Matthew 12:38-50


Wisdom - Source of Discernment

Matthew 12:38-42     The Sign of Jonah

(Lk 11:29-32)
38 Some of the scribes and Pharisees then responded.  
They said, “Teacher, we want a sign from you.”
39 In answer, he said to them,
“A wicked and unfaithful generation demands a sign.  
No sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. 
40 Just as Jonah was in the stomach of a whale
for three days and three nights,
so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth
for three days and three nights.
41 At the Judgment, the men of Nineveh will rise up with this generation
and condemn them.  
For they repented according to Jonah’s proclamation,
and here you have one greater than Jonah. 
42 The queen of the South
will rise up on Judgment Day with this generation,
and she will condemn them.  
For she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and here you have one greater than Solomon.

Matthew drew from the source he shared with Luke, but situated it and handled it differently.  For Matthew, some scribes and Pharisees took the initiative in asking him for a sign.  Obviously, in the mindset of the time, which accepted the reality of healings and exorcisms as part of life, Jesus’ actions in this area did not serve to establish his credentials as more than a holy man.

For Matthew, Jesus’ resurrection was the sign of his authenticity.  In this, Matthew interpreted the sign of Jonah differently from Luke.  For Matthew, Jonah’s three days and three nights in the stomach of a whale, in defiance of death, referred to Jesus’ three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, preceding his resurrection.  

Really, the issue reflected the questions asked of the members of Matthew’s community.  In fact, Jesus’ future resurrection would hardly have been a convincing sign to Jesus’ actual audience who, without faith, did not personally witness it – though it was a sign for Matthew’s community who, in faith, had encountered Jesus’ transforming power.  Matthew wished to make the point that Jesus’ resurrection established his identity as one specially related to God.  It was the source of his greatness.

 The Price of Non-Discernment

Matthew continued Jesus’ reflection on the mystery of unbelief.

Matthew 12:43-45     The Return of the Unclean Spirit

(Lk 11:24-26)
43 “When the unclean spirit goes out of a person,
it wanders through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it.
44 Then it says to itself, ‘I shall return to the dwelling I came from.’  
On returning it finds it empty, swept and tidy.
45 Then it goes and finds seven other spirits, worse than itself,
and they go and settle there.  
And the final state of the person gets worse than the first.

According to the simplistic folklore of the time, mental illness was generally regarded as due to demonic possession.  Jesus’ metaphorical comment may have been based on a familiar experience where people, originally diagnosed as possessed and later apparently successfully exorcised, were found, after a time, to relapse into the same or more severe state than before.  Whatever about the example, the point of the comment was to indicate a movement from bad to worse.

The comment may have initially been directed at some Pharisees.  From a state of initial criticism, their encounter with Jesus had stirred a hardness of heart that led them deliberately to reject and even to conspire against him to destroy him [12:14].  Those who had previously accused Jesus of being in league with the ruler of demons had themselves unwittingly become pawns in the hand of Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.

… This is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

Jesus (or, perhaps, Matthew himself) seemed to widen his condemnation beyond deliberately resistant Pharisees to this generation as a whole.  All along, though rarely explicitly mentioned, the presence of the crowds was assumed.  Though their response had hardly been negative, their failure to commit to the Kingdom of God, as proposed by Jesus and exemplified in him, meant that they, too, remained under the control of the pervasive power of evil.

Matthew may have intended the observation as a warning to disciples in his own community, particularly if the unhelpful words, mentioned earlier [verse 36], referred to the words of the disciples.  In their case, losing faith [the last state] was worse than never having faith [the first].

A literal reading of the text would easily lead to the conclusion that the Pharisees in question, and the crowds at large, were evil.    As some Pharisees had concluded that Jesus acted through the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, Matthew showed Jesus accusing Pharisees of doing virtually the same, and thereby demonising them.  Matthew seemed to notice no contradiction between this labelling of opponents and Jesus’ warning in the Sermon on the Mount: whoever shows anger to a brother will be liable for judgment.  Whoever calls a brother empty headed will be liable to the Sanhedrin.  Whoever calls a brother a fool will be liable to be cast into burning gehenna [5:22].  Unfortunately, later generations of disciples quite comfortably demonised Jews, and persecuted them mercilessly.

Yet Jesus was intent to show that the struggle in which they were all involved was something bigger than they.  It was the conflict of cosmic good and evil.  They were simply instruments, whether deliberately so or not, of the demonic.  Whatever about their actions and decisions, they remained always limited creatures loved and sought by God.

Actions as Sign of Belonging

Matthew 12:46-50     The True Family of Jesus  

(Mk 3:31-35; Lk 8:19-21)
46 While he was still talking to the crowds,
his mother and brothers were there standing outside wanting to talk to him. 
47 Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing out there
wanting to talk to you.’
48 In reply he said to the one who told him,
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
49 And reaching out his hand towards his disciples, he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers.
50 For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father
is brother and sister and mother to me.”

In Mark’s narrative, from which Matthew borrowed, Jesus’ mother and brothers were concerned about his mental state, and had come to take him in charge.  Matthew was not interested in such details.  He used the incident to introduce the idea of an alternative community of disciples.  In this community blood bonds paled into insignificance in comparison with the bonds drawn from a shared commitment to the will of the Father.

Next >> Matthew 13:1-23