A telephone rings and a man answers, “Hello.” The voice on the other end asks, “Hi, is your refrigerator running?” “Uh… yes it is.” “Well, you should go catch it.”
Jokes like this highlight a word’s multiple meanings. The humor occurs when one meaning is used improperly in a different context.
Context is key. It determines a word’s meaning. An overused example in the English language is the word “love.” It’s use in popular language falls within a large spectrum of meaning depending on context. And when you throw in something like sarcasm, a word’s meaning can completely change. “I love spending time with my mother-in-law,” could mean different things depending on who is speaking, her personal story and her tone of voice.
Some words can also have stories “baked” into them depending on how they’re used over time. In our current social and political climate in the US, words and phrases like “police” and “build a wall” are becoming infused with different meanings in different contexts.
The same is true in the Bible. A writer will use the same word to mean different things. Or he may use the same word in different contexts as a way to build toward the story’s climax. So by the time you’ve reached the climax, the previous uses of the word become infused with the greater, overarching story. A great example occurs in Matthew 9:9:
“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax-office. ‘Follow me!’ he said to him. And he rose up and followed him.”
If Matthew wrote this Gospel, then this is a fascinating story highlighting his own calling. Matthew recalls his response to Jesus’ call as “he rose up and followed him.” The Greek word for “rose up” is a fairly generic word that can simply mean “stand up.”
But Matthew will use the word a moment later in another story. In Matthew 9:25, Matthew recounts Jesus resuscitating a young girl from death:
“So when everybody had been put out, he went in and took hold of her hand, and she got up.”
There’s that word again, “got up.” But it definitely means something more than simply “standing up.” The little girl has been “raised up” — she’s been miraculously resuscitated from the dead.
The word ultimately is used in describing Jesus’ own resurrection. More than a resuscitation, Jesus is the first of God’s faithful people to be bodily resurrected, thus launching God’s New Creation smack-dab in the midst of this startled creation. As such, the generic word becomes infused with overwhelming meaning and compels the reader to revisit Matthew’s previous uses of the word.
In the story of the young girl, it’s fairly clear that Matthew uses the word to powerfully link the girl’s extraordinary resuscitation to Jesus’ resurrection. The implications to Jesus’ proclamation and demonstration of God’s imminent kingdom are tremendous.
Now look at Matthew’s autobiographical description of his calling. Here’s a tax-collector, loathed by all and perhaps also himself. He’s colluding with Israel’s overlords in order to get rich off of the backs of his oppressed countrymen. Not only is he hated because of his job, but his very life is a constant reminder that Israel’s exodus has not truly ended. Yet, this repulsive life was his life every waking moment of every single day for years. Perhaps decades.
Then this young man appears, proclaiming the true end of Israel’s exile and the beginning of God’s Kingdom. And this young man asks Matthew to follow him. It’s a miracle. He’s been resuscitated from his dead life of collaborating with the enemy. In fact it’s even more than a resuscitation. He “rose up,” carries the undeniable tones that he was “resurrected” from a life of exile and death and now follows Jesus.
As we read Matthew’s short autobiographical recounting of his own calling, we can almost picture an old man filled with untold gratitude penning these short lines. He’s grateful for the resurrection miracle he experienced years ago, grateful to be part of the larger story of Jesus’ resurrection power as he followed with Jesus throughout Israel, grateful to be a surprised and confused eyewitness to Jesus’ own Creation-impacting resurrection about which he will soon write, grateful to be part of a “resurrection” community with others who have experienced the same life-altering power, and grateful to know the ultimate resurrection still awaits him, his community and all of creation.
“And he rose up and followed him.”