Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part One)

February 5, 2023/5 Epiphany C

My favorite part of our baptismal liturgy is lighting the baptismal candle. “Let your light so shine before others,” I say as I light the taper from the Christ Candle, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” I often remind the parents and sponsors, or the baptismal candidate, that these words come direct from Jesus, via Matthew 5:16.

I might even mention that Holy Baptismal is a gift, but it is also more. It is, in our tradition, a vocation for the baptized person. It is a calling ritual as well as an entrance ritual. It is the one ordination in our tradition that matters. All other vocations, whether to public leadership in the church or to public service in the world, are rooted in this baptismal calling.

So, I was brought up a bit short when I took the time to read and translate Matthew 5:16. All of the second person pronouns in this paragraph are plural. The “you” in Matthew 5:16 is not singular. It is not focused on the “light” of the individual disciple. Rather, these words are directed to the disciple community as a whole and together.

I have been thinking about what that means for my beloved baptismal piety and practice. I’m thinking I have to reformulate my theology a bit in this regard. I’m relieved that the baptismal welcome in our liturgy saves the day at least a bit. “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share,” the congregation responds, “join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pew Edition, page 231).

That welcome acknowledges that the call and the mission “belong” first to the community. Our individual vocations, then, derive from that communal call. I will highlight that aspect of the baptismal vocation more in the future.

I was primed for this realization by re-reading Stanley Hauerwas’ theological commentary on the gospel of Matthew. “The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people,” Hauerwas writes, “You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another” (page 61, Kindle Edition).

Hauerwas argues that the Sermon on the Mount is not a prescription for entry into the Kingdom of the Heavens. Instead, it is a description of the way of life embraced by people gathered by and around Jesus. That way of life, Hauerwas asserts, is highly visible in and for the world. Therefore we get this metaphor of light in this week’s gospel reading.

In this regard, Hauerwas continues his dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially in Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. “Christians,” Hauerwas observes with Bonhoeffer, “are tempted to become invisible, justifying their identification with the surrounding culture in the name of serving the neighbor” (page 62, Kindle edition).

While Matthew’s community was called to be different from the surrounding culture, Christians since Constantine have been tempted to identify fully with the surrounding culture. Thus, Christians in the West have tended to fade into the background of the culture. It’s very difficult to see something unless it stands in contrast to the background against which you see it.

In our gospel reading, as Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer note, we have images that set the Christian community apart from the world. The community is called to be highly visible – like a city set on top of a hill, or a lamp set on a lampstand. Hauerwas quotes Bonhoeffer at this point: “To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him” (page 63, Kindle Edition).

This communal visibility, in contrast to the surrounding culture, is not an end itself. Hauerwas notes that this visibility is an effect of following Jesus. We are not called to be different for the sake of being different. But we can’t help but be visible by contrast if we are living as Jesus followers.

Hauerwas connects this to what it means for our justice to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. “The Pharisees quite understandably tried to observe the law without that observance being recognized as subversive to those who ruled them,” Hauerwas argues, “Yet that is exactly what Jesus will not let those who would be faithful to God’s calling of Israel, those who would be his disciples, do or be” (page 67, Kindle Edition).

Warren Carter takes us in a similar direction in his commentary. “Disciples, like prophets, know a liminal role,” Carter writes, “They live in but at odds with their dominant culture. Yet they cannot retreat from it because they have a God-given mission to it and in it” (page 137, Kindle Edition). As Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer note, a retreat into invisibility is a failure of the disciple community.

The images of light and salt in our text “emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community,” Carter writes, “vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture” (page 139, Kindle Edition).

When the Church retreats into invisibility while still claiming the benefits of the Kin(g)dom, the result is salvation understood as “cheap grace.” This is the phrase for which Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known. Hauerwas quotes Bonhoeffer’s definition of “cheap grace” – “It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven” (page 60, Kindle Edition).

Hauerwas argues that this “cheap grace” understanding results from separating the person and work of Christ. This is a particular failing of Lutheran orthodoxy. It is also a failing of any theology that depends fully on the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the explanation for the reality of the cross. But I can only address my own theological tribe at this point.

My tradition tends to focus exclusively on grace as forgiveness of sins. That results in an emphasis on freedom from sin as the definition of salvation.  But that is only half the story. Hauerwas argues that “incarnation properly understood means that Jesus’s person and work cannot be separated because Jesus saves by making us participants in a new way of life. The name of that way of life is church” (page 30, Kindle Edition). Christian freedom is always also freedom for serving the neighbor in love.

I’m on this topic in part because of Bishop Eaton’s recent column in the January/February edition of The Living Lutheran. Her concern about “blurring the distinction” between Law and Gospel is, in my humble opinion, rooted in a separation of the person and work of Christ. If we focus on the gospel only as forgiveness of sins, then any celebration of good works is a dangerous flirtation with works righteousness, despite the fact that it is portrayed as the opposite.

The result, historically, has been Lutheran quietism when it comes to social justice issues. More than that, such theological analysis has made it possible for Lutherans to become “invisible” in the midst of one of the most horrific crimes in human historic – the Holocaust. As long as Lutherans had their theology straight, they could remain invisible. Of course, a number of them became highly visible in cooperating with the Nazi horror. But that’s for another time.

Any time we Lutherans begin once again to flirt with the safety of invisibility, we should feel a rising sense of theological panic – not because we might engage in works righteousness but because we are tempted by cheap grace.

This might all be written off as the ramblings of a wild and crazy theologian (Stanley Hauerwas, not me). Except for the fact that one of the most fruitful lines of Lutheran theological inquiry in the last fifty years seeks to bring the person and work of Christ back into our one Lord and Savior.

The work of Tuomo Mannermaa and his colleagues leads us back to a healthy emphasis from the authentic Luther – especially in his 1535 commentary on Galatians. The Finns urge us to reflect on what it means for Christ to be present in the believer (and in the believing community) in faith. That presence empowers and embodies works of love for neighbor. If those works are not present, then it seems that Christ is not present in the believer and the believing community. This is not blurring Law and Gospel. This is understanding that both move us toward the same objective — love for God AND love for neighbor.

It may be that some members of my theological tribe find this line of thinking uncomfortable. That’s the point. Jesus notes that our justice must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. That’s not a knock on actual scribes and Pharisees. Instead, that’s a sort of standard by which to measure ourselves.

It won’t do to remain invisible in our piety and our careful adherence to dogmatic limits. That, Bishop Eaton, is what it means to hide our light under a grain basket until it is extinguished. I’d rather we set the world afire and sort out our dogmatic blunders later, if necessary.

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part Two)

See POWELL, MARK ALLAN. “Matthew’s Beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 3 (1996): 460–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43722717.

Are the Beatitudes about “reversals” or “rewards”? Mark Allan Powell answers that question with a confident “Yes.” According to Powell’s analysis, the Beatitudes devote one stanza to each subject with a concluding beatitude at the end. Warren Carter notes that he relies in large part on Powell’s analysis. It’s worth reading the original article for a deeper understanding.

This two-stanza poetic structure “marks the Beatitudes as one of the most carefully crafted passages in the Gospel. Unless no other option exists,” Powell argues, “Matthew’s readers should not be forced to decide between finding meaning for the individual verses and finding meaning for the collection as a whole” (page 461). Some middle ground in this regard would certainly help us as preachers, too.

Most scholars regard Matthew 5:3-10 as a unit to which Matthew 5:11-12 is added – at least in structural terms. As Powell notes, we change from the second person plural in the main body to the third person plural in the conclusion. The first unit has the bookends of “the kingdom of the heavens” to mark its limits. The verbs of the second unit are in the imperative rather than the indicative mood. So far, so good.

Now for the two stanzas. Verses three through six and verses seven through ten each contain precisely thirty-six words in the Greek. Verses three through six use a sort of alliteration. Each of the groups begins in Greek with the “p” sound. Warren Carter identifies them as the poor in spirit, the plaintive, the powerless, and those who pine for righteousness (page 131). I like that a lot! And both verses 6 and 10 end with a reference to righteousness, creating a parallelism of stanza endings.

“Acceptance of a two-stanza structure allows for a compromise solution to the reversal-reward debate,” Powell concludes, “the first stanza (5:3-6) speaks of reversals for the unfortunate, and the second stanza (5:7-10) describes rewards for the virtuous” (page 462). We’ll hold off on the structural role of verses eleven and twelve for now.

I think that, for the preacher, this analysis is most helpful. The Matthean author is not commending poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, and starving for righteousness. These are not the “Be-Happy Attitudes.” These challenging circumstances and states will be reversed when the Kin(g)dom comes in its fullness.

Part of the call of discipleship is to resist the powers that bring about these states and to begin to live as if they are real in the here and now. “The first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary. “They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” (page 131).

The Matthean author is, on the other hand, commending mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance when persecuted. These are behaviors that reflect the Kin(g)dom in its fullness. They are marks of the path of discipleship in the here and now. They are practices to be encouraged and formed.

“The remaining four, and the elaboration in vv. 11-12,” Carter writes, “concern human actions which, inspired by the experience of God’s reign in vv. 3-6, are honored or esteemed because they express God’s transforming reign until God’s completion of it” (page 131).

While I can understand Powell’s label for the first stanza as “resistance,” I’m not so sure about his label for the second stanza as “reward.” That will take some more reflection. But first, back to the structural analysis.

Powell argues that this two-stanza solution encourages the assumption that the beatitudes are really for the whole world and not just for the Church. That assumption is contested, and Powell goes on to wrestle with the evidence.

While Powell doesn’t include this in his analysis, I am wondering about Hebraic parallelism within the stanzas as well. What I’m wondering is if we can use lines in this poetry to interpret and expand each other? For example, there’s great similarity between “poor in spirit” and “meek.” I suspect that these ideas are intended to “rhyme” in the style of Hebrew poetry, such as some of the Psalms.

I think it’s interesting to look at the possible parallels between “mourning” and “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” It is likely that what’s being mourned is the continuing internal exile of God’s chosen as the various empires hold them captive. On the other hand, anyone who has grieved wonders how their loss is right, just, or fair.

In the next stanza, the parallels between the merciful and the peacemakers are not hard to see. It’s again interesting to wonder what parallels exist between the pure in heart and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Purity of heart may not be simply some sort of innocence or (as Kierkegaard said) the ability “to will one thing.” Perhaps it is the passion for God’s justice and the willingness to suffer in pursuit of that justice which marks real purity of heart for the disciples.

In any event, this sort of analysis reduces the pressure on the preacher to come up with a definition for each of the Beatitude classes. However, I would commend to you Powell’s discussion of the various terms in use here. That discussion is instructive. That being said, this is a poem that has within it resources for interpretation, if we know where to look.

Let me quote Powell’s summary of the first four beatitudes here.

“In short, all of the first four beatitudes speak of reversal of circumstances for those who are unfortunate. Contrary to popular homiletical treatments, being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness or justice are not presented here as characteristics that people should exhibit if they want to earn God’s favor. Rather, these are undesirable conditions that characterize no one when God’s will is done” (page 469).

Powell notes that the grammar makes something clear. The Matthean Jesus is using the third person plural in verses three through ten. This is about “those people,” not exclusively about the disciples. Jesus switches to a second person plural in verse eleven when he addresses the disciples directly. The Beatitudes, Powell argues, are not limited to the Church. These are not entrance requirements for the Kin(g)dom. These are the people for whom the coming Kin(g)dom will in fact be a blessing (page 470).

Now, on to the second stanza. Powell argues that these verses promise eschatological rewards to people who exhibit virtuous behavior. But, Powell says, the text is more specific than that. He suggests that “the people whom Jesus declares blessed in 5:7-10 are those who help to bring to reality the blessings promised to others in 5:3-6” (page 470). Once again, Powell has some detailed description and discussion of each of the verses in this stanza.

Powell offers a summary for the second stanza that parallels his summary of the first. “When God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, no one will have to be poor in spirit, mourn, be meek, or hunger and thirst for righteousness, but everyone who is ruled by God and does God’s will is merciful, pure in heart, committed to peacemaking, and willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness” (page 475).

Powell goes on to note the ironic connection between the stanzas. This connection, he suggests, “lies in the realization that those who practice the virtues described in the second stanza may on that account come to be numbered among those described in the first stanza on whose behalf these virtues are exercised” (pages 475-476). In Warren Carter’s terms, my voluntary action on behalf of the involuntarily marginalized may result in my joining them on the margins (please see the previous post).

That temporary change in status, however, does not change God’s goals for all people, according to Powell. “God’s rule sets things right,” he concludes, “for all oppressed people” (page 476). “Whether the coming of God’s kingdom is perceived as bringing reversal or reward depends only on the position that one occupies prior to its advent,” Powell writes, “God’s rule sets things right. Those for whom things have not been right are blessed by the change it brings, and those who have been seeking to set things right are blessed by the accomplishment of what they have sought” (page 477).

And what about the ninth beatitude in Matthew 5:11-12? While God’s rule is intended to set things right for all people, Jesus’ words are most directly applicable to the disciples themselves (and to all disciples in future generations). “Fundamental to all the beatitudes,” Warren Carter writes, “is the establishment of God’s justice or righteousness by removing oppressive societal relationships and inadequate distribution of resources” (page 131).

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part One)

I am working my way through Warren Carter’s massive and magisterial verse by verse 2000 commentary on Matthew’s gospel, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. It is a rich resource and worth both the time and the investment (not terribly expensive as such commentaries go).

I will refer to Carter’s work frequently for the rest of the year. I am grateful to have this (for me) new conversation. I may yet become a fan of the Matthean account, in spite of myself.

Carter and others suggest that this section of the Matthean account begins with Matthew 4:17-25, as Jesus launches his public ministry. Carter proposes that this section runs through Matthew 11:1 and includes the first of five teaching discourses, what we typically refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. Carter says this second section of the Matthean account answers the question as to how Jesus “carries out his mission to manifest God’s saving presence” (page 119).

This week we read and reflect on the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the verses most often described as “The Beatitudes.” Carter argues that the Sermon is not a comprehensive manual for discipleship. “Rather it offers a series of illustrations or ‘for examples’ or ‘case studies’ of life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign” (page 128).

“The sermon,” Carter continues, “is direction-pointing, more than giving commands, suggestive and illustrative rather than comprehensive” (page 128). I think that matters for our interpretation of the Beatitudes. The list in these verses, however we might analyze the structure, is not a comprehensive catalogue of blessed behaviors and situations.

While these behaviors and situations are perhaps diagnostic of what it means to be a disciple, they are not everything it means. In particular, Carter argues, “the sermon portrays and invites its audience to a voluntarily marginal way of life as a minority community” (page 128).

We encountered this concept of “voluntary marginality” when we read one of Carter’s articles for last Sunday’s text. Before we go on, I want to review and interrogate that concept a bit more.

“I suggest that the gospel legitimates a marginal identity and way of life for the community of disciples,” Carter writes in his introduction (page 43). Based on the work of a century of social scientists, Carter identifies several “useful perspectives” on this concept.

Marginal groups live in at least two worlds at once – the larger cultural context and their own group context. (page 45). The dominant center excludes the marginal group from the center of power (involuntary). Or the group excludes itself from that center “by its own ideology commitments and visions of reality” (voluntary). “To be marginal is to exist out of the center,” Carter writes, “on the edge, at the periphery in an antithetical relationship in which groups live in some opposition to the dominant or central reality (structure/anti-structure) (page 45).”

The marginal group can experience this life on the edge as positive. Life at the margins can allow that group to see its world and worldview as better than the world and worldview of the dominant center. “The group fosters and maintains its own commitments, practices, and worldview, as alternatives to those of the dominant or central world” (page 45).

This description of life on the edge informs how Carter reads the Matthean account. He sees the Matthean audience as a community of voluntary marginals. The group’s “communal life, centered on following Jesus, is its primary world. Its chosen marginality in relation to the larger society is ideological and social. It lives as participants in the wider society, but in tension with, over against, as an alternative to its dominant values and structures” (page 45).

The world and worldview of the Matthean community includes a number of identity, lifestyle, and practical characteristics. The community looks to Jesus to manifest God’s will. The community follows Jesus, who is crucified by the (Roman) empire. The community embodies and prays for the coming of God’s empire. God’s saving presence is manifested in Jesus, not the emperor.

The community criticizes imperial rule and calls it to account. The community lives as “slaves” of one another. The community is more egalitarian than the dominant culture. The community recognizes God’s sovereignty and tolerates but does not ratify some of the emperor’s “false” claims. The community relies on nonviolent resistance to the empire. The community responds to the needs of all without condition. The community uses wealth to bring well-being rather than luxury (pages 45-46).

“My thesis is that the gospel calls its audience to such an existence,” Carter argues. “It offers the audience a vision of life as voluntary marginals, confirms and strengthens those who already embrace such an existence, and challenges them and others to greater faithfulness” (page 46).

Carter’s detailed description fits well, I think, with the material we read in the Matthean account. I’m not sure how well this description translates from that account into the lives of my week-to-week audience. For the most part, I do not serve marginalized people, either involuntary or voluntary. Instead, I serve people who are firmly embedded in the dominant and central world and worldview.

That’s not, in and of itself, a critique of the people I serve. It’s also a description that applies completely to me and my life. The Matthean account surely critiques my place in and allegiance to that dominant and central world and worldview. But that’s not where I want to focus for the moment.

I could regard this status of “voluntary marginal” as a sort of goal to be achieved. I think that’s a problem. I am concerned that, as a member of the dominant culture, I am tempted to perform some variety of voluntary marginalization. I can join, for example, in protests, acts of resistance, and critiques of power without much cost to myself.

I can return to my place in the dominant culture any time I choose. I can easily take on this “voluntary marginal” status as a colonizing condescension. I can pat myself on the back for standing with the poor. I can congratulate myself for doing anti-racist work. And those actions don’t have to cost me much of anything, at least in the long run.

Being marginalized is a problem, not a hobby. It’s an outcome, not a goal.

Perhaps this is a too-subtle distinction to be useful. But it’s something I need to work out – at least for me. I think that what’s really “voluntary” in Carter’s description is the world and worldview we Christians are called to inhabit. When we respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship, we embrace any number of anti-dominant views and behaviors. The result of that embrace may well be real marginalization.

I will find myself on “the margins” whenever I stand firm with the values of the Kin(g)dom of God. I will be marginalized by those who do not hold such values. I don’t seek to be ostracized by family members, friends, or neighbors. But, for example, if I hold anti-racism as a Kin(g)dom value and challenge the racism of someone important to me, I am probably going to find myself excluded from that relationship.

Another example. Brenda and I adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet several years ago. As a result, we often find ourselves on the margins of social gatherings. We don’t always find something on the menu we would choose to eat. We often bring our own food or choose to eat when we get home. We aren’t choosing to be anti-social. But some of our worldview, lifestyle, and behavioral choices require us to abandon the dominant center. And others sometimes regard us as adversarial and judgmental, even if that’s not our intention.

I’m not suggesting that such dietary choices are part of Christian discipleship. That’s a conversation for another day. Nor am I suggesting that we are either heroic or persecuted as a result. But I am suggesting that our choices to embrace a particular ethical stance result in an experience of marginalization. I would add that nuance to Carter’s analysis of the Matthean account.

It’s clear from the text that responding to the call to discipleship can and does lead to (“good”) trouble. Members of the dominant cultural center may respond with insults and abuse. They may persecute the disciples. They may speak all manner of evil against the disciples, even if such accusations and indictments are false. “The empire,” as Carter says several times, “will certainly strike back…” (page 136).

In response, Jesus calls disciples to “rejoice and be really glad” (Matthew 5:12a, my translation). That will take a lot more unpacking. However, I would refer you for a moment to the other scriptural focus of my attention these days. Re-read Philippians 1:12-19 for a description of Paul’s imprisonment and some of the outcomes of that imprisonment.

Regardless of what’s happening, Paul says, Christ is proclaimed. And as a result, Paul rejoices. Indeed, Paul continues to rejoice, in spite of expectations to the contrary. There’s a strong adversative at the end of Philippians 1:18 that the NRSV translate as “and.” That’s not quite right. Continued rejoicing is not what Paul thinks the Philippians will expect at such a moment. But it is the discipleship behavior Paul wishes to model for them as they endure their own trials and persecutions.

Well, I’m not sure what to do with all that yet. But it’s a place to start.

Sermon for 01/22/2023

Matthew 4:12-25

In today’s gospel, Jesus calls the first four disciples. So, I want to talk about being called.

(Slide 54) Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. I invite you to think and pray this week about that promise. Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

First, Jesus chooses to work this way. He announces the Good News. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This isn’t about feeling sorry for our sins.

This is about seeing the world in a whole new way. This is about seeing the world as the place where God is in charge. This is about seeing the world as a place of hope and healing, of possibility and promise, of peace and justice.

Jesus could do this all by himself. But God made us to be partners in life and creation. Sin, death, and the devil disrupt that partnership. When we are God’s partners, that’s when we are most fully human. That’s when we are once again the image and likeness of God. Jesus chooses to work through you and me because that’s what God has always wanted.

Jesus chooses to work in the world. He sets up housekeeping in Capernaum – an out of the way village alongside the Galilean lake. He starts in territory that has been a spiritual wasteland for centuries. He calls some pretty ordinary folks to do some pretty extraordinary things. He heals everyone who comes his way. His fame spreads throughout the land.

Jesus chooses to work in the real world. He doesn’t travel to a distant country. He starts at home. That’s where our calling starts too.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. Jesus calls each of us to mission and service. You were called in your baptism to let your light shine before others. When others see your good works in the name of Jesus, they will glorify God.

Jesus starts with what the first disciples know – fishing. And he starts with what you know and where you are. No one else can answer your call, or mine.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

Today isn’t really about being called into public Church ministry. Today isn’t really about being called to be a pastor or a deacon. Except, sometimes it is. I stand before you as living proof that Jesus can use the least qualified, the least interested person in the world, to do ministry. If God can use me, trust me, God can use anyone.

So, I do want to talk about the call to public Church ministry. Next Sunday at our annual meeting we will put in place a “Call Committee.” That’s another step in what we often refer to as “The Call Process.” But that process is probably not quite what you think it is.

What is the first thing a call committee does? You might think they will get right down to hiring a new pastor. That’s not the first thing. The first thing the call committee does is to discern the call of this congregation.

Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

The first thing the call committee does is to discern the call of this congregation. If the call committee gets that right, the rest of the call process goes pretty smoothly. If the call committee skimps on that first step, the rest of the call process does not go well.

I know this because I’ve been the pastor who gets called. I know this because I’ve helped congregations call a pastor or deacon. Most of all, I know this because I understand and appreciate how we ELCA folks understand what a call to ministry really is.

You might think this is an unnecessary delay. You might think this is a waste of time. But I want you to think about how people get hired for jobs.

Sometimes, we have a job opening, and we just fill it with the next person. We can do that because we already know what the job is. We already know what the job is because we know the goals and mission of the business. We know the goals and mission of the business because that’s usually pretty clear. Or at least we think it is.

Sometimes we make a bad hire. We get a mismatch between what the job needs and what the person brings to the job. When that happens, we can blame the new hire. We move that person on and try again. If we do that, we’ll probably just get another bad hire.

Or we can take some time to assess where we’re at in the business. What’s our mission? What are our goals? Is this the same job it was five years ago or ten years ago or forty years ago? Are we the same company and the same people? What do we imagine we’ll be in the next five or ten or fifteen years?

A business that asks these questions makes fewer bad hires. More important, that business is better prepared to get the most out of the new employee. Most important, that business is better prepared for the future.

Calling new pastoral leadership isn’t exactly like hiring a new employee. I could preach a whole other sermon on the differences. However, the analogy is close enough for today. Bishop Halaas and your church council have asked me to assist the Call Committee here in their work. I’m honored by that request. And I’m glad to help.

Calling a leader is not about hiring a pastor or deacon. It’s about discerning the mission and ministry of a congregation. Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

The first task for the call committee is to complete what’s called a Ministry Site Profile. Usually, we refer to that document as the MSP.

The MSP is a detailed and discerning description of the mission of the congregation now and into the future. That’s the first task because the Call Process discerns the call of this congregation first. Then the Call Process focuses on calling new pastoral leadership.

Think back to Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. People at Corinth are having a church fight. Some of them claim allegiance to Paul. Others claim allegiance to Apollos or to Cephas. Some of them say they claim allegiance to Christ and reject all human leadership.

Paul says this church fight dismembers Jesus – that it tears Jesus apart. That Corinthian congregation puts personalities before purpose. That Corinthian congregation puts fame ahead of fellowship. That Corinthian congregation puts hiring ahead of ministry and mission.

That’s why Paul calls them back to their theology. Paul calls them to discern their unity and purpose as a congregation. The word of the cross is the power of God. When the Corinthians focus on that word, questions about leadership will be easier to resolve.

Paul offers this encouragement in 1 Corinthians 1, verse 9 – “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The first call we discern is the call of the congregation.

Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

You should expect members of the call committee to ask you questions in the coming weeks and months. That’s part of their task. But don’t expect them to ask you what kind of pastor you want. That’s not the first question.

The first questions go more like this. What makes us a healthy and vital congregation? And how is God calling us to use that health and vitality for mission and service now and in the future?

Those are the questions I ask you to reflect on and pray about in the coming weeks and months. If we discern those questions properly, calling new pastoral leadership will go much better.

I invite you also to reflect and pray on your own sense of call to mission and service. When congregational members do that, a call process goes much better. This is about the call of the congregation, not just the call of an individual.

How is Jesus choosing to work in the world through you right now? How will Jesus choose to work in the world through you in the coming months and years? Maybe the answer is the same as it’s been for years. Or maybe Jesus has something new in mind for you. Now is a good time to ask the questions.

It’s always possible that someone here is being called to public ministry in the Church. New pastors and deacons come from somewhere – why not from Mamrelund Lutheran Church? If you’ve ever wondered about becoming a public leader in the Church, I’d love to talk to you. Talking is not the same as doing. We can just see where it goes.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. How is Jesus calling you today?

Let’s pray…

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

See Charles W. F. Smith. “The Mixed State of the Church in Matthew’s Gospel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 82, no. 2 (1963): 149–68. https://doi.org/10.2307/3264991.

“Come after me,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew, “I shall make you fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19, my translation). That’s all well and good – but fishers of what kind of people? “All kinds,” the Matthean author answers. Jesus tours the whole of the Galilee. Jesus heals all the diseases and maladies of the people” (Matthew 4:23). None are excluded or left out.

Charles Smith notes that the community addressed by the Matthean account appears to have been a mixed group. This reality seems to present some challenges to the community, since the issue is addressed in a variety of ways in the gospel account. This is, after all, the gospel with the parable of the weeds among the wheat, the wise and foolish bridesmaids, and the sheep and the goats.

Most important for our purposes, this is the gospel with the parable of the fishnet in Matthew 13:47-50. “Again,” Jesus says, “the Kingdom of the heavens resembles a fishing net thrown into the lake, and out of which every variety was gathered together…” (Matthew 13:47, my translation). The first four disciples had been casting nets into the lake when Jesus called them to fish for people.

The NRSV translation misses, I think, some of the nuances in this little parable – beginning with that opening sentence. When the net is thrown into the lake (the Galilean one, we can presume), what comes out is “all kinds.” The word for “kinds” is genos. There is actually no explicit mention of fish here, although it is fair to insert that.

However, the Matthean audience would certainly have caught that word. “Genos” primarily means ethnicity or tribe, or extended family, or nation. Only in a derivative sense does it mean kind or type or class. And all of these various kinds (of fish, for now) were “gathered together.” The participle is a form of “sunago.” Yes, that’s the root, for example of “synagogue.” There is more going on here than just a fish story.

While I think about it, I’m thinking that my message will be entitled “It Takes All Kinds” or something like that. The Matthean author is using the call of the disciples in chapter four to set up this theme and concern which is pursued throughout the gospel account. We preachers can use the text to do the same for our folks as we read through the Matthew gospel for the balance of this liturgical year.

“Clearly this is a marked emphasis of Matthew with no such concentrated reiteration in other sources,” Smith writes. “Has it a connection with some particular controversy and, if so, how can we identify it?” As we pursue these questions, we can think about how our own communities deal with “the mixing of all kinds” (or the lack thereof).

Smith points to a scholarly commonplace that wonders how much of the parable is original with Jesus and how much comes from the Matthean author. Many would suggest that the “inclusive” note of verses 47-48 comes from Jesus. And the “exclusive” turnabout in verses 49-50 comes from the Matthean author. That could be, but later studies have shown that this division may not be as obvious as it first appears.

In any event, these parables and related materials declare that a separation is inevitable. However, that separation will be eschatological in nature. It will take place at the end of  the age. It is not up to the church of this age to make such separations. For now, at least, it takes all kinds.

But how does the Matthean author (and/or the Matthean community) see this issue? It could be that there’s way too much “judging” going on in the community. That would fit with some of the language we find in the Sermon on the Mount, appearing on the textual horizon. It could be that the mixed crowd has become a bit casual and that the Matthean author wants to remind them that Jesus will sort them out in the end.

These are diametrically opposed conclusions, but each can be drawn from the text. I think that the former interpretation – too much judging, too much premature separating – fits better with the overall Matthean narrative arc. Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near. But, friends, there’s still time to respond to God’s invitation to life. It ain’t over till it’s over.

Of course, if you’re like me and have profound doubts about non-universal views of salvation, then a whole other set of questions is raised. But that set of questions is for another day.

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

In one of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcasts, Matt Skinner strongly suggests that we should read through Matthew 4:25 for this Sunday. He notes that these verses are the bridge between the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, Skinner notes, the crowds that Jesus sees in Matthew 5:1 are described in Matthew 4:24-25.

“And many crowds – from Galilee, and the Decapolis, and Jerusalem, and Judea, and across the Jordan – followed him” (Matthew 4:25, my translation). Jesus’ reputation had spread throughout the Roman province of Syria, according to the Matthean author.

As a result, those who heard of him “were bringing to him all who were sick, having various kinds of diseases and torments, together with also the demon-possessed, those suffering from epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed…” (Matthew 4:24, my translation).

Jesus healed them, the text declares. So, this “mixed multitude,” saturated with those healed by Jesus and comprised of a variety of ethnicities, are the ones who hear the Sermon. They are the ones who hear, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If for no other reason than to prepare the listeners for next week, we should read those last two verses of Matthew 4.

I think we can see and hear once again the Matthean author’s efforts to portray Jesus as the new and fulfilled Moses. In Exodus 12:38, we read that a “mixed crowd” followed Moses out of Egypt and into the wilderness. This could mean a variety of things, but I think it reflects the ethnic make-up of the crowd that accompanied Moses.

I don’t think that the book of Exodus is an historical chronicle of the events of what we call “the Exodus.” Instead, it seems likely that this reflects the historical situation of the community that composed the narratives we read. Those who made up the Chosen People in the land of Israel were not of one ethnic background. Instead, they too were a “mixed multitude.”

Archaeological evidence supports this view of the Exodus accounts. To be a “Hebrew” was first of all to be a formerly enslaved person who left Egypt behind. That may have been a literal leaving. Or it may have been a political leaving on the part of some of the “natives” the Israelites encountered as they entered the land.

To be part of Israel, therefore, meant to embrace the God of Israel much more than to be part of a particular ethnic group. This is a major part of the impact of the book of Ruth. Ruth the Moabite becomes part of the lineage of David – not so much by marriage as by embracing the God and the faith of Naomi – more even than does Naomi.

The mixed multitude that meets Jesus (in Capernaum?) strongly resembles the crowd that follows Moses into the wilderness. And just as that crowd received the covenant at Sinai, so Jesus invites the crowd into a new relationship with God and God’s law on that mountain in Galilee.

This probably should not be surprising in a Gospel that concludes with the commission to preach, teach, and baptize “all nations.” That commission is foreshadowed and launched here in Matthew 4 with the strange crowd walking up the hill to hear Jesus teach.

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.

Text Study for Matthew 2:1-12 (Part Three)

“And since they [the Magi] had been warned according to a dream not to return to Herod,” the Matthean author reports, “they returned to their own territory by a different way” (Matthew 2:12, my translation). I think this verse deserves some concentrated attention as we seek to interpret our text and the larger Matthean prologue known as the Infancy Narrative.

Let’s start with the verbs translated in the NRSV as “to return.” In fact, these are two different Greek verbs. I think that matters, and I am struggling to include that distinction in my translation (with little success at this point). The first verb is “anakampto.” The root of this verb, “kampto,” according to Schlier (TDNT III:594) “is the gesture of full inner submission in worship to the one before we bow the knee.”

The verb is in the same family of ideas as “proskuneo,” the verb used both by the Magi and by Herod to describe submitting to the new King of the Jews by bowing the knee. The “return” that the Magi rejected in verse 12 was connected to submitting to Herod in obedience. Herod was no longer referred to as “king” by that time in the text. The Magi were not going to submit once again to Herod’s orders, manipulation, and schemes. They resolved to find “another way.”

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The second verb translated as “to return” in verse twelve is “anachoreo.” This verb is directly related to the word for “area” or “region” that we find in verse twelve as well. So, the Magi went back to their own territory. They didn’t do so by retracing their steps through Jerusalem. But they got home nonetheless. So, the Magi did not return in obedience to Herod. Rather, they were guided by a new King and traveled “another way.”

I belabor this point because it would be so easy for us as contemporary (and English-speaking) Jesus followers to miss what the Matthean author is saying. When we kneel at the feet of the Messiah, we renounce allegiance to any other sovereign in our lives. When we get up from that encounter, we will travel by another way. Early Jesus followers referred to their faith commitment as “the Way.” And we have the Greek word for “way” in our text here.

Following Jesus means traveling home by “another way.” I think that’s a potential theme for one who might preach on this text in the next few weeks.

Matthew 2:12 is the climax of and punchline for a story filled with juxtapositions and oppositions. In my previous post, I examined the juxtaposition and opposition created by putting Herod the King in contact with Jesus the King. That’s one of the major themes of the Matthean author, as we have seen by looking briefly at the Matthean passion account. But we have other comparisons and contrasts as well.

Our text gives us two cities associated with King David. We get his birthplace in humble Bethlehem. And we get his royal city of Jerusalem. Which city gives us the real son of David, who is the Messiah, the Lord? On the basis of words from Micah five, the high priests and scribes of the people identify Bethlehem as the defining location for the Messiah. Jerusalem is the place where the ruler and all the people are threatened by such a revelation.

The Matthean author is the master of the “little text/big context” method of employing Hebrew scripture in Christian texts. The quote from Micah 5 is a primary example of this method. I think it’s helpful to begin reading the Micah prophecy back in chapter 4. The prophet describes the days to come when the Lord’s house will be on the highest mountain in the world. The Gentile nations shall stream to that house to learn the ways of the God of Jacob.

Instruction (Torah!) will come out from Zion. The word of the Lord will proceed from Jerusalem. This teaching will produce peace between the nations. Everyone shall sit under their own vines and fig trees. Mutual fear will be a thing of the past. The nations may still walk in the names of their own gods, but Israel will continue to point to the Lord forever. The lame, the outcast, the rejected – all will be gathered to that holy mountain.

The oracle takes a dark turn after that. Clearly, Micah says, this is not what is happening now. The Babylonian Exile cannot be avoided, but it will not be the end of the story. Jerusalem may be under siege now, but there’s more coming.

Jerusalem may well fall, we hear in Micah 5. But there’s still Bethlehem of Ephrathah. The ruler to come will arise from the same little town that produced the first David. And like that first David, this new ruler shall be a shepherd king – not anything like Herod, the great pretender, now on the Jerusalem throne.

Therefore, the Matthean author reminds us, the King of the Jews is not that corrupt fraud in Jerusalem. Nor is the King of the Jews anything like the ruler that Jerusalem may produce. Instead, we should expect a shepherd King, like David in his beginnings – one who shall feed his flock and protect them from danger and harm. And this one, as we have seen, is the kind of King who deserves our humble submission, adoration, and allegiance.

Not only do we see this description of “which David” will define the King of the Jews, but we also see some remarkable comparisons and contrasts in class, status, and privilege. When the Magi return by another way, they don’t go back to the supposed seat of power and privilege represented by the throne of Herod. They have been to the real throne – a humble little hovel in Bethlehem. The Messiah is not to be found among the great and powerful, but rather among the “little” of the clans of Judah. The foreshadowing of the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 is pronounced when we use this interpretive lens.

Herod is surrounded by ambitious retainers and fawning sycophants. He rules by fear and intimidation. He is paranoid, calculating, violent, and merciless. He imposes his will on all of Jerusalem. He is friend and ally of the Empire and the Emperor. He is a wealthy builder of monuments to his own ego – including his generational commitment to rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. He uses his accomplishments to prove a “worthiness” to rule that he cannot have.

This is a picture of power and privilege, of wealth and status. The picture is complete with all of the prerogatives of that power and all the insecurities that come from protecting it. And the picture finishes a few verses later when Herod “the Great” still dies miserable and alone.

Then there is the real King of the Jews. He is born in humble circumstances. He lives his life in opposition to the powers that be. He lives his life under constant threat from those powers. That threat commences almost as soon as he is born. After all, Herod begins seeking the life of the child as soon as he hears about the new birth. Yet, the Magi do not open their gifts for Herod. The royal gifts are for the child in Bethlehem, the one who – regardless of external circumstances – is the true King of the Jews.

Where do we look for signs of power and prestige? We continue to look to the throne of Herod rather than the “house of bread” (the literal meaning of “Bethlehem”). We, especially white, privileged, wealthy, American Christians, put our hopes in money and  buildings and politics. We continue to maintain our churches as bastions of white, upper middle-class propriety. We live segregated lives, where race and class are not permitted to intrude.

The Matthean account is, I suspect, challenging Jesus followers in social positions much like those we white American Christians occupy. For those in the Matthean community who have some measure of privilege and comfort, a time has come for a certain reckoning. Accommodation with the Herods and Pilates of the world won’t do. The Matthean account presents some stark either/ors, beginning with this contrast between kings. And the pressure for disciples to choose will mount throughout the gospel account.

Text Study for Matthew 2:1-12 (Part Two)

I would recommend Bauer’s article on the kingship of Jesus in the Matthean infancy narrative as a good preparation for preaching in general in the year of Matthew. I will try to share some of his insights here and reflect on that material. He notes that as of the composition of his article in the mid-nineties, the kingship of Jesus in this narrative had not been examined much as a Christological theme. I think that’s changed somewhat since he wrote his article, but his work is still valuable and stimulating.

In the Matthean infancy narrative, Bauer argues, the kingship of Jesus is set in double contrast to that of Herod and to the status of the Magi. The contrast between Jesus as the “born” king and Herod as the pretender is fairly obvious. Bauer notes that another contrast is between those who worship Jesus as king and those who seek to kill him. “Matthew presents this double contrast,” Bauer suggests, “in order to delineate the character and significance of Jesus’ kingship as well as the responses to it” (page 308).

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If the Matthean account is a manual for disciples (and I think it is), then it’s worth wondering what the infancy narrative adds to that manual. Why are the first two (or three or four) chapters of Matthew set as they are and where they are in such a manual? If Bauer’s argument is correct, then we can see the role of these verses. They are the story of Jesus, the Messiah, the King of the Jews. This is the one who we follow as disciples.

Parenthetically, I would suggest, as a result, that this prologue to the Matthean discipleship manual runs through the end of the account of Jesus’ baptism and on through the temptation account. The whole of the prologue is then intended to arrive at that goal. Jesus is the son of Abraham, the son of David, and the son of God. He is both the king and personification of Israel, in the Matthean view. If that is the case, then of course we should follow him.

Bauer notes that the Matthean account refers to Herod several times as “king.” I would note that this is the case only until the utterance of the prophecy in Matthew 2:6. After that identification, Herod is no longer referred to as “king.” Once the real king of the Jews has been anchored in scripture (and in Bethlehem), it would seem that the pretender is stripped of his title. This isn’t part of Bauer’s analysis, but I do think that it complements the work in his study.

Herod’s rule is marked by fear, paranoia, and violence. Yet, as Bauer notes, those tools are useless in deterring God’s plans and purposes. Instead, Herod’s malicious responses are subverted for God’s purposes: “God transforms them into the means whereby the divine agenda are advanced, and the will of God for the Messiah is fulfilled” (page 308). Herod is duped by the Magi and is subject to ridicule as a result.

Jesus is portrayed as a Davidic king, based on both prophecy and geography. As a Davidic king he is to be “shepherd” for God’s people and to save them, not only from danger, but from their own sins. Jesus assumes this royal mantle in humility. Yet, he is the born, legitimate, divinely appointed king of the Jews. The grammar of Matthew 2:2 makes this abundantly clear. The unusual word order puts the emphasis on the one who is born king as opposed to the one who is appointed by the Romans.

Jesus, Bauer notes, is the royal Son of God. As I noted earlier, I think this is where the first four chapters are headed. And this is why they are best understood when read together. The passage that follows our current one will make this even clearer with the quote from Hosea. That prophecy will equate Jesus with Israel as God’s chosen Son who is called “out of Egypt.” That call will then be ratified in the baptismal account in chapter 3 and tested in the Temptation in chapter four.

As a result, “the kingship of Jesus challenges the rule of Herod” (page 314). We know that this will serve as the paradigm in the Matthean account for the ongoing collision between Jesus’ rule and that of the rulers of this world. On the one hand, Jesus does not intend to set up a regime to “compete” with that of Herod (or Caesar). However, Herod demonstrates an awareness that in Jesus, someone else is claiming God’s people. That claim, even if it is Divine, cannot be tolerated by a secular ruler.

“Herod’s hostility toward the kingship of Jesus, therefore, represents a dialectic between misunderstanding and understanding,” Bauer writes. “Herod misunderstands in that he construes the kingdom of Jesus in political terms. But he understands all to well,” Bauer continues, “that the kingship of Jesus represents the rule of God which challenges the kind of rule Herod enjoys” (page 315). Herod’s rule is deadly in intent but cannot prevail since in Jesus the power of death itself will be defeated.

“This presentation of Herod’s opposition to Jesus evidently prepares for, and illumines, the theme of secular political antagonism to Jesus and the church which the reader encounters throughout the remainder of the Gospel,” Bauer argues (page 315). This is an interesting text for reflection in a time when justifiably intense conversations about Christian nationalism are happening in political arenas around the world. The relationship between secular power and the Jesus agenda is more alive at this moment than it has been at any other point in my life.

The text, Bauer reminds us, also connects the responses of Herod as a secular political leader and that of the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Again, the pursuit of power often brings together institutional interests that might otherwise be at odds with one another. Later, as Bauer notes, the Pharisees and the “Herodians” will ally with one another to seek to entrap Jesus in his words (see Matthew 22:16). We get a preview of that unholy alliance in Matthew 2.

Herod responds to the royal announcement with fear. The Magi respond with faith. “It is remarkable,” Bauer writes, “that these Gentile magoi are the first persons in the Gospel to utter a Christological confession, even as the Gentile centurion (and those with him) are the last (27:54) and that these Gentiles actually proclaim the birth of the king of the Jews to Israel” (page 319). Even though the Matthean account is clearly oriented toward Jewish Christians throughout, it is more often the Gentiles in the story who recognize Jesus for who he is. (Here, also, is further evidence of the chiastic structure of the overall gospel account).

The Magi are obedient to God. They offer worship to the infant King of the Jews as they bend the knee to the Child. They bring gifts fit for royalty and present them. They rejoice in the encounter. And they reject Herod’s competing claims on them as they return home “by another way.” They will not be traveling the way of Herod the pretender to the throne. “Indeed, both the narrator and Herod,” Bauer argues, “construe the refusal of the magoi to return to Herod as an act of ridicule…” (page 322).

Bauer suggests that this contrast in responses prepares us to read the remainder of the Matthean account. It prepares us to identify and assess those who will oppose the kingship of Jesus, respond violently to him, and persecute his followers. And it prepares us to identify and embrace those who will respond to Jesus with obedient worship. On the one hand, those who reject Jesus will participate in his death. On the other hand, those who worship him will obey and follow. They will go “another way.” We will see this play out again and again in the Matthean account.

I quote Bauer’s final sentences here. “The entire presentation of 1:18-2:23 prepares especially for the passion and resurrection narratives, for all other references to Jesus’ earthly kingship are found there, and it is there that the responses to Jesus’ kingship on the part of the secular authorities, the religious leaders, the people, Gentiles who experience God’s revelation, and the disciples reach their climax. The kingship of Jesus is introduced in the infancy narrative,” Bauer concludes, “but it is most perfectly expressed in the cross” (page 323).

In fact, I think this is another piece of the argument for understanding the Matthean account in total as a chiasm. One of the functions of the Matthew infancy narrative is to serve as an intertext for the Matthean passion account. I think it’s both necessary and instructive to read the birth and death stories alongside one another. The cross casts its shadow over the manger. The manger declares the birth of new life beyond the powers of the grave. For Jesus followers, both things are true at the same time.

Lest we miss the shadow of the cross in Herod’s machinations, we will get the clear picture in the next section of the Gospel account. Herod responds to his humiliation with a genocidal rage. And the toddlers in Bethlehem pay the price.

References and Resources

BAUER, DAVID R. “The Kingship of Jesus in the Matthean Infancy Narrative: A Literary Analysis.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 57, no. 2 (1995): 306–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43722341.

Text Study for Matthew 2:1-12 (Part One)

Read Matthew 2:1-12.

We had an Advent visitation at our house last week. It wasn’t the shepherds or the magi. It was a solid week of RSV. That curtailed most of our activities for several days. That’s largely in the rearview at this point, so I hope to get back to work.

I have chosen during this Advent season to read and preach straight through the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel. This Sunday, we come to the Visit of the Magi. If you are pursuing the Revised Common Lectionary or other scheduled readings, you might use the reflections as you prepare for the Epiphany of Our Lord in January.

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This text is completely entangled with Jewish history and Roman politics. The story of Herod the Great and the astrologers from “the East” – (likely Parthia, about the same as modern day Iran) – shudders with echoes of intrigue and overthrow. It’s worth remembering a bit of that history to appreciate the text more fully. I’m sure my little summary will be filled with inaccuracies and holes. But I think it will be close enough for us to get the gist of what’s going on in our text.

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the greater Syrian region (which included Palestine) came under the control of the Greek general Seleucus and his political heirs. That regime was relatively uneventful until the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Antiochus forced the crisis described, for example, in the Book of Daniel (metaphorically) in in 1 and 2 Maccabees (more literally). The Maccabean Jews were victorious and established what came to be known as the Hasmonean regime.

The Hasmoneans ruled Palestine from about 140 to 37 BCE, with a few hiccups during that century. There was a relative power vacuum in greater Syria during this period. The Seleucids were under attack by the growing Roman republic from the south (and the sea) and from the Parthian empire in the north and east. While the big powers sorted things out, the Hasmoneans exercised authority and power in Palestine. Sometimes the Hasmoneans were allied with Rome. At other times they sought the support of the Parthians.

This is a very rough and ready review of a century of factional intrigue. It’s important to note that a growing player in this power game was the Idumean regime, people we would know in the Hebrew Scriptures (at least loosely) as Edomites. This matters, in part, because Herod the Great had an Idumean princess for a mother and was not regarded, as a result, as authentically and legitimately Jewish. The Idumean desire to rule Palestine certainly precedes the reign of Herod the Great.

The Romans bring the situation into focus beginning 63 BCE. General Pompey defeats the Seleucids. Judea becomes a Roman protectorate. The Romans install a provincial governor. But they also allow the Judeans to have a king – “the King of the Jews.” Not quite ten years later, the Romans split Palestine into five districts, each with its own administration. Judea is now ruled by an Idumean king.

Once the Romans were in charge, Roman politics began to determine local politics. The next big crisis came with the war between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Forces of the Jewish king came to the aid of Julius Caesar and found themselves on the winning team. That connection came to a bloody end in 44 BCE when Julius Caesar was assassinated. The “king of the Jews” had to figure out once again how to align with the winning side. This time, that was not so easy.

At this point, the Parthians (Persians) get more directly involved. The Parthians invaded Palestine as allies of the anti-Antony forces. They removed the Idumean king and installed a semblance of the former Hasmonean regime. By this time, Herod is on the scene, connected to that former Idumean regime. He is on the outside looking in and flees into exile. He looks for support from Antony, and he gets it. In 40 BCE, the Roman senate designates Herod “the King of the Jews.” Antony and Augustus were still allied at this time. They defeated the Parthians and installed Herod on the throne. There were a few more wrinkles before the dust settled, but Herod the Great was the Roman-backed “King of the Jews” from 37 BCE to 4 CE, when he died.

Given all that history, let’s try to experience the political earthquakes in the Matthean account. I intend the reference to “earthquakes” because of the verb the Matthean author uses in verse three. The NRSV suggests that Herod was “frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…” However, the Greek verb here is tarasso. The literal meaning is to shake together or stir up something – especially water, that is agitated and troubled.

“But when King Herod heard [the question of the Magi], he was shook up,” the Matthean author tells us, “and all of Jerusalem [was shook up] with him” (my translation). Herod’s rule was an autocracy with a very efficient state police and intelligence apparatus. It was quite true that if Herod sneezed, all of Jerusalem “got pneumonia” (at least in political terms). Why was Herod “all shook up”?

These Magi come “from the East.” They likely come from Parthia/Persia. In her workingpreacher.org commentary, Diane Chen reminds us that the word “magi” can refer to members of a priestly caste in Persia. These were likely Zoroastrian astrologers. I don’t say that disparagingly. The distinction between astrology and astronomy is a modern one, and we shouldn’t anachronistically disparage their education and scholarship. These visitors were scientists in the ancient world.

They were also probably in some conversation with the Jewish Diaspora community that remained in what was once ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. The various deportations had seeded the “East” with vibrant Jewish communities that continued to maintain and develop their faith traditions, memories, theologies, documents, and practices.

The Magi probably come from the place that helped to give Herod and his cohort the boot a generation earlier. Could it be that the great Parthian Empire was once again on the move, preparing to end the Herodian regime and regain control of greater Syria? Had the Magi been sent as a shrewd military and political tactic to begin to destabilize Herod’s reign from within and below? These would have been questions roiling in the Herodian halls as soon as the Magi raised their inquiry.

This material is unique to the Matthean account. I don’t think it’s necessary to assert that all of this is factual reporting of events on the ground. The points I’m making stand within the logic of the story whether one regards the story as “history” or not. The Matthean author wants us as readers to see the contrast between the fake king of the Jews and the real King of the Jews.

That being said, I’m not willing to completely dismiss this account from the pages of history. Why would the Matthean author pick these particular folks for this purpose? If I were making something up, I think I would have made other choices. I might have brought three Greek philosophers to town. Or perhaps a group of Roman historians or legal scholars. Or, even better, a cadre of Egyptian and Ethiopian spiritual savants. Any of these groups would have served the Matthean purposes at least as well.

I’m inclined to think that the Matthean author knew about something that happened to shake up the Herodian court. The description that follows fits very well with the political realities on the ground and the historical context leading to the events. The story of Herod’s tactics and response is an accurate representation of how the bloodthirsty old tyrant dealt with even a whiff of potential competition. The Matthean author has a clear sense of how things were working at the time.

Given this history, Herod is not being paranoid. Rather, he’s being prudent. If Herod was anything, he was a political survivor. He had switched sides at least three times on his path to power. He had left a trail of bodies along that path, several of them members of his own family. Perhaps it was time to test the political wind again. Decisive action was probably required.

The language of the Magi was shocking and surgical in its impact. “Where is the one who is born the King of the Jews?” they ask. Remember, Herod was not “born” the King of the Jews. He was not born a Jew. He was installed by the Romans and kept in place by their power and at their pleasure. Herod was not born either a son of David or a son of Abraham. The Matthean author has used chapter one to set up this stark contrast between the old guy on the throne in Jerusalem and the baby boy in a house in Bethlehem.

In her workingpreacher.org commentary, Diane Chen notes that this story contrasts the imposter, King Herod, and the real King of the Jews, Jesus. This will be a consistent theme in the Matthean account. We will discover how hard it is to see the real King among us without the eyes of faith. Over and over, it is those outside of normal channels who have those eyes and who see that King.