Week of Sunday Nov 2 - Pentecost 21
Bible: Matthew 23
Clicking on the image will present and enlarged version of the chapter with some notes. Although the reading is not set as the whole chapter, I think it is important to read it all and see the extent of its anger and condemnation.
When I read Matthew Chapter 23 I feel like I have read an article in the Murdoch Press, determinedly whipping up hostility toward Muslim people with images and rhetoric so different from the Muslim folk I know. I find the chapter profoundly depressing. Sharon H. Ringe says of the reading for this week
As a resident of Washington, DC, I recognize political rhetoric, caricatures, and trash-talk when I hear them, and I hear them loud and clear in Matthew 23:1-12.
Aaron Gale says that despite Matthew's "close connections to Jewish texts, Torah interpretation, and images," there appears to be a "strained if not broken relationship between Matthew’s intended readers and the synagogue." He suggests this is the fallout of the struggle for both Jews and Christians to survive the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. The boundaries have hardened as each group seeks to survive. (Levine and Brettler (Eds)The Jewish Annotated New Testament pp2)
There is more than this. There is anger without pain. As he edits the traditions about Jesus, and seeks to build up the strength of his community, Matthew has forgotten the pain of other people. He is pained by his own suffering— who could blame him— but has forgotten the pain and the humanity of his synagogue sisters and brothers in faith in God.
We left the train at Elsternwick to tour the grounds of one of Melbourne's grand old Como mansion. We bought the makings of lunch in the local shops. The young man who served me in the Jewish fruiterer shines in my memory. His very presence blessed me; I'd never been in a holy fruit and vegetable shop! And there is Fata, witnessing her faith in Allah; simple words that warmed my heart as they described my own experience of the same God, calling me back to parish ministry.
How can I claim to speak the words of God if I condemn these folk? How can I point out shortcomings, and call myself and my congregation to right living, if I slander wholesale the very people who have blessed me? They are not exceptions to their Faiths; they are the norm.
I once saw Prime Minister Howard touring a disaster site. I despised many of his policies and attitudes, and remain convinced that they were a travesty of justice. But at this moment I saw a human being. "This is appalling," he cried. It was the voice of my father who was so similar to him, and yet so different. How can I oppose Howard, and his successor, without the terrible condemnatory anger of a Matthew?
The text begins like this:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it...
Jesus was a Jew. He respected and believed in and followed the traditions. Like all Jewish people he argued about interpretation. He criticised ideas, expanded texts with new understandings, and sought to live faithfully according to the tradition.
We have built up an image of a personality who shone out from his fellows. He is almost so different as not to be Jewish! But I suspect we would have difficulty picking him out from the shop keepers in Elsternwick. He was thoroughly Jewish, and if we are not "thoroughly Jewish" in our reverencing and arguing over and living by scripture and tradition we are not listening to the Pharisees whose teaching he told us to follow!
The criticisms in Jesus' original sayings were by a Jew of his own people; they are not the criticism of people who are other.
We might notice his condemnation of hair splitting about whether swearing upon the altar, or only the gold of the altar, was binding, (23:16-22) and his sarcasm about being finicky over small matters like tithing herbs while swallowing camels whole. (23:23-24) Jesus neither condemns the holiness of the altar, or decries the necessity of tithing— of keeping the law in detail. He does not condemn this; he condemns fussiness over the small things while ignoring much larger issues.
Buried in that verse is the fact that mint (23:23) "is never mentioned in Jewish sources as a tithing herb." (Levine op. cit. see the note on Matt. 23:23) Don't make up shibboleths and treat them as God's law— not that we Christians would ever argue over shifting pews, or which hymns to sing, or whether a hungry man deserved charity... also known as love.
"The weightier matters of the law" are "justice and mercy and faith." (23:23) There is a sense in which despite our terrible ignorance of our Jewish tradition, we Christians are "a law unto ourselves." We "possess the law" when we "do what the law requires." Paul spoke in Romans 2:14 of we Gentiles doing this "instinctively."
That instinct is well served by seeking justice for all people, not just ourselves; by being compassionate (merciful) to all people, not just ourselves, and by trusting God (faith) enough to actually live like this even in the small matters of "dill and cumin." Such instincts will preserve us from the violence of Matthew's condemnations. Indeed they will make us recoil instinctively from attitudes such as Matthew's.
Indeed, if we read Matthew 23 and do not recoil instinctively, there is a message for us: Matthew 23 is us. We are the ones being criticised. We are the ones who are today the "Scribes and the Pharisees" of the text— ones who "project our own nit-picking hypocrisies onto Pharisees who were doing their best to be faithful to God."
One of my abiding memories of my Dad is getting into trouble. He was always pained and regretful when I needed being disciplined. He was disappointed in me, expecting better of me, rather than angry. (I gave him reason enough to be angry!) There is much more of Matthew in me. I defend my position and pour out my anger. When I confront wrong I am too much incensed by the injustice and too little unfeeling of the pain and humanity of the transgressor.
Faith which seeks the "weightier matters of the law" is indeed afire for justice. But it also burns with compassion. We have only the bare translated text of Matthew, not his person, and barely a hint of his situation. His nuance and his synagogue friendships— his relatives even— are lost to us. If we do not inject them back into the text with the imagination of compassion and the wisdom of justice, we turn him into a hand book for haters...
...and we risk using his words as weapons which ultimately condemn us. We risk becoming the people he describes.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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