s laws (5:17-20). Instead he demonstrated that the religious leaders’ lack of dependency on God caused them to misinterpret the law. Jesus didn’t say the Sabbath no longer mattered, but that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (12:12). Thus, Jesus, quoting the Scriptures, tells the leaders, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’” (9:13; 12:7; Hos 6:6). In fact, he goes so far as to say the religious leaders are the ones who are lawless for misapplying God’s laws (8:12; 13:38-41; 16:11; 21:43; 23:15; see also 7:21-23). Jesus indicates that scriptural teaching must be interpreted through the hermeneutical lens of mercy. Any law cannot be implemented apart from considering the contextual impact, namely, does it result in the greater good? Paul the Apostle seemed to get this when he addressed marriage and divorce. In Paul’s context of conversions to Christianity, there was a new challenge of believers married to unbelievers. He goes beyond Jesus’s statements on divorce to say that if an unbeliever chooses to leave then the marriage can be lawfully dissolved for the sake of the abandoned believer (1 Cor 7:15).
Dependency requires a humble spirit. That is harder for leaders when pressures abound to put on a certain image. But Jesus leads by example. He says he did not come to exert power over people, but to serve the needs of others to the point of losing his life (Matt 20:26-28). He urges us not to call ourselves a teacher or leader, but consider ourselves on equal footing as everyone else (23:8). Repeatedly, he says anyone who claims to follow him should be like a child who has no status (11:25; 18:2; 19:14). Such humility is risky. It makes us vulnerable. Jesus suffered death for such humility. Nevertheless the Kingdom of God continues to grow through acts of mercy.
Are you a follower of Jesus? Questions for Reflection
One of the things I will be doing over the next several days is contemplating the questions below and their accompanying Scriptures from Matthew’s Gospel. I invite you to join me. Perhaps take one question per day or whatever pace works best for you. Let’s be honest with ourselves. How much are the teachings of Jesus reflected in our lives? The goal is not to inflict guilt for failing to measure up. In fact, the first step of a follower of Jesus is to admit that we cannot measure up; we are dependent on the mercy of God. Instead the questions are meant to help us not to be self-deceived as the religious leaders were. One of the fundamental mistakes they made was holding to ideals more than a way of life. Jesus states they often said the right things, but just never did them (7:12; 21:28-31; 23:3). They were not actually followers of God. Consider how your answers to these questions below reveal your own heart.
Do you tend to be empathetic toward others more frequently than angry? (9:36; 14:14; 15:32). What about toward those you consider to be immoral (9:9-13; 11:19; 23:37)? How often do you spend time with people who have very different beliefs and lifestyles than you?
How do you feel about exceptions to the rules, even very important standards or doctrines, if the exception shows mercy toward suffering (12:1-14)?
How readily do you forgive others (18:21-35; 26:28)?
Do you spend more time thinking about other people’s faults than your own (7:1-5)?
How do you actively show kindness and do good things for your enemies (5:43-48)? If you can’t think of someone in your personal life, what about those you consider political, religious, or ethnic enemies?
In what ways are you a peacemaker (5:8)? In what ways do you pursue reconciliation with others (5:24, 31-32)?
How comfortable are you asking for help like those in the Gospel of Matthew? Do you allow others to see your weaknesses or try to hide them?
How innocent are your eyes when looking at other people or possessions (5:27-28; 13:22; 19:23-24)?
How are you actively caring for people living in poverty, those with disabilities and illnesses, people in prison, those considered immoral, or other folks that are suffering or don’t measure up (25:34-46)?
If you are in leadership, how do you treat those you lead? In what tangible ways do you reinforce equality between you and those you lead (23:8-12)? In what ways do you serve their interests and empower them (20:25-28)?
How much are you willing to lose to dedicate your life to acts of mercy (16:24-25)?
If after reflection, you long to live more congruently with the teachings of Jesus, simply do what those in 1st century Palestine did, say “Lord, help me!”