Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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


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.

            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.


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.


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.


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.


           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)
            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.


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)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Sell All My Possessions?" Really?

Now the great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned to them and said to them, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Luke14:25-33.

The Gospel for this Sunday [September 8] looks like the worst  possible challenge for a preacher. On its surface there is one contradiction after another: we are to reject our loved ones, calculate the odds for making any changes in our lives, give away the things we treasure, and then take a leap of faith so we can follow Jesus. As my children used to say, “Big Whoop!”
As I said, on the surface all that sure looks to me like a contradiction --  not only to the values of the teaching of Jesus, but the heart of who we are as families. But after struggling with this Scripture for a long time, it seems to me that the key to this Sunday’s gospel and to much of our lives as Christians may be in that last word about our “possessions.” Note that the word is not “belongings,” but possessions. Or, to shift to the subjective pluperfect subjunctive (I’m kidding) it is about the things that possess us. I’m pretty sure Jesus is talking about the things in our lives which possess us, which work to diminish our identity, our authenticity, our God given vocation as human beings.
As an almost frivolous example, many years ago I inherited a lovely piece of furniture, a Queen Anne Highboy. But whenever I moved, and was looking a new house, the first question was always, “How will this house accommodate the Queen Anne Highboy?” The obvious question arose, “Did I own the Highboy or did the Highboy own me?”
On a more critical level, sometimes it is our children who possess us. There are parents of children who have quite clearly chosen a path toward self-destruction; parents who will sacrifice everything for that child, with the result that both parent and child end up with . . .or being nothing.  My Senior Warden in Madison, Wisconsin had adult son who for years was drunk or shooting up one substance or another -- and in the process had run through a good bit of her money. He was, of course, always repentant: “Honest, Mom, this is the last time.”
One December night, though, when the time was 2 am and the temperature was 12 degrees outside and it was snowing, Henry was knocking on her door. He just wanted a warm place and a few dollars.  Natalie said, “No.” The only way to love him was to reject being possessed by him or owned by him. And that can happen with any aspect of our lives.
Every level of our lives: note Jesus uses the word “hate,” not despise. He is talking about all those ties which more than bind. They choke our life, our possibilities, our souls. And it’s not that these things are imposed on us. Sometimes we create them out of own need.  Shortly after my wife, Ann, and I were married and trying to sort through all the complications of a blended family, Ann noticed something in my pattern of raising my own children. So she remarked, “You know something, Tom. Our job as parents is to raise our children to respect us, not to love us. If they end up loving us, that is a wonderful bonus, a gift. But when we raise them to love us, we cripple them for a lifetime. So, too, when we clergy or teachers condition our parishioners, our students to love us, we cripple them.
            All this is not unlike those who volunteer for one thing after another out of a sense of guilt or duty. Make no mistake about it, the recipients of their care know what is going on. It’s no secret. The worst thing about that is that it ends up as Sloppy Agape. It’s not about loving or caring: it is about being loved . . being affirmed. . and being relieved of guilt.
            Some would say that one of the requirements of tough love is detachment -- of not being possessed by. It’s refusing to idolize anything, anyone – not even the church, not even Jesus. That’s true. Sometimes we are tricked into wanting to be just like Jesus and we lose sight of ourselves and our unique place in world, in the kingdom.
This church was born from two traditions which, in the cause of being fully engaged with the living God, claimed the reality of Protestant, from the root meaning of “protesting.” The Lutheran and Anglican churches are committed to protesting everything that is less than or a distortion of the vision, the life of being in Christ.
            There is a rhythm to our time together in worship. We begin with our confession of sin, offering up all those ways our lives are possessed by the things, patterns, commitments, and emotional states that keep us from living lives of love and fullness and deep joy – lives for which we have been created by God. Week after week, there is that process of confessing, letting go. And then, with open hands, we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, opening ourselves to God’s loving support and empowerment – empowerment for growing into our full authenticity and completeness. Week by week it is letting go and receiving:  letting go and receiving.
            So let us step back. Is Jesus saying that we can’t love our children, parents, friends? Of course not.  But we are not to possess or be possessed by them. We don’t own our children, our spouses, parents, friends. They come to us as gifts, as all things come to us, as gifts.  It should never come down to a matter of control. .but gratitude.
            To be a disciple: in my experience, one of the reasons we call Jesus “the Christ” is that in his words, in his ways, in his presence we see. . or surmise a quality, a depth of life and living that is far beyond anything that the world can offer. We see in him, I think, an invitation for living and loving, of integrity and the joy of serving. It is an invitation to a life of standing over against all that is life sapping or life denying and standing with the poor and those who struggle or are beaten down. There is nothing like it.
            So how to sum it all up, put it all together? I think if I had to choose one character (not from the Bible) as an example of vocation in the kind of world we are living in, it would be Murray, in Herb Gardner's play, "A Thousand Clowns."  Murray does not sound very religious, but a wise person would say that he is talking about life as it is given to us, and speaking deeply about the things of the spirit. Because Murray has been a pretty unconventional guardian for his young nephew, a social worker has come to see about taking the boy away. 
At one point, the social worker speaks sharply to Murray, saying "Murray, you've got to come back to reality!"  Murray responds, "Well, O.K., but only as a tourist," echoing St. Paul’s words about our being citizens of heaven, ambassadors from another world. Then Murray talks about the child's future and in these words we may find something of our own vocation: 

“And he started to make lists this year. Lists of everything: subway stops, underwear, what he's gonna do next week. If somebody doesn't watch out he'll start making lists of what he's gonna do for the next ten years. Hey, suppose they put him in with a whole family of list-makers?  He'll learn to know everything before it happens, he'll learn how to be one of the nice dead people. .I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he won't turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he'll know when he's chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won't notice it when it starts to go.  I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are. I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it's worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”

That's the crucial thing about living, all of living. Along with all that troubles or delights us from day to day and all the crises that befall us, it is the reaching for that subtle, sneaky, important reason why we were born human beings and not chairs that mark us as disciples of the Lord of Life.