Presented to the Centre for Music, Liturgy and the Arts Planning Day, 28 Jan 2020
I doubt I can tell you much today that you don't know. What I'd like to do is to concentrate on some things I've found have particular traction in my preaching practice— both for me personally, and for those who are listening.
What we bring to the text
We are talking today about themes in Matthew. There are two kinds of themes. One type is structural, and most people can see these when they are pointed out. We'll look briefly at a couple of those.
Then there are themes based around subjects which, if you will excuse the pun, feel much more subjective. We can be unconvinced about the presence of these themes, even when they are pointed out to us.
This is because the themes we see in a gospel are unavoidably shaped by the theology we bring to the gospel from outside, and from before. This is why something we learn in college and forget quickly, suddenly becomes live and potent a decade later: We have changed and brought a new perspective which changes what we read. (It also explains why some people can list of seemingly irrelevant facts in great detail, and be ignorant of what we consider to be most important!)
All preachers and readers do this, we impose a view upon the gospel, we never come as a blank slate which is not bringing an opinion, and this includes the preachers who claim they “just preach the bible,” and suggest that we don't. One definition of a fundamentalist is that they are the person who doesn't think they have a hermeneutic (Richard Beck) or that they are not following a theme.
Our best defence against our bias, and the best way of being open to the gospel changing us, is to be as aware as we can of what theology we bring to the gospel. In fact, when I am anticipating push-back, or I've had pushback, or I'm wondering what on earth to do with a text... one of the most helpful things I am able to do is to remind myself of what is theologically important to me and what I understand to be the heart of the gospel. This is where we can decide what to go to the wall for... or not. And sometimes it really clarifies what's important in a text.
Our congregation wants us to preach. They extend us a generous grace and will rejoice in our preaching if we remember one key thing. I can illustrate this by pointing to two Australian preachers. One is especially well-known, he is a very good communicator, and he has recently failed comprehensively, and very publicly, while the other one, not as well known, has done very well and is being forgiven much by a congregation which is suffering a great deal.
I present you the Prime minister of Australia and the Premier minister of Victoria. It pays to look carefully at what's happened in early 2020.
By any standards, Daniel Andrew's leadership has been authoritative and appreciated, and the Prime Minister has suffered badly by comparison. He's become a bit of a scapegoat. The difference is not, I think, that Morrison “simply doesn’t accept either the magnitude or the urgency of the climate challenge [and] .... is almost totally beholden to the fossil fuel lobby. [i] ” (John Hewson) whilst Andrews has spent the years since the 2009 Victorian fires preparing for the next disaster. Morrison is certainly is a good illustration of a preacher who a) isn't across the facts, and b) has been spooked by some of the power-players in his congregation— but we’ve all been there; that's not the key issue.
What has really upset people is that they have felt that Morrison treated their pain lightly. Hurting people said it felt like all he wanted was a photo opportunity.
Our preaching will lead and heal even if we are not an accomplished Matthean scholar or the world’s best preacher... just as long as we do not treat people's pain lightly.
Compassion in Matthew in 2020
There are three areas where this can play out. (At least!)
a) Matthew's sometimes black and white exclusive statements about judgement and burning can distress wives and mothers (especially) who wonder if their unconverted offspring or husbands are going to hell.
Matthew’s implacable hostility to Deuteronomic[ii] theology and prosperity teaching can be devastating to those people who have absorbed the view that discipleship means life will be good. Prosperity theology is not merely about money; more deeply, is the underlying idea that God rewards our good, moral behaviour. It is a pharisaic theology; it underlies the theological world view of the Pharisees, and we'll come back to them.
One of our great opportunities to enlarge people's world and faith and to model compassion, which is the mercy of God, is to help them discover God as a presence which does not correlate, necessarily, with a nice leafy green suburb, but is a potent presence and healing in the mental health wards and ICU, and in the outer drying and dying suburbs.
And we are doing all this in a nation whose unconscious theology is Deuteronomic.
So our first calling as a preacher is not to arrive in the pulpit next Sunday with the key themes of Matthew in our heads so we can teach the people. What people want is someone who is immersing themselves in Matthew, and letting themselves be confronted by Matthew. They want someone who can be honest about life and fear and loss and hope. People know when we are engaged and when we have depth. They'll tolerate shallow stuff that suits their theology and privilege, but when life goes wrong, they demand depth and authenticity... which might be as simple as saying, "I don't know..." We can learn Matthew as we go, as long as we are honest and as long as we give the gospel time. We hear the old preachers say "an hour's preparation, at least, for every minute of your sermon," and then ignore them. If we insist on that time... serious concentrated uninterrupted time, we'll preach with power.
And here's the secret: if we then develop the themes we discover, if we dive deep into the stuff where Matthew is engaging us, it will enthral people. But we cannot treat the wounds of our people lightly. (cf Jer 6:14)
[Feedback and Discussion]
One overarching structural theme for Matthew's gospel I'm quoting Bill Loader[iii] (Edited for clarity)
If we set out Matthew diagrammatically ... it looks a little like a French roll.
Looking at it in full length, all 28 chapters, it is clear that there is a major section at each end: 1-2 the birth narratives [and the baptism and temptations]; and 26-28 the passion narratives (of Jesus' death and resurrection).
In between we have five sets of speeches, which are like ... cuts across the loaf.
- They are: 5-7 the Sermon on the Mount, matched by 24-25, Jesus' last discourse.
- In the middle we have 13, the chapter of parables about response and judgement, beginning with the parable of the sower.
- Between 5-7 and 13 in the first half we have 10, which is instruction to the disciples (sending out the 12).
- Between 13 and 24-25 in the second half, we have 18: instructions to the disciples about Christian community and discipline. Altogether there is a certain symmetry. Each of the five speeches ends with similar words: "When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he..." [iv]
- 24-25, Jesus' last discourse.
Some take these observations a step further and try to divide the main body of the gospel into five parts, each ending with a speech, and suggest Matthew is emulating the 5 books of the Law. This may or may not be so.
How I adapt Bill's observation[v]
Now let's look quickly at the structure of Matthew. It begins with the birth narratives and the baptism and temptations of Jesus. It is not until Chapter 4:12 that Jesus begins to teach.
- The birth narratives, for Jewish ears, establish that Jesus is, as Paul put it, (Phil 3:5) "a Hebrew born of Hebrews— " of course he can be the Messiah!
- And what follows in Chapter 3 through to 4:12 establishes that he is indeed worthy to be the Messiah. "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." (Matt 4:12) Jesus not only says this, he shows it is what he is doing by his baptism and his refusal of the way of the devil.
What follows in middle section of Matthew— 'the slices of the loaf' — is his understanding of how to live this out, his understanding of what a life of repentance is. We are learning what it means to be a follower of the Messiah.
And then, at the other end of Matthew there is the closing section. After the great and terrible parable of consequence of Matthew 25:31-46, we see that the fire of death does not destroy Jesus, but completes him. Matthew's whole gospel questions each one of us: what will the testing of life, the fires, and the drowning, show about me? Will they complete me? (Andrew Prior – OMW)
What do we do with this theme?
Now the thing here... I think... is not that we must reflect this theme in our preaching. The question to ask is, "What does this do for me? Does it speak? Does it shine light on my understanding of discipleship? Does it help me communicate my theology? Or is there another way of doing it more effectively?" And understand that we may not mention this schematic in a sermon; it can be our tool for self-organising.
We are asked to be a theologian here. The thing that will grab people and speak to them, is when they hear us preach with authority. This, when they can say, "He (or she) is not merely repeating some scholar's opinion. They are talking about what gives them life!"
Another Theme... from Mark's gospel
Another approach to Matthew, besides looking at the gospel as a whole and its composition and structure, is to look at the way Matthew has used Mark. In general terms we can say that nearly all of Mark is reproduced in Matthew sometimes with only minor revision. In the early chapters we shall see that Matthew makes some changes to the order; otherwise Matthew follows Mark's order very closely. By looking at the way Matthew uses Mark and revises Mark's material we can detect particular Matthean emphases.[vi]
We could say this approach shows us what things Matthew thinks Mark should have said, but left out!
Martin Kahler said Mark is a "passion narrative with an extended introduction." Mark has three signal points in his gospel, shaped around Peter's confession and its consequence.
Mark sets the scene to make it obvious who Jesus just might be and then we read in 8:27-29
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’.
Then there is the consequence. This is Mark saying, now that you have seen who this is, here is what you need to do. (8:31-38) He redefines the understanding of what it means to be Messiah, and second, what it means to be disciple.
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
We see Matthew's not identical treatment in Matthew 16:13-28. And Matthew repeats Mark's threefold pattern: Mark 9:30-32, 33-37 is reflected in Matthew 17:22-23, 18:1-9. The third incident is in Mark 10:32-41, which is covered by Matthew in 20:17-18, 19-28
In both cases, Jesus and the disciples are going up to Jerusalem. There is a constant motif of journey, of journey to Jerusalem, of following the Messiah to his death, and risking the same. Everything is organised around this.
And this is what I work from in preaching the Gospel, because it's how I understand the faith. When I preach, it has traction because people know this is where I'm living. So you can see the danger of hobby horses, right? ... but if we don't get involved with the narrative where it meets us, how will we engage anyone else?
A moment to reflect: What is your gospel? What is at the heart of your discipleship? (How can you say this without jargon?)
If there is one thing I might name as the most potent preaching and teaching tool I have discovered it has been to get the gospel into my words with minimal jargon. It lets people hear afresh. It is also a sign that I have understood; long explanations in other people's words tell me I have not yet understood something!
To emphasise what has just been said: Both Mark and Matthew are passion narratives with a long introduction: Mark. Everything is looking forwards to the crucifixion. It is teaching us to understand the significance of his crucifixion and resurrection and ascension. Some folk say you should always mention the cross in a sermon.... I'm not so sure, but we should always construct the sermon with the Passion and Resurrection and Ascension in mind.
Another way to put this is to quote my daughter: the purpose of life is to work out how to die.
Themes develop themselves!
We don't need to have a whole list of themes that we can rattle off. If we have understood the progression to the Passion and Resurrection, the themes will develop for us.
Some reading principles
We need to make sure we read Matthew on his own. Matthew's Christmas story is profoundly different to Luke[vii], although witnessing to the birth of the same Messiah. We harmonise and we lose Matthew. Our congregations do this all the time, right across the gospels. A potent tool is to ask people what they have 'received' as the story, and then note which gospels it has come from!
Read for the redaction of Mark.
The places Matthew departs from Mark: or modifies him, or leaves bits out, or adds things in, give us insight into his particular agenda.
Read the full lectionary each week
Including the bits that RCL leaves out. Follow the rhetorical hints and links... As soon as he had said this, or the next day... and make the connections between material that follows or precedes the often artificial excerpt made by the RCL. Again, this clarifies Matthew's agenda, even if it doesn't end up in the sermon. And we at least, should read and confront the burning and hellfire bits the lectionary leaves out.
Especially listen to the echoes with other parts of the gospel and the Old Testament and intertestamental literature that the commentaries point out. The commentaries alert us to the puns and the 'cultural references' that Matthew is making.
I use two printed commentaries. (One is the eBook version, which was a lot cheaper)
Davies and Alison Matthew: A shorter Commentary
Malina and Rohrbaugh: Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. This is excellent for sociological cultural background.
Online I use Mark D. Davis (Left Behind and Loving It) who provides a Greek translation and some key comments which I find very helpful. (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/ )
Also online I have found to be very useful
Bill Loader (http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/lectionaryindex.html )
John Petty... incl a literal Greek translation (https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/)
Brian Stoffregen... often longer.... (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/)
David Lose... and anyone from the Working Preacher site (http://www.workingpreacher.org/)
Andrew Prior at One Man's Web (https://onemansweb.org/lectionary.hml)
A classic site for an antidote to Penal Substitutionary Atonement and top-down-dictatorial-God theologies is the Girardian Lectionary run by Paul Neuchterlein. (http://girardianlectionary.net/)
I'm male, so I look to hear a female voice:
Alyce McKenzie, (Follow the links from Text Week)
Karoline Lewis, (Working Preacher)
Melissa Bane Sevier(https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com, but follow links from Text Week)
Debie Thomas is a woman of colour (https://www.journeywithjesus.net, but follow links from Text Week)
Sarah Dylan Breuer identifies as lesbian. (https://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/)
All these sites are listed in The Text This Week (http://textweek.com/)
Jenee Woodard at Text Week is reshaping the site and it is not being updated as she would wish. You will find links that are broken and taken down, etc.
Options for when you find a missing link that sounded really promising:
Want more of a quotation?
Try placing the short quotation inside double quotation marks into Google Books. They will often give you more text. (https://books.google.com)
When will this reading be in the Lectionary?
Use The Reverse Lectionary (https://www.lectionarypage.net/ReverseLectionary.html)
Gospel Parallels online (http://sites.utoronto.ca/religion/synopsis/)
Septuagint, since the Gospels more likely quoting the Greek OT of Jesus time rather than the Hebrew. (https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/)
Greek Text SBL (https://www.biblestudytools.com/sblg/) Ignore the sappy ads.
Interlinear KJV online (http://scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/Greek_Index.htm)
Get Greek text consistently transliterated for inclusion in bulletins etc. Use Transliterate and us the SBL option (http://transliterate.com/)
Rhetoric – A key preaching tool
I'm including this because as a concept, it went straight past me in college— if it was mentioned at all— and yet it has been one of the best discoveries I have made. It's not that I didn't learn some of the rhetorical tools, but that I didn't pick up on the concept.
Our culture speaks of empty rhetoric which is what we associate with politicians. Rhetoric is a negative thing.
But rhetoric in Jesus' time was a highly developed art which was taught in school and synagogue and family. In this context, rhetoric is about communication and memory in an oral culture and if we learn to appreciate rhetoric we will get so much more in the gospels. They will light up for us.
Our written culture writes essays which are not about remembering. You go back to the essay, or the book, and find the bit you want. Often Jesus' listeners had one shot, one hearing, one performance even, so to assist people's well-honed memories you wrote and spoke in a certain fashion.
Texts were written so that the listener would have repetitions and other aural hints to help them recall the story: repetition of words and phrases, homophonic repetition— words which are not necessarily the same but sound the same... and aural hints and mnemonics like jokes, cultural references, visual gags, the meaning of names etc.
And we do it in preaching: we pause, we raise eyebrows, we emphasise, etc.
Aural hints and repetitions are not arbitrary prompts for remembering. They are the place where the author hangs meaning; for example:
I assume there is meaning in these hints and go looking for it. (We are not always successful; Mark has the otherwise extraneous detail that Jesus was asleep with his head on the cushion… but no one has ever had a convincing explanation of why the cushion!) This literature does not do colour. It's not like the Grade 7 teacher getting us to use adjectives to entertain. We should assume the little details which the 'Reader's Digest Condensed Edition' would leave out, are carriers of meaning, and not entertainment or colour.
Let me share a family story and then encourage us not to be scared of talking about his stuff.
In one episode of the TV show Stargate, Colonel Jack O'Neil and his team are in serious trouble somewhere in a galaxy far away, and it looks like they may all get killed. Someone cries out in desperation, "Colonel, what can we do?" And he says, "I don't know— it's not like I can fix everything with a pocket knife." And at this point my kids started laughing hysterically, and when I asked what the joke was, my son gave me a pitying look and said, "It's Richard Dean Anderson!"
Chris, with even more pitying look: "He played, MacGyver."
And, fortunately, I did know who that was: the bloke who could get out of any fix with a pocket knife and a box of matches.
What I am saying here is that the social media / movie generation gets this stuff. They do cultural references. They know about the Star Wars universe, which is like the Old Testament salvation history— it's a virtual, rhetorical, dramatic and metaphorical universe. And older folk who read book series (and who secretly watch Star Wars) get it too.
The gospels are full of this of cultural referencing, and if we can show how the universe works in a dramatic, rhetorical sense, people love it. It's a way into a foreign culture. It frees people from treating scripture as some kind of sacred mystery and it becomes a live holy message which, because it engages them, can become gospel.
The Gospels are written to provide echoes across the story. So in Matthew, the baptism prefigures the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension...
When he goes down into the waters of the Jordan, it is a foreshadowing of his going down into death. And when he comes up out of the Jordan, it symbolises his resurrection to life. And when the heavens are opened to him, this symbolises everything we sum up with the doctrine of his Ascension into Heaven. He opens the way through to the other side... into the Promised Land... and into the Kingdom of Heaven itself... [ix]
The Theme of.... Jewishness
Everyone in Matthew's gospel is Jewish. Jesus is Jewish
We have a pastoral responsibility not to be anti-Semitic. In an age of growing intolerance and scapegoating of minorities that should be obvious. If we model anti-Semitism we teach our congregation to be anti-Muslim; it's the same pattern of using an out-group to justify ourselves and feel safe. But this is not a simple thing; we have been formed by almost two thousand years of anti-Semitism and it affects us more than we realise. I'll give an example later that might suggest just how much unlearning we have to do.
We need to read Matthew as a story of conflict within the church. This is Jesus coming to his people and he and his people are arguing about how to respond to him, and how to respond to the fall of Jerusalem: "What does all this mean for us!? Who are we? Is Jesus the way to go? How do we live without Temple?"
Pharisees were really serious, good committed people, like people you want in your congregation. In Matthew's time they were not outsiders, they were people seeking to maintain the traditions of the faith; they wanted people to know the saving reality of God! If we do not pay scrupulous attention to this, the Pharisees and Jewish people in general will become scapegoats for our own shortcomings, and our own lack of faith, and our own traditionalism... and we will be pointing at them and letting ourselves off... for doing the very same things.
In our time, the Pharisees are the very good, very committed, entirely sincere members of our congregations, who are going to the wall for their faith. The gospel asks a constant question when Matthew criticises people: "Am I this person? Jesus is not criticising outsiders, or bad people, or non-committed people but... at least some of the time... most of us!
These people are not 'Jews', they are his people— his congregation, which means his gathering. They are Jesus' congregation, and Matthew's congregation, as he writes about Jesus. What I am saying is that we have been enculturated so that we unconsciously think of him criticising (inferior) Jewish people, not us, and I find that even though I know this, I still do it.
We need to be in the imaginative place where we hear Jesus and Matthew talking to us, now, in our congregation, saying the very same things to us; not "woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites..." but
"woe to you, Uniting Church and Andrew Prior, hypocrites..." None of what Matthew say somehow applies only to "them" "back then."
My question whenever a Pharisee or a tax collector appears in the story is to ask, "How is this me?" I used to ask, "Is this me?" but I no longer do this, because Matthew (for better or worse) uses negative stereotypes about people to confront our abiding shortcomings as disciples.
An example of what our conditioning, and the weight of tradition, does to us is below. It's a point of argument, but the Greek text is clear.
Luke turns people and expectations upside down. He shows Jesus' actions in the world being quite at odds with the normal cultural judgements. Samaritans are shown as good and god-fearing, (17:11-19) and a tax collector is justified rather than a Pharisee. (18:9-14)
Which makes it odd that Luke is then translated with Zacchaeus (Luke 19) saying he will give half of his possessions to the poor and will make a fourfold reparation to anyone he has defrauded (eg NRSV) when the tense of the Greek verbs is "present active"; that is, I give, not I will give. It is the same tense as that used by the Pharisee in the temple: I give a tenth of all my income. It is plainly not meant to be I will give.
Yet this turning upside down of things by Luke is translated out of the text.[x]
This text also illustrates the complexity of our preaching environments. Wendy once gently encouraged a congregation to think about what the 'alternative' reading might say to us if it were the translation we used. I went hyper-alert as it began to appear that the man shouting at her might be punched out be an equally large male who adored her. We were looking at loyalty to the minister vs. a perceived betrayal of 'inerrant scripture' at the very least— don't you love preaching!? But underlying this... was a deep prejudice that I suspect has influenced commentators for millennia: He's Jewish and it's about money and about a tax collector. The story doesn't make sense if he already gives to the poor. If we take away our prejudice and look at the context, it makes perfect sense. How much, and where else, are we doing this?
Matthew is particularly interested in making sense of how the Jesus fulfils the role of the Messiah. He has enriched my understanding of the Faith. But we have ignored our Jewishness and impoverished ourselves as a result.
The Old Testament
Matthew is aiming to show what we know as Old Testament, and other intertestamental literature and traditions, as being fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is what, and who, the Old Testament has always been leading us towards. He is Messiah... so I use the term the Messiah or the Messiah-Christ to keep this in mind. And I use the term the Christ. This is not only a rhetorical trick for the congregation, it converts me from the habit of making Christ just a surname. It is a title. He was Jesus bar Joseph who was the Messiah.
Then there is the question of Matthew's quotations. Our culture quotes to substantiate our arguments, to give credit to a source, and, sadly, to proof text.
We miss what Matthew is doing if we think he is proof texting. I've heard people say he just puts stuff in out of context, to force the Old Testament to fit his requirements. That's our cultural ignorance, our anti-Semitism, and our ethno-centric chauvinism at work. (If not our projection upon Matthew of what we too often do!) N.T. Wright says somewhere that in its context, Matthew's genealogy is not boring repetition; it's compelling. And I think he is right.
So I ask myself, "What does he see being fulfilled here?" A really helpful experience for me is to recall being in other cultures where someone says something that seemed an absolute non-sequitur to me, but in which everyone else, once I got over my white prejudice, saw a lot of sense.
In all this, there has been something I have found extraordinarily helpful. Matthew – and the gospels generally— uses Old Testament quotations in the way we use hyperlinks. (URLS) When he quotes the OT, imagine him saying, "If you really want to hear about the significance of Jesus... read this story in full." The quotation is a place marker; it's the chapter and verse reference of its day.
If we read the full story of King Ahaz when we read the virgin birth reference... we can see a much fuller correspondence between the original story and the story of Jesus' birth. It's not a proof text; it's more than just a sign of how Jesus really is Messiah; it is warning of judgement!
If we don't get the cultural reference, we will tend to dismiss Matthew as making a forced link; that is, proof texting— which is an anti-Semitic assumption, by the way— or, if we are of a certain bent, we will use it as a proof text about fulfilment. It is much deeper than that.
Don't duck the hard stuff... or
The way we live has consequences!
We could describe this as Matthew's great theme! His gospel gives us really hard stuff to address. The lectionary ducks this stuff. Two examples:
Matthew 13:1-9, 10-18, 18-23. The bold text is in the lectionary, but the normal weight text is left out:
13The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
If this is not a frightening description of how we can ignore what God places before us, and then teach ourselves to become blind and deaf, I don't know what is. This describes climate denial; a practiced habit which becomes impervious to reason. It's why people can only see criticism in someone who loves them! It's why we can't hear Good News! It might be why some of his people saw him as a problem, or a betrayer of the faith!
In Matthew 18:1-9 we see
‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell* of fire.
I've left the little blue star from Oremus in the text; it pays to follow these up as they indicate the subtleties of the translation.
But how do we deal with fire and Gehenna and eternal punishment? (cf 25:46)
This is where the theology we bring to the text will help us make some decisions.
Matthew is convinced that how we live counts; it affects our eternity; that is, it affects the reality of who and what we are at the deepest level. He is not of the persuasion that if you say the right words and vote for the right party, then God will bless you as you get on with whatever it was you had planned for life. This is a key theme, a key theology, for Matthew, and it's where all the burning and exclusion comes from. He knows that what Mark called Empire and we call Consumerism cannot exist in the presence of God.
So how do we preach it?
There seem to me to be two errors, or two extremes when we meet these texts.
One: I will be blunt and say that if we are not troubled by threats of burning and eternal damnation then we are troublingly untouched by the Gospel as a whole. One of my congregation frequently says about the text for the week, "I don't know how this works out, but it can't be right..." She's reflecting a deep conversion, where even if she can't use concise theological terms, she knows that a God who kills is not good news. I'm making a vast simplification here, but in her instinct, she is like Marcion, who looked at parts of the Old Testament, and concluded this is not the God Jesus has shown us. And she is like Pelagius, who asks how can a new child be born depraved? Their solutions were inadequate. But their instincts were the instincts of someone who has met the Christ. I've never met a congregation which was not full of people who felt these basic issues of holy justice deeply.
Two: But it is also the case that we can't just toss out or ignore the imagery Matthew uses. For one thing, some of our congregation don't ignore them! And some of them are quite fine with God being violent that and look forward to 'him' paying out their enemies which, ultimately affects how they relate to people.
We, the preacher, need to understand what is going on in Matthew's mind, and make conscious choices. We need to make some conscious hermeneutical decisions, or else we will be unconsciously captive to whatever voices are loudest around us, which is a very dangerous place to be.
(My suspicion, and my grief, for some of my peers is that giving in to those voices early in their career has shaped their whole career and their whole lives of faith.)
I thought we might look at what is happening in the last parable in Matthew which has less gore but is still incredibly challenging.
First, the rhetoric. Let's look at placement. Everything leads to the Passion Narrative. And in the literature of the day, what you do is place a last will and testament just before the final denouement of the text. We see it with Moses' final address in Deuteronomy... remember Jesus is the new and greater Moses in Matthew's Gospel. We see it in John with 14:30-31
30I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; 31but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way...
And then after a big swag of text we see in John 18:1
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered...
The intervening chapters shows all the marks of being a later insertion of last will and testament.
The rhetorical understanding; that is, the way to read and listen, is to understand that this positioning means that here we have the key, the final summing up of the teaching of the person concerned. So if we read Matthew always with an eye to the Passion narrative, we also read with an eye to the last parable in particular. If we are preaching a Matthew that does not mesh with this parable in some way, we are not preaching Matthew. We can’t leave it out, because it is where Matthew is saying, "If you understand nothing else, understand this!"
I'll read and make some very brief comments on the way through.
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
This is in some sense the ascended Lord. (This is the triune God whom we worship.)
32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
We are talking about the purposes of creation here. This is ontological stuff about the total meaning of creation, and of our existence.
35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”
There is profound preaching opportunity here about the unrecognised Christ. We meet the Christ in the rejected and despised. We meet him in the people who are still being crucified and rejected
41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
The key section is this repetition of the reaction of the surprised people at the point of judgement. In the first case, not to recognise the Christ to whom you have given something to drink is a little joke in the text: these are not only folk know they do not measure up to the holiness of the in-group, they are saying to each other in the sheep pen, "Gee... didn't expect to see you here," and the response is, "Speak for yourself!" And the third person says, "Shh! Be quiet or he'll realise he's made a mistake!"
But not to recognise the Christ and therefore, to reject him, is about the worst thing we can do. And the bitter joke is that those of us there… are likely to be the folk who thought we had been doing all the right things for Jesus.
The key thing about Matthew, and once we understand this it shows up everywhere, the key thing is that behaviour matters. Right living as a Christian is critical. Not living right means we will fail to recognise the Christ. Matthew has absolutely no room for a truncated perversion of Paul that takes refuge in saved by grace alone... which is true... but then says, well, now I'm saved, life can go on. Right living is not orthodoxy, it is the practice of compassion.
This is why we have the critique of the Pharisees. Whited sepulchres... (Matt 23) are the place of death from tidy, pristine theology. Matthew places Jesus' understanding of right living squarely within the theology of Amos and Hosea, and squarely against the teaching of the Deuteronomist.
The Deuteronomist says: Do the right thing and God will do right by you.
11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God* that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deut 30)
Deuteronomy leads straight to prosperity theology which is not just the idea that good Christians get rich but that things go well if we do the right thing by God, which in Jesus' time meant also to do the cultic life of the temple correctly. So the Pharisees are not the enemy of God, they are terrible serious and faithful in their discipleship, and our congregations are full of deep, sincere, compassionate Pharisees...
But Jesus says Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
10 And as he sat at dinner* in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting* with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 12But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
He is quoting Hosea
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.
The faithfulness in Matt 25 that makes all the difference is not doctrine and not rule keeping. It is mercy, which is compassion, which is not sympathy but vulnerability which is to sit-with, and feel with (co-suffer), which is to be vulnerable-with... which, of course, may well lead to crucifixion with the poor and vulnerable. The promise is resurrection.
And if we think about it, the temptations in Matthew are all temptations to give in to the Deuteronomic vision: the creation of bread (bread and circuses in another part of the Empire) is cheap populism; it avoids the pain and risk of healing. The pinnacle of the temple is not only a tempting of God; high places are a symbol of power. In the movie Jesus of Montreal, Daniel, the Christ figure, is wined and dined in a skyline restaurant by some of the movers and shakers. In the end, what Deuteronomy offered was success: money, living long in the land, status among the people. That is not the gospel.
Not to see this, says Matthew, leads us "into eternal punishment." And in our time, in my suburb, any promise of prosperity is beginning to look like a lie as Housing Trust units reach 50 degrees.
Let's just leave the question of eternal punishment hanging there for a moment and return to some of our key hermeneutical choices which will help us read Matthew, or not. I find there is a cyclical process here, in which I am confronted by Matthew, go back to the theology with which I have arrived at the gospel, and then re-read.
Back to the key hermeneutical choices
The title Son of God means 'like Father, like Son.' But it also means 'like Son, like Father.' So, quoting Gil Bailie
As Bailie says of Anselmic atonement
The problem for this atonement theory is that it leaves in place a vengeful God who demands that someone be punished for sin. This is not a God who conforms to the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection. We have to begin from the revelation in Christ and then go back and reckon with our understanding of God. [xi]
What is Scripture?
Is it the inspired revelation which can't be changed? Then we will always be pressured to somehow to give the god of the Old Testament priority. We will be always over-riding the mercy of Jesus. If we just look at Jesus, then we are going to lose things we shouldn't (Marcion... correct instinct but wrong answer.)
My answer to this dilemma is that the inspiration of the text is that in thought the history of our faith people have been led by the Spirit to record and explain what God had revealed to them. We have learned and grown. We are being made human. That is; we are Homo sapiens who is becoming Human. We look for what the Christ has shown us about the nature of God. We listen to our hearts which are being converted, and we hold fast to the whole of God.
And that brings us back to Judgement and another principle.
The Principle of agnostic faith in the face of paradox
Matthew brings us into collision with two opposing principles. My principle is that God leaves no one behind. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. If God cannot forgive the fact that I have not repented then God cannot forgive all sins and is not God, after all. Anselm's honour is no picture of God, it is a picture of a weak tyrant who cannot forgive. Jesus forgives his disciples, and forgives himself— ask me for the text[xii]! — this is the God we are shown.
But Matthew's last parable is devastating. If we have been converted, if the Spirit has taught us anything about the love of God, and if we have any compassion, we know that to ignore the poor, to judge them, to despise them is to do likewise to the Christ. It is to re-crucify him. And, what's more, it damages us even in this life. Each act of rejection is practice for the next time. We can't ignore this parable—or perhaps I should say that the extent to which I ignore it is the measure of my lack of conversion to the Christ.
I'd suggest that in our time there is a paradox which we can't see through. We simply cannot understand the depth of grace that tells us that to reject the Christ is deadly and can allow us no presence with God, and yet still forgives us and accepts us. Do you see that the people in the sheep are all the people who did not keep the rules? The hidden joke in Matthew, which we don't see because we are too morally holy and don't look for the dad jokes and the rude jokes in scripture, is that the Pharisees, the good rule keeping people like us, are the goats. And the people who didn't keep the rules, but just once were compassionate and merciful, are the sheep... much to their own surprise.
So in the last resort we have to make a choice, or follow an intuition, about the reality of God. Does God forgive all things, or does God have eternal punishment? This will change everything we read and everything we preach. Fundamentally.
John Petty says
Matthew, more than any other gospel, is concerned about "righteousness"-- repentance, right action, bearing fruit--and the punishment that awaits those who don't get it or do it.
At the same time, Matthew undermines that same position as often as he affirms it. Only Matthew tells the story of the Laborers in the Vineyard with its radical vision of universal equality.[xiii]
God inspired Matthew to read Mark and make choices... and for this reason we have the Gospel of Matthew... even though he can't see his way through all the mysteries of God, and even though he maybe was not as worried by the prospect of the burning of folk as we are, and had more to learn.
We are permitted, we are called, to do the same as Matthew. We are called to take the story Matthew has given us, the bones of story on which he has fleshed out meaning, and do the same. We are called to put before the people God has given us the Gospel of Jenni, or of Rebecca or of Andrew... and we not only honour God, we honour our people. We take them seriously. We do not heal their hurt lightly. And this is preaching which is inspired.
Andrew Prior (2020)
[i] John Hewson, former Liberal leader - https://www.smh.com.au/national/our-greatest-security-threat-is-climate-change-so-mobilise-the-adf-20200115-p53rm7.html
[ii] Perhaps best summed up in Deuteronomy 30:15-20
[iii] Bill Loader - http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/matt.html
[iv] This is one of the rhetorical tools we don't see, but which stuck out for the readers, preachers and listeners of the time.
[v] Andrew Prior - https://www.onemansweb.org/the-fires.html
[vi] Bill Loader, Ibid
[vii] Andrew Prior – It begins with Joseph: https://www.onemansweb.org/ it-begins-with-joseph-matthew-1-1-17-18-25.html
[viii] Numbers are a big thing, culturally. Eg The gematria in the genealogy: https://www.onemansweb.org/it-begins-with-joseph-matthew-1-1-17-18-25.html
[ix] Andrew Prior - https://www.onemansweb.org/freedom-matthew-313-43a.html
[x] Andrew Prior - https://www.onemansweb.org/hypocrites-or-assholes-luke-191-10.html
[xi] Quoted by Andrew Prior - https://www.onemansweb.org/finding-the-golden-lamb-john-119-42.html
[xii] Matthew 15:21-28
[xiii] John Petty - https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2010/11/lectionary-blogging-matthew-3-1-12.html
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