Thursday, September 6, 2012

Defying Our Culture - Matthew 11:17-24

Dancing like Robots
16 "But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children,
17 and say, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.'
18 "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon!'
19 "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."
Jesus launches into this sub-point in the middle of a monologue defending both John the Baptist as a genunine prophet and Himself as the Messiah. He continues this here, but also branches it off into a larger point.
Let's first figure out who Jesus is addressing this rebuke to - so, what does He mean by "generation"? The Greek word is genea, meaning race, family, generation, or kind. Many Bible scholars agree that it means different, or multiple, things in different contexts, including a literal generation (i.e. people living during a certain time period), the nation of Israel, or a type of people living across time and nations (e.g. human nature in general, all believers, or all unbelievers). In this case, I personally think it's the last one - human nature in general - because of how the rest of the passage plays out.
One more clarification before we dive deeper: what does He mean by "eating and drinking"? It can't be literal - I mean, John would die in a matter of days if he literally didn't eat or drink, and we know from the Bible that John ate locusts and wild honey, so doesn't that contradict this? Well, "eating and drinking" refers to eating and drinking like a normal person in Jewish culture at the time - going to feasts and drinking wine as opposed to the religious practice of frequent fasts and abstaining from certain foods. So, John "came neither eating nor drinking" because he survived on the wild, minimalist diet of a prophet, but Jesus "came eating and drinking" because he dined with people regularly (see Mark 2:14-22, our study on the parallel passage here in Matthew, and John 2:1-11).
Finally moving on to the actual point of the conversation! :-) The whole play-the-flute-so-you'll-dance, sing-a-dirge-so-you'll-mourn deal is all about the culture demanding that everyone comply with it's expectations and demands. It's basically peer pressure on a national scale. Think about it in America today - it's "normal" to be "Christian" only in the sense of basically believing God exists, owing a King James Version Bible that you never read, attending church only on Easter and Christmas, and basically trying to be a good person. But when we follow the Bible and try to share the Gospel, refuse to engage in sinful behavior like premarital sex and drunkeness, and make God the very essence our our identities, we're labelled as intolerant, bigots, fundamentalists, Bible thumpers, etc. Christians are called to live outside the norm of our cultures, and the world operates in direct opposition to Christianity - so why should we expect anything else than for those around us to be annoyed or angry that we don't comply with their expectations?
There are many reasons  for the culture to react this way. Let's look at just a couple. (1) They have genuinely bad experiences with Christians who fell into sin and were hateful or somehow otherwise misrepresented Christ. Think about the people who picket at gay soldiers' funerals, or the Crusades (from my knowledge of history, the first couple were justified, but then officials' corruption and greed got involved...but I'm not going to get into that right now ^_^), or when some pro-life groups scream at women who have abortions that they're murderers and are going to hell. Is there a time and a place to express that homosexuality and abortion are wrong Biblically? Yes - but in a loving manner. (Wow, I got off on a tangent there...) (2) Our attempts to live godly lifestyles make them feel guilty, perhaps only subconsciously, so the only way to feel good about themselves is to convince themselves that we, not they, are in the wrong. Of course, this means they are rejecting the Holy Spirit trying to convict them to bring them to repentance and into relationship with Him...but they see our openly Christian lives as pushy and holier-than-thou. [Please excuse my us-and-them language; I'm not trying to be offensive or unsympathetic - just to convey it in the most coherent way possible.]
And then we get to the issue of how we can never please everyone - someone will always hate us. John the Baptist came as the purist, the radical, the religious zealot - and he was hated for it. Jesus came as a man of principle who lived among them, accepting them regardless of their lifestyles and interacting even with the outcasts and religious society - and He was hated for it. The best we can do is just to live life with God, loving people as much as we can and trying to bring as many people who we interact with as possible into the kingdom. The world won't be happy unless we reject Christ - and that is something we can never do.
"Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds." In the very end - that is, at the judgement - the world will see that we were right, and they were wrong to hate us. But let us not take this message as a way to look forward to saying, "Ha! I told you!" Rather, may it prompt us to share Christ's love and His gospel all the more, so that there will be fewer souls on that day who realize how wrong they were far too late.
Speaking of the Judgment...
20 Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent.
21 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occured in Tyre and Sidon which occured in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 "Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.
23 "And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occured in you, it would have remained to this day.
24 "Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you."
Ouch! This isn't exactly a fun passage to read. But Jesus wasn't exactly in the habit of tickling people's ears (or dancing when the said dance, or mourning when they sang a dirge...), and neither am I - so we'll study it through, anyway. :-)
First off, in case some of you aren't familiar with these cities' names, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were all Jewish cities, and Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom were Gentile cities that God destroyed in judgment. The key thing here is that Jesus is pointing out that the Gentile cities were less evil that the Jewish cities! A huge part of this is that the Jews had everything they needed to identify the Messiah, as they were taught the prophecies concerning Him from birth - yet they still refused to believe that Jesus was He, and they rejected Him. With this in mind, let us each ask ourselves: What has God been telling Me lately that I've been ignoring?
Okay, now we get into the sticky bit about it being worse for some cities on the day of judgment than it will be for other cities. Does this mean that there are hierarchies in hell? That view has long been rejected by Protestantism as a whole because it's a Catholic belief, it was horribly distorted in Dante's Inferno, and it's not explicity stated in the Bible. But...the Bible tells us hardly anything about hell, period. We know that sin is sin, regardless of how bad that sin is, and deserves eternal punishment. So how do we deal with a passage like this one? I'm not totally rejecting the idea that there are degrees of punishment in hell, but here are a couple of other possibilities: (1) It could mean that some of the inhabitants of those destroyed cities chose to follow God, so even though they left those cities they were still counted as "members" or "residents" of those, that in terms of sheer numbers, more members of those cities would be welcomed into heaven than would be those of the Jewish cities that rejected Jesus as Messiah. (2) It could go back to what I mentioned above about how the Jewish cities had far more opportunity to accept God than the other cities did, so their judgment would be worse in terms of the magnitude of their shame and guilt.
I don't want to end on such a negative note (although such "downer" stories definitely serve a purpose - they remind us how serious this is, and motivate us to continue walking with God), so I thought I'd share a success story of one evil city, bound to be destroyed by God, that did respond to God's call for repentance: Nineveh, in Jonah 3:1-10
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you." Now Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great [meaing huge] city, a three days' walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown." Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes [these are signs of mourning]. He issued a proclamation and it said, "In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water [he's calling for a fast]. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call upon God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw HIs burning anger so that we will not perish." When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
Questions for You
How have you seen verses 16-19 played out in your own life?
What other reasons can you think of why our culture is so offended by how we live?
What do you think about the judgment issue - can you think of a Biblical basis for or against the idea of degrees of hell? Can you think of other meanings of this passage?
Giving Credit Where It's Due
Image Number One: "Morris dancing in the ground of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England" by Adrian Pingstone. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain worldwide. Used by permission.
Image Number Two: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin. Wikimedia Commons. {{PD-1923}} Public domain in the United States. {{PD-old-100}} Public domain in countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

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