Note the arch of these stories from the Savior’s life, from peaceful, to contentious, back to peaceful
What a heart-warming story this is; the Roman overlord has respect for the local religion, such that he even contributes to it by building a synagogue. He is clearly respected by the people, who beseech the Savior to heal his servant, “who was dear unto him,” (Luke 7:2).
And what cognition of his spiritual standing that he would not want the master to come to his home. How unlike the Pharisees we are about to encounter!
I thought it interesting that Luke and Matthew both quote this story quite clearly and quite similarly. Why would that be? Well, consider their respective audiences:
- Matthew is writing to the Jewish population. What would they learn from this story?
- Luke is writing primarily to the gentile population. What would they learn from this lesson?
What great economy God has in his efforts; with one experience, he teaches both parties very effectively.
John the Baptist in Prison
Matthew’s account of the Saviors words of affirmation about John when in prison touched me.
In 1992 while teaching Sunday School, someone asked me why John had sent his disciples to question the Savior’s role. Didn’t he already know? The answer that came to my mind was that John was perhaps sensitive to his disciples, and perhaps a bit downcast himself because of his imprisonment. His loved his disciples, and wanted to point them in the right direction without damaging their faith and without losing their love and support completely in his extremity. And so he said, perhaps in effect, “Go and ask him this…”, knowing what the answers would certainly be.
These disciples would have been his most trusted, to be able to have access to him in prison. They would have been his most faithful. And it was unlikely, given the time that had passed since the Savior began his ministry perhaps a year or more earlier that they were going to fill a significant role in the Savior’s already initially formed group of disciples. They could easily be offended and lost in the transition.
What tenderness; what love; what compassion.
Testimony of John
Matthew notes that the Savior began his testimony of John “as they departed.” I can envision him wanting to strengthen his beloved cousin, his forerunner, his Elias. And so while they can hear, as they perhaps slowly make their way out of the gathered congregation, he begins his message about John.
He knows these who love John dearly will be strengthen by his generous words towards John; I can envision even tears welling up in their eyes as the power of his testimony washes over them from behind:
“I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist…”. Certainly they felt the same way about John.
Transition to a Warning
The Savior transitions though; his message moves from sending them on their way, and strengthening his beloved cousin, to teaching the congregation and his disciples what is happening.
Matthew’s KJV “…the kingdom of heaven suffered the violence, and the violent take it by forces” has a Greek interpretation in the footnotes: “…violent men are seizing control of” the kingdom John has built up, “and plundering it.” The NIV says “…the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”
The imprisonment of John shows what the relationship is of the work to the powers that be. And it isn’t just those supporting the Roman Empire that are guilty; it may well be that the Jewish leaders in towns like Chozazin, Bethsaida, and Caprrnaum, the Savior’s newly adpoted home town which must have offended him in some way.
The Savior ends his sermon by reassuring his followers that God has ultimate control, and the Savior is his agent.
And the Savior can heal all wounds, even imprisonment, rejection, violence, and even death.
Take his yoke upon you, and find rest
Talmage calls the period described by the Matthew as “A Period of Increasing Hostility.”
It begins with two confrontations, one over his disciples picking grain in a field as they walked through it on the sabbath. I suspect there is much that could be said about the propriety of what they were doing, the custom of gleaning in those days, if I were to read the experts. I am certain the Savior would not have defended his disciples if what they were doing was really wrong; my sense was he called out incorrect behavior wherever he found it, as in to his closest known associate Peter, “Get thee behind me Satan.”
The second confrontations is being tested in a synagogue with a man who had a withered hand. Note here how the Pharisees had at least current tradition on their side when they questioned the grain, but having been rebuffed by the Savior, they overreach. How is is possible to justify even under their existing laws not healing on the Sabbath? What possible law might have they applied to that condition?
Just a few verses later, Matthew notes, “Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw.
“And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the son of David?” (Matthew 12:22-23)
The acts of the Savior were so unprecedented, it is impossible to believe the Pharisees would have anticipated them and made rules about them.
And yet their taunt of him could indicate they thought they did.
I don’t think this exchange is really about them thinking there was some clearly defined law about healing on the sabbath that should be enforced. No, their correction of him was about something else.
I believe it shows they were testing their power to control behaviors. They did not love the Sabbath; I suspect they didn’t even love the rules they had made which were just ridiculous. What they loved was the power it gave them over the masses.
They were not appealing to some Sabbath standard about not healing on the Sabbath; they wanted the Savior to be afraid of them; to not perform the healing purely because they wanted to control him.
This power was so important to them, that when he was not, they “held a council against him, how they might destroy him.” (Matthew 12:14)
Matthew makes it clear that, unlike David, the Savior’s mission on the earth was to be very gentle; he did not wage war; there is no evidence he even harmed anyone, let alone killing them. Taken to an extreme, in comparison to David, he didn’t even harm the grass by walking on it.
Consider for a moment though, could the Savior have performed a different role upon the earth, had it been appropriate? Could the Savior have been a David, a Captain Moroni, a Mormon?
Of course he could. He could do it more effectively than any of them could. His was not a lack of power; it was meekness; it was perfect power under complete control.
And we see that in the arch of these stories. His sermon against the dark powers of the world, and his actions in the face of the raw attempt to control him, show he was not afraid, an tremendous ability to be bold when required.
But his natural state was that of peace, of meekness, of love.
There is much for us to learn in the arch of these stories; how we might be bold in the face of opposition, but not hard, not intransigent, not unloving.
Truly the Savior is our example in all things.