Who are the “Many Who Come from the East and West” in Matthew 8:10-12?

In Matthew 8:10-12 Jesus draws a contrast between the “sons of the kingdom” who will not participate in the eschatological feast and those who will. The ones who do recline at the table with Abraham are “many from the east and the west.” Just who the many who enter the banquet and sit at the head table in the eschatological banquet has been a matter of discussion in recent scholarship.

Great Feast Abraham Beyeren

Since Jeremias, the majority opinion is that the included “many” are believing Gentiles and that the excluded “sons of the kingdom” are unbelieving Jews (Jesus’ Promise to the Nations, 51). Jeremias gives five features of Jesus’ view of the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles (57-60). First, God reveals himself to all humanity (Isa 2:2; 40:5). Second, God calls everyone to Zion (Isa 45:20–22). Third, the journey of the Gentiles to Zion, from Egypt and Assyria (Isa 2:3, 19:23). Fourth, the nations will worship at the “world–sanctuary” (Isa 56:7, 66:18). Last of all is the messianic banquet on the world–mountain (Isa 25:6–8). Matthew 8:11 is, for Jeremias, an interpretation of Malachi 1:11 highlighting the in–gathering of the Gentiles (62).

In a 1989 article, Dale Allison challenged this consensus opinion by arguing the “many from the east and the west” are Jews from the Diaspora rather than Gentiles replacing Jews at the eschatological feast. While he does not interact with Allison’s article, John Nolland argues a “re–application of the gathering of Israel to the gathering of the Gentiles is to claim too much.” Jewish eschatological thinking always allowed for Gentile participation in the Jewish eschatological gathering. (Matthew, 357).

Allison points out there is no text in the Hebrew Bible or the Second Temple Period, which describes Gentiles as coming from the east and west. Isaiah 59:19 describes a pilgrimage from the east and west when the Redeemer comes to Zion for those in Jacob who have turned from transgression. Psalm 107:3 describes Israel coming from the east, west, north and south. Philo (Spec. Leg. 1.69) uses this language (“from the east and west”) to describe the return of Diaspora Jews from Alexandria and Babylon to Jerusalem for festival days. For other texts describing a pilgrimage from the “east and west, north and south.” (See LXX Ps 106:2–3 [ET 107:2–3], Isa 43:5–6; Zech 8:7–8, 1 Enoch 57:1).

Psalms of Solomon 11 combines the gathering of the children of Zion (PsSol 11:2, cf. Isa 52:7; 54:1–4) with the voice of one bringing good news to Zion.

Psalms of Solomon 11.1–4 Sound in Zion the signal trumpet of the sanctuary; announce in Jerusalem the voice of one bringing good news, for God has been merciful to Israel in watching over them. 2 Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children, from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord. 3 From the north they come in the joy of their God; from far distant islands God has assembled them. 4 He flattened high mountains into level ground for them; the hills fled at their coming.

The Zion is to clothe herself with garments of glory (PsSol 11:7, cf. Isa 52:1) because the way through the wilderness has been prepared by leveling the path and turning the desert into paradise (PsSol 11:4–5, cf. Isa 40:4, 41:17–18). This pilgrimage only concerns Jews scattered throughout the world as they return to Zion and Jerusalem.

Allison also argues that even if there is an allusion to an eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to Zion in Matthew 8:11, it cannot be assumed that the original hearers would have thought of this pilgrimage as universal salvation of Gentiles (163). Allison cites several Second Temple Period texts which show that the Gentile pilgrimage in the future will be one of judgment, not salvation. As early as Ezekiel 39 the nations come to Israel, but instead of finding salvation at an eschatological banquet, they are utterly destroyed and become the food for the banquet (Ezek 39:17–20).

Allison is correct that at least some streams of Second Temple Period Judaism did not envision a future conversion of the nations, but rather their destruction. The source for this diversity is the ambiguity is the foundation eschatological banquet text, Isa 25:6–8. In fact, this is the only text in the Hebrew Bible which may connect the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion with the messianic feast. In every other text, the nations travel to Zion to pay homage to the God of Israel, but the feast is celebrated only by Israel. Allison concludes that Jesus would not have turned the metaphor of the messianic banquet upside down by replacing Israel with the Gentiles. Rather, he was indicating that the Jews who thought they ought to be sharing in the messianic banquet will be replaced by other Jewish guests, perhaps even those from the Diaspora (165).

While agreeing with many of Allison’s points, Michael Bird nevertheless maintains that the consensus view is essentially correct (“Who Comes from the East and the West?,” 441–57). Bird points out the book of Isaiah has both a “pilgrimage of the Gentiles” (Isa 2:2–4) and an eschatological banquet (Isa 25:6–8). Allison does not think Jesus’ audience would have read the two texts together since there is no pilgrimage and conversion of the nations in the eschatological feast.

Following Craig Keener, Bird points out that Jesus and other Second Temple Period thinkers frequently read Isaiah synthetically. “Even if he drew on only a single text, [Jesus] understanding of that text would be informed by the others” (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 270, n.26). Similarly, Warren Carter is convinced Allison is correct about inclusion of the Diaspora but does not see this as a non–inclusion of the Gentiles (Matthew and the Margins, 203). The context of Matthew 8:8–10 is the compelling factor for Carter. Matthew has placed this saying into a context which highlights Gentile conversion.

If it was only Matthew inserting the saying into the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, then perhaps Bird and Carter have a valid point. But the literary unit of Matthew 8–9 should be considered as a whole. This section is a series of miracles and conflict stories between two teaching sections (Matt 5–7 and 10).  In this larger section Jesus comes into contact with various outsiders: a leper, the demon–possessed, tax collectors, the blind and lame, as well as a Gentile. The faith of the Gentile centurion stands as part of a series of events which demonstrate that Jesus extends mercy to the outsiders.

In fact, there is nothing in Matthew 8:5–13 which anticipates the Gentile mission which would have been the case when Matthew finally wrote his Gospel. If Matthew were creating a story to show that Jesus was extending salvation to the Gentiles, then Jesus should have shared a meal with the Gentile as he did the (Jewish) tax–collectors and other sinners in Matt 9:9–13. That the centurion knows it is not lawful for Jesus to enter his home may imply that this man was a God–fearing Gentile not unlike Cornelius (Acts 10:28). Luke describes the Centurion as a patron of the Synagogue at Capernaum (Luke 7:4–5).

When read within the context of Matthew’s gospel, this saying about an eschatological banquet does not so much refer to geographical Diaspora Jews, but rather a sociological Diaspora. An additional factor is the placement of the saying in Luke 13:29, where there is no hint of Gentile salvation in Luke. In fact, read within the context of Luke–Acts, the “many from the east and west” are in fact Diaspora Jews gathered at Pentecost who hear the preaching of the Apostles and receive the Holy Spirit.

In summary, this saying is an explicit reference to the eschatological banquet. But Jesus expands the banquet to include people on the fringes of the Jewish life. The saying is less about a future banquet than Jesus’s ongoing ministry of table fellowship. Only a chapter later, many do in fact come to sit with Jesus and celebrate with him as a bridegroom (Matt 9:9–13).

 

 

 

Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant – Matthew 8:5-13

Jesus returns to Capernaum, Peter’s village, where is met by a centurion asking him to heal his servant who is suffering greatly (Matthew 8:5-6). Like the story of Jesus healing the leper in the previous paragraph, Jesus will cross cultural barriers by responding to this Gentile’s request.

Centurion's Servant Healed

Jesus left Nazareth and began to live in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), likely living in Peter’s home (8:14). He will return to the village in 11:23 and 17:24. The modern route from Nazareth to Capernaum is about 30 miles, but the way drops from 1138 feet at Nazareth to 680 feet below sea level at Capernaum (at current lake levels). In the first century Capernaum would not have been very large, perhaps no more that 1700 residents. The village is right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and there is evidence of at least seven docks for fishermen. There is also evidence of a small synagogue under the impressive fifth century building modern tourists visit.

Having finished the Sermon on the Mount Jesus walked to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Peter and his family lived. From the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount to Capernaum is perhaps three and a half miles by the modern road, less if Jesus is able to take a more direct route.

The centurion is a Gentile, but it is at least possible he is a God-fearing gentile. Was there a Roman garrison in Capernaum in the first third of first century? This is often stated, but rarely proven. Mike Wilkins, for example, states “recent excavations reveal a military garrison at Capernaum had its headquarters to the east of the Jewish village” although he does not offer a footnote for this recent excavation (Wilkins, Matthew, 341).

There is little evidence for Roman military presence in Galilee prior to AD 44 (Wahlde, “Archaeology and John’s Gospel”). In the 1980s a Roman bathhouse was found near the eastern border of the village, right on the property line between the Franciscan and Orthodox properties. At present, the bathhouse is dated to the second or third century (it is similar to small bathhouses in Gaul and Britain from the period), but the excavators suspect an earlier bathhouse was present when the later was built.

Why would a typical Roman soldier think a Jewish healer would have this kind of authority? If he is simply a pagan Roman centurion, he may have tried all other methods, both medical and divine, to heal his servant. If he was a God-fearing Gentile, then he may have had faith in the God of Israel to heal. In either case, he had heard Jesus was known for healing all kind of illness and approaches on behalf of the servant. The point of the passage is that a Gentile expressed more faith than the Jews in the region, especially the Pharisees.

The centurion approaches Jesus and shows unusual respect for him. The verb translated “asking for help” (NIV) or “appealing to him” (ESV, NRSV) is προσκυνέω, “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). It can mean anything from “greet with affection” or “welcome respectfully” to “worship (like a god).” Although it is unlikely the man is worshiping Jesus like a god, it is significant Matthew has chosen this word to express the centurion’s attitude toward Jesus. This Gentile considers Jesus worthy of respect and honor.

His request is simple: heal my servant. It is possible to translate the noun παῖς as “servant” or “son.” In fact, John has son (υἱός), but Luke has “servant” (δοῦλος). It may be the case that the ambiguity of παῖς led to the different terms in Luke and John, and it is also possible the servant was so beloved by the centurion he considered him as a son. (See this post from Ian Paul for the suggestion the servant was the centurion’s gay lover. Dwight Gingrich points out the noun “παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever.”)

In either case, he is paralyzed and suffering greatly. The verb translated “suffer” (βασανίζω) refers to extreme distress and is used for torture in some contexts. Matthew adds the adverb “greatly (δεινῶς), “an extreme negative point on a scale relating to values” (BDAG). When your doctor asks you how bad your pain is on a scale of one to ten, the servant’s pain goes all the way to eleven.

Jesus is willing to go to the servant and heal him, but the centurion knows a Jewish person would not enter the home of a Gentile.For example, in Acts, Peter initially refused to enter the home of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who was so godly that the Lord sent an angel to personally answer his prayers. In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.”In the Mishnah, m Ohol. 18:7, “Dwelling places of gentiles [in the Land of Israel] are unclean.”

The centurion says he is not worthy (οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανός) of a visit from Jesus in his home. Instead, the centurion recognizes Jesus is authority and knows Jesus only has to say the word, and his servant will be healed.

Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith, telling his followers that he has met no one in Israel who has a similar faith.  “No one in Israel” as opposed to the gentile centurion has expressed a belief in Jesus’s authority over illness. Why is this surprising? There are several texts in Isaiah which suggest the messiah would have a healing ministry, Isaiah 35:5-7. 61:1-4. If Jesus was known for “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and healing every disease and sickness (Matt 4:24), then the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees should have made the connection to these prophecies about the coming eschatological age. In the next few pages of Matthew, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees will question Jesus’s authority and cast doubt on the origins of his power.

Skipping over 8:10-12 for now, the story concludes in verse 13, the servant is immediately healed. In the leper story, Jesus says he is willing to heal, and in this story, Jesus once again expresses his authority by healing the servant by his word, crossing over social and cultural boundaries to care for someone at the lowest rungs of society.

 

 

Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy – Matthew 8:1-4

In the first three stories in Matthew 8, Jesus heals three people of the fringes of Jewish society, demonstrating his authority of physical illness and fulfilling Isaiah 53:4. In Matthew 8:1-4 Jesus heals a man with leprosy by touching him.

Jesus healing the leprous man is an example of the triple tradition (Matt 8:1-4//Mark 1:40-45//Luke 5:12-16). Matthew omits Jesus’s response in Mark 1:41. There Jesus either has compassion on the man (the majority of manuscripts) or he is indignant (D and some old Italian versions). Matthew also drops out the man’s disobedience to the command to stay silent (Mark 1:45, “instead he went out and began to talk freely). Matthew tells the story as simply as possible in order to emphasize Jesus’s authority over illness.

A person with rotting skin like leprosy was considered as good as dead. Their disease was often associated with God’s judgment (cf. 2 Chr 26:20). As ceremonially unclean and as contagious persons, they were required to keep themselves separate from society and to announce their approach with the words “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 14:45–46; cf. Luke 17:12). In Numbers 5:2 the leprous are to be “put out of the camp.” When Miriam is punished with leprosy Moses pleads with God to heal her saying “Let her not be as one dead.” Leviticus 13-14 has a wide range of rules for people with skin conditions and in Deuteronomy 24:8-9 Israel is to be very careful with lepers, “remember Miriam!” There are several stories which describe leprosy as a punishment from God (2 Kings 5:7; 7:3-10; 15:5; 2 Chron 26:16–21).

Leprosy is a concern in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Temple Scroll, lepers and menstruating women should have a place to live outside a city to live so they do not defile people in the city. The section just prior to this quote instructs the readers to “not be like the Gentiles” who bury their dead everywhere, but rather build cemeteries outside the city to avoid corpse uncleanliness. No one with leprosy or a skin disease was allowed to enter the Temple (11Q20 Col. xii:3).

11Q19 Col. xlviii:14 And in every city you shall make places for those contaminated 15 with leprosy, and with sores and with scabies so that they do not enter your cities and defile them; and also for those who have a flux 16 and for women when they are in their menstrual impurity and after giving birth, so that they do not defile in their midst 17 with their menstrual impurity. And the leper who has chronic leprosy or scabies and the priest has declared him unclean. (trans. Garcı́a Martı́nez and Tigchelaar)

This is similar to the Mishnah which lists lepers along with several other “fathers of uncleanliness.” These things render a person unclean by contact. If a leper touched a plate or a bowl, then that vessel was unclean and any food eaten from that vessel would be rendered unclean.

m. Kelim 1:1 The Fathers of Uncleannesses [are] (1) the creeping thing, and (2) semen [of an adult Israelite], and (3) one who has contracted corpse uncleanness, and (4) the leper in the days of his counting, and (5) sin offering water of insufficient quantity to be sprinkled. Lo, these render man and vessels unclean by contact, and earthenware vessels by [presence within the vessels’ contained] airspace (trans. Neusner).

In addition to this, the tractate m. Nega’im concerns various skin diseases and how they affect the cleanliness of clothing, homes, etc. as well as methods for purifying a leper.

m. Nega’im 13:11 A leper who entered the house—all the utensils which are there are unclean—even up to the beams.

m. Nega’im 14:1 A  How do they purify the leper? (B 1) He would bring a new flask of clay, and (2) put in it a quarter-log of living water, and (3) bring two undomesticated birds. C He slaughtered one of them over the clay utensil and over the living water. D He dug [a hole] and buried it before him [the leper]. E He took cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet wool and bound them together with the ends of the strip [of wool] and brought near to them the tips of the wings and the tip of the tail of the second [bird]. F He dipped [them in the blood of the slaughtered bird] and sprinkled [the blood] seven times on the back of the hand of the leper. G There are some who say, “On his forehead.” H And thus did he sprinkle on the lintel of the house on the outside.

The man kneels before Jesus, a sign of respect, probably not worship. When the leper asks to be made clean, he is asking Jesus not just to remove his painful disease, but to be allowed back into Jewish life, including living again with his family and worship at the Temple.

Jesus responds by touching the man and he is immediately made clean. No one touches a leper since touching make the person unclean and they may contract the disease themselves. Touching the untouchable violates the law (cf. Lev 5:3).

Jesus then tells the man to say nothing but rather go to a priest to offer a gift. Why does Jesus command silence? Although it is more clear in Mark, there is a “messianic secret” theme in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 16:20 he tells his disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah, and in 17:9 he tells the three witnesses of the transfiguration to tell no one about their experience until after the resurrection. The usual explanation is that healing a leper would have confirmed Jesus is the messiah and drawn even larger crowds, crowds of people who would misunderstand the nature of Jesus’s messianic activity.

m. Nega’im 14:7 A On the eighth day [Lev. 14:10] one brings three beasts: a sin offering, and a guilt offering, and a whole offering. B The poor person would bring sin offering of fowl and a whole offering of fowl [Lev. 14:21]. 14:8 A He came to the guilt offering and put his two hands on it and slaughtered it. B And two priests received its blood, one in a utensil and one by hand. C This one who received [the blood] in the utensil came and sprinkled it on the wall of the altar. D And this one who received it by hand came to the leper. E And the leper immersed in the court of the lepers. F He came and stood in the gate of Nicanor. G  R. Judah says, “He did not require immersion [on the eighth day, having done so on the seventh].”

Why would Jesus require a proof of healing? A gift after a skin disease is cleared was Moses commanded so that he can once again be part of Jewish society. “Jesus is thus shown to be faithful to the stipulations of the Torah in spite of an infraction of the command not to touch” (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 199). People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

When Jesus touches the leper he crosses a boundary most of his contemporaries would not even approach. He showed compassion for the leper even though there was fear and loathing for the leprous man. How does Jesus’s action of touching the leper provide a model for contemporary ministry?

 

Were Lepers Considered Unclean in the Bible? Matthew 8:1-2

In Matthew 8:1-2, a man with leprosy approaches Jesus and asks to be made clean. It is important to understand leprosy in the context of the first century. In modern usage, leprosy refers to a specific medical condition known as Hansen’s disease. The Greek λεπρός covers a side range of skin conditions, so it is perhaps better to call this a “bad skin condition” (although this runs the risk of making the reader think the man just had a really bad case of acne). In classical Greek, the word λεπρός referred to skin that was scaly, rough, or harsh or things that were “mangy” (BrillDAG).

Jesus heals a leper

People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

However, in a recent JBL article, Myrick Shinall has challenged the consensus view that people with leprosy were shunned in Jewish society. He argues the text usually cited in the commentaries are inconsistent and fragmentary and is more interested in diagnosing leprosy rather than excluding the leper from society (924). There is considerable variation of exclusion because of leprosy. Although Miriam is sent outside the camp, Naaman is permitted to go anywhere (2 Kings 5) and Uzziah was forced to live in a separate house, but the text does not describe the king as in isolation (2 Chron 26).

Shinall then argues there is no social isolation in the various leper stories in the Gospels (932). There is nothing in Matthew 8, for example, that indicates this leprous many was living a life of social isolation, and later Jesus will enter the home of Simon the Leper and eat with him (Matt 26:6). Shinall understands Simon’s name as indicating he was currently suffering from leprosy; he is not “Simon, the former Leper.”

The problem Shinall addresses is the common, an inaccurate portrayal of Second Temple Judaism as overly concerned with purity in contrast to the loving Jesus who reached out to lepers. He sees this as a clear bias against Jews in early church writers and implicit in modern commentators. If the motivation for overplaying social exclusion is slandering the Jews, then it should be dropped (934).

I am in agreement with his final conclusion: do not slander the Jews in your teaching and preaching on this passage (seriously, don’t). However, social isolation because of one’s status is exactly the point of the three stories in Matthew 8:1-17. Jesus touches the leper and Peter’s mother-in-law, as I will show later, she is suffering from a fever which is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness. The middle story in this section has Jesus talking with a Gentile, risking a violation of purity laws.

The contrast is not between a kind and living Jesus and the whole of Second Temple Judaism, but with the way Pharisees practiced purity. Contact with a leper, a Gentile and a feverish woman were all grave risks for rendering someone unclean and would require a person to make appropriate washings in order to return to a state of cleanliness.

This needs to be unpacked more, but for now, I will state here that the Pharisees were the sub-group within Judaism who attempted to live in a state of ritual purity at all times. They are also the group who will come into direct conflict with Jesus over these kinds of purity issues.

Bibliography: Myrick C. Shinall Jr., “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels,” JBL 137.4 (2018): 915-34.

See also: J. K. Elliott, “The Healing of the Leper in the Synoptic Parallels.” TZ 34 (1978) 175–76;  Ituma, Ezichi, Enobong I. Solomon, and Favour C. Uroko. “The Cleansing of the Leper in Mark 1:40–45 and the Secrecy Motif: An African Ecclesial Context.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 75.4 (October 2019): 1–11.

Main Themes in Matthew 8-12

Matthew 4:23-25 and 9:35 form an inclusio, a frame around the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7) and the authority/miracle stories (ch. 8-9), forming a major unit in the Gospel of Matthew. (Click here for an index of all Sermon on the Mount posts.) At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority. In Matthew 9:35, they are amazed at Jesus because he does things with authority.

After collecting Jesus’s teaching on the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew collects ten miracles (nine healings) to demonstrate that Jesus is the Servant from Isaiah 53:4. In the Septuagint the servant “carries our sins and suffers pain for us, and we regarded him as one who is in difficulty, misfortune, and affliction” (LES2). These themes are clear in Matthew 8-9, Jesus heals people who are on the fringes of society because their illnesses are associated with uncleanliness and sin. Similar to the blindman in John 9, someone might have asked what the leprous man did to deserve such a painful punishment. Jesus disconnects sin and illness in these stories. This is clear in Matthew 9:1-8 when Jesus forgives a man’s sin without healing him first; the teachers of the Law consider this blasphemous since only God can forgive sin and false because the man was still paralyzed.

Interspersed into this collection of miracle stories are sayings of Jesus and reactions from crowds, the disciples, teachers of the law and Pharisees. In most cases, people who should not understand who Jesus do (a centurion, 8:9-9; demons 8:28; tax-collectors, 9:9-13; blind men, 9:27). Those who should recognize his healings as signs the messianic age has come do not understand Jesus (anyone in Israel, 8:10-12; the disciples, 8:23-27; teachers of the law, 9:3; John the Baptist’s disciples, 9:14; Pharisees, 9:34).

These reactions to Jesus anticipate a series of conflict stories that follow in Matthew 10-12. People begin to react to Jesus as the Messiah in various ways, but the climax ins the Pharisees rejecting Jesus and declare he is working his miracles under the power of Beelzebub. Jesus says this rejection is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin that will not be forgiven int his age or the age to come (Matt 12:32). Matthew 12 ends with Jesus’s family asking to speak with him (12:46-50). In Mark 3:20-21 his family wants to take him home because they think he has lost his mind, although that detail is omitted in Matthew 12.

For example, in this first section of Matthew 8-9, a leper, a gentile, and a woman with a fever, people who are unclean with respect to ritual purity under the Law, are healed. Jesus touches a leper, speaks with a Gentile, and touches a woman. All three actions would render Jesus unclean by the standards of the Pharisees, who lived as much as possible in a state of perpetual ritual purity.

Just as the Sermon on the Mount subverts expectations about the Law and how one lives out their lives as Jews in the Second Temple Period, Jesus will challenge the beliefs of other teachers (especially the Pharisees) with respect to discipleship (who can be a follower of Jesus looks much different than who can be a follower of the Pharisees!) He declares that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” while the “sons of the kingdom” will be thrown in the outer darkness where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Those who think they belong in the kingdom of Heaven (sitting at the head table with Abraham) will not enter the kingdom at all, while those who should not be in the kingdom (lepers, Gentiles and a women with a suspicious disease) will not only get in, but they will be the honored guests!

Why Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

At this time of year we sing the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. Everyone knows that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and “laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.” Almost every word of that phrase has been exploded into a plot point for Christmas pageants. We imagine Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary arriving in Bethlehem just as she is about to give birth, only to be told that every hotel room in the city is full. A kindly innkeeper (dressed in your uncle’s bathrobe and sandals) allows the couple to give birth in his barn.

Bethlehem

But Bethlehem was no sprawling metropolis. It is doubtful there was an inn, and if there was it was the only inn in the tiny village. The image of Mary going into labor in the lobby of the local Comfort Inn is pure fantasy. The village was still quite small and unimportant in 6 B.C. But there are other reasons why it was important for Jesus to be born in the “little town of Bethlehem.”

First, the Messiah was to be the son of David, the first King of Israel. David was from the village of Bethlehem, a son of Jesse. Jesse was a wealthy land owner in Bethlehem, a “sheep rancher” rather than a Bedouin with a few herd animals. He is described as a town elder, and therefore a more politically powerful man than a “lowly shepherd.”

Bethlehem is only 5 and a half miles from Jerusalem, and 3 miles from Gibeah. While the town was likely small, it was well within the range of Saul’s capital; elders from Bethlehem would have been well aware of court politics.  That Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem may explain David’s interest in taking the city after he becomes king. When he is anointed the city is controlled by the Jebusites, prompting some scholars to wonder if David was a Jebusite himself!

The image of David when he begins his career is of a boy-shepherd who was at the same time a warrior capable of defeating great enemies because the Lord is with him, and he is committed to the Lord.

Second, the Messiah was to be in the line of David (2 Sam 7:12; Psalm 2, 110). The Davidic covenant describes the son of David, Solomon, in terms which cannot be fully applied to Solomon. He will reign forever!

Psalm 2 is a text which was originally used at the enthronement of a king, but the Psalm cannot describe any single human; that the nations will be ruled by a son of David who sits on the throne with the Lord himself goes well beyond an enthronement text. Likewise, Psalm 110 describes the victory of the son of David in battle in cosmic terms which go well beyond the hopes of any given king of Israel.

The messiah is therefore thought to be the ultimate fulfillment of the “son of David” prophecies. God would send someone to solve the problems of Israel who ultimately fulfilled the role of David in that he liberate the nation from their oppressors and prepared the way for true worship in the Temple. What was not expected is that this person would be quite literally God’s son!

The birth in Bethlehem therefore meets the expectation that the messiah would be from the line of David as well as from the town of Bethlehem.

The First Witnesses to the Birth of the Savior – Luke 2:8-20

Linus reading the Christmas Story in the original Charlie Brown Christmas Special is one of my favorite Christmas memories. There is something about hearing the appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the King James Version and hearing phrases like “and they were sore afraid.” But why do the angels appear to shepherds? Why announce the savior’s birth to them first, and not kings or priests?

Linus reads Luke 2Shepherds are sometimes considered “the common folk,” and perhaps representative of the most sinful of people. It is true that Luke especially highlights the poor and shows how Jesus had a special ministry to the downtrodden. But the evidence that shepherds were sinners is late (fifth century AD), and the New Testament always presents shepherds in a good light (church leaders are shepherds, as are Moses and David in the Hebrew Bible).

Perhaps this is the first (of many) examples of the ministry of the Messiah to the lowly, as predicted in another song in Luke. Mary’s son in Luke 1:46-55 predicted the messiah would “humble the proud and exalt the humble” (1:52). That the announcement of the messiah’s birth was made first to a group of shepherds is a remarkable indication that the lowly are “being raised up.”

Since these are shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem, it is quite likely that there is a subtle reference to David, a shepherd who became king of Israel. The original leader of the nation, Moses, also spent forty years as a shepherd before shepherding Israel in the wilderness.

The angel appears with the glory of the Lord and announces the “good news” of the birth of a savior. In the Roman world one would expect the “good news” to concern the birth of a son to the emperor or an announcement concerning a great victory over an enemy. But this announcement does not concern the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but rather the birth of the real king who will defeat the real enemy of all people, sin and death itself.

The song of the angelic host draws on themes from the Hebrew Bible. The “heavenly host” is an angelic army, or at the very least an uncountable number of angels around the throne of God (1 Kings 22:18). That God should be glorified is not a surprise, nor is the fact that he is glorified in heaven (in the “highest” is euphemistic for heaven.” That God brings peace is also common in the Hebrew Bible, see Psalm 29:11 and 86:8-10, for example.

Those that are receiving this good news are described as those on whom God’s favor rests. “reflects a semitechnical Semitic expression referring to God’s people and having overtones of election and of God’s active initiative in extending his favor” (Nolland, Matthew, 109).  This phrase too is drawn from key texts in the Hebrew Bible, see Psalm 106:4 for example.

But there is also a subtle reference to the Roman Empire here as well. The “Bringer of Peace” in the Roman word was Augustus, the first emperor. It was Augustus who established pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Although this was propaganda (Roman was always at war along the borders), for most people living at the time Jesus was born, the Empire was at peace and secure. This peace was guaranteed by the armies of Rome. Augustus was often called savior on official coinage and the Roman calendar was arranged to mark his birthday. People sang hymns of praise and worship to the spirit of Augustus and the power of his kingdom, Rome.

It is therefore ironic that the angel announced the birth of the real savior of the world who will bring real peace to the world to the young shepherds in near a tiny village in an unremarkable backwater of the Roman Empire. Anyone who puts their faith in Rome and Roman power will be humbled by the sudden appearance of the real King, Jesus.

This is an important message for Christians every year, but perhaps this year it is even more urgent. There is no peace and safety to be found in the government of any empire, whether that is Rome or America. Not human leader can really guarantee prosperity for all. If the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus teaches us anything it should be the very biblical story that God’s kingdom will overcome the kingdom of man, so to rely on the empire of man is foolish indeed!

God Will Visit His People – Luke 1:68

christmas, zechariah, elizabethZechariah is the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were childless and too old to have any children, yet Zechariah is told by an angel of the Lord that his wife will have a child, and that child will be a prophet in the power of Elijah, and that he will be the forerunner of the Messiah. Zechariah questions this prophecy, since it seems impossible to him. He is told by the angel Gabriel that because he doubted the word of God, he will not speak until the day that the child is born. On the day the child was to be named, Zechariah was again able to speak, and we are told that the Holy Spirit filled him, and he prophesied these words.

It is important to note that these are the words of the Holy Spirit spoken through Zechariah to the people that were gathered in the temple for John’s circumcision. They would have all been familiar with the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the coming of the Messiah. In this ten verse section there are at least 16 allusions to the Old Testament, making it clear that John’s birth, and more importantly, the birth of Jesus three months away, would be the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel.

These words are spoken for John and about John, but John the Baptist was merely the precursor to Jesus, and all he did pointed forward to Jesus. Even in this solemn prayer of dedication at his circumcision, John is pointing the way to the Messiah. This section is centered upon the actions of God. With the birth of John, and later of Jesus, God “has come to his people.”

The word Zechariah uses for “has come” is literally “visited” (ἐπισκέπτομαι). The word has the connotation of an inspection or examination.  Zechariah is saying that God is about to come to inspect his people.  In the Old Testament, when God “visited” his people, it could be to bring them some sort of blessing, or it could be to bring the judgment.  In Exodus 3:16 God has “observed” the suffering of his people (ESV, same word appears in the LXX), and in this case he is about to rescue his people from their slavery.

Zechariah’s words are therefore a prophetic warning that in the near future God would visit his people, and that “visitation” might not be a time of great blessing and favor.  God may be visiting in judgment!  There is an element of foreshadowing in Zechariah’s words:  at the end of Jesus’ ministry he weeps over Jerusalem because they did not recognize that “this day” was the time of God’s “visitation” (ἐπισκοπή, a noun from the same root as 1:68).  Sadly, the people did not heed the warning and were unprepared for God’s inspection.

This is what happened with the birth of Jesus:  God has literally come to man.  By becoming flesh Jesus was able to offer to his people ultimate forgiveness of sin. We do not usually associate the Christmas story with a time of God’s judgment, but it is significant that this first prophecy of Jesus’ ministry in Luke describes Jesus as the coming judge.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant – Matthew 18:23-35

Jesus illustrates his view of unending mercy with a parable demonstrating how the real disciple has experience unlimited forgiveness and therefore should extend unlimited forgiveness to others.

In the story, a king forgives a great debt owed him by his servant (v. 23-27). The details of the parable are hyperbolic: a servant owes his master far more than he can possibly repay. The context may be the “court of the Gentiles” rather than the Galilean Jewish context of Jesus (suggested by Keener, Matthew, 457). This does not take away from the authenticity since most Jews would have a general knowledge of the way things usually went in a Gentile court.

The person who owes the great debt is a slave. Most modern readers wonder how a slave could incur such a massive debt. Although the word can refer to court officials and people with power, something that can always be turned into wealth. Perhaps Jesus has in mind a corrupt Herodian bureaucrat who has used his position to make himself wealthy, but has instead lost the Herod’s court a massive amount of money. Slaves could be in important roles in the Empires, so that they could accumulate wealth and power, even if they were in a master-slave relationship with the Emperor.

The debt is unimaginably large: ten thousand talents. A “talent” is a standard weight, so this might be a talent of gold, silver, copper, etc. Most scholars assume a talent of silver here, which was worth approximately 6,000 denarii. Since he owed ten thousand talents, the debt is sixty million denarii. If a denarius was the standard wage for a day laborer, then this debt represents nearly 200,000 years of labor, if interest on the debt, then the average laborer could not possibly work enough to pay off the debt.

Even if we assuming the slave was in a position to invest, take bribes, sell favors, etc., he could raise more money, but the debt is intentionally so large even the wealthiest person could not possible pay it back. If Bill Gates owed ten trillion dollars he could not pay off the debt!

In verse 27 Matthew uses a word which usually means a loan. It is possible the man took money from his mater, invested it badly, lost the capital and then accrued massive interest on the loan. John Nolland points out the annual income of Herod’s kingdom when he died in 4 B.C. was about 900 talents, to be divided between his sons (Nolland, Matthew, 756). This servant’s debt is more than ten times the value of Herod’s kingdom. In fact, the word translated as ten-thousand is often translated, “myriad,” an uncountable number. Maybe a modern gloss would be to say he owed “a bazillion dollars.” Bazillion is a made up word that simply means an uncountable, hyperbolic number.

The master responds as any wealthy Roman would, he intends to sell everything the slave owns, including his family into slavery. This is an entirely believable, appropriate, and fair response in the Roman world!  The man’s wife and family were probably already slaves owned by the master, if he were to sell them on the open market, he might generate 500-2000 denarii each (Jeremias, Parables, 211). The slave may not own very much property himself, so the threat to sell everything will not come close to covering the debt.

The servant “fell on his knees,” or better, “did obeisance.” Imploring (προσκυνέω) does not express the depth of this man’s actions before the master. Although it often means worship, it can used “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). In Matthew, this is the word used in the temptation of Jesus, Satan demands Jesus worship him (Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8), but also the wise men who want to worship Jesus (2:2), but also the disciples who witness Jesus’s control of the storm (14:22, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” In Matthew 28:9, after the resurrection, the disciples once again fall to the ground in worship of Jesus.

The servant cries out, “Have patience on me” (μακροθυμέω). This is a plea for more time to pay off the debt. Since there is no earthly way to pay off this debt, the man is asking for a “stay of execution” (Nolland, Matthew, 757).

His plea is successful, the master releases the servant from his debt.  In Matthew 18:27 the debt is called a loan (τὸ δάνειον). Since the word is only used in this passage, it might be a variation of vocabulary, or it might be a hint of how the man got into such deep debt in the first place. In either case, this is an audacious act of mercy, one which would have surprised the audience of poor Galileans! People who own debts do not usually forgive them. (Imagine calling up your bank and explaining you have no way to pay your mortgage. He banker may try to help you find a way to pay, but they will probably not forgive what you owe. They will seize your house and resell it to recoup the debt!)

The servant has therefore experienced an audacious act of mercy and has been released from the bondage of his debt.  Does this make any differences in his attitude toward those who owe him a debt?

The servant who received audacious grace went out and found the servant who owned him money. This is not a random encounter, he went out of his way to find the servant and force him to pay the debt. The verb “found” is common, but Jesus used it in 18:13 or the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep and finds him. When he found someone who owed him money, he seized the servant and began to choke him (imperfect used for the beginning of an ongoing action). The image is also hyperbolic, imagine the unmerciful servant grabbing him around the neck to strangle him in order to make him pay. (I imagine Homer Simpson choking Bart!)

The fellow servant asks for forgiveness, using the exact same words as the unmerciful servant. He also asks for more time to raise the cash to pay the debt, the unmerciful servant is not willing to extend him additional time to pay. The debt is large, but not unmanageable. One hundred denarii would represent about three month’s wages for an average day laborer. But debt is relative, for someone making virtually nothing, one hundred denarii is impossible to repay. Since the servant cannot pay his debt, the unmerciful servant has his put in the same prison in which he was going to go if he had not been shown mercy by his master.

When the king hears what this unmerciful servant has done, he demands the servant pay his entire debt (v. 31-34). This is the point of the parable, the other servants see what this man has done and were “greatly distressed.” This word (λυπέω) can refer to emotional or physical pain, but may have the sense of “offended” in this context. It is modified by σφόδρα, an adverb which is much stronger than “very.” Matthew just used this phrase (ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα) in 17:23. After Jesus predicts his impending death, the disciples were “greatly distressed.” In 19:25, the disciples are “greatly distressed” when Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and follow him. When Jesus declares one of his disciples will betray him, they are all “greatly distressed” (26:22). At the crucifixion, those who witnessed the earthquake were “greatly afraid” (ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα, 27:54).

The master hand demonstrated extreme compassion and mercy, but now he is angry (v. 33) and condemns this wicked servant. There are a number of parables with this same language, a servant is judged for failing to do the masters will and is punished (often by being sent out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, Matthew 25:26). Here the wicked servant is given to the punishment he always deserved, a debtor’s prison. The master became angry, as did the king in Matthew 22:7 (and destroyed the city of those who had refused the invitation to the wedding feast, both passive forms of ὀργίζω).

So it is with God! Matthew 18:35 says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (ESV). If we have been forgiven such a great debt of sin, why would we dare to withhold mercy and grace to those who offend us! There is a threat here, if we are not forgiving to those who offend us, then the Father will not forgive us!

The context of this parable is dealing with “someone who sins against you” (18:15-20). The point of the parable is not to calculate just how much abuse you will able to take with each and every person, but to forgive everyone even if that forgiveness is socially unacceptable.

What effect will this kind of forgiveness have on a Christian community? It is possible some person will abuse mercy and offend over and over again. But coupled with the previous teaching on confronting those who sin within a congregation, Jesus’s point is not to coddle the unrepentant sinner who refuses to listen to the community (kick that person out!) Jesus wants his followers to be genuinely forgiving, merciful and gracious.

A Question about Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22

Matthew 18:21–22 (ESV) Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

After hearing Jesus’s teaching on how to handle someone who has committed an offense against us, Peter raises a question which reflects Jewish thinking about forgiveness in the first century. The “process” Jesus outlined in 18:15-20 sounds like a person might receive two warnings before being excommunicated from the assembly of believers. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus describes “turning the other cheek.” Did he want to imply “two chances” in that teaching?

Peter had discussed the temple tax with Jesus in 17:24-27, a pericope which follows “the disciples were filled with grief,” the same phrase appears in 18:31 (fellow servants are “filled with outrage”). Perhaps this is a frame? Perhaps Peter is being generous, not simply turning the other cheek, or forgive twice then bring it to the assembly and excommunicate the sinner. Seven times forgiveness would be remarkable!

Judaism did emphasize forgiveness for those who have offended. In the Testament of Gad, for example, the writer says “Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. Expel the venom of hatred, and do not harbor deceit in your heart. If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him” (T.Gad 6:3). This example is sufficient to demonstrate Jews in the first century were not proto-Puritans condemning everyone’s sin, nor were they standing on the street corners with signs damning everyone else to Hell. For the most part, the Judaism of Jesus’s day understood they had received great mercy and grace from God and that the “venom of hatred” does no one any good.

Jesus extends forgiveness to “seven times seventy.” By this he means the kind of unending forgiveness God has already given to the disciples, and by extension to all those who are in Christ in the present age.

The translation of the number of times to forgive is difficult, it could be seventy-seven times (as in the ESV, NIV and most modern translations) or “seventy times seven” (as in the KJV), which would be 490 times in all.  Although both are possible, most scholars today think the phrase is modeled on the LXX of Genesis 4:24, Lamech will be avenged “seventy-fold seven” (Nolland, Matthew, 754). In Genesis 4:24 Lamech wanted to be avenged seventy fold, Jesus is reversing that sort of outrageous, unlimited vengeance with equally outrageous, unlimited mercy.

In either case, Jesus is using hyperbole to express the idea that his disciples will not keep an accounting of wrong, but rather will reflect the unending mercy of the heavenly Father who has already forgiven them of all of their sins.

The problem is too many Christians are thin-skinned when it comes to taking offense. Five minutes on Facebook is enough to prove Christians are easily offended and do not offer forgiveness to those who need it. In fact, Christians are quick to use the “venom of hatred” when they are comfortably anonymous!

But As Craig Keener observes, “No one can offend our human moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God” (Matthew, 458). Rather than be offended at the sins of others, Christians ought to be amazed at the grace they have received and offer that some grace and mercy to other who desperately need it.