Sunday, January 27, 2013

"You of Little Faith..."

Image source.

This week, we're looking at Matthew 8:18-34, in which Jesus tries to dissuade potential disciples, belittles his followers as they panic and fear for their lives, and kills pigs.

Or something like that.

The cost of following Jesus (Matthew 8:18-22)

So in the first section of this week's passage, Jesus responds to two people who are interested in following him. It seems like he wants to discourage them from doing so. That's... odd.

To the first man, Jesus says, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." ("Son of Man" means Jesus, by the way.)

In other words, "Are you sure you want to follow me? You might end up homeless."

I find this a little odd, since just a few chapters ago Jesus was using "the birds of the air" to reassure us that we shouldn't worry about any of our basic needs- God provides food for the birds, so surely he'll provide for you.

The next potential follower tells Jesus, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father," to which Jesus replies, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." I've heard different interpretations of this. Some people say that "let me go and bury my father" didn't mean his father had died- it meant he wanted to live with his father for a while, until his father died (even though that could be years away) and then follow Jesus. Some people say it means his father had just died, and Jesus thinks that taking care of the funeral and everything is ACTUALLY LESS IMPORTANT than following him right away.

Which, ya know, sounds really heartless. Seriously, if this guy's father had just died... This is Exhibit A in "What not to say to a grieving person"...

So I prefer the first explanation, though I don't have the biblical language/culture knowledge to say "this one is the right interpretation."

But the point here is that people should know what they're getting into when they decide to follow Jesus. Which is what, exactly? Leaving their families and jobs. Facing suffering and persecution.

So it brings up this question: What part, if any, should warnings about "the cost of following Jesus" play in evangelism?

Because, the way I see it, following Jesus is hard and requires sacrifice, but it's worth it because you get JESUS. Definitely worth it.

Isn't it a bit strange that in this passage, Jesus only warned about the cost of discipleship, but didn't say anything about the benefits? (Though that may be because Jesus was wildly popular and everyone knew he was doing miracles and everything- everyone already knew the benefits and wanted in on it.)

Jesus calms the storm (Matthew 8:23-27)

Next, we have Jesus and his disciples on a boat in a storm. They freak out and wake him up, saying, "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!" Then Jesus says, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" and makes the storm shut up.

"You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Umm. I mean, I know this is always taken to be a rhetorical question, meaning "oh how silly of you to be afraid and not trust me" but uh... it has a very obvious answer. "Why are you so afraid?" Maybe because they're in a freakin' LIFE-THREATENING STORM and they could DROWN?

I mean, gosh, Jesus, how did you miss that?

And why, whenever I'm in a bible study about this passage, is the interpretation "oh they should have trusted Jesus and not been afraid"? Trust him for WHAT? To not let them die? Sometimes God lets people die, for stupid reasons. (Ever read the news?)

Apparently the disciples are just supposed to KNOW that Jesus still has things to do so he can't die. They're supposed to know they're all main characters, not red shirts, and they will survive this storm because they've got to appear on every subsequent episode of "The Gospel of Matthew", until Judas gets killed off in part 1 of the season finale.


A significant number of the disciples were fishermen. I think they would know when a storm is or is not dangerous and life-threatening. And the fact that Jesus had to wake up and calm the storm proves that there actually was danger. I really don't buy the "you of little faith, why are you so afraid?" bit.

And you know what else- they DID have faith. They woke Jesus up and said, "Lord, save us!" They had the faith to think maybe Jesus could do something.

So that remains an open question. Readers, what do you think? Why did Jesus say "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" when the disciples had very valid reasons to be afraid?

And now I want to take this in a slightly different direction: Are there circumstances in my life to which Jesus could say, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" The disciples were afraid for very obvious and (in my opinion) completely valid reasons, but I'm often afraid of much less.

How about when I'm on an airplane? Haha, now that would be a totally legitimate place to say "you of little faith, why are you so afraid?" because there's totally nothing to be afraid of when flying, and yet I feel like the plane's probably about to fall out of the sky.

Seriously, every day, from every airport in the United States, hundreds of planes take off, and ALL OF THEM ARE FINE. And the pilot of whatever plane I'm on has flown hundreds of times before. IT'S FINE. Seriously. Safer than driving, according to the statistics. To have faith in the safety of flying makes sense because that faith is based in a lot of facts.

Image source.

What about bigger things in my life? What about every time I think "I can't ____ because what if ____?" and fear stops me from doing what I want to do? When those things I supposedly "can't" do are things I really believe God is calling me to?

I gotta believe that if God ever says, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" then he'll also acknowledge the existence of the storm and help me through it.

The healing of two demon-possessed men (Matthew 8:28-34)

Next, Jesus encountered two "demon-possessed men" who live in the tombs. They started shouting at him- apparently they recognized him as the Son of God and were afraid or ready to fight. Then the demons requested to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus gives them permission, and then the demons cause the pigs to all run into a lake and drown. At that point, the people who lived in the town came out and begged Jesus to leave.

So the very obvious question when reading this story is "WTF?"

Demons? Demon-possession? Is that even a real thing?

First of all, if you believe angels exist, then why not demons? So yes, it sounds incredibly weird, but not any weirder than other things that Christians believe.

Also, if demons exist, that doesn't necessarily mean they're the demons sometimes portrayed in pop culture. If we choose to allow the possibility of demons, we should be careful not to start with any baseless assumptions about them- assumptions from movies, books, etc, whether in popular culture or Christian culture.

So I'm going to go ahead and take this story at face value. Demons? Okay then, demons. (But I reserve the right to later change my mind over whether I believe in demons.)

For some reason, this is how I picture a demon. Image source.

All right, so back to this account of Jesus' interaction with the two demon-possessed men. First of all, the demons recognized Jesus, and were afraid he had come to torture them. Interesting.

Next, the demons begged him, "If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs." Why? Why did they want to go into the pigs?

Jesus okays it, and the demons go into the pigs, and the whole herd of pigs drowns. I assume the demons caused the pigs to run into the water, though there's also the possibility that Jesus did it- like "Haha, I let you go into the pigs, but then I killed the pigs! Joke's on you!" but really, that sort of disregard for life and property doesn't seem like Jesus. So I think the demons killed the pigs.

Which shows how dangerous and evil the demons were. They come over and possess these pigs, and immediately destroy them. Imagine how terrible it must have been for those 2 guys who had all those demons in them, causing destruction, trying to kill everything. Perhaps the drowning of the pigs shows the amount of evil and torture and destruction that Jesus set these guys free from.

Next, the people in charge of the pigs ran and told the town about it, and the people of the town came and begged Jesus to leave. You can't blame them- that whole drowning-pigs thing is frickin' terrifying and creepy.

But doesn't it show that they preferred to live with the violence and danger caused by these two men who lived in the tombs, rather than the (also scary and unpredictable?) power that had set those men free?

Who knows where following Jesus will take you? What if, when he addresses your problems, it's scary and weird? (I guess this goes back to the "counting the cost" bit at the beginning of this passage- this town decided they didn't want anything to do with Jesus. Losing their pigs was too great a cost. And can you really blame them?)

Also, it's worth mentioning that pigs were considered unclean. Jews (you know, like Jesus and the disciples and most of the people in the bible) didn't eat pork. So I'm guessing the town was not a Jewish town.

One more thing to say about this section: Jesus seems to be the only one who has compassion for these two demon-possessed men. The town doesn't come out and say to them, "Oh, you're not insane anymore, Jesus healed you? That's wonderful!" No, instead they want nothing to do with this.

So here's a challenging question: How do you respond when someone works to help those who are seen as annoying or dangerous or beyond help? And how does society treat people who are criminals or disabled or mentally ill? Jesus had compassion on ALL of them, and I bet it was annoying sometimes. Like, these two guys, they were crazy, "so violent that no one could pass that way," according to Matthew.

Of all the people Jesus could stop and be nice to... Really?

But that's Jesus. If he didn't challenge me, if I always read the bible and said "ah yes, that seems reasonable" and moved on with life, then am I really reading the bible or not? As Anne Lamott said, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

So if you are a Christian, I hope that you're challenged by what you read in the bible. I hope you come to terms with what it costs to truly follow Jesus. I hope he challenges your fears and your prejudices.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: I Only Trust Jesus In Person (Matthew 8:1-17)

Next post: Jesus the Unpredictable (Matthew 9:1-17)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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