Showing posts with label Matthew. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Matthew. Show all posts

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Do not be Anxious! (Matthew 6:25-34)

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:25-34)


Jesus' sermon so far has focussed on the importance of a new focus, one which displays a certain holy contempt for earthly things: no longer are riches the foundation of prosperity, in fact, blessed are the poor in spirit! But far from less, far from promising less than riches, he has offered more: "for theirs is the kingdom of God." (Mt. 5:3) The antitheses, in their own way, are also rejections of purely earthly things: no longer, for instance, is the one who wins a fight the true victor - no, now Jesus says "I say to you, do not resist an evildoer, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also..." (Mt. 5:39) Our reward for our actions is also not to be considered an earthly one - if we seek the glory given by humans, then "you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Mt. 6:1) In fact, we cannot serve two masters: Christ puts before us the earthly and the heavenly, and we must choose. (cf. Mt. 6:24)

Who will we serve? The answer for the Christian is clear: "is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" Or in other words, is there not more to life than the earthly? Yet the consequence is also clear: "Therefore, do not worry about your life", for our earthly life to which he refers truly is more than the acquisition of wealth, the securing of food and shelter, the clothing of the body. Is this not so in common experience? When we merely seek after earthly things, we grow weary, because we must simply repeat the process again and again: we are like tedious cleaners in a messy room, each day cleaning, each day our work is undone, a never ending cycle of repetition.

All those who have launched themselves into the vowed life have understood it: life is more than the earthly. They have lowered themselves to be like the birds of the air, who also depend on God's providence. In observing how God cares for the birds and even the grass with matchless providence, we too must set aside purely earthly concerns. One might return "this is not realistic, I must work for my bread!" - yet this would be to misunderstand. Consider more closely the birds: much of their life is spent in pursuit of food. To eschew anxiousness is not to wallow in laziness, as if the providence of God precludes work. It does not! Jesus nonetheless tells us "do not be anxious!" We are to avoid worrying about what the morrow may bring. Now is the present, today is our gift, let us not be overly concerned about what may not even come.

We are to avoid anxiousness about earthly things, and even more than the other animals, for we have been given the grace of a more intimate communion with God. For the human, made in the image of God, the earthly cannot suffice. The mystics in particular have understood this - in the words of St Teresa of Àvila's famous prayer:

"Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing; 
God alone suffices."

Since God alone will quench the spark of divine thirst in us, does it make sense to always look out for worldly things? No - this world is good, but passing. We are not entirely unlike the grass of the field, who grow and blossom, then decay until death. Yet the promise of Christ is for more, more than this world in its transience, we are to seek the kingdom of God. Lest we think we are missing out in this life, all the good of this world is retained, indeed, Jesus says: "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

Monday, 22 July 2013

Thus Saith the Lord (Jesus Christ): The Mathean Antitheses in Matthew 5 as a Christological Clue

Comments on the individual passages making up Matthew's gospel, chapter 5, can be found here: Matthew 5:1-12, Matthew 5:13-16, Matthew 5:17-20, Matthew 5:21-26, Matthew 5:27-32, Matthew 5:33-37, Matthew 5:38-42, Matthew 5:43-48.

There is a tendency and trap that is easy to fall into which renders the sermon on the mount as merely a quaint lecture giving some good moral principles. The popular notion these days is hence that Jesus was a good moral teacher, who said some important ethical things whilst he was around on Earth, and for those who dislike the Church, that these moral teachings slipped under the radar because we have been far too concerned with theological nuances and fighting heresy. "We want 'blessed are the poor in spirit,' not that dreadful concern for orthodoxy," some say, and perhaps it is true that doctrine has taken up a lot of our time and efforts. It is important, of course, but that is not what I want to discuss presently.

The point remains that to a large extent, it is easy to forget what a startling sermon Jesus is giving. We have seen that the general structure to the antitheses is "You have heard that it was said...but I say to you...," but once we translate the culture into our modern context, it becomes clear how startling that it. Consider if instead it was rendered:

"God had told I say to you..."

 This is, after all, exactly what the Jews of the time should have been thinking. This teaching that Jesus refers to merely as something that was said was none other than the words of the Torah, the Law, which God had given to Israel - this was the highest possible revelation, it was considered the word of God! So Jesus is not just saying "there's this moral teaching you've been hearing for a while - that's not quite enough, let me revise it," he is also assuming upon himself the authority to revise or to fulfil the very teaching of God!

In this context, when Jesus says "I have come to fulfil, not to abolish" takes on another meaning: it is also a statement of continuity between the God of Israel and himself. It is a sort of warning against thinking that Jesus is setting himself up and against the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" - certainly, he presumes the power to give a revised law, but it should not be understood in terms of rupture from the Israelites Mosaic Law.

For these reasons, I think that Jesus is effectively using the "thus says the Lord" that the prophets all used to make clear who they were speaking for. He is saying it, nonetheless, in a way none of the prophets ever did: "Thus says the Lord - me."

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Love for Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy . (v. 43)
This antithesis, the very last one, is different for two reasons, and here is one of them - "and hate your enemy" is never said in the Law, whereas all the other things that the crowds had heard said were. How can Jesus say this, then? Well, as I have commented before, the antitheses are about deepening the national law of Israel to the fullness of the moral law. In moral terms, the Israelites may have come to the conclusion that the restriction of loving one's neighbour to the fellow Israelite (see Leviticus 19) and the demands on Israel during times of war to be almost ruthless with enemies (for instance, see Deuteronomy 7,20) meant that they were under obligations to their kinsmen to love, and should hate the outsiders (who were all pretty much enemies, since they were in enmity with the God of Israel).

Funnily enough, Christopher Hitchens is in agreement with the traditional understanding of to whom the love should concern: he found it dangerous that anyone would be told to love their enemies, since they must be dealt with. This is, in fact, true - to a degree: at a national law level, it is important that the state be allowed to wage a "just war" or whatever need be. It is important, for instance, that Great Britain not turn the other cheek and love the Third Reich during WWII. Hence, for the United Kingdom, "love your neighbour and hate your enemies" should be the law.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...(v. 44)

Individuals, however, are not nations. With this in mind, Jesus says that we as persons and the Church as a whole (since Matthew often speaks to the disciples as a place-holder for the future Church, for instance see a comment made here)  must love even our enemies.

We will be eternally confused if we persist in our modern day notions of love with this passage. How are we meant to feel nice things about our enemies? Such people would not be our enemies if we wanted to hug them and hold their hands along the shore! It is prudent, therefore, to redefine our notions of love in a Christian context to the underlying Greek agape. Perhaps even using the Latin-derived charity would also do well, though even charity has connotations of mere niceness. At the end of the matter, we must understand that the call to love is self-giving, even to those who we want to give nothing at all: our enemies.

What about prayer? I think this is added to emphasize the point, and accentuate it. This love is not a matter of being polite to one's enemies, or a respect for their human dignity out of common decency. Jesus definition of love may as well be this: love is actively seeking the good of the object of that love. What does one do for those whose good one seeks? One prays for them. One also does many other things, but it takes an odd strain of love (the one we are asked to have) to pray for the one by whom one is persecuted. The (wordly) desire tends to be one of "I shall be nice to them if you want, but I do not desire to have to live with them for all eternity in heaven."

" that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (v. 45)

What does loving have to do with being a son of the Father? I suspect the link is a culturally bound one where "like father, like son" was a lot closer. I think, and I may well be wrong, that what Jesus is saying is "so that you may be like your Father in heaven," but with the much stronger usage of the very powerful similarity between parent and child. This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the next clause in which God is said to bring rain and sunshine on all without partiality, indicating God's love for both the just and unjust.

Note: I'll leave for another time the justice in being impartial between the just and unjust.

For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (vv. 46-47)

Jesus points out that loving the people it is easy to love, or the ones we have those feelings for, is not actually something of moral worth. What takes real mettle is doing it when one does not really want to anyway. The language is a little different to that, though: "what reward have you?" Well, what reward would we have the other way? It seems much more rewarding to love those who love us back!

We will see in the next section, chapter six, that there is more than one kind of reward, more than one kind of treasure - and we should be aiming to be rewarded from our heavenly Father, and accrue treasures in heaven.

You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (v. 48)

There is two levels of meaning here; first, as an end to this sixth antithesis, and second as an end to all six antitheses.

As an ending to this subsection, we ought to note the Semitic use of the term "perfect." Jesus does not ask us to be omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent, nor is he just asking for us to be omni-benevolent in the sense of lacking imperfections. This is, in a way, a standard we should aim for, but here perfect means "full" - like how "brought to perfection" is synonymous with "brought to completion", even though the first kind is a somewhat archaic use of the term. Our love should be complete, full - in just a word, perfect.

As an ending to the whole passage of the antitheses, this deepening of the law to its fullness is what Jesus began saying he would do (I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil), so that anybody who follows this deeper law to the very letter is indeed perfect, at least in moral terms.

It therefore sets the tone for the moral life - who can do this? Of course, the Christian answer has always been: Jesus alone. 

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Concerning Adultery and Divorce (Matthew 5:27-32)

 The traditionally labelled second and third antitheses are closely related because they both deepen the Law such that certain behaviours are now considered adultery or precursors to adultery. The section begins:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (vv. 27-28)

Just as anger was in some sense equivalent to murder in the heart, so too lust is equivalent to adultery in the heart. There is a definite logic behind this idea: adultery is sex outside the marital bonds, and lust is desire for sex outside marital bonds.[1] Or to express it another way, adultery is an inordinate act of sex, and lust is the inordinate desire for sex.

Adultery, as I have said before, is necessarily a breaking of the marital bonds with sex outside of them, and lust-as-adultery-of-the-heart is therefore also in the context of marriage. Nonetheless, lust outside marriage is also sinful, but it becomes lust-as-fornication-in-the-heart, not adultery of the heart. That means that lust even after one's future wife is sinful.

How does one cope with something that seems as innate as a desire? Jesus continues:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (vv. 29-30)

 I think this is clearly hyperbole to make a point, but it is a forceful point nonetheless. Jesus' advice appeals to priorities: the eternal matters more than the temporal. It is worth gorging out an eye if it causes you to sin, because sin kills and condemns eternally, whereas it is only temporarily that one would be without an eye. If the problem were really solved by taking out the eye, then it would be worth it.

Now, a quick word on hell. It is interesting that people complain about God in the Old Testament scriptures being a good of anger and judgement, and Jesus the revelation of God as loving, kind and nice, because this is far from the case. One has to cherry-pick from the Old Testament to find God as solely angry, but one also has to cherry-pick from the New Testament to find God as solely nice. The fact is, Jesus speaks about hell more than the whole Old Testament, as far as I can tell. This is not surprising, since Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," is keenly aware of the consequences involved with sin. Nonetheless, the use of the imagery of fire is not exactly literal, not exactly metaphorical - fires of hell refers to, in the Greek, the Valley of Gehenna, a place south of Jerusalem which served as a large dumb, where rubbish was burned continuously. It is a real place that Jesus refers to, but what we call hell is not literally that place south of Jerusalem, particularly because such a place no longer exists. Perhaps we should take this as indication that hell no longer exists! More seriously, this talk of hell is borrowing imagery to make a point, not speaking of a real pit of fire.

How does one apply this? One is meant to see how intensely important it is to avoid hell. If going to the bar with one's friends might cause drunkenness, then it is better to cut off those friendships (gathering in that particular context) than go to hell. If walking down certain streets makes on burn with lust, but it is the only way to get to work on time and avoid being fired, then it is better to lose one's job than one's soul.

Is that not too radical? Well, it depends on whether one thinks damnation is a big problem or something of relatively small dimension. Jesus' argument rests on this point: that no cost is too great for avoiding hell.

This little section is actually quite amusing, Jesus is not actually illustrating how to deal with lust and adultery as much as he is setting up the principle that things must be removed if they cause sin. The implication seems to be that, if one is tempted to commit adultery, one should cut off the parts involved in adultery. This is a crowd which is made up of mostly men, I suspect, so the idea is "cut off even your testes and penis before you would commit adultery." See how Jesus can also be funny, in his own dark way?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (vv. 31-32)

 Here, I remind that the Law was a national law, which means that at times the morality was made more lax for the sake of the people's ability to function.[2] Now Jesus is revealing, or making explicit, the fullness of the moral law, where divorce is not permitted (except on the grounds of unchastity). There is actually some debate about whether the Greek is correctly understood as "unchastity," but I will have to trust the translators since I am not able to judge for myself.

From this section alone, Jesus explains the moral law as saying that no longer may it be deemed fine to divorce except under very particular circumstances. The companion passage on divorce in St Matthew's writings is Matthew 19, but let me not confuse teachings, and centre primarily on this text here.

Jesus' rationale is interesting, because it is not immediately obvious why divorce makes the wife an adulteress. Is it because she will be forced to re-marry, since at that time being a single woman was practically impossible? I think this is the most likely explanation. Why is it unchastity? Very simple: divorce does not really exist. Issuing a certificate of divorce cannot separate the man and woman united in marriage, because no such thing can annul a covenant. So when one attempts to remarry and begins marital relations, what happens? One is having sex outside true wedlock, and is therefore committing adultery. That is why whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery - she is the wife of another person.

The interesting consequence of this is that marrying a woman who was divorced, but whose husband has now died, is no longer adultery under that logic. The ending of the covenant of marriage at death was the idea that St Paul appeals to in Romans 7 - although with Jesus conquering death, it is not entirely obvious that now marriage can endure and conquer death too.   

How should this play out in the Church and in the world? Well, it is my opinion that the defenders of marriage as it has universally been understood (between members of opposite sex), throughout most cultures and times, lost their battle when they allowed divorce. What demeans the institution more, hitherto unheard of unions or complete freedom to break off at whim? It is my contention that secular legalization of divorce is a far greater evil, has and will continue to produce far more broken families, children without both parents, than same-sex marriage will. Does that mean same-sex marriage is just fine, since marriage is already broken? It does not follow in the slightest. Still, one's platform is backwards if one is pro-divorce but against same-sex marriage.

Amidst all the wordliness that has crept into Christendom, it is reassuring that the Church has stuck by her commitment to the truth, even though all of England went Anglican because she would not compromise and let a randy monarch have a divorce, and even though many hate her for it.

[1] If this is the correct analogy being made, then it follows that desire for sexuality after one's own husband or wife is not lust, and not sinful.
[2] Jesus will later say that divorce was permitted because of the hardness of heart of the Israelites - permitted in Deuteronomy, though, which is the second law.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Concerning Anger (Matthew 5:21-26)

The Mathean antitheses form the backbone of Jesus as New Moses in the sermon on the mount. The original Moses on Mt Sinai gave the Law which was to essentially be the legislation of the nation of Israel. It dealt a great deal with outward righteousness because Israel was meant to be an example to all the nations.

Now, Jesus says that our righteousness must surpass that if we are ever to enter the kingdom of heaven. What will that involve? It is very simple really: what previously applied to actions, now applies also to the heart. Without more delay, the words of Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (vv. 21-22)

Jesus reiterates that killing is unlawful, but that's not enough. The new righteousness goes beyond that to say that whoever is angry with his brother sins also ("shall be liable to judgement"). Let me side track for a moment to give a very important comment: "brother" corresponds always in the gospel according to St Matthew, as far as I can tell, to fellow members of the Church, fellow Christians. This is perhaps unfortunate for those who want to use the very strong words of Jesus in chapter 25 to be about general social justice, and I count myself among them (though this is hardly the only text that makes this point), but it does lead to an interesting issue: if this is the case, then St Matthew is portraying Jesus as somewhat anachronistic, saying things that do not yet make sense. Very well, since Jesus is aware of what will happen after his resurrection, and knows that he will found the Church, it is not in the slightest unreasonable to suggest that Jesus can speak beforehand what will soon be in effect. The interesting part is that the idea that "all this stuff is essentially pre-cross and corresponds to the Old Testament" also has to be denied, because that is an appeal to the timing of his words, and yet we have just granted that Jesus speaks of post-cross events in talking of the Church. Even chapter 25 itself will make this point, whether you think brother is Christian or not, but I think it should be outlined first here.

Back to the passage, Jesus speaks about degree of consequences: liability to judgement of some sort for anger at a brother, liability to a council for insulting him, and liability to the fires of hell for saying, "You fool!" What does this hierarchy imply if not that some sins are worse than others, and hence carry larger consequences than others? We should therefore treat the hierarchy properly.

It is interesting to note that hell and council judgement have a very similar antecedent: I have heard that saying "you fool" was far worse then than it is now, and that seems to fit this, so due to lack of knowledge, I will have to defer to others.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  (vv. 23-25)

There's an issue that Jesus addresses here in the first antithesis, and that is, what if we do anger or insult our brother? What then? The Mosaic Law had very specific guidelines for what to do in cases of each sin. He does not propose another sacrifice of a lamb or turtle dove - the sacrifice he requires is much greater. We are to swallow any pride and go reconcile ourselves to our brother, and then come and give our offering. The offering we give nowadays could be understood sort of symbolically as the living sacrifice that we offer to God, as seen in Romans 12, but more concretely it refers to the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Eucharist we offer up Christ, and I think Jesus instructs us to reconcile ourselves to our brethren before thence. Beyond that though, in partaking directly of the Eucharist, we participate most prominently in the offering, and in doing so in such a state (more generally and commonly known as "state of mortal sin") we run the risk of what Jesus says next:
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. (v. 25)

So what consequences could come? In a word, judgement. That judgement will be just, for Jesus says that ever last penny shall be paid - there is no longer any leeway once the matter is taken to the judge and the guard. Far better then to settle the matter quickly with one's brother before things escalate out of proportion.

I mentioned the liturgy once, let me do it once again, because it is one of the most beautifully rich things the Church offers. Here Jesus calls for reconciliation before the offering, and this is what is represented in the liturgy with the penitential rite, the offering of the sign of peace and the Our Father. First, we confess our sins to God "and to you my brothers and sisters." This is the first step in reconciliation. Later, we offer each other the sign of peace, which is both a real desire for peace with the other, but also a sort of peace treaty, in that we extend the invitation for reconciliation. Later still we pray the Our Father, which I will comment on soon, but it suffices to remind that one of the lines is "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" - either we are asking to be set as the standard for forgiveness, or we are actually acknowledging the fact of the matter which is that we have already forgiven those who sin against us. Then comes the Eucharist.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Not to Abolish, but to Fulfil (Matthew 5:17-20)

St Matthew has presented Jesus as going up the mount, giving the beatitudes and informing the Church of her function as salt of the earth and light of the world. I wrote a bit about what that meant, and it involved what one might mundanely call "doing good works," or more poetically express this as "reflecting the light and glory of Christ" or "presenting Jesus Christ in word and deed." All these point to the same underlying truth, that the Church is called to the very highest standard of morality - indeed the next section of the sermon, known as the "antitheses" ends with Jesus commanding:

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
(v. 48)

This conclusion to the antitheses is the interpretive key to the whole of the sermon on the mount, particularly the moral teaching. What is Jesus doing? Isn't he just contradicting six sections of the Mosaic Law? No, he is not. Yet nor is he strictly speaking just interpreting the spirit of the law.

"‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." (vv. 17-18)

Jesus is very clear that he is not here to get rid of the Law (capitalized to show that I refer to the Mosaic Law - though I may be inconsistent) or the prophets. This "law and prophets" is used to refer to the Old Testament, which is the only collection of Sacred Scripture that existed at the time, and so denotes the totality of what is nowadays the Old Testament. Is the wisdom literature Scripture? Absolutely. But that got canonized after the Law (Pentateuch - five books of Moses) and prophets did, so I suspect the idiom just stuck. So he is not here to get rid of the teachings of the Old Testament. [1] He is saying this, however, because it might seem like it when he starts giving people his teaching.

Having been warned, we should expect that Jesus' words sound like contradiction when they are in fact not. What does it mean to not abolish but fulfil? Well, abolishing something means getting rid of it. Fulfilling something can either mean bringing to completion or bringing it fullness (fulfilling comes from filling to full). It is not clear from the word fulfil itself whether completion implies finish and end, but the next line leaves no doubt: "until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not the stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished." The law is here to stay for some time yet. So what is the change? It is not simply a new interpretation, for fulfilling means more than "showing true meaning."

Jesus adds, and does not take away. His commands go deeper than the Law without removing anything. His formulaic statement is "You have heard it said that...but I say to you..."  which may as well be "You have heard it said that...and I say to you that even..." For example, adultery is immoral described as immoral in the Mosaic Law, and it is still immoral now - but even lusting after a married woman, or when married, is adultery of the heart.[2]

Why deepen the Law when it was already hard enough? Jesus continues:
"Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (vv. 19-20)

There is something rather interesting about this part, because whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments is not necessarily condemned - he will simply be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Are the least in the kingdom of heaven actually in hell? Well, it is not clear, specially since Jesus talks directly afterwards about people who will never enter the kingdom of heaven. I suspect the answer is that breaking one of the least of the commandments of the law will not cause one to go to hell, but it surely will not make one great there. That seems to be what the text is saying.

Here is why it is important to deepen the Law: observance of the Law is not enough. One has to be even more righteous than the greatest observers of the Law, that is, the scribes and Pharisees. Unless one is more righteous than even these most pious of the Jews, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

So the antitheses are going to fulfil the Law in the sense that they will go all the way, express the Law to the fullest. Observance of these will imply perfection, "as your heavenly Father is perfect." When we get to them, we will be forced to ask, as the disciples did  a little later, "who then can enter the kingdom of God?" Is it really possible to observe such penetrating commands?

[1] Insofar as Old Testament refers to the old covenant, it reaches its end in the Paschal ministry of Jesus on the cross, when he ushers in the New Testament - the new covenant. Here I mean the set of teachings found in the books referred to as Old Testament.
[2] Adultery is necessarily a marital sin, one that occurs within the context of the covenant of marriage - yet lest we think that lust when unmarried is fine, remember that an analogous statement could be made for lust and fornication. Still sin, just under a different name, with different immediate effects.

Salt and Light of the World (Matthew 5:13-16)

"‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:13-16)

Right after the beatitudes, but before he gives his antitheses ("you have heard it said...but I say" statements) there is this interesting passage here. What is its role structurally? I think the answer is, after giving the blessings, Jesus is trying to explain to them the context of what he is about to give them. The explanation for their calling to holiness that they're going to receive (cf. Mt 5:48) is one both of function and of identity. This is a pure metaphor that Jesus uses, in that he says that the people listening are the salt of the earth and the light of the world; it is their identity. They are identified primarily by their function - the functions that light and salt have.

Before I get to the very important question of what those functions are, one must first ask "who are the people that are listening?" In verses 1-2 of chapter 5 we read that:

"Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:"
(Matthew 5:1-2)

It is clear that his sermon is in response to the crowds, but the disciples are the closest ones nonetheless. I contend that the sermon on the mount in general, but this statement of vocation in particular, is directed at the Church. Although the foundation of the Church in St Matthew's gospel is not going to be until chapter 16, I think that this sermon is directed towards this proto-church in a literary sense, even though anything in the New Testament is written in actual fact after the establishment of the Church.

Why do I think this is directed at the Church? Because these are the crowds that are following Jesus and want to listen to what he has to say. Though it is true that to be a part of the Church, one then has to believe what he says, nonetheless this essential feature of the Church is present in this multitude: they want to hear Jesus.

Hence, being salt and light are functions of the Church. So what do they do? Salt nowadays is used to make things taste better, but back then the primary function was one of preservation. Salt preserved food from spoiling, and so we too are called to stop the world from spoiling. Is it not already spoiled by sin, though? Yes, to some degree. We are to keep it from spoiling further insofar as we are salt.

So the problem with being the salt of the earth comes when it does not make a difference, when having salt on or not is irrelevant - that is, it tastes the same either way. It has lost its taste. The Church stops being the salt of the earth whenever she decides that it is fine to be worldly, to assimilate into culture, to be just another institution, perhaps a bit older and wiser than the others, but relatively similar. She becomes not a force for preservation, but at most a reminder that at some point people thought it necessary to fight to preserve what was good. The Church, when it becomes an NGO, stops being the hands and feet of her Lord, and to put it how Jesus does, "it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."

The Church must be different to everyone else, by the simple fact that her essence is not of this world. She holds the treasure of Christ in earthen vessels - but the outward appearance should never diminish the value of the endless riches stored within. To assimilate into worldliness means she has lost the treasure of Christ, for the world does not have Christ, only substitutes. [1] 

Not only salt, but also the light of the world. On a slight tangent, those Bible scholars that are of the opinion that the gospel according to St John has another, non-historical Jesus, have this issue to contend with. In that gospel account, Jesus declares himself to be the light of the world whilst he is in it, and here, he endows that position to the Church, his body. There is a clear continuity even if certainly differences in style and sources.

Light has a very obvious function: it illuminates, allows us to see. The Church is the light by which the world can see. This is not a new task - Israel has been entrusted with this task already (cf. Isaiah 42:6). So we can infer that the Church must illuminate not any truth, but particularly the truths of God. Even more, the Church is to proclaim the radiance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, now a message entrusted with her until the age to come.

Given that she is light, what must the Church do? Show it. Jesus points out that when one has a light, it is never hidden - for why would one put a lamp under a basket? That is not what lights are for. They ought to be put atop a hill, or on a lampstand, so the whole house can receive illumination. The Church is now that city on the hill which must not and cannot be hidden - and again, this is not a new task. Anyone at the time would have known that Jerusalem was the city on the hill, Mt Zion. The Church is the New Jerusalem.

 Being the light to the nations in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah, meant speaking the word of God, and being the example for all others to follow. This has not now changed, and it is with our own lives that we must preach the word. Our light is Christ, and Christ is made manifest in our lives - always with the purpose of those works being seen to give glory to God, not to receive it ourselves. Entrusted as we are with a message, we cannot allow the Church to become just a do-good institution - yet we cannot in the same measure simply be tellers of Jesus' words and not also doers. Both are crucial to the Church.

[1] Interestingly, whether or not the Vatican recognizes a church organization depends on whether they have the Eucharist. So having Christ's very flesh is part of the Church in its very essence.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

One of the archetypical pictures of Jesus is him giving the beatitudes - a series of blessings to certain groups of people. There is another, shorter set in Luke's gospel, which I can use redaction criticism on later on and compare the two. For now, let me centre on St Matthew's account. Allow me also to note how these blessings fit into a covenantal framework in which Jesus operates: when covenants are made, their clauses have covenant blessings for those who are faithful to it, and covenant curses to those who are unfaithful to it. These are then the new covenant blessings, I think, which should be contrasted with the new covenant woes (or curses) later on.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 3)

This term "poor in spirit" is interesting in that poor generally means "lacking in [...](usually money)", but "lacking in spirit" is an English idiom equivalent roughly to being downcast. Since this is a modern idiom, I doubt this interpretation is right. Some have interpreted it to mean those who are materially poor, which fits with God's care for the poor as seen throughout the Old Testament, but that interpretation ignores the in spirit bit.

My interpretation goes something like this: blessed are those who realize their spiritual poverty. That is, not so much those who lack a spirit as some kind of entity, but more, those who are spiritually humble, who recognize their spiritual deficit. One objection to this is that, in reality, everyone is poor in spirit before God, so by that measure, everyone's is the kingdom of heaven. I do not think this objection is a good one, since this is a public sermon in which people are going to be relating these terms to themselves. Some of the audience will think "truly I am poor in spirit", and then be contented by the blessing, but others (and St Matthew probably has the Pharisees in mind) will think of themselves as rich in spirit. The distinction between the two is whether or not they recognize it - but of course, that makes a great deal of difference in practice.

Yet that is not all - I run this risk of over spiritualizing this beatitude if I make it only about knowledge of spiritual poverty, but no more. Being poor in spirit entails not only recognition of that, but also recognition of the material lack. That is to say poor in essence. Material poverty is included because this recognition of "I have nothing before you, God"  extends to both the spiritual and the material.

"...theirs is the kingdom of heaven" From my interpretation, it follows that those who recognize their poverty, both spiritual and material, are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. 

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (v. 4)

This blessing highlights the sad, those who mourn - in general, people who mourn lack something. So I suggest that this blessing is a divine promise that those who do not think they have it all, those who are aware of their lack, will be comforted by God. 

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (v. 5)

This blessing is the clearest example of the upside down kingdom which Jesus proclaims, because the meek are usually the ones trodden on the most - they are not rulers, instead they are the doormats of rulers in this age. Not so in the age to come, Jesus says, for they will inherit the earth! This is also a clear example of how Jesus' heaven is not ethereal and other-worldly; no no, Jesus the redeemer is going to redeem this earth, and give it as inheritance to the meek.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (v. 6)

I suppose the best way to understand this is another "those who recognize they lack will be given to" statement, in that those who are not satisfied with the righteousness they have are the ones who will be given more. A similar sentiment can be found in 1 John where John says that those who are without sin make Jesus out to be deceitful - ahh, but those who sin and plead forgiveness have an advocate with the Father. This is another bid that we recognize our spiritual poverty, this time specifically our moral poverty, that we may hunger ever for more. [1]

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." (v. 7)

It is unfortunate that Matthew was chosen as the first gospel to be read in this reading plan, because it has such richness that points back to the Old Testament. It is, after all, the "Jewish gospel" - and that means it requires even more context. This word "mercy" is one of those key words, I believe, which would gain enormous profundity if the reading plan had covered more of the Old Testament by this point. Not to worry, though, because the common-sense reading is already rich: Jesus blesses those who have mercy, saying that they will be had mercy on. This is not the same as "God will have mercy on you if you have mercy on others," but instead "Those who yearn for God's mercy are merciful." These beatitudes, I contend, should be seen as cumulative in the sense that I think Jesus is blessing the same group with each one. Therefore, I suggest that those will will receive mercy are merciful, over the interpretation "those who are merciful will (for this reason) receive mercy." These things are all attributes of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven, who will see God, who will receive mercy - the attributes are not why they receive these things.

Let me stress another point, though: the merciful are not often thought of as the most forgiven. It is a sad fact of life that far too often, those who are forgiving get trampled on, not given mercy. So here too we see those who are full of mercy being given just what they yearn for themselves: mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (v. 8)

Uh oh.  Nobody who really thinks they are spiritually impoverished also thinks they are pure in heart, I do not think. Has Jesus just alienated everyone?

Yes and no. I contend that here it is a matter of degree. In fact, all of the beatitudes can most aptly be thought of as a matter of degree, but this one most of all, because this one is special. Those who are closest to God are, by his grace, also those who are purest and see God the clearest. I find it difficult to find myself close to God, to see him clearly, but one thing that recurs in the lives of the saints is that as they grow in holiness, they see God all the clearer - in nature, in their brethren, in the faces of others.

Yet there's another way in this is true, and this meaning is profound: if you agree with me that the attributes accumulate and refer to the same group, then this acts as a promise. "You will be pure in heart, and will see God" - because how can you inherit God's kingdom and not see God? So those who hunger for righteousness will be filled, and those same people will be made pure in heart. This is a promise, then, of God's sanctifying grace.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (v. 9)

There's a sort of twist here, because no longer does this have the structure of "recognize need, have that need satisfied," and more generally, the connection between peacemaking and being children of God is not so obvious. Or is it? I'm going to cheat slightly and quote St Paul in chapter 5 verse 1 of his epistle to the Romans: "Having been put right with God by faith, we are at peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

See, the peacemakers really are given peace when they become children of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 10)

 In other words, "blessed are those who put the kingdom first (invariably leading to persecution of some form), for theirs the kingdom of heaven is." This is a blessing for proper prioritization - because you never get persecuted for righteousness sake if looking good in front of everyone is your priority.

"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. " (vv. 11-12)

This blessing is, primarily one of hope, but it shows us two things, and with this I can end. First, Jesus uses the term "rejoice and be glad", which means we can now look back on all those blessings, and mentally replace "blessed" with "happy." The Greek makarios allows for both interpretations, and although I think this idea of covenant blessings is the primary one (because Jesus has just gone up the mount to deliver the law of Christ - mirroring Mount Sinai and the law of Moses), this subversive understanding use of the term "happy" would surely get some heads turning. "Happy are those who mourn"? Really Jesus? "Happy are the poor in spirit?" Surely not! Yet this is proclaimed, good news for the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness' sake, the merciful, pure...these are the true happy ones, Jesus says. His kingdom is upside down, you see - no longer will Caesar rule with all his riches.

Secondly, and here is the interpretive key to all these eight beatitudes: who truly embodies them? Jesus gives us a hint in verse 12, saying "for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." This is the hint we need, because now we know with clarity who embodies these blessings, because it is the same person who embodies the prophets, the revelation from God: Jesus himself.

Who is truly poor in spirit? In St Paul's wonderful poem in his epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2, we read: "...Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." So who is poor in spirit? Jesus Christ on the cross.

Who truly mourns? We see Jesus weep for Jerusalem as he makes his way to sacrifice himself. Then he sees the sins of the world crucifying him, taking their King to death - who mourns? Jesus Christ on the cross.

Who is truly meek? On his way up Calvary, Jesus takes on himself the scorn of the multitudes, as they mock him and whip him. He takes this all the way up, not "getting off the cross" as those who mock him in the crowd say to him to do. Who is meek? Jesus Christ on the cross.

I hope you see where this is going: Jesus Christ on the cross embodies all the beatitudes: hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking, persecution and the object of reviling of men. We must understand the fulfilment of Christ of the beatitudes if we are to understand the victory of Christ.

[1] I have recently finished reading a book by NT Wright, who is known to hold somewhat controversial views on the term righteousness in the writings of St Paul - but for the sake of this, the distinction is not quite so meaningful, instead a matter of emphasis, which I will omit.  

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Beginnings of Jesus' Ministry (Matthew 4:12-25)

As interesting as it is to read about Jesus, it is not until chapter 4 that we read the words of Jesus himself. In the first part of the chapter, Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil; where Israel had failed in the desert, Jesus succeeded, and now he can move on to do what Israel was supposed to do - proclaim the word of God. Israel was meant to be the light for the world, the nation through which salvation would be extended to all, and now we have in Jesus a true Israelite to do what the whole nation was supposed to do.

The passage starts with a bit of narrative and a fulfilled quotation from Isaiah. I am a bit confused as to what to make of Jesus' retreat when John is arrested:

 "Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee" (v.12)

 I may have to think more about why the arrest of John has such an impact.

Next, I would like to urge any reader of the gospel of Matthew to think of many of the things that are "fulfilled" as affirmed in Jesus, more than open-ended prophecies which people are waiting for. Some really are that kind of prophecy - but a lot of the time we see things affirmed in Jesus as the true Christ, more than "this is a prediction which now comes true." Having said that, I am not quite sure under which category this quotation falls: affirmed or predicted-come-true. I suspect the former, just because of where the passage quoted in Isaiah is (the messianic section of Isaiah starts a lot later in the book).

"From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (v. 17)

We have seen how Jesus is being presented to us as the true king of Israel, having been given his Davidic lineage, been named the Messiah, given a miraculous birth, christened Son of God and excelled where Israel had fallen in temptation - now his ministry is going to begin to show this crucial fact. Jesus, King Jesus, has come to announce his kingdom. "The kingdom of heaven" is a foundational theme in the gospel according to St Matthew, and throughout the gospels the message of the King arriving constitutes the essence of what is meant by the "good news", or gospel.[1] 

"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 lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him." (vv. 18-22)

 This account is expanded in the gospel according to St Luke, but we shall get there when we do - it is important to understand passages first within the context of the book itself before venturing out to supplement from elsewhere. Jesus begins forming the inner circle of his group as he walks along the Sea of Galilee.[2] He calls fishermen to follow him and transforms their vocation to the fishing of people. Now, fishermen were abundant at that time around the Sea of Galilee, so we are to understand the call of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, then the two sons of Zebedee, as the calling of ordinary people. Their response is quick and decisive: they respond to Jesus' call and follow "immediately" (vv. 20, 22).

We can nowadays be much more hesitant to respond to Jesus' call to follow him. These first disciples of Jesus, all four of which are saints of the Church and became the foundation of it,[3] are ordinary people when Jesus calls them to be followers of his and fishers of people. They respond in the only way that is proper to respond to the call of God: faith. This passage expresses what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ - to come when he beckons and to step out in trust when there is not proof in the mathematical sense of Jesus' goodness. The responses of these first disciples - by no means perfect people - are an inspiration to me as I consider my own vocation, my own calling, because I think their response is the one Jesus wanted. So then, if I am to live consecrated to the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom I have already pledged all my life, I too must "immediately leave my place and follow him." I am called - yet it is not entirely clear what to. I think reflecting on the beatitudes tomorrow will do me good in that regard. Nonetheless, any who read the words of Jesus are also called to be his followers - we must come when he beckons, and go too where he commands.

"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan." (vv. 23-25)

Jesus' ministry seems to have the following character: he travels, teaches and proclaims the kingdom of heaven (that is, he proclaims the gospel, ancient Greek for "good news"), and ministers to the sick. This is the model that I think many are called to follow, and the close relationship between proclamation of the gospel and works for the sick (or marginalized in general) is one that we sever to the detriment of both. It will become clearer why the two are so related soon in this gospel account.

 Jesus gains himself some fame for these deeds, and people begin to come to him for healing. He gains himself quite the following from the surrounding area - he will soon preach the greatest sermon ever delivered to this crowd, and the message given is perhaps even more counter-cultural now than it was then. The crowds of people delighted that Jesus heals them are going to dwindle when it comes to responding to his call.

[1] For a treatment of this conception of the gospel in the writings of St Paul, see "What Saint Paul Really Said", by NT Wright. His treatment of St Paul the apostle is highly illuminating.
[2] I find the very idea that we can go and walk around the same place that Jesus did to this very day absolutely incredible. The mystery of the incarnation is indeed deep.
[3] See Ephesians 2:20.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Beginnings of Jesus' Ministry (Matthew 3)

(Text: Gospel according to St Matthew (NRSV) )

In the third chapter of the gospel according to St Matthew, John the Baptist is introduced. Before I begin writing down my thoughts on this passage, I want to say a few words on how I am writing these blog posts: as I posted yesterday, I am going through a set reading plan, and I plan to write down my thoughts on the passages I read as I go along. Sometimes it is crucial to get some context to understand a passage, and this might be one of them, but I do not wish to expound a whole theology of baptism before I have gotten to a passage where baptism is in any sense clearly explained. If baptism has to do with repentance, why does Jesus get baptized? If baptism has to do with becoming part of the church...then what in the world is going on here? If, as St Paul says, through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death (see Colossians 2:12 - although I am undecided about Pauline authorship), then how can this possibly happen before Jesus dies, and still the question is asked, why does Jesus get baptized? When we get to later sections dealing with baptism, in particular the right part of the catechism, we may be fit to discuss these problems better. For now, the passage:

John the Baptist appears as a very impoverished man, in his living arrangements (v. 1), his clothes and his food (v. 4). He explains his purpose by quoting Isaiah - I take that verse (v. 3) to mean that John believes he is a sort of herald. This interpretation fits beautifully with how St Matthew has been building up his conception of Jesus: royal bloodline, royal homages, and now, a royal herald.

John's ministry is one of baptism, but it appears to be a baptism distinct to the baptism of nowadays - this is just a baptism of water for repentance, yet reference is made to one different from this, utilizing the Holy Spirit and fire (v. 11). Baptism also appears to involve confession, as seen in verse 6. Now, how does John react to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism? Christians know full well that Jesus and Pharisees did not get along well - but for a first century Jew, these sections of Judaism were among the strictest and most respected. St Matthew has just done some serious juxtaposition in saying that John the Baptist is meant to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (v.3), but then rejects the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What charges are made against this religious establishment? First, they are under wrath, although the question "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (v.7) implies that this is not a particular anger at them. They should bear fruit worthy of repentance - John is saying the equivalent of "repentance without works is dead". The term "worthy" should stick out a bit, because being worthy of repentance is an odd concept - how do you become worthy of turning away from wrongdoing? Although it is a bit of a cop out answer, I suspect St Matthew is just saying in a pointed way "you have repented? Then show it." Again, repentance without works is dead.

John goes on to say "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Let us not confuse this with the converse: John does not say "every tree that bears good fruit will be saved." There is no salvation merely by bearing good fruit - but John does assert that there is no salvation unless there is good fruit involved. We are dealing with good works as necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions.

Finally, we get to the odd bit I mentioned at the beginning, Jesus' baptism. It seems like John has a similar concern to me, but Jesus just responds in what I take to be "this will do - this must be done to fulfil all righteousness." What righteousness he speaks of, I am unsure. The Greek word is dikaiosune, and it often refers to the uprightness and faithfulness of God and his people to the covenant - as such, it is a word associated deeply with the covenant between God and Israel. This sheds, as far as I can tell, no light on the matter, since there is no requirement for baptism at the time. The best I can do is to suggest that Jesus trod the path that we should tread, so it is "proper" (in the NRSV translation that I read, it uses this word and not "right") to do so, for our sake.

One special note: baptism is clearly important. Over this year, I know for certain (largely because I've read large chunks of the Bible already) that baptism is going to be assumed as a thing of the past a lot of the time, and perhaps here we see why; I suspect most people got baptised straight away, just like Jesus gets baptised before he preaches a single word.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Matthean Infancy Narrative (Part 2)

If anybody does not think that Matthew 1 presented Jesus as king, then they might have a bit of a tough time understanding why the wise men come to Jerusalem asking "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" (v. 2)

Now, there are two ways (at least) we can understand the literary effect of including the wise men in the narrative. First, we could view them as being St Matthew's way of introducing Herod and the role he plays. Though a valid understanding, since these men do not have any kind of role after chapter 2, I contend that this gives us a very shallow view. The second seems more likely:

Matthew 1 is about King Jesus, finally come, the true son of David, here to save his people from their sins. Now, even in this chapter, we begin to see the role the book of Isaiah is going to play in how Jesus understands and explains his ministry. Since St Matthew gives no reference to Isaiah other than saying "the prophet", I think it fit to infer that the audience in question would have had a decent grasp of the Old Testament (although he makes reference to Jeremiah explicitly in 2:17 before quoting him). I believe St Matthew has passages such as Isaiah 60 in mind, or perhaps Isaiah 49, where the message of salvation finally goes out to the nations. The wise men here represent the first of these peoples who will flock to Jerusalem, flock to the holy mount Zion and hear the word of God. Right now, these men pay homage to the king of the Jews...but why? I think St Matthew is foreshadowing here the inclusion of the gentiles. Perhaps he is even saying "look, even the pagans pay homage!" before he shows us how the Jews themselves will react to Jesus and his teachings. In that sense, he foreshadows also the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

Herod also appears only in this section in St Matthew's gospel, and his reaction to the wise men is interesting: verse 3 reads "When king Herod heard this he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him." Herod is scared because he knows very well that the Jews are awaiting a king from the line of David, and he can be no such king. Herod has a sort of paranoia that some more active Israelite will plunge a knife in his back or slip something in his drink - so clearly, he is not happy when somebody comes to ask for the king of the Jews. This needs to be dealt with.

Before getting to how Herod deals with this, however, I should comment on the second half of the verse - why is Jerusalem frightened?An anachronistic answer might be that they fear the Messiah will rebuke them, and so they fear his coming. I think it far more likely that Jerusalem is more scared of what Herod will do with this information. Indeed, it is not pretty. Herod tells the wise men to inform him of Jesus' location, and deviously plans to kill him. This is not strictly stated in the text, but Herod is not being very open about this ("Herod secretly called for the wise men..."), and also it is reasonable to infer from what Herod does when this first plan is thwarted - more on that in a moment.

The wise men come to the child Jesus and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from their treasure chests, all with joy. I contend, although there is much room for disagreement, that these gifts are meant to be reminiscent of Solomon, the man with the most gold, and frankincense/myrrh only appear together, to the best of my knowledge, in the Songs of Solomon (see 3:6, 4:6, 4:14). This interpretation fits well with St Matthew's royal portrayal of Jesus, and how the wise men treat him as king, yet the reference may well be obscure. Others have suggested that gold symbolizes his kingship, whereas frankincense his divinity, and myrrh his Passion and death. as myrrh was sometimes used with as a burial ointment (see John 19:39). This was the interpretation of St Irenaeus, and his allegorical interpretation is sound doctrinally, so I have no problem with it. [1]

The most memorable thing that Herod does within the Bible is the massacre of the innocents, but because of no extra-biblical evidence for such a horrific act, some scholars have suggested that it never happened. From a literary standpoint, it is not senseless to have this story here, since one of the the images that St Matthew takes from the Old Testament and applies to Jesus is Jesus as the New Moses (which we shall get to in particular with the sermon on the mount, which reminisces of Mount Sinai). Moses also lives in a time where the authorities are killing children, and Moses also escapes (this is narrated in the book of Exodus). Although more historical evidence would be preferable to properly establish its occurrence, we must understand that Bethlehem is not a very large village, and so the number of children killed would most likely be very small, and it is completely possible that such an event was not newsworthy to later historians, through whom we have no record of it. Herod's evildoings were numerous enough and much more notable in other instances, that this particular one may well have passed under the radar.

One final comment should be made on typology in this passage, because the Isaiah passage earlier and the Hosea passage of verse 15 both seem to be taken wildly out of context if we suppose that St Matthew is using them as proof-texts, or prophecies yet to be fulfilled that come to fruition in Jesus. The verse from Isaiah, in context, seems to be referring to king Hezekiah, who does appear to rescue Israel from various evils (see 2 Kings 18, in particular verses 1-6). The Hosea passage, in turn, refers to the already accomplished (even by the time of Hosea) calling of Israel (God's first born son, Exodus 4:22) out of Egypt. How then, does Jesus fulfil these finished prophecies? The answer is typology. King Hezekiah indeed rescued Israel from various evils, and King Jesus does all the more. Hezekiah is "God With Us", and Jesus, so much more! Jesus is therefore a "type of King Hezekiah", but an ultimate type - ie, the fulfilment of that prophecy. Hosea is not even being prophetic in the quoted verse, and yet just as Israel was called out of Egypt, so too the true and eternal first-born son of God, Jesus, is called out of Egypt. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus makes them come true in the sense that they were still open-ended - nor must we forget that Jesus really is the king that rescues us from evil, that he is "God with us" and that he is the Son of God.

[1] At some point in church history distinctions began to be made between different levels on which the text spoke, and each level gave rise to a way of understanding it. One of these was the allegorical, which does not mean that St Irenaeus was a liberal theologian, simply that he was not reading it as simple history, but also as a literary work. The distinctions were not entirely exact, but in broad strokes some medieval theologians would have a four level system: the literal sense, the allegorical sense, anagogical sense and the moral sense. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mathean Infancy Narrative (Part 1)

The gospel according to St Matthew is one of the two gospels with an infancy narrative, and the Pope Emeritus published some (reportedly) excellent scholarship on it. Since I have not read it and I doubt I could top it, my reflections on this passage will be mostly things that stick out to me, and bits of background information I found illuminating.


"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way."

It is common for very important people (kings and emperors, in particular) in the ancient world to have miraculous birth narratives told of them, and so St Matthew tells of a miraculous birth at the onset of his gospel. From a literary perspective, I think the goal is to elevate this figure Jesus, whom he has already called the Messiah/Christ thrice, to this status of leader, of King. Just because something is a literary device, however, does not mean Jesus was not born of a virgin - indeed, the reference in verse 23 seems to indicate that St Matthew believes this to be an actual event. I personally embrace wholeheartedly the idea that Jesus was born to Mary, the Mother of God - but this is something taken from a richer theological framework, from a broader theology of Scripture and revelation. Nonetheless, that is what the text says: that Jesus, the Messiah, was born of the Virgin Mary.

What about the role of St Joseph? He appears as a rather quiet figure. He is spoken to, but he does not say anything. Similarly, the Church has regarded St Joseph as the quiet father figure, giving him a certain nobility and humility of character. In support of this, the text refers to him as "a righteous man" (v. 19).

Other than his title, the Christ, and his genealogy (being the son of David), we do not know much of Jesus until verse 20. Here we learn that his origin, though Davidic, is also divine: "the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." We also learn in the same verse of his mission, or at least, one of his objectives: "he will save his people from their sins."

When we, as Christians, read this "mission statement" given to Jesus by the angel, we might suddenly envisage the cross, and if we reflect on that image in the context of the annunciation, we may be lead to thinking this is a sad passage; the angel announces Jesus' death even before he is born. This image, though accurate, is not the message I think was trying to be made. Instead, I believe we should try and see this section as the birth of the child of the covenant, the promised son of David who would bring to fulfilment God's plan of salvation that had been begun with Abraham. Here is the person who would set things straight in God's plan, dealing decisively with injustice and evil-doings - that is, putting an end to sin. Notice the wording of the text is not "pay the price for people's sins" or "he will be a propitiation for their sins", but a message of salvation. For the moment, St Matthew is feeding our excitement at how the child Jesus is affirming Messianic expectations - it shan't be long before they are subverted, but not quite yet.

Matthew 1:1-17: The Coming of the King

Genealogies are dull, right?

Well, perhaps to us, and if so, then Matthew 1 is mostly quite dull too. Whatever may be said about inspiration, the gospel of Matthew displays some solid literary skill, though, so it seems like a rather odd oversight to put such a boring passage right at the beginning, whilst trying to capture the audience's attention. I would like to give some back-story to this opening to show why this genealogy is probably the most interesting in the whole New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible. So to do that, some history:

Long before the first century AD, Israel had been formed from the patriarchs, and to Abraham had been given the first covenant promises - a nation through him, and the promised land (corresponding to modern day Palestine). The Israelites had managed to conquer the promised land, and lived there for quite a few generations. In this period another covenant was made, one with king David, that there would always be a king from the line of David. The Son of David would reign Israel forever, the prophecy said. This dynasty lasted for an enormously long time - but not forever. Disaster came.

The nation of Israel was exiled, and no king was on the throne. A few centuries later, Israel returns, but her king is not Davidic. The Maccabees took back Judea from the Seleucids, setting up the Hasmonean dynasty...but they were not the real deal. They were not from the line of David. Their kingdom could not last if God's prophecy was to be fulfilled, if God's Messiah would reign - for he had to be of the line of David.

As exciting as the return from exile was, there was no true king on the throne. Herod is enthroned by Rome, but when he concocts his genealogy attempting to show Davidic descent, nobody believes him. This causes him a great deal of paranoia, as we shall see in the next bit of the infancy narrative of Matthew, however now it suffices to say that still, the king was not on the throne.

Were was the king? Who was to be God's anointed one, the Christ? Had God forgotten his promises to Abraham and David?

This is the atmosphere into which Matthew writes his opening genealogy:

"This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (Matthew 1:1, NET)

Picture yourself in the first century, despaired by God's seeming absence. You hear someone excitedly opening up a scroll, there is some news to be heard! And this news opens up saying "here is the lineage of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." Not just any of the descendents of David, of which there are many. Here is Jesus, the Christ, the true son of David. The King has come.