Tuesday, June 5, 2007

MATTHEW Chapters 1-5
As we begin to read through the New Testament together, let me remind you that I see the primary purpose of this being Christian formation. John Wesley, to whom United Methodists trace their beginnings, spoke about the goal of the Christian life as Christian perfection. While we might quibble with his choice of words, I think the idea behind them is worth noting. “By perfection I mean the humble, gentle patient love of God and neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes {Wesley used the word “tempers”}, words and actions.” We read the New Testament so that the humble, gentle patient love of God and others (including the created world itself) takes deeper root in our lives.

My comments on our readings will focus on questions that I hope help encourage formation in Christian love. However, formation and information are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, at times, more information can aid formation. So I will include informational bits as well, and will begin with some of these at the beginning of each book. At the beginning of The Gospel of Matthew, there will be a few more of these bits of information than may be the case later on.

Why begin with Matthew? Someone asked me why we don’t read the New Testament chronologically. Did you know Matthew is not the first book in the New Testament because it was written first? The earliest writings we have in the New Testament are some of the letters of Paul. When the church put together the New Testament, it began with the stories of Jesus, the gospels, moved on to the story of the earliest followers of Jesus (Acts), then followed that with a variety of letters to early Christians and early Christian communities. The New Testament ends with a unique book, Revelation, which we will come to in due time. There are times when it will seem significant to point out that Paul’s letters provide us with the earliest writings we have in the New Testament.

The Gospel (s)… Four “According Tos”In the New Testament are four “gospels.” The gospels each tell the story of Jesus, but in a unique way. The word gospel itself means “good news.” So we have four stories about this person Jesus each trying to convince its readers that the story of Jesus is, in fact, good news. These are works that are not trying to convey “information.” They are primarily trying to aid in the formation of persons who want to follow the way of Jesus, who want a deeper relationship with the God Jesus referred to in rather intimate familial images. Most scholars who have studied the gospels agree that Mark was probably the first written. Matthew and Luke seem dependent upon the material in Mark. They also seem to share another source, a source of Jesus sayings. It is generally assumed that sayings and stories first circulated orally before being written down. The Gospel of John is in a league of its own. Because these works are “gospels” and not “histories,” there continues to be a debate within the scholarly community about which words and actions might probably be traced to the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Such questions are usually called, “the quest for the historical Jesus” and this has been going on since the 1800s. The Jesus Seminar is but one recent iteration of this scholarly work, and scholars disagree about their work. If one takes seriously the possibility of a quest for the historical Jesus, one tends to presuppose that, indeed, not everything reportedly said or done by Jesus in the gospels was said or done by the person of Jesus who lived in first century Palestine. This is all very interesting and fascinating, but we can easily get lost in such discussions, keeping these writings intended to form us at a safer intellectual distance. The intellectual work is important, but I would argue the formational work is even more so. If you would be interested in pursuing some of the discussion about the quest for the historical Jesus, I would recommend a book co-written by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright called, The Meaning of Jesus: two views. There will be times throughout our reading that I will bring up such questions, but again, the focus is on formation rather than information (though I don’t want to draw this distinction too harshly).

The Word as True Myth: Another way of saying this, is to remind us that the ancient Greeks made a distinction in their texts between logoi – writings that presented simply factual and reasoned accounts of some field of study, and muthoi – texts that convey stories that open us up to the depths of our own experience and shine a light into the darker corners of our lives and the world (see Richard Holloway, “Introduction” in Revelations: personal responses to the books of the Bible). When we read a New Testament text, we need to spend as much time asking what might this mean for my life and for our world, as “did Jesus really say that or do that?”

The Gospel According to Matthew: “You are holding in your hands a tiny book which has changed more human lives than The Communist Manifesto or Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: a book which has shaped whole civilizations” (A.N. Wilson, in Revelations). Quite an introduction. What do we know about the origins of this gospel, about its structure and themes? How does it present the good news of and about Jesus? Matthew’s gospel was composed sometime between 75 and 100 CE (Common Era – an updated way to speak of A.D.), thus some forty years after Jesus died. Many argue that it was composed in the area of Antioch of Syria. It was written for a community of followers of Jesus, many of whom were probably Jewish in background. Some of its contents reflect tensions in Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. We have a community trying to distinguish itself from other Jews as well as trying to distinguish itself from the Roman imperial theology of the day. Roman emperors believed they ruled by divine will. The Romans were the creators of justice and peace in the world and were deserving of the benefits that came their way, even as many were left out of whatever prosperity was created by Roman rule. Those who follow Jesus seem to have another kingdom with a different theology and way of life. This way of life is made possible by Jesus who was a teacher (Matthew includes large sections of teaching by Jesus, inserting them into a structure very similar to Mark’s gospel), a healer, one who forgives, one who brings God close. As we read this gospel, will Jesus come closer to us to teach us, to heal us, to offer forgiveness, to draw our lives more fully into the life of God?

Matthew 1:1-17: Genealogies are not very exciting, especially when most of the names are not ones we recognize. What makes this genealogy kind of ironic is that according to the story in the rest of the chapter, Joseph is not technically the father of Jesus, yet it is his genealogy presented. But maybe reading these lists we can ask a couple of questions for our lives. Who has been an important part of your spiritual genealogy? Who are those who helped give birth to your faith? Among the remarkable things about this list is the inclusion of five women, and all but Mary are either Gentile (non-Jewish – and this was a huge issue among the early followers of Jesus who were all Jewish) or had Gentile connections. This God who is doing something uniquely wonderful in Jesus comes through surprising people – are you among them? Even the big names – Abraham, Jacob, David – were flawed people.

Matthew 1:18-25: This is Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, different from the more familiar story in Luke. Neither Mark nor John even mentions the birth of Jesus, nor does Paul, our earliest New Testament writer. Given that, it is rather amazing how many people in the history of Christianity have made believing certain things about the birth of Jesus one of the “fundamentals” of Christian faith. Different from Luke, where Mary is the central figure, here Joseph holds center stage. He discovers that Mary is pregnant, but not by him. He is going to let her go, as law and custom allowed, but in a dream he is told that Mary’s child is a child of the Spirit. He should not be afraid but should marry her. This could not have been easy for Joseph. He was in an awkward position, but did what we would think of as the right thing. Sometimes “the right thing” is more easily discovered in hindsight. Where have you had experience in doing the right thing, even when it has been difficult? Where do you sense God inviting you to do that in your life even now? Joseph’s faithfulness provided a point of entry for God into the world in Jesus – one who would be “God with us” and who would save us from traditions, practices, habits, actions that warp us, that demean us, that lead to cruelty whether those be forms of religion that needed changing or imperial theology and practice that needed to be resisted.

Matthew 2:1-12: Jesus will have “cosmic” significance. He is not simply going to be important to those who are Jewish, but also to those who are not. The community for which this gospel was first written was a community of Jews and Gentiles. Might the Gentile Christians have seen their story in the story of “wise men” from the East who recognized the star of Jesus, even if they were further away? King Herod, collaborator with the Roman authorities trembles at the thought that there might be another king, another way? This gospel challenges simple loyalties to the way things are, to the status quo whether that be political, cultural or even religious. When Jesus comes, things might just get shaken up.

Matthew 2:13-15: Sometimes getting out of harm’s way is an appropriate response to threatening circumstances.

Matthew 2:16-23: This story of Herod killing innocent children is heart-wrenching and all too realistic. The all-too-typical response of those about to lose their power and position is to use what power they have to eliminate whatever threatens them. Children, too, can be seen as threatening. Where in our world do we need to hear the cry of children trying to tell us that change is needed?

This post is getting long. I will offer a second post this week to complete Matthew 1-5.


dab said...

David. I think that you might find my site (jofj.org) interesting. I tell the story of the Journey of Jesus from a chronological and geographical perspective. DAB

Melody said...

This discussion of what Jesus saves us from is the most compelling I've heard (I'm admittedly re-entering Christianity after a LONG hiatus). Being saved has always had to do with the afterlife for me, and has always sat alongside that old buzzard of a word "sins." Much food for thought here.