Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 4)

The first three segments of this essay can be found in archive bar to the right of the screen.

Matthew explains Jesus’s motivation to anoint the disciples to preach and heal in his stead at the end of chapter nine, saying that “Jesus went about all the cities and villages...[and] when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” [9:35,36]. There is an argument to made, however, given that Matthew places this change of events right after the Pharisees began harassing Jesus for his teachings, that he wanted to create more moving targets for their criticism and foster the perception of a sudden uprising among the people.

Before sending the twelve out, Jesus gave them instructions on how they were to behave.

Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. [10:5-9]

This lifestyle (one we should assume Jesus himself practiced) is known as asceticism. Theologically, it resonates well with Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount where he is reported to have said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on” [6:25]. Ideologically, this practice, perhaps also co-opted from John’s failed ministry, contrasted nicely against the concentrations of wealth locked up in the Temple and those who benefitted from it. It also meant, on a more practical level, that the disciples could not waste their time in towns unreceptive to Jesus’s message, for they were dependent upon those to whom they preached for their sustenance. Jesus himself hints at this in his instructions as he commands that “whatever village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay with him until you depart…and if any one will not receive you, or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” [10:11,14].

A second passage in this section also draws attention as Jesus prepared his followers for the type of reception they could expect to receive.

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in the synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles…Brother will deliver brother up to death, and the father his child, and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. [10:16-18,21,22]

This passage is remarkable because, in Jesus’s own lifetime, none of these things are reported to have happened to anyone but him. Delivered in the specific context of sending the disciples out to spread his message, this warning seems to have been a hollow one. However, by the end of the first century CE, all of these things would have been visited upon devotees of the early church. This once again lends credence to the idea that the Gospel According to Matthew was written after Nero’s brutal persecution of the church in the mid-60s and, considered in context with later statements about the destruction of the Temple, perhaps well into the 80s. It might also be seen as a testimony to Jesus’s acumen as a prophet as well as a healer but, given the mounting evidence in the text that many of these “direct quotes” may have been inserted into rather than retained within the tradition, it is reasonable to at least consider the former more likely than the latter.

After a brief sermon presumably designed to bring wavering devotees of John the Baptist into the fold, Jesus continued his regimen of teaching and healing, rebutting the nagging Pharisees all along the way without dramatically expanding the scope his message. Then, midway through chapter twelve, Jesus dropped a bombshell that changes the contour of the rest of the gospel.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and nights in the heart of the earth. [12:38-40]

There are two elements of this passage that warrant some careful consideration. First, the Pharisees and scribes are asking Jesus for a sign despite the fact that he has been healing lepers, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons and raising the dead in public for months. This suggests that faith healing of the variety that Jesus is doing is not unexpected in the culture of which he is a part. The Temple, in a sense, are pointing to their own gaggle of ex-lepers, formerly blind-people, non-demonically possessed and resurrected followers and requesting of Jesus some proof of his special dispensation as some above and beyond what the Law provides.

Secondly, this is the first obvious foreshadowing of Jesus’s resurrection that serves as the climax for Matthew’s gospel later on. It is especially notable that Jesus chooses a historical prophet, Jonah, with which to parallel the only sign he plans to offer of his divinity. In Matthew’s gospel, perhaps more than any of the others, Jesus is shown clearly in a tradition of prophets that stretches back to the foundation of the Jewish state many generations ago. This connection to Jonah is echoed later in the gospel as Jesus expressed reluctance in completing his mission but, ultimately, capitulated to God’s will in order to enter the belly of the whale (death), instead of being forced into it like Jonah had before him, in order that God’s will be done.

In the following section, Matthew presents Jesus teaching about the kingdom of heaven through a series of parables which he then explains in greater depth to his disciples. While the parables themselves do not add anything new to Jesus’s ministry as we understand it already, Matthew sticks an addendum on the end of the section that raises concerns about the linear narrative he is presenting.

And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming into his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son?”…But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. [13:53-55,57,58]

By Matthew’s own account, Jesus returned to Nazareth and performed many great miracles there after leaving Capernaum. A semantic argument could be made that this passage only states that Jesus was in his own country (Galilee) and not his city, and yet the bulk of his mission seems to have been centered in Galilee until he makes the decision to go to Jerusalem. Moreover, the people supposedly questioning his authority are naming his family as if they were intimately familiar with them, an unlikely assertion if we extend the possible range out to all of Galilee. Reading back over the section of the parables, they actually are tonally closest to Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Is Matthew is actually telling the same story twice, changing a few details to fill in time when Jesus’s activities and whereabouts were not known to his followers some five decades later?

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