Friends, thank you for a most excellent start to our bible study. I found myself thinking about our time together afterwards with so much delight that I can’t wait to continue next week! Since these will be foundational for the entire of our time together, I’ve written a few paragraphs to sum up my comments at the end of our time together on Wednesday. Thank you to everyone who contributed reflections on their initial reading of Matthew’s Gospel. Together we heard challenge and beauty in the text alike.
To begin with, you are invited to read the Gospel of Matthew as you actually read it -- not as you think it should be read. What that means is that we're invited to wrestle with it, frankly addressing its hard and difficult edges, without the constraints of our previous expectations.
It’s helpful to have some contextual background to Matthew’s Gospel, and to understand what is happening for Matthew’s own audience at the time of his writing. Written around 80AD, probably in the Syrian city of Antioch, Matthew’s Gospel was probably written for a church who had grown up in the Jewish tradition but were recently (and finally) rejected by their own community. In that sense, one author writes that Matthew’s Gospel is a “response to the ‘no’ of the [Jewish] majority to Jesus.” Matthew's church, in turn, moves its mission outwards toward the gentiles, so that much of the Gospel is spent in wrestling with both the scriptural tradition these folks carry as well as how this tradition applies to outsiders. It can be tempting for contemporary Christian communities to latch onto this singular fact of rejection as a primary concern of Matthew's context, though I'd caution us against this kind of idea. Much ink has been badly spilled in this direction, to the serious detriment of Jewish-Christian relations for over two millennia. As important as the mission to the gentiles is for us (since we're gentiles, after all!), for many reasons I think the contextual piece to follow is more interesting and more applicable to our work together today.
This Gospel was written just after the 2nd temple’s destruction and sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were either killed or taken into slavery at that time, and Matthew’s audience would have been firsthand witnesses to that violence and destruction. Just as Jesus’ story emerges out of the trauma and carnage of the first chapters of this Gospel (i.e., the slaughter of the innocents ordered by Herod in chapter 2), Matthew’s audience's story emerges out of a similar kind of trauma. One author, Richard Swanson, calls the Gospel of Matthew both a hunting story and a haunting story. Jesus is hunted by empire (or the puppets of empire) from the very first chapters. At the same time, the telling of Matthew's Gospel story is haunted by the bodies of those people who are no longer around, those killed during Herod’s murder of all children two and younger (in Jesus’ day) and those of Matthew’s own community who were killed during the sacking of Jerusalem. The shrieking of Rachel (2:18), mourning for all the dead across both generations, echoes in the background of Matthew in all corners of the telling of this story.
Swanson also notes (as many pointed out in our initial conversation) that the portrayal of Jesus in Matthew is both at once extremely tender (11:28-30) and extremely ridged (he’s always dividing us into sheep and goats). I really like Swanson’s idea here, that Matthew’s picture of Jesus is profoundly human insofar as he is shaped by the early traumas of his life. We know from experience that often times those people who have faced severe trauma in their early lives continue to be shaped and responsive to that trauma later in life. Jesus, though being the son of God, is also prone to the realities of human life and trauma. As one of our members pointed out, all of this seems to mysteriously change after the resurrection, though; it’s our work to figure out how and why that matters to us over the next few months.
For next week’s time together, we’ll be taking a hard look at the genealogy (or "genesis") of Jesus in Matthew. Prepare for our time together by reading Matthew 1:1-17. If you’re looking to dig into the text a little more, go back in your bibles and read the stories of Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth. For extra EXTRA credit, check out Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) and note the differences from Matthew’s Gospel.
See you then!
Amy-Jill Levine and Brettler, Marc Zvi, The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Ulrich Luz and Koester, Helmut. Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, (Minneapolis: Fotress Press, 2007).
Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year A (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007).