the writing on the wall: Matthew 12

read Matthew 12.  A few years ago, I met a fireman in a bar in Connecticut.  He was getting divorced and so told me his life story, the way one does when the grief is pressing so hard against your insides that it’s the only thing that can come out of your mouth.  He told me that he had spent the weeks after 9/11 pulling his friends and coworkers out of the ashes.  His resulting grief affected his marriage.  A few years later, his wife, and the mother of his four children, had plastic surgery even though he said she was beautiful.  He pulled her picture out of his wallet.  She truly was beautiful.  He tried to talk her out of plastic surgery, but she insisted.  Then she went alone to her high school reunion.  When she came back, she told the fireman she wanted a divorce.  He asked her if there were anyone else.  She said there wasn’t.  He asked her if she’d gotten back together with her old boyfriend at the high school reunion.  She said she hadn’t.  A year later, and a month before I met the fireman, a friend told him, “I just saw your wife with her boyfriend.”  The fireman’s heart skipped a beat.  The fireman named the old boyfriend, and the friend said, “yes, that’s exactly who she was with.”  That night, the fireman lay on his bed in his unfurnished apartment above a shop in town and wept.  He was desperate.  He felt like he was dying.  So he cried out to God, “help me.”  And then all of a sudden, he said, “I saw a hand.  I freaked out.  I’m like, ‘what’s that HAND doing there?’  I’m not even that religious.  I mean, I’m Catholic, I go to church sometimes, but I’m like, ‘what is that?’  And then I realized.  It’s in God’s hand.  And this peace filled me, and I went to sleep.”

I believed the fireman’s story.  I believed it because his disbelief seemed believable.  And I believed it because God has met me in my darkest hours, and I know he will meet anyone who cries out to him in the deep dark night of their own souls.

The fireman may not have known it, but the vision of a disembodied hand also appears in the Bible. King Belshazzar was having a drunken party, and ordered that everyone should drink from the gold and silver chalices his father had stolen from God’s Temple in Jerusalem:

“At that very moment, the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the lamp-illumined, whitewashed wall of the palace. When the king saw the disembodied hand writing away, he went white as a ghost, scared out of his wits. His legs went limp and his knees knocked. He yelled out for the enchanters, the fortunetellers, and the diviners to come. He told these Babylonian magi, “Anyone who can read this writing on the wall and tell me what it means will be famous and rich—purple robe, the great gold chain—and be third-in-command in the kingdom.  …. So Daniel was called in…. Daniel answered the king, “You can keep your gifts, or give them to someone else. But I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.

“Listen, O king! …. Look at you, setting yourself up in competition against the Master of heaven! You had the sacred chalices from his Temple brought into your drunken party so that you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines, could drink from them. You used the sacred chalices to toast your gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone—blind, deaf, and imbecile gods. But you treat with contempt the living God who holds your entire life from birth to death in his hand.  God sent the hand that wrote on the wall, and this is what is written: mene, teqel, and peres. This is what the words mean:  Mene: God has numbered the days of your rule and they don’t add up.  Teqel: You have been weighed on the scales and you don’t weigh much.  Peres: Your kingdom has been divided up and handed over to the Medes and Persians.’  Belshazzar did what he had promised. He robed Daniel in purple, draped the great gold chain around his neck, and promoted him to third-in-charge in the kingdom.  That same night the Babylonian king Belshazzar was murdered.”  Daniel 5 (the Message).

This is the story from which we get the expression “the writing is on the wall.”  It’s also the story from which we get the expression: “you have been weighed in the scales and found wanting.”  It’s a story in which a disembodied hand appears in judgment.  It’s a very different hand than the one that appeared to the fireman in Connecticut.  Why can the same disembodied hand appear now to a man and bring him peace and not judgment?

The transition between these two stories appears in Matthew 12, in which we see a man with a withered hand. Different translations describe the hand as deformed, shriveled or crippled.  Jesus asks the man to “hold out” his hand.  The moment the man stretched out his hand, “it was healed.”  The healing of the withered hand seems to me to be the bridge between the two hand stories.

We have all of us, like King Belshazzar, desecrated the things of God.  We have misused God’s gifts for our own selfish ambitions.  We have each of us been weighed in the scales and found wanting.  As Jesus says in Matthew 12: “I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.”  That’s going to be a very long account.  But although we have each spoken many empty words, the hand no longer writes on the wall in judgment, if we are willing to turn to the cross.  Jesus erased the writing on the wall.  He stretched out his own hands on the cross, and took the punishment we each deserve.

And so now, when we hold out to God the parts of us that are deformed, shriveled, withered or crippled, God heals us.  The moment we stretch out our hands, Jesus takes our wounds.  The only requirement is that it’s God’s will that we be honest;  he doesn’t want us to pretend to be perfect.  We have to be willing to hold out our weaknesses.

If we do, the writing on the wall tells a different message now.  As Jesus puts it at the end of Matthew 12:  “Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”   If we turn to God for healing, we will find the family we have always longed for.  The writing on the wall says: you are mine, and you are loved, and no matter who forsakes you, I will always hold you and keep you safe in my hands.

posted by Caroline Coleman in





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1 thought on “the writing on the wall: Matthew 12

  1. This was a pleasure to read!! In all the Sunday school lessons or Bible studies I am sure I have heard this story, but I did not remember the details, nor did I know where my mother got the phrase “The writing in on the wall, Loydeen” =) & it was refreshing to read today. It gave new insight & got me thinking all the way through.

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