Friday, September 06, 2013

Then shall they fast in those days (Matthew 4)

The first issue that the SAB has with Matthew 4 is an interesting one, as it brings up bigger theological issues. If James 1:13 says that God cannot be tempted, then how is it that Jesus, supposedly being God, can be tempted? Is this a contradiction? Once again, I think this can be chalked up to the ambiguity of language, but it raises other questions for me. The ambiguity is this: Let me use the example of one of my kids. Suppose you were to try to get my older daughter to do something and you were to bribe her with a chocolate bar. Believe it or not,  she actually doesn't like chocolate, so in a sense, while you could bribe her with chocolate, in another sense, you can't...because it wouldn't be successful. I think that's the point of what James is saying. (This goes for the issue on verse seven as well.)

The bigger theological issue this raises, at least for me, is the question of why the devil would even bother. As I've heard many people point out--in regards to this passage, no less--the devil seems to be well-versed in scripture, so one might wonder why he bothers to oppose God since he must know how futile such action must be. I don't have an answer for that, it's just something I've always wondered.

Anyway, the SAB seems to be asking how it can be possible for Jesus to have fasted for 40 days and nights. There are a few things to say about this. One thing is that there are no details given about the fast; I would assume that Jesus didn't go without water for forty days, but rather only went without food. As it happens, there was this thing a few years back (it may still be as popular now, I don't know) where a lot of people I knew were doing 40-day fasts. They didn't go completely without consuming anything, but I know they went without solid food for 40 days; it doesn't take superhuman endurance for that sort of thing. Which brings me to a more important point: Jesus was superhuman. I don't think it's so hard to imagine that someone who had the ability to walk on water and raise people from the dead could manage to go a long time without food.

Well, after fasting, the devil shows up and tries to tempt Jesus, even suggesting scripture to support the things that he's tempting Jesus to do. As the SAB says, Jesus misquotes Deuteronomy 6:13, and this is not a translation error for the KJV. Not only is the word "only" present in the Greek, but it's there in the parallel passage of Luke 4:8. I would say in defense of this misquote that the verse that immediately follows ("Ye shall not go after other gods...") implies "only", so it's not an unreasonable stretch for Jesus to put it there.

I find it interesting the way that the SAB envisions the sorts of things that the Bible talks about, and how it's clearly different than I do. I would have never considered the physical impossibility of the scene in verse eight, but I suppose it's an issue worth considering. The thing I'd always wondered about this scene is how and why it ended up in the Gospels at all, since there's no recording of a time that Jesus sat down with his disciples and said, "Let me tell you about this wild thing that happened this one time I was fasting!" As for the issue of whether we've got some sort of flat-earth situation, I think that I'd have to say that this is figurative language in some way. I mean, even if you supposed that the devil and Jesus were standing on the moon, they'd still only see half the earth (there were kingdoms in the western hemisphere, and maybe even Australia), and I don't think there is an angle at which you could see everything. But even if the world were flat and there was a huge mountain, you'd be looking at everything from miles and miles away, so you wouldn't really see all those kingdoms, would you? I'm sure detractors will call it a cop-out, but yeah, I'm going to go with figurative speech here.

Verse nine is an interesting one, because I think a lot of people miss the implications of the offer the devil is giving, but the SAB gets it. If the devil is offering Jesus the earth, doesn't that imply that the devil owns it? You can't tempt someone by offering them something that's not yours, so the devil must own "all the kingdoms of the world". So the SAB is right to ask the questions it asks about the earth. As important as this issue is, since this post is getting long, I'm going to answer it simply. There's a sense in which both God and the devil own the earth. In the end, God owns the earth; He created it, and at the end of time, He's going to take it back. In another very real sense, the devil owns the earth, but it's sort of like a guy with a long-term lease. I actually talked about this when I covered the book of Ruth and cross-referenced Revelation 5 and referred back to this chapter.

But back to verse 10 and Jesus' quote of Deut. 6:13. The SAB asks whether the Bible tells us to serve only God or whether we are to serve others. I think the answer to this is similar to the one I just gave. Ultimately, God is the one we are made to serve, but in the course of living our lives, we serve God by serving others. Children should serve parents, spouses should serve one another, employees should serve bosses, and citizens should serve their governments in some manner. While it may seem like a contradiction on the face of it if you take the language a certain way, I think the idea is that we serve God by serving the people that God wants us to serve.

So the last issue in this chapter is that of timing. Matthew (and Mark, apparently) seem to be implying that Jesus chose his apostles (or particularly Peter and Andrew) after John got put in prison, while the Gospel of John suggests the opposite. Well, as it happens, this sort of thing happens a lot in the Gospels. The ordering of events seems to get scrambled around a lot between one telling and another. My general answer is once again, something that's going to be considered a cop-out by many, but I really don't think it is: the Gospel writers just didn't care about getting their narratives in proper temporal order. I'm using that as a blanket dismissal of contradictions of this type, but there still will be times where getting the order is important (the Sunday morning after Jesus is crucified has some issues that need sorting out) and a fair number of times, there will be things that can be said to sort things out anyway.

In this particular case, I'd say a couple things. One is that one event coming after the other in the narrative doesn't necessarily mean that they come after each other in time, and I think here verse 17 ends one story and 18 starts another. But that's about what I said in the previous paragraph. Another possibility is that John ended up in prison more than once; he was pretty unpopular among the religious and political leaders, maybe even moreso than Jesus. Here's a more important distinction: I don't think that the story of the calling of Peter in John is the same story told here. Doesn't it seem odd that Jesus would just be walking along and call these two guys almost at random, and they immediately drop everything and follow him? No, I think this is the official calling moment, while other stories like the one in John 1 are stories of how Jesus had interacted with these men previous to calling them.

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