For years I’ve heard people talking about how the Bible is meant to be taken literally. These people almost invariably point out certain laws in Leviticus. Never the laws that affect them personally, though. Shellfish and pork are fine. It’s also okay to eat meat on Friday. Divorce is quite acceptable, slavery is illegal, and it’s nearly impossible to get all of your clothes made of a single fabric. Almost everything is mixed fibers!
However, the laws that allow people to dictate how others live — those are literal! Homosexuals are bad! Witches are evil! Stone him! Burn her! Kill them all! Those are horrible laws. Why would anyone want to keep laws like these alive?
Leviticus is part of the history of the Israelites. These laws may have served a functional purpose at the time. But they hardly seem relevant to a supposed Christian society 5000-6000 years after the fact.
In fact, if we do want to call ourselves a Christian nation, maybe we should consider taking the teachings of Christ literally instead. How about the Gospel according to Matthew?
In Matthew, Jesus performed many miracles. He healed the sick, caused the blind to see and the deaf to hear, and began raising people from the dead. Twice he fed thousands from a very small amount of food!
He also laid down many laws. Do not be angry, do not swear an oath, do not resist an evil person. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. He strictly forbade divorce and has stern words for hypocrites. Anyone who announces their gifts to the needy, prays in public, or would “disfigure their face to show others they are fasting” will get no reward from God. They put on a show to receive applause from others. They have received their reward and deserve no more.
The concept that Jesus talks about the most in Matthew is faith. Matthew 17:20 Truly I tell you, if you have faith so small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. Matthew 21:21-22 Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.
He also repeatedly accuses his disciples and other followers of having little faith. In Matthew 8:23-27 they were in a boat when a storm began to rock the boat. Being afraid they were going to drown, they awoke Jesus to save them. Matthew 8:26 He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
An even more interesting story is in Matthew 16:21-33. Here Jesus sends his disciples ahead in a boat. When he was ready to catch up to them the next morning, he simply walked across the water to the boat! The disciples freaked out but Jesus called Peter to walk with him. He was able to for a moment but began to sink when he got scared. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?'”
In Matthew 17:20 Jesus referred to “faith so small as a mustard seed”. Why a mustard seed? What’s the significance of mustard seeds? Matthew 13:31-32 The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of the seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.
So the mustard seed is the smallest seed yet it has the greatest potential. How does a seed reach this potential?
Matthew 12:3-9 A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Still other fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.
It sounds pretty straight forward. We must sow our mustard seed of faith in good soil in order to produce a crop. OK, easier said than done. In Matthew 5 and 6 Jesus gives a list of rules to live rightly. Most of these rules regard relationships with other people – don’t hold on to anger (5:22), do not swear an oath at all (5:34-37), do not resist an evil person (5:39-42), love your enemies (5:43-47), and “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (6:34)
I believe this last verse is most significant because in Matthew 10 he gives his disciples the ability to heal and cast out demons then sends them out to spread the ministry but to take nothing with them. He instructs them to look for hospitality in the various towns they visit. Here they get to put Matthew 6:34 into practice! Is this the soil in which we must plant our mustard seed of faith? Not worrying for tomorrow but knowing tomorrow’s needs will be met? Again, easier said than done!
What will happen if our seed is sown in this soil? Matthew 17:20 Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’ Matthew 21:21-22 Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to this fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain ‘Go throw yourself in the sea’, and it will be done. If you believe you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.
Trees withered! Mountains moved! Prayers answered! That is quite a statement but Jesus makes it twice in Matthew so it is possible. Jesus said, “Nothing will be impossible for you.” NOTHING!
So why don’t we have a nation of people walking on water or quelling storms or withering trees or even healing the sick or feeding thousands? Is it so difficult to plant our faith seed in the Words of Jesus so that it can become a tree with birds perched in its branches? We must practice living the words of love and faith spoken by Jesus so that we can ask in prayer without doubt.
I guess this explains why modern Christians prefer to take the harsh words of Leviticus literally rather than the words of hope and love spoken by Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s easier to condemn our neighbor “because God said so” than to have faith in our own ability to perform miracles, even though Jesus taught us the possibility.