Matthew 5:13-16 – Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

In other words, we are to bring flavor and brightness to the world.  It’s not exactly “let your freak flag fly,” but I do think Jesus would appreciate the diversity of people in the world fully expressing themselves.  Can’t you just imagine Jesus hanging out at the local library for Drag Queen Story Hour, blessing all the children and those spreading love and acceptance?

But life isn’t one big Mardi Gras parade.  While I truly believe this passage is saying to not hide your light but to let it shine; to bring your own unique flavor to the world – this passage calls us to go far beyond just personal self expression.  It calls us to help others to fully realize their own best selves, too.  This can mean lots of things, but most of all it means activism.  It means supporting girls’ and womens’ education in places where they are not currently given those opportunities.  It means allowing refugees easier access to our country, so they can escape oppression and make safer and better lives for themselves.  It means Autism Acceptance, an Autistic-led movement to counter basic awareness, that allows for full expression of Autistic behavior (in a safe way) and participation in society.  Maybe it even means Universal Basic Income – a concept I’ll admit I have not researched much but one that does hold immediate appeal.

Yes, go be that City on the Hill.  Stand up for what you believe in, especially if you are in a place of privilege – because for many, it is too dangerous for them to go to school, express their love, or even just walk down the street.  We all need to work together to make this world as bright and flavorful as it can be.

Matthew 04 – Trouble Trusting the Gospel

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

This chapter can be broken into three parts: The Temptation of Jesus, the Calling of the first Disciples, and Jesus healing the sick.  I find it one of the most challenging parts of Matthew because it leaves so many questions unanswered.  For example, how did Zebedee feel when his sons just up and walked away from their work?  He was right there, mentioned in the story – we don’t get a line about his reaction?

And what about this Temptation in the Desert story?  How do we know it happened?  It is not Jesus telling this story, remember, it is Matthew.  And it’s not like Matthew was there – Jesus was alone in the wilderness.  Also, it’s not like Jesus left and returned to Matthew:  This test came before the calling of Jesus’ disciples.  I guess it makes sense that Jesus would have told them about it, just as anyone recounts interesting and relevant stories to their friends.  It just seems so stylized with exactly three tests and exactly forty days and forty nights.

Of course, if you don’t believe in Jesus (or at least, don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, even if he did exist as a person), then it is easy to dismiss this Temptation story – or even cite is as proof of the Gospels’ faults and the list it among the longer list of faults in the Bible at large.  True, it is a second-hand story and we have no way to verify it.  So that means it is possible that it didn’t happen.  Or, that it didn’t happen the way Matthew says it happened-which, honestly is what I believe.  I’ve expressed my admiration for Matthew before, and the delicacy with which he had to write this Gospel, but the guy had an agenda and bias, for sure.  I don’t think he lied, but I do think he carefully crafted this work to show how the life of Jesus fit into the teachings of venerated prophets.  This Temptation story is the perfect place to fit in scriptural references to highlight Jesus’ personal knowledge of the Old Testament and use significant and symbolic numbers (three and forty) to further solidify Jesus’ standing in the minds of Matthew’s Jewish readers.

I see this story as a symbolic portrait, kind of like the Jesus version of George Washington Crossing the Delaware River.  For those unfamiliar with it, in December 1776 George Washington did indeed surprise and defeat the British-allied forces when he crossed the river in the Battle of Trenton, later commemorated in a painting by Emanuel Leutz.  However, the crossing was at night – and I’ve never seen a night that looks like this painting; Washington’s heroic stance would have capsized the boat; and – I just learned this – the flag depicted in the painting wasn’t a design in use at that time, but it is one we all recognize as an early American flag.  Real event, idealized depiction.  Matthew (possibly) did the same thing here in the Gospel.

My NIV study notes provided excellent insight into this Temptation of Jesus story.  It reads, “The significance of Jesus’ temptations, especially because they occurred at the outset of his public ministry, seems best understood in terms of the kind of Messiah he was to be…It was, moreover, important that Jesus be tempted/tested  as Israel and we are, so that he could become our ‘merciful and faithful high priest’ (Heb. 2:17).” In other words, this story illustrates how Jesus goes through temptations just as we do, and highlights his humanity.  However, unlike us, Jesus resists all temptations, establishing his divinity at the same time.  It’s really quite an elegant piece of writing, after you sit with it for a bit.

If this little tidbit of Gospel makes you uncomfortable, seriously question your belief in Jesus, or even reaffirm your disbelief in Jesus, I get it.  It’s a passage that really challenges my faith.  But remember, not any single passage defines the Jesus’ message, or the Bible at large – we have to read in context, and look for broader themes.  In this passage, we can recognize Jesus as a real man who faced temptation – even if you see him as a fictional character you can acknowledge that those who wrote about him saw him as flesh-and-bone, not a divine apparition.  He got hungry, tired, angry; he touched people, walked on the ground (as well as the water), and spoke the common language of the time.  Even if he were fictional, he was conceived of as a real man.

I emphasize Jesus’ humanity to bring up my closing point: Jesus was a man who made a difference.  The early disciples mentioned in this chapter heard his message of love and healing, and got up to follow him, as have millions throughout history afterwards.  The chapter closes with Jesus healing the sick.  He had compassion upon those suffering.  Jesus knew suffering: he knew hunger, cold, pain, loneliness, just as we do in our own varying extents.  Even if you don’t believe in the Gospel, don’t believe in Jesus, we can still be like Jesus:  we can have compassion, we can help to heal, we can speak for the oppressed.  And that, my friends, is what I believe Jesus would want us to do.  We can quibble over whether or not he actually spent forty days in the desert, whether or not he was actually tempted by the devil, whether or not he even existed, but time spent wasting our breath on arguments that can never be resolved keeps us from making a positive difference in the world.  To everyone out there making that positive difference – to all the activists, nurses, teachers, volunteers, caretakers, and more – I just want to say thank you.  No matter what your beliefs, I see you as a sibling in Christ doing what matters.  Maybe I’m putting words into Jesus’ mouth the same as Matthew did, but I think Jesus would also see anyone (anyone) making that positive difference as a kindred spirit, as well.

Psalm 06 – Blessed Are Those Suffering Chronic Conditions

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
    heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
    How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
    save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
    Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
    and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
    they fail because of all my foes.

Away from me, all you who do evil,
    for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
    the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
    they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

Technically I suffer from a chronic illness – hypothyroidism.  My thyroid doesn’t make enough of the hormones it is supposed to.  It’s pretty common, and mine is well managed with a little daily pill, so I often forget I fall into this chronic condition category.  The biggest impact this has had on my life was interfering with fertility when we were first starting to get pregnant.  But starting that little daily pill (it’s very little – like a tenth the size of a Tylenol) fixed that.  I have dry skin, get cold easily, and get tired a lot – which are all signs of the disease, but I don’t know if I can fully attribute those symptoms to it.  I also live in a house with a wood stove (which sucks the moisture out of the air), a drafty house (which would explain the chills), and have two small children (and what parent isn’t tired?).  If I feel I’m even more tired than normal, I get some blood work done to see if I need to up my dosage of Levothyroxine and that’s that.

Other chronic diseases that people close to me are living through every day include diabetes (type I and II), PCOS, endometriosis (I actually know several people with this supposedly rare disease), depression, a “benign” brain tumor, transplant recipients (fun fact: you’re on immuno-suppressants basically the rest of your life when you get an organ), rheumatoid arthritis, several people with hip replacements, and musculo-skeletal pain from things like slipped discs and something akin to tennis elbow.  I bet if you sat down and made a list, you have a lot of people in your life suffering through chronic conditions, too.

According to the National Health Council, 40% of Americans suffer chronic disease.  That’s 133 million people.  And 81 million of those people suffer from multiple conditions.  This doesn’t even count the un-diagnosed or under-diagnosed people that are out there, and might not count things like organ donor recipients – it’s hard to tell. I also don’t know if it counts pregnant people or people with disabilities like amputees – so that number is probably much, much higher.

But does society at large have mercy on the faint? Do we hear those who call out in anguish, “how long, how long?”  Outrageous prescription costs, limited accessibility accommodations, and judgmental attitudes show that we don’t.  It is easy to forget the suffering of others, especially when you are healthy yourself, especially when so many of these conditions are invisible.  Here’s just a few examples of some of the indignities and injustices people with chronic conditions have to suffer through:

  • Individuals requiring a wheelchair often have no option except to go for hours without it during air travel.  This may not seem like a big deal at first, since you’re just sitting, but that means no going to the bathroom, which also isn’t wheelchair accessible, and it means being completely reliant upon airline/airport employees for your mobility in and out of your seat and plane.
  • Chronically ill people are not “so lucky” because they “get to just sit there.”  Sitting allows them to handle debilitating pain for longer.  I’ve never had fibromyalgia or arthritis or any other chronic pain condition like that – but I did have very prominent and painful varicose veins during both my pregnancies that compression leggings couldn’t fully control.  My legs were throbbing my last trimesters, all the time, and I had to sit down often.  Unfortunately sitting down isn’t a magic cure, it just makes pain more manageable.  But some people seem to think pain disappears when you sit down, and then you’re able to indulge all your lazy desires.  If. Only.
  • People still think illness or disability is due to karma, sin, or some other morally-linked reason, and often say so to the ill or disabled person.  I’m not saying God doesn’t have the power to inflict illness of any sort on people, I just don’t think that’s really high on Xyr list of things to do.  I’ve already mentioned the blog I stumbled across that said Autistic children (like my own beautiful daughter) are possessed by the devil because their parents are sinners.  Paralympic swimmer Karni Liddell even had a 2013 #hearditwhilstdisabled campaign to bring attention to all the hurtful things people say.  That’s right, this woman is an Olympic swimmer, something my able-bodied self will never be, and still hears this bullshit.

It is a small gesture, but let me take a moment to offer a blessing to all those suffering with a chronic condition.  You are not a cautionary tale nor an inspiration for able-bodied people, you are a human being whom God loves and are worthy of both our respect and Xyr blessing, so God bless you.  The Lord has heard your weeping.  May all those who never took your pain seriously, who denied your worth, who stood in your way be overwhelmed with shame and anguish, may they turn back suddenly and be put to shame.  I pray you find peace and fulfillment in your life, and that God’s blessings are ever present.  I pray that government, health care, and society at large change their policies and attitudes towards those with chronic conditions, and I vow to advocate for that change with you.  God bless you.  Amen.