Feast upon the Word Blog

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NT Sunday School Lesson 10 (JF) : Matthew 11:28-30; 12:1-13; Luke 7:36-50; 13:10-17

Posted by Jim F. on February 19, 2011

Matthew 11

Verse 28: Surely the Pharisees are surprised when Jesus says “Come to me.” What would they have expected instead? What does it mean to come to Christ? Has he already told us how we can do that in readings from some of the previous lessons?

The word translated “labor” means “wearying labor.” The phrase “heavy laden” translates a Greek word that means “weighed down.” What wearying, taxing work does Christ have in mind here? From what does he offer relief? Why is that described as something that wears us out? As something that burdens us? Can we understand sin as a kind of difficult work? In context, is that what Jesus is talking about, or is he talking about something else?The word translated “rest” literally means “cessation.” It is used to mean “refreshment,” “ease,” or “rest.” How does the Savior offer cessation from taxing labor?

Verse 29: The word translated “take” means literally “lift up.” The Greek word translated “yoke” could also have been translated “scales” (the kind of scales one sees in statues representing justice). Do you agree with the King James version’s decision to translate the term as “yoke,” or do you think “scales” would have been more meaningful? Why? In the Old Testament the yoke was often used as a symbol of tyranny. (See, for example, 2 Chronicles 10:4.) Why do you think Jesus uses an image that is usually associated with being subjugated by a tyrant?

How do we learn of Christ? In other words, when he commands us, “Learn of me,” what is he commanding? The root of the Greek word translated “learn” means “to direct one’s mind toward something.” That results in a variety of meanings, including “to experience” and “to learn a skill” as well as “to know.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the version many used at the time of Christ), the word translated “know” is used almost exclusively to mean “learn the will of God.” Might that tell us something about what Jesus is teaching in this verse?

Should we understand “come to me” and “learn of me” to be parallel?

The word translated “meek” means “mild,” “gentle,” “friendly” and occurs in Matthew’s writings more than in the other Gospel writers. The word translated “lowly” means not only “lowly,” but also “modest,” “humble,” “obedient,” “compliant,” and the verb from which it comes can mean “to level.” Is “meek and lowly of heart” a hendiadys, a case of saying the same thing twice (as in Genesis 1:2: “without form and void”), rather than a case of saying two different things?

Meekness and lowliness are associated in the Old Testament (e.g., Proverbs 16:19), and In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, (which differs significantly from the Old Testament we use), Daniel 3:87 speaks of lowliness of heart, using the same Greek phrase that is used here (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20, trans. James E. Crouch [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress] 173).

Verse 30: The Greek word translated “light” means “serviceable” or “useful.” How might that change our ordinary understanding of what Jesus is teaching here?

Verses 28-30: Both the Luz volume on Matthew and Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, volume 33A: Matthew 1-13 (Dallas, TX: Word Books) suggest that this saying as a whole is part of the Old Testament Wisdom tradition. What Jesus says here is similar to some wisdom sayings (cf. Sirach 24:19 and 51:23; and Sirach 6:28 and 51:27 for the idea that wisdom brings rest; Sirach 6:23-31 in particular has many similarities to this saying), but instead of Wisdom calling us, Jesus does. Surely he knows that the scripturally literate in his audience will recognize that he is making that parallel. Why does he do that? Does that suggest any fruitful interpretations of this passage?

In context, Jesus appears to be responding to the way in which the law has become a burden. What makes the Pharisaic law a burden? (Compare Matthew 23:4.) How is the way of Christian life (life following the law of Christ, Wisdom), an easy one? After all, Jesus has already said that he doesn’t preach a less strict law than the law of the Torah (Matthew 5:17-20). Is the law of the Torah the same as the law of the Pharisees? If not, how do they differ? How is Jesus’ response to the burden of the law relevant to us? Do we ever understand the law—the commandments—as a burden? If so, what prescription does he offer?

Do these verses advocate that we respond to the trials of our life merely inwardly, seeing trouble as something pertaining to the world and, so, seeking peace only in our hearts? If not, how do we square these verses with the truth that, as Ernst Bloch says, Jesus “is anything but an artful dodger into invisible inwardness, or a sort of quartermaster for a totally transcendent heavenly Kingdom” (Atheism in Christianity 129-30)?

How would you use your own words to paraphrase these verses? How would you explain what they teach?

Matthew 12

Are the stories that follow supposed to illustrate what Jesus meant by the easy yoke?

Verses 1-9: This story is one of a number of stories that center on the controversy between Jesus and the religious authorities. (See Matthew 9:1-8 for the beginnings of that controversy.) If you’ve been on a grain farm you probably know that you can pluck a head of grain and rub the kernels between your palms to get rid of the husk. Then you can blow away the chaff and chew on the threshed grains for a snack. This practice was permitted by the Mosaic Law. (See Deuteronomy 23:25.) But the rabbis had decided that, though it was permitted, it was a kind of work and, so, was not permitted on the Sabbath.

Jesus replies to the scribes with a good rabbinical argument, namely an argument from scripture: first, David ate what it was unlawful for him to eat (see Leviticus 24:5-9), but that violation of the Law was justified because they had nothing else to eat (see 1 Samuel 21:2-7); second, the priests in the Temple work on the Sabbath and that work is justified by the fact that it is done for a holy purpose.

This last example becomes an affront to the scribes, for Jesus explicitly says that what the disciples are doing is justified by the fact that they are in the service of someone—or something, the Greek could be translated either way, though the second is perhaps more likely—greater than the temple (verse 6). Which do you think Jesus is saying is greater than the temple, some thing, presumably the principle of mercy or to the ministry and message that Matthew has been describing, or some one, presumably Jesus himself? Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 in verse 7, and he tells the scribes that if they had understood that scripture they wouldn’t have accused the disciples. How would understanding that scripture have saved them from their mistake? In other words, what does understanding that mercy is more important than sacrifice have to do with this particular case?

Verses 10-13: The first disagreement with the religious authorities over the Sabbath is immediately followed by a second. Why do you think the dispute over the Sabbath was so important? It appears that the rabbis allowed for healing on the Sabbath if death was likely, but not otherwise. Jesus heals a withered hand, something that could have waited until the next day. Jesus heals the man’s hand in response to a challenge from the scribes: “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days?” Why does he take up their argument? Why not just ignore them? How do we know when we should respond to the challenges of those who attack us rather than ignore them? What argument does Jesus give the scribes?

Verses 9-14: Luz understands these verses as chiastic (page 86):

A 9And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue
B 10And behold, there was a man which had his hand withered.
C And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.
D 11And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he lay hold on it, and lift it out? 12How much then is a man better than a sheep?
C’ Wherefore, it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.
B’ 13Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.
A’ 14Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.

What does this chiasmus make most important to the story? So what?

Luke 7

Verse 36: Given the Pharisees’ hostility to Jesus, it was brave of this Pharisee, named Simon, to invite Jesus to his house for dinner. (See Luke 7:36 and 11:37 for two other occasions when Pharisees do this.) What do you think might have motivated Simon? What do you make of the fact that each time he was invited to dine with a Pharisee, Jesus did something that scandalized his host?

Verse 37-38: The word translated “sinner” isn’t used to describe the general condition of human beings: we are all sinners, but that is not the point of this word. (See verse 40.) Most have assumed that the woman was engaged in a dishonorable profession (an occupation that the Pharisees assumed disposed one toward sin), and there were many such occupations.

Among the dishonorable professions were shepherds and shopkeepers, weavers and launderers, tax collectors and copper smelters. For women the most common was prostitution. Luke appears to imply that the woman is a prostitute. That he adds “in the city” to her description suggests as much. But that isn’t necessarily the case. She could also be someone married to an outcast, such as a publican. Given the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law, there was no significant difference between the alternatives.

But Jesus and his disciples didn’t follow the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law, as we have just seen and as we will see in Matthew 15:2, where they do not observe the hand-washing rituals of the Pharisees. Thus, the word “sinner” would have described them as well as the woman. Is this, perhaps, partly what is on the host’s mind?

We don’t know what ointment the woman used. The Greek word translated “ointment” refers to any oil rendered from animal fat or any vegetable oil except olive oil, for which there is another word. Mark may tell us that it was spikenard, a musky-smelling perfume ointment made from a plant found in India. (This assumes that the incident in Mark and this incident are the same; that is disputed.)

What is the significance of the woman washing Jesus’ feet? Is it significant that she washes them with her tears? What does anointment suggest? Can we understand what she does symbolically as looking forward to the crucifixion?

Note that though anointing the body was common—for the dead, for kings and prophets, as part of daily hygiene—anointing the feet was not (François Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50, trans. Christine M. Thomas [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001] 294). It might have been done by wives for their husbands or “by libertines and sissies,” but it was not part of the ritual welcome of guests.

Verse 39: On what grounds does this Pharisee believe that Jesus cannot be a prophet? What kinds of similar arguments are made today regarding President Monson? What is the proper response to such arguments?

Does the slightly erotic nature of what has just happened, combined with what they seem to have supposed about her occupation, contribute to the Pharisee’s outrage: the woman has come in unnoticed, crying so much that her tears sprinkle Jesus feet, she undoes her hair (an erotic act itself at the time) and wipes his fee; then—oddly—she anoints his feet with expensive oil?

Wouldn’t we, too, be outraged if something like that happened at a dinner party we threw for a visitor? What are we to make of these stories in which we too would probably reasonably have responded as the Pharisee did?

Verses 40-42: In verse 39, we saw that Simon was thinking to himself. What does Jesus’ answer to his complaint show? How is that relevant to Simon’s accusation?

“I have somewhat to say unto thee,”—more literally “I have something to say to you”—is a forceful, direct statement. It is like starting something what one says with “Listen!” Jesus is announcing himself as one who teaches.

Is the parable of verses 41-42 like the parable that Nathan tells to David (2 Samuel 12:1-7)?

Verse 43: What kind of attitude does Simon’s “I suppose” (or “I assume,” ”I am of the opinion”) suggest? Has the parable brought him to repentance?

Verses 44-47: The translation of these verses makes it appear that the woman is forgiven because she loves. That translation, however, is problematic. A better translation would say that she loves because she is forgiven. What is the difference? What does Jesus’ rebuke of Simon tell us about how Simon has treated Jesus? Why didn’t Simon provide water to wash Jesus’ feet, kiss him in greeting, or anoint his head?

Verses 48-50: In verse 48, the Greek verb translated “are forgiven” is in the perfect tense, indicating an act that has been done, but not indicating whether it took part in the past or the present. Either would be accurate translations, and there’s nothing in the text to help us decide between the two. What might that ambiguity suggest?

Why do the onlookers ask “Who is this that forgiveth sins also?”

When did the woman exercise faith? When Jesus says “thy faith hath saved thee,” what does me mean? Is he making a theological claim about the place of faith in the plan of salvation, or is he doing something different than that?

Why does Jesus conclude with “Go in peace”? Is there a connection between having one’s sins forgiven and going in peace? Does comparing this phrase to Old Testament uses of it suggest anything about what it means here (1 Samuel 1:17; 20:42; 29:7)?

Luke 13

Verses 10-13: Is it significant to the meaning of the story that Jesus was teaching when this miracle occurred?

Luke often shows Jesus showing regard for women, especially for women in difficulty. Given the culture of his day, how is that significant? What lesson is in this for us today?

Verse 14: Why does the head of the synagogue address the crowd rather than Jesus? It is obvious that his reproach is aimed at Jesus. Why is healing on the Sabbath such an issue? Is there any symbolic significance to the fact that Jesus insists on healing on the Sabbath and, in fact, of flaunting the fact that he does so in the faces of the scribes and Pharisees?

Verses 15-17: Why does Jesus call the head of the synagogue a hypocrite: pretender, a dissembler? What is his pretense?

Though they are not the same, the Greek word translated “loose” here is related to the Greek word translated “loosed” in verse 12. What point is Matthew making by using related Greek words? It appears that tying and loosing knots were among the forbidden kinds of work on the Sabbath, though some knots were exempt.

The Greek verb translated “ashamed” can also be translated “dishonored” and it can also be used to describe someone whose hopes have been dashed. How might each of those meanings give us a different understanding of verse 17?

What is the point of the contrast that Luke makes between the response of Jesus’ adversaries and the response of “all the people”?

5 Responses to “NT Sunday School Lesson 10 (JF) : Matthew 11:28-30; 12:1-13; Luke 7:36-50; 13:10-17”

  1. […] comment on this post at Feast upon the Word. 1 people like this […]

  2. Gdub said

    On what grounds does this Pharisee believe that Jesus cannot be a prophet? What kinds of similar arguments are made today regarding President Monson? What is the proper response to such arguments?

    Jim, I’m having a hard time with these questions? What are some of the parallells you had in mind? I think drawing these relations to today is very important</em, so I'd like to get some more on this question.


    • Jim F said

      My apologies Gdub. Here’s what I was thinking: the Pharisees do not believe that Jesus is a prophet. Thinking about why they reject him as a prophet might help us understand what we mean when we say that Thomas Monson is a prophet: presumably the Pharisees had a standard for “prophet” that Jesus doesn’t meet; thinking about that might help us think about how we understand what it means to be a prophet. In turn, that might help us think about how to respond to those who tell us that President Monson is not a prophet.

  3. Kent Miles said

    There seems to be something happening in the teachings of Jesus, particularly teachings directed toward those who believe they are in the way of righteousness (Pharisees, scribes, his disciples, and ourselves). I hope I can adequately describe what I think is happening.

    When talking about Matt. 11:29 you point out the paradox of using the symbol of taking upon us the yoke of Christ to refer to something that will bring relief, while the cultural tradition is to understand “yoke” as a symbol of tyrannical subjugation. In the Sermon on the Mount we see the Savior using terms that similarly jar his audience and cause them to think about what He is teaching. This occurs over and over again in His teachings.

    To me, this suggests that Jesus is addressing the danger of giving in to intellectual complacency, of assuming that because we have always thought of doctrine in one context with one meaning, that it must only have that one meaning and context. The consequence of this complacency is that we do not think at all, merely accept what others have told us is the correct interpretation and application of the doctrine.

    I think that Jesus teaches us to think about His doctrine and exercise our mental capacity to wrestle with possibilities His doctrines present. We are not simply take the easy way of thinking only what someone else has told us to think.

    As 21st century Mormons I think that we are threatened by intellectual complacency as much as were the Jews of Jesus’ day. Just think how long it took us to come to terms with the cultural expectations that kept the Blacks from holding the priesthood? Where would we be if President Kimball had not put significant effort into thinking about where that particular interpretation of doctrine would lead in relation to his understanding of where the Lord wanted the Church to go? I see many other ways in which those of us in the Church today say and teach for doctrine words that we have not adequately thought about.

    I appreciate your approach to the material in the Sunday School manuals because you invite us to think about the possible meanings of what we read. I think this is consistent with how the Lord teaches. I’m not sure this is what is always accomplished by many of us who teach those same lessons.

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