December 1, 2019
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by Ron Allen
Year A and the Gospel of Matthew
The first Sunday of Advent introduces both a new cycle for the Christian Year (Year A) and the Gospel for this new year, the Gospel of Matthew. This little Introduction to the Gospel gives some historical and literary background to the First Gospel and calls attention to some of the main themes that run throughout Matthew. While this Introduction contains material that is directly relevant to Advent with its theme of preparing for the second coming of Jesus (the time when God will fully and finally manifest the Realm of God) the introduction also contains material that is directly pertinent for Christmas, Epiphany and the Sundays after Epiphany, Lent, Easter and the Sundays after Easter, as well as Pentecost Day and the Sundays after Pentecost.
A Little Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew
In my view, the congregation to which Matthew wrote (about 80-90 BCE) was at the intersection of four fields of force which combined to create considerable tension in the congregation.
The World-View of Matthew: End-time Theology
One field of force—and one that places many preachers today in tension with aspects of the Gospel of Matthew—is an apocalyptic or end-time world view. Like Mark, Luke-Acts, and most of the Gospels and Letters, the Gospel of Matthew is essentially apocalyptic in character. The Jewish end-time theologians envisioned history unfolding in two ages. The present world is broken and does not manifest all of God’s purposes. Sometimes called the present age, the old age, the old creation, the realm of this world, the present age is characterized by the presence of Satan, demons, and idolatry, and is marked by sin, injustice, exploitation, fractiousness in the human community (especially tension between Jews and gentiles), sickness, scarcity enmity between humankind and nature, violence, and death. By contrast, the realm of God, sometimes called the new age, the age to come, the new world, would be an eternity of God effecting God’s purposes of blessing in every situation, assisted by angels. It would be a time of authentic worship, forgiveness, justice, mutual support, authentic community, health, abundance, a relationship of blessing between humankind and nature, peace, and eternal life.
In Matthew 4:17, the Matthean Jesus urges people to repent because the Realm of Heaven has come near. For Matthew, Jesus is God’s agent through whom the great transformation from the old to the new has begun to take place, beginning in small ways in the present but rising to a dramatic climax with Jesus return at the Second Coming.
This perspective raises many issues for the contemporary interpreter, including the following. How can we continue to believe in a second coming when 2,000 years have passed and there is no real indication that a return is evident? What purpose could God have as the centuries pass, and the quantity of those suffer innocently increases exponentially? What sense does it make to continue to use the language of a three-story universe in which Jesus returns from heaven when we live in a universe that is constantly expanding? Moreover, the phenomena of life experience are about the same as they were before Jesus. In connection with Matthew 24:36-44, I turn to a process perspective as an alternative way of thinking about the God’s ultimate purposes. For now, it is enough to note that many Christians today struggle with the believability of the end-time world view.
The Repressive Roman Empire
A second field of force is the Roman Empire. From a Jewish point of view, the Empire was grounded in idolatry with the Caesars gradually being accorded titles and roles that should belong to God and God’s purposes and to God’s agents. The Empire maintained its hold on society by threat of violence. The Roman social world was organized as a rigid pyramid the upper-class controlling material resources and social possibilities for others. The Empire taxed people heavily. A fourth to a third of the population was often enslaved. Living conditions for those outside the apex of the social pyramid were often squalid.
Several end-time theologians of the Matthew’s time regarded the Roman Empire as an agency of Satan, indeed, the epitome of old age practices and values. The Realm of God contrasts almost point-by-point with the rule of Caesar and Rome.
At the same time, the aegis of Satan, demons, and idolatry, the Satanic system was not limited to Rome. The end-time thinkers thought that many communities and individuals served the values and practices of the old age.
The situation of empire is one of a few powerful people and groups attempting to control material and social resources for their own enrichment, typically at the expense of others, often enforced by threat and violence. Preachers today can easily find similarities between empire then and empire now. In the early twenty-first century, it is especially easy to call attention to manifestations of Empire in the United States. But empire extends far beyond this North American country. At its broadest, empire is a transnational network of individuals, corporations, and political movements. Indeed, empire systems can take a controlling role in almost any community—international, national, and more local. While it is painful to say, Christian denominations and middle judicatories and congregations can be empires.
The Gospel of Matthew invites listeners to choose the way of the Realm of God instead of the way of Empire. However, the journey from the old world to the new includes struggle, symbolized by the Roman Empire putting Jesus to death. Matthew accompanies the invitation to be part of the eschatological community on the way to the Realm with the pastoral counsel that those who take this route should be prepared for Caesar to resist the effort.
Matthew’s Complicated Relationship with Pharisaism and Pharisees
A third field of force shaping the First Gospel is the relationship of Matthew’s congregation to Judaism and to other Jewish communities, especially Pharisaism and Pharisees. There are two dimensions here. A growing body of scholars regards the perspective of the First Gospel) as essentially Jewish, and even more specifically as Pharisaic. Indeed, the Matthean Jesus says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it” (Matt 23:2).
Based on their own documents and on what others said about them, it seems that the Pharisees were a reform movement who encouraged people to practice the deepest qualities of the Jewish life in all their affairs. They centered Jewish religious life in the Torah and encouraged obedience, not in a legalistic way but as response to the great gift of grace. The sought to interpret ancient tradition in light of contemporary insights and issues.
The other dimension related to Matthew and the Pharisaic movement is tension. Matthew repeatedly portrays Jesus and the disciples in conflict with Pharisees and with what Matthew sees as mis-interpretations of Torah, mis-understanding the end-time quality of their moment in history, as well as mis-understanding the role of Jesus and the church as witnesses to the great transformation. Indeed, Matthew portrays them as narrow, rigid, legalistic and approaching works righteousness.
A significant body of scholarship has come to see this picture not as a historically reliable picture but as a caricature that Matthew has created in order to justify the growing separation from Matthew’s congregation and other Pharisaic communities. Matthew retrojects tensions from 80-90 CE back into the story of the life of Jesus. Just as Matthew sometimes uses the figures of the disciples in the Gospel to represent his church, so Matthew uses the figures of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders in the Gospel to speak about the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders of his own day. The terrible heritage of this perspective is centuries of anti-Judaism that ramped into anti-Semitism which threatens the people to this very day.
When Matthew wrote, Judaism was still seeking to regather itself after the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in 70 CE. Among the important questions for that period were, “What is the future of Judaism?” “What does it mean to be Jewish in this changed situation?” “Who are trustworthy interpreters of Jewish tradition?” Matthew seeks to show that Jesus (and the community coming after him) represent a reliably Jewish way forward, especially through reinterpreting Torah in light of the eschatological awakening which opened the way to the gentile mission.
Christian interpreters have often claimed that Jesus broke from Judaism. To the contrary, from the Pharisaic perspective, I see Matthew’s figure of Jesus functioning as a kind of eschatological rabbi whose categories for interpreting the world meld Pharisaism and end-time theology. The Gospel of Matthew seeks to assure the congregation that Jesus’ interpretation of Torah in light of the dawning of the final eschatological rule of God is authentically Jewish.
Whether or not Matthew was specifically a Pharisee and sought to portray Jesus and the church in Pharisaic terms, Matthew was certainly Jewish and sought to portray Jesus and the church in Jewish terms.
The preacher, then, has the task of sorting out the complicated picture of Pharisaism, the Pharisees, Jesus, and the disciples. The preacher has two excellent opportunities. One is to help the listening community not only respect Judaism but to claim its own positive connections with the Jewish spirit. The preacher can help the congregation reclaim its mutual understanding and witness with the Jewish people, while remembering that church and synagogue are distinct, if related, communities. The other opportunity is to help today’s listening community recognize the caricature and polemic at work in the Gospel of Matthew. In the redemptive sense, the preacher can encourage to congregation to criticize Matthew’s misrepresentation on historical and theological grounds. Indeed, in the vein of Advent, the preacher can help the church repent of its anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.
Conflict within the Matthean Community
A fourth field of force is conflict within the congregation. Matthew writes, in part, to address inner community tensions, something that is on the surface of the narrative in Matthew 18, especially 18:15-35.
To be sure, it is difficult to reconstruct dynamics taking place within Matthew’s community, yet the issues that appear in the narrative often seem to me to have correlates in Matthew’s community. Without going into detail, the major issues seem to me to include the following. Members within the congregation disagree over how to interpret Torah in light of the conviction that the Realm of God is moving towards final manifestation, how to incorporate gentiles into the emerging community, how to relate to the synagogue down the street, how to deal pastorally with members whose attitudes and behavior are stumbling blocks to the life and witness of the community, how to relate to the Roman Empire.
With respect to tension in the community, Matthew’s community is much like Christian communities today. A preacher can often make analogies between issues or dynamics in Matthew’s world, and issues and dynamics today. Of course, from issue to issue, dynamic to dynamic, and passage to passage, the contemporary preacher must assess the degree to which Matthew’s theological perspective on an issue is adequate for today’s church and world. I take the eschatological urgency that permeates the First Gospel to suggest that many in the community had lost that sense and perhaps had even drifted into apathy with respect to Christian witness.
Different Force Fields in Different Texts
A preacher needs to identify which force fields are at work in particular texts. The notion of the Realm of God is in the background of nearly every passage of Matthew, and a preacher can almost always explore how Matthew intends for the text to affect the listener’s perceptions of the presence and coming of that Realm (as well as perceptions of how values and practice and circumstances frustrate the manifestation of the Realm).
In some passages, all force forces are present, bumping into one another in ways that are still electric across the centuries. For interpreting many texts, however, one or two force fields are more important than others. Preachers often need to feel their way exegetically, hermeneutically, and theologically in which force fields are most pertinent for particular passages.
I am experimenting with the following questions as a systematic way of identifying issues that are part of the interpretive fields of particular texts. One might think of these questions as a six-sided prism through which to look at particular texts.
- Does the text invite listeners to believe something about presence and future of realm of God? If so, describe. How does Matt want the listening community to respond?
- Does the text criticize Roman Empire? If so, describe. How does Matt want the listening community to respond?
- Does the text presume continuity with Judaism/Pharisaism? If so, describe. How does Matt want the listening community to respond?
- Does text manifest tension with Pharisees? If so describe? How does Matt want the listening community to respond?
- Does the text echo a situation, particularly a conflict, within the Matthean community? If so, describe. How does Matthew want the listening community to respond?
- Compare and contrast with things that Matt believes with the things that you believe. Are elements of Matthew’s perspective abiding? Are elements of Matthew’s perspective in need of criticism?
Two Essential Works for Preaching on Matthew
There are many fine commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, but two seem me to be essential. Russell Pregeant writes from process perspective in his Matthew, in the Chalice Commentaries for Today (Chalice Press, 2004). His earlier classic is still worth consulting: Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew’s Christ in Process Hermeneutic (Augsburg Fortress, 1978). Writing from an existentialist perspective with attention to social emphases is O. Wesley Allen, Jr. Matthew in Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Fortress, 1978). Allen (no relation to me except friendship) writes with the preacher in mind and gives particular attention to passages in the lectionary.
Ron Allen taught preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary from 1982 to 2019. Prior to that, he and his spouse, the Reverend Linda McKiernan-Allen, were co-ministers of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Grand Island, Nebraska. He loves leading Bible studies in congregations.
He has published more than 40 books, most recently: I Will Tell You the Mystery: A Commentary on Preaching from the Book of Revelation (2019). Three of his books are widely used in small group studies in congregations: A Faith of Your Own: Naming What You Really Believe, Reading the New Testament for the First Time, and The Life of Jesus for Today. He was an editor for the pioneering Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Commentary on the Lectionary, which comments on every reading in the lectionary and introduces 22 new Holy Days for Justice (e.g. , Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Peace in the Home, Yom haShoa, Gifts of Sexuality and Gender, Sojourner Truth Day). With O. Wesley Allen, Jr., he urges thinking of preaching as conversation, as in Allen and Allen, The Sermon Without End: A Conversational Approach to Preaching.
Allen and his spouse have five young adult children: Canaan, Genesis, Moriah, Barek, and Sabbath, as well as five grandchildren. He and his family spent summers teaching in Zambia and Jamaica. He has also traveled in Israel, India, South Korea, Belize, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Aruba, Canada, the countries surrounding the Baltic, as well as Mexico, Spain, the Canary Islands, Uruguay, Argentina, Greece, Italy, Croatia, and Antarctica.