Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part One)

I’m beginning to think about the message for a week from Sunday. I’ll post this Sunday’s message in a day or two. I’ll be reading Matthew 4:12-25. That text offers a great variety of events, perspectives, pronouncements and questions. I’m beginning with Matthew 4:18-22.

I would commend to you Warren Carter’s 1997 article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Carter reads the text from an “audience-oriented” perspective. That is, he seeks to discern the issues and assumptions of the Matthean audience based on what is hit or missed in the text.

Carter argues that the Matthean community is a “marginal minority” in the larger community of (most likely) Syrian Antioch in the late first century. While the community lives in this marginal status, the Matthean author does not advocate either withdrawal from or acquiescence to the larger culture. Instead, the Matthean community lives on the boundary between those two options.

“The narrative does not present perfect discipleship,” Carter argues, “but it does legitimate the experience of following Jesus as a difficult way of life in which one participates in prevailing societal values and power structures, but challenges them in the pursuit of an alternative existence which manifests the presence of ‘the reign of the heavens'” (page 74).

The Matthew text proposes, according to Carter, a life that involves both participation in local social and economic structures and “a life of wholehearted commitment to doing and obeying God’s will which prevents disciples from being whole-hearted participants in societal structures” (page 71). This is, therefore, a liminal position in and ambivalent attitude toward the larger culture and power structure.

The community I serve, however, is definitively not a “marginal minority” in the local community. Instead, this congregation is a locus of social power and networking. That’s a function of history, size, and context. The call from the Matthean text requires some additional reflection and discernment in our social setting.

One reminder in this regard is that we must always “read” our own social position as the current audience as well as the social position of the “original” audience. If we simply assume that we are in the same position as the original audience (or vice versa), we are certain to get our reading wrong. The Matthean community may have been marginalized and somewhat under the gun. The community I serve is not. That difference makes a big difference.

It’s not surprising that the Sermon on the Mount comes next in the Matthean narrative. The Sermon functions as a “manual” for the marginalized Matthean minority. In particular, I think the metaphors of “salt” and “light” help me to understand this. It would seem that being “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth” describe two different functions. Part of our mission discernment, I think, requires us to decide which element is the more needed one in our missional context.

In the one where I currently serve, I think we are called to emphasize the “light of the world” aspect of our serving role. I serve a community that is relatively resource-rich and has the opportunity to continue to do a great deal of good with those resources. We can take some real risks in our community without fear of a lot of pushback because in large part we are that community.

The danger is that we can confuse our mission with a comfortable and self-serving status quo. Instead of being the salt of the earth in our space, we likely need to have some salt rubbed into our tender places so we don’t get too comfortable with our privileged position. If the proper place of the disciple community is that of “voluntary marginalization” (see page 58), that is a challenge for a community like ours that has been at the center of the local system for as long as there has been a local system.

How do we discern the God-desired balance between salt and light in our contexts? How do we balance detachment from the demands of that context while maintaining healthy participation in it? This is the ongoing challenge presented by the Matthean texts.

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