Matthew 9:9-17: God Desires Mercy

Matthew 9:9-17: God Desires Mercy

Right after Jesus demonstrates his authority to forgive sin, Jesus does something else rather alarming: Jesus calls a “sinner” as one of his followers and then participates in a feast in his honor that is attended by more of these so called “sinners”. Jesus’ propensity for breaking social taboos was already known when he touched a leper. Tax collectors in the day of Jesus were one of the most despised members of society for a number of reasons. First, they were seen as traitors because often times they were indigenous members of a conquered who were hired by the conquering Romans to collect taxes for Rome. Second, tax collectors were also extortionist, wringing more money out of taxpayers than the taxpayer owed. Tax collectors got to pocket this extra as profit. Matthew was a tax collector, nevertheless Jesus saw it fit to call Matthew as his disciple. Matthew would go on to write the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew abandoned everything and followed Jesus when Jesus called him, just like Peter, James, and John (Matthew 4:18-22). He had almost certainly heard of Jesus and was nearby at the healing of the lame man. By implication, Matthew like Peter was confronted with the awesomeness and holiness of God and repented of his sins. His natural response was obedience, so that when Jesus did call him he obeyed and obeyed immediately just as Peter did.

The Pharisees grumbled against Jesus because he, being a righteous man, associated with sinner which is something that a Pharisee would never do. Jesus replies with a metaphor pertaining to a physician coming to heel the sick, and he relates to his mission to calling the sinner to repentance. The Pharisees were zealous about following the law and for that reason did not, at least outwardly, appear as one of the “sinner”. Jesus on other occasions though does point out their sin (Matthew 6:1-2, Matthew 22:18, Matthew 23:11-31). But Jesus and the disciples were not breaking any part of the law. The fast of John his disciples was entire voluntary. The Pharisees though were not ones to be out done by another in terms of piety, and any one who they saw as less pious than themselves – especially one that was seen righteous such as Jesus or John. Jesus, however, tells a parable about a wedding feast and a bridegroom, and saying that people don’t fast when they are at a wedding feast. Jesus describes himself as the bridegroom, saying that while he was with his disciples, they would feast and that a time for fasting was coming. This was partially prophetic, knowing that that one day Jesus would be taken away from them and during that time they would fast. He adds another parable describing how old things and new things do not mix. An new patch cannot be sown on old clothes because the new patch will shrink making the tear worse. New wine cannot be put into old wineskin because wine causes wineskins to expand and stretch as it releases gas. New wine would cause old wineskin to burst. Lastly, no one drinks new wine when they desire old wine, because it is perceived to be better.

When Jesus quotes from Micah 6:8-9, he is getting at the heart of the matter. God isn’t concerned about pious acts themselves, rather the heart in which pious acts were done. The Pharisees wanted to add more religion on top of the already religious system to make them look even more pious than the law required. Likewise, they saw religion as a means of penitence too. When Jesus came on the scene though, he did not preach a message that compelled people to layer on more religion than they already had, rather he came preaching a message of repentance, wanting people to change their hearts. The job of Christians is to call the world to repentance, not to more religion. In doing so, sinners can experience the mercy of God and be saved by it.

Lord, help me to desire mercy, not sacrifice!

Matthew 6:16-18: Undefiled Religion

Read: Matthew 6:16-18

The only required fast required in the Old Testament law was taken on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement in which the priest would offer sacrifices on behalf of the the nation of Israel by going into the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:29-34, Leviticus 23:23-44). Over time, the Jewish people began to observe even more days throughout the year (Isaiah 58) By the time of Jesus, the most religious Jews were fasting multiple times a week. Jesus, being a religious figure, was often question why he didn’t fast as often as others (Luke 3:7-14, Luke 5:33-39). Jesus on the matter though focused on the heart of the matter. While many used fasting to show off their piety Jesus shows that fasting is not to be used for this purpose. He says that fasting should be a private matter between the one fasting and the Lord and one should do it in a manner so that no one else sees the fast.

Moreover, the real issue that Jesus had with fasting was the the fact that people would observe it while neglecting other issues that were certainly more important such as helping the poor, being honest in ones dealings, among other issues related to justice for outcasts and marginalized in society. James says that true religion is caring for the widows and orphans rather than acts of worship (James 1:26-27) which is a theme that is echoed from the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:9-17, Micah 6:6-8).

Religious activity is no substitute for right living – in fact God rather one help the poor and live righteously than to perform religious rites. Religious rites though can be rich experience when done in the right context. Like in the Day of Atonement, taking a fast to be a time to look introspectively at ones own life and confess sins before God. Churches will often have communion to reflect on the grace and love that Jesus poured out on the cross. Baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection and and new life that Christians have in Christ. Christians do well to constantly evaluate why he or she does particular religious activities to make sure that the activities are done with the right motives and in a way that is not disconnected from the greater points of the law such as righteousness and concern for the poor.

Lord, help my religion to be pure and undefiled.

Luke 5:33-39: The New Has Come

Read: Luke 5:33-39

Jesus was the king of parables, which he used very often to communicate truths about who he was, his mission, and things about God. Here in this text, Jesus tells a number of parables pertaining to himself. Jesus was reveling with his disciples and the Pharisees asked him why his disciples did not fast as John the Baptist’s disciples did. Jesus and the disciples were not breaking any part of the law. The fast of John his disciples was entire voluntary. The Pharisees though were not ones to be out done by another in terms of piety, and any one who they saw as less pious than themselves – especially one that was seen righteous such as Jesus or John. Jesus, howe, tells a parable about a wedding feast and a bridegroom, and saying that people don’t fast when they are at a wedding feast. Jesus describes himself as the bridegroom, saying that while he was with his disciples, they would feast and that a time for fasting was coming. This was partially prophetic, knowing that that one day Jesus would be taken away from them and during that time they would fast.

Jesus though does not leave it there. He adds another parable describing how old things and new things do not mix. An new patch cannot be sown on old clothes because the new patch will shrink making the tear worse. New wine cannot be put into old wineskin because wine causes wineskins to expand and stretch as it releases gas. New wine would cause old wineskin to burst. Lastly, no one drinks new wine when they desire old wine, because it is perceived to be better. What exactly Jesus is trying to say here is a bit of a mystery, but most commentators and scholars believe the Jesus is talking about his new ways versus the old ways of the Pharisees. When Jesus came on the scene though, he did not preach a message that compelled people to layer on more religion than they already had, rather he came preaching a message of repentance, wanting people to change their hearts.

Jesus will later speak to a “New Covenant” in Luke 22:20 when he is observing the first Lord’s Supper. He calls the wine the cup of the New Covenant. Hebrews 8 speak to the New Covenant which actually quotes from Jeremiah 31:31-34. Hebrews shows that everything according to the law was a “copy or shadow” of the things in heaven and that when Jesus came, these were superseded by something better – namely Jesus himself, who is the priest, king, sacrifice, and the object of worship all rolled into one. The need for more religion, priests, sacrifices, temples, and objects of worship were no longer necessary under the New Covenant.

For those that come to Jesus today, there is no need for more religion. What the New Testament calls “true religion” has nothing to do with rites and rituals, rather taking care of orphans and widows (James 1:27). Jesus would rather one shed religion and perform acts of love and charity to demonstrate one’s piety than build temples, perform sacrifices, and other such things.

Lord, The new has come! Help me live according to it!

Luke 3:7-14: Detestable Religion

Read: Luke 3:7-14

John’s words are harsh. He calls those that are coming out to be baptized a “brood of vipers”, which in that time and place was not something nice to say. “Vipers” in the ancient near east were associated with wicked men. Jesus uses the word to describe the Pharisees and Sadducees on 3 occasion (Matthew 3:7, Matthew 12:34, Matthew 23:33). It was a serpent who deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden too (Genesis 3:1-15). Being called a viper was to associated a person as cunning and subtle with ulterior motives – they saw baptism as yet more religion. Those coming to be baptized by John were “fleeing wrath” which implies that they knew judgment was coming and were looking for a means to effectively purify themselves. The thinking was that the more piety one had, the less likely judgment was to fall in them. Likewise, as implied by verse 8, those coming to be baptized were clinging to their heritage as well, thinking that because they were from the line of Abraham made them special and that they wouldn’t face judgment.

The people were right to recognize that there was impending judgment, but they were approaching it the wrong way, wanting to address sin with religion and traditions without changing their hearts and actions. John on the other hand saw through both of these. He was calling people to repent (that is, change one’s heart and mind about sin) and bear fruit in accordance with repentance. He agrees with the people that judgment is coming when he says the ax is near the root of the tree and every good tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut down and burned. He specifically addresses three groups of people: those with abundance, tax collectors, and soldiers calling them to do good and be generous rather than hoard and extort.

When faced with sin or hard times, the natural tendency of people is to want to get “right with God” and they do so by by getting more religious. They will attend church, undergo rites and rituals, pray, read their Bible, among other things. None of these things are inherently bad, but if they are being done for the wrong reasons, then they are of little or no use because religion doesn’t help one’s standing before God. God wants people to repent and come to him in faith, not continue to live the same way as they did before and attempt to atone for sin with religion. The natural overflow of repentance though isn’t religion, rather charity and righteousness which God desires more than religion. In fact, James 1:26-27 says that “true religion” isn’t rites and rituals, rather caring for orphans and widows. Micah 6:6-8 and Isaiah 1:1-17 aptly describe how God sees religion in light of righteousness – religion is detestable to God when one’s deeds and heart are evil. Rather than seeking out more religion, Christians should repent and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God!

Lord, I repent of my sins! Help me to bear fruit in keeping with repentance!

Hebrews 9:1-15: A Clear Conscience

Read: Hebrews 9:1-15

The sacrificial system in the Old Testament was a piecemeal operation: it required the fallible high priest to make sacrifices for himself, then on behalf of the people of God, enter into the Holy of Holies (a place that was only entered once a year) and make offerings using the blood goats and sheep and the ashes of heifers. The author of Hebrews even goes to argue that the Holy of Holies was shown to signify that the holy presence of God was not revealed to man just yet. And even more so, he continues to make the argument about the temporality and incompleteness of the Old Testament system in light of the “true” temple in heaven.

When Jesus came, he entered into the Holy of Holy as high priest and offered himself as a sinless sacrifice for the sins of the world. This offering was, as the author of made in a “greater” and “more perfect” tabernacle in heaven by a sacrifice that he made by the eternal Spirit of God for eternal redemption. This sacrifice was not required year after year, rather once and for all and it was done by him who could accomplish it without fear.

Because Jesus’ sacrifice is a perfect sacrifice, there can be no doubt about the implications of it: those who believe in Jesus are indeed redeemed and their conscience is clear. In other words, they do not have to worry about even the possibility that sin could keep them apart from God because Jesus has made the way possible, enabling those who believe to serve God all the more. There is no need to do the rote rituals year after year, nor does one have to rely on this for redemption. God’s sacrifice is perfect and true, and Christians can live life free of guilt and religiosity for that reason.

Lord, you freed my conscience! Help me to find confidence in your redemption and not my religion!