Meeting God in Matthew

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Meeting God in Matthew

Meeting God in Matthew

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The way of discipleship is the way of sacrifice, the way of the Cross, and Jesus’s invitation is that we also should take up our cross daily and follow him. This long though incomplete roll-call of Jesus’s ancestors includes both famous and infamous characters. With so many names available to Matthew in the 42 generations he covers, his choices might strike us as odd. His list certainly does not reveal the most moral, God-fearing people in history — one author calls them “an odd assortment of adulterers, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers and harem-wastrels” — but their ancestral lineage was incontrovertible. Whether you are completely new to Matthew’s Gospel or have read it many times before, Meeting God in Matthew will help you see the First Gospel with fresh eyes and better understand its essential meaning and purpose. At this time 70–100 CE both Jews and Christians were finding their own individual ways in affirming what was central and essential and what was not. It marked the time when various Christian traditions emerged: e.g. The Epistle to the Hebrews and St John’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel is such a vital witness to this initial period of debate and turmoil which led eventually to the ‘parting of the ways’ between Jews and Christians. This was not really firmly fixed, however, until the 3rd and 4th centuries when both sides firmly established their individual canons of scripture. For Jews this led to the Mishnah as the new Table of Law, based on Pharisaic principles. For Christians, after Constantine it brought a wide assimilation to the main lines of Hellenistic culture and philosophy and led to the great Councils of 327 CE and 584. After this period only limited debate took place between Jews and Christians. ⁷ As the baby is laid in his borrowed crib, and angel hosts confront the overawed shepherds sending them to be eye-witness to the truth of his birth, the reality of the Incarnation hits us yet again: God is entering the upheaval and trauma of human life.

In essence, He said, “How happy are those who are sad.” I confessed I had a lot to learn about what Jesus actually meant by those words. But one thing that I knew he did not mean was that grief, sorrow, and loss are not real or not painful. The Gospel according to St Matthew has inspired people for centuries, whether as preachers and Bible students or as musicians and artists. It has had a crucial impact on commu­nities and cultures throughout Christian history. When we consider its message, that is not surprising. In both its beginning and ending the same compelling note is sounded: the assurance that God is present in human life in the person of Jesus. In the very first chapter we’re reminded that the name of Jesus is to be ‘Emmanuel, God with us’. In the very last chapter Jesus himself tells his disciples, ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ From start to conclusion, Matthew’s Gospel is centred on Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God who, in person or through the Holy Spirit, abides with us. Clearly written, clearly structured, but if one favours a safety-first approach to Matthew, then this will appeal' When I did experience suffering and loss, my heart would be able to take refuge in knowing what Jesus said about mourning. Mourning can bring us into a deeper understanding of the gospel. The blessedness of God’s comfort (the peace, joy, love, life) does not circumvent mourning. And there were the woes (Matthew 23), delivered in the presence of his disciples, but directed to those whose obsession with the Law was at the expense of love and righteousness. “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but within are full of the bones of the dead and all uncleanness.”There is something unforgettable about a bunch of fishermen who are feeling frustrated with no catch, being told how to do their job in a way that goes counter to normal experience — and then finding that the catch exceeds all expectations. There is something so odd about a man from customs and excise, getting on with the routine job of sorting out duties, being told “Follow me.” Jesus has little time for the instructions of those who see themselves as close to God, but predominantly in an advisory capacity. But our sin has marred that image. Evil and death are not just at work out there in the world; they exist inside of me. Through mourning, we linger over the effects of our sin on others, including the Son of God. The resulting sorrow leads to repentance and change. The Evangelist makes sure to point out Joseph’s feelings at his fiancé’s pregnancy, knowing that the child is not his. The angel confirms that Mary has not betrayed him but carries a child through the power of the Holy Spirit, who will save people from their sins.

Each chapter includes questions for discussion and reflection, making Meeting God in Matthew a perfect book for Bible study, both for individuals and small groups. With a focus on the Passion narrative, it is also ideal for use as a Lent devotional. It came from the realization that my pain was pulling me into a story greater than our own small story of tragedy — a story of a Father who had endured the suffering of His own Son and who felt, who understood, who could sympathize with and comfort me in my pain. How does blessing come through mourning? The arrival of the wise men (more literally “magicians”) with gifts clearly designed for a king conveys powerfully both the Jewish and the global significance of this child. God’s call for people to worship him extends beyond the boundaries of Israel, for he has come to break down ethnic and racial barriers and open up a relationship with all people. Sometimes we find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that all the Gospels are anonymous. No one claimed to have written them. Of course, for centuries certain individ­uals were credited with authorship: Matthew’s and John’s Gospels were understood to be written by Jesus’ apostles of those names. Mark’s Gospel was penned by the secretary of St Peter, and Luke’s Gospel was the account of ‘the beloved physician’ who travelled with St Paul (and also authored the Book of Acts). Yet these were attributed a century after the Gospels were written, influenced by key Christian figures like Papias (AD 60–130) and Irenaeus (AD 130–202). Papias declared, ‘Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language and each one interpreted them as best he could.’ ⁸ One New Testament scholar articulates this position well. Graham Stanton believes that for Matthew’s community, indeed for much of early Christianity, the relationship between Christianity and Judaism was a central issue for the­ology and understanding God’s will for our lives. By now, the Christian believers had parted company with Judaism, but only after a period of prolonged hostility. The strong language we see in Matthew reflects their ongoing experi­ence of pain and separation. He explains: ‘Opposition, rejection and persecution from some Jewish quarters is not just a matter of past experi­ence; for the evangelist and his com­munity the threat is still felt strongly and keenly.’ ⁵ This new Chris­tian minority com­mu­nity was carrying out the commission from ­Jesus to take the good news to all nations. Yet its members had to do this while struggling with the trauma of separ­ation and the pain of denunciation from their own Jewish kinsfolk.⁶ We should not be surprised then to find that the rejection of Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees becomes a focus in the Gospel, and that Matthew’s language is strong.

In teaching his disciples, Jesus was not, therefore, like other rabbis of his day, and many teachers of our own. He was not training heresy-spotters, grand inquisitors, judges of others. He was inviting people into the humility of sitting under truth, growing in knowledge, acquiring wisdom.

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