On the Death of Judas Iscariot, and Why it Matters to Me

In the weeks leading up to Easter, the church where I work dedicated four weekends to an examination of four characters who encountered Jesus. I was tasked with writing monologues for Nicodemus, James, Peter, and Judas, with the goal of giving people a chance to identify with each character’s very human response to Jesus.

The Judas monologue, as you may be able to imagine, proved challenging. So many portrayals of Judas demonize him, and perhaps rightly so, because he is the quintessential arch-villain. But he’s also a man who lived in a context not altogether different from ours, and my job was to show that context so that people could connect their lives with his. My job was to humanize him.

In a world of complex religious and political strife, Judas’s theology visibly identified him. Kind of like a profile picture of the cover art from your favorite band’s new album. Or Kony 2012. Or a red equals sign. Or a red equals sign with a cross through it…

I can almost hear Judas quoting the once-again-familiar, tweet-friendly quip from Isaiah 7:9 – “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”

This may sound odd, but I love the story of Judas Iscariot.

I love it because it’s human. Because it’s so deeply true.

And when I say it’s true, I don’t mean only that it’s historical. It is that, but it’s also a very real story. It’s a story that I can believe because I’ve seen it.

The story starts with a young man looking for significance. He wants to make a dent in the world. And like many young men, the first place he looks is for a fight. He finds a fight he can believe in, and he joins the cause. He’s a revolutionary. His life is going to make a difference, and people will remember him, because he’s joining a revolution that will change the world forever.

But his revolution doesn’t work out the way he planned it to. His hero – the guy he signed up to follow – betrays him. He changes the rules and decides it’s not going to be a revolution after all. It’s going to be a martyrdom instead. But not the glorious kind.

Understandably, the kid with the dream of making a dent in the world is beyond disappointed. Then he realizes he can do something about it. He can give a little, motivating push. He can remind the guy why they all joined up with him in the first place. He can make sure he sees the enemy face to face and remembers what they’re all fighting for.

So he tells the cops where to find him, thinking he’ll pull out all the firepower when things hit the fan. When push comes to shove, he won’t let the tyrants win.

But the guy doesn’t fight. He just lets them take him away. And worst of all, he calls the young man a traitor.

And that’s when the young man realizes he’s been wrong from the beginning. A bloody revolution was never the plan. Which means he really is a traitor.

He tries to get rid of the money he was paid for making the deal that he thought would spark a revolution, but the creeps that gave it to him won’t take it back. They don’t want anything to do with him now – he’s already done what they wanted him to do. And now he’s not just a traitor – he’s also a pawn.

So, he goes out into a field and kills himself.

I wish it wasn’t such a true story. I wish I didn’t know that this is how a young man like Judas really would respond. I wish I didn’t know that the shame of being wrong and of being used as a pawn by people you hate is enough to drive a man to suicide. But I’m guessing you know as well as I do that the story of Judas is true. Whether it actually happened in history or not, it’s exactly the kind of thing that teachers and professors all over the world see every day. Or, as Rob Bell once said about the beginning of the book of Genesis, the point is not whether or not it happened, but that it happens.

In literary study, some people call this a mythic element in a story. This means that there’s something so true, so powerfully symbolic, and so human about a story that it gives us the ability to understand and talk about ourselves or our experiences in a way we may not have before we read the story. We call it myth because it’s what the myths of nearly all ancient cultures did for people. Romeo and Juliet is one of our culture’s most recognizable myths. It’s a story that’s so true to our experience of complicated romance that we use it to describe and interpret real life.

Now, I’m aware that by this point a number of you are quite upset with me for suggesting that the story of Judas is a myth. But before you skip the rest of this post and go straight to blasting me in the comments section, let me explain something. In literary study, and particularly the literary study of the Bible, the terms “myth” and “history” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the Judeo-Christian worldview affirms quite strongly that it is stories that most profoundly define meaning in our lives and experiences. And in literary terms, a story that defines meaning in this way is called a myth, regardless of whether or not it is historical.

When I was in elementary school, some younger kids from my neighborhood decided it would be fun to start a snowball fight with my sister and me as we walked home from school. It started out fun, but when they ran out of snow, they started throwing rocks. Being older, and being a baseball player, I had little trouble keeping them at a distance without actually hitting them with any rocks, but as we rounded the last corner right in front of my house, one of them proved a bit stronger than I thought he was and tossed a rock that hit my sister right in the nose. Being the protective older brother that I was at the time, I started crying and ran into the house.

As my dad cleaned the blood off her nose, he asked me what had happened. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the hot tears burning my face as I watched her cry. She wasn’t just crying because of the pain in her nose. She was also crying because I had failed to protect her.

I remember the empty feeling in my stomach, the feeling of wanting to crawl in bed for days and never walk to school again. And I remember when my older brother talked to me about it, when he explained to me what I could, what I should have done. He was gracious. He did exactly what an older brother should have done. He told me how I could have stepped in, and even if I couldn’t have kept it from happening, I could have made sure it never happened again. I was older, bigger, stronger. I could have made sure they knew that next time I would not be so gracious with them if they messed with my sister.

My brother handled it perfectly. So did my dad. But they were too late. As soon as I turned away from the fight and ran home instead of defending my sister, that story, that history, became myth for me. I had chosen weakness. I had chosen not to protect her. And for years, that story would define me. Even into marriage and becoming a father, I knew for a fact that I wasn’t a protector.

I’m guessing that you have similar stories – events in your life that were once just events, but have grown to become myths that define who you are. You know as well as I do that C.S. Lewis was right when he said that myth and fact work side by side to shape us into who we become.

Like the historical stories of the Bible, the histories of our lives become mythic for us when they take on significance beyond just the facts of the events.

There’s a second reason I love the story of Judas’s death. I love it because it contains two clear contradictions that remind me that the writers of the New Testament, and the people who edited it and put it together later, were very honest people.

Yes, you read that right. I said there are two contradictions in the story.

But maybe you know me well enough by now to know that I think contradictions in the Bible are simply wonderful, because every time I find a new one, it teaches me how trustworthy the Bible really is.

I guess I should explain…

Matthew 27 tells the story of Judas’s suicide, as does Acts 1.

In Matthew, we read that Judas threw the money he’d received from betraying Jesus into the temple and then went out to a field and hung himself. The priests couldn’t legally put the money into the temple treasury because it had been used to fund an illegal bargain that led to a very sketchy conviction of an innocent man. As you can imagine, the accounting ledgers would have had to have been quite creative. So, instead, they bought a field with it, which happened to be the field where Judas died. It makes sense for them to do this, because by using Judas’s money, they were in effect buying the field in his name.  The official record would then show that Judas himself bought the field where he committed suicide. Not only would this logical connection dampen questions, it would also benefit them in the end, because in ancient Israel, when a man died with no heir, his property was surrendered to the state, that is, the temple, that is, the priests who bought the field in the first place. They couldn’t put the money directly into the treasury, but they could buy a piece of property that they knew would immediately be surrendered back to them because the man who owned it was already dead. Today we call this money laundering.

Luke (the writer of Acts), however, tells us a significantly different story. He says that Judas bought the field and fell on some sharp rocks there, where his guts all gushed out onto the ground.

So we have two problems. Luke and Matthew can’t seem to agree on who bought the field, and they can’t seem to agree on how Judas died.

Before I tell you what I think really happened, I want to call attention to the fact that this problem is still in the Bible. I certainly think it can be reconciled, as I’ll show in a minute, but it’s a real problem, and it’s a problem that’s clearly evident to anyone who can read. It’s a problem that has caused a large number of Christians to question whether or not they can trust the Bible. It’s a problem many of us would rather do without, in fact I can be quite confident there are a whole bunch of Christians, and even pastors and teachers, out there who wish this one would just go away.

But I’m glad it’s there.

In fact I’m really glad it’s there.

Because it means that Luke and Matthew weren’t in on this thing together. They never sat down and compared notes to make sure their stories matched up. Apparently, they were more concerned with telling the truth than they were with making sure that the Bible was free from errors and contradictions. Their goal does not seem to have been to start a new, easy-to-swallow, theologically airtight religion. Their goal seems to have been to tell the story of Jesus as they had seen it and heard it and then let us decide what to do with it.

And it also means that they people who actually compiled the New Testament – the people who edited the final version and decided which books to keep in and which books to leave out – didn’t edit out the difficult and contradictory parts either. They seem to have been more concerned with preserving the words that had been written than they were with making sure their own religious agenda survived. It would have been very easy for them to change one of the records of Judas’s death, and they could certainly have justified doing so – such a glaring difference would most certainly cause many to question, and perhaps even cause some to fall away from the faith entirely. But they chose faithfulness instead. They chose to pass on the books just as they came to them.

Despite this confidence in the integrity of both the writers and the compilers of the New Testament, we still have to deal with these stark differences in the two records of the story. And unless we’re going to throw out the claim to biblical inerrancy, which is a major tenet of orthodox Christianity, these discrepancies are a problem.

Historically, most scholars have explained away the problem of how Judas died by saying that he hung himself, and then some time later the rope he was hanging from broke and he fell onto the rocks below him. Without any further explanation, such a story seems possible, but likely little more than an attempt to excuse the problem.

We have to remember, however, that when Judas disappeared, there are no logically defensible reasons to think that anyone would have gone looking for him for at least three days. And the day after he went to the field to hang himself was a Sabbath, which means that any law-abiding Jew would have spent the day counting his steps to assure he didn’t go over the allotted number and transgress the Sanhedrin’s interpretation of the law against work on the Sabbath. Such strict adherence to the law, which was quite common then, makes it unlikely that anyone would have been wandering aimlessly through someone else’s field that day. There would likely have been no one around to stumble upon the carcass of Judas hanging from a tree. And even if they did, two other regulations barred them from cutting him down – first, to do so was defined as work, which would have defiled the Sabbath, and second, to come into contact with a dead body made a person unclean, which would have kept him or her from participating in Sabbath worship at the temple or local synagogue. Most likely, even if someone did find Judas that Saturday, his body would have been left hanging until at least the next day. And when a dead body hangs from a rope in the sun, it bloats. The skin thins and dries, and it becomes a putrid balloon that would certainly “pop” if it happened to fall on sharp rocks.

So let’s say we accept that Judas really did hang himself, and then some time later he was cut down or fell down and his guts really did spill out all over the rocks. Why wouldn’t either Matthew or Luke give us the whole story?

Matthew, as a Jew writing to a Jewish audience, chooses the image of Judas hanging from a tree. Like his fellow Jew Paul (see Gal. 3:13), Matthew knew the importance of Deuteronomy 21:23 – anyone who dies by hanging on a tree is cursed by God. Matthew also knew that the people who would be reading his book knew this curse. So Matthew chooses the strongest image available to him – the image of a man hanging from a tree.

And so does Luke, who, being a gentile, has no connection to Deuteronomy’s curse. Like him, his audience will not be overly moved by such an image. So instead, Luke chooses the grisly image. He shows us Judas’s body splattered all over the rocks. And I’m guessing that unless you’re a Jew with an intimate understanding of Deuteronomic law, you, like me, connect more strongly with Luke’s image than Matthew’s. You’re his target audience, and you respond exactly how he hoped you would. Apparently, Luke was a good writer.

The point, though, is that each writer chose to portray Judas’s death by giving us the most shocking image available to him.

Our second problem is the purchase of the field. Did Judas buy it, or did the priests buy it?

Though I’ve already given myself away somewhat on this one, we haven’t accounted yet for the importance of source material.

Where Matthew was writing his own eyewitness account of these events, Luke was dependent on the retelling of others, and would certainly have consulted public legal records to build what he intended to be a full-fledged historical account of the events surrounding the life of Jesus and the birth of the Christian church. Matthew’s book is based primarily on his own observations, whereas Luke’s books are built upon his research of public documents and the compilation of multiple eyewitness interviews.

Luke’s examination of public records would have shown Judas as the owner of the field, because legally, he did buy it. But Matthew knew better. Matthew chose to expose the corruption of the religious leaders by showing how they worked the loopholes in their own system for the sake of financial gain.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Think of it this way. Let’s say that Jason and I are going to have lunch together at the office. I give him a $20 bill and ask him to go pick something up for both of us because I’m swamped with work and don’t have time to leave. While he’s gone, Peter comes in and asks me if I have lunch.

“Jason’s out buying it,” I say.

When Jason returns (most certainly with two Quizno’s subs) and we’ve begun to eat, Steve pops his head in. Seeing our delicious sandwiches, he inquires, “Who bought lunch?”

“Paul did,” Jason responds.

We’ve both told the truth, even though we’ve given different, and seemingly contradictory, accounts of the same event. I bought lunch because it was my money, but Jason bought lunch because he went to Quizno’s to get it.

In the same way, Judas bought the field because the money was still legally his when it was purchased in his name, but the priests performed the transaction.

So, why do I love the story of Judas so much? I love it because it gives me everything I need from the Bible. It gives me myth – a story that touches my soul because of its sheer, human honesty. And it gives me fact. It gives me a presentation of history that stands strong the face of my most vigorous skepticism and proves itself to be far greater than what I hoped it would be when I first began wrestling with its logic and its claims. It could have been a weak link, but proves instead to be the strength of the entire chain. It proves to be one more addition to the breathtaking marriage of philosophical profundity and gritty, concrete fact that is the Bible. Surely such a blending of art and instruction can only be the gift of God to us who so desperately need both.

***If you’re interested in pursuing the topic of myth and history and how they interact with the Judeo/Christian worldview, start with the C.S. Lewis essay linked above. And if you’re really ambitious, pick up a copy of N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. Part II of that book deals with the interactions referenced above in full-fledged academic detail.


Broken Bones, Sacred Hymns: The Vulnerability of Sharing Grief

When I say that I recently learned how ironic and self-defensive I can be, I am also saying this: last week, I watched as the eerie magic of an overseas phone call transformed my friend, in the space of two minutes, from a typical expat with a fat itinerary of sights to see into a young woman without a mother.

I was the only other person there for this conversation, and even though it was short, there was a sense of heavy infinity about it . . . and I also remember the slight shock of realizing that, even after witnessing the most painful moment of another’s life, I could still think of my own self.

A few moments later, she said, “Do you promise me. . . will you please promise me that you really believe we have a purpose for being here? And do you really believe–do you promise that you believe–that we will see the people we love again?”

Yes, yes, yes. I do believe it, all of it. But . . .

Thoughtlessness is not usually a positive term associated with grief, but self-forgetfulness should be. Still, I hesitated to spread out the contents of my soul as the situation required. It wasn’t that I questioned my beliefs. It was that I questioned the danger of speaking them out so earnestly, in that moment of naked honesty between two friends who were, still, almost strangers.

I’ve always felt sincerity was simple; my pale, flushing complexion billboards my emotions on a constant basis, so there’s no point in even trying to hide. However, in this most urgent and necessary moment, I still felt the urge to make qualifications for my own sincerity. I wanted to speak with a protective hedge of irony, or to act as if my beliefs were contained within me, rather than making that bold and sweeping hymn to the glorious reality of redemption.

A grieving person might not have the luxury of his or her most intimate companion’s presence; in this particular story, the most trusted friend was, with terrible clarity, also the mother who had died. But if I am to love someone with that wide, encompassing depth that transcends personal knowledge, and if I want to offer the kind of love that the first plunge into grief demands, then I must hold out at least a mustard seed of grace: offering self-forgetfulness with both hands, and summon the bravery to tell as much felt experience as I can muster.

After that first step, perhaps a wobbling one, I can leave these efforts to God, who will expand the meager flour and oil into food that can offer comfort. But for me to do this, I cannot self-protect; I cannot hedge my spirit in veils, or speak with the gentle, self-deprecation that, at many other times, makes the passion of my beliefs tolerable in the world of work and casual friendships.

By laying out our wounds, or our most tender experiences before a mourning friend, we can participate in that promise of the Psalms: the bones He has broken will rejoice; there’s a hum of hymns in the shared poverty of spirit. The sutures and scars of our past, or the ill-set bones that still ache when it rains–in the community of sharing grief, moments of sincerity, whether stories of pain or earnest, unironic belief, will glitter like gems for the newly-impoverished.

Sharing scars and promises will not compound emptiness. In the face of suffering, vulnerability does not pare away the self; rather, it suggests hope’s final incarnation: when Christ wipes all tears from our eyes, and all eternity proves redemption.

Day Two

Erwin McManus says that part of being created in the Image of God is our creativity. Like Him, we can imagine things that don’t exist, and then we can make them exist.

We write books, paint, build, make music, dance, propose, mentor, compete, design, sculpt, photograph, share, like, tweet, retweet, and check in.

We cut and color our hair, hang flags, mix and match pieces of clothing, and base our purchasing choices on what best fits our image.

I can look at an empty plot of land and imagine a building there. And I can build it. If I build it, it will certainly fall down… but you get the point.

I can imagine things that don’t exist, and I can make them exist.

I can even go on Shark Tank and try to get people to help me sell the things I dream up.

But Shark Tank is a ruthless place.

And I think it’s ruthless because the Sharks have been in the real world. They’ve had incredible ideas that failed miserably and cost them all kinds of money. And they’ve had ideas that, when worked and bled for, soared. But my guess is that they’ve experienced more crashing and burning than soaring, because good ideas are common, but successful ideas are not.

The difference between success and a good idea is Day Two.

The difference between us and God is that God can create by using only His words. We have to work at it.

Then again, there are some things God works awfully hard at. Like taking a family of pagans and moving them from Ur to Canaan and then getting their descendants to actually believe that when he tells them how to live, he means what he says. Like getting people to quit getting divorced, but to refuse divorce because they choose to consistently love each other and not because there’s some law against it. Or getting people to quit making each other slaves because they finally realize what he’s been trying to tell them all along – they’re all valuable, and they’re all family.

God has lots of great ideas. But he doesn’t quit with just good ideas.

If you’ve ever tried to turn an idea into reality, you’ve probably found out how hard it is. The first day usually isn’t all that tough, because you have lots of energy and excitement. You know what you want to build, and you’ve finally started.

But Day Two is a little tougher, because when you were planning, you didn’t think about all the things that would get in the way.

Like learning how to mix paint colors.

Or the fact that your fingers bleed after a few hours of trying to learn to play the guitar.

Or the fact that she doesn’t know you exist.

The early church faced a Day Two problem in Acts 6. In Acts 2, three thousand people became believers in Jesus. In Acts 3, a crippled beggar got healed. More healings happened. More people got saved. The church was moving. Day One was the realization of a dream that has existed in the mind of God for millennia, and the apostles got to be right in the thick of it.

And then they realized that their dream of being the hands and feet of Jesus, of feeding the needy in their midst and creating opportunity through community outreach for people to hear and respond to the gospel, would require a bit of organization.

People were getting left out.

They were getting left out because of prejudice. Because the people in charge of distributing the food played favorites.

Day Two was much more difficult than Day One.

You can go read the rest of the story, but my point is this – had the apostles given up when the dream got difficult, we wouldn’t have a Christian church. We wouldn’t have a Bible. We wouldn’t even know the story.

Maybe today’s not even Day One for you – what you need is to find a dream worth chasing with all your heart.

Maybe it is Day One, and you’re excited about seeing one little piece of your dream become reality.

And maybe it’s Day Two, and you’re discouraged. Maybe you’re thinking about quitting, because there are obstacles you never thought you’d face.

Maybe you’re thinking you’re not cut out for this “making the invisible visible” thing that people like Erwin McManus talk about.

Let me ask you to do something.

Remember that you’re created in the Image of God, and remember that means that you should follow his lead in making a difference in the world.

And if you can believe all that, then remember what God did when his biggest, most audacious dream got messy because the expression of his most profound creativity, the human race, decided not to follow his instructions, and in so doing made the road forward infinitely harder than it should have been.

He got down on the road with them, made them clothes for the journey, and started working Plan B with all his creative energy.

If he can do it, so can we.

If we don’t, what stories will the world never hear?

What difference will you fail to make, just because you chose to stay in the muck of insignificance instead of just getting up and trying again?

Living Christian in an Evil World

When I first opened up Mark Galli’s article on the Colorado theater shooting, I thought his words would feel dated and no longer that applicable, since I had “moved past” the event. You know, the news stops showing photos of panic, you stop thinking about it (mostly because you didn’t want to think about it in the first place), and life goes on.

But his essay wasn’t just another prayer for the victims’ families, not another cry of outrage to God, not another explanation of why bad things happen. Galli drives home what we all should have considered back when the tragedy occurred by widening the scope: this horrible event wasn’t an isolated violent incident in an otherwise perfect world.  It was yet another impossible-to-ignore example of just how broken, messed up, and violent our world really is. While we try to rationalize and spiritualize until that troubling fact goes away, we seem to be missing the one question we should be asking: what does this mean for my life as a Christian?

I saw myself in the author’s description of his reaction to the tragedy. First thoughts are of blank shock, then disbelief, then anger, then fear. If I would have been there, what would I have done? If I had lost a loved one, how would I feel? If I carry a gun, can I prevent something like this from happening again? But I never asked God what He thought about the situation, and I never thought about how the existence of evil should shape my Christian life. Do I live in fear because of this? Or can I find a way to walk in faith?

Galli reminds us of the irony of our religion: that the God to whom we bring our grief is also the God who has already worked to bring an end to all suffering, death, and sin. The same God who allowed Lazarus to die and wept at his tomb was also the one who brought him back to life, told him to walk into the sunlight.

Our God is a God who both knows suffering and gives healing. So as Christians, Galli asks, why do we respond to tragedies like everyone else: in fear, confusion, and unfocused anger? Is there a better way to deal with evil, and if so, what is it?

God does have an answer to suffering, if we’re only willing to take it: the peace that comes through knowing and believing in Christ Jesus, the one who suffered and overcame.

As this violent summer slips behind us, Mark Galli’s article is a timely and thought-provoking message with which we can strengthen our souls to face another day in an imperfect world. Click on the link below to go to his column on the Christianity Today webpage.

Making Non-Sense of the Colorado Shootings | Christianity Today.

Who are the poor?

Have you ever had one of those moments when a speaker says something that shakes you to the core, leaving you thinking about his or her comment for days and weeks to come?  I was shaken this way recently when I heard a speaker say “The poor are anyone who can’t cope with life.”  When I think of the poor, I generally think of people in other places that don’t have money or about people in oppressive circumstances.  These generic definitions don’t include me at all, so the idea that I might be in poverty was shocking. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I can’t cope with life in various ways from time to time.  Fear, loneliness, anxiety, responsibility, and yes, sometimes money and oppressive circumstances leave me unable to cope. I don’t want to diminish the extreme examples of poverty in our country and others that I, from my socio-economic status don’t come close to experiencing.  However, I believe that Jesus engaged with many different kinds of impoverished people from socially impoverished lepers to the spiritually impoverished but religiously powerful Pharisees.

I work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Arizona State University (InterVarsity is a ministry to college students).  My job is highly relational and highly administrative.  For all the face time I get with students, there is a lot of planning, calling, emailing, and prepping.  I dislike administrative work immensely.  It’s hard for me.  During last school year, there were many times I would be planning for a leadership meeting and feel stuck, at a loss for where to go next in the planning process.  Then I’d feel silly and slightly ashamed that something so (seemingly) trivial could cause me such duress.  I was sitting at my computer one afternoon planning for a few meetings I had that week as well as drafting a talk I was giving soon.  I switched from project to project writing a few words here and there but, getting bored and distracted, anxiety creeping in, I was feeling terrible that I was so bad at my job.  When my wife came home and asked how my day was, I was so mad at myself for being a captive to administration that I didn’t want to share with her.

Am I really poor if I get anxious because of administrative tasks?  Isn’t that belittling the issue compared to the suffering of so many?  Isn’t this just a silly, trivial story?  In light of the extreme examples of poverty around us, we have to ask where is the threshold when our suffering “makes the cut” and God sees our impoverished state?  What does Jesus have to say about my administrative challenges?

Well, if our definition of poverty is being unable to cope with life, then yes, I am in poverty and you are too if you’re honest.  I was left defeated, ashamed, and feeling lost by my Gmail inbox.  As embarrassing as that is, it’s true.  There are countless other examples from our lives than can be identified as poverty; some are just acknowledged more by society.  If Jesus recognizes a wide range of impoverished people, how does he respond to them?  If you, like me, find yourself unable to cope with life, what does that mean for us as followers of Jesus?

In Luke, Jesus quotes Isaiah 60 to begin his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  He goes on to say that he will heal the broken, and free the captives.  Jesus came for the poor, specifically to heal and set free.  If we don’t count ourselves among the poor, can we experience this transformation?  I did tell my wife that I had looked at my computer for three and a half hours that afternoon but got no work done at all.  In admitting my need, I allowed Jesus to begin the process of transformation.

What happens then, after Jesus the doctor has begun his healing work?  Isaiah goes on to say that those healed and set free were transformed so “that they may be called oaks of righteousness” and that “they shall repair the ruined cities.”  When I am in the midst of my poverty, all I can think about is getting by; my goal is the bare minimum.  All God thinks about when I’m in the midst of my poverty is all he wants me to become. God turns those who were broken into mighty oaks, deeply rooted and able to stand on their own. He turns former prisoners into artists: the repairers of ruined cities. We are not healed so we can limp around, barely functioning; we are healed so we can be as sturdy as a mighty oak.  We aren’t set free so we can get by; we are set free to create. These pictures, echoing from the creation story, show a God who can transform the poor into a blessing for others.

The question is, do you have the courage to hope with God, for yourself and those around you, that Jesus’ transforming power can turn prisoners into artists and the broken into mighty oaks?

The most challenging aspect of this passage is that if we are followers of Jesus, then we, like him, have to “bring good news to the poor.” As inadequate as we may feel being in poverty ourselves, Jesus is inviting us to tell others who are poor – everyone around us – of Jesus’ transforming power as we ourselves continue to be transformed.  If we acknowledge the poverty in our own lives, how much more clearly can we see it in others and tell our story of healing and freedom through Jesus?  Then we will be a community of artists and a forest of mighty oaks “that [Jesus] may be glorified.”

Why Jesus Likes to Ignore Your Questions

The other day I listened to Erwin McManus’s Easter message on the Mosaic podcast. As he discussed the encounter between Mary, Mary, and Joanna and the angel that met them at Jesus’ tomb in Luke 24, McManus noted how odd the angel’s words were, given the situation.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angel asked them.

But they weren’t looking for the living among the dead. They were looking for the dead among the dead.

The angel’s question prompted something deeper than their immediate concerns.

In the same way, have you ever noticed how often Jesus answers a question by talking about something that seems at first like it’s completely unrelated?

In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison, and he sends a message to Jesus, asking Jesus if He is the Promised One, or if they should expect someone else. Jesus responds by telling John that blind people are being healed, cripples are walking, lepers are being cleansed, the ears of the deaf are being opened, the dead are coming back to life, and the poor are hearing the good news. The list clearly references Isaiah 61:1-2 (which also shows up in Luke 4), except that Jesus leaves out one of the details from the list – release of prisoners. Both John and Jesus knew that Isaiah 61 was one of the famous Old Testament passages that told people how they were supposed to recognize the Messiah, which means that the short version of Jesus’ answer was, “Yes, I’m the One.” But both Jesus and John would also have been aware of the omission – the promise of the release of prisoners.

For John, who was in prison about to get his head chopped off by a maniac dictator, the release of prisoners seems quite the pertinent detail, and for Jesus to leave it out of the list appears more than a little thoughtless. In the end, Isaiah’s promise didn’t do John much good.

But the point here is that Jesus could have just said, “Yes.”

Instead, Jesus gave John a cryptic riddle and pronounced a blessing on those who choose not to be offended by Him. In the original Greek text, the word Jesus uses here is skandalidzo – “blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.”

Jesus’ answer to John was, in effect, “I am the one you’re looking for, but I’m not going to come through for you. I am the one that releases the captives, but I’m not releasing you. At least not now. Not in the way you expect.”

By distinguishing what John wanted from what he needed, Jesus turns a yes-or-no inquiry into an examination of John’s deeper beliefs about his expectations of the Messiah, allowing John to see, perhaps for the first time, what those expectations revealed about his ideas about the character of God. He forced John to wrestle with the disturbing fact that, even though Jesus could and was healing and saving people left and right, some of His closest associates, and even members of His family, may not reap the benefit of His power. Jesus could easily have gotten John out of prison, but He didn’t.

And because He didn’t, John had to either surrender his ideas about God or be offended.

We can’t know which John chose, but John is not the point of the story. Jesus is.

Like the angel who appeared to Mary, Mary, and Joanna, Jesus tries to get us (with John) to see that when we look for nothing more than the answers to our questions, we are in danger of missing something far more profound than what we’re looking for.

Sometimes, what God wants to give us is much deeper than what we think we need, but instead of trusting Him to teach us, we allow ourselves to be scandalized by the fact that He is pointing us to something beyond what we can see.

The women at the tomb knew what they were looking for. But they were looking for something a whole lot smaller than what God wanted them to find.

So what does any of this have to do with what this blog is all about?

Simply stated, our goal is to join God in challenging the things you think you know and sharing with you the times that we ourselves have encountered Jesus’ frustrating habit of ignoring our questions and talking about something completely random.

Because we’ve discovered by following Jesus that nothing He talks about is random.

The women at the tomb surrendered their expectations about what they were going to find when they got there, and even though their friends thought they were lunatics, they were the first people on earth to know that Jesus had been raised from the dead. John had to face the fact that the salvation that Jesus offers is something far greater than the postponement of death. But all of them were confronted with the fact that they were looking for the wrong things.

I once heard Gayle Erwin say that if you’re going to find buried treasure, you’re going to have to dig where it’s buried.

So as we examine Jesus, as we make it our goal to find out the questions He’s asking us rather than holding tightly to the ones that we want to ask Him, remember that your choice is the same as John’s. When you see Him, He will not look the way you thought He would look. In fact, you may at first be scandalized by what you see in Him. But He is good. His goodness runs deeper than the foundations of creation itself. And His love for you is so thorough, and so profound, that He simply cannot leave you on the shore where you’ll never know the terrifying freedom of being swept up in the infinite truth, goodness, and wisdom of God. How foolish we are when we fail to trust that He knows better than we do where the real treasure is buried.