Re-Reading the Gospel of Matthew: Expecting the Unexpected

This past year I had the pleasure of teaching two sections of my university’s required introductory theology course, Foundations of Theology: Biblical and Historical, and I am slated to teach it again this fall as a postdoctoral fellow. What I love and hate about the course is its breadth; how am I supposed to introduce the study of theology, the entire Bible, and the important movements of early Christianity in one semester? As a result, I am constantly reworking my approach to particular texts in an attempt to further improve student learning and refine our lectures and discussions. One central pedagogical linchpin in my course, I have found, is the turn from the Old Testament to the New Testament. At that point in the semester the students have just completed their first course unit on the Old Testament and been tested on their knowledge by means of an exam. Having discussed God, creation, human-divine relationship, covenant, sin, salvation, conversion, and so on, the classes feel that they have this theology thing down. And for most of my students, the New Testament marks a return to familiar territory—the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers called Christians—so they think that they’re in for an easy few weeks.

whodoyousay1

From The Borgognonis: http://www.theborgognonis.com

Their next assignment demonstrates this: write a short essay laying out your theological understanding of who Jesus is and the significance of his life and ministry as presented by Christianity. My classes’ response is woefully simplistic: they generally portray Jesus as a great moral teacher in the vein of Moses, a tragic prophetic figure, or a sort of superhero demi-god figure (Arius would be proud). In writing this essay, students have to take a Christological stand and put forward a hypothesis about who they understand Jesus to be. The readings from the New Testament that follow, then, as well as our future readings from early Church writers, will test their theories.

As we read through Matthew, the first gospel in the New Testament canon, my aim is to unsettle their expectations—to have them work through passages that challenge their assumptions about who Jesus is and what Christianity teaches, to press them to pull out deeper theological insights from the Gospels’ claims about who Jesus is than what a surface reading might reveal. My objective at this point in my course is to cause discomfort, upsetting their previous assumptions for the sake of forming them to be more careful readers of scripture and more perceptive students of theology. I do this not out of a sadistic streak but for my students’ pedagogical benefit. I am asking my students to make predictions, which we will then test out in our reading of the Gospel text, and then I offer feedback as we, as a class, work through the passages that contradict or support students’ original theological claims. In the book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, author James M. Lang explains the pedagogical tactic of prediction and its value for both improving students’ critical thinking and information retention. Lang writes:

…when you are forced to make a prediction or give an answer to a question about which you do not have sufficient information, you are compelled to search around for any possible information you might have that could relate to the subject matter and help you make a plausible prediction. That search activates prior knowledge you have about the subject matter and prepares your brain to slot the answer, when you receive it, into a more richly connected network of facts. Prediction helps lay a foundation for richer, more connected knowing.[1]

Lang also recommends a model of Prediction-Exposure-Feedback both for encouraging deeper student learning and for helping students to acknowledge so-called “fluency illusions”—the false impression of having already mastered the methods and material.[2] So, for example, when my students tell me in their essays that Jesus was simply a very wise teacher, after they have read selections from Matthew’s Gospel, I take the time in class to discuss in small groups and as a class the theological depth of the claim of Peter in Matthew 16:16 that Jesus is “the Messiah, Son of the living God.” My goal is not to demonstrate to my students that they know less than they think they know, but to train them to approach the Gospels with a healthy skepticism as to their own mastery of the material and with a willingness to be challenged in their theological assumptions.

Matthew’s Gospel is an ideal text for this approach. Matthew was also trying to speak to his audience’s expectations of who Jesus is and what his message was. So Jesus as portrayed in Matthew repeatedly challenges those who follow him, including his closest disciples, forcing them (as well as Matthew’s audience) to rethink how relationship with God might be lived out and how salvation might be experienced. There are a number of passages in Matthew that, just as they challenge my students in class, confront the theological assumptions of Jesus’ early followers. These are passages that are just as challenging to those of us who follow Jesus today. Just as my students become better theological thinkers by approaching Matthew’s text as a challenge to their views, so too can Christians grow spiritually by reading Matthew’s Gospel expecting the unexpected of Jesus. To illustrate, let’s consider five challenging passages in Matthew with which students frequently struggle and how they defy popular Christian assumptions about who Jesus is and what good news he proclaimed.

As I said, my classes usually put forward hypotheses about Jesus that hint at a surface-level reading of scripture. Since they are also explaining how they understand Jesus according to their understanding of Christian claims, their essays additionally demonstrate the garden-variety popular Christian theology and easy middle class piety that is widespread in American culture. A closer reading of Matthew’s Gospel will not allow for feel-good theology or easy spirituality, however, as the following passages demonstrate.

1. Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth, Mt 1:1-22

Matthew begins his Gospel by tracing the lineage of Jesus back to Abraham, patriarch of the people of Israel. Matthew is placing Jesus firmly within the Jewish context as the long-awaited Son of David, savoir of the people of Israel. For Christians who, for reasons of anti-Semitism, gnostic leanings, or the sake of simplifying our theology, would try to diminish the Jewishness of Jesus, the Gospel of Matthew is a major challenge. This is one of the reasons that the famous heretic Marcion (d. 160 AD) did not include the Gospel of Matthew in his version of the New Testament. Furthermore, tucked into Matthew’s genealogy of important men of the Old Testament, the evangelist includes references to four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. These women were outsiders, sometimes foreigners, whose actions carried out the will of God in circumstances that were considered scandalous, even relating to sexual impropriety. The final woman mentioned in the list of ancestors is, of course, Mary, wife of Joseph, whose own scandalous pregnancy was the result of God becoming incarnate in her womb. What can it mean for Christians to remember that their savior brought about the world’s redemption through scandalous circumstances?

2. The Beatitudes, Mt 5:3-12

blessedarethe

From CatholicMemes.com

Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus proclaims, as well as those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, for their reward, in the Kingdom of Heaven, will be great. This passage can be interpreted ethically—as rules to live by—or eschatologically—as promises to be fulfilled when God reigns over the earth. Either way, the Beatitudes run counter to much of what we hold up in American culture: we celebrate the leaders, the bold, the winners. Jesus here promises God’s everlasting blessings to those who clearly have not enjoyed material blessing on earth: the lowly, the marginalized, the beaten-down, the losers. It is as if Jesus is saying that those who win in the here and now have already received their reward, but those who, in the unfair systems of the game of life, have been dealt a losing card will experience a reward beyond what they could hope for: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is in direct contradiction with the claims of those who preach a Gospel of Prosperity; Jesus here preaches the Good News for those who know no prosperity.

3. Love of Enemies, Mt 5:43-48

Jesus begins this passage by laying out conventional wisdom: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” But Matthew’s Jesus has come to overturn conventional wisdom: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father… For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus is here telling people that holiness—closeness to God—is achieved not by adhering to the conventional ethical standard of loving only those who are good to you. Rather, his followers are challenge to love not according to human standards, but as God loves: indiscriminately, gratuitously, mercifully.

4. The Workers in the Vineyard, Mt 20:1-16

Jesus here lays out the pattern of mercy and justice that is embodied in the kingdom of God in a way that is difficult for most of us to comprehend. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus explains, is like a landowner who hired laborers to work in his vineyard. The landowner promises a day’s wages to those who begin work at dawn, then promises the same wages to those who begin work at mid-morning, then noon, then mid-afternoon, then in the early evening. At the end of the day, all receive the same pay. Those who worked since dawn were unhappy, envious of those who showed up late and were paid the same wage. The landowner explained that the pay was fair and agreed upon—what should it matter if someone else was paid for less work if you have received a fair wage? I have to admit, my students hate this passage. I dislike it as well, which is why I love teaching it. After twenty chapters of Jesus teaching about and exemplifying God’s love, it seems that neither the disciples, Matthew’s audience, nor we today quite get it: the reign of God will be marked by a mercy and justice beyond our simplistic human understanding of what is fair and deserved. Because God’s love is not a love that can be earned. In our mania for meritocracy, where we are conditioned to believe that those who work hard will be justly rewarded according to their merit, not to mention our love of capitalism, we in the United States have a very difficult time accepting such a notion of justice.

5. “Emmanuel”/”I am with you always,” Mt 1:23; 28:20

Matthew begins the story of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth before Jesus is even born, relating the story of Joseph’s prophetic dream about the child in Mary’s womb. Jesus’ birth will bring about the salvation of the people of Israel in the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.” The Gospel of Matthew then concludes with Jesus, gloriously resurrected from the dead, announcing to his disciples, “behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” These two episodes serve as bookends to Matthew’s Gospel, framing the entire text around the assurance that God is with us in a particular way through the incarnation of the Son of God, and that God’s presence is continually assured throughout all of time. Historically, the claim that Jesus ascended into heaven (not attested to in Matthew’s Gospel) seems to imply a sense of God’s departing from us—that those who lived during the time of Jesus experienced his presence and saving action in a way that those of us who have come later cannot know. Perhaps this is part of the urge to seek out “the historical Jesus,” as if recovering “who Jesus really was” would somehow give us a closer connection to him. But perhaps the most challenging Christian claim—beyond the virgin birth, beyond the resurrection of Jesus, beyond even Jesus’ divinity—is that the realization of Emmanuel, God-with-us, is still ongoing, that Jesus Christ is God-still-with-us. And so we are compelled to turn to the Word of God in scripture, the grace of God in sacrament, and the Body of Christ in community to seek out this ongoing presence of God in our midst. But we are a people not satisfied with the ongoing nature of salvation; we grow uneasy, even despairing, with a God who seems to have abandoned us and we grow impatient waiting for a savior whose promised return seems a long time coming.

 

Pedagogically, then, the Gospel of Matthew functions as an important turning point in my course and the method of prediction in teaching Matthew serves to help my students to think more deeply about Jesus, comparing and contrasting him as presented in Matthew and as presented in popular culture and popular Christian piety. But beyond mere pedagogy and theological training, the approach of prediction can be a helpful means to spiritual and moral conversion. If we read Matthew (or any of the Bible) with a hermeneutic of expecting the unexpected, how much more open will we be to being challenged by the Word of God? How much more willing to be shaped by God’s commands will we be if we approach God’s Word—written in Scripture and proclaimed in liturgy—as full of surprises?

Can we continue to call Jesus merely a wise teacher after reading Matthew? Can we downplay his Jewish context after the Genealogy? Can we continue to hold up a Gospel of Prosperity and Positive Thinking after the Sermon on the Mount? Can we go on claiming that God does not promise to those who are oppressed and marginalized that they have special favor with God? Can we go on pretending that our God is a god of winners, our Christ is a champion of those in power, our Christian morality is an easy, logical moral code? Can we pretend that our promised salvation will be a reward that follows our limited human understanding of justice and fairness? Reading Matthew should break down our easy piety and simple theology and it should create in us unease. Matthew’s Gospel is intended to tear down our false images of Jesus and to disrupt our narrow notions of God’s justice and mercy. Believer or unbeliever, Catholic or Protestant, Conservative or Liberal, Urban or Rural, Educated or Uneducated, Republican or Democrat, First World or Third World, Rich or Poor, Gentile or Jew, Woman or Man, Black, White, Brown: there is much in Matthew to unsettle all of us. And, if we are willing to approach the Gospels expecting the unexpected, there is much to transform our faith as well.

[1] James M. Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016), 49.

[2] Lang, 57.

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2 responses to “Re-Reading the Gospel of Matthew: Expecting the Unexpected

  1. Pingback: Story-Telling with Luke: Transforming Our Personal and Collective Narratives | Daily Theology·

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