Wasted narrative exegesis (Matthew 24-25): Patient endurance is not idle, but active (serving the poor, hungry, shelterless, thirsty, sick, & imprisoned)
We’ve come to an “end time” text in Matthew, chapter 24. Too many Christians, preachers, and modern, self-appointed “prophets” mine this chapter in search for how they may “discern” the signs so they can announce “the end is near” (usually accompanied by some action that is needed, everything from send money, give more money, stop letting, go vote . . .) Even though we have 2000+ years of everyone getting it wrong, plenty still predict and announce.
When I was pastoring in Pennsylvania in 1987, I received a free book in the mail, 88 Reasons Why Jesus is Coming Back in ’88. Well, Jesus didn’t. So the next year, I received a new book from the same author entitled, 89 Reasons Why We Were Wrong in '88 and Why Jesus is Coming Back in ’89. You can’t make this stuff up.
Well, here we are, it’s 2019. And, we still have sign pointer-outers and prophetic manipulators and, even, innocent, well meaning Christians seeking signs and pointing out why “we’re living in the end times.”
If you skim through Matthew 24 and Matthew 25 (which should be like one chapter together) you will encounter the twin themes of “it’s not the end” and “you don’t know when the end is coming so be ready.” So, perhaps we should take this to heart and listen better to Jesus. Being ready isn’t about discerning the times and looking for signs, but enduring to the end. “You see these sign, endure to the end (since you don't know when it’s the end end).”
What’s truly interesting, the parables that follow the “signs” section of Matthew 24 all push the reader toward being ready because you don’t know when it’s the end end. There are some important parallels we gloss over, or ignore, or don’t take into account, namely each of the parables–the faithful servant (24:45-51), the ten virgins (25:1-13), and the “faithful/unfaithful investors” (25:14-30) and the “sheep and the goats” (25:31-46)–all end in pretty harsh judgement . . . Matthew intends some parallelism here . . . they are all teaching basically the same thing. So, this is important to grasp. While waiting and being ready and seeking to endure, the Christian community is to be characterized by . . . go ahead, read Matthew 25:31-46 . . . you got it . . . by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, by welcoming the stranger (don’t think US Border, that, too, is a misdirection; think your home, your church, your neighborhood, your circle of friends and acquaintances), by clothing the naked, and by visiting the sick and imprisoned. Matthew connects the “end times” teaching and the “sheep and the goats” judgment, so we should as well.
Church is expected (a church in a place, in a neighborhood is expected) to live (together) in such a way as to create space (i.e., habits, lifestyles, life) to make it possible for the hungry to be fed and the stranger welcomed and the sick and imprisoned visited for the “end” is nigh in that Christ Jesus comes to us in the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.
So, Christian, stop seeking signs. Endure ’till He comes by doing what Jesus has been doing (in Matthew since chapter 4, i.e., ministering to the poor, the outcast, the unclean, the marginalized, et al.).
Stop pointing out signs (“Oh, it must be the end, see how bad it’s getting!” or “Look what’s happening with that country . . . or those politicians . . . or those people!”).
Just stop it. And, stop listening to it. It’s distracting you from true endurance, which means actively helping, serving, caring for the poor, the outcast, the marginal, the unclean.
Furthermore, there is an interesting twist afoot when we consider the thread of “second coming sign” texts in Matthew 24 and the juxtaposition of the three Matthew 24-25 parables and the parable of the sheep and the goats: The three parables, along with the noted (above) harsh conclusions, are also stories about a Master delayed (χρονίζω, chronizō) and who comes (24:48-50), a bridegroom delayed (χρονίζω, chronizō) and who comes (25:5, 10), and a Master who goes on a journey, “yet after a long time” (μετὰ δὲ πολὺν χρόνον, meta de polun chronon)* comes (25:19).
Then in the sheep and the goals parable (25:31-46), we have the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus) who comes (25:31). Here, we have a slight nuance to the concept of “coming,” namely the “coming” judgment is based on the incidences of Jesus coming in the persons who are poor, neglected, under-resourced, unclean (i.e., hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, and imprisoned).
Of course there is a final “coming” when Jesus, as the Son of Man judges and separates the sheep and the goats. Yet, this coming-judgment is based on what the people (i.e., Christians, at least outwardly) do and do not do to/for/with the Jesus who had come as someone hungry, thirty, naked, homeless, sick, or imprisoned: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it [or not did it] to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it [or not did it] to me” (cf. 25:40, 45).
It seems clear, from the parallels in the parables and the juxtaposition of the coming-judgment of the sheep and the goats, that is, being ready, staying alert, staying woke while Jesus “delays” and being prepared for the final coming is repeating the same ministry that Jesus had illustrated (i.e., the fishing) in Matthew 4-23, that is healing and touching and feeding and caring for the poor, sick, and unclean. The true signs of His coming is the church among the poor, outcasts, marginalized, and unclean.
Don’t be a goat (nope). Be a sheep. Be ready. Be prepared. Be truly woke . . . when Jesus comes to you as one of the least of these (or go to them, be among them), so that you may be ready when he comes as the Son of Man on that Day.
Wasted narrative exegesis: Making room for the 'blind and the lame' in our temple courts (aka church)
We will take a look at the “Triumphal Entry” story in Matthew 21 on Sunday morning.
The population of Jerusalem, normally, was about 30,000, yet with the passover and all its events and activities, the city's population had grown far beyond its capacity to about 180,000. Inns were full. Family homes packed to overflowing with relatives. Camps of make-shift tents filled almost every space around the city and its outer hills and valleys.
And, then, Jesus arrives.
The crowd cheering him on as he rode that colt of a donkey was not (necessarily only) the regular travel guests and residents of Jerusalem that day, but the throngs, that is, the crowds that had been following him from Galilee--many were Galileans for sure (very much outsiders), but certainly many of those whom Matthew has already described to us elsewhere:
We know this crowd was following him down to Jerusalem: “And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him” (19:29). The sheep-without-a-shepherd crowd that Jesus had compassion for (cf. 9:36), these followed him to the city and are, most likely included, if not those, cheering the arrival of Messiah, of the King, who had come to save them all. In fact, we know this by Matthew's own accounting, for after the table-turning event that cleared the temple court of illegal and irreverent merchandizers preying off the weary travels coming to Jersualem for the Passover, he writes:
This happened in the cleared court of the temple. Matthew tells us, as the events that day in the temple unfolded, that the Jerusalem crowd had asked "Who is this?" for the "whole city was stirred up” (v. 10). Of course it was, this Preacher from Galilee had arrived, acting all king-like, and the throngs of outsiders, many considered unclean, that had been following him were now occupying the temple courts and disturbing the social and religious festivities. The unclean (blind and lame) and those outsiders in the temple!
Outsiders. Lame. Disabled. Demon-posessed (many whom Matthew's story thus far has told us were freed). The sick. Infirmmed. Those with seizures. And, their families. Did I mention outsiders? Galileans. And, even those perhaps from as far as Syria (Matthew 4:24). Throwing down palm branches. Shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (21:9b). All proclaiming Jesus as king of Israel. And, then, Jesus makes space in the temple for them. All this was not received well by Jerusalemites (i.e., the probably crowd shouting condemnation before Herod later in the story), and, especially the temple-leadership (v. 15).
When Jesus tells the two parable of the one son who rejected the Father's work and how the first disrespectful son repents and does the will of the Father, and the fake, greedy servants killed the Father's son . . . it is no wonder the temple-leadership felt this all was about them.
Now, to do away with this king, this messiah . . .
How can we, today, as church, run away from the inspired narrative that clearly shows that Jesus accepted the blind and the lame (surely a summary of all those sick, oppressed, and poor) into the temple, upsetting the status quo, deconstructing the religious institutional bias toward the powers and powerful, the wealthy and affluent?
What do we make of this? Church, we need to do better. O, Christian, we need to rethink church.
The unpardonable sin? What is this? Have I committed it? If you have, the ball game is over, done, finished. You can never ever be pardoned. Ever. According to both the Matthew 12 and Mark 3 unpardonable sin texts.
And, this pastoral nonsense, that is, "well, if you are concerned about it, then you haven't committed blasphemy of the Spirit" is not in these texts as a way around it. Yet, pastors and lay-people/teachers use this "counsel" all the time. It seems the default pastoral answer. (How do pastors know this, anyway?) But, whatever it is, it is serious stuff.
So, I believe the better question is, how should we read this "blasphemy of the Spirit" text in Matthew 12? And, what does it mean to the church that reads (in Matthew's Gospel) this rebuttal and warning from Jesus to the accusing temple leadership?
This “sin” from Matthew 12 (cf. Mark 3) have been misappropriated so much that it fits the adage, if you keep telling a lie over and over again eventually everyone just thinks it to be true. Although, preachers and teachers might certainly not be lying, they have, however read back into these texts what has “always” been clear since it seems true and has been repeated over and over (so they repeat). Let us, however, look at the logic (the simple grammar and the context) happening in the Matthew 12 “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” text.
The unpardonable sin referenced here has to be related to the previous verse (the one that heads the paragraph, verse 30), for the warning of such blasphemy against the Spirit begins with a “therefore” (v. 31; Διὰ τοῦτο/dia touto, literally “on account of this,” “because of this”). So, the reader must ask, “therefore what?” or “on account of what?” Well, verse 30 is the answer:“He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.”
So, the “sin and blasphemy” is related to the one who “is not with” Jesus, but is “against” Him. And still, the “is not” and “against” is very specific—it is not a general “anyone who isn’t a Christian” or “any who reject Jesus” (which neither are in the text—yet, we continue to back this understanding in to the text). No. The one who “blasphemies against the Spirit” is the one who scatters and does not gather (based on verse 30).
This is a leadership sin, a leadership blasphemy. At least here in this text. It is a rebellion right at the top. For, the terms “gather” and “scatter” are shepherding terms, which are very appropriate to the context Matthew gives to this narrative. Earlier, Jesus is looking upon the marginalized, oppressed, the poor, the bottom demographics and says, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). This is what is clear from the text. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is related to the absence of shepherds that care/guard/protect the sheep, that is, sheep who are among the “distressed and dispirited” (FYI, this is the meaning of “poor in spirit,” but that for another time).
The no shepherd/scattered-lost sheep portrait is pulled from Ezekiel’s prophecy and warnings (how about that, a warning!), and, specifically, Ezekiel 34:5: “So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd . . . My sheep were scattered.” Also, interestingly, Ezekiel portrays the restoration of God’s people and their return to covenant faithfulness as facilitated by the . . . wait for it . . . the Spirit (Ezekiel 36-39); thus, further linking our “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” in Matthew to Ezekiel’s prophecies and warnings. Thus, we need a reading of this text with the no shepherd/scattered sheep framing in the narrative.
Finally, it is important to note that Matthew has already set this all up in narrative. How do people know that Jesus is the promised Messiah: What do they hear and see?
blind receive sight
lepers are cleansed
dead are raised up
poor have the gospel preached to them (Matthew 11:4-6).
No doubt this is Matthew’s version of Luke’s draw on Isaiah 61, which promises that God’s Spirit (how about that, the Spirit again) would be on the Messiah to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal, free, and bring justice (Isaiah 61:1). This is the context in Matthew. This is exactly what Jesus is doing: He is fulfilling the Isaiah and Ezekiel vision of future redemption. This is what the temple and synagogue leadership miss, ignore, or are fighting against.
So the blasphemy of the Spirit–the unpardonable sin–is more closely related to the role of shepherds in relation to sheep, that is, leaders among God's community and the sheep appointed to their care/protection (i.e., in Israel's case, temple-leadership; in our case, church leaders) that do not consider the poor or design (religious or church) systems that marginalize the poor (e.g., unintended consequences or purposeful matters not). In other words, to not do as Jesus did, that is, in having compassion for the despised, distressed, and bottom demographics is to deny that the promised time of redemption has arrived and, thus, is not forgiven—forever! The "sign" of the kingdom of God's arrival was (and I cannot find in the NT anywhere where this has changed) that the gospel was preached to the poor, the oppressed set free, and disabled walk. This is affirmed in Matthew's Gospel. The whole "blasphemy of the Spirit" episode hinged on Jesus casting out demons and healing a deaf mute so he could hear and speak, a sign of God's kingdom and that Jesus is the Spirit-anointed Messiah.
Thus, the narrative meaning of the blasphemy of the Spirit, which is clear and can be inferred by a faithful reading of the text and context, is to stand in rebellion against the inauguration of the kingdom of God and to shame (lower the standing) of Jesus. Rejecting (hindering, acknowledging, ignoring) the kingdom's presence signaled by God's concerned for the poor et al. is, well, blasphemous.
*I have not spoken to the issue of "honor/shame," which is most certainly an element framing Jesus' hostile encounter with temple-leadership. The scribes and Pharisees are publicly shaming Jesus, calling Him the son of Satan and empowered by Satan to do "these signs." So, in one public shaming Jesus is put down and His miracles were not the true signs of the kingdom of God. This isn't just about call good evil and bad good; this is about wholesale disbelief and rebellion against the inauguration of God's reign–which is why it's unpardonable.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.