As I read, translate, study, and preach my way through the Gospel of Matthew, I am reminded more and more of the gaps between the Matthean world and my own. Those gaps make interpretation and proclamation ever more difficult. The more I read, translate, and study, the more I appreciate the Matthean theological project. And the more careful, nuanced, and paradoxical my preaching must become.
I wrestle with the obvious differences in social position between me and the Matthean author. Matthew is a member of a colonized minority. I am a member of a colonizing majority. That difference matters both locally and globally. I have immense privilege and am rarely either vulnerable or persecuted.
The missionary discourse in Matthew 10 maps out a quite different existence for disciples. Following Jesus, in the Matthean account, requires voluntary impoverishment. Disciples will possess nothing which might require defending through violence. Nor are they to carry any tools of violence. Instead, disciples are to practice radical vulnerability and dependence. They are to be a threat to no one and a blessing to all who will accept such a blessing.
In the midst of that apostolic gentleness, we hear the eschatological threats. Those who do not welcome the Good News of The Kingdom of God will be left to their own devices. In the eschaton, “it will be better for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in that day of judging that for these cities” (Matthew 10:15). I feel a great gap between my own perspectives and that stark sense of judgement, even if it is reserved for God and for the end.
I am never under threat of persecution, prosecution, or physical violence because I follow Jesus. Yet, that is the experience of the Matthean missionaries. Interrogation, torture, inquisition – these public displays will be a witness to the governing authorities and to the Gentiles (Matthew 10:18). I may suffer the occasional snub or insult because I follow Jesus. But it costs me hardly anything at all.
I haven’t really suffered any family division or separation due to my discipleship – at least, not yet. I have experienced plenty of such divisions, but the faults are my own. Jesus is not to blame. It may be that I haven’t forced the issue with those closest to me because I fear losing that connection. That can be said for much of this description in Matthew 10. We (white, establishment, privileged, Christians) probably haven’t caused enough good trouble to be in good trouble (as the late John Lewis might have put it).
And I don’t think I’ve been accused of being in league with the prince of demons – at least not for proclaiming the Good News of The Kingdom of God.
The Matthean author challenges the power of empire with nearly every word. For example, we can take the simple definite article, “the.” When the Matthean author points to the “The Kingdom of Heaven,” that article does not label one “kingdom” among many others. Rather, we should be able to hear the upper-case “T” on the word. This is, as Daniel Wallace would remind us, the kingdom par excellence, as opposed to the Roman empire and its subsidiaries.
I am part of a Christian political tradition that has underwritten empire far more often than it has challenged it. The recent papal renunciation of the “Doctrine of Discovery” is a reminder of that horrific history. Western Christianity has been a tool and partner of Western imperialism and colonialism. It has undergirded the practices of human enslavement and imperial exploitation. I can’t pretend to stand with the Matthean community, innocent of such a history.
I do not stand anywhere near in the same as the Matthean author when it comes to connections with Judaism. I think it’s clear that the Matthean author writes from a “within Judaism” perspective. However, that is a fraught relationship. As Anders Runesson notes, the Matthean communities are exiting “formative” Judaism. They are apostolic Jews (not “Christians”). But that makes the exit all that more painful and dangerous, as we see in Matthew 10.
I can’t naively reproduce the vitriol the Matthean author directs toward “the Pharisees.” I am part of a community that has taken such vitriol and converted it into centuries of contempt, hatred, persecution, and genocide. Because of that history (among other reasons), I am not going to read aloud in worship the majority of Matthew 10. I will not be including large parts of Matthew 23 in our public reading for the same reason.
As Amy-Jill Levine reminds us, it’s one thing for Jews to argue with Jews. That’s what we read in the Matthean account. But when we Gentile Christians take that intra-Jewish debate and turn it into a Gentile Christian vs. Jew debate, we’re no longer being faithful to the text. And we have walked onto ground soaked in Jewish blood. I don’t know how to manage some of that textual territory without risking such stumbling. I choose to skip over some of it.
There’s no question that the Matthean author is a supersessionist. However, it’s a Jew vs. Jew supersessionism. The Matthean Jesus is portrayed as better than Moses, for example. Kenton Sparks suggests that Jesus is every Jewish hero of the faith rolled into one in the Matthean account, and then some. That’s all right for the Matthean author, but it’s dangerous for us later Christians.
I can’t engage in supersessionism, replacement theology, or other perspectives that result in a program of erasure of Jews. That’s what happens when we take a competition between apostolic Jews and formative Judaism and translate it directly into modernity. Once again, in our time we have to “mind the gap.” We simply know too much to be naïve about that gap. Unless we think that using the Jews for Christian eschatological purposes is appropriate. But that’s another story.
And then there are the miracles. It seems to me that the Matthean author expects disciples to replicate what Jesus did in his earthly ministry. That especially includes healing and exorcism. I don’t think those are symbols or allegories. I think those are items on the Matthean to do list for disciples. But they don’t typically make it on to my list of tasks for the day.
I don’t quite know what to make of that entirely. I am unwilling to live in a state of chronological snobbery, as if we know better than those poor ignorant slobs. On the other hand, I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. I have enough of a sense of mystery to know that weird things happen without explanation. I have enough of a sense of humility to know they don’t typically happen through me.
I have a week off from preaching this week. So, I have the chance to reflect at a meta level for a bit. It makes my head spin…
It’s not that authorial intent exhausts the meaning of a text. But it is certainly where we begin our interpretation and proclamation. I do wonder how much of my reluctance is just lack of nerve. And how much of it is responsible interaction with the text. I’m glad I’m a vessel in the process and not the whole deal.
Walker, Brandon. “Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus.” Transformation 33, no. 2 (2016): 85–98. https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863.
ULRICH, DANIEL W. “The Missional Audience of the Gospel of Matthew.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69, no. 1 (2007): 64–83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43725895.
SPARKS, KENTON L. “Gospel as Conquest: Mosaic Typology in Matthew 28:16-20.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2006): 651–63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43725826.
Runesson, Anders. “Rethinking Early Jewish—Christian Relations: Matthean Community History as Pharisaic Intragroup Conflict.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, no. 1 (2008): 95–132. https://doi.org/10.2307/25610109.