Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My friend Cha suggested that I blog the discussion I am facilitating in our congregation on the Gospel According to Matthew. That will be a daunting task, and I will not commit to doing a very comprehensive job of doing so. Nevertheless, I pick up the gauntlet and relay, on an occasional basis, some of the glory that comes from the meetings. We began this past Sunday with a consideration of Matthew 1 -- specifically, the genealogy section.

I think it is in his monograph, A Coming Christ in Advent, that Raymond E. Brown, perhaps my favorite Bible scholar, enthusiastically urges preachers to take up the “begats” of the first chapter of Matthew. There is much to be gleaned for our benefit from what seems a rather arcane recital of a male-celebrating list of forebears. What can possibly serve faith about this section of chapter 1? Quite a bit, Fr. Brown said.

Well, a little snooping around in anticipation of leading a Bible study of the Gospel of Matthew and our first week of discussing the Gospel have shown me that Raymond Brown, once again, knew his stuff. These first few verses are packed with information, assertion, confession, contradiction, and confusion. And taken as a whole, it now seems to me indispensable to the Gospel.

The most obvious feature of the list of “begats” (and scholars seem to agree that the translation “was the father of” is too weak; “begat” or “fathered” or “sired” is much more to the point of the Greek) is that it is the history of Israel writ in brief. Jesus is said to be “son of Abraham.” And from Abraham, recipient of the covenantal promise (about which more later), through Joseph, wife of Mary, the history of the faith and nation of Israel comes to rest on Jesus. (Now, of course, that history comes by way of Jacob’s, in essence, adopting Jesus. It is the curious thing about Matthew’s Gospel that he, pace Luke, makes no effort to draw Mary into the line of descent, but brings Jesus in through the side door, as it were, through Joseph.) And that is central to the message, if you will, that Matthew tries to get across: Jesus does not represent God’s rejecting Israel in favor of some new line, but he does represent the “fulfillment” of all Israel has existed to bring about. At one level, this is the most Jewish of the Gospels (something the St. John’s Bible illuminators got in spades: Whoever illuminated the “begats” designed the family tree in the shape of a menorah and inscribed the names in Hebrew!)

Abraham was blessed “to be a blessing”: By his heirs all nations would be brought back into faithfulness with The Lord, creator of heaven and earth. Through her history, Israel seemed to forget that, but her life was intentionally missional – to live in fidelity to the identity of her God and thereby to be the means by which “all nations bless themselves,” that is, return to The Lord. Finally in Jesus, the Father God sent his Son to bring that mission to fruition. And, of course, that comes with a complicating factor for those who viewed Israel’s history with a chauvinistic eye.

The covenant to Abraham was intended, Matthew insists, ultimately to include non-Israel – i.e., Gentiles. And the second half of Matthew’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ opening the mission of his original Twelve to the rest of the world. This was not a mission to reject Israel, but to expand Israel to “nations.” In Stanley Hauerwas’ words, Jesus is the summing up of the history of Israel

so that Jew and Gentile alike now live as God’s people – or, at least, that the path to this eschatological reality is made straight and the journey begun.

Additional evidence that Matthew wants to stress openness to the Gentiles is carried by his including women in the list of the begats. While there may be no scriptural support for the claim of motherhood on the part of some of them, Matthew includes Tamar, and Hagar, Bathsheba (though not by name), and Ruth. Some of these are women of ill-repute; most (if not all) are not Jews. Yet here they are: The genealogy is no whitewash over history. And one of the facts that is not whitewashed over is that Gentiles have served a place in God’s work all along – as they will again. God can and has made use of surprising instruments to work his will – witness these women, including, let us not forget, a virgin – and he does so for his ultimate purposes, which are all-inclusive.

Wonderfully, this is the story not just of the fulfillment (a big word for Matthew) of Israel’s being, but that of the entire cosmos. The Gospel’s “begats” section begins “The book of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah.” By using the word “genesis,” both here and at the opening of the birth narrative, Matthew signals that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent a recapitulation of creation. The very destiny of God’s creation is at stake in Jesus’ life, Hauerwas notes. This is no mere “heaven in the sky in the sweet by-and-by when I die” kind of story; this is about the restoring humanity to our proper place in creation along with all the other created “things and beings.” This is the story of salvation of the world – world taken, not just as a substitute for the people who dwell therein, but at face value.

And part of the salvation of the world includes the salvation of its “politics” – this is the point of naming Jesus “son of David.” Matthew is a most political book, but it shows us that the “politics of Jesus” (to use Yoder’s term) is an alternative to the world’s power politics – with their reliance on force, violence, dishonesty, compromise. From the Sermon on the Mount through his peaceful submission to death, even death on a cross,

In all of this, Matthew makes clear that he has no intention of writing a pseudo-history of Jesus; his efforts are in another direction. He interpolates connections, elides dynasties, omit kings. And he doesn’t even count very well: His claim to three sets of fourteen generations each doesn’t add up. But the effect is to reinforce the impression that his goal is homiletic, not historical. (It reminds me of the claim I frequently make about the Current Occupant of the White House: His theme is “Let me tell you what’s going on – and don’t confuse me with the facts.”) He wishes us to see in the man whose story he tells God’s final act and statement to accomplish his will, embodied in the very real human (hence the point of the genealogy in the first place) Jesus.

And that makes sense of Hauerwas’ claim that “who” Jesus was and is” tells us the “what” and “why” of Jesus. Matthew’s is not a propositional treatise – ala Paul’s letters, for example. This is the narrative of the one whose life is the content of his message. The only way to come to grips with Jesus is to follow him, to become his disciple (something he, as his final act on earth, charges his disciples to make of all nations) – to listen to him, to wrestle with his words and his deeds, to see in him the full vesture of God in human flesh.

And that’s not bad for a list of names, is it?


-C said...

Wonderful, Dwight -
You have completely succeeded in making me wish I were there in person –
Thanks for this! I am already looking forward to your next installment.

(What a treat for me to be able to have the very best of both worlds, eh?)


Anonymous said...

I just bookmarked your blog; and though I know you have the right to say anything you please on your own space, I sure wish you had stuck to the Bible story you were discussing and left your politics out. It was the only sour note.