Thursday, November 2, 2017

Bible in a Year: Matthew

Caravaggio, "The Calling of Saint Matthew"
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This weekend I'm studying Matthew. As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Burton Throckmorton's Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used.

(Here is a site, based on another book, that provides the parallels of texts among the three Synoptics:

If you’re reading the Old Testament through to the New, Matthew’s gospel provides a segue by starting with a genealogy back to Abraham, reminding us of the genealogies of Genesis and 1 Chronicles, as well as the census material in the Torah. Matthew’s genealogy does omit some generations, but also likes Jesus to the tribe of Judah through the families of David, the Davidic kings of the southern kingdom through the deportation to Babylon and the post-exilic period.

Matthew gives us half of what I think of as the “total” Christmas story: the Magi from the east, Herod’s murderous rage and Joseph and Mary’s escape with their son to Egypt, reminding us of the birth narrative of Moses. The linkage of Jesus with the Emmanuel prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) announces God's presence among the people in Jesus, which continues across the gospel (18:20, 25:34-45, 28:20).

We’ve no accounts of Jesus’ childhood or young adulthood until he presents himself for baptism to John the Baptist, connected to Second Isaiah’s exilic declarations of hope and promise (Isa. 40:3). As with many heroes in religion and mythology, Jesus undergoes a time of testing before he begins the main journey of his life (chapter 4). Jesus dwelled in Capernaum, a mix of Jewish and Gentile heritage as reflected in Isaiah’s words (4:15-16). Gathering disciples and crowds, he taught on the side of the mountain (Chaps. 5-7), and continued to teach while also performing miracles of care and healing (chaps. 8-9). Needless to say, the mountain setting of Jesus' sermon, along with Jesus' teachings of Torah and faithfulness, give us a very Moses-like image.

Matthew arranges Jesus’ teachings in five discourses (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), and uniquely gives us teachings such as the wicked slave (18:21-35), the landowner (20:1-18), the ten virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the narrative of the last judgment (25:1-46). Although Mark contains no birth narratives, Matthew otherwise retains Mark’s basic geographical framework (the Galilean ministry, chapters 4-18; the journey to Jerusalem, 19-20; and the week in Jerusalem, 21-28:15). Jesus' teachings are filled with Jewish themes of lovingkindness, mercy, prayer, faithfulness to God, God's radical faithfulness to his people, the idea of having a minyan (quorum) for prayer, and others. In announcing the kingdom of heaven, Jesus signals a coming fulfillment of God's promises, as do people's identification of him as the prophet promised by Moses and/or the Son of David. Jesus himself prefers the name Son of Man (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου) that reminds us of Daniel's apocalyptic passages. But Jesus also links these themes to his own person, sometimes cryptically.

Here are ways that Matthew frames the material:

10: The meanings of servanthood and discipleship

11-12: Implications of Jesus’ own servanthood

13: Parables of the kingdom

14-17: Jesus’ own signs of the kingdom, e.g., the miraculous feedings, Peter’s confession, the Transfiguration, and others. 

18: Teachings on humility and the community (ekklesia)

19-23: Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem and the controversies (his anger at the Temple moneychangers, his anger at the Pharisees, his anger at the fig tree, parables of his approaching death

24-25: The Olivet Discourse on sufferings of the end of the age, and the coming of the Son of man.

26-27: The trial and execution of the Son of man. 

28: Jesus’ resurrection and Great Commission.

In his Writings of the New Testament, Luke T. Johnson considers Matthew as instruction for a community trying to distinguish itself from the Pharisaic tradition in the Judaism of that time. Jesus becomes not only the authoritative interpreter of Torah but also the fulfillment and personification of Torah (pp. 183-190). This is not a rejection of Torah, however (p. 185) but a call to understand Torah via Jesus. Helpfully, Johnson calls the Sermon on the Mount “a sketch, not a system” for interpreting Torah (p. 188). Being a disciple (student) of Jesus will require ongoing study, prayer, and service.

Helpfully, too, Johnson compares the personification of Jesus as Torah to something already done in Scripture: the personification of Torah as Sophia (Wisdom) in Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon, not to mention the Mishnah’s Haggadic traditions (p. 189).

In Matthew, Jesus addresses his mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). It seems the most Jewish Gospel but also the most angry in terms of the Jewish leadership. We get Jesus’ bitter diatribe in Matthew 23, but we also get strong connections of Jesus with the Jewish scriptures and traditions. Jesus by no means repudiates the Torah, but interprets it by his own authority. At the same time, Jesus provides hope for Gentiles, too (12:18, 15:28, 24:14, etc.), and among the gospels only Matthew uses the word “church” (ekklēsia).Yet (likely reflecting tensions within Matthew’s community) the Gospel is also a little hostile toward Gentiles, for Jesus frequently criticizes or makes light of the practices of non-Jews (Johnson, p. 191).

Matthew’s desire to distinguish his community of Jesus-following Jews from the Jewish leadership of his (rather than Jesus’) time, had far-reaching results. In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush discusses the bitterness of Jesus’ and Matthew’s language toward Pharisees and other leaders (e.g., pp. 72-77). For instance, the seven “woes” of chapter 23 “is disturbing in its rancor and has long provided fodder to those seeking proof that Jews are legalistic, hypocritical, and self-serving” (p. 73). But this and other bitter passages reflect heightened tensions between Jesus’ followers an the Pharisees in Matthew’s period, not Jesus’. But the prophecy of the temple’s demise—an event that had taken place within the reader’s memory—serve to underscore Jesus’ credibility in the debate” (p. 74).

Tragically, Matthew’s gospel has provided generations of Christians with material to become anti-Jewish or antisemitic— as well as to feel self-righteous and persecuted whenever someone disagrees with them. Galambush continues, “Read through the lens of Christianity’s triumph over the entire Western world, Matthew’s predictions [of persecution of Jesus-followers by Jews] appear grandiose and self-serving. Anything Christians suffer is proof of their righteousness and a produce to eternal exaltation over everything and everyone else. Such a reading... ignores the reality of Matthew’s original social and historical setting” (p. 74). So we must not accept Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisees as “self-serving religious bullies” but understand, instead, that Matthew was a leader who trying to maintain the community in an embattled time when its future was very unclear (p. 74). (Think of the way you think about the rival sports team of you own favorite team.) During the last third of the first century, Pharisees themselves were struggling, too, hoping to save an embattled and persecuted Judaism.

While keeping in mind Matthew's reasons for his more bitter passages (and repenting if we have our own prejudices toward Jews), we also turn to this gospel for rich teaching. Luke Johnson (who also discusses Matthew’s characterization of Jews) notes that Matthew contains more homiletical material than Mark: Matthew is “broadly catechetical” for his community because it contains instructions for the community about piety, church discipline, and instructions for missionaries (p. 176).

Matthew also connects to Judaism in positive ways, as I noted above: for instance, he makes over seventy references to the Scriptures, fewer than Mark. Like the other gospel writers, he recognizes that the suffering and death of the Messiah was not an expected outcome---and yet it was, if one mines the rich Scriptures about Jewish suffering and hope and understands therein predictions and patterns of Jesus' own experience.  (See my list here.)

Another, more subtle connection to the scriptural heritage (and another reason not to be anti-Jewish), is the way the gospel describes human failure in the face of God's wonderful works, just as the Old Testament does. This is something we'll see throughout the New Testament. Remember how the Israelites failed again and again as they traveled through Wilderness? If the Pharisees and others didn't "get" Jesus, Jesus' own followers failed to "get" him, too, missing the point of his teachings, disappointing him in his darkest hour---and, of course, Judas sold him out and Peter denied him. (Peter doesn't get rehabilitated in this Gospel, although it's surely assumed.) Mark's gospel is even darker in this regard. The Bible is very truthful about God's nature and human nature alike.

I'm thinking about Jesus’ parting words: "Go and make disciples [students] of all nations." How do you be Jesus' follower and student? Telling people about Jesus is one way, of course, but also by acting in the ways of humility, mercy, and service that Matthew's very Jewish Jesus teaches throughout the gospel. Circling back to Matt. 25:31-46, we know Jesus is already among those who are in need, whoever and wherever they may be. To tell people about Jesus, is also to be where Jesus already is.

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