Text Study for Matthew 11:20-30 (Part Three)

How shall we translate and then understand Matthew 11:30? This is no small matter, since many scholars and interpreters regard this verse as the interpretive key for the entire Matthean account! In addition, Matthew 11:28-30 is a beloved devotional passage which has brought encouragement and comfort over the past two millennia to myriad Jesus followers. This text is worth taking the time for both wrestling and meditation. And it will be the focus of my proclamation this weekend.

Here’s the NRSV rendering of Matthew 11:28-30. “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”

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I am puzzled by the translation of “chrestos” in Matthew 11:30. This word catches my eye, in part, because it shows up prominently in Philemon 11. Philemon is a particular interest of mine.

Now, it is true that we don’t have an identical usage in that verse. However, the forms are certainly close enough for comparison. Paul includes the words “euchrestos” and “achrestos” as possible descriptions for Onesimus. These words can be translated as “useful” and “useless” respectively.

I mention this because I think this sense of “utility” is part of the basic meaning of the word. The word can mean useful, suitable, good, pleasant, kindly, and “easy to wear.” That last sense is connected in BAGD to our passage in Matthew. I find a certain amount of translation circularity in that reference. We sort of know that Jesus’ yoke is supposed to be “easy,” therefore, that must be how the term is to be translated in this instance.

I’m not so sure that’s the best solution. The function of a real yoke, one “worn” by beasts of burden, is to make the load-bearing more efficient. The load is spread out across the body of the load-bearer. It may also be shared by more than one load-bearer in a team. The goal of providing the yoke is to make the load-bearing more eff” icient. That happens by making the task more comfortable and less taxing for the load-bearer. But the yoke improves working conditions. It does not remove the need for the work.

As I preach this week, I will keep this sense of the verse in mind. I think the sense of Matthew 11:30 goes something like this: “For my yoke makes the work easier, and so my load is light by comparison” (my translation). One of the points I want to make this week is that the rest Jesus offers is vocation, not vacation. Jesus doesn’t invite disciples to abandon the work of The Kingdom. Rather, Jesus invites disciples into the good, life-giving work of The Kingdom. This good, life-giving work is part of the full human flourishing that the Matthean Jesus describes in this gospel account.

This is a paradoxical assertion, but that’s the deal with discipleship. “The relationship of discipleship requires absolute trust, demands obedience and whole-hearted commitment, and as the same time offers as gift,” writes Patricia Sharbaugh, “the rest that comes with dwelling in the presence of God” (page 46). Sharbaugh argues that Matthew 11:28-30 uses two converging symbols to make explore this discipleship paradox. These verses, she contends, bring together two important symbols in the Matthean account: Jesus as the new Moses and Jesus as personified Wisdom.

These verses appear only in the Matthean account. In verses 25-27, we get some of the “New Moses” description as the Matthean author takes listeners back to several Torah passages. In Numbers 12, Moses is described as meek. In Deuteronomy 34, Moses is described as the one who was intimate with God and brought that intimacy to Israel. And in Exodus 33, we can see Moses in a deep sense as the “savior” of Israel.

This image of Jesus as the New Moses permeates the Matthean account, but with a profound difference. “Jesus isn’t promised that God will be with him,” Sharbaugh notes, “but is himself the presence of God with the people, a presence that saves from the slavery of sin” (page 51). Our current text highlights that Mosaic connection. Jesus has an intimate and face to face relationship with God. This intimate relationship means that Jesus knows the Father’s heart. And most important, Jesus does not obey Torah. Rather, Jesus is Torah incarnate (page 52).

Sharbaugh notes that in Exodus 33:14, God promises to give Moses “rest.” This will immediately remind readers of the Sabbath. In the first and second centuries CE, both Jewish and Christian writes, according to Sharbaugh, connected “rest” both with the Sabbath and the messianic age. In both cases, the connection was eschatological. In other words, Sabbath rest was not a vacation. It was, rather, a sign of the promised age to come. It was “vocation” in the sense of a call from that blessed future into the present. So, Sabbath rest was a way to embody and prefigure the messianic age.

“Sabbath rest, which is associated with creation,” Sharbaugh writes, “will be restored when the messianic age dawns” (page 52). She notes that our text stands between a bunch of eschatological blessings and woes in chapter 11 and the Sabbath controversies in chapter 12. It’s no accident, I would add, that Jesus identifies himself in chapter 12 as “Lord of the Sabbath.”

“Jesus, promise of rest in Matthew is clearly associated with eschatology and the restoration of the Sabbath,” Sharbaugh argues, “Jesus is the herald of the messianic age, the beginning of the new creation” (page 52). That rest, in Exodus 33, means entry into and flourishing life in the land of promise. God will be with the people on that journey. “In Exodus God promises the rest that comes with his accompanying presence. In Matthew,” Sharbaugh concludes, “Jesus is that presence” (page 53).

As Sharbaugh notes, this “rest” is not merely a gift passively received. It comes as disciples take on the yoke of Jesus’ teaching and learn from him. “Within that invitation,” Sharbaugh observes, “is a proposal for a way of life that is paradoxically both gift and demand” (page 53). This language is familiar to Jewish listeners to the text. They know well the phrase, “the yoke of the Torah.” This yoke is not a burden. Rather, for Jews, accepting that yoke is regarded as the key to deep and full life with God.

“In Matthew 11, when Jesus urges his disciples to take up his yoke, he is in continuity with other Jewish teachers who use yoke to refer to the revelation of God and God’s will for human beings,” Sharbaugh writes. “He does not, however, refer to the yoke of Torah, but to his yoke. He does not ask his disciples to learn Torah, but to learn Jesus” (page 54).

The Matthean Jesus makes claims for himself and his teaching by describing himself as the New Moses. Sharbaugh winds up this section of her article with the following summary. “When the invitation is read through a Mosaic lens, the Christology revealed emphasizes the revelation of God’s presence and will for human beings in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t merely promise rest, he is rest. He doesn’t merely bring a new law but is the new law” (page 56).

Sharbaugh then turns to Jesus as Wisdom personified. “Wisdom literature claims that the pursuit of Wisdom is the pursuit of life. Life is meant to be more than mere existence. Wisdom themes in Matthew deepen the Christological invitation to a relationship with Jesus as the source of life lived in communion with God” (page 57). The rest Jesus promises is not mere vocation. It is vocation — the vocation to live as fully flourishing human beings in the Creation as God made it to be. Disciples begin to live into that renewed and restored vocation. Sharbaugh examines a number of Wisdom sources that undergird this contention. I refer you to her article for the details.

Sharbaugh finishes her article by describing some “implications for discipleship.” Disciples of Jesus respond to his invitation by teaching and embodying meekness and humility in their relationships with God and others. Disciples are invited to imitate the whole life of Jesus and thus to fulfill the Torah. “These personal characteristics” [and the full list included in the Beatitudes “reveal attitudes toward God and others,” Sharbaugh writes, “that draw one into communion with God and lead toward eschatological rest” (page 61).

But how does that fit with the verbal violence of verses 20-24? “the challenge of imitating Jesus is that disciples, like Jesus, are asked to embody these qualities in a world that is hostile to God,” Sharbaugh writes. “Persecution, mourning, and hunger and thirst for righteousness can all be expected, and yet those who follow Jesus are assured blessings the world cannot give. This is the difficult task of discipleship in Matthew. As the invitation indicates,” Sharbaugh continues, “disciples are not merely invited to learn a set of principles Jesus teaches, they are invited to walk the same way Jesus walked in the world” (pages 61-62).

Indeed, violence looks different when one is on the receiving end and powerless to respond in kind. Perhaps the Matthean invective is verbal protest when no action is permitted or possible. But that challenges us who have power to read very carefully as we engage this text.

Text Study for Matthew 11:20-30 (Part Two)

“Because if in Sodom the deeds of power had happened which have happened in you,” Jesus declares in Matthew 11:23, “indeed it would still be standing today” (my translation). One detail that might slip past us as interpreters is the order in which the comparison cities are identified in this text. Tyre and Sidon have infamous reputations in several of the Hebrew prophetic books.

Sodom, of course, appears first and most infamously in the Torah. Once again, we have this peculiar Matthean order of the prophets and the Torah (see Matthew 11:13). We read the prophets through Jesus. And we read Torah through the prophets (which we have read through Jesus). This order will appear in the “plucking grain on the Sabbath” controversy in chapter 12 as well. There we will see a description of David’s activity in a book of the “former prophets.” Then we’ll see a reference to the issue from the perspective of Torah.

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In our scriptural transmission and reception history, many of us have learned that the “sin of Sodom” was related to homosexual behavior. That understanding was tragically mistaken. That understanding does not reflect the images conveyed in Hebrew scripture and especially in the prophets.

The real “sin of Sodom” was the failure to receive, welcome, and honor the messengers of God who had come into the midst of the city to rescue Lot and his family. With this understanding in mind, Jesus’ reference to Sodom in our text makes far more sense. Jesus compares himself to the divine messengers who came to Sodom and were violently rejected. And, therefore, those who rejected the messenger (and the message) are compared to the doomed citizens of Sodom.

I’m not making a big deal of this in my proclamation this week. However, this is another indication that Jesus (and the New Testament in general) understood the “sin of Sodom” as rejection of God’s messengers rather than as engagement in same sex activity. Sometimes we may argue that Jesus doesn’t address homosexuality one way or another in the gospels (I’m not entirely persuaded by that argument). But we should also remember that Jesus is pretty clear about the real “sin of Sodom.” It is the rejection of divine messengers who come with a message of salvation — that is, a message of rescue from destruction.

With that in mind, the insult to Capernaum is breathtaking. Sodom was reduced to a pile of volcanic ash in the Torah account. If, however, the citizens of the city had witnessed Jesus’ acts of power among them (the Matthean Jesus argues), they would have straightened up and flown right. Capernaum has all the advantages and refuses to get it. Joseph Comber wonders if this text reminds readers that Capernaum was leveled during the Jewish war. If so, the insult would have particular and painful salience for a Matthean audience in the upper Galilee.

Comber notes the importance of the “day of judgment” theme in this text (and throughout the Matthean account). He concludes that in this text, “Jesus totally and unequivocally excludes the cities from eschatological salvation” (page 501). I find that conclusion to be an interpretive overreach. The text makes it clear that the Galilean cities will have a worse time of it on the day of judgment than even the most notorious Gentile cities. That, however, does not lead to a clear verdict of ultimate condemnation. Instead, this appears to me to be another example of Gentiles entering the kingdom of heaven while “the heirs of the kingdom” weep and grind their teeth waiting their turn (see Matthew 8:11-12).

It’s easy to detach Matthew 11:20-24 from its immediate context, but that would violate the text itself. Matthew 11:20 begins with “then.” This is a clear indication that we are to connect these verses to the preceding material. Matthew 11:25 begins with “in that very moment.” Again, this is a necessary connection to the preceding material. And it may well be an ironic nod to the fact that an encounter with Jesus is always an eschatological crisis for the one encountered, whether that encounter happens at the end of the age or in the middle of history. The “day of judgment” for those Galilean cities may well be those days in which Jesus was doing deeds of power in their midst rather than only at the end of the age.

The Galilean cities, and especially their Roman-oriented leadership (see the previous post), are those who would not lament with John and won’t party with Jesus (see Matthew 11:18-19). The point of those verses is that they will entertain no possibility that might upset the status quo. As a result, the Matthean Jesus images these cities (and by extension, all Israel), as those who oppose God’s plan. “In telling the story of Jesus in this manner, writes Cedric Vine, “the Evangelist seeks to emphasize that Israel has taken on the identity, practices, and mores of those nations subjected to divine judgment in the Hebrew Scriptures” (page 9).

It is in that very moment that Jesus thanks the Heavenly Father for keeping secrets from the “wise” and the “intelligent” (Matthew 11:25). Oh, how I wish the Greek manuscripts had “scare quotes” available to the scribes! We can’t read “tone” from the bare text. Attributing such scare quotes to the text is certainly a matter of interpretation and even speculation. But I think those quotes fit in our text at precisely this moment. The irony is that the so-called “wise” and “intelligent” of this world are anything but that when it comes to discerning the eschatological moment that confronts them. The moment could just as well be described in secret code for all such folks would know.

I continue to wrestle with the vitriol the Matthean author pours on those in the narrative who reject and oppose Jesus and his mission. From this point forward, both the opposition and the vitriol will increase in volume and severity. I struggle with how to preach through that anger which spills over at times into what sounds like hatred.

I understand that the Matthean author simply can’t be “anti-Jewish.” Instead, what we witness in the Matthean account is one side of a “Pharisaic intragroup conflict,” as Anders Runesson describes it. The Matthean narrative is written, in part, to deal with a conflict between Christian Jews and some other part(s) of the Jewish communities in Galilee or Syria. The Matthean author is clearly “anti” the other side of the debate. But that’s not the same as being “anti-Jewish.”

“Yet regardless of whether the Gospel was initially anti-Jewish, however,” Amy-Jill Levine writes, “it has certainly been interpreted in ways that convey anti-Jewish messages. Our task,” Levine concludes, “is to prevent this abuse of the text.” I can note in sermon after sermon that the Matthean author is a Jew writing to Jews. And I believe that will have some positive impact over time. I’m okay with that.

Nonetheless, I struggle with the extreme images and rhetoric the Matthean author uses in this intragroup conflict. Matthew 11:20-24 is a clear example. The author sounds like they are condemning three Jewish cities to hell (or at least to a very bad time), based on their response to Jesus. I have trouble reading these verses from the same mind and spirit that urge us to love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, pray for those who hate us.

It’s hard to remember back to those stirring words in the Sermon on the Mount when we get into the second half of the Matthean account. I can remind my listeners about those words that serve as the framework for all that is to follow. But I’m not sure such reminders can overcome the volume of the anger expressed in these later texts.

A fellow alum of the small Christian college I attended posted one of the Matthean “two ways” sayings on social media the other day. You know, one of those “my way or the highway” things that show up with such regularity in the Matthean account. Another fellow alum observed that “Matthew” sounds a lot like certain right-wing politicians who wish to divide us all into the good and the bad and then to send the bad to hell.

That was a fair observation. And that’s part of my struggle. I can deal with the superficial “anti-Judaism” that has been used and abused in the text. But what do we as preachers do with the much deeper animosity the Matthean author expresses toward opponents throughout the text? That’s especially pressing when Matthean discourse is used to underwrite and justify self-righteous judgments and the violence toward others which may result.

The Matthean author seems to empower and even to bless some very violent thinking about their enemies. And this comes in the same account that tells me if I even think my neighbor is a damned fool, then I’m liable to the fires of judgment. I’m not okay with that.

I’m not going to get to a solution on this one today. I’m just sharing the same question I’ve had about the Matthean account for forty years. Granted, all the gospel accounts have some measure of this animus baked in. And let’s not get started on John’s gospel account! But there’s something sustained and systemic in Matthew’s malice toward the rejectors that has never allowed me to be at peace with the Matthean version of the story.

It’s one thing to pick at a theological scab in a blog post. It’s another thing to preach on texts like this. I don’t expect to get it all figured out by Sunday. But I’m praying for some insight.

Text Study for Matthew 11:20-30 (Part One)

This week I’m reading and praying about Matthew 11:20-30. Let’s begin with a preliminary translation.

(20) Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had happened, because they did not repent. (21) “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! Because, if in Tyre and Sidon the deeds power had been done which were done in you, long ago indeed in sackcloth and ashes they would have repented! (23) Let me repeat: it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. (23) And you, Capernaum — ‘you will be exalted up to heaven,’ (will you?). ‘You will be brought down to Hades.’ Because if in Sodom the deeds of power had happened which have happened in you, indeed it would be remaining today. (24) Again, let me tell you: it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.”

(25) In that moment, Jesus replied and said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have kept these things secret from the ‘wise’ and ‘intelligent’ and revealed them to ‘infants.’ Yes, Father, because such a thing was pleasing to you. (26) All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and none recognizes the Son except for the Father, neither does anyone recognize the Father except for the Son and those to whom the Son wants to reveal [the Father].”

(28) “Come toward me, all who are working hard and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (29) Lift up my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble-hearted, and you will find rest for your souls. (30) For my yoke is useful, and my load is light.”

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Those who hear the words of Jesus and do them are like wise people who build their houses on stone foundations. Those who hear the words of Jesus and do not do them are like foolish people who build their houses on sand foundations (Matthew 7:24-27). I think this pattern of hearing and doing structures the five Matthean discourses and the narrative commentary that follows each one. Most of the people in Matthew 11 and 12 are people who hear the words of Jesus and do not do them.

Jesus delivers his discipleship discourse in Matthew 10. In chapters 11 and 12, we see and hear the responses to that call to discipleship. Most of the responses result in ridicule and rejection. The “Pharisees” in chapter 12, in response to what they see and hear, make plans to “ruin” or “destroy” Jesus. In our text, we hear, from the Matthean perspective, the responses of those closest to Jesus, those who know him, his track record, and his disciples the best. Those responses are not positive.

In Matthew 4, Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum. Either he sets up housekeeping there, or he lodges with Peter and Peter’s family. That’s never quite clear to me in the Matthean account. I tend toward the latter perspective, but that’s a guess. When Jesus moved to Capernaum, he began to preach the message: “Repent, for The Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near” (Matthew 4:17). As part of that proclamation, Jesus heals all the distresses and diseases of the people (Matthew 4:23). These are the “deeds of power” in our text, the majority of which have been done in the environs of the Galilean cities.

Based on the apparent lack of repentance, Jesus insults the cities and their inhabitants. In Matthew 11:6, Jesus utters a makarism (beatitude) in response to John’s question about the apparent delay of The Coming Kingdom. “And (blessed or happy or flourishing),” Jesus says, “is the one who is not tripped up by me.” Makarisms are paired with woes. That pairing begins in verse 21. A woe is a cry of lament. It is not a “curse.” Jesus is capable of cursing someone or something, if the occasion warrants it. But this is not such a time.

Jesus mourns over the lack of repentance among those closest to him, those who have seen most of his work thus far. If the pagans in Tyre and Sidon had been given such a front row seat, they would have pulled out the sackcloth and ashes. This is a clear nod to the Jonah narrative. There’s a prophetic prelude to Jesus’ experience there. Jonah appears never to get the message. But when the folks in Nineveh get a one-sentence sermon, they repent in sackcloth and ashes — from the palace to stockyards and everywhere in between!

The Matthean author and community are certainly wrestling with the failure of the gospel message to reach their Jewish family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We can see that perplexed wondering in the words of Jesus when he declares that he has come to bring a sword rather than tranquility (Matthew 10:34-39). The Matthean community is a synagogue (assembly) of Christian Jews who find themselves on the outs with their co-religionists who are not taken with the gospel of Jesus as the Messiah. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on.

We know Paul engages in a similar anguished meditation in Romans 9 to 11. Paul’s conclusion is that the Jews will come around at some point, when they have seen how it all works to convert the Gentiles. That may take some time, but (I believe) Paul hopes and prays that it will happen. The Matthean author, I think, is less optimistic about the outcome and more willing to ascribe the problem to Jewish hardness of heart. The Galilean cities are among those in the narrative who represent that response.

It’s not that Chorazin and Bethsaida are lost for eternity. Instead, we get a comparison with the treatment of Tyre and Sidon. On the day of judgment, it will be better to be Tyre and Sidon than to be Chorazin and Bethsaida. Tyre and Sidon don’t have any reason to respond. They are uninformed pagans (a bit like the “sheep” in Matthew 25). The Galilean Jews, in this chapter, are without excuse. They have heard the word and have not done it.

It’s even worse for the folks in Capernaum because they have received an even closer look at the deeds of power. In his insult to the hometown crowd, the Matthean Jesus makes a shocking comparison. He quotes a few lines from Isaiah 14. Here’s an example of the rule of thumb, “little text, big context.” Isaiah promises the return from Babylonian exile and the restoration of Israel. This is then expanded with an oracle pronounced against the King of Babylon (who took Judah into exile).

When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve,” Isaiah declares, “you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon...” (Isaiah 14:3-4, NRSV). As interpreters, we need to keep this larger context in mind when we get to Matthew 11:28-30. It may well be that the “rest” Jesus has in mind in verse 28 is more akin to freedom from exile than it is peace of mind or tranquility of spirit. Thus, this “rest” has to do with the restoration of Israel and not merely with freedom from personal turmoil.

The actual quote on the lips of the Matthean Jesus comes from an edited version of Isaiah 14:12-15. Verse twelve is a kind of lament for the Babylonian king — “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!” (NRSV).

Then comes the first line that Jesus addresses, in a paraphrase, to Capernaum: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon;
I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High’
” (Isaiah 14:13-14, NRSV). The prophet mocks the presumption of the King, who envisions himself as superior to the God of Israel.

“You will be exalted up to heaven, will you, Capernaum?” Jesus sneers. Not hardly. Like the foolish Babylonian tyrant of old, “you will be brought down to Hades” (Matthew 11:23, my translation). Like all tyrants, the king will die and descend to Sheol. He will find himself in the pit of darkness, just like everyone else. Worse than that, Isaiah declares. the king will not even get a decent burial. He’ll be treated like road kill, “like a corpse trampled underfoot” (Isaiah 14:19). This is the fate the Matthean Jesus describes for unrepentant Capernaum.

This reading of the bigger context should make it clear, however, that Jesus is not insulting and condemning the general population of Capernaum (or Chorazin or Bethsaida, I suspect). Instead, the critique seems addressed to those who are the rulers and leaders of these “cities” — that is, those who have aligned themselves with Herod Antipas and the Roman occupiers. These are the ones who have not repented (remember, it’s the king of Nineveh who leads the repentance efforts in Nineveh after Jonah’s sermon).

Thus, the woes here in Matthew 11 are intimately connected with the woes in Matthew 23. All are directed toward leaders who are more deeply committed to maintaining their power through collaboration than they are to making space for the new administration that Jesus proclaims and embodies.

What does that mean for the Matthean community and situation? What can this say to those of us who interpret and hear this text in the here and now? What does it mean for those who are church leaders and are, in some way, unrepentant? I quote Hauerwas in this regard.

“Like the cities of Israel, we have turned our existence as Christians into a status meant to protect us from recognizing the prophets who would point us to Jesus. Of course we do not like Jesus to pronounce judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power, because we do not want to recognize that we too are judged.” [Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (p. 116). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

Matthew 11 Study and Reflection (3)

“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6, NRSV). I want to think through that verse in more detail. First, I’d like to suggest a different translation. “The one,” Jesus declares to John’s followers, “who is not tripped up by me will flourish.”

The verb is skandalizo. The literal image is that of a stumbling block, something that causes one to trip and fall. Generally, the image is not neutral but rather is negative. It’s often connected with a trap of some kind, whether literal or figurative. Therefore, the verb can refer to causing one to sin. The middle/passive form can be translated as to be repelled by or offended by someone. It can be translated as “to take offense,” as is the case in the NRSV.

Obviously, I don’t find the NRSV translation all that compelling. The sentence concludes Jesus’ response to John’s followers. From the context, it doesn’t seem that John is offended by Jesus’ actions. Instead, he is tripped up by them, confused by them, disoriented by them. It may be that John is trapped or offended as a result, but that translation is more interpretive than is necessary.

Figure out a way, Jesus seems to say, to take me in stride. That English metaphor works well here, I think. In the cluster of walking and tripping images, Jesus can trip us up by violating and disappointing our expectations. The challenge, then, is to adjust those expectations. And that’s what this section of the Matthean account is all about.

John expected eschatological fireworks but got a compassionate Messiah. Those who went out to see John in the wilderness expected another prophet. Instead, they got Elijah, the culmination of the prophets and the forerunner of the Messiah. The people in the marketplace of spiritual options got a stern John and a laughing Jesus. Neither one measured up to their preconceptions. The Galilean cities expected to enjoy geographical privilege. Instead, they will fare worse than the worst Gentile cities.

The chapter is filled with tripping over our expectations of Jesus and falling flat on our faces. It’s worth thinking about how that continues to happen for Jesus followers in the here and now. The most visible expression of tripping and falling certainly is the current movement known as Christian nationalism. The Jesus they expect is not the Jesus they get in Scripture. So, they manufacture a Jesus more to their liking.

Those who do get tripped up are treated to a funeral dirge from Jesus. That’s what we get in Matthew 11:20-24. I suspect that Jesus sadly consigns Christian Nationalism to the same category as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

In Matthew 11:7-15, we get the Matthean version of the salvation history outline. Larsen, among others, helps to make some sense of what we read in those verses. The Baptist is the greatest of the prophets of Israel. That is, John is the climactic member of the prophetic line. We get a quotation of Malachi 3:1, the beginning of the end of the Old Testament. At least, that’s how Christians receive the text from the Septuagint.

Thus, the Baptist is the boundary and bridge between the age of the prophets and the age of the Church, at least in Matthean terms. The contrast is between two eras. As Larsen notes, it doesn’t make sense to suggest that John was not in the Kingdom of God. Instead, he was the greatest of those looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom. But “even the most insignificant person who has experienced new life in Jesus has something far greater than the greatest of the old prophets.”

How shall we read Matthew 11:12, since there is some ambiguity in the words to be translated? We could read it to say that the kingdom has, during the time of John, “made its way with triumphant force.” However, John’s incarceration gives the lie to that possibility. Instead, Larsen translates it like this. “From the time when John the Baptist started to preach and even now the kingdom of God has been violently opposed, and the opponents are trying to get rid of it.”

That certainly fits with the responses that John and Jesus have generated so far in the Matthean account. It’s interesting that the Matthean Jesus sees messianic prophecy prior to John in “all the prophets and the law.” That’s an unusual inversion of the typical phrasing, “the Law and the Prophets.”

Perhaps the Matthean author wants to make sure that we read the Torah through the lens of the prophets and not the other way around. This makes sense out of the Matthean use of the prophets and Torah. We read the prophets (including John) through the lens of Jesus. We read further back by seeing the Torah through the lens of the prophets (as does Jesus).

Fulfillment of those text then means that they have prefigured Jesus and are now complete in him. Thus we read Malachi 3:1, for example, and hear the words of Exodus 23:20 behind it. And both of those texts find their fulfillment in John as the messenger, the forerunner, the way-maker. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “John is Elijah because Jesus is the Messiah” (Matthew, page 115).

We can see in vv. 13 and 14 that this reading produced violent responses. It was not “accepted.” This is the word that can be translated as “welcomed.” Jesus calls the crowd to welcome the idea that John really is Elijah, as described in Malachi 4. The question in the text is whether they will or not. The one who welcomes a disciple welcomes Jesus. And the one who welcomes Jesus welcomes the one who sent Jesus.

Matthew 11 Study and Reflection (2)

Before I continue working on Matthew 11, I want to recommend a podcast to which I’ve subscribed. I’ve started listening to the Dangerous Dogma podcast, produced and distributed by the folks at Word and Way. I’ve enjoyed and appreciated all the pods I’ve heard so far. In particular I want to recommend Episode 99, “Jeremy Duncan on Upside-Down Apocalypse.” I’m pretty well set on doing a Revelation book study on Zoom this fall, and I think Duncan’s book will be good preparation for that, based on the podcast. I’m going to get the book to make sure, but I really appreciated what I heard on the pod. I hope you’ll check it out.

Now, on with our regularly scheduled programming.

Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

I have run across the work of professional Bible translator, Iver Larsen, a few times before and have always found his rigor and precision extremely helpful. To quote his bio: “Iver Larsen has an M.Sc. in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Aarhus in Denmark and an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Nairobi in Kenya. He and his wife, Alice, joined SIL in 1977 and worked on the Sabaot language project in Kenya from 1981 to 1991. Since then (as of 1995), Iver has been translation consultant for Bible Translation and Literacy, the national Bible translation organization in Kenya.”

From the SIL International web site: “We are a global, faith-based nonprofit that works with local communities around the world to develop language solutions that expand possibilities for a better life. SIL’s core contribution areas are Bible translation, literacy, education, development, linguistic research and language tools. We are eager for the day when all people enjoy equal access to education, to socio-economic opportunities, and to resources for spiritual growth – no matter what language they speak or sign.”

Suffice it to say, Larsen is one smart cookie.

I am reading a couple of articles by Larsen in connection with Matthew 11:2-19. In particular he focuses on the “parable” in Matthew 11:16-19 and how to translate a few critical phrases. First, he looks at “parable introducers in Matthew.” The parables in Matthew 13 begin with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and proceed with the parable. Larsen argues that the best translation for these “introducers” — that is, the one that removes ambiguity and preserves intended meaning — would be “The kingdom of God is like this story…”

This understanding of parable introducers can assist us with our interpretation of Matthew 11:2-19 and especially with verses 16-19. The theme of the passage is opposition both to John the Baptist and to Jesus. “But to what will I compare this generation?” asks Jesus, in the NRSV translation (Matthew 11:16a). Larsen argues that this question should be translated as “To what shall I liken such people?”

One of the problematic translations here is “this generation.” In a 1985/2001 article, Larsen deals with that phrase. First, he discusses the use of “this” (in Greek, houtos). In most cases, “this” refers to someone or something in the preceding context. The group to which the Matthean Jesus refers is the folks who have been described in this passage as opposing and/or rejecting John and Jesus. This is not a reference to some general population cohort defined by time of birth or historical setting.

The word translated as “generation” (Greek, genea) does not mean “all of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively.” That’s the primary English meaning. Instead, Larsen argues that the word means “a class of people bound together through a common origin or with a common bond.” These two meanings are not equivalent, and they result in different interpretations of the text. This word shows up in several similar contexts in the Matthean account, so the extended treatment is worth the bother.

Nothing in the context would lead us to believe that Jesus is referring to people in a specified time in history. Instead, the reference is to the immediate context and should be translated as “such people as this.”

When we get to this point, we can do a better job of reading the rest of the text. Now we come back to Larsen’s later article. “To what shall I liken such people?” Jesus asks in Matthew 11:16. Unless we are careful, we will read the text as comparing the resistors and rejectors with the children in the marketplace. But that is precisely not the way we should read the text — at least if we want it to make any coherent sense.

In fact, the children in the marketplace are images of John the Baptist and Jesus. The comparison does not say “They are.” Instead, as Larsen points out (and as the NRSV translates), the text says “It is.” It should be clear that Jesus is not comparing the people to the children. Rather, he is comparing the situation of rejection to the image of the children in the marketplace. Larsen argues, “it seems clear that we have here another parable introducer the intent of which is not to identify the topic (“such people”) with the first participants mentioned in the story, but simply to illustrate what Jesus is saying about these people.”

Larsen goes on to argue that Jesus connects the resistors and rejectors to the second group of children in the simile. At that point he loses me. It seems to me that the real force of his argument is that the two groups of children represent John the Baptist and Jesus. That seems to be clear in the interpretation of the parable. John was no fun and was accused of being demon-possessed. Jesus was too much fun and was labeled a glutton and a drunkard. Neither funeral dirges nor dance tunes would satisfy the rejectors and resistors.

The ones who will flourish are those who get up and dance when Jesus starts playing. “And flourishing is the one who would not be scandalized by me” the Matthean Jesus says in 11:6 (my translation). It seems that Jesus is perhaps a Billy Joel fan. He’d rather “laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” The sinners, as Stanley Hauerwas notes, are not necessarily those who misbehave. Instead, they are the ones “who have no stake in the current regime” (Matthew, page 115).

“Those without power are ready to dance with Jesus as he plays the flute. They are ready to mourn with Jesus,” Hauerwas continues, “as he despairs over Israel’s unwillingness to repent. But those who sit in the marketplace, those who flourish in the everyday world of exchange,” he concludes, “can only think John the Baptist to be mad and Jesus to be immoral” (page 115).

As always, I am concerned that we will read such texts with an anti-Jewish focus. It is hard to strain out the inherent supersessionism of the last eighteen centuries. The only way I can find to deal with this is to turn the focus almost immediately upon me and upon the Church I inhabit. Gaslighting prophets and ridiculing innovators is pretty standard fare in established churches and traditions. We can ask ourselves how often we have missed the opportunities to lament or to boogie. How often have we been (and continue to be) the resistors and rejectors — the ones invested in keeping the marketplace quiet and stable?

Matthew 11 Study and Notes

I will be reading and preaching on Matthew 11 for the next few weeks. The pattern in the Matthean account reflects the schema outlined at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (SOM). “Therefore, every one who hears these words of mine and does them,” the Matthean Jesus declares, “can be likened to a wise person who built their house upon a stone foundation” (Matthew 7:24, my translation).

We hear each of the five discourses in the Matthean account. Then we get stories about “doing” those discourses. And we are called to reflect on how the hearing and doing will continue in our lives as disciples.

Matthew 10 is the second of the five discourses — the Discipleship Discourse (DD). Chapters eleven and twelve tell stories about responses to the DD. Matthew 11:1 is really the conclusion to the DD. It has the formula the Matthean author uses at the end of the teaching sections — “And when Jesus finished directing his twelve disciples, he passed over from there to teach and proclaim in all their cities” (my translation).

Sometimes I think that Jesus spent a whole chapter equipping the twelve disciples to go and do, and then they…don’t. But I’m not sure that’s the case in narrative terms. The Matthean Jesus goes on to teach and proclaim in their (Galilean) cities. There’s no reason to think the disciples stay with him at that point. It’s as likely in narrative terms that they go out and put the teaching to work.

The disciples are mentioned directly only once in Matthew 11 and 12, at the beginning of chapter 12 with the Sabbath controversy. Perhaps the implied pattern was for disciples to go out and work during the week and to come together for Sabbath practice and reflection. That would be an interesting implied model for the Matthean community and for other readers of the text. I lean toward that understanding at this point.

The first response comes from John the Baptist. We’ve not heard from John since his preaching and baptizing in chapter 3. In that proclamation, John spoke with great conviction about the one who was to come after him. And it was clear in the narrative that Jesus was this Coming One. It was also clear in the Matthean account that John understood this. But now things have changed.

John has poked the bear — Herod Antipas, newly married to his brother’s wife and guilty of numerous public sins. As a result of John’s public criticism, Herod tosses John into the Black Fortress dungeons at Machaerus, near the Dead Sea. This is the textbook description of being “out of the loop.”

John gets reports about what the Messiah is doing. The Matthean author inserts that messianic mention. The Lukan author refers to the Lord, or the Lord Jesus, depending on the manuscript. So, the Matthean author winks to us in the audience as people in the know. John may be unclear about who Jesus is and what he’s doing, but we aren’t.

John’s question evidences doubts about his own previous declaration. “Are you the Coming One? Or should we expect someone else?” What has changed is that John is sitting in prison, with the likelihood of his death hanging over him. The eschatological fireworks display has not yet begun. John wants to know why the delay is happening. Is he going to see the beginning of the End or not?

In the Revised Common Lectionary, Matthew 11:2-11 is paired with Isaiah 35:1-10. With good reason. The Matthean Jesus points to Isaiah 35:5-6 (indirectly) as evidence that he is doing the work of the Messiah. This chapter of Isaiah is a post-exilic text that describes the return from Babylon. Creation shall be restored. God will come to set things right. Human suffering shall be healed, and droughts shall end.

“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away”
(Isaiah 35:10, NRSV).

By the first century CE, Isaiah 35 was established as a messianic predictive and descriptive text. The Matthean Jesus uses and enacts the text to describe the kind of Messiah he is and intends to be. This is not what John expected, perhaps. But this is not outside the bounds of the hopes of Israel.

Lisa Bowens discusses the role of John the Baptist in the Matthean account as a type of disciple. This certainly makes sense in terms of the location of our little story in the Matthean schema. On the one hand, John the Baptist exemplifies the kind of disciple Jesus describes in Matthew 10. We can notice his lifestyle choices and his focus on the coming kingdom. In addition, John will be “handed over” to death, just like Jesus and his disciples.

In addition, John has heard what Jesus is doing and now needs to figure out how to respond. This is in contrast, as Bowens points out, to the Lukan account. There, John’s followers witness the actual deeds of Jesus and bring that report to John. The schema in Matthew is hearing and doing (my argument, not Bowens’).

Bowens points to John’s previous certainty and current uncertainty. She suggests that the reader (hearer) will wonder. What has caused the change in John’s level of conviction? It may well be the fact of suffering during the “delay.” It may be that John’s situation prefigures the experience of some members of the Matthean community.

“John’s uncertainty signifies that in moments of crisis and unfulfilled expectations,” Bowens writes, “one may question an earlier confession of faith” pages 315-316). Some members of the Matthean community may have wondered if this wavering meant they were no longer disciples. John’s story can assure them that this may be part of the journey.

Bowens writes that “wavering faith does not disqualify one from following Christ” in the Matthean account. That happens to disciples — even to John the Baptist. “Furthermore,” she argues, “discipleship does not mean that one never questions God while on the journey, but that in the midst of the questions — even in spite of the answers — one continues to follow” (page 316).

The evidence Jesus offers, paradoxically, is precisely what has caused John to question. Instead of eschatological fireworks, Jesus brings healing and humility, grace and good news. Part of John’s journey in following Jesus means adjusting his expectations of the Messiah. That’s a powerful word for disciples in the Matthean community and at any time.

Does John “get it”? We don’t know that from the narrative. Perhaps that’s part of the point for the Matthean author. John is executed. Jesus is crucified. Disciples are persecuted. And in the midst of that, disciples know and confess that Jesus is indeed “the Coming One.”

The paragraph ends with a makarism — “And blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me” (Matthew 11:6, my translation). That’s clearly a word to John and an aside to the Matthean hearers and readers. Flourishing as followers of Jesus means welcoming the word and deed of the cross. That challenge has not abated in two millennia.

Thinking about Matthew 10

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.

Text Study on Matthew 9:18-35 (Part Four)

Within Judaism or Without?

I want to begin by recommending “The Two Testaments” podcast, hosted by Professors Rony Kozman and Will Kynes. Both are on the faculty of Samford University in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies. The podcast offers resources on a number of Hebrew and Christian texts.

For our purposes, they offer a series on the Gospel of Matthew. You can hear from an excellent variety of scholars with deep expertise on the Matthean materials. I have listened to all the episodes of this series and have found the conversations stimulating and helpful. As you continue to work your way through the Matthean account this year, I think you will benefit from these podcasts as well. I access them on YouTube, but they are available in a variety of formats.

Photo by Haley Black on Pexels.com

I have also continued to pursue the work of Anders Runesson, Dean and Professor of New Testament at the University of Oslo. His articles on issues in Matthean studies show up on Google Scholar and other research engines. I find his work and perspectives deepening and challenging as we read the Matthean account together.

Runesson is engaged in the conversation about whether the Gospel of Matthew should be read as a text from within Judaism (intra muros) or from outside of Judaism (extra muros). Runesson argues, along with the current majority of scholars, that the Matthean account comes from within Judaism. But that argument requires a great deal of methodological, historical, and theological nuance. The Matthean account is a complicated text arising in a complicated time.

I would commend to you a brief YouTube video where Runesson outlines what it means to talk about a “Within Judaism” perspective. While these comments are part of a symposium on the Gospel of John as a “within Judaism” document, his comments can serve us well in our study and interpretation.

The video is under four minutes, and you can watch it here. I’ll also take some time summarize his talk and see where it impacts our current conversation. He makes four points.

1. If we are to be fair to an ancient text, we need to treat it as we would an archaeological dig. We need to examine and remove the most recent layers first and keep them in mind as we dig into deeper and earlier layers. As we know (but don’t always practice), we can’t be faithful to a text if we pretend that that there’s no distance between the here and now and the real world of the Matthean author and text.

2. When we ask whether a text such as the Matthean account was “within Judaism,” we can’t do that based on assumptions that fit with current Christianity. Nor can we assume that ancient Judaism is identical to or even consistent with contemporary Judaism. If we ask our questions based on contemporary Christianity or Judaism, Runesson argues, then the New Testament texts are neither Christian nor Jewish (my emphasis). Read that final statement with the caveat included. But take it seriously.

3. The New Testament texts fit very well into the Second Temple scene of the first century “where we find neither Christians nor rabbis.” One way to understand these texts is to study and understand the institutions in which these texts arose. That is, we can read the New Testament texts as evidence of how those institutions worked.

The institutions in question, Runesson says, are ancient synagogues. These synagogues are manifestations of ancient agreements and understandings. He says that it is nearly impossible to speak about ancient “Judaism” without considering these institutions, the synagogues. We dare not confuse these ancient institutions with their modern counterparts. More on this below.

4. It is not enough to limit our study of the text to their “inception history” (that is, how the texts came about). It is also necessary to study and know their “reception history” (that is, how we have used these texts down the years and the way those layers of usage shape our current interpretation).

Instead of reading the Matthean text along a Christian vs. Jewish binary, we need to allow the text to be what it is. As Runesson notes, in the first century following the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jesus movement was expressed in multiple “within Judaism” ways, of which the Matthean text is one example. In addition, there were expressions (still within Judaism) designed specifically for Gentile Jesus followers.

With those points in mind, I want to review briefly Runesson’s work on the institutions he mentions in #3. I would very much like to read his technical work, but as a poor, retired preacher, I can’t afford those academic tomes. That being said, we can access his 2014 article on synagogues in the Gospel of Matthew through Google Scholar. This is important both for interpreting especially Matthew 9:35 and then for our understanding of the apostolic commission in Matthew 10.

“And Jesus went about all the cities and the villages,” we read in Matthew 9:35, “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming The Good News of the Kingdom and healing all illnesses and all infirmities.” Runesson argues that these synagogues were public municipal institutions, “a religio-political city hall of sorts” (page 9). These were places where civic business was done by all in the village or city. And they were places where Torah was read, taught and debated on the Sabbath.

Runesson calls this “the public synagogue.” These are the locations mentioned in Matthew 9:35 and elsewhere. These are the places where Jesus taught, healed, and tossed out the demons. “In these public synagogues,” Runesson writes, “decisions were made regarding all things local; archives were kept there, judicial proceedings took place there, and since, in antiquity, people did not distinguish between the secular and the religious, the Torah was read and discussed publicly on Sabbaths” (page 10).

In addition, there were “association synagogues.” These were, Runesson suggests, analogous to the Greco-Roman collegia. They might focus around occupations, ethnic groups, educational activities, or religious commitments. These groups had their own practices and rules. They maintained membership standards and enforced those standards. Runesson suggests that the Qumran community could be seen as a closed associational synagogue. Other such Jewish associations were typically somewhat more open.

The real problem is that numerous words were used to describe these associational synagogues – including the words we would translate as “synagogue” and “church” (ekklesia). In the Matthean account, the word we translate as “synagogue” refers to the public synagogues. The word we translate as “church” refers (three times) to an associational synagogue. It is only a few centuries later that the words part company as Jewish and Christian labels.

In the Matthean account, Runesson argues, the public synagogues function as “eschatological battlefields.” Jesus enters these institutions and engages in debate over Torah interpretation and teaching. Runesson puts it thus:

“The Matthean Jesus and his disciples…are campaigning across the land in public institutions and elsewhere, clearly aiming at setting in motion a mass movement to save Israel, or, more precisely, to rescue ‘the lost sheep of the House of Israel,’ i.e., the people they perceived of as abused and abandoned by their leaders (Matt. 9:36)” (page 14).

That’s what happens in the public synagogues. And it is precisely what is reported in Matthew 9:35. Jesus is teaching in their synagogues. Jesus is proclaiming the Good News – the announcement that a new regime is launching. It is the Good of News of THE Kingdom. As Runesson notes, “it is impossible to ignore the political implications of this ‘kingdom talk’…” (page 14). Jesus is not talking about any other kingdom. Rather this is The One and Only Kingdom – the Kingdom of God.

Then we have the Matthean ekklesia, mentioned in Matthew 16 and 18. This is the associational synagogue of the Matthean Jesus followers. This institution, Runesson argues, “represents the model for what Jewish communal life should be as people prepare for the final judgment and the full realization of the kingdom that will follow” (page 15-16).

The Matthean Jesus followers gather to form and administer their communal life. They engage in practices distinctive to that way of life. And in the end, this association synagogue becomes the Matthean successor to the Jerusalem temple, hopelessly defiled by the faithless rulers who murder Jesus. “An important function of the ekklesia,” Runesson writes, “is to provide access to a ‘space’ where the divine may be approached once the temple has become defiled” (page 18).

Please read the article for a full description of this assertion. The Matthean association synagogue is the place where repentance and forgiveness, compassion and care, sustain a people who can be holy, pure, and “perfect” in the ways that really matter. They are the people who get what it means to desire mercy more than sacrifice. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

With all that in mind, Runesson argues that the Matthean account is a “within Judaism” text. In fact, he argues more strongly that it is a Jewish text. To call the account a “Christian” text is perhaps a misnomer. “A historical reading of Matthew’s Gospel should lead to, in my opinion,” Runesson writes, “designating this text as a first-century Jewish text, regardless of its later reception; after all, few would call the texts included in the Hebrew Bible ‘Christian’ despite the fact that they were appropriated by Christianity and made it into the Christian canon” (page 21).

The Matthean account makes sense in its original setting. It becomes harder to accommodate in later Christian settings. This is not a commentary on the status of the text in the Christian canon. It is, rather, a limit on the ways in which we Christians are allowed to read the text and read into the text. “We must resist, as historians,” Runesson concludes, “the temptation to colonize the past with our own perspectives which in the end can do little more than serve our own identity needs.”

Well, that sets a preacher back a bit, eh?

Text Study for Matthew 9:18-35 (Part Three)

Pushbacks and Ponderings

9:21-22            Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that the woman would be regarded as ritually unclean and constantly so. “Matthew avoids any mention of the woman touching Jesus,” they observe. “Jesus seems to know what she is thinking and therefore avoids touching which might raise questions of impropriety arising from violating the boundaries of the body” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptics, page 84).

Point taken on the absence of any direct mention of Jesus touching the woman. However, anything beyond that seems to be an argument from silence where the theory drives the data rather than the other way around. There is no indication that Jesus knows what the woman is thinking. When that is the case, the Matthean author is quite capable of pointing that out.

Amy-Jill Levine has noted in several places that the source of the woman’s bleeding is not specified. As she notes, it could be coming from her head or her feet. Warren Carter notes that the word used here “is not limited to menstruation or vaginal discharge; it includes any bleeding” (Matthew and the Margins, page 225).

We don’t know the source of the bleeding, and we shouldn’t assume that we do. To do so, Levine argues, is to engage in bad exegesis, bad history, bad theology, and bad faith. I will share some of Levine’s arguments here.

The topic of uncleanness does come up in the text. Carter affirms this observation in his comments. The Matthean author has no trouble mentioning or implying uncleanness when the topic is germane. The real focus, according to Carter, is the length of her suffering. This time reflects the intractability of her condition.

 In addition, it is not at all clear from the historical record that Jewish communities of the time prohibited a menstruating woman from social contact. Levine quotes Shaye Cohen in this regard: the “Gospel story about the women with a twelve-year discharge…does not give any indication that the woman was impure or suffered from any degree of isolation as a result of her affliction” (page 108).

Levine notes that Jesus does not touch the woman. Rather, she touches him. I’m not sure if that’s a distinction that makes a difference, but Levine does. Her theological point is that throughout Matthew 8 and 9, Jesus is portrayed as fulfilling the ritual law rather than abrogating it. Jesus heals the sick and fulfills Torah.

Cohen supports Levine’s contention that traditional interpretations of the bleeding woman are bad history. He surveys the legal background of the purity rules regarding such bleeding in the Tanakh and issues this conclusion. “In sum, the belief that a menstruant poses a danger to those around her appears in Jewish sources for the first in the sixth or seventh century C.E. Its emergence and acceptance then,” Cohen continues, “may be the result either of outside influence (whether Christian or Islamic) or of new perceptions of women within Jewish society” (page 281).

As I study the text, I am rethinking where this section actually ends. For two reasons I now believe the section ends with Matthew 9:35 rather than with the preceding verse. My critical Greek text shows verse 35 as the beginning of a section entitled “The Compassion of Jesus,” which runs through verse 38. The NRSV labels the same section with the title, “The Harvest is Great, the Laborers Few.”

It’s easy to be swayed by these divisions in such authoritative texts. However, I find that they are as much hindrance many times as they are help. It seems clear to me for two reasons that Matthew 9:35 serves as a conclusion to the preceding verses rather than an introduction to the succeeding verses.

First, it now seems obvious to me that this verse is a sort of inclusio with Matthew 8:17. That verse contains the quotation from Isaiah 53 (LXX). The first round of healings in Matthew 8 (and the stilling of the storm are said to “fulfill” the word of the prophet Isaiah: “This one has taken our infirmities and born our diseases.” In Matthew 9:35, at the end of this cycle of ten healing stories, we hear that Jesus was healing all their diseases and all ailments. That latter word has the same sense of “weakness” as does the word in 8:17.

Therefore, it seems clear that this is a conclusion to the “action” section in chapters eight and nine. With that, we can move on to the Discipleship Discourse in chapter 10. Matthew 9:36-38 provides the perfect preface to that discourse. The Lord of the harvest will go about the business of training up and providing the workers.

Secondly, I see a rhetorical signal that distinguishes these verses. Matthew 9:35 begins with “and” (kai). Verse 36 begins with a “de.” The additive conjunction makes more sense being connected to the preceding. The adversative in verse 36 is often a oral marker that there is a change in rhetorical direction or something being said that is unexpected.

When we read the context closely, I would argue that this division makes good rhetorical sense. First, we read that Jesus was responding to all with good news and healing. The result of that should be well-being and hopefulness. Then we hear about the crowds that are still harried and helpless. That doesn’t fit with the previous rosy summary. It’s a change of course.

In addition, the separation makes narrative sense. The summary in verse thirty-five is enough to leave one exhausted simply from reading it. Jesus goes around to all the cities and villages in the region. He teaches in (all) their synagogues. He preaches the good news of the kingdom. He heals all the diseases and infirmities. After such a ministry marathon Jesus determined that he needed more help!

Separating the two verses helps to make better sense of each of them. So, I’m adding verse thirty-five to my reading from Matthew this week.

In addition, as Robert Smith notes, this summary is nearly identical to the words we find Matthew 4:23. Just as that paragraph serves as a conclusion to the Matthean prologue, so Matthew 9:35 serves as a conclusion to the broad sweep from the Sermon on the Mount to the turn toward Jerusalem. While the Matthean account doesn’t have the Lukan “Journey to Jerusalem,” I think we can see the same decisive turn happening here between Matthew 9:35 and 36.

As I noted in a previous post, I’ve wondered about the “Take heart!” exclamations by Jesus in this section of Matthew. He addresses the paralytic as his (male) child. He addresses the bleeding woman as his daughter. It strikes me that the Matthean author wants us to see Jesus as caring for these two as human parents care for their children. We don’t have to look far for examples.

We have the ruler whose daughter has died. Even though he tells Jesus she has come to her end, he will not give up on her without one last-ditch effort at restoration. This is an illustration of what it means to love a daughter. Robert Smith writes that Jesus “viewed the woman the way the ruler viewed his child” (Matthew – ACNT, page 141). And thus Jesus, when he calls the woman “daughter,” claims that sort of love for himself.

In like manner, the centurion shows us what it looks like to love a male child/servant to the utmost. Jesus does the same. Addressing each of these characters with the same phrase tips us off to this rhetorical strategy on the part of the Matthean author. Through this wording, we are invited to look for and meditate on the similarities of these stories and Jesus’ involvement in them.

Text Study for Matthew 9:18-34, Part Two

“You’re Gonna Need a Bigger House”

Part two: Annotations Continued

9:29 – In the healing of the two blind men we have more touching. However, the Matthean author portrays a peculiarly passive Jesus at this point. I mean that literally since most of the verbs in this section are in the passive voice. The healing of the blind men happens “according to” their faith/trust. On the basis of that faith/trust Jesus says, “Let it happen to you.” That’s as “passive” as it gets.

Is this a reminder that the healing comes from God? That may be the case since we end this healing with the accusation that Jesus casts out demons by the power of the demons. Nonetheless, this is strikingly different from the tone Jesus adopts, for example, in the healing of the paralytic. There Jesus is clearly in charge, the actor, the one with the power both to forgive and to heal.

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9:30 – The parade of passives continues. The eyes of the blind men “are opened.” Is this a divine passive as well? That is certainly possible, and I think it is likely. But why?

Jesus commands the formerly blind men to “see to it.” Formerly blind men should see to it? That contrast could slip by us without a close reading. Is this humor on the part of the Matthean Jesus? Is it Matthean irony? In any case, it is worth observing, so to speak.

And let’s not forget how much agency the blind men have in this story. The agency is ratcheted up in each of these healing accounts. The blind men followed Jesus on their own with no apparent help from anyone. They cried out to him – probably repeatedly. The blind men pursued Jesus into house with no apparent assistance. They are the ones who trigger the healing based on their faith/trust. Once they are healed, they are in charge of regional rumor management. This is the only task in which they apparently fail!

I am puzzling over what all this agency in these stories means. But I think it’s important and could be worthy of homiletical attention.

9:31 – Rather than keep things to themselves, the blind men acclaimed Jesus in the whole land. The verb can be translated as “spread the news.” But it has “fame” as a part of its structure. This is more than news reporting. This is talking Jesus up as an honorable, powerful person. That acclaim is spread to “that whole land,” the same construction as we find in Matthew 9:26. The Matthean author wants to make it crystal clear that everyone was hearing about Jesus and hearing good things about him.

9:32-33 – More passives. This time a demon-possessed mute man is brought to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t throw out the demon. Instead, when the demon had been thrown out – another divine passive? Regardless, when that happened, the man began to speak.

The crowds reappear and have a different function. They are “amazed.” That’s always an ambiguous word. It can be positive. It can mean that people are astonished in a good way. It can also mean that people are unpleasantly surprised by something. It seems that the crowd has a positive response, but we can’t be certain of that.

“Never before has something like this appeared in Israel!” the crowd declares. That’s a peculiarly ambiguous response. First, there’s another passive. So, this could be an acknowledgement that God is indeed at work in these healings. We can find our way back to a previous pronouncement by the crowd in Matthew 9:8. “But when the crowds saw [the healing of the paralytic], they became frightened and glorified God who gave this sort of authority to human beings.” Attributing the healing to God is clearer in verse eight than here.

In addition, we can take the crowd’s amazement as a mixture of fear and appreciation in our current story. And the statement of the crowd reflects that God has done this great act. As a result, the crowd exercises appropriate reticence in naming God too obviously as the actor. The use of such passives certainly identifies the Matthean author as a careful Jewish theologian and writer.

That being said, it’s not clear if the crowd approves of Jesus’ actions or not. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.” That can be a statement of approval. Or it can be a criticism (“We’ve never done it that way before”). The Pharisees in this story don’t dispute the crowd’s assessment. However, they identify a reason why such a thing is happening.

9:34 – I think we should translate another “iterative imperfect” here. The Pharisees kept on asserting their accusation. Jesus doesn’t answer the charge at this point in the Matthean account. The charge will surface again in chapter 12 when Jesus heals a man who is both blind and mute.

It is apparently assumed in that story that the man is demon-possessed. Other connections to our current story are obvious. All the crowds were “amazed.” But the word is different in chapter 12. The verb has a clearer sense that the crowds are disoriented and destabilized by Jesus’ actions. They are confused and in danger of losing their senses. Jesus continues to shake things up.

The crowds wonder what the blind men had proclaimed. “Might this one be the Son of David?” The blind men had called out to Jesus as “the Son of David.” And he did nothing to correct them.

In any event, we hear the drumbeat of accusation beginning in our text. It will come to full force in chapter 12. So, keep that in mind.

I have a number of additional wonderings regarding the context and intratextual connections and contrasts.

The Matthean author certainly wants us to link these stories to one another in specific ways. As we’ve seen, we can make a connection between the reaction of the crowd in Matthew 9:8 and the reaction in Matthew 9:33. That reaction is always receptive but mixed.

Does this speak to the situation of the Matthean churches – surrounded by folks who are intrigued by Jesus but also hesitant? I think it certainly speaks to circumstances of American congregations, surrounded by more and more “nones.” Some of the “nones” have no interest in Jesus and his church. But some do.

This response could certainly be incorporated into a message that encourages a congregation to take heart and keep bringing the Easter good news to a world that often seems hostile to that message.

 Jesus’ response to the crowds is described in the next paragraph (Matthew 9:35-38). The mixed response of the crowds makes sense in light of the description there. They are “harried and helpless, like sheep who are without a shepherd” (9:36). They are chased by predators with no means of defense. When someone offers to lead them, the mixed response of hope and fear seems reasonable.

There is something about the stories of eating with tax collectors and sinners and the healing of the blind men that bespeaks a connection. Both stories mention “mercy.” When a Sermon on the Mount idea shows up in a Matthean reading, we should pay attention. “Fortunate are those who give mercy, for to them mercy shall be given” (Matthew 5:7).

Jesus apparently gives mercy to the tax collectors and sinners. The blind men ask for mercy and receive it. I am reflecting on what the nature of that connection and comparison is.

I noted previously how often Jesus heals by touch in this section of the Matthean account. The one exception to that method is when Jesus interacts with the demon-possessed. Note the language in Matthew 8:16 – “But when it was evening, they brought to him many who were demon-possessed, and he threw out the spirits by means of a word…”

I thought that might be a casual observation, but now I’m not so sure. When Jesus heals the demon-possessed mute man in 9:32-33, the absence of touch is notable in comparison to the other stories. I wonder if the Matthean author is making a comment on clean/unclean entities here. It is not disease (not even leprosy) that makes one unclean. Therefore, Jesus can heal all such people with a touch, or being touched, in the case of the woman.

But when it comes to demon-possession, that does in fact render the person unclean. Therefore, Jesus heals with a word rather than with touch. It’s not the case that the clean/unclean distinction is irrelevant. Rather, Jesus draws the boundaries in a radically different way. Jesus, the Matthean author reminds us, comes to fulfill Torah, not to abolish it.

In addition, it would seem that Jesus wants to redraw the boundaries of “the house of Israel.” As I write that phrase, I have a small flash of inspiration. Perhaps this is the answer to the question of why so many of these healings happen “in the house.” Those in need of healing come into a house or are brought into a house by Jesus. This is even more powerful if the house in question belongs to Jesus. I suspect this has already occurred to you, but I’m catching up.

Jesus says in the Matthean account that he has come for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Those in need of healing are certainly among the lost sheep. Jesus brings them back into the house of Israel as he heals them. He is redrawing the boundaries of insider and outsider. Perhaps this is a call to the Matthean community and to us always to be about the same business. I’m thinking that one possible sermon title this week might be, “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger House” (with apologies to the movie, Jaws).

More in the next post…