Get Out of the Boat

** It should be noted that I heard this lesson multiple times from Ray VanderLaan. I am indebted to him for the entirety of the content in this post.

After the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew moves on to speak of a few stories that deserve mention in passing. The next story is the healing of a leper, followed by the demonstration of a Roman centurion’s faith. In keeping with Matthew’s emphasis on the mumzer, he points out the interactions of Jesus with people who are unclean and unacceptable to this hyper-religious region of “the Triangle” (the region of northern Galilee, where the religious and orthodox communities lived). In fact, the refrain will become quite recognizable throughout Matthew, as we see Jesus’s exclamation in Matthew 8:10 that He hasn’t found faith like this in all Israel. We will consistently see Matthew point out a mumzer who has faith, followed by a mumzer who has faith, followed by a mumzer who has faith — then a religious person or community who doesn’t have faith.

Eventually, toward the end of the chapter, Jesus tells His disciples to get into a boat and they depart for “the other side.” This game plan would have struck the disciples as a horrible idea. First, there’s the ultimate destination: the other side of the lake would be the land of the Decapolis. Standing in stark contrast to the region of the Triangle, this area is completely pagan. There are no synagogues and no Jews — nothing good happens on the other side of the lake. We even have ancient oral traditions mentioning the fact that even uttering the word “Decapolis” made you unclean for seven days. This is the kind of place where each one of these talmidim’s parents told them never to be found. You can hear them thinking, “My mom is going to KILL me!”

And second, the mode of transportation is bothersome, as well. Walking around the lake (the Sea of Galilee) isn’t so daunting a task. The Jewish people are not “water people.” They have been desert nomads for centuries. If you think about it, water is always a problem in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s the representation of the watery chaos in the story of Creation. It’s what destroys the earth in the Flood. It’s the Red Sea which needs to be crossed in the Exodus. It’s the Jordan River serving as a barrier between them and the Promised Land. Water is not their friend. Now, I have many students come to me and quickly point out that the disciples are fishermen. This does not point to them being water people. This was a job which people in the Galilee took because it was a dependable living — not one which was sought after since childhood. Furthermore, you would fish only a few yards off the shore in shallow water.

The Jews called the sea “the abyss,” which is used by Luke in his telling of this story. It was the home of evil and the gateway to the underworld. This is NOT their preferred mode of travel.

But take off across the lake they do and — of course — a storm comes up. They find Jesus sleeping on a cushion in the bottom of the boat and they wake Him in order to plead with Him to save their lives. He awakes and tells the storm to be still. The storm obeys and most of us miss the greater point. When was the last time we saw someone sleeping in the bottom of a boat?


And who was Jonah called to? The Gentiles.

And where is Jesus heading? The Gentiles.

Jesus is retelling the story of Jonah. I picture Him “sleeping” with one eye open to see if his talmidim are paying attention to the rabbinic lesson.

They land on the other side and Jesus gets out of the boat. Immediately, a demon-possessed man comes to Him on the beach and they begin having a colorful conversation. Again, none of this would surprise the disciples, who know they are messing with evil; coming across the abyss to the land of the Decapolis is asking for trouble.

Jesus casts the demonic legion out of the man and into a herd of pigs who run into the abyss and drown. The herdsmen run into town and the people come out to see a formerly possessed man sitting dressed and in his right mind. The response is not one of joy, but one of fear and frustration. This strange, tasseled visitor is disrupting their social order and just put a considerable dent in their economy. They want no part in the shalom Jesus has come to bring.

Jesus gets back into the boat and begins to leave. The newly-redeemed man begs to go with Him. Now, we all know what we want Jesus to do. This is the perfect candidate for a new disciple. He has no true home; no family or friends have claimed him for quite some time. He has no Godly community or local synagogue to take him in. There is no job tying him down. He would be the ideal companion to teach the disciples about humility. He is set up in every way to drop everything and follow Jesus.

But Jesus tells him no. Jesus says that he needs him to stay and tell his story.

Now, you can hear my entire teaching of this lesson here, but this story leads me to make a couple of observations.

Apparently, having an encounter with Jesus is enough. This guy has no education and no spiritual community. Unless Jesus gave him a cursory course in Theology 101 on the beach (very doubtful), he has no trying in the Scriptures. This man has nothing except his story and Jesus leaves him to change the Decapolis. What a crazy idea. But it seems to work. Jesus will come back to this area only once more in the gospels. He does not send His disciples here and we aren’t told of any interaction with anybody from the Decapolis elsewhere after this story. But when Jesus swings back through this region, He’s going to be met by “a great crowd” who comes out to greet Him and He’ll feed 4,000 of them.

You don’t suppose this guy actually went and did it, do you? It’s hard to explain otherwise. Not only this, but the Nicene Creed, one of the most influential creeds of the Christian faith will be penned (according to church tradition) by the Bishop of Susita, the same city the demoniac called home. This guy, armed only with his story, may have had quite an influence on Christian history.

But not only this, as one begins to study the gospel accounts more and more, we begin to notice that it doesn’t appear the disciples ever left the safety of their own boat. The gospel writers have no problem in their accounts using the term “they” or “Jesus and the disciples.” However, the disciples are mysteriously absent from the pronouns of this story. THEY get into the boat. THEY sail across the lake and battle the storm. THEY get to the other side. But it’s JESUS who gets out of the boat. JESUS talks to the demoniac. JESUS interacts with the townspeople. JESUS gets back in the boat. And it will be THEY who go back to the other side.

Not one gospel writer put a single sandal of a disciple on the shore of the Decapolis. The disciples never get out of the boat.
The problem with being a follower of Jesus is that at some point we actually have to FOLLOW Jesus. When we find Jesus in places that scare us to death — when Jesus orders us to sail across the lake — our life-altering call is to follow Him wherever He goes.

Jesus is going to be found in the Decapolis of our world. He’ll bring shalom to the chaos. But in order to impact the chaos, we’ll have to enter the chaos and run hard after Jesus.

Jesus is looking for partners; but those partners will have to get out of the boat.


Bad Trees and Good Fruit

There are some teachings of Jesus that show up repeatedly throughout His ministry. Whenever I see this, I sit up and take notice, as it gives me the impression Jesus taught that particular idea frequently. Anything the Son of God is going to repeat over and over again is going to get my attention. The last teaching I want to touch on with the Sermon on the Mount is a teaching I feel like we don’t deal with enough. It’s a teaching that Jesus covers multiple times and in different contexts. And it’s a teaching we could find very useful in our world today — even though it will upset our common assumptions that help us feel safe.

The teaching goes like this in Matthew 7:
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

The teaching is so straightforward — I am surprised (but not really) that we don’t like it more. Simply put (at the risk of being redundant): You cannot get bad fruit from a good tree; you cannot pick good fruit from a bad tree. It does not work.

And yet, we can’t seem to get our minds around this idea. Talk to anybody about “false teachers” and you’ll immediately hear about their alignment with Christian orthodoxy and “sound doctrine.” Very rarely will anyone mention the teachings of Jesus. Sound doctrine isn’t the measurement for false teachers, however; fruit is.

Jesus said so.

I don’t care how sound the doctrine is, if you have a teacher who produces (in their teaching and lifestyle) anger, division, fits of rage, debauchery, malice — you have a bad tree. You cannot get bad fruit from a good tree. Yet time and time again, our Christian subculture justifies the bad fruit with all kinds of trite explanations. Of course, I’m not talking about the occasional mistake or misstep; I’m talking about fruit — the fruit of their life.

And Jesus makes the truth go the other direction. If you have a teacher who produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, you have yourself a good tree. You cannot pick figs from thistles, nor grapes from thornbushes.

This is the part that messes us up. I have repeatedly heard Bible teachers teach that when non-Christians produce peace in their lives, it’s not really peace. Jesus blatantly disagrees. When you see peace, it comes from God. Period. Because God is at work in all people. To quote Rob Bell in Velvet Elvis, this means that whenever you find truth and good fruit, you are free to call it out for what it is, because all truth is God’s truth.

This helps us when we have those people in our lives who produce the fruit of Godliness, but don’t have their “labels” right. When you find truth, celebrate it. It’s God’s truth. And God doesn’t need your labels. Besides, trying to figure out everybody’s label is exhausting; trying to figure out what box everything belongs in will drive a person insane. And we love our boxes. We love them because we believe that it will make everything clean and easy and tidy. But life isn’t clean and tidy and labels don’t stick to people very well.

Jesus comes with some good news: If we use his measuring stick for discerning light and darkness, the discernment process gets a lot easier.

“Do people pick figs from thistles?”

Of course not. So why do we think it’s different with people? When you see God at work, then God is at work. Why would we be surprised by this? Isn’t God always at work? We spend far too much time trying to figure out the appropriate designation for things, rather than discerning light from darkness. In every encounter, in every situation, in every church event, in every teaching — what is the fruit here? Goodness? Love? Self-control? Anger? Division?

“By their fruit you will know them.”

It will blow up our world of labels and assumptions. It will disrupt our false sense of tidiness. And it will surprise us to find where God shows up (and even where He isn’t at times).

But God’s been showing up in weird places since the creation of the world. It almost seems like a hobby of His.


Narrow Gates and Foolish Men

At this point, I want to deal with two of Jesus’s final three teachings in this section we call the Sermon on the Mount. Specifically, I want to deal with the first and the last teaching of these three, as the second teaching warrants a full post for itself.

The next picture of Jesus is one about wide roads and narrow gates.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

There are a couple observations about this teaching right off the bat. Jesus does not connect this teaching to salvation and there is no implication that Jesus is speaking of eternal destinies. On the contrary, the context of Jesus’s teaching (not to mention the tense He uses in His speech) in this sermon would demand the opposite assumption. This teaching speaks directly to how we find and experience both life and destruction TODAY, not later. The invitation is to find the narrow gate today, because it will be easy to find the road that leads to destruction. Furthermore, the point of Jesus’s teaching is not HOW MANY PEOPLE, but instead the ease at which these two options come. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this used to talk about how few people will make it to heaven and how many will be destined to hell. Please notice that Jesus’s point has nothing to do with this.

I once heard a teaching by Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church that really helped me understand this better. While he connected it to a local interchange in Michigan, I immediately connected it in my mind to the interchange that exists in the Tri-Cities of Washington (Richmond, Kennewick, Pasco). There is one particular interchange that leads to a precarious — at times impossible — lane change a driver must make in order to connect with the appropriate highway. The onramp puts the driver on the left side of the interstate, needing to change three lanes to make the exit on the RIGHT side of the interstate, moving 50+ mph, all within a distance of a couple hundred yards.

You have to be fully engaged in your task. You have to be completely intentional about your decisions. You have to be resolutely set on making your exit.

For narrow is way that leads to Pendleton and few can find it, but wide is the road that leads to Portland, and many are driving it.

You get the idea. The way leading to life is difficult. You don’t just stumble upon it without trying. The way leading to life will require your intentional resolution to find peace in the midst of chaos.

The second teaching will be discussed in our next post, but Jesus’s final picture is of a fool who builds his house on sand and a wise man who builds his house on the rock.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

While most teachings I’ve heard focus on the material used for the building, I have been told by contractors that sand is a very useful building material. It’s easy to transport, it packs well, and is used in most building projects. This begins to point us to the fact that we may be missing the “big idea” in this teaching. There are two understandings of sand in Jesus’s day. There is the “sand of the seashore”; this is not the sand that is being referenced here. Then, there is the sand that settles in the bottom of a wadi after the floodwaters come.

Now, I’ll say that again. The sand settles at the bottom of the wadi.

Only a fool would build his house at the bottom of a wadi; it would be a ticking time bomb, just waiting for the next rainfall. However, the wise man would build his house on the “rock” — the word here refers to bedrock or a cliff face — where they would be far away from the dangers of desert floods. While the point of the teaching remains the same, the picture’s details now work correctly. The rains fell and the floodwaters rose. Jesus is saying that even though his teachings are at times counter-intuitive, you would be foolish not to put them into practice. For the way of Jesus is the best way to live.

It prompts the reader to reflect on just how seriously we take the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Do we trust forgiveness? If we don’t, it’s like building your house at the bottom of a wadi. Do we love our enemies? If not, we are asking for the rains of destruction to dismantle our life.

It’s the continual invitation to trust the story.


Receiving a Stone (part two)

** much of the insight on this particular teaching has come from the influence of Rob Bell's teaching on the Sermon on the Mount

We should probably continue this conversation by talking about what judgment is and isn’t. This verse is one of our favorites. We love to quote this whenever someone calls us out or tries to hold us accountable. “Hey, man, ‘Don’t judge, lest you be judged.’ ”

What is Jesus teaching here? Scripture seems to invite us to discern between right and wrong. The rabbis teach that in the beginning God separated light from darkness, and this is our task, as well. Are we really not allowed to call out a person’s disobedience? Well, in Jesus’s day, there were three different ways to understand judgment:

First, there is the concept of CIVIL judgment. This refers to the legal system, what we would think of as the “courtroom.” This is obviously not the kind of judgment Jesus is referencing. Jesus is not saying it’s wrong for a magistrate to do his job.

Second, there is the judgment of DISCERNMENT. This is what we spoke of above. This is the judgment that looks at something in order to decide if it is good or evil. Is this right or wrong? Is this light or darkness? This doesn’t seem to be the judgment Jesus is speaking of here, either. While it does feel as though we are getting closer, it doesn’t quite seem like this is the practical application of Jesus’s teaching.

Finally, there is the judgment that determines the VALUE of a person or thing. In this case, Jesus is clearly addressing our judgment of PEOPLE. Jesus is reminding us that we are not free to pass judgment on the value of another human being; only God can do this job. I would go as far as to argue, in the context of Jesus’s teaching on dogs and pigs, this seems to be directed right at a Jew’s temptation to pass a “value judgment” on the pagan nations. You cannot do that; you, a mere mortal, cannot decide who has worth and who does not.

But this is all separate from treasures in heaven, generosity, and worry. Right? What would any of this talk about judgment have to do with that?

Let me ask you a question. Why do we pass value judgments on other people?

Allow me a few follow-up questions: What is the opposite of judgment? And what has Jesus been talking about throughout this ‘sermon’? Hasn’t he been talking about forgiveness? And isn’t forgiveness the antithesis of passing value judgments on others?

Now let me rephrase the question: Why don’t we forgive?

I would suggest that we don’t forgive because we don’t think that God will do His job.

Let me rephrase again: Do we not forgive because we are WORRIED they won’t get what they deserve? Maybe these teachings are connected after all.

In fact, it would make a lot of sense to see Jesus’s next teaching as a wonderful tie back through the entire teaching:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Your heavenly Father knows how to give good gifts. If you ask for one thing, He’s not going to give you what you don’t need. No father will do that. Maybe this teaching isn’t about “getting what we pray for” at all. Maybe this teaching is about our generosity and relinquishing our worry about judgment over to God. If I could paraphrase the teaching of Jesus here, I would suggest the following:

Be generous. Worry will kill your generosity. And do not judge the worth of other people whom you think deserve punishment. Instead, ask God to do the right thing, because He knows how to give perfect gifts. Trust God to do the right thing; stop worrying and be generous to others — especially the dogs and the pigs!

There’s some relevant stuff for us to wrestle with in this passage. I find the religious people of today continue to struggle with the same sin the people who listened to Jesus struggled with thousands of years ago. We haven’t changed much.

I believe we need to come to grips with the many ways we serve the god Money and with where we make our investments.

I believe we need to realize that our worry cripples our generosity.
I believe our worry about others leads us to judging their worth.
I believe we could use a little trust in a Father who knows how to give good gifts.

I believe that trusting the story still changes everything.


Receiving a Stone (part one)

Jesus moves on to talk about storing up treasures in heaven. There is a way to make “life investments” in such a way that they have an eternal ring to them. So much of what we do doesn’t live on beyond this world of moth and rust, but Jesus is here to tell us how we can make these heavenly investments.

Unfortunately, Jesus starts speaking cryptically about good eyes, bad eyes, light, and darkness.

This isn’t a teaching about seeing the optometrist. In fact, there is great documentation about this Hebrew teaching idiom and the “good eye.” One of the most understandable ways to approach this teaching (along with many others) is in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg. When a Jewish teacher references the “good eye,” it is a figure of speech about generosity. Having a good eye means that you are generous; having a bad eye means that one is stingy.

In a teaching that would have made a good Herodian wince, Jesus affirms you cannot serve God and money; such an effort is impossible and results in idolatry. In fact, the only way to make heavenly investments is to see through a good eye — through God’s eyes — and to be generous. Generosity is how a person lays up for themselves treasures in heaven.

Which raises a question: What keeps us from being generous? Isn’t it worry? We’re worried that if we’re generous with our resources — our time, our money — there won’t be enough for us. It’s interesting that Jesus’s very next teaching point will be a point about worry. Worry will cripple our ability to be generous. Worry will stifle our desire to lay up treasures in heaven.

Worry gives us bad eyes.

Instead, Jesus invites us to trust. He invites us to trust that God has our best interests in mind — to trust that God knows what we need and will give us everything just at the right time. He invites us to live by every word. There’s no sense in worrying about clothes; God does a great job clothing the earth. There’s no sense in worrying about the things we need to consume; God feeds the birds of the air without any effort. Jesus invites us to trust the story. You see, it’s just what we said over a year ago: trusting the story sets us free to be generous.

Trust gives us good eyes.

Jesus then moves on to talk about judgment:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

More talk about eyes. More cryptic teachings. This time, Jesus seems to be losing his mind over pearls, pigs, and dogs. What is he talking about?

It’s important to know that in Jesus’s day, the Pagan nations were often referred to as dogs. This wasn’t as derogatory as it sounds; it was more like a figure of speech. Jesus even uses this language in a later story when he tells a Gentile woman, “It’s not good to take the bread from the children and throw it to the dogs.” It is a direct reference to Jesus’s ministry to the Jewish people and this request from a Gentile woman (more on that later). I would suggest that a reference to pigs would communicate the same assumptions. One of the largest exports of the Decapolis region (the land of the Pagans), outside of grain, was pigs. Dogs and pigs are two images that would have made Jesus’s Jewish hearers think of the Pagans.

Knowing this brings context to the teaching. A pearl is often used to discuss rabbinic teachings (Tverberg, in her other book, will also talk about how Jews would speak of “stringing pearls”). Jesus is saying that people who claim to speak for God cannot take and throw their morality before people who have not agreed to follow it. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’m telling you, we religious people do this all the time. We love to speak about our views of righteousness and morality, good and bad, light and darkness, right and wrong — and we expect the world to listen to us. Why would they? Have they agreed to God’s Word as His measuring stick for their own lives? Again, this statement is not meant to carry a derogatory tone, but you cannot throw your teachings before swine and expect them to enjoy it. Quite the opposite — the swine might actually respond with hostility.

This Jesus guy is pretty smart.

Nevertheless, I probably should have made this teaching a separate post. I mean, none of this business about judging has to do with treasures in heaven, generosity, and worry, right?

Of course, there’s that business about the “eyes”… good, bad… planks, specks…

But these are different teachings.