Managing criticism (Matthew 9:14-17)

How do you cope with criticism from people who don’t understand where you’re leading them? Could we learn from the Master?

Open Matthew 9:14-17.

What do you do when you’re criticized? It’s easy to get angry and sound off, or to cave in and give up. I’m interested in how Jesus, the king of the kingdom, handled criticism.

He copped it from the scribes (9:3). He copped it from the Pharisees (9:11). Now he cops it from friends: John the Baptist’s disciples:

Mathew 9:14 (my translation) Then John’s students came to him saying, “How come we and the Pharisees fast often, but your students don’t fast?”

Jesus could have provided a theological defence of his actions. Their faith was a religion of feasting from the very start. Every morning and every evening, priests sat down with God to enjoy the covenant meal on behalf of his people. Three times a year, everybody joined in the feasts. The Torah was full of the language of feasting (Exodus 5:1; 12:14-20; 13:6; 23:14-18; 34:18-25; …), with not a single reference to fasting!

Fasting arrived later, when things started to go wrong. Fasting was an expression of grief, of losing God’s presence and blessing.

The feasting stopped when Solomon’s temple was destroyed. For seventy years, festival days came and went with no feasts. The people fasted regularly until the second temple was built (Zechariah 7:5). Though the temple was restored, the divine kingship was not. In New Testament times, Pharisees fasted twice a week, seeking God for the full restoration of his people and his reign.

But instead of defending his actions, Jesus reaches out to understand why John’s disciples turned on him. John had announced that Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel (3:1-17). But instead of seeing the joyful release of the people of God under divine reign, John sees nothing but the walls of Herod’s dungeon (4:12). What was Jesus doing? Was he serious about the kingdom? How was he training his disciples? Why was he feasting at the sinners’ table instead of fasting for God’s table?

Jesus understands how disillusioned John’s disciples feel. His first reaction is empathy. They’re grieving. Their leader has been taken from them. When the day comes when Jesus is taken away, his disciples will be grieving and fasting too:

9:15 Jesus said to them, “It’s not possible for the bridal party to grieve when the bridegroom is with them. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and they’ll fast then.

In their pain, John’s disciples missed the main point. Like a people separated from their heavenly sovereign, Israel has lamented and fasted so long for the coming of the one who would restore the Davidic kingship. Now the son of David is among them! Jesus is the bridegroom they’ve been waiting for. The king is here. This is no time for mourning. You may have been grieving in the past, but you can’t attend a wedding dressed in black with sorrow written all over your brow! This is a day of celebration. God is at work among his people again. His Messiah is leading the nation in joyful feasting.

What leadership! Jesus’ response to criticism is empathy without capitulation, identifying with their pain without compromising his identity and vision.

But how does he draw them forward from where they are to where they need to be?

Once again, Jesus uses stories. People find change difficult. They feel nostalgic about the old ways, the familiar ways, things they’ve grown up with. Israel had been fasting and grieving for so long that lament now defined their faith. They could not imagine a kingdom characterized by feasting rather than fasting.

So Jesus tells two stories to make the point that they cannot mix the old and the new. They must let go of the familiar to experience the kingdom being established in Jesus. If they try to hold onto the old, they’ll lose both the old and the new:

9 16 No one puts a patch of new cloth on an old garment; for the fullness of it pulls away from the garment and the tear becomes worse.
9 17 Neither to you put new wine into old wineskins; if you do, the wineskins break, the wine is spilled and the wineskins are ruined. You put new wine in new wineskins and both are preserved.

Jesus is re-establishing the reign of God over humanity. Their old mourning clothes seemed so appropriate to the kingdom that disintegrated in Old Testament times, but those old garments cannot hold the new cloth of the kingdom being establishing under his kingship. Try to patch them together, and you lose both. The old leather wine bottles they’ve used for so long cannot contain the fresh fermenting wine of the new kingdom. Jesus understands their nostalgia, but they can’t have it both ways.

Jesus extended genuine empathy to those who struggled to adapt, while at the same time being crystal clear that they must relinquish the familiar to experience life under his kingship.

I really need to learn the ways of our king. It’s party time.


What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 356:

For John’s disciples that indicated a movement which did not take its religious commitment seriously, and the feasting in Matthew’s house only deepened their suspicion. In their different ways the Pharisees, John’s disciples and the Jesus circle were all renewal movements within first-century Judaism, and this brief encounter serves to draw out their distinctive approaches and priorities.

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 300:

Weddings generally lasted seven days … Weddings were a matter of joy with which any signs of sorrow seemed conspicuously incongruent … The Gospels’ readers would probably catch an allusion that Jesus’ first hearers missed: Jesus is the groom of God’s people in the coming messianic banquet foreshadowed in their table fellowship (22:2; 25:10–13). The “taking” of the bridegroom, of course, is a veiled reference to the impending crucifixion.

[previous: Where did Jesus learn mercy?]

[next: The king understands his people]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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