6 October 2016

Matthew 12:38-45

“Teacher we wish to see a sign from you.” (v. 38)

Psalm: Psalm 22:1-21


When we read these verses we might think Jesus' words are extremely negative and even perhaps fearsome, not fitting with the term 'good news' at all. However by looking at the background we can start to see the reason behind the words.

Jesus is still addressing the Pharisees who have been so critical of him. They are still trying to discredit him by asking for a sign to prove whether or not those in the crowd who are declaring that he is the Son of David are right. Jesus points directly to the book of Jonah, a book which was very popular and significant in the faith which the Pharisees shared. Jonah has a message of both hope and warning and in contrast to the way in which many of the other prophets of the Old Testament had met resistance and even rejection, it seems that the people listened to Jonah. The message he had brought to the people of Nineveh was that repentance was always possible and God would reward the person who repented. The whole city of Nineveh had heeded Jonah's words. Here was the hope in the message, the sting in the tail being that Nineveh was a gentile (non-Jewish) city. It is to this story that Jesus is pointing when he speaks to the Pharisees and those listening to him.

Making the connection between Jonah in the belly of the whale and his own three day entombment which is to come, Jesus says that the people of Nineveh will appear against it. And then we come to the crunch as Jesus begins to speak about the casting out of evil spirits (in those times the belief in spirit possession was quite common). Jesus reminds his audience that removing the negative unbelieving spirit from a person is of little value if the space left behind is not filled with something positive, Matthew tells this as a short parable. In Luke's Gospel (Luke 11:24-26) the words are perhaps easier to understand: 'when the unclean spirit has gone out of a person it wonders through waterless regions looking for a resting place but not finding any, it says, I will return to my house from which I came ... then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself and the last state of that person is worse than the first." In other words casting out the negative is worthless unless the positive of true faith is put in its place.

To Ponder

  • To what extent is the Church in danger of calling people to repentance and then leaving the person concerned to get on with it, without nurturing them and helping them to turn their lives around?
  • Is the message of the people of Nineveh applicable today? Where do we see God more at work - outside or inside the church?
  • How can we engage with the hard parts of Scripture and allow our minds to wrestle with the words before us?

Bible notes author

The Revd Pat Billsborrow

Pat Billsborrow is a supernumerary minister in the Northwich and Winsford Circuit, and is at present part of a district ministry team working within that circuit with pastoral care of four churches. She is ecumenical officer in the Cheshire part of the Chester and Stoke on Trent Methodist District.