Monday, April 03, 2017

Difficulties in Believing: The Virgin Birth, Miracles, Creedal Statements



DIFFICULTIES IN BELIEVING
St. Bede's Forum, March 2017
Tom Woodward

PRELUDE:
            In the recent HBO series, "The Young Pope," the young American Pope was asked why he decided to be a priest. His response was simple, "I wanted to serve God." That, I believe, should have disqualified him from the beginning.
            A priest serves the people who serve God. In doing so, the priest is serving God, but not in the ways we usually mean with that phrase. As a priest I serve God by supporting you, feeding you spiritually, building up your community.
            One afternoon in California I was part of a meeting of Rural Deans, called by my bishop. In the middle of our discussion, he asserted that he was "the chief evangelist of the diocese." I responded by noting that bishops spend most of their time in their offices dealing with priests who spend most of their time in their offices dealing with lay people who spend almost all of their time dealing with the unchurched. It is the lay people who are really the chief evangelists of the diocese.
            As I remember, that was the last time I was to be invited to a meeting of the Rural Deans.

MATTERS OF FAITH
            I have often heard comedian Bill Maher challenge self-identified Christians by asking "How can anyone believe in a religion with a talking snake?" The line always got a chuckle from his audience, even while demonstrating an amazing ignorance of Bill Maher, who was unaware of the role of myth and metaphor in dealing with the ultimate questions about human life - and in addressing our relationship with the infinite.
            What is most important in talking about Christian doctrine and faith is this: we are saved through Grace by faith - not doctrine. The key for any of us is faith, which has to do with trust and relationship. That relationship can range from the tiniest of threads on our part to the relationship we attribute to our monks and nuns in their 24 hour daily devotion. We are all somewhere on that continuum - and every place is OK.
            Doctrine comes into being in the service of faith. Its purpose is to protect that basic experience of faith. As an example, the phrase in the Nicene Creed about Jesus being born of the virgin, Mary was inserted not to require belief in the virginity of Jesus' mother, but to mark the belief or trust that Jesus was born of a human mother - and that his birth was a matter of God's initiative. This came after a time of conjecture that Jesus miraculously appeared in the world as fully adult or that Jesus only appeared to be human, his humanity some form of a mask.
            The Church's doctrine arose out of the necessity to preserve the experience of the pre-Easter Jesus. So when disputes arose, in particular deciding which manuscripts would be in the Canon of the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament), arguments were settled by those who knew others who knew or were taught by the Apostles. It was not the resulting doctrine, but the faith the doctrine protected that was and is important.
            So what about St. Paul's teaching that we are saved through grace by our faith? When I was Protestant Chaplain at the University of Rochester I worked with Paul Walasky, who also taught courses in religion at the university. One year Paul summoned to his office a student who had earlier handed in his paper on St. Paul's Understanding of Grace. The student, anticipating a severe dressing down for his work, began making noises that his paper was not very good and probably deserved a failing grade. Paul interrupted him to say, "I agree that you didn't take the time to understand St. Paul and his understanding of grace, that your spelling was bad, the grammar often deficient, and you spilled coffee on two of the pages of your essay.  So I want to know that I am giving you a B on your paper. The student  was shocked, "But there is no way I deserve a B - everything you said is true!" Paul shoved the paper with the large "B" on the front page toward the student with these words, "Now you understand Paul's understanding of grace." That  may be the most important story most of us will hear during our lifetimes in the church.
            One last thing about doctrine, especially as codified in our Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed begins "We believe. . ." This creed is the belief of the church - and as a whole, not  necessarily the belief on any individual at any given time. I have often preached on the matter of faith and belief by having the congregation stand and then remain standing or regain standing for any phrase of the Creed they believed or which made a difference in how they lived their life. When the opposite was true, they were to sit.
            Through the opening of the Creed ("We believe in one God") everyone remained standing. Then with "the Father Almighty" a good proportion of the women along with a few men sat down. And on and on through the Creed. We then would talk about our experience, including the observation that no one stood throughout the Creed - even the priest! Our conclusion was always that the Creed represents the belief of the church, and not necessarily that of any individual in the church. We each have a part of the whole - and together we approximate the whole. That should be a relief to any of us who is struggling with belief.

THE VIRGIN BIRTH:  TYPOLOGY, LITERAL TRUTHS, MYTHS AND METAPHORS
            First, some background. One of the rarely used elements of Bible study is the field of Typology, which uses events and persons to illuminate or reveal aspects or significant meanings of history - or, for our purposes, holy history. For example, in our Bible readings two weeks ago, Paul made reference to Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. What image or event does that call to mind? The forty days the Hebrews spent in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
            Thanks largely to recent Biblical scholarship, we are beginning to understand the myriad ways the events and people of Christian Scriptures are tied to those of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).  As we will discuss later, I believe our best thinking is that we as the Christian church have been grafted into Jewish holy history (see Romans 9-11). Thus, our relationship to Judaism is one of dependence, not superiority.
            So here we go - with times when a prior unresolved event is fulfilled or resolved in the present - or when an event in one of the Gospels can be seen as the mirror image of an event in Jewish history, as in the passage two weeks ago about Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. These things tie us to our Jewish ancestry and  history as the people of God.

- Jesus as the New Adam
- The Disobedience of Eve is overcome by the Obedience of Mary
- Confusion at Tower of Babel is reversed at Pentecost
- Slaughter of the Innocents, both at the time of Moses and of Jesus.
- Refugee status of Moses - and similarly of Jesus (both involving Egypt).
- 40 years of wandering in the wilderness - Jesus spending 40 days in wilderness.
- Ten Commandments from the mountain and Beatitudes (sermon on the mountain)
- Moses' face shining, coming down the mountain precedes the Transfiguration.
- At Transfiguration, Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets).
- Suffering Servant Passages in Isaiah (46-53) reflected in Passion of Jesus.
- Passage in Isaiah 7:14 about "the virgin" or young maiden is basis for Matthew 1:22-33.
- The story of Cain and Abel lived out in Steinbeck's "East of Eden" in the Salinas Valley:
  
 --  Bruce and Steve Taylor had controlling interest in Fresh Express produce. When Steve "got 
religion," he initiated a brutal battle, forcing Bruce out of the family business.  Bruce, my parishioner, later started Taylor Farms, which is now the equal of Fresh Express. Thus, the important question about a myth is not "When did it happen?" but "Where is it happening?" This is especially true of the myths in Genesis.

- The Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 18) provides the context for Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus' cross.


-- Mark, alone, tells of Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, carrying the cross of Jesus to the crucifixion (15:21). Note, that Simon is a Semitic name, Alexander ("one who contends") is a Greek name, and Rufus (from the Latin for "red") is a Roman name. Then remember that Isaac's sons are Jacob, who contended with the angel, and Esau, who founded the nation of Edom which was located on red clay (Edom's approaching soldiers were referred to as "dressed in red"). Third, just as Isaac was compelled to carry wood to his own sacrifice (where, instead, a lamb was provided), so Simon was compelled to carry a wooden cross to a sacrifice (where the Lamb of God was provided). So this is a stunning piece of writing by Mark, as in one verse with Simon's family consisting of a Semite, a Greek, and a Roman, - the whole of the known world was involved in carrying the cross of Jesus to Golgotha.

                Note:  You won't find this explanation in any Commentary, though the connection is clear                 and makes no other sense. TBW

THE VIRGIN BIRTH
            The nativity stories in Matthew and Luke reflect the passage from the prophet Isaiah, but there remains confusion as to the meaning of the term in Isaiah 7:14. However, regardless of a literal truth of a virgin birth of Jesus, there are other even more important truths:

a.  it is a metaphorical rendition of the belief that Jesus' birth being at God's initiative. There may     
         have been no other way to portray this.
b.  this is an affirmation of Jesus' humanity as he was born of a human mother, over against the  
        heresy of Docetism, which held that Jesus "seemed" to be human.

            As noted earlier, Mary's obedience reverses the Genesis story about the disobedience of Eve and the inclusion of "virgin Mary" in the Nicene Creed was to contradict the heresy of Docetism. It is interesting that in Mark's Gospel Jesus holds his humanity and divinity in tension by referring to himself as "the Son of man." The phrase is ambiguous. The Book of  Daniel refers to the Son of man coming to earth in clouds of glory, while the Psalms and the prophet Ezekiel speak of the Son of man being lower than the worms of the earth.
            In talking with Mike Miller, my Roman Catholic colleague in Salinas, California, I asked what progressive Roman Catholics thought about the doctrine of the virgin birth. He said it had to do with this: We all have parts of ourselves that we keep hidden from others and there are also parts of ourselves which are even hidden from ourselves. They are "virgin territory." When Mary opened herself to God, she offered all of herself, including that virgin territory - in that sense Jesus acquired a humanity deeper than all other births.

Myth over Literal Fact: There is a huge difference between an astonishing fact (virgin birth of Jesus) and the revelatory power of the metaphor, as explicated above. I want to explore in a future Forum the struggle between Biblical myths and Jesus' parables and the cultural myths embedded in our personal and national lives.

HOW CAN WE MAKE SENSE OF THE MIRACLES?  THE DIMENSION OF THE HOLY
            The miracles are treated differently in Gospels. Mark, in the first half of his gospel, uses miracles to support his theme of "Who is this man?" to define his presence. As miracle follows miracle the question arises "Who is this who quiets the sea/heals the sick/ forgives sins/ and raises the dead?" John uses miracles as signs, revealing significant aspects of our Lord's power and mission. This is clearest with the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. There were plenty of miracle workers at the time: the issue was their identity and mission.
            Here are two paths to making sense or understanding the miracles in Christian Scriptures.
First, a Roman Catholic author, Louis Everly, writes that a prerequisite for understanding or believing the miracles, divine healing, and resurrection is that we have experienced these things in our own lives; that we have experienced the miracle of touch, the healing of another's forgiveness, the reality of resurrection in our own lives. Someone has also posited that the inability to accept the reality of miracles is a failure of imagination.
            Second, there is the analysis of physicist Karl Heim in his book, "The Christian Faith and  Natural Science." Heim was a real believer in Rudolph Otto's understanding of the experience of the numenous or Mysterium Tremendum* in his book, "The Idea of the Holy." For Heim, the experience of the Mysterium Tremendum is a reality of human existence and a clue to religious reality.  In short, his analysis is:

            a point has no conception or understanding of the dimension of a line, just as
            a line has no conception or access to understanding the dimension of a cube, just as
            a three dimensional object (human) has no direct access to the dimension of the Holy.**

The Holy is another dimension of reality which is inaccessible to humans (mundane reality), except when the Holy permeates the boundaries between itself and mundane reality. The Holy is a constant reality, as real as anything else  - just beyond our human capacity for apprehension or understanding.         

*  A feeling of the uncanny, the thrill of awe and reverence, the sense of dependence, of impotence, or of nothingness or the feeling of of religious rapture and exaltation. The sense of the tremendous, the awful, the mysterious, the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. . .often experienced in liturgy.

**  Most of us grew up in a world in which there was a single geometry, Euclidian Geometry. Mathematicians now wrestle with a variety of geometries and dimensions of reality.

            St. Mark bookends his Gospel with what Karl Heim is exploring. At the beginning of his Gospel, as Jesus is being baptized by John the Baptist, the heavens part and the Holy is expressed in the words "You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased." The word for the parting of the heavens is from the Greek, schizomenous, meaning a splitting apart. Similarly, at the close of Mark's Gospel, as Jesus breathes his last, the veil of the Temple is split apart, obliterating  the separation between the holy and the mundane. Again, Mark uses the Greek schizo, as do Matthew ( 21:55) and Luke (23:45)in treating the splitiing in two of the veil of the Temple at Jesus' death..
            The same phenomenon is the focus of the Transfiguration, in which the full glory of the Holy infuses the body of Jesus as he is flanked by Moses and Elijah (Moses having earlier been the occasion of much of this phenomenon when he descends from the mountain with his face glowing from the reality of the holy in him.
            By extension, the miracles we experience in Scripture and in life may be expressions of this same reality of the Holy - not violating natural law, but permeating that boundary between the Holy and the mundane.  
            Martin Gardner, the insightful mathematician who was the puzzle editor for the magazine, "Scientific American," for many years, writes of coming upon a congregation in New York City which had at the center of its understanding this notion of Karl Heim.
            All this is close to what we are talking about when we talk of life as sacramental. Thus, as the novelist Walker Percy writes, a kiss is not just four lips in closest proximity. It is sacramental: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace - or an inward attempt at manipulation . . betrayal. Frederick Buechner writes in his "Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC" that when we say "God is love," we are asserting that God is the source of all love. Love is not one of the things in our power to create. When I love someone, that is God's love happening through us for the other. It is, in the old movie chiche, "bigger than the two of us."
           My favorite Buechner aphorism is from the same book. "Sex," he writes, "contrary to Mrs. Grundy, is not sin; and contrary to Hugh Hefner, it is not salvation, either. It is more like nitro-glycerin, which can be used to blow up bridges or to heal hearts."
           So it is in a world which is sacramental and with the clues to its heart in our experience of the holy, the mysterium tremendum.

 If you have comments or questions, consider entering them as Comments here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Matthew's Gospel - Tom Woodward's Presentation at St. Bede's Forum



THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW

There are two things you will learn in this Forum: that one of the Wise Men was a Lutheran and that God  intended for the Church to be Episcopalian.  But first, the less relevant stuff.

To begin, here is a thumbnail comparison of the four gospels:
       - Mark - Jesus is a man of action (the key word is euthus, (immediately), as Jesus goes from  
                     place to place as he teaches and performs miracles.
       - Luke - Jesus in the healer, compasssion one.
       - John - the gospel is focused on our relationship to the Risen Christ.
       - Matthew - Jesus as rabbi, teacher.

In constructing his gospel, Matthew bases most of his narrative on the earlier gospel of Mark and, like Luke, gets most of Jesus' teaching from a document scholars have named "Q," from the Latin, "Quella," which means "document" or "source." Matthew uses a slightly different and longer version of Q than Luke does. He also uses different sources all his own as well as one of the widely circulated versions of the Passion. His gospel was written about 95 CE, well after the death of the disciple Matthew.

In Matthew, teaching is paramount - Matthew gathers scattered remarks in the other gospels into extended narratives. For example, he takes a few verses in Luke and transforms them into the Sermon on the Mount.

I  will focus on the two main issues or concerns that run through Matthew's gospel:
            Christian ethics or morality, including his concern for church life.
            Our relationship to Israel or the Jews and the Jewish Law.

MORAL/ETHICAL GUIDANCE:
            Several years ago I was very involved in our national church's debate on sexual morality. Our General Convention had set up a list serve so all our bishops, General Convention deputies, and members of national committees could work through important issues between Conventions. I was one of ten liberals given the imposing title of "Verbosian." Ten conservatives were given the same title, which represented our leadership on different sides of several issues.
            The debates about sexual morality mirrored the much earlier debate in American Christianity about slavery. The pro-slavery faction's arguments were based on proof-texting (assembling various verses in the Bible, many out of context) while the anti-slavery faction argued from the overall message of Scripture. My case was that Scripture, itself, and the gospels in particular focused on matters of character and relationships in dealing with sexual ethics. If you want to discover the heart of the teaching in Christian Scriptures there are three places where you will find it: the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12 ff., The Last Judgment, "Lord, where did we see you hungry. . .? (Matthew 25:31-46), and Paul's description of those led by the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.
             Matthew gives extra weight to the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount which follows with his association of Jesus on the mountain with Moses receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai. Later, near the center of the gospel, Matthew, like Mark and Luke, has Jesus, in the Transfiguration on a hill, being flanked by Moses (Law) and Elijah, representing the Prophets.

PURPOSE AND TEACHING

Mark gathers what he has as facts and arranges them for best effect in communicating the meaning and effect of Jesus Christ. Matthew by and large keeps Mark's arrangement, but deals with the facts/data in the light of his beliefs about the relationship of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and the needs of the church.
    - over and over he notes that certain events and teaching were foretold in Hebrew prophesy,
    - almost every chapter contains the phrase "that the Scripture  may be fulfilled,"
    - he sometimes modifies elements of a story to fit a prediction because of his belief that
            Jesus has brought all prophesies to fulfillment,
    - In the Sermon on the Mount, the phrase used is "it was said to those of old time, but I say . . ."

Matthew often Tries to relate teachings of Jesus to needs and circumstances of Church
            Almsgiving /  prayer and fasting (6:1-8)
            Marriage and divorce - (5:27-32)
            Conduct of children and brethren (18:10-14; 5:25-26; 7:12; 18:15f.)
            Remaining faithful under persecution (latter half of the gospel)
            The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Tenants) 21:33-44) shared by Luke and Mark, is                                used by Matthew to justify the non-Jewish composition of the followers of Jesus.

STRUCTURE OF THE GOSPEL

Matthew mostly keeps narrative and teaching separate, alternating Mark and his version of Q
Instead of isolated sayings (Mark & Luke), Matthew has long discourses with single theme.
            1. Sermon on the Mount (5-7)
            2. Duties of Missionaries (9:35-11:10)
            3. Description of the character required of followers of Jesus (13:1-58)
            4. Strictures on Pharisees (18:1-19:1)
            5. Apocalyptic teaching (24:1-26:2).

The Overall Structure of the Gospel (reflecting the Five Books of the Torah)

The Gospel begins with Geneology, Birth Narratives, Flight to Egypt (unique to Matthew)
The Gospel ends with the Passion and Post-Resurrection Appearances.
The rest of gospel is in five sections, reflecting the five books of the Torah
            1  Early ministry up to calling of disciples  7:28
            2  Extension of Ministry in Galilee  11:1
            3  Rising opposition  (13:53)
            4  Departure from Galilee- declaration of Messiahship
            5  Journey to Jerusalem and arrival.

WHAT ABOUT THE LAW?

First, for Jews, the Law is a gift, not a burden (it was a blessing to know what is required, what is     expected by one you love.

For Matthew, Jesus fulfills the Law (not just follows, but brings to its full realization)

            The best illustration of this is the ethical progression from Lamech in Genesis (4:23-24) ""I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold.") to the revolutionary "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" in Exodus 21:24 to Jesus' words in 5:38-42) "You have heard that it has been said "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," but I say unto you that you resist not evil, but whosoever shall strike you on your right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also."                
           I believe the best treatment of the Sermon on the Mount is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's, The Cost of Discipleship. His treatment  is compelling. One of Bonhoeffer's intimations is that the point of much of the Sermon on the Mount is that in finding them true, but so difficult, we are driven to God's Grace.

A Note About the Relationship of the Christian Church to the Jewish People (John, also)

            In John's Gospel, towards the end of the Gospel there are several disparaging remarks about "the Jews."  John's meaning is that there is a critical difference between the Jews (and others) in the Jesus Movement and the Jews of the Pharisees and like minded others. Each side argued that it was the authentic remnant of the Jewish people who had preceded them.  This struggle was not new in Judaism (or has it been absent in the Christian churches!)  There have always been such struggles within Judaism, between the traditions of the Law and the Prophets, later between the followers of Hillel and Shammai, and in our time among Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox Jews.
            With the Commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, opened the door for a whole new understanding of the relationship between Christians and Jews. In summary, In Barth's study of Romans 11-12,  he notes Paul's argument that God's promise to Abraham that he and his descendants would always be God's chosen people was a promise. Period. And God does not break promises. Thus, the Jewish people remain God's chosen people - and through the sacrificial death of Jesus, Christians have been grafted into Jewish history. We now share in the promises ("the chosen people" refers to our vocation to be "a light to the Gentiles" and to draw all of creation to our Creator).
            This discovery of Barth's is revolutionary, though not as widely accepted throughout the Christian Church as it should be. The predominant theology of the church through the ages has been Triumphalism, by which once Jesus had come, he replaced the Law and those who held onto the Law separate from Jesus were either of no account or the enemy. That understanding has provided the roots for anti-Semitism through the centuries. In our country, it was Paul van Buren, an Episcopalian, who first popularized Barth's conclusions.
            When you read Paul's argument in Romans 11-12 in light of just what I just noted, Barth's conclusions seem obvious; but one of the world's tragedies is that most of Christendom seems to ignore or to be uninformed of them.

SO, HOW DO WE KNOW THAT GOD INTENDED THE CHURCH TO BE EPISCOPALIAN?

           Through most of its life, the Episcopal Church has embraced at least three theological and liturgical traditions as part of its whole - High Church, Low Church, and Broad Church. All that was precursed by Matthew, who was both narrowly Jewish and Universalist at the same time. Matthew stood with both Jewish and Gentile Christianity. thus for Matthew:

            The Law is valid forever 5:17,18
            Jesus' mission was limited to lost sheep of house of Israel (15:24)
            While scribes & Pharisees must not be imitated, obey what they teach (23:3)
Also:
            Jesus' sayings and actions proclaim a message which is universal
            The disciples are to show love for all without distinction, mirroring Fr. in heaven (5:43)
            When the Kingdom co0mes, many will be gathered from East and West (8:11,12)
            Matthew quotes prophesy that "in his Name will Gentiles trust" (12:21)
            Parable of Wicked Husbandmen describes ascendancy of Gentile church (21:33-43)
            In the Parable of the Last Judgment - all nations shall be gathered.

A WALK THROUGH THE GOSPEL

Matthew's Geneology (1:1ff.) the Greek word is "The Genesis" . . .much as John begins his Gospel,  
"in the beginning".

Unique in Matthew's Gospel,  five women mentioned (four with odd sexual history)
                        Zerah by Tamar
                        Salmon, father of Boaz by Rahab (the prostitute)
                        Ruth and Boaz
                        Solomon, by the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba)
                        Jacob, father of Joseph, husband of Mary.
            Note: a friend of mine, Doug Adams, wrote a book, "The Prostitute in the Family Tree."

In Mt.1:23  Matthew quotes Isaiah, "a virgin shall conceive." Isaiah's "virgin" meant "(young woman" with no connotation of sexual history. The phrase in our creeds about the Virgin Mary was inserted as testimony to th humanness of Jesus' birth - against various heresies.

The Wise Men (from Micah) were not three, but a group of some size). In our popular depiction of the three wise men, note that they represent the known world, as one is Semitic, one Asian, and one Caucasian. What is not widely known is that scholars, in studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, have determined that myhrr means "meatball casserole," thus indicating that at least one of the wise men was Lutheran.

The Flight into Egypt - unique to Matthew. Remember, Jesus is the best known refugee in human history - Moses is second.  That experience is reflected in much of Jesus's reflections on his own life: "Foxes have holes and birds have their nests, but the Son of man has no place to lay his head," and in the Prologue to John's Gospel, "he came to his own and his own received  him not."

Slaughter of Innocents (from Jeremiah) as is Jesus' association with Nazareth.

Baptism - using words of Isaiah.

Sermon on Mount - Note the power of Jesus' words to the crowds (and us), "You are the light of the world," no "You ought to be," or you better be." A simple and most powerful "You are. . "

My favorite story in the Gospels:  Matthew 8:20ff.  Jesus heals the demoniac in the Gerascenes and sends the evil spirits into the onlookers flocks/herds which then throw themselves to their death over a cliff. Jesus is either asked to leave - or leaves by losing himself in the crowd and then skeedaddling. Luke's version of the story is relatively benign. Matthew has fewer details than in Mark. (my favorite performance piece is based on this story)

Call of disciples 9:9 followed by charge in following chapter. What is especially striking in these and other stories of the calling of Jesus' disciples is that in leaving everything at once, there must have been something extraordinarily compelling in Jesus' appearance or invitation. This, for me, is also the point of many of the healings and miracles - they point to something incredibly compelling in the person of Jesus;.

First Parable - Chapter 13

Workers in the Vineyard - often overlooked, it is one of the most powerful in dealing with radical inclusion, e.g. the steward keeps coming back to hire those available for work - strong men and boys first, then less strong and probably older men, then the stronger women, then the marginalized, many of which probably just woke up after a lifetime of drinking. . . .

Other parables only in Matthew  (Pearl, Treasure, Wheat and Weeds, Unmerciful Servant)
The Jesus Seminar scholars rate Matthew's Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard as  RED, one of the few that are reliably Jesus' parables in Jesus' words. (worth another Forum)

Like Mark's Gospel, at the midpoint of the Gospel, in Caesarea Philippi - Jesus asks "Who do men say that I am. . ." everything changes, from Jesus' teaching and forming his community to his path to his death on the Cross.

The story of the children brought to him (19:13f.) is my favorite for teaching Walter Wink's method of Bible study. Wink believes that most Bible study is spiritually bankrupt, as it doesn't change anyone. Using this story I ask a group to form themselves into several small groups: the children who don't know what is going on, their parents who are intent on getting their children into Jesus' presence for his blessing, the disciples who believe Jesus wants to be protected from insignificant children, and Jesus.

Then the action begins with parents and disciples struggling, the children doing whatever they feel like doing in the midst of such anger and recriminations, and Jesus finally shoving the disciples aside.  Then the questions: Who are the children in me - sometimes confused or afraid - and sometimes knowing that we are safe and thoroughly loved? Who are the parents in me, wanting so much for myself or my family but being frustrated? Who are the disciples, living by what we thought were the rules, but discovering that we were wrong all along? And who is the Jesus in me, having to reach through all kinds of crap for what we know is right and true?

The costs of Discipleship and the path to Jerusalem.

Signs of the End, including the Last Judgment.

The Last Supper & Betrayal (how the different gospel writers treat the betraying kiss of Judas reveals one of the most powerful moments in history - more in a future Forum)

The Passion.followed by Matthew's version of the Post-Resurrection appearances by Jesus.

The final words of the Gospel, about going into the world, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are certainly thrilling; but it is clear that they were added later, as any clear notion of the Trinity had yet to be formed.
           
Some things from Matthew's Gospel that are unique to him.
            The women in the geneology, also Matthew begins with Abraham, Luke with Adam
            Significant differences in Birth Narratives from Luke (no birth narrative in Mark or John)
            The Story of the Wise Men
            The Flight to Egypt
            The place of Jewish Law in our lives.
            Sermon on the Mount
                        Beatitudes, "Judge Not . . .," etc..
            Various parables not in Mark or Luke

Things which may seem odd:
            Matthew is not the first Gospel, last of the Synoptics  Date 95-105
            End of Chapter 26 (end of Matthew) tacked on many years later (Trinity)
            Legendary character of several stories
                        Dream of Pilate's wife
                        Pilate washing his hands
                        Earthquake & ghostly apparitions at death of Jesus

Take your time with Matthew's gospel. There are parts which will touch you deeply.

P.S.  While you are here, you may want to check out my 15 Minute Play on Forgiveness (1/10/2012), the description of my opera which will be produced at The Cell Theatre in Albuquerque in mid-June (2/8/2011) and the aria of Bobbie Wentworth and the closing duet (both at 7/27/2012)