Text Study for Matthew 9:2-17, Part Two

Matthew 9:2-17 (NRSV)

Twice the Matthean author has Jesus quote Hosea 6:6 — here in Matthew 9:13, and in Matthew 12:7. This citation doesn’t appear in the other synoptic accounts at all, much less in the parallels to these passages. It’s clear that Hosea 6:6 is a big deal for the Matthean author, an interpretive key to understand Jesus’ mission and ministry.

Mary Hinkle (now Mary Hinkle Shore) offers a helpful analysis of this usage in her 1998 article in Word and World. She argues that understanding how the Matthean Jesus deploys this verse and the whole concept of “mercy” will help us as readers in “learning what righteousness means.” These two citations and other mercy-related spots in the Matthean account will help us to see that the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is to show mercy (page 356).

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In addition to the direct quotations of the Hosea passage, the Matthean author uses the verb form of “to have mercy” seven times. Five of those, Hinkle notes, are in healing stories. “Mercy is what people ask for from Jesus,” Hinkle writes, “before they receive healing” (page 357).

Moreover, in both of the direct quotations, Jesus is engaged in a controversy with Pharisees about the interpretation of Torah. Here in Matthew 9, the question is about appropriate table fellowship. In Matthew 12, the question will be about plucking grain on the Sabbath. In each case, Jesus argues that merciful acts supersede ritual observance. “Righteous observance of the law,” Hinkle observes, “is expressed in merciful action toward the neighbor” (page 357).

Before we go further on this path, I want to be responsible to our Jewish siblings. As, for example, Amy-Jill Levine so often points out, we should be alert to the use of the Pharisees here as a Matthean foil and polemical tool. We should not argue in historical terms that the Pharisees always put ritual purity and practice ahead of works of mercy. In fact, Torah commands works of mercy. It’s important to make sure, as Levine says, that we don’t make Jews look bad in order to make Jesus (or Christians) look good.

That beings said, the context and content of Hosea six is a prophetic critique of the religious practices and priorities of Israelites in the Northern Kingdom prior to the Assyrian assault and conquest. Hinkle points us to that context and notes that the Hebrew word for “mercy” in that text is “chesed.” This word is most often translated in English as “steadfast love.” In the Septuagint, it is translated as “eleos,” which typically shows up in English translations as “mercy.”

In Hosea 6:1-3, the prophet quotes Israelites who urge repentance from unfaithfulness and the worship of idols. It is difficult to read the tone of the verses. The tone could be of sincere remorse and a commitment to do better. Or the tone could be a shallow confidence that God will forgive because that’s what the Lord always does. I think of the Heinrich Heine quote in this regard: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His job.”

I lean toward the latter interpretation, and the text seems to support that reading. “Whether these remarks indicate sincere repentance or only the expectation that God can be quickly and easily manipulated by a show of remorse,” Hinkle writes, “the prophet lets the people know in the next verses that their devotion falls short of God’s desire” (page 358).

God sounds like God is about ready to throw in the towel when it comes to the Israelites. Their steadfast love is about as reliable as a morning cloud. It last about as long as dew in the early morning. As Hinkle notes, their steadfast love is anything but steadfast. It is not faithful over time. Therefore, it is not anything like God’s steadfast love.

In addition, their “mercy” is not merciful. Hinkle observes that “instead of demonstrating
steadfastness in their devotion to the Lord, or mercy in their interactions with fellow Israelites, Ephraim has been making love with Baal and making war with Judah” (page 359). The problem with Israel in Hosea 6 is that their steadfast love is neither steadfast nor loving (merciful).

Let’s take the Hosea quote as the framework that Jesus uses to asses the behavior of those he criticizes. Hinkle points to the Matthean Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees. Their actions don’t match their words. They are hypocrites (see Matthew 23). They are, therefore, not steadfast. Nor are they merciful, in the Matthean construction, since they put a greater premium on ritual observance than on “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).

“In short,” Hinkle writes, “the Pharisees’ righteousness exhibits neither of the defining characteristics of [chesed], and so is not the righteousness of God at all” (page 360).

These days, some New Testament scholars are engaged in a “quest for the historical Pharisees.” In 2019, for example, a conference was organized in Rome titled “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Interdisciplinary Reappraisal.” You can watch some of the presentations on YouTube, including an incisive talk by Amy-Jill Levine.

In part, that quest is a way to moderate the anti-Judaism which can so easily arise from traditional readings of texts like Matthew 9. The historical Pharisees were a lay-led reform movement within the Judaisms of the time — a movement that did indeed focus on holiness but was not in any way opposed to works of mercy and charity.

Instead, the historical Pharisees understood these works as clearly commanded by Torah. It’s a mistake to read the Matthean account of the Pharisees as an historical report of the actual behavior of the Pharisees in the twenties and thirties of the first century. Instead, we need to remember that the Matthean community is engaged in an intra-Jewish struggle with other communal interpretations of Torah. The Matthean community is made up of Christian Jews who are trying to make sense of their allegiance to Jesus as Messiah both for themselves and for the surrounding community.

It’s also important to me as an interpreter to remember that the primary audience for the Matthean account is the Matthean community. The question isn’t whether this is an historically accurate representation of the Pharisees. Instead, the interpretive question is more like, “What is the Matthean author seeking to impact and change within the author’s own community?” With that question in mind, we can focus less on what was “wrong” with the historical Pharisees and more on what the Matthean author has to say to our own faith and practice.

In the Matthean account, as Hinkle concludes, the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees is marked by an abundance of steadfast love — doing mercy. In contemporary terms, I would suggest that the Matthean author is critiquing a “performative” spirituality. By this I mean an understanding of discipleship that focuses on saying the right things, holding the right beliefs, and engaging in the the right expressions of public piety.

There’s nothing wrong with that performative spirituality in and of itself. It is problematic, however, when it becomes the maximum or normative standard for discipleship. I think this is the “evangelical” version of sacrifice rather than mercy. It is equally problematic when performative spirituality is regarded as “enough” discipleship or even as a substitute for doing mercy. I think this is the “mainline” version of sacrifice rather than mercy.

In the Matthean account, discipleship means hearing Jesus’ words and doing them. “For readers of Matthew,” Hinkle concludes, “to learn what Hos 6:6 means is not so much to receive a new law as to come to recognize the steadfast love of the God of Israel as it is embodied and enacted by Jesus” (page 362). Jesus heals and exorcises. Jesus sits at table with sinners. He embodies mercy and does it. And he does it faithfully — that is, to the end.

“Demonstrating both mercy and faithfulness,” Hinkle continues, “Jesus loves the way God loves, and Jesus loves the way Hosea announces that God intends God’s people to love” (page 362). If the Matthean account if a manual for disciples (and it clearly is), then disciples need to regularly learn and relearn the Hosea lesson. And then, as Hinkle notes in pointing to the Great Commission, disciples are called to teach that command of mercy to all nations.

On the one hand, Jesus teaches this path in continuity with the Hebrew prophets. On the other hand, there is clearly something new going on here as well. Immediately after the Hosea quote, we get a question from John’s disciples about a ritual practice. In response, Jesus identifies himself as the Messianic bridegroom — the new factor in the equation. God has come to be with us in Jesus and to do mercy for all the nations.

Patching up the old practices isn’t going to be enough now. Refilling the stiff old wine skins of traditionalism is a formula for disaster. Something new is going on here. And that newness continues to unfold in the Matthean account.

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