"All Over the Map "
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts February 29 , 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
Scripture Reading: Matthew 9:2-17
2 And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." 3 Then some of the scribes said to themselves, "This man is blaspheming." 4 But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and walk'? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"-he then said to the paralytic-"Stand up, take your bed and go to your home." 7 And he stood up and went to his home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?" 15 And Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved."
The "Diverse and Impassioned Responses" Quiz
Here's a little quiz for you: What things in life receive the most diverse and impassioned responses? I'm not talking about things that people sort of like while others sort of don't like. I'm asking about things which people either love or hate, with little in between. So what do you think? What things come to mind?
The first thing that comes to my mind is sauerkraut, you know, that German delicacy of fermented shredded cabbage. I know there are some of you here today who love it. I know that, I just have a hard time believing it. It goes near the top of my "most hated food list." Nevertheless, most people aren't neutral on sauerkraut.
Of course people often have strongly opposite feelings about music. Some genres seem to be safely in the middle, like classical music or classic rock. But others divide the house. Take hip-hop, for example. Not much neutrality there. Or polka. Do you realize there are people who absolutely love polka music? I know it's hard to imagine, but it's true. Yet I've discovered that even my close friends can despise some of my favorite music. I love James Taylor's singing, and have done so for thirty years. But I know of at least one person in this church - someone I highly respect, by the way - who can't stomach James Taylor. And, if truth be told, I have a hard time connecting with his favorite singer as well.
I'm sure you'll be able to come up with lots of other things to which people respond with diverse passion. You'll have to let me know what you come up with.
But there is one thing that wins the prize for the stimulus that elicits the most diverse and impassioned responses of all. And that one thing is a person: Jesus Christ. If you examine responses to Christ throughout history, right up to this very day, you'll find an unbelievably wide range of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. People either love Jesus with all their hearts, or fear him, or detest him, or accept him, or reject him - but they almost never fall in the dispassionate middle.
This has been ever since Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. We see it throughout the gospels, and especially in our passage today. There, in sixteen short verses of Matthew, we find eight, count 'em, eight distinct, deeply felt responses to Jesus. In a phrase, they're all over the map.
Overview of the Diverse Responses to Jesus in Matthew 9:2-17
Matthew packs four quick scenes into verses chapter 9, verses 2-17. They fly by almost like flashing images on MTV, so you've got to pay close attention.
In this scene some people brought a paralyzed man to Jesus for healing. Jesus, instead of immediately healing his paralysis, proclaimed that his sins were forgiven. This upset some of the Jewish scribes - the first-century equivalent to seminary professors. But Jesus challenged their negativity, then claimed to have the authority, as the Son of Man, to forgive sins, and then proved his point by telling the paralytic to stand up and go home. The crowds were awestruck, glorifying God.
One scene, one Jesus, four responses.
The first was the response of hopeful faith. It came from those who brought their friend to Jesus. No doubt they had heard rumors of Jesus' healing power, or even seen it with their own eyes. So, trusting in the authority of Jesus to heal, they carried their friend to him.
The second response was criticism. It came from the religious authorities, who were horrified by Jesus' audacity in offering forgiveness to the paralyzed man. From the Hebrew Scriptures in which they were experts, the scribes knew that only God could forgive sins. They saw Jesus usurping the role of God, and, for that matter, implicitly undermining the whole role of the Temple, its priesthood and its sacrifices. So the scribes criticized Jesus as a blasphemer - one who belittled God and God's Temple by putting himself in the place of God and the Temple. The possibility that Jesus was rightly forgiving sins, that in some way he was God and was rightly taking the place of the Temple, simply did not enter their minds.
The third response was obedience. It came from the man whom Jesus healed. Jesus said "Stand up, take your bed and go to your home" so this man did the only sensible thing: "he stood up and went to his home" (9:6-7). If someone had just healed you of some dire condition, and, for that matter, had seen the darkest sins in your soul and forgiven you, wouldn't you do what he said?
The fourth response was awe-filled praise. It came from the crowds. They weren't theologically sophisticated enough to understand that Jesus was undermining core Jewish beliefs about God and the Temple. All they knew is that a paralyzed man had been healed, and God had given such authority to Jesus.
In this scene Jesus came upon a man named Matthew seated in a tax booth. His job was to collect a kind of sales tax from merchants as they brought their goods into an area to sell them. Jesus called to Matthew, "Follow me" (9:9), and the tax collector got up and followed. Period.
One scene, one Jesus, one response.
The response was following Jesus. Like others we've seen in this story, Matthew appears to drop everything so he can become one of Jesus' followers. This is surely a startling response. But what would have been even more startling to any onlookers is the fact that Jesus called a tax collector to follow him. Let's face it. Tax collectors aren't beloved in any society. But suppose the person who collects your taxes was, in fact, a neighbor who worked for Al-Qaeda after they had taken over our country. And suppose further than this person made his healthy profit by overcharging you on your taxes. And then suppose that Billy Graham comes to town, and invites this man to be one of his inner circle for no apparent reason. The analogy is rough, but it might help you to understand the apparently bizarre nature of Jesus' action in this scene. Matthew must have been flabbergasted, yet compelled by his encounter with Jesus to follow.
The other gospels make clear that Jesus, after calling Matthew, went to his home for dinner. Matthew invited his friends, a rather motley crew of social misfits whom the good people of that area would have called "sinners." Some of the most religious folk, the Pharisees, were distressed by this, asking the disciples of Jesus why he eats with "tax collectors and sinners" (9:11). Jesus, overhearing their question, explained that, like a doctor, he came to heal the sick. "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners," he added (9:13).
One scene, one Jesus, two responses.
The first was being attracted to Jesus as metal filings to a powerful magnet. It came from the "tax collectors and sinners," of all people. They were the first-century equivalent of corrupt politicians, rich pornographers, and gangsta rappers. They were the people that good, faithful Jews avoided like the plague. And they were absolutely not the kind of people who were interested in religion or in whom religious people showed any interest. But they were drawn to Jesus by a desire that overcome social stigma and spiritual dryness.
The second response was reproachful questioning. It came from the highly religious Pharisees, who weren't simply wondering why Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Their question was a thinly veiled accusation. By eating with immoral and irreligious people, Jesus was breaking the Pharisaic rules of holiness. He was making himself unclean, and implicitly undermining everything the Pharisees believed about how to please God. Jesus' response to the Pharisees surely didn't help matters. First, he insinuated that he, not they, was living according to God's standards. Then he made it clear that he didn't have any intention to link up with them, anyway. Not a way to make friends of influential people, that's for sure.
This scene begins with a question from some of the disciples of John the Baptist: "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?" (9:14). Jesus answers this question with a series of analogies taken from common experience at the time.
One scene; one Jesus; one response.
The response was confused questioning. Given the close association between Jesus and John the Baptist, it's unlikely that the disciples of John were asking their question with the same tone as the Pharisees had asked their question just a couple of verses earlier. It's much more likely that these questioners were asking genuinely, with confusion and concern. With confusion, because Jesus seemed to be parting company with the accepted religious practices of his day. It would be almost as if we found out that Billy Graham never went to church. So we sent some folks to ask him why, because all the other committed believers made church-going a high priority.
Jesus' responded with three analogies. The first said, in a nutshell, that fasting isn't appropriate now, as long as I'm around. The second at third said that what Jesus is doing is so radically new that the old religious forms - such as ritual fasting - are no longer appropriate.
So there you have it: four scenes; one Jesus; eight disparate responses: hopeful faith, criticism, obedience, awe-filled praise, following Jesus, being attracted to Jesus, reproachful questioning, and confused questioning. Now that's quite a collection of diverse and impassioned responses, don't you think?
Jesus Inspires Diverse and Impassioned Responses
My main point is fairly simple: those who encounter Jesus have diverse and impassioned responses. In fact there is no other figure in human history who provokes a wider range of deep feelings and fervent actions.
In God's providence or in my good luck, the events of this last week have proved my point more persuasively than I could ever have imagined. I'm speaking, of course, about the response to Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ. I don't think any movie has ever inspired more emotionally charged and widely varied responses. In this sense at least, The Passion of the Christ is very much like Jesus himself.
Almost nobody who has seen this movie responds to it in a detached manner. Though the responses to The Passion of the Christ have been all over the map, they share one ironic quality: profound passion.
The diversity of responses has been seen, most obviously, in the divide between some prominent Jewish leaders and some prominent Christian leaders. As I'm sure you know by now, notable Jewish leaders have blasted the film for its unhistorical anti-Semitism. While many Christian leaders have denied this charge while praising the film's historical accuracy and spiritual profundity.
But this only begins to scratch the surface of the distinct responses to The Passion of the Christ.
If you look carefully at Jewish responses, for example, you'll see that there's no party line here. While the loudest Jewish voices have condemned the film, many others have praised it and warned Jews against over-reacting to it, for fear of inspiring anti-Semitism through their own over-reactions. And in one of the most stunning responses to the movie, The Orthodox Union of American Jews warned their followers that The Passion of the Christ is a threat to their own Jewish faith. They fear that the powerful portrayal of Jesus in this movie might actually cause Jews to doubt their Judaism and to be drawn to Jesus. (Talk about a backhanded compliment to Mel Gibson!)
We've seen a similar breadth of response among Christians. Of course most Christians have been deeply moved by the film and have praised its cinematic and spiritual power. But some Christians have publicly criticized The Passion of the Christ for being too gory, or too Catholic, or too commercial. Some have even alleged that it violates the Second Commandment by making a "graven image" if Jesus.
Though a few secular movie critics have commended the film, the most prominent have blasted it with language that feels almost as violent as the violence in the movie they so abhor. I'm speaking here of reviewers from Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and most of all, The New Republic, where one reviewer wrote:
Notice that this reviewer is criticizing, not on the movie, but the faith of Mel Gibson, which, as it turns out, is shared by the vast majority of Christians in America today, including me.
This review, like so many, responds not only to The Passion of the Christ, but to the Christ it portrays. Like I said, Jesus Christ inspires the most diverse and impassioned responses of any figure in history.
Why? Why were there eight different and contradictory responses to Jesus in only sixteen verses of Matthew 9? And why does Jesus bring out such a wide array of heartfelt reactions today? Let me suggest four reasons among many.
Jesus doesn't get caught up in the details. Rather, he deals with our deepest desires, yearnings, hopes, and fears: acceptance by God and by people; the yearning for wholeness; our ache to know God personally; the questions of who I am, and why I'm here, and what I'm living for, and what happens after I die. Jesus touches our hearts such that it's impossible to respond to him without strong emotions.
Jesus upset the status quo when he healed and forgave, when he hung out with notorious sinners, and when he failed to do the appropriate religious things. He overturned the stable Jewish religious order even as he eventually overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. This got him in trouble with Jewish officials, and ultimately with the Romans, who put him to death as a threat to their orderly rule of Judaea.
The same is true today. The more you like your life just the way it is, the more you have vested in the status quo, the more your are wealthy or powerful or religious, the more you will be upset by Jesus. This is especially true if you happen to be the pastor of a church that seeks to live under his lordship, let me tell you.
Jesus confused just about everybody in his day, and he still does. I've been a Christian for over four decades, and I've spent a fair amount of my life studying Jesus, and I still can't quite figure out what he's doing is some of the gospel stories. And I'm confused about what he's doing in my own life. If you think you've got Jesus all figured out, I guarantee you that you haven't been wrestling with the real Jesus.
I'll tell you the one impossible response to the real Jesus. It's impossible to respond to the real Jesus with a dispassionate "Oh, he was a great moral teacher." I know people say that, but nobody who says that has actually read the gospels and taken the real Jesus seriously. Nobody.
When you read the gospels, you find that Jesus again and again makes claims about himself that are simply inconsistent with the "nice, good moral teacher" label. Some of these are quite explicit. Others are just as potent, but only if you know something of Judaism is Jesus' day.
In our passage, for example, Jesus forgives sins. An uninformed observer might say about this, "See, what a fine moral teacher! Jesus teaches us about forgiveness and love. How special!" But an informed observer - like the scribes in Matthew 9 - could read between the lines. By forgiving sins Jesus was putting himself in the place of God. This looked an awful lot like idolatry, like blasphemy. Moreover, if Jesus could forgive sins on the spot out in the middle of Galilee, then that meant that the Temple in Jerusalem was superfluous. By forgiving sins, Jesus was not only equating himself with God, but he was also attacking the very center of Judaism in his day. He was saying, in a nutshell, "You don't need the Temple because you have me." Keep saying things like this Jesus, and the Temple leadership won't like it. In fact, they'll get you killed.
My friends, if you like your life as it is, if you're satisfied, and powerful, and well off, and self-sufficient, then you're not going to have much fun with Jesus. This is the bad news. He's going to upset your status quo and claim to be the Lord of your life.
But if you need healing, if you're yearning for God but feeling far away, if you're a sinner and know it, if you ache to be renewed through and through, then Jesus is your man - and your God! This is the good news.
As he once did with Matthew, so Jesus does with us today. He calls us to follow him. "Come and be with me," Jesus is saying. "Follow me. Encounter me. Learn from me. Be confused by me. Be stirred up by me. Be healed by me. Be accepted by me. Behold, I make all things new - even you!"