March 5, 2023 at Saint Sebastian Parish, Ft Lauderdale, FL Opening of Lenten Parish Mission
Genesis 12, 1-4 + Psalm 33 + 2 Timothy 1, 8-10 + Matthew 17, 1-9
At Monsignor’s invitation, I’ve come over from Naples where I have retired like most other people there after serving in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City for fifty years. I want to introduce you to someone who has a lot to say to us at this particular time in history. In December, with the beginning of Advent, we gave him a voice, and from now until the third of December, he will speak to us week after week revealing God’s plan for us and how God’s first plan, ruined by sin, could be restored.
We don’t really know his name, but we have figured out a few details about him that allow us to dig deep into the treasure he left us. It was sometime between the year 80 and 90 that this obviously devout follower of Jesus sat down somewhere with
1 a few sayings of Jesus preserved by a folks who had actually heard Jesus speak,
2. with a few notes about customs and events that actually happened at the time of Jesus
3. and then finally with an early copy of something called; “The Good News” by man named Mark.
Whoever he was, with remarkable skill he wove these three sources together to produce a literary masterpiece the we call: “The Gospel of Matthew.”
He was just what was needed at the time, and I think we need him now just as much as they did then. It was a difficult and challenging time. Some could call it a crisis. The first generation “church” was strictly Jewish at the time. Suddenly, those Jewish followers of what many called, “The Way” found themselves at odds with everything they had known in the past. Out of nowhere, they found themselves in a polarized world that affected everything from family life to the local synagogue where they were no longer welcome. Gentiles were coming to seek a place among them wanting to follow the “Way” of Jesus. These foreigners did not speak their language. They could not and would not embrace the old ways. There was a big shift taking place that demanded a new and fresh look at the old traditions that offered a new way of looking at Christ that was not quite so “Jewish”. The old timers, those first Jewish converts suddenly were beginning to wonder if they had made a mistake, and they needed reassurance that what was happening was God’s plan. The Old Testament, which is all they had as a guide, their sense of Salvation’s movement, discipleship, and morality were all up for grabs and needed a new look.
This man sat down to provide some guidance to the church, some wisdom, and a new way to emerge from this crisis faithful to God’s will. Over time, he gets the name, “Matthew”. There is no reason at all to think that he is the same “Matthew” that appears as an Apostle in the story. In fact, that Matthew would have been too old to write it all. What we know is that he was very well educated. He used Greek is though it was his first language, and it is a much more polished Greek than what would have been found in those three sources he had at hand. His style in the language suggests that he may have been in Antioch or Syria.
Whatever, I am hoping to spend some time with you exploring what he left us becoming carefully aware that each of the Gospels has a different theme and purpose so that as you spend this year with Matthew’s Gospel you might more fruitfully hear and understand what is revealed. All of us over time have conflated all four Gospels into one in our heads making it very difficult to tease out the unique themes, issues, that each evangelist proposes. Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday, I want to help you get better acquainted with this man and his message. He speaks to us today just as clearly and powerfully as he first did to that polarized and challenged community facing change they could never have predicted or controlled.
There is a natural division in his Gospel that sets us up for this week. The beginning that tells of Birth of Christ leading to his Baptism and public ministry. Then there is the Ministry and Preaching of Jesus that makes up the middle section that is divided into Five Sermons or you could call them, “Books. You know the first one: “The Sermon on the Mount.” Today’s Gospel came from the Fourth Book which is about the identity of Jesus. The last night, Tuesday, we will reflect on the Passion of Christ as Matthew tells it which is a perfect way to prepare for what we shall soon remember in Holy Week.
So, I invite you to join me. I encourage you to bring a Bible with you. I think you will be surprised at what you never saw or heard before, and how it all fits together. For instance, Matthew told us just now that this Transfiguration happened after six days. In other words, it is the seventh day. That detail places this incident in the context of a creation story: Jesus went up the mountain with his friends on the seventh day, the day of completion. Having just shared a hard teaching about his suffering and disfiguration, Jesus allowed them a glimpse of the future of all creation in the Transfiguration. While Mark and Luke give similar accounts of this moment, Matthew uses the Greek word that comes into English as metamorphosis. In Greek mythology, metamorphosis was what happened when the gods took on human form. There’s something to think about until we meet again. You might notice one other thing here. The disciples who are there are the same ones who go to the Garden with Jesus after the Last Supper. They are very slow to get their faith together, but by showing us their slow growth in faith, he encourages us who are sometime just as slow.
St. Sebastian Lenten Mission
Sunday, March 5, 2023
Part One, The Infancy Narrative
Tradition has always called this great work, “The Gospel of Matthew”. As I said this morning, this man was educated well and uses Greek as though it may have been his first language. It is a much more polished Greek than what is found in his sources. His language style suggests he may well have been in Antioch or Syria. Some call him a verbal architect because the work is actually “built” in a constructive and balanced way.
This the mission of Jesus, the whole idea of salvation in the mind of people gets brought into agreement with the mind of God. The earliest idea that springs from the Exodus and then the Old Testament Prophets is that the Israelites are the people of God and no one else. The public ministry of Jesus is restricted to the land and people of Israel, but they refuse him and his revolutionary ideas about God deciding to keep things just as they are. Then the great turning point comes with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What happens in this Gospel is that Church, not Judaism becomes true people of God because it is the people formed by God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the fulfiller of the Law and the prophets. For those early Jewish converts, this is a stunning new development. Their privilege place, and the authority they felt because they were Jews suddenly means nothing. They wonder if they have made a mistake, so Matthew carefully and consistently reassures them over and over again by helping see that the Old Testament was leading up to this time and that it was God’s plan all along.
Some like to think of Matthew as an Architect, and it’s not hard to see how or why. A “blueprint” of the Gospel shows us that there are five pillars that hold it all together. These are five discourses or Sermons with the same arrangement. First there is a narrative that is followed by a discourse or sermon. Each of them is very distinct, and they all end with the same words: “When Jesus finished these words.” What we end up with is five books all bound together. The five can be counted and named this way.
- The Sermon on the Mount
- The Sermon on Mission
- The Sermon on Parables
- The Sermon on Church Order
- The Sermon on Things to Come.
But that is for tomorrow, and Tuesday we will take up the Passion.
We must always remember that this is not history! This is theology. It is a revelation. It is set in time and in place, but the where and the when do not matter nearly as much as the fact that the Gospel is a living expression, an ongoing revelation by God as a way of speaking to us, calling to us, and embracing us. There is one purpose here, and it is not historical. It is to communicate a faith to us either to strengthen the faith that we already have or to awaken readers a new kind of faith. What we can discover is the faith that Matthew held and led him to write. This faith is so important to him that he will take no risk of being misunderstood since this faith addresses the meaning of existence. So, to avoid misunderstanding, there is a pattern to his writing that will become more obvious. He states what he wants to say, and then he states what he does not mean to say. It removes all ambiguity and leaves us with: position and opposition.
Of all four Gospels, this is probably the most familiar and maybe the most popular. It gives us the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Golden Rule. For older Catholics, it was Matthew’s Gospel that dominated the Sunday Gospel Readings before the reform of the Second Vatican Council. It was practically the only Gospel we heard with the exception of Luke’s Christmas story details and John’s Passion. This Gospel gives us a fusion of ethics, faith and morality. This writer sets himself in strong opposition against those who claim that accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is all that is required of them. His great concern is to convince followers of Christ that genuine faith must be demonstrated in daily obedience to the way of life he proclaimed. Faith and Ethics. These are two sides of the same coin.
As I just said, the structure with its five pillars or five books comes out of Matthew’s intense fidelity to his Jewish roots and his knowledge of the community or church for which he writes. It is often proposed that his intention was to compose something new modeled on the Five Books of Moses in which narrative and legal material alternate. However, reducing this Gospel to that purpose misses the point that this, like all the other Gospels is first and foremost a Passion Narrative. Most scholars believe that the Passion of Christ was written first, and then what comes before was simply a way of explaining why it happened and how. Perhaps, a way of avoiding or giving too much attention to the structure with its five books is to more simply see that this Gospel has three parts:
- Who is this Jesus the Messiah?
- What did he have to say?
- What does he do?
The first part centers on the Infancy, the Baptism, and the Temptation.
The second part is preparation for the passion.
The third part is ultimately what it’s all about, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
With all that said, let’s take up that first part and think about who Jesus is for Matthew. It all begins with what is best called, the “Royal Genealogy.” Matthew makes and takes a great effort to answer the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” No other Gospel writer found it helpful to start this way. He digs into the family background just as we might do. Members of my family along with me have done some serious research into our origins, our family history, identity, and movements. It’s been fun and has been full of surprises. Here Matthew reveals his convictions about Jesus: his origins lie in the old people of God (Abraham), and Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s history. Unlike Luke who traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Adam, the father of the human race, Matthew traces it only to Abraham, the father of the Jews. This is what would have been important and of interest to the Jewish/Christians who were to receive this Gospel.
For Matthew, Jesus is a Messianic King, so his line must come through David and the kings of Judah. Again, I insist, this is a theological statement, not history or a biological report! To get an idea of how clever it is and how Matthew uses this genealogical tool to express faith in Christ Jesus, you could take notice of how he changes the verb in the genealogy. Various translations will be different, but the change is there nonetheless. It is an active verb like “begot” or so and so “became”. When it comes to the last, with the incarnation Matthew switches to the passive voice verb form saying simply: “of her (Mary) was born Jesus, who is called the Messiah.”
This last statement announces the story of Jesus’ birth contrasting the ordinary conceptions of David and Joseph with the extraordinary conception of Jesus. The whole list of people can only raise questions. The inclusion of women in what ought to be a male genealogy should raise an eyebrow or two. Among them are two foreign prostitutes: Tamar and Rehab. Then there is Ruth, a Gentile and Bathsheba with whom David committed adultery. It’s almost as though he can’t bring himself to say her name, so he calls her “the wife of Uriah”. This is clearly not real. There is a theological statement here perhaps slightly prophetic about what is coming. Including these women reminded the Jewish and Gentile readers that God’s plan of salvation included Gentiles, even unrighteous Gentiles. What happens through this genealogy is an affirmation that Jesus is an authentic King, a descendant of King David. He is not usurper, but a legitimate ruler of God’s people.
Jesus then is an authentic Jew. This is important for Gentile Christians to understand, and Matthew wants to make the point. One final point that can escape us easily is that in the introduction, the very first line of the Gospel Matthew says: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” He calls it a “book”, and with a subtle way that escapes us in English, there is a reference to the first book of the Bible, “Genesis”. In Greek, genesis can mean “genealogy”, and it has other meanings, “birth” being one of them. Matthew’s choice of “genesis” as the key noun in the opening lines is worth some thought because he might have been promoting some association with the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is likely that he wants to remind readers that in Jesus Christ, God had made a new beginning. Thus, the first Gospel could be called: “Genesis II, the Sequel.”
The Conception and Naming of Jesus
Joseph, in the genealogy, has already been brought forward into this Gospel, and as this narrative of the Nativity unfolds, he remains very much front and center. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is the dominant figure. Luke emphasizes the essential passivity of the human response to God’s action: “Let it be done to me….” On the other hand, as we see here, with Joseph as the leading figure, the active component in the human response is important for Matthew. Three times Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he must DO something. This is consistent with Matthew’s understanding of Christian faith. It’s about action. Matthew makes that powerfully clear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who DOES the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
When the angel calls Joseph “Son of David”, it becomes clear that it is Joseph’s continuity with King David that gives Jesus that royal identity. That is Joseph’s role here: to give legitimacy as a Son of David to Jesus. Matthew gives us a Joseph visited by an angel more than once. For his first readers, Jewish Christians, a Joseph who dreams is a familiar scene. Remember the Joseph with the colorful coat who dreams Egypt through famine? When Joseph takes Mary into his home, it is more theological than respectful kindness. By doing this, he provides Davidic paternity on her child inserting her child into his proper place in salvation history. His key role next is to give the child a name, a name God has already chosen, and it is a name that does not show up in Joseph’s lineage or genealogy. It is a common name that originally meant “God helps”. But by the first century the popular explanation of the name was “God Saves”, and this is confirmed by the Angel who says: “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
In 1857 John Henry Hopkins was the rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He wrote a carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City, We Three King of Orient Are and with that, the first twelve verses of Matthew’s Chapter Two begin to lose every bit of revelation and meaning. In my opinion, he may have given us a catchy tune and sweet lyrics, but he sure did obscure Matthew’s intention with these verses. With his frequently used: “BEHOLD”, Matthew signals a new divine intervention, and that’s what we get here. The story as it goes in the second chapter has the “Holy Family” entirely passive. Joseph is not even mentioned. Mary is seen but no heard, and the child does nothing. The primary figures are nameless strangers from the east and Herod the King. In the original Greek as Matthew wrote it, he calls them “magoi”. It is a word with several meanings: magician, the Persian priestly caste, or a Zoroastrian. Scholars these days seem to prefer this last meaning, Zoroastrian or astrologers. It’s the best guess since a star has their attention.
They speak of “The King of the Jews”, and it’s worth remembering that this phrase will not be used again by Matthew until the Passion. He wants to plant that idea in our minds early on. Herod calls together the chief priests and the scribes, the very ones who will so violently oppose Jesus, and in stunning irony, they know exactly where the Messiah will come from, and they do not go! Only these Gentiles go to Bethlehem!
Matthew loves contrasts, and we get one of them in these verses as we see Herod “troubled” and the Magi “joyful.” And what’s Herod’s problem? He’s just been told that there is a “new-born king.” In other words, a king who is king by birthright. Herod is not. He is a usurper and a tyrant. He has no right to the throne and the title he got by murder. His trouble is really fear, and the contrast between joy and fear is going to show up again and again. The political and religious authority of these Scribes, Chief Priests, and Herod is now threatened, and they will go after the threat. You have to wonder, “What is the difference between the Gentile visitors and these local people Matthew puts into this story?” How is it that these Gentiles are on the move and the locals, who know as much as the Gentiles, do nothing? It’s the star. One group follows the light, the others stay in the darkness. For the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, the image of the Israelites following the pillar of fire by night, light, the message speaks. Gentiles now get to see the light, and it leads them to something new.
So, these magoi show up with three gifts that Matthew mentions. The gifts have led us to think that there were just three of them which makes no sense because long distance travel would have required a lot of helpers. I blame John Hopkins for igniting imaginations, but there is nothing in all of the Scriptures that gives them names or indicates their country of origins. Such details and embellishments may help us enter into the Christmas Spirit, but they lead us far from the text, and the text is what matters. There have been all kinds of nice and pious meanings attached to the gifts, but the simple truth is: gold, frankincense and myrrh were nothing more than gifts fit for a king, and that is what Matthew is affirming. There is a King here, a king in the line of David.
What’s with the star? All attempts to come up with some natural phenomenon are nothing but distractions from Matthew’s intent. He wants to report a supernatural phenomenon because something supernatural is going on. And then there is Herod. I’ll talk about him in a few minutes. Matthew is revealing a conflict that will continue in this Gospel. It’s like a preview. Gentile strangers (the Magi) accept Jesus. In contrast, there is the violent rejection of him by the Jewish ruler. It’s a hint about things to come.
From Bethlehem to Nazareth via Egypt
In the second and final half of this Chapter, Joseph is back, and in the mind of Matthew and his first readers there are always two Josephs. We need to have that in mind as well. If you are not really familiar with the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, you need to be if you want to listen to the first two Chapters of Matthew. Not only does Joseph act as a link to the Hebrew Scriptures, so does the story about leaving hastily in the night. This is a Passover story that reveals how God saves. In Matthew, God is saving the “New Israel”, Jesus. This time, it is in reverse almost as though he was playing it back in order to play again with a different ending. Instead of going out of Egypt, Matthew has the New Israel (Jesus) going into Egypt. The killing of children by a tyrant takes place in Judea this time rather than in Egypt. Had he stayed in Judea, he would be dead. There is in this story the first hint of how important Moses is in Matthew’s Gospel, and how closely Matthew will identify Jesus with Moses. It almost begins to feel as though Moses was the ideal hero of Jesus. Remember how Moses ended up floating in a basket placed there by his mother when the very real threat of a massacre was happening? That’s how Moses got to Egypt. He was spared the massacre of infants just as Jesus was spared the Massacre of infants. Joseph is informed that he can return with Jesus to his people because “those who sought the child’s life are dead,” just as Moses is instructed in Exodus 4, 10, “Go back to Egypt; for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” Matthew uses the plural pronoun “those”. He does not say, Herod. Here is a perfect example suggesting strongly that the Exodus event is being repeated once again.
The whole purpose of writing this for Matthew is the identity of Jesus – now Jesus is identified as Israel, a “new” Israel. This whole sense of something new is developed by Matthew as he reverses the biblical themes. In this way he reveals his own faith conviction. Jesus is the son of David. Jesus is King. Jesus is Messiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophets and writings. One last piece of this identity is yet to be manifest, and it comes at the end of this chapter. Jesus needs to be designated as “Son of God” and this must happen outside of Judea so as to remove any hint that his authority might be based on power. His authority comes from being called out of Egypt, and the verb is the clue that leads us to understand what Matthew is revealing. Jesus is “called”. He has a vocation. His vocation is to be Emmanuel. That is to say, his vocation is to be the holy presence of God among us. This is why those Gentile visitors bow down before him. They are not bowing to an earthly king. They are in adoration of the divine presence.
Here is where Matthew presents his view of authority and how it applies to Jesus. Divine authority is not like human authority. It is not imposed from above by force, threat, or fear. That’s the kind of authority Matthew shows us in Herod. When God acts, it shows itself as an opportunity, something that happens in the normal course of human events. When God acts, there is then a call, a vocation by which humans accept or submit in order to carry out or complete God’s intervention. Matthew says to us, “Something new has happened. There is a new kind of authority that has taken flesh in this holy one. Joy is the result of finding this holy one. That is the response of those visitors, Joy. Jesus is not to be found in places of power like Jerusalem or in the courts of the powerful like Herod. Confirming this, Jesus is called a Nazarene. Placing him outside of Judea because, the plan of God to save a New Israel has a new, wider, and more inclusive sense.
So, there is a final shift of geography from Bethlehem of Judea, because of its place in the prophecies, to Nazareth where everyone knew Jesus grew up and was at home. I have always found it strange that Matthew would think Jesus is safer in Galilee than in Judea because Galilee is ruled by Herod Antipas who murdered John the Baptist. This is quite different from Luke who has Mary and Joseph coming from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. Luke needs no reason for a return to Nazareth. That’s their home. For Matthew, Bethlehem was the home town of Jesus, and Nazareth in Galilee is a place of exile. It is there, in Galilean exile that Jesus will exercise his ministry. He will come home to Judea only to die.
One more time I must repeat the mantra of these sessions: This is not History. This is Theology. They are not the same.
So, what’s the Theology we get so far?
Were there three magi in history? It does not make any difference. It is irrelevant.
Matthew speaks of only three gifts, the traditional gifts for someone of royal birth.
It’s not about Three Kings of Orient. It is about the birth of a King.
Did the Holy Family really flee to Egypt in the night? It does not make any difference.
What matters is that, like Moses, Jesus has a vocation and he was spared a massacre in order to fulfill it.
To live this Gospel and listen to Matthew, we have to keep digging into the identity of Jesus and keep asking, “Who is this?” That’s what he is exploring with these stories. The truth about Jesus Christ.
So far, in these first two chapters, we have this much Theology:
Jesus is the “Son of David”. Thank you, Joseph.
Jesus is the “King of the Jews”. Thank you, magi.
Jesus is the “Messiah.” Thank you, Herod’s scribes and chief priests.
Jesus is “Emmanuel”. Thank you, prophets.
Jesus is “Son of God”. Thank you, John the Baptist and God the Father. (words heard at the Baptism of Jesus)
We shall also see
Jesus as A Teacher, “Rabbi”, and his disciples are learners. In Matthew, the teaching of Jesus is more important than miracles.
Jesus as A Story Teller (Parables)
Distinctive features in Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew’s Gospel is concerned with:
What followers of Jesus could hope for.
How followers of Jesus should behave in community
How the commandments of Moses and of Jesus relate (Is Jesus a Law Maker or a Law Breaker)
Matthew elevates the disciples who in Mark are dull and uncomprehending. Peter plays an especially important role in Matthew. (Peter walks on the water, he asks how many times to forgive, and only in Matthew is he the Rock.
Matthew makes villains out of the Pharisees who were really the spiritual leaders at the time. also (in)famously vilifies the leaders of the Jewish people, particularly the Pharisees. Some scholars have taken this harsh polemic as evidence that Matthew’s community had been expelled from the synagogue. Though the specific situation is difficult to know with absolute certainty, we can see clearly that there was serious tension between Matthew’s community of Christ-followers and the Jewish leaders with whom they interacted.
From John to Jesus
Now it is an interesting fact that only two Gospels begin with stories about the birth of Jesus, but all four begin his time of ministry with John the Baptist. That fact tells us that this is more important than angels, shepherds, and magi. Unique in Matthew’s Gospel is a conversation between Jesus and John. In fact, it is at his encounter with John that Jesus speaks for the first time in this Gospel. In this dialogue, Matthew sets matters straight over a dispute that arose between the followers of John and followers of Jesus. John’s followers think that if Jesus came to John for Baptism, Jesus was inferior to John; and if Jesus was Baptized, he must be a sinner. With this dialogue, that matter of priority is settled. It is thought by many scholars that the decision of Jesus to be Baptized was an act that gives him solidarity with sinners just as his death gives him solidarity with the dying, and his dining with sinners gives him solidarity with tax collectors and sinners. There is always this matter of “identity” going on beneath the surface in Matthew’s Gospel. In Luke’s Baptismal scene, John is preaching to “the crowds.” That is not the case with Matthew. Remember, as I said at the beginning, Matthew is addressing a growing crisis. He does not want the leaders of the Church to turn into a “brood of vipers” smug and secure in their privileged powerful position. He even makes his point more strongly by having the Pharisees, who are pious lay-people and the Sadducees who are the priestly nobility come together when in fact, at the time, they were in strong opposition to one another. Matthew believes that the leaders and the people of the Church he is writing to must not act like these Pharisees and Scribes who ultimately reject Jesus because they resist God’s plan for the church. “Do not act like those Pharisees” he says to lay people in his church. “Do not act like those Sadducees” he says to the priestly authorities in his church. “Look what they did!” he says.
The Baptism itself is passed over with one word making it clear that something more important is happening here than just someone coming forward in response to John’s call. It isn’t Baptism. If this scene were recorded for us as a musical or an opera, at the verse where Jesus comes up out of the water, trumpets would blast, lights would flash, and the whole chorus would sing out: “Behold in six-part harmony!” This is the event Matthew wants to be remembered. It is what we call, “a theophany” which is defined as the temporal and spatial manifestation of God in some tangible way. Another Gospel comparison tells us something more. In Mark’s baptismal scene, only Jesus hears the voice which says: “You are my beloved Son.” In Matthew, that fact has already been established. So, everyone hears the voice (not just Jesus) which says: “This is my beloved Son.” With that, we can say: “Thank you, God.” The identity of Jesus is complete. Yet, one more thing must happen to confirm his identity before Jesus begins his ministry. That is the temptation.
Both the location and the time are a direct link on the part of Matthew between the temptation of Jesus (the New Israel) and the temptation of the Hebrew people (the Old Israel) The location is the desert or the “wilderness” while time corresponds to 40 days and nights for the New Israel and 40 years for the old Israel. We know who remains faithful this time around. We can easily be distracted by the details and the whole mood of this story. But for Matthew, the story is less concerned with the vanquishing of Satan than with the meaning of Jesus’ Divine Sonship. So, we have to get down into what Matthew is doing here. This is a “meditation” on what is implied by that heavenly declaration: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The fact that the first two temptations begin with Satan saying: “If you are the Son of God” helps us get the point. The English translation of the Greek word, ei is misleading because it does not really mean “if”. A more accurate word in the translation could be “since” because Satan is not trying to prove something. The other option in translation would then be: “Since you are the Son of God.” Satan is trying to convince Jesus that being God’s Son is a matter of powerfully working wonders rather than understanding and doing God’s will as found in the Scripture and fulfilling that will in trust and obedience.
In summary then, Moses and the Hebrew people in the desert are always in the shadows for Matthew’s story. The three temptations in the Gospel match in sequence the same three temptations faced by the Hebrew people: hunger, trust, and idolatry. When we sit with this story for a while, it is easy to begin to wonder what this has to do with the temptations we face today. I leave you with this. The basic, underlying temptation that Jesus shared with us is the temptation to treat God as less than God. We are hardly tempted to turn stones into scones but we are much more likely to turn corn into fuel to drive our luxury cars rather than using that corn to feed the hungry. We are constantly tempted to mistrust and doubt God’s readiness to give us what we need to face our trials. None of us are likely to test God by jumping off a cliff, but we frequently question God’s helpfulness when things go wrong forgetting the promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Corinthians 12, 9) Pagan idolatry is no more a temptation for us than it was for Jesus, but compromise with the ways of the world is a never-ending seduction, and the gods of money, the gods of power are always lurking in the shadows. In all of these things, we would do well to be continually grateful that we have a great high priest who, tempted as we are, was able to resist all such temptation by laying hold of Scripture and firmly acknowledging that only God is God, and that God isn’t us.
Monday, March 6, 2023
Part Two, The Mission and Message of Jesus
It is a peculiar fact that in age and at a time in human history when more people are literate that the Word of God has become more difficult to read. People born before the rational scientific revolution of the last few hundred years knew how to read sacred literature. They knew and they understood images, not photographs or paintings, but the kind of images found in time-tested mythology. They knew that the truth was passed on through symbols and stories. It is not that the stories were made up and therefore not true, but that the stories, the characters, their challenges, their failures, were told to reveal or convey the truth. What is peculiar, and very unfortunate is that we modern or post-modern people, however we want to call ourselves, have been infected with something more troubling that a virus. That something is best called “the scientific method.” Because of that, we have forgotten how to read sacred literature. We read the words all right, and there are countless Bible study programs to give evidence that people do read the Sacred Scriptures. The very fact that the Bible is still to this day is the most purchased book on the market.
Because we’ve been infected, we look for what we might call “empirical truth”. By that I mean, evidence, research, and reason. If there is no evidence, if there has been no research, and if it is unreasonable, it isn’t the truth. That kind of thinking will not allow the message, the truth, the revelation of our Sacred Writings to come through to us. The fact is, our ancient scriptures are full of mythical, symbolic images, and in order to understand our Scriptures, we must will willing to look for the symbols, to treat the sacred stories as powerful, truth-bearing stories, not historical reporting.
This bothers a lot of people, and that’s too bad because too often those who are shocked or upset about this fact are too afraid to move beyond the comfortable, and I’ll say, “lazy” way of just thinking that reading the Bible, especially the Gospels is like reading someone’s diary. Here’s an example. In Matthew 24 it starts with “Jesus left the Temple.” We think the Temple is a big building in Jerusalem, but not for Matthew. The Temple represents the entire system of life, faith, and economy. The entire verse says this: “Jesus left the Temple, and as he was going away his disciples came up to draw his attention to the Temple buildings”. The disciples are always doing things like that. It’s the end of the Gospel, the 24thchapter out of 28, and they have not gotten the point! He’s leaving the Temple, and they are admiring the building. The disciples are stuck in the system the Temple represents, marveling at the structure, and the reply of Jesus is: “You see these stones? In truth I tell you, not a single stone will be left on another. It’s all going to fall apart. Stop putting your trust in it.” Jesus is talking about the end of the world, not about a building. He is talking about the end world as we have known it. And I’ll bet your sitting here thinking I’m talking about the apocalypse or the destruction of the universe or creation. No. I’m talking about the end of the world as we live it. Because when Jesus comes, when the Messiah comes, when the Kingdom of God breaks into our lives, the world as we knew it, saw it, and served it is all over. We cannot welcome the presence of Christ, the full coming of Christ until we have let go of the old. Too many live under the illusion that it is possible to worship this world order and at the same time say: “Thy Kingdom Come.” Yet, we can’t say, “Thy Kingdom Come” until we say, “My Kingdom go.”
Here’s the point in our discovery of Matthew’s Gospel and all scriptures for that matter. The story is always true, and sometimes it really happened. That’s the nature of all sacred scriptures. This is what I wanted you to understand in the first of these talks before Christmas, and you have to hang on to that as we go forward. Did three kings from somewhere in the east to Bethlehem? I don’t believe that really happened, and you don’t have to. But you do have to believe the truth that the story contains. Every nation on earth will come to adore the King. So, what does the virus of our age do to us, people spend hours and waist all kinds of time trying to prove by science and the study astronomy to see if there was some kind of special star. Those folks are done for when it comes to their ability to read the images and find the truth in the stories that may or may not be true.
So, let’s wade into the middle section of Matthew’s so well-structured Gospel. There is a signal phrase in this Gospel that signals a change. It’s like the “ding” in an elevator that tells you another floor has been reached. When Matthew writes this: When Jesus had finished these sayings…. it is the signal that one of the five divisions or books is finished. Sometimes these divisions are called, “discourses”. The sequence of events in Matthew matches Mark’s Gospel with groups of sayings inserted. An example is what we call “Sermon on the Mount.” Those sayings in Mark and Luke’s Gospels are scattered throughout but Matthew groups them together. So, Mark gives Matthew the structure, or sequence of events. 600 of the 661 verse of Mark are found in Matthew. Events from Mark have sayings added by Matthew. Then, unique to Matthew is great attention to the Old Testament. Remember that yesterday I spoke of Matthew’s audience being made up of primarily Jewish converts to the “Way”. Matthew wants them to feel OK about that conversion. Also unique to Matthew is his interest in Church affairs. This is the only Gospel that makes a direct mention of the “Church”. Much of it is directed toward situations that the Church of the first century was facing. With that said, let’s take up the five Books noticing that there is a progression that shows Jesus moving from his homeland in Galilee, to his rejection in Jerusalem, and then triumphantly back again to Galilee at the end.
The First Discourse: Chapters 3 to 7:28 concerns The Ethics of the Kingdom
Details tell us a lot. Jesus sits, the disciple’s approach, he opens his mouth and teaches. Those first two verbs suggest to us that Matthew wants us to see a king on his throne, and his disciples come like subjects in a royal court. Notice that the disciples are the ones he addresses. The crowd is just there listening in. This is not something private for an exclusive group. They can hear and potentially become disciples. Here is the Teacher addressing the learners.
In many English translations, the word Blessed is used which does not always carry into English the complex meaning of the word Matthew chooses in Greek. Congratulations would really be more accurate.
Congratulations to the poor in spirit. We should not miss the point that both Matthew and Luke open the Good News for the poor. Matthew adds “the spirit” leading us away from thinking about an economic condition. This is about the need for God.
Congratulations to those who mourn. This is not about the loss of a loved one. This is about sharing God’s sadness over sin and evil, war and injustice. It’s a longing for God to act and make things right.
Congratulations to the meek refers not to those who are powerless, but to those who use power and strength for the right reasons. This is a description of Jesus who is humble. In Greek, the term Matthew uses refers to taming a wild animal.
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These people hunger and thirst for the right things – their deepest longings are for fellowship with God. They will know a comfort only God can provide.
Congratulations to the merciful. This is not about feelings. It is about action that leads toward helping another. These are people who have experienced God’s mercy and know it was given to be shared.
Congratulations to the pure of heart. This is about the very center of a person’s innermost being, the place where decisions are made. The condition of one’s heart determines one’s actions. The issue here is moral purity. It assumes that communion with God depends on purity of heart, not purity of cups.
Congratulations to the Peace Makers. These are the ones who leave the altar to make peace with another.
Congratulations to those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The “righteous one” is Jesus in the mind of disciples. He is also the “Just one” leading the disciples to see that there is a price to pay for justice in an unjust world.
Congratulations to you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil on my account.
There is a switch here from the third person to the second person that few people ever notice, but it is important. Matthew is now addressing the Christian community. They are congratulated because they share the same fate as the prophets.
We are all so familiar with the Beatitudes, that we often tend to think that the first thirteen verses of chapter five is the sermon. Wrong! The Beatitudes are simply the opening for this Sermon which really gets down to business as Jesus begins to clarify, describe, or define the vocation of a disciple in the world. Immediately Jesus makes it clear that faith and discipleship are not private matters. Thinking or saying that “My faith is a matter between God and me” is the opposite of what Jesus says. The salt and light instruction ought to make that perfectly clear. Why should we do this? To win rewards or acceptance? Jesus is not telling disciples that by doing good works, they would earn salvation. Those good works are to give glory to God.
Then comes a clarification about the Law. It is not abolished. It is fulfilled which means complete, and in this sermon, disciples are instructed to complete or perfect the law in six areas: Murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge and love of enemies. Each of these are introduced by a lead-in phrase: “You have heard it said, you shall not commit murder. “You have heard is said, you shall not commit adultery, and so on. With this instruction for us disciples, comes the practice of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. When Matthew has Jesus get to this final instruction, he provides the model prayer. As this first discourse draws to a close, Jesus tells disciples about what kind of treasures matter, reminds them that they cannot serve two masters, that they are not to judge, remember that God provides, so disciples must ask trusting that God provides what they need, and finally, the discourse ends with the news that those who do the will of the Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This discipleship is about doing something. A disciple cannot just be a “hearer” of the Word. There must be action. With the last verse of this discourse, Matthew tells us that the crowds were astonished at his teaching because he taught with authority, not like the scribes. With Matthew, as I said earlier, it is not miracles that bring the people to amazement. It is the Word Spoken.
Second Discourse: Chapters 8:1 to 11:1 Concerns the Mission
The second discourse begins with the usual Matthean bridge saying: “Now, when Jesus had finished saying these things……. It is a reflection on the authority of Jesus and the need for disciples to submit to that power and authority. Now the authority that raised such amazement is confirmed with a series of miracle stories that lead disciples to understand the Mission of the Kingdom. Divine power goes on display through Jesus, and it’s all about healing. There are three sets of stories that concern the fact that each person has been excluded from participation in the life of Israel. There is pattern of triads in Matthew’s Gospel. You will see it again and again.
The first is the cure of a leper, the second is a gentile centurion and his son, the third is Peter’s mother-in-law who has not be able to serve. We can see immediately Matthew’ all-inclusive vision of the Kingdom of God with a look at the Church for which he is writing. That Church must have been very comforted with a story about a gentile being included as well as a woman. After the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law, we see one of Matthew’s principal characteristics, connecting this to the Old Testament prophets – “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “he took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Jesus has the power to restore and heal what is broken. It’s not just about diseases. It’s about the consequence of the disease, alienation from the life of the community.
The second set of three now show another kind of authority. Jesus gets into a boat, and the disciples follow him. Matthew says that Jesus wanted to go to “the other side”. That is a detail worth noting. It does not simply mean the opposite shore. It literally means the other side. It’s like a Democrat going to the Republicans. So, in those days, what is “the other side”? It is the Gadarene country. This was a pagan place, one of the ten Greek cities. That Jesus would head over there through a storm should raise an eyebrow or two. It’s not only a pagan place, there are swine there, but that does not stop Jesus. Then, another sign of his authority is given as he cures a paralytic and forgives his sins. The people were filled with awe not because he cured the paralytic, but because he forgives sins. It is what he says, not what he does that Matthew goes after, and he tells us that they glorified God who had given such authority to human beings. Matthew’s use of the plural reminds readers that this authority to forgive sins did not leave earth when he, the Christ, was exalted in to heaven. So, Jesus has authority over fear (the consequence of a storm at sea), over evil forces, and over sin. There is the triad again. Disciples of Jesus shall inherit that authority.
As a bridge to the third set, the story of Matthew’s invitation is told and Jesus goes to dinner with sinners providing the occasion for an instruction – a discourse that is summed up simply by saying it is mercy God desires, not sacrifice, and Jesus (and therefore his disciples) came to call sinners so he comes as a doctor to the sick.
The third set of miracles begins with a dead girl being raised to life and then a woman with a hemorrhage is cured. What unites these stories is faith. In the first, it is the faith of the father who asks Jesus to restore his daughter. Then comes a woman who just wants to touch Jesus. Again, it’s about faith as Jesus asks two blind men: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” Finally, there comes the healing of a death-mute. It takes four verses, but it is important because, for the first time it introduces conflict. The Pharisees say: “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” The section ends with the final selection of the Twelve and their sending out to proclaim the good news: to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. They are to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. There is no universal outreach yet. Then, we get what must by now be familiar words: “Now, when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.”You know what that means: Discourse Three.
The Third Discourse: Chapters 11:2 to 13:53 Ministry in Galilee & the Nature of the Kingdom
Up this point, Jesus has been the sole missionary. Now he makes partners for preaching the gospel and healing. There is a somber mood to this Discourse as it unfolds in Matthew’s Gospel. Refusal to accept the gospel will be the rule, not the exception which leads to parables about judgement at the end of this third discourse. The negative response we first saw at the end of Discourse two will grow. This is a serious reminder that the gospel is not the story of a religious hero but of a dying savior, the final discourses lead us to the passion narrative.
This section begins with John’s disciples coming to Jesus to ask if Jesus is “the one who is to come.” True to form, Matthew links all of this to the Old Testament as Jesus declares that John is “Elijah who is to come.” Elijah’s task in the Old Testament was to prepare the people for the coming of God. It didn’t go well then, and that is what is happening now. After a thanksgiving prayer to his Father that reveals his relationship with the Father, he issues the Great Invitation: “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” There is something very important being promised her, and it isn’t a vacation. The burden that Jesus wants to lift is the burden of the law being imposed too heavily. So, the next two episodes concern the Sabbath, and a conflict arises because disciples of Jesus pluck some grain while walking on the Sabbath, and Jesus cures a man with a withered hand in a synagogue on the Sabbath day. Remember, Jesus did not come to abolish the law. Yet, the law must yield to a higher principle: Mercy. More conflict is the result. So, Matthew says: When Jesus became aware that the Pharisees were conspiring against him seeking a way to destroy him, Jesus departed.
This third discourse continues with a demand for a sign. Until this point, the Pharisees have been the source of conflict. At this point Matthew introduces the Scribes into the conflict. They are the ones who interpret the law. They are the professionals, so to speak. The Pharisees, are lay people who teach the law and show how it is to be observed like Catechists in our day. The opposition is growing. Finally, the focus of this discourse emerges with a series of parables about the Kingdom.
In the Greek language, the word “parable” comes from a verb that means “set side by side”, that is “to compare”. In Hebrew, there is slight change as “parable” begins to mean something hidden. Matthew is using the word “parable” with its Hebrew nuance which is why he speaks about “things that are hidden”. Jesus now uses parables to respond to the rejection he experiences. They all begin with the same phrase: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” These parables do not describe the future or what the Kingdom will be like. They are concerned with the present
Finally, there comes three parables about sowing: (1) seed thrown everywhere, (2) someone sews weeds among the wheat, (3) Mustard Seed and Yeast. Deeply distressed about the mixed state of the Church, Matthew uses these parables to remind one group that just because they are church members is no guarantee of salvation. They need to change and bring a harvest from what God has planted everywhere. The general message is that those who receive the word of the kingdom and understand it not just intellectually but with commitment at the depth of their being, will be able to withstand temptation and tribulation. Those are the ones who will produce a bountiful harvest in terms of the good fruits of obedience to God’s will.
This discourse reveals that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a thing that can be acquired as a permanent possession. It is a life-style, a gracious gift of participation in God’s life. With that, Matthew writes: “When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place, came to his home town and began to teach the people in their own synagogue….”
The Fourth Discourse: Chapters 13:54 to 19:1Opposition & The Governance of the Kingdom
Jesus is now at home. When he takes his turn in the hometown synagogue there is amazement, wonder, and suspicion. At this point, Matthew tells us about the death of John the Baptist as one more reminder about the hostility disciples of Jesus will find in this world. He then reports the only miracle reported in all four Gospels which suggests that this is of unusual importance. This is the feeding of the multitude. There are two feeding stories in Matthew. Being the people that we are, infected with the “virus” of science, the question always lingers: “Did this really happen?” My response is as always: “This is not history. It is theology.” It does not make any difference. We have to ask what it means, not did it happen. Details give us a lead. Bread and Fish are the basic ingredients of a peasant’s meal in Galilee. Jesus provides no cooked dishes, luxurious fruit, and there is no wine. These simple details tell us that God can provide what is necessary for life. While not the “Banquet” we might expect in the Kingdom of God, what we see is that the Messiah is the host who supplies what his people need out of compassion. Matthew reminds the Church that they are to give, to share, to feed, and to serve with the further reminder that God uses what we bring.
Then something happens that again raises a question. Jesus walks on water. “Did that really happen? How did he do that?” Some might think of this as evidence of divinity confirming that Jesus is God since he can walk on water. But, Peter does the same thing which means this is something that comes from God. It is not God walking on water. This is not some kind of “show off” stunt. Details make that clear. The boat is far from land. The boat is in trouble. This is a story about Jesus coming to the aid of his threatened disciples. This is about a rescue not about the nature of Jesus. It is worth noting that Matthew refers here to “those in the boat” not to the Twelve or the Apostles. It’s about all of us dependent upon the savior. While the other Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus on the water, only Matthew includes the part about Peter exploring what it means to be caught midway between faith and doubt. Peter represents all who dare to believe that Jesus is Savior, taking their first steps in confidence that Jesus will sustain them. I have always found it very important to remember that in John’s Gospel, faith or believing is always a verb, never a noun. It is not a thing or a possession. It is an activity.
Suddenly, once on land, Pharisees come from Jerusalem. This is an ominous statement. Jesus only goes to Jerusalem to die. This presence of the Pharisees coming from Jerusalem is a like a dark cloud on the horizon. They come to start trouble, and it’s over the washing of hands and what is clean and what is unclean. Jesus never suggests that the law and the customs around the law should be done away with. He simply wants to remind his listeners of the reason for the law so that the law will be observed because of faith not obligation or fear. It would seem that he is also writing about these things to support the Jewish converts who are a minority in his predominantly Gentile Church. He seems to be protecting them from ridicule for wanting to preserve their life-style. We would do well to remember that in today’s multi-cultural and multi-generational church. Matthew is revealing that there are disputes in his church over life-style.
To affirm the presence of Gentiles among believers, there comes the story of the Canaanite Woman who begs for help. The response of Jesus seems harsh to our ears when he refuses at first and makes that comment about taking children’s food and throwing it to the dogs. The word Matthew uses for dog means “a household pet”. That’s not as harsh sounding as “DOG” in English. The whole scene is a test of her faith, and by responding positively to her, Jesus signals that the Kingdom is going to be wide open. It is this emphasis on faith that makes Matthew’s version of this story slightly different from Mark’s. Matthew takes care to show us believing Gentiles in contrast to the unbelieving Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. Jews reject Jesus. Gentiles come to him.
After this scene there comes a second feeding story. There is with this one a mass healing as well as a mass feeding, and importantly it happens on a mountain. This is theology not geography. This is about God’s people being gathered on the mountain of the Lord as Isaiah describes the end of time. What happens to them there is a theological expression of salvation: healing and feeding in abundance. Why two feeding stories? Two different messages. The first is about God providing what we need using what we have. The second includes details that have no connection to Israel. Instead of twelve baskets leading us think of the Twelve Tribes, this time there are seven baskets. At that time people counted seventy nations on earth. Then trouble comes again as the Pharisees return wanting a sign from heaven. Jesus is having none of this since he’s been working signs and wonders all along and they can’t see what’s right in front of them because what he says threatens their life-style and security, and they want none of that. In effect, what Jesus says to them is “No. You can’t see what’s going on here.” So, he takes to the boat and heads to the district of Caesarea Philippi. There, with one of the greatest cities the Romans had built high on an out-cropping of rock above them, he asks a question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” He uses his favorite title, “Son of Man” which comes right out of the Old Testament (Daniel 7) meaning an exalted human like figure. In other words, the “Son of Man” is perfect humanity. At that moment, Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, and at that point of Matthew’s Gospel, things change, the mood changes, and the whole energy increases.
The Fifth Discourse: Chapters 19:2 to 26:1 Jesus and the Future of the Kingdom
As always, the next discourse begins: “And when Jesus finished these sayings.” Now Jesus departs from Galilee and comes into “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” well on his way to Jerusalem. Since Peter’s declaration, Jesus now teaches the Twelve even though the crowds follow him. The Pharisees are back now with their evil intent. They start with a mocking question about marriage and divorce. The response of Jesus makes even more obvious Matthew’s respect and concern for the law. While the Pharisees may be trying to trap Jesus into disregarding the law, Matthew’s Jesus interprets the law using other scriptural verses to back up his argument, and it works. They are humiliated before the crowd, and that makes them all the angrier.
As the journey continues there are three short scenes which reveal what it takes to become a child of the Kingdom. The first is the story is about children with which Jesus embraces and makes it clear that children have a special importance. Of course, in that culture, children were not valued, but in the mind of Jesus, a child is the perfect example of what it means to be helplessly dependent on the Father in heaven. It is not unreasonable to suspect that Matthew is also urging his church to include children in every aspect of the communities’ life. The second of the three scenes is about a young rich man who thinks perfection comes from doing things. The perfection Jesus expects is undivided devotion. He can’t do that. He has too many things. He’s rich. Then comes a parable that reveals a God of compassion rather than a God of justice. In that parable a vineyard owner pays workers the same wage regardless of how long they have worked. The climax of this parable is: “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Matthew is challenging some seniority claims among the early disciples as former pagans begin to assume roles in the community. The old-timers don’t like it.
Having arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the Temple. As Matthew tells the story of the “cleansing”, there is some refinement as judgement is tempered by grace. Because we often blend all of the Gospel events together, we can often miss some details that are unique to one or the other of the Evangelists, or we think that they all say the same thing. Not so. This story is a perfect example. It is unlikely that Jesus stopped the commerce of the Temple even for a short time one day. He would have been arrested on the spot. More than anything, this event is symbolic. Since it is told in all four Gospels there is probably some historical fact to this. With the other three Gospels, there is a mood of judgement. In Matthew, right in the middle of this Jesus responds to the blind and the lame who came to him in the temple. He cured them. Matthew does not give us some wild angry judge. There is a moment of compassion in the middle of it. The scene ends with conflict between Jesus, the Chief priests, and the scribes. Jesus then heads out to Bethany to spend the night.
In the morning he is hungry, and with the story of that cursed Fig Tree. It’s really not about the fig three however. It’s about faith and prayer. It is a symbolic gesture (remember, this is theology not history) with which Matthew uses the judgement on the tree as a symbol of what happens to people without faith or prayer. When Jesus gets to the Temple, they are waiting for him with more trouble. At this point, Matthew uses parables to further give focus to the Father Jesus has come to reveal. First there is the parable of the two sons, one who says no and then does what is asked, and one who says yes and does nothing. The second parable tells of an owner who sends people to collect his portion and the tenants kill them. The theological focus of this parable comes not from the cheating tenant farmers but their violent treatment of those the owner sends. Matthew includes this parable here to show the rejection of the Messiah – because of it, Israel is now decommissioned. It’s elect status as “light to the Gentiles” is taken over by the church. Now comes the third parable about the wedding Feast in which the defiant refusal to participate in the wedding feast matches the refusal of the tenant farmers to share the fruit.
Jesus then leaves the Temple, and the final address concludes as Jesus speaks of the Temple’s destruction which was not some divine fore-knowledge. Anyone with any sense would have known that given the corruption, the lack of faith, the internal conflicts within Israel itself, there would be big trouble ahead that would probably end with the destruction of the Temple. Israel as it was then was destroying itself by refusing to listen to Jesus. Matthew now switches into a different style of writing here called: Apocalyptic describing the signs of the end of the ages. It must not be forgotten that this is not a prediction of the future. It is an interpretation of things already happening that mark not the end of the world, but the end of age. The last discourse closes with talk of the last things, the Judgement. The final parable concerned the coming of the Son of Man who is easily recognized as the “bridegroom”. The waiting maidens the are easily identified with “disciples.” But the condemnation of the foolish maidens raises the question as to who does belong to the group of “disciples.” The criterion for knowing who belong and those who do not belong is what people do or do not do. What one is to do is not the issue here. What matters is that something is done before it’s too late. Whatever is done must be done because of mercy and compassion, for no other reason. Because this is what the perfect human being (Son of Man) does. Then we hear the familiar words: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things….”
Tuesday, March 7, 2023
Part Three, The Passion & Resurrection
(Begin with singing Bach’s “O Sacred Head”)
As we begin, it should go without saying by now, but I’ll say it again: This is not History. What we are given is rooted in certain basic facts, but the intention of all the Gospel writers is to interpret history, not report it. In other words what is important is what it means, not how it happened. There are here powerful theological motives for writing. Frequently important texts from the Old Testament will weave in and out shaping the way the story is told to assure us that what happened to Jesus was always God’s plan. It was not some accident or the result of some terrible mistake or the triumph of evil over good. This is God’s plan.
It all begins as each section of Matthew’s Gospel has begun with that formula: “When Jesus had finished these things….” This time another word is slipped into the signal phrase: “When Jesus had finished all these sayings…” Now there is nothing more to say.
Matthew’s desire to show the fulfillment of all the prophets moves Jesus toward his death, and so the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel, knowing the prophets, knows everything that is to take place. This is not because he has some Divine foreknowledge, but because he knows the prophets. That is important to understand. If his Divine Nature interferes with his human nature, something is wrong. What we shall see in Matthew’s Passion is the great dignity of Jesus as Son of Man, Son of God, Messiah, and King. This is Matthew’s statement about who this is, about the identity of Jesus. Around this Matthew clusters some other themes: the responsibility of the people of Israel for the blood of innocent Jesus, the founding of the church by the crucified and risen Jesus, the weakness of Peter and others in contrast to the strength of Jesus. Remember, Matthew is writing this Gospel to encourage and strengthen a church that is troubled by persecution, division, and betrayal. The failure of Peter, the fate of Judas, the failure of Jewish leaders all warn and challenge the Christians to whom he writes.
And so, it begins with Chapter 26. The fourth and final prediction of the Passion begins this section as an introduction. In the Greek, there is a change in verb tense that somehow did not get carried over into most English Translations, but I think it is worth noting. In the three previous predictions of the Passion Matthew uses the future tense. Now it is in the present tense saying: “The Son of Man is being handed over.” There is also great significance to the use of the passive verb “is being”. This is Matthew’s skill in making it clear that this is God’s doing. God is in control. God’s will or plan is being completed. In Matthew’s brilliant construction of this Gospel (Remember I pointed out earlier that some scholars refer to him as an “architect”) there is a “flash back” scene when he tells us that the chief priests and elders of the people gathered together conspiring to kill Jesus. That’s the same gathering with an earlier plot to kill Jesus in the infancy narrative. The Gospels do not agree on dates – another indication that this is not a history report. In Matthew, Jesus dies on Passover, the 13th day of Nisan which fell on a Friday that year creating a theological connection between the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb and the prediction of his death by Jesus. Those leaders want to avoid arresting Jesus during the Passover fearing a riot because at this point the people are on the side of Jesus, and it was believed that the Messiah would appear at Passover. But, since God is in charge, their plan to avoid the Passover arrest does not work out as they planned.
The whole narrative for Matthew is like a great drama. So, after a scene with the gathering of the chief priests and elders, there comes another scene in which a woman with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment pours it over the head of Jesus. The clueless disciples don’t get it, but Jesus declares this as one more indication of what is to come, the anointing of his body for burial. But there is even more to this anointing since the Messiah was to be “The Anointed” one. Matthew affirms the role of Jesus at this point as the Messiah. It’s an affirmation that will be needed as Israel’s expectation of what the Messiah will be crumbles as the passion unfolds. All through Matthew’s Passion we ought to take notice that the women come off much better than the men. This is the first example of that, and there will be more. The women are more loyal and unselfish and certainly braver. The contrast is shocking. In this scene, the men quibble over the legitimacy of a generous act of love, while the woman manifests the true spirit of discipleship. Then the contrast gets sharper between the woman, who cannot qualify as a member of the Twelve because of her gender, and Judas who appears in the next scene bargaining away his teacher for a paltry thirty pieces of silver. She has just lavished her money on a gift for her master. This happens at the home of Simon the Leper, and we know nothing about him. In Matthew, this woman is unnamed. Jesus interprets her action for us as an anointing for his burial. In Matthew’s Gospel, there will be no report of women coming to the tomb to anoint the body, and there is no Nicodemus with spices for the anointing. It happens here.
This flows very naturally into the next scene which in contrast has Judas going into action. The amount of money is only mentioned in Matthew because it is a prophecy fulfillment (Zechariah 11:12). It is a demeaning sum. In the Book of Zechariah, a slave is gored by an ox, this is the amount in reparation to the master of the slave. In other words, he’s only a slave and not worth much. Matthew offers no motive for the treachery of Judas. While some may want to make greed the motive, the little sum of money makes that improbable. Some want to propose that Judas wanted to force Jesus to become the Messiah they wanted to compel some miraculous event. Matthew is simply not interested in that guessing game. I think Matthew is content to let the mystery of evil stand on its own. Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes good people do bad things. There doesn’t need to be some other motive. The Jewish leaders who had wanted to delay the arrest of Jesus lose control with the offer Judas makes to them. Now their plan to wait will not work. Judas is in control of the timing and arrest. This along with the knowledge that Jesus has been showing all along affirms that this is the plan of God unfolding just as God designed not the work of some enemies.
At this point, Matthew has the cast of characters on stage: Jesus, his disciples, his opponents, and the machinery of betrayal and death begins to turn. It is now the eve of the Passover, and with almost majestic solemnity Jesus, preparing for his last Passover gives precise directions to disciples on how and where the Passover will be celebrated. Following the instructions of Jesus, the Passover celebration begins, and the mood is filled with sadness and exaltation. It is also amusing to me that translations into English (like the popular New American Bible) from Matthew’s Greek mention a “table.” One commentary suggests that the translators were influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting. There is no mention of a table in the original Greek. They were lying on cushions as the custom would have suggested. In that culture, any meal is a sacred moment at which a powerful bond of friendship is celebrated. Eating with someone means something beautiful, powerful, and sacred. When Jesus says: “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me is my betrayer” there is a disturbance not because this exposes one of them, but because they have all done that. In that circumstance, they all ate out of a common dish. So, when Jesus predicts that someone will violate that sacred bond of friendship, there is a disturbance that raises a question that can find an echo in every human heart: “Is it I, Lord?” As we shall see, they all betrayed him, not just Judas. Here is an example of a technique in Matthew I mentioned earlier. We know something the characters do not know. For us, the betrayer is revealed as each of the disciples uses the word, “Lord”. When Judas asks his question, he says, “Rabbi.” If they thought Judas was a betrayer, they never would have let him leave the room. In Mark’s Gospel, it is unbelievers who address Jesus by that title. Judas seems to fascinate Matthew, and there is more about Judas here than in the other Gospels.
Matthew assumes that his readers know how a Passover meal is celebrated, so there are little details until Jesus says something out of the ordinary. Imagine how surprised those disciples were when Jesus took the bread as was the custom but makes no mention of the ancient exodus as would normally happen. Instead, he says: “This is my body” leading Matthew’s readers to realize that a new exodus will occur. In the ritual, the second cup was filled with red wine symbolic of the blood of the Passover, the blood of lambs, sprinkled on the doorposts of Israelite homes so that the avenging angel would pass over. Again, the words of Jesus are a surprise. He makes no mention of the past, but speaks of the new covenant and the future. Here is that shift always in the shadow of Matthew’s Gospel. There is a new Israel, a new chosen people, a new covenant, and that people will be established by doing this in his memory. With a promise that they shall all drink the fruit of the vine in the Kingdom, they sing a hymn and depart. With that promise of a great reunion in the Kingdom of Heaven, the meal ends on a very hopeful note. They sing the traditional song that concludes the meal, the Hallel which is Psalms 113 through 118. These are psalms of praise. Taken as a whole, they are songs of deliverance. They are joyful and grateful.
On the way Jesus speaks of their faith being shaken, and Peter speaks up with great bravado. Again, we know something he doesn’t know his promise to never deny Jesus will be broken, and then Peter sleeps. Matthew takes great care to affirm the humanity of Jesus with the Gethsemane scene. Jesus is free to rebel against God’s will, but he learns through prayer to say not my will but yours just as he taught us about prayer. The same three disciples who were with Jesus at the transfiguration are with him now. Then they fell on their faces. Now Jesus falls on his face and they sleep. With terrible irony, Judas is awake and leading a crowd to the garden. On the surface, it would seem that Judas has taken the initiative here and is in charge, but the way Matthew presents this scene, it is Jesus who is in control What happens Jesus could easily have prevented, but he chooses not to do so. Judas calls Jesus “Rabbi” again, and Jesus calls him “friend.” The kiss is really an insult because a student/disciple would and could never be that intimate with their Rabbi/Teacher unless invited to do so. With this detail, Matthew would lead us to see that Judas is repudiating the authority of Jesus. Violence erupts, a sword is drawn, and the disciples flee, and Jesus insists that violence is not the answer nor the greatest power. It is love.
Now begins the second part of Matthew’s passion, the condemnation to death. The charge is a threat to destroy the Temple, and that is serious not because it was God’s dwelling place but because it provided the priestly caste of their livelihood and status. For them, that is most serious. This threat to destroy the Temple was a threat to national identity, self-understanding, and national pride. It was sacrilegious and treasonous. In the end however, the charge is Blasphemy. At this point in Matthew’s Passion narrative, we run right into the fact that this is not history. There are all kinds of details here that are simply in conflict with history. For instance, the Jewish high court would not have convened at night, in a private home on the eve of a major festival. Add to that fact a law which said a capital trial could not be held at night. The only way to reconcile these events is to suppose that there was a quickly assembled inquiry at night with a formal verdict being passed in the morning. It could be argued that this conflict could be explained by the fact that this was extraordinary and required secrecy and haste hence the night trial. However, St Luke has doubts about this because he sets the trial before “the council of the elders of the people” on Friday morning at its regular meeting place. John’s Gospel has no trial of Jesus before a Jewish court. So much for trying to make history out of this.
Matthew wants us to see more than a rather odd and clumsy effort to make Jesus look guilty and set the conditions for Pilate’s verdict. The focus and purpose of this scene is to provide Jesus with the opportunity to declare the purpose of his mission. This helpless victim is gradually revealed as the builder of the New Temple, the Son of God, the Messiah who sits at the right hand of God. The judges become the judged! The whole scene is framed by the report of Peter’s denial in the courtyard. As the cock crows and he remembers what Jesus had said, he recognizes that in spite of his denial he is loved and he weeps. Caiaphas, frustrated at the silence of Jesus asks a question, and we know the answer. “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” Caiaphas ends up doing what Peter cannot do. Yet we could hear what Caiaphas says as bitter sarcasm: “Are you the Messiah”. It’s like saying: “Is this all we get?” The silence of Jesus up to this point is one more example of a refusal to stop what his happening. But he cannot remain silent. So, when the High Priest’s question touches on the truth about Jesus as Messiah, Jesus simply says: “You have said it so.” With that, by assenting to the title Son of God, they have all they need. It’s Blasphemy, and that required the death penalty. Leaving the scene, Matthew switches back to Peter.
When it does come to Peter’s denial, I find it quite interesting that Matthew never mentions his name again. The very prediction of Peter’s denial affirms once again that Jesus is Prophet just as the soldiers mock and taunt him calling him “prophet”. After Peter’s denial, there is another scene in which Jesus is transferred to the Roman Governor. Then it’s back to Judas who, like Peter is overwhelmed with regret and attempts to return the thirty pieces of silver to the leaders confessing that he has betrayed innocent blood. The two betrayers stand in contrast. One repents and weeps. The other does not have repentance because that leads to a change in life. He only has regrets, despairs and then he dies.
Since only the Roman Governor could pass a death sentence, the “authorities” had to find a way to get what they wanted. Blasphemy would mean nothing to the Roman Governor. So, they switch tactics, and with the Roman Governor the charge is changed to suggest treason as Jesus is presented as King. Dreams which have an important part at the opening of Matthew’s Gospel are suddenly again used as the wife of Pilate intervenes because of a dream. She is only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. This whole scene is theological in that it carries the message that the death sentence handed down by Pilate is really the responsibility of the leaders of the people who assume full responsibility resulting in what is stated in verse 43 of chapter 21: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” There is no real historical evidence that there really was a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover time. Luke’s Gospel never mentions this at all. That does not mean it didn’t happen, but the question pushes us to ask what it means. Pilate calls him “famous” The adjective Matthew uses, different from Mark’s is not so dark and threatening. Mark calls him a murderer. Matthew simply says he is famous which makes the choice of the people more interesting to all Christians still tempted to choose someone famous over Christ. Our present-day hero worship of celebrities is the point.
As I said, this whole scene is Matthew’s way of affirming the guilt of the Leaders. This is not something Pilate does, but he does recognize that Jesus could be used as a figurehead by a revolutionary movement. It is important when reflecting upon this and the words: “His blood be upon us and our children” as a theological conviction that Israel as a whole has rejected its Messiah in a final and definitive way and therefore deserves to be deselected as God’s special people. Matthew describes the crowds at this point, and it is important to recall that throughout the Gospel, “the crowds” were always on the brink of acknowledging Jesus as God’s son, but they have not been won over to faith in Jesus. They followed, they marveled, and they praised, but their highest praise, that Jesus is the son of David is inadequate. The crowds never called Jesus “Lord” or “Son of God”, but the disciples do. When thought of this way, as Matthew intended, this is less an attack on Jews as an explanation for the Gentile mission and for the church in which Gentiles are not predominate. This is about rejection not about murder. In a very real way, Israel (the Jewish leaders) hand Jesus over to the Gentiles (the Romans) in an ironic but clearly understood theological statement.
The abuse of Jesus as Matthew presents it leads to the crucifixion. These “soldiers” are not Roman legionaries. They would have been “auxiliaries” not Jewish inhabitants of the area. “Mercenaries” is what we would call them today. They had no love for the Jews, so having an opportunity to abuse the “King of the Jews” was all they needed. They mock the “king”. He gets a scepter (a reed). He gets a crown (of thorns). He gets the royal robe (a soldier’s red cape).
When presenting the crucifixion, Matthew gives us very little by way of details. There is nothing said about nails or pounding. He simply says: “having crucified”. The details given are not about the victim but about the spectators in this Gospel. First there is Simon the Cyrenian. No details come from Matthew. We are not informed that Jesus is too weak. Simon is simply a silent spectator. There are the soldiers who fulfill a prophesy by offering sour wine to Jesus as they split up his clothing. The two thieves, like the soldiers are negative observers. They say nothing in Matthew’s Gospel. Just their placement on the right and left ironically suggests a royal setting. Since these observers have no lines, there are others who do speak, and that gives them some prominence. These are the people passing by who mockingly quote Jesus about the temple coming down and his messianic claim. For Matthew, this is a refrain from the temptation in the desert during which Satan tempts Jesus to draw on supernatural power and save himself. The leaders of the people are there too speaking about and actually quoting what Jesus has said and done. The message from Matthew through this scene is that those who became Christians had to face a challenge from family, friends, and acquaintances. Matthew’s crucifixion scene speaks to this by showing that the indignities Jesus suffered as Messiah were all in accordance with the prophecies. Israel had expected an all-powerful Messiah, but God had sent one who would renounce the use of force against his enemies and submit instead to suffering and death for “the Son of man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The moment of crucifixion is an enthronement: Jesus, crowned, is surrounded by an improbable retinue of two others who die in the same way. The entire crucifixion story as Matthew tells it is one Old Testament Prophecy fulfillment after another. Nearly every detail has an Old Testament reference. The detail of the soldiers casting lots over the clothing of Jesus is just one obvious example. The first readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have understood and connected all these references, images, and details. Of the traditional “Seven Last Words”, Matthew gives us only one: “My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me.” Men and women of faith at that time did not consider it inappropriate to argue with God. Scenes from “Fiddler on the Roof”, if you remember, should confirm that fact. It is not unfaith, but faith that permits Job to call God’s justice into question. What most scholars accept for this moment is that Jesus is praying Psalm 22 which begins by complaining to God. The faith of Jesus is seen by the possessive pronoun, MY. Did Jesus feel abandoned by God? Probably so, why not? Matthew may have wanted to make this point. Separation from God is the price or the consequence of sin. Jesus is paying that price on behalf of others is the point. The offering of the sour wine is refused. It was probably a cruel way of prolonging the agony, and Jesus will have none of that.
Matthew records three events at the moment of the death, an earthquake, splitting of the rocks, and the Temple veil being torn from top to bottom. These are all biblical signs of the end of the world. In a very true sense, the death of Jesus did mark the end of a world without hope and the beginning of new age of God’s Spirit. The tearing of the Temple veil is followed by a Gentile (Roman soldier) confessing faith in Jesus. We can assume that Matthew, is still addressing that community struggling with Gentile inclusion. He sees the torn veil as sign of universal access by all to Jesus. Unique to Matthew’s Gospel is the addition of the men who are with that centurion. They all say those words: “Truly this was the Son of God.” These are Gentiles, not Jews. With this detail, Matthew affirms the place and the faith of Gentiles among the newly chosen People of God. Women are also present leading to the scenes of the burial and the resurrection.
Matthew, as with all the other Gospels describes the burial of Jesus for one reason, to confirm the reality of the death. Remember, in Mark, there is a Centurion dispatched to pierce the side of Jesus to confirm that Jesus is dead. We do not find that in Matthew. He goes straight to the story of Joseph of Arimathea. His action of providing a family tomb is extravagant. Romans threw the bodies of the crucified on the ground as food for scavengers. Jewish law forbids this, but a criminal’s body was not allowed in the family tomb, so there was a common grave. We know from Matthew that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin who probably opposed this death. If he had his own tomb, he was a rich man, and with that detail, another Old Testament prophesy is fulfilled. (Isaiah 53,9 “They made his grave with a rich man.”). The Gospel accounts make it clear that there is something special here, and the clean linen cloth emphasizes that.
Matthew’s concern is not whether or not Jesus is dead, he wants to confront the rumor that the body was stolen. For the leaders, an empty tomb would be an incontestable fact. If it were not empty, the leaders could easily refute any preaching about the resurrection by displaying a corpse. This is a dilemma. So, they come up with that rumor as a way to explain an empty tomb. The placing of the guard is only found in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s one more effort to refute the rumor that the body was stolen. The fact that this rumor existed is in itself an indication that the tomb was empty! Matthew shows the rumor to be false because it is based on the laughable testimony of witnesses who admit to sleeping through the whole event. Now the women come into the scene. There are only two of them this time. There is no way to guess or figure out why two and where the third woman was. Matthew is the only Gospel writer who tells us that the tomb was guarded. There is something ironic here when the Jewish leaders want Pilate to have the tomb guarded. It would seem that they put more stock in a prediction by Jesus that after three days he would rise from the dead. Meanwhile, his disciples seem to have forgotten all about that. Suddenly, these leaders want to join forces with the power of Rome to prevent the resurrection as best they can with a sealed stone and posted sentries. This is all part of Matthew’s effort to confront the rumor of the time that the body was stolen not brought back to life. These guards at the tomb, unlike the ones at the cross do not confess belief. Unbelieving, they became as “dead men.” Yet, like the magi at the beginning of this Gospel, they leave with the same great joy that filled the magi who came to see the new born king. In his appearance to these women, he sends them to his “brothers”. He does not say “disciples” because all is forgiven.
As Matthew draws this to an end, there is nothing about the resurrection itself. All we get is the effects with two points of view: an empty tomb and the disciples meeting the risen Lord. Again, there is an earthquake. It’s the second one. The first one at the moment of his death when Matthew says, “The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” This second earthquake announces another opening. The women went “to see the tomb”. What is important to Matthew is not what they were coming to do, but what happened to them. An angel comes for the first time since the opening of this Gospel. Notice that the angel rolls the stone for them. There is no suggestion that the opening of the tomb is necessary to allow the risen Christ to come out. He has already risen when the angel rolls the stone. The women do not come to see him rising, but to see that he has already risen. The invitation to see the place where he lay is addressed to the same persons who watched the body being placed there, so there is no mistake. It’s not the wrong grave, and the stone was still in place when they got there. Then comes the instructions: to tell and go to Galilee, and with that note, Matthew, once more, emphasis the importance of Galilee making it the place where the story ends because that’s where the ministry of Jesus began.
The presence of Jesus after the resurrection is quite different in each of the Gospels. Yet, it is likely that a common story of the commissioning of the Twelve is shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, each of them relates this event from the perspective of their own theology. The location says something. Mark has it happen in Jerusalem, Luke and John have it happening in Galilee. Matthew, who is the focus for us right now places the appearance where? On a mountain! Several times in Matthew, important events occur on the mountain: the final temptation, the transfiguration, and then there is THE mountain of the Beatitudes. These final verses are unique to Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus comes as the Son of Man to found and commission his church. While he sent his apostles only to the land and people of Israel during his public ministry, he now sends the eleven to all nations, with baptism, not circumcision as the initiation rite, and with his commands, not the Mosaic Law, as the final norm of morality. Here for the only time in this Gospel the address is to “the eleven”, a sad reminder that Judas is lost. What they saw there on that mountain is not given to us. Matthew is more concerned with what is said. All through chapters 24 to 26 “Son of Man” is the title Matthew uses for Jesus. Then he changes in Chapter 27 to “Son of God.” Finally, in this last chapter, the title, “Jesus” is the only one Matthew uses to make certain that there is a connection between the risen Lord and the earthly Jesus. Matthew tells us that when they saw him they worshipped him but some doubted. The word, “doubt” here means hesitation. Jesus approaches them Matthew tells us. He speaks first of himself, then to them with the words of commission, and finally the most comforting and reassuring words in all of the Gospel: “I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Our scientific age and our need for scientific proof for something to be real or true crashes when it comes to the Resurrection and that Empty Tomb. So, we like to soften the reality that we cannot explain by suggesting that the disciples felt that Jesus was still with them in spirit. Add to this the fact that the details presented by all four Evangelists have huge discrepancies: who first discovered that the tomb was empty? When did they do so? How and when was the stone rolled away? Was there one angel or two? Or was there any angel at all? Early Christians were not very concerned about detail accuracy. This is a faith story intended for believers. Non-believers will never be convinced of anything about an empty tomb. This is not so much about Jesus as it is about God. To believers, there is no doubt at all that God could raise Jesus from the grave. The purpose is to ask a question: “What is this story telling us about God?”
The cry of Jesus on the cross is answered. At the same time, we must avoid thinking that the resurrection was just automatic because after all, Jesus was divine. That thinking deprives Good Friday of its significance. If the resurrection was because Jesus was divine, then the whole business of the cross was just an act a charade. Matthew insists that this is God’s act. To make that as clear as possible, Matthew uses the passive voice of the verb: “He has been raised.” The empty tomb is not proof of anything. It is a sign of the resurrection. The resurrection is not a carefully constructed myth but an inexplicable event. The story is only believable because God is believable.
(Repeat the singing of, “O Sacred Head”)