Matthew 17-19

Good morning! Today’s reading is Matthew 17-19, where we see Jesus’ divinity unmistakably affirmed, yet also his priority of serving the least and the lost. He gives us several passages which Christians today still struggle with, especially in the more affluent Global North.

We don’t explicitly have the word “incarnation” for the sense of “God taking on flesh” until the beginning of John’s gospel, but Matthew shows us in the Transfiguration what the idea entails. Atop a high mountain (which some equate with Mount Sinai), several disciples see Jesus’ “true” form shine forth in blinding light, affirmed by divine proclamation and flanked by Hebrew heroes Moses and Elijah. Though Peter wants to stay there indefinitely, Jesus sets off down the mountain again almost immediately, telling them of his upcoming suffering rather than his divine identity. He goes right from mountaintop glory back into the claustrophobia-inducing crowds clamoring for healing. His harsh, frustrated words before a father seeking help for a demon-possessed son leave me wondering what it would be like to be called on every moment to give further healing. Yet the calling of God is not so much to splendor as to service, and the disciples are troubled to hear again that he’ll suffer in fulfilling his vocation. Jesus’ life demonstrates that glory comes in the places and ways that we least expect. Children manifest true greatness, Jesus says, which is all the more surprising when we realize that children in this time were treated as property (like women and slaves) whose value was measured by their usefulness and not their identity.

We see in Matthew 18 the true extent of the upside-down values that Jesus propagates. Caring for children and others who are least fortunate is a top priority, since Jesus cautions against anything that would lead astray those who are most impressionable. Instead, discipleship involves seeking out the solitary lost sheep, extending mercy to wrongdoers and forgiving beyond reason. Unrepentant sinners are to be treated “as Gentiles and tax collectors”, which means (according to Jesus’ example) with kindness and not condemnation. His disciples are called to forgive universally, insofar as humans have been forgiven by a gracious God.

This can be a hard teaching to preach on, as are several others in chapter 19. Jesus’ teaching on divorce causes great consternation—to say nothing of direct pain—when his charge of adultery is repeated to those who remarry after divorce. We don’t have enough space here to go fully into the social situation for women in Jesus’ time, but in short, women had to rely greatly on husbands for their food and shelter. When such women could be cast into economic peril through the simple writing of a divorce decree, Jesus’ emphasis on staying married could be interpreted as protecting the woman. In very different social situations today (including in my own family), it is sometimes better to divorce than to perpetuate other forms of spiritual harm that can come from toxic marriages. Jesus’ command to the rich young man, by contrast, remains just as challenging today as in ancient Palestine. While this earnest and apparently successful young adult leeks to achieve eternal life through his actions alone, Jesus tells him to become poor. The man goes away in grief because it seems impossible that eternal life could actually cost everything he has. The priorities of heaven are different from those on earth. Happy reading!

Read Matthew 17-19.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Matthew 20-21. Thanks for reading!

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