by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 1:1-2:23
Rather than a sermon, I offered this past Sunday background on the Gospel According to Matthew, suggested that we use the sermon time occasionally this year for an interactive Bible study, and named some critical approaches we might take and themes we might anticipate in Matthew. We closed in a time of silent reflection followed by a sharing of our “dreams.” What follows are mere notes on this preview of our study of Matthew. I tried to cover too much, but I will have opportunity to follow up.
I will be more teachy than preachy this morning. It’s been a long time since we’ve done a Bible study series. Although Progressive Christians don’t read the Bible literally, we do read it very seriously, and that means we benefit from a methodical study of scripture. We also read the Bible devotionally. A scripture can prompt us to prayer or self-examination or action. But the Bible can be more than a springboard to our own thoughts and feelings and actions. Those are good outcomes. But if we want to learn more about the Jesus that the early followers experienced and not just the Jesus we’re projecting onto the texts, then we need some tools. Let’s consider taking a Sunday every now and then for a Bible study rather than sermon. Today I need to give some background, but future Bible study times will be more interactive.
Today we begin a year-long emphasis on the Gospel of Matthew. Today’s introduction to Matthew exposes us to some general Bible reading skills. In Bible reading, context is everything. If you don’t place Matthew’s Gospel within the history of 1st Century Roman occupation, for instance, you can’t really understand Jesus. He’s both a product of that culture and, in Star Wars terms, a rebel leader (a nonviolent one) resisting the Empire.
As we begin this study, it’s also helpful to keep in mind Matthew’s basic structure: prologue, 5 parts, epilogue. Today’s reading is within the prologue. The body of Matthew is divided into 5 parts, each containing a narrative section followed by a discourse. The epilogue includes the crucifixion and resurrection story.
We’ll also be paying attention to references Matthew makes to other scriptures—putting his story of Jesus in the context of other books in the Bible. (See Matt. 2: 15, 18, and 23 in today’s pericope.
We’ll look for patterns of other sorts, too: themes and word choices. You might notice in Matthew’s Gospel a repeated phrase (like “kingdom of heaven”). And since we focused on the Gospel of Luke this past year, you might also notice ways that Matthew is both similar to and different from Luke (which uses the term that is translated usually as “kingdom of God.”) That’s because they share a common source for much of their material.
Our study of Matthew this year may at times draw on:
* feminist and womanist criticism
We need the context of the time period in which the events were understood to have taken place and the time period in which the book was written and the context of the “community” for whom the book was written. You can’t just lift a story from its historic setting and read it with 21st C. American eyes and get the author’s intentions. We can’t know the biblical Jesus without knowing something about his world.
Let’s start with comparing Matthew to Luke because we’ve just finished a year on Luke’s gospel and because we read Luke’s nativity story twice last week. Did you notice differences between these nativity stories? Christmas cards and Christmas carols “harmonize” the two versions. But these two narratives tell different stories of Jesus’ birth with different theological agendas.
Luke and Matthew begin with Jesus’s genealogy. But in Matthew 1 we start Jesus’s genealogy with Abraham and move forward to Jesus. Luke starts with Jesus and works back in time all the way to Adam. And from King David to Jesus, Luke and Mark mention completely different names for Jesus’ most immediate ancestors. If we had time, that boring list of “so-and-so begat so-and-so” would yield interesting discussion.
Begin to pay attention to Matthew’s emphasis that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and true successor to King David, fully in line with the Jewish tradition–a message to Matthew’s largely Jewish audience.
Let’s contrast now the birth stories in Luke and Matthew.
(Ask who is the main character in each.) Luke focuses on Mary and her courage and obedience. Mary, not Joseph, speaks and acts in Luke. Matthew focuses on Joseph’s dreams and HIS predicament about whether or not he should “put Mary away.” Joseph, not Mary, is visited by a heavenly messenger and he decides and he acts. In Luke, the angel Gabriel appears before Mary to announce the child. In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph three times in a dream. The nativity story itself in Matthew is just two sentences long: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matt. 2:24-25). From there today’s pericope tells of the Magi and King Herod and the flight to Egypt.
Another important difference between the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew is the visitors to the Christ child. (Ask what the poor shepherds might suggest about Luke’s message to the Gentiles and the Magi might suggest about Matthew’s message to fellow Jews.) Matthew emphasizes Jesus’s Jewishness because Matthew is writing to a group of increasingly marginalized Jews, probably in Antioch. And one of his themes is that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Jesus-cult of Jews became more dispersed even as they were being edged out of the Jewish community. In contrast, Luke was writing to a pretty Gentile audience that included some Jews. But both are speaking to people living under harsh Roman occupation and oppression. Both Matthew and Luke point to Jesus as the one sent by God to set things right.
Neither of Jesus’s infancy narrative is factual. Historians have either determined that certain events did not happen, or acknowledge contradictions among the biblical texts, or just admit there’s no corroborating evidence outside the Bible that events like Herod’s massacre of the Jewish children, for instance, actually occurred. Such an event would likely have been recorded by others living then, like the Jewish historian Josephus.
But as Marcus Borg said, “The Bible is true and some of it actually happened.” King Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” and the Holy family’s flight to Egypt is a well- crafted story that develops important theological themes we’ll see running through Matthew’s entire Gospel. This story rings of powerful truth even if it’s not factual.
Look back at today’s reading in Matthew. We’ve already seen how this Gospel account quotes from scripture. More indirectly, it echoes familiar stories in the Torah.
(Discuss echoes of the Moses story and the Joseph story from the Pentateuch. Later on in Matthew, allusions to Moses will attempt to show Jesus as the next Moses. Today’s pericope doesn’t mention Moses explicitly, but the slaughter of Jewish babies by Herod automatically reminded the faithful Jews in Matthew’s community of Pharoah’s cruel edict to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. And there’s another Jewish hero Matthew wants to link Jesus, too—but through his father. Who in the book of Genesis was noted for dreaming dreams and interpreting others’ dreams? (Joseph) What are we supposed to think about Jesus if we connect him with Joseph? Discuss similarities and difference between Joseph in Genesis to Joseph in Matthew. What themes for the life of Jesus are being suggested in Matthew’s first 2 chapters? What do we understand about the God of Jesus?)
We shift now from studying the Bible for an understanding of the Jesus whom we follow—to using the Bible as a springboard for reflection and mediation. Take some time now in this period of quiet to think about your dream for this coming year . . . for you . . . for your country . . . for your church. May God use your sleeping and waking dreams to lead you deeper into your followship of Jesus and your service to others.
(Opportunity to share our dreams.)