Matthew 12:22-37

Discernment of Spirits

Matthew 12:22-32     Jesus and Beelzebul

(Mk 3:19b-30; Lk 11:14-23)
22 After that, a blind and dumb possessed person was brought to him,
whom he then healed,
with the result that that the dumb person could speak and see. 
23 The crowds were amazed.  
They were saying, “Could this man be the son of David?”

Perhaps the crowds had some intuition into the specialness and rightness of Jesus.  (The title Son of David was equivalent to Messiah.)  Their question revealed a growing insight, though there sense of Messiah, Son of David, would have been solely political.

24 The Pharisees heard them and said,
“He does not cast out demons other than through Beelzebul,
the prince of devils.”

Other Pharisees had made the same observation before, when Jesus had healed a mute demoniac [9:34].  Was this the same instance, reported a second time?  On that occasion Jesus had not engaged with them directly.  This time he did.

 25 Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said,
“Every kingdom that is divided against itself is left denuded,
and every city or household divided against itself cannot endure.
26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself;
how can his kingdom endure?
27 Again, if I cast out demons through Beelzebul,
through whom do your own people cast them out?  
They will be your judges.

Jesus had appealed firstly to logic, then to the precedent set by their own exorcists.  But he wished to go further and to make a more significant point.

28 But if I cast out demons in the spirit of God,
then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
29 Again, how can someone enter the house of a strong man
and loot his possessions
unless he has first tied up the strong man.  
Only then can he plunder the house.

Jesus had tied up the strong man, the prince of devils.  Whenever he engaged with sporadic demonic activity and overpowered it, he saw himself plundering the house.  His success was proof that he acted by the Spirit of God, which, in the recently quoted words of Isaiah, God had indeed put on him [v.18].

30 Whoever is not with me is against me,
and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Given the scale and the seriousness of Jesus’ mission to bring the Kingdom of God to the world, not only blatant opposition, but even the indifference and lack of commitment, shown by those not with him or not gathering with him, served to entrench and extend the power of the kingdoms of the world.

31 And so, for this reason I tell you,
people will be forgiven every sin and every blasphemy;
with the exception that blaspheming the Spirit will not be forgiven.
32 So whoever vilifies the Son of Man will be forgiven,
but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven
either in this age or in the coming one.

The Holy Spirit was the Spirit of the merciful God, of the God who had sent Jesus on his mission to bring justice through mercy.  All who deliberately persisted in closing themselves off from God’s mercy, from God’s offer of the Kingdom, and, therefore, from God’s offer of forgiveness, put themselves beyond the reach of that forgiveness, unless and until they changed their minds.  Whatever their attitude, however, God would never stop loving them or seeking to encourage and to empower a change of heart on their part.  But, because of that love, God would not override their free choices.

Fruit – Criterion of Discernment

Matthew 12:33-37     A Tree and Its Fruit

33 “You either make a tree good and its fruit good,
or you make a tree rotten and its fruit rotten.
for by its fruit tree is known. 
34 Offspring of snakes, how can you speak good sense
when you are evil yourselves?  
The mouth expresses whatever fills the heart.
35 Good people offer good things from their treasure of good things;
evil people from their evil treasures offer evil things.
36 Indeed, I tell you that people will have to account
for every unhelpful word
that they say on the day of Judgment.
37 On your own words you will be judged worthy,
and on your own words you will be judged guilty.”

To emphasise his criticism, Matthew drew on images he had used earlier in his narrative.  He had already shown John castigating those Pharisees who had come from Jerusalem to check him; he had called them a brood of vipers [3:7].  In the Sermon on the Mount, he had shown Jesus speaking, in the context of false prophets, of fruit as the criterion for discerning the quality of different trees [7:17-18]. 

The text moved from criticism to threat, and extended to words the importance already given to deeds. 

Since the Pharisees’ words had been deliberately malicious rather than simply unhelpful (the word translated unhelpful could mean “unproductive” or “thoughtless), it was probable that Matthew was thinking of the members of his own community.  Under pressure of severe criticism from their contemporaries, some of them may have been tempted to speak ambivalently of their faith in Jesus, hoping that their concrete behaviour would be sufficient on the day of judgment.

Next >> Matthew 12:38-50