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.

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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.┬áSIL’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?