Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 2)

Part One of this essay can be read here.

By Matthew's account, Jesus embarked on the first public leg of his ministry. Having discovered that, in his absence, John the Baptist had been arrested by Herod Archelaus (son of Herod the Great), Jesus moved back into familiar territory. Stopping first at his home in Nazareth, Jesus then moved on to Capernaum and began to use John’s ministerial tagline, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” While it can be assumed that Jesus was preaching to a great many people, Matthew mentions four followers, by name, who he acquired as followers during this phase of his ministry.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately, they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. [4:18-22]

On a purely metaphoric level, this passage is clear in its meaning. Common men, once presumably content in their trade, heard Jesus’s message and left not only their livelihood but their families in order the hopes of contributing to something more meaningful. It was from this passage (among others) that the symbol of the fish became synonymous with Christianity for the first several hundred years of its existence. On a more pragmatic level, though, we can also see that this behavior would be very disruptive to a culture defined by its social cohesion. Matthew reinforces this conflict between serving the kingdom of heaven and serving one’s family several times in the course of this gospel and, from this, we can infer that the new Nazarene sect of Judaism was seen by many as anathema to Jewish cultural ties; not only in its haphazard defense of the taboos that comprised many of its laws, but also in its propensity to lure people out of the social units that had not only nurtured them, but also still depended upon their labor for survival.

From this point, Matthew writes, “he went all about Galilee, teaching in the synogogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among his people” [4:23]. As word of his teaching spread, we are told, people began to come from every corner of the Jewish world to be healed and receive Jesus’s teaching. When those crowds reached a certain mass, Jesus “went up on the mountain” and delivered Matthew’s first account of his teachings; a collection of wisdom saying known collectively as The Sermon on the Mount.

Before this sermon, we know a great deal about Jesus’s mission (teach and heal) but very little about his actual message beyond the one he appropriated in John’s absence. Here, Jesus took his first steps in articulating answers to the key questions raised by his warning to repent. He began with a series of nine sparse but radical suppositions about the nature of the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. [5:3-11]

Hearkening back, for just a moment, to Aristotle’s treatise on happiness (Nicomachean Ethics), we recall that, for the Greeks, blessedness is a state where good living is met by good fortune and is given, somewhat capriciously by the Fates. Consider that in contrast with Jesus’s proclamation here that blessedness is something that is promised by God to those who would seek righteousness, practice humility, offer mercy, and seek peace. It is no longer a matter of making the right amount of sacrifices to the right gods and hoping for the best outcome. Though life may (and, for his audience, likely will) continue to ravage a person’s body, blessedness is never withdrawn as it is given not on a whim but as payment for the fulfillment of a contract with God.

Though Jesus instructs his listeners to “think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets” [5:17], he muddies those waters with his later assertion that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” [5:20]. This begs the question, then, that if the Pharisees, who were known for their strict obedience to the Law, are not righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven, how may any person hope to achieve a state of righteousness that exceeds them?

In response, Jesus selected a number of the fundamental tenets of Jewish law (many of them taken directly from the Ten Commandments) and inverted the application of a worldly kind of sense to their fulfillment. Thus:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment…You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say unto you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart…You have heard it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. [5:21,22,27,28,38,39]

Seen through the eyes of convention, what Jesus asks here is impossible. Though he offered many examples of how to behave more righteously than those considered to be so at the time, he never addressed the improbability of anyone having such mastery over her person that she should never harbor the slightest anger towards those who have wronged her nor of a man so in command of his own impulses that he should never allow feelings of lust for someone other than his wife to so much as enter his mind. It is little wonder that, upon Jesus’s completion of the sermon, Matthew notes that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” [7:28-29].

Before moving on to the next period of Jesus’s life and the next tonal shift in Matthew’s account of it, we should probably close with a word or two more about the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters of Matthew are dense with information and, indeed, entire books could and have been written on these passages alone. Matthew’s account of the Sermon, stripped as it is from any flowery language or obvious narrative agenda, is a very tempting place to look for the actual teachings of Jesus the Nazarene who pre-existed Jesus the Christ, whose message was shaped (and some might say re-shaped) by many invisible hands. While there is no reason to assume that the text is captured verbatim from Jesus’s own mouth, it does feel like a collection of sayings that might easily have been passed through an oral tradition that predated the written one. It is also noticeably lacking in assertions of a special status of divinity for Jesus himself. Two passages briefly skirt the idea in a provocative way.

Oh what man of you, if his son asks him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him? [7:9-11]

Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” [7:21-23]

In the first passage, the text points to a universal and co-equal sibling relationship between Jesus and his audience, where humanity (of which Jesus is a part) plays the part of the child and God, that of the father. The second, in contrast, suggests that upon the day of human judgment by God, Jesus will play a special role, a first among equals, of confirming whether or not those seeking grace used the authority of his name to do God’s will with righteousness or for their own benefit. Given that, at this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus hadn’t given anyone the authority to do anything except listen to him, it is again tempting to believe that this, unlike the earlier passage, was retrofitted on to this screen capture image of Jesus’s early ministry.

1 comment:

  1. I believe this is quite profound that Jesus really turned up the volume on the inevitable judgement of men in soul instead of the physical, that would make quite an impression on a socially cohesive society, quite good and quite disturbing at the same time to come so authoritative, it offended many as well, I would presume it is a step in his path to crucifixion.