Since John the Kingdom of God

Picture of protestorsby Herb Montgomery

“It’s one thing to mistake something bad as good. It’s quite another to mistake the Sprit’s work of liberating and re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized and objectified as an evil that should be opposed. This is the sin that is ‘unpardonable.’”

Featured Text:

“The law and the prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is violated and the violent oppose it.” (Q 16:16)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:12-13: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”

Luke 16:16: “The law and the prophets were until John; from that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every one useth violence towards it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fall.” (Douay-Rheims)

The Law and the Prophets

I have to confess that I used to interpret this passage differently than I do today. Growing up in a sector of Christianity that taught replacement theology, I interpreted this passage to mean that the Kingdom superseded the “Law and the Prophets.” I no longer believe that. Jesus was a Jew. He was never a Christian. As my friend Charlie Kraybill is fond of saying:

“Where did Jesus get his inspiration? From the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, of course. Little of what Jesus said was original with him. His genius was not so much in the substance of his sayings as in the way he curated his source material, the methodology he used for selecting what to highlight and what to leave on the shelf. And Jesus left a lot on the shelf. He ignored the negative qualities attributed to Yahweh: the wrath, the retribution, the jealousy, the rage, the pettiness. He also ignored Yahweh’s military exploits, the occasions where God was portrayed as siding with one tribe over other tribes on the battlefield. Jesus knew, intuitively, that stories of Yahweh behaving badly were projections of the humans who had written the texts. He understood that “Yahweh the Warrior” is a literary character, created by the scribes for their patriotic tales of Israel’s glorious past. At the same time, Jesus resonated with Yahweh’s noblest qualities: mercy, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, non-judgment, etc. He scoured the scrolls for passages where God is shown in the best light. These became Jesus’s favorite passages. They inspired his philosophy of conciliation, affirmation, and pacifism. Because Jesus was confident that the God who really exists — the Source of All Truth and Beauty in the Universe — is conciliatory, affirming, and non-violent. All the time. Any teachings or texts that contradict the mercy and compassion of God carry no weight. It was a radical perspective for a marginal Jew from the Galilean hinterlands, yet it’s the perspective that has made Jesus such a provocative and inspirational figure for the past two millennia.” (Marginal Mennonite Society)

The teachings that have been attributed to the historical Jesus are deeply Jewish. Here are a few examples of where we see Jesus’s teachings directly influenced by his Judaism:

Leviticus 19:17: “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but rather love your neighbor as yourself.”

Deuteronomy 4:31: “God is merciful. God will neither abandon you nor destroy you.”

Deuteronomy 15:11: “Open your hand to the poor and needy.”

Psalms 37:26: “The righteous are always giving liberally and lending.”

Psalms 103:8: “God is merciful, gracious, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Psalms 145:9: “God is good to All. God’s compassion is over all that God has made.”

Psalms 147:9: “God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.”

Proverbs 20:22: “Do not say ‘I will repay evil.’ Wait for God and God will help you.”

Proverbs 23:4-5: “Don’t wear yourself out to get rich. Be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone, for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”

Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat. If they are thirsty, water to drink.”

Proverbs 29:13: “The poor and the oppressor have this in common: God gives light to the eyes of both.”

Isaiah 44:22: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.”

Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I won’t forget you.”

Jeremiah 31:34: “I will forgive your iniquities, and remember your sins no more.”

Lamentations 3:30: “It is good to give one’s cheek to the smiter and be filled with insults.”

These verses show that Jesus’s vision for humanity (the kingdom) grew from these seeds found in the Law and the Prophets.

The Violation of Violence

In the second phrase of this week’s saying, “the kingdom of God is violated and the violent plunder it,” I hear Jesus speaking of the violence of the establishment’s opposition. In every version of the Jesus story in the gospels, the established social and political order responded violently to Jesus’s social vision. Mark, held by many as the earliest gospel, also describes violence as an early response to Jesus. In chapter three, “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (Mark 3:6).

Ched Myers explains that this violence is “the bottom line of the power of the state.”

“Fear of [the threat of death] keeps the dominant order intact. By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to the shattering of the power’s reign of death in history. To concede the state’s sovereignty in death is to refuse its authority in life.” (Binding the Strong Man, A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus)

This may sound like fatalistic nihilism, but it’s not. It’s the realization that sometimes protest and resistance come at the very high price of having to endure violence from the establishment.

Rome used crucifixion as political or military punishment inflicted on the lower classes and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces like Galilee and Judea. Crucifixion was reserve primarily for people who, in Roman society, had no rights. These were groups whose organizing had to be suppressed by whatever means necessary to ensure law and order within the state. As we have often said in this series, those in power will use violence when they feel threatened. Stand up anyway.

Reassurance

Luke assures Jesus’s followers facing the threat of violence: it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fall. Luke harmonizes Jesus’s teachings with the Torah, especially his teachings on debt cancellation and wealth redistribution. Jesus’s “kingdom” teachings were not anti-Torah, and in the 1st Century, assurances rooted in comparisons to the endurance of the earth held more meaning than they do today.

Today we are living in the midst of climate breakdown and realizing that the moral arc of the universe only bends toward justice if we choose to bend it that way. So today I would use different rhetoric than Jesus did to inspire people to keep hoping and to keep working despite the fact that there is violent pushback. We must work for justice anyway. The fact that we are all connected and share each other’s fate should make us engage with more intent, not less. As Alice Walker has said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Contemporary Displays of Violence Against Liberation

Those in positions of power and privilege accused Jesus’s liberation ministry of being demonic. He responded by defining that accusation as blasphemy. Juan Luis Segundo writes, “Blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable . . . What is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with ‘theological’ joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes” (in Capitalism Versus Socialism: Crux Theologica).

It’s one thing to mistake something bad as good. It’s quite another to mistake the Sprit’s work of liberating and re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized and objectified as an evil that should be opposed. This is the sin that is “unpardonable.” Ched Myers echoes Segundo when he writes, “To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.”

This past week, Evangelical Christians once again engaged in violence against fellow Image-bearers. As in the days of Christian genocide of Native peoples, or enslavement of Africans, or objections to equal treatment of women, a group of Christians are again on the wrong side of history. The Coalition for Biblical Sexuality has repeated the anti-LGBT activism of the 1980s with a 14-article statement of bigotry signed by Evangelical Christian leaders including James Dobson, John Piper, John MacArthur, and Francis Chan. This document has been titled the Nashville Statement, although the Mayor of Nashville has made it clear that Nashville had absolutely nothing to do with it.

You can read it if you’d like, but you also don’t need to. It’s the same fear-driven, hateful rhetoric that has inspired violence toward the LGBTQ community throughout history. The Christian privileged elite has never been short of Biblical justifications for their oppression, exclusion, marginalization and dehumanization of socially vulnerable people.

Renewed Heart Ministries rejects the Nashville Statement in its entirety. We recognize and affirm our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming community members as fellow image-bearers, as sacred, as being fully human and deserving our respect, of love, and justice. Objectification and dehumanization is violence. And in response to this violence we join our voices and our actions with all those saying “No” to efforts such as these.

If you are reading this and are part of the LGBTQ community, you are holy. You are worthy. You are valuable. And you are not alone.

The outcry against this document on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook was swift and stern demonstrating a turning of the tide in our society. These are steps that must be taken as we together work to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for us all. There is still a lot of work to be done. And I am committed to that work.

Maybe this week’s saying can offer us some encouragement as we stand up to violence, bigotry and fear. The narrative of violence has been repeated over and over throughout history. We learn from the stories of Jesus in the gospels that God was not aligned with those placing others on crosses but in solidarity with the one they crucified for standing with the marginalized and calling for change.

We are not alone today. We are in the right story. If nothing else, may this give a little comfort, and encourage you to keep going.

“The law and the prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is violated and the violent oppose it.” (Q 16:16)

Heart Group Application

This week I want you to do something simple. As Oscar Romero wrote in The Long View, “That is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.” Gandhi also wrote similarly, “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

In times like this, we must remember we are each other’s keeper.

This week at your HeartGroup meeting, go around the room and say something you value and appreciate about each person in the group. Make sure no person is left out, and encourage one another. When there are those who are continually endeavoring to tear us down, we must take the time to build each other back up.
Go home and journal some of the things that others said to you during this exercise and read from those pages when you need to be reminded how valuable you really are.

Wherever you are this week, know you are loved, you are fully human, and you are worthy. I’m so glad you checked in with us. Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

We are making a difference and weeks like last week only demonstrate that. If there weren’t folks threatened by change, they wouldn’t be acting out of such desperation.

Thank you to each of you supporting our work. To support Renewed Heart Ministries directly, you can go to http://bit.ly/RHMSupport

or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

If you are new to RHM, find out more about us at http://bit.ly/WhoIsRHM

So glad you’re journeying with us.
I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Judgment over Jerusalem

grave yard with lanterns lit

by Herb Montgomery

“Every day we each face the choice of whether to work toward a new inclusive community or not. What can we learn from this week’s saying? It’s not just a lamentation for 1st Century Jerusalem . . . It’s a lamentation that applies to all communities when justice-rooted social change is seen as a threat and those with the power to make change would rather silence the voices calling for it.”

Featured Text:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her nestlings under her wings, and you were not willing! Look, your house is forsaken! I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when‚ you say: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Q 13:34-35)

Companion Text:

Matthew 23:37-39: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Luke 13:34-35: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

In our saying this week, social location couldn’t matter more! This text has historically been at the heart of anti-Semitism (hostility to or hatred of Jews) and Christian supersessionism (the teaching that Christians replace Jews as God’s chosen people). But every Christian who reads this saying should remember that Jesus was a Jew. He was never a Christian. A member of a subjugated community could perhaps speak to their community this way. But if you, like me, are outside that group, it would be inappropriate for us to do so.

With this saying, Jesus stood in the long Hebrew prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. Jerusalem and the temple had become the seat of the aristocracy around which a political and economically exploitative system revolved. So this week’s saying is not about pitting Christianity against Judaism: it’s not a religious discussion. It’s a socio-economic, political statement, and very much part of the world of the Jewish 1st Century community.

Jesus, remember, was a 1st Century, Jewish prophet of the poor. We can ask what his teachings might offer us today in our work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and liberation. But we must first listen to what these sayings might have meant in their original context.

Prophets proclaiming the “desolation” of the Jewish nation had a long history and was often linked to social justice:

Isaiah 3:8: “Jerusalem staggers, Judah is falling; their words and deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence.”

Jeremiah 1:15: “‘I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the LORD. ‘Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem; they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah.’”

Jeremiah 4:14: Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?”

Jeremiah 5:1: “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.”

Jeremiah 8:5: “Why then have these people turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away? They cling to deceit; they refuse to return.”

Ezekiel 4:7, 16: “Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her . . . He then said to me: ‘Son of man, I am about to cut off the food supply in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair.’”

Ezekiel 12:19: “Say to the people of the land: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says about those living in Jerusalem and in the land of Israel: They will eat their food in anxiety and drink their water in despair, for their land will be stripped of everything in it because of the violence of all who live there.’”

Not one of these above passages by Hebrew prophets should be considered anti-Semitic. Often, after the Hebrew prophets strongly opposed injustices taking place in Jerusalem, they would offer Jerusalem words of comfort:

Isaiah 51:17: “Awake, awake! Rise up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes people stagger.”

Isaiah 52:1, 9: “Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive… Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 62:1: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.”

Isaiah 64:10: “Your sacred cities have become a wasteland; even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation.”

Isaiah 65:18, 19: “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”

Isaiah 66:10, 13: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her… As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 66:20: “‘And they will bring all your people, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD—on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,’ says the LORD. ‘They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels.’”

These passages don’t promote supersessionism. They are part of the Hebrew tradition of Jewish prophets critiquing social injustice, and there is nothing necessarily anti-Jewish or supersessionist in Jesus’ societal critique of his own society either.

Jesus called the subjugated of his day to nonviolent forms of resistance. As we’ve seen in previous weeks, to follow the path of violent resistance under the watchful eye of Rome would invite a backlash that would wipe out everything for everyone. Jesus saw nonviolence as the only option the people had to resist and still live to enjoy the liberation their resistance had accomplished. Jesus did call his oppressed audience (Luke 4:18-19) to do something where they could, and, when they couldn’t, to make those who could deeply uncomfortable until they did (see Matthew 5:39-41).

He also called the Jewish elite to liquidate their assets in radical wealth redistribution, debt cancellation, and resource sharing that would have been economically healing to the poor. (Luke 19; Matthew 19:21) Had the people been dedicated to nonviolent forms of resistance and power- and resource-sharing as Jesus taught, they could have prevented Jerusalem’s poor people’s revolt, the Jewish Roman war of 66-69 C.E., and Jerusalem’s utter destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.

I believe Jesus saw a coming crisis, and his love for his own society moved him to warn them and work to set them on a different path. This is what I see happening in this week’s saying.

Jesus longs to protect Jerusalem from the Roman Eagle the way a hen covers her chicks to prevent birds of prey from attacking them. The elites are unwilling to listen. If only the aristocracy had led the way in the reparations Jesus was calling for (Luke 19:8 cf. 12:33), the poor might have never have had to make a decision between violent or nonviolent revolt three decades later. Who knows where those difference choices might have led Jesus’ society.

Last we see Jesus planning to leave and not return until the people affirm, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Nothing in this text requires us to interpret Jesus as meaning, “I’m going to heaven and you won’t see me until I return in vengeance.” No. Jesus is actually quoting Psalms 118:25-26:

“YHWH, save us! [Hosanna!] YHWH, grant us success! [Hosanna!] Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.”

Traditionally, Jews recite this passage during the third pilgrimage festival, Sukkot, the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles. They do not quote it during Passover, the festival underway at this point in the Jesus story. Sukkot is six months after Passover. So Jesus could have simply been planning to leave Jerusalem (desolate) and not return to the city until the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. He never got to fulfill that promise: instead of returning during Sukkot, Jesus completes his temple protest and is arrested and crucified six days later.

Stoning the prophets is nothing new. Every society, culture, and community has a long history of removing those who choose to speak up, stand in solidarity with those pushed to the edges, and call for change.

I know something of this myself.

Over the last six months, I’ve spent hours talking with pastors whose churches have invited me to speak around the US. These pastors have had to cancel my seminars at the last minute, even though, in some cases, they’ve been waiting for me to speak for years! One head elder’s congregation had been on the waiting list for three years before they were forced to cancel. The elder told me, “The journey to know God is not always easy.”

My seminars are being cancelled by church gatekeepers who are afraid. They’re afraid of conversations that might challenge or change their members. Pastors and congregations across the country want our ministry and message to come to them: they’ve invited me to speak and they want to learn. But gatekeepers are standing in the way.

In one town this year, when a pastor refused to cancel an invitation to me, a few well-funded critics used their conference ministerial department, which employed their pastor, to strong-arm that pastor. These people threatened to stop tithing to their conference if I was allowed to speak in their church! The conference president told me that they wanted to have me, but couldn’t risk losing their members’ tithes and would have to hope for another opportunity in the future.

Change is scary for some people. But changes that help us to make our communities a safer, just, more compassionate home for everyone should be leaned into, not run from, even if they’re scary.

So this fall we’re taking our educational weekends on the road! We’ll hold weekend seminars in areas where we’re desperately wanted and we’ll do it without having to go through gatekeepers.

We’ll be hosting face-to-face weekend events all across the nation starting this August in Asheville, NC. We’re really excited!

You can find out more about this new project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re making this change, how you can help to make these new events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come to your area for a weekend.

A friend of Renewed Heart Ministries signed up to be one of the first 500 supporters. Last week, he was lamenting that I was finally going to be teaching in the next state over from him during the very week he and his wife were going on their family vacation. I wish you could have seen the lights turn on for him when I said, “Well let’s look at what it would take to have a weekend event in your town, too! All we need to find is a place to rent for the weekend.” He’s considering possible venues now!

Every day we each face the choice of whether to work toward a new inclusive community or not. What can we learn from this week’s saying? It’s not just a lamentation for 1st Century Jerusalem. It can also address any community where exploitation and inequity forces those on the undersides and margins to feel as if violent revolt is their only hope. It’s a lamentation that applies to all communities when justice-rooted social change is seen as a threat and those with the power to make change would rather silence the voices calling for it.

It’s a solemn and sad saying that should give each of us pause.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her nestlings under her wings, and you were not willing! Look, your house is forsaken! I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when‚ you say: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Q 13:34-35)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, write down three ways that HeartGroups have been a safe place for you to grow, learn, practice community, and deepen your understanding of how Jesus’s teachings can inform our work today of survival, resistance, and liberation.
  2. Share your list with your HeartGroup. Let the other members know what they’ve meant to you!
  3. Discuss how else your group can be formed by your desire to make this space available to others, too. What would it look like to make your HeartGroup a safe space for someone not like you?

Our new HeartGroups page is finally on our website at http://www.rhmheartgroups.com. Feel free to check it out and let us know what you think! Also keep those testimonies of how your HeartGroup has impacted you coming in. We’ll be adding them to the page soon.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation, and thriving!

Together we are making a difference.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love you all.

I’ll see you next week.

A New Liberator (Part 2 of 3)

The Subversive Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3) 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Our title this week is “A ‘New’ Liberator.” The title doesn’t imply that “new” means better or that “old” is bad. What we’ll see this week is that the “new” kind of liberation that Jesus brought varied from the approaches of the past. In Matthew’s birth-narrative, Jesus is a contemporary “Moses”: not a replacement, supersession, or denigration of the original Moses, but rather a contemporary expression of what Moses stood for in the minds and hearts of first century Jewish Christians.

First, let’s say a word about Matthew’s gospel itself. Matthew combines Sayings Gospel Q (Jewish copies of the Jesus Story) and Mark’s Gospel (Gentile copies of the Jesus Story). As the Jewish and Gentile sectors of Christianity blended, the Jewish-Gentile gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. Matthew combined the Jewish Sayings Q and the Gentile Gospel of Mark for the Jewish Christians population of Galilee. Luke/Acts combines Sayings Q (Jewish) and Mark’s Gospel (Gentile) for the much larger population of Gentile Christians (see The Gospel of Jesus by James M. Robinson).

So Matthew’s gospel is a much more “Jewish” telling of the Jesus story. This background helps us to understand Matthew’s gospel emphasis on the significance of Jesus being the renewed Moses.

Let’s look at Matthew’s parallels:

The Pentateuch

The Pentateuch is the Greek term for the “five scrolls” of the Torah. In the first century and still in traditional Judaism, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were and are attributed to Moses.

Matthew draws our attention to these five sacred books repeatedly in his gospel. First, many scholars see the entire gospel of Matthew as framed by five discourses:

  1. The Discourse from the Mount (Matthew 5-7)
  2. Missional Discourse (Matthew 10-11)
  3. Parabolic (of the “Kingdom”) Discourse (Matthew 13)
  4. Communal (Community of Jesus Followers) Discourse (Matthew 18-19)
  5. Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25)

 

Mathew uses the number “five” in other ways as well, especially in his birth narrative. The birth narrative itself is composed of five scenes.

  1. The Conception of Jesus and Joseph’s Dilemma (Matthew 1:18-24)
  2. The Wise men and Herod (Matthew 2:1-8)
  3. Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:9-12)
  4. The Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight in Egypt to Escape (Matthew 2:13-18)
  5. Return from Egypt and Move to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-21)

And Matthew’s birth-narrative is built on five fulfillments.

  1. Conception—“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” —Matthew 1:22
  2. Birthplace—In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‚for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”” —Matthew 2:5-6
  3. Egypt—“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” —Matthew 2:14-15
  4. Infanticide—“Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” —Matthew 2:17-18
  5. Nazareth—“And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” —Matthew 2:23

Lastly, Matthew outlines his birth-narrative with five dreams.

  1. To Joseph—“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream . . .” —Matthew 1:20
  2. To the Magi—“And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” —Matthew 2:12
  3. To Joseph—“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” —Matthew 2:13
  4. To Joseph— “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt . . .” —Matthew 2:19-20
  5. To Joseph—“[Having] been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.” — Matthew 2:22

In a first century context, each of these repetitions reinforce that connection to the Pentateuch and, therefore, to Moses.

Law Giver

There’s another way Matthew’s gospel connects Jesus to Moses: the gospel shows Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a “new” law for the people. As Moses gave instruction on Mt. Sinai, Jesus also ascends a “mountain side” to give instruction (Matthew 5:1). And the Torah plays a significant role in Jesus’ instruction on his contemporary “Mt. Sinai.”

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5. 21-26)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’… But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…” (Matthew 5.27-30)

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery…” (Matthew 5.31- 32)

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely.’… But I say to you, Do not swear at all…” (Matthew 5.33-37)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye.’… But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…” (Matthew 5:38-42)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall… hate your enemy.’… But I say to you, Love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-48)

Our focus this week is not merely Jesus as Lawgiver in the way of Moses, but Jesus as Liberator in the way of Moses. Matthew introduces this Jesus in his birth-narrative in such a way as to draw our imaginations to Jesus as representing Israel’s liberation from a contemporary “Egypt.”

Slaying of Innocents

There is no more obvious parallel between Matthew’s birth-narrative of Jesus and the ancient Jewish birth-narrative of Moses than the slaying of the innocents in Matthew 2.

As early Jewish Jesus followers listened to Herod’s order to “kill” all the “males” in and around Bethlehem (Matthew 2.16), they would no doubt have remembered the story of Moses’ birth:

“Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile . . .’” (Exodus 1.22)

This connection lays the foundation for the most fascinating parallel of Jesus to Moses in Matthew’s birth narrative, as we are about to see.

 

Jewish Midrash

This is where Matthew’s birth narrative becomes the most interesting to me. The primary audience for Matthew’s birth narrative would have been the Galilean Jewish Christian community. Being Jews as well as Christians, they would have been familiar with the Jewish midrash surrounding Moses’ birth. Midrashic stories are retellings of the ancient narratives that expand on the originals or add commentaries to answer questions that intelligent listeners or readers may have asked about the ancient text.

Through the Jewish midrash on Moses’ birth, Matthew’s birth-narrative might take on a whole new understanding for you. I’m going to move very slowly so I don’t lose you.

The most significant question that intelligent Jewish listeners asked about ancient birth-narratives of Moses was, “Why did those Jewish parents continue having children if they knew their newborn males would be doomed to certain death? Why did they keep having children?”

The Jewish midrash surrounding Moses’ birth sought to answer this question as we’ll see. But also notice that both the midrash about Moses and the gospel of Matthew share the following elements: 1) sending wives away 2) receiving a Divine revelation 3) re-uniting with wives. Matthew used these three elements from the Moses story in his own. Watch for the pattern of sending away, revelation, and reuniting:

Book of Biblical Antiquities, Pseudo-Philo, 9:1-10:

Sending Away:

Then the elders of the people gathered the people together in mourning [and said]…“ Let us set up rules for ourselves that a man should not approach his wife… until we know what God may do.” And Amram answered and said…“ I will go and take my wife, and I will not consent to the command of the king; and if it is right in your eyes, let us all act in this way.”

Revelation 1: 

And the strategy that Amram thought out was pleasing before God. And God said…“ He who will be born from him will serve me forever.”

Re-Uniting:

And Amram of the tribe of Levi went out and took a wife from his own tribe. When he had taken her, others followed him and took their own wives….

Revelation 2: 

And this man had one son and one daughter; their names were Aaron and Miriam. And the spirit of God came upon Miriam one night, and she saw a dream and told it to her parents in the morning, saying: I have seen this night, and behold a man in a linen garment stood and said to me, “Go and say to your parents, ‘Behold he who will be born from you will be cast forth into the water; likewise through him the water will be dried up. And I will work signs through him and save my people, and he will exercise leadership always.’” And when Miriam told of her dream, her parents did not believe her.

(Quoted from our textbook, The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan)

In Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities we have a variation of the pattern, “perplexity” and “revelation”:

Perplexity:

Amaram(es), a Hebrew of noble birth, fearing that the whole race would be extinguished through lack of the succeeding generation, and seriously anxious on his own account because his wife was with child, was in grievous perplexity. He accordingly had recourse to prayer to God….

Revelation: 

And God had compassion on him and, moved by his supplication, appeared to him in his sleep, exhorted him not to despair of the future, and told him that…“ This child, whose birth has filled the Egyptians with such dread that they have condemned to destruction all the offspring of the Israelites, shall indeed be yours; he shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and, reared in a marvelous way, he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt, and be remembered, so long as the universe shall endure, not by Hebrews alone but even by alien nations.” (2.210– 11)

In the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Targum of Jerusalem I, we only have the “sending away” and “re-uniting” elements:

Sending Away and Re-Uniting: 

And Amram, a man of the tribe of Levi, went and returned to live in marriage with Jochebed his wife, whom he had put away on account of the decree of Pharaoh. And she was the daughter of a hundred and thirty years when he returned to her; but a miracle was wrought in her, and she returned unto youth as she was, when in her minority she was called the daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and bore a son at the end of six months.

The last midrashic example endured as far as a Jewish medieval collection known as Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs.

Sending Away: 

When the Israelites heard this command of Pharaoh to cast their males into the river, some of the people separated from their wives, while others remained with them…. When, however, the word of the king and his decree became known respecting the casting of their males into the river, many of God’s people separated from their wives, as did Amram from his wife.

Revelation: 

After the lapse of three years the Spirit of God came upon Miriam, so that she went forth and prophesied in the house, saying, “Behold, a son shall be born to my mother and father, and he shall rescue the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians.”

Re-Uniting: 

When Amram heard his young daughter’s prophecy he took back his wife, from whom he had separated in consequence of Pharaoh’s decree to destroy all the male line of the house of Jacob.

At the birth of Moses this midrash announces, “The whole house was at that moment filled with a great light, as the light of the sun and the moon in their splendour.”

Now, let’s look for these same elements in Matthew’s birth-narrative about Jesus.

Sending Away:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to send her away her quietly.

Divine Revelation:

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Re-Uniting:

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

(Matthew 1.18-24, emphasis added.)

Notice that in the Jewish midrashic tradition about Moses, the birth-narratives focus primarily on Moses’ father, Amram. Contrary to Luke’s gospel, which focuses on Elizabeth and Mary, Matthew’s narrative does the opposite and focuses entirely on Joseph and his experience. For Matthew, Joseph is the new Amram.

Matthew’s birth-narrative is clear: Jesus is a new Moses; Herod, a tool of the Roman empire, is a new Pharaoh, and a new Exodus is dawning on the horizon with all the meaning and hope that expectation would have possessed for Matthew’s Jewish Christian listeners.

We have one more, brief, connection to Moses to compare.

The Magi and the King of the Jews

Herod’s imperial title was “King of the Jews.” Unlike Mark and John, Matthew does not refer to Jesus with the Davidic title of “King of Israel.” Matthew is very intentional in applying Herod’s Roman title, “King of the Jews,” to his Jesus.

And asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:2 (Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. Matthew 27:11 (Emphasis added.)

And then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. Matthew 27:29 (Emphasis added.)

Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Matthew 27:37 (Emphasis added.)

From a Jewish perspective, especially for Matthew and other Jewish Christians living in Galilee, no title for Jesus could have been more anti-Herodian and thereby also anti-Roman than King of the Jews. They were keenly aware of what it meant to live in Herod’s territory and claim his titles.

Matthew skillfully links the grinding of Roman imperialism against the hopes and dreams of first century Judaism with the ancient grinding of Egyptian imperialism against the liberation of Hebrew slaves. Matthew’s placement for Jesus is as the new Moses at the center this liberation.

Matthew’s subversive use of “Kings of the Jews” also helps us understand the role that the magi (magicians or wise men) play in Matthew’s birth-narrative.

Let’s take one more look at the Jewish midrash about Moses’s birth. The three story elements that surface in these midrash are 1) dream/revelation, 2) fear, and 3) interpretation/advice.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Targum of Jerusalem I on Exodus 1– 2:

Dream: 

“And Pharaoh told that he, being asleep, had seen in his dream, and, behold, all the land of Egypt was placed in one scale of a balance, and a lamb, the young of a sheep, was in the other scale; and the scale with the lamb in it overweighed.”

Interpretation: 

“Forthwith he sent and called all the magicians of Mizraim, and imparted to them his dream. Immediately Jannis and Jambres, the chief of the magicians, opened their mouth and answered Pharaoh: A certain child is about to be born in the congregation of Israel, by whose hand will be destruction to all the land of Egypt.”

Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities:

Revelation: 

“While they were in this plight, a further incident had the effect of stimulating the Egyptians yet more to exterminate our race. One of the sacred scribes— persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future— announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown.”

Fear: 

“Alarmed thereat, the king…”

Advice: 

“…on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river.” (2.205-6)

Sefer ha-Zikhronot, or Book of Memoirs:

Dream: 

“In the 130th year after the Israelites had gone down to Egypt, Pharaoh dreamt a dream. While he was sitting on the throne of his kingdom he lifted up his eyes, and beheld an old man standing before him. In his hand he held a pair of scales as used by merchants. The old man then took the scales and, holding them up before Pharaoh, he laid hold of all the elders of Egypt and its princes, together with all its great men, and, having bound them together, placed them in one pan of the scales. After that he took a milch goat, and, placing it on the other pan, it outweighed all the others. Pharaoh then awoke, and it was a dream.”

Fear:

“Rising early next morning, he called all his servants, and told them the dream. They were sorely frightened by it…”

Interpretation:

“And one of the king’s eunuchs said, “This is nothing else than the foreboding of a great evil about to fall upon Egypt.” On hearing this the king said to the eunuch, “What will it be?” And the eunuch replied, “A child will be born in Israel, who will destroy all the land of Egypt. If it is pleasing to the king, let the royal command go forth in all the land of Egypt that every male born among the Hebrews should be slain, so that this evil be averted from the land of Egypt.”

Matthew uses these three midrashic story elements (revelation/dream, fear, interpretation/advice) in his parallel birth-narrative of Jesus:

Revelation:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

Fear:

“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Advice/Interpretation:

“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,‘ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written….’” (Matthew 2:1-5)

Note a few things. First, Matthew’s narrative doesn’t match the dream of Pharaoh with a dream of Herod. Matthew seems to reserve all divine revelation (the five dreams) for the heroes of his story. Because Herod is playing the villainous role of Pharaoh, no divine vision is awarded him and he only receives a revelation through the arriving magi. This is why, although it seems counter-intuitive to us that the magi would need to stop and ask directions—they’ve been following a star—they must stop and meet Herod. Their announcement to Herod provides the story element of Herod’s “revelation.” The magi must initiate the narrative parallel of “fear” and “advice.”

Second, in Matthew’s stories we witness a literary reversal of the magi themselves. In the Jewish tradition, magicians (magi) and wise men provide the advice/interpretation as Pharaoh’s servants. But in Matthew’s birth-narrative, the magi aren’t the servants of the new “Pharaoh” (Herod); they have instead come to offer gifts and worship to the new “Moses” (Jesus). Why this deviation?

This is the core of what’s truly subversive about Matthew’s birth-narrative. The magi do not recognize Herod as the rightful “King of the Jews.” They have come from the east, following a westward-leading star (see Numbers 24.17), bringing gifts and to worship the rightful “King of the Jews,” a child named Jesus.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.”

The First Christmas, Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic. (p. 37).

HeartGroup Application

Matthew’s birth-narrative envisions Jesus as the new Moses who initiates a new exodus out of empire and liberates his followers from injustice, violence, and oppression. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are deeply political, but not in the sense that many think of it today. The “politics” of the gospels is not a foaming-at-the-mouth pursuit of top positions in a secular government.

Rather, the Jesus narratives deeply subvert any political domination system that seeks to subjugate the many for the benefit of a few. These stories are more than personal or private: they are deeply politically subversive as well. The early Jesus community was becoming a new human society, a counter-society, and a common-wealth quite literally rooted in the sayings/teachings of Jesus. As such it not only made personal differences in the lives of Jesus followers, but it also confronted systemic injustice as well. Beginning in January, we’ll be looking at the saying/teachings (sayings Q) included in the Matthew narrative.

But for now, during this holiday season, let’s focus on our own American Empire:

1) In your HeartGroup, discuss together how understanding these parallels to Moses in Matthew affect your reading of the Christmas story.

2) Discuss what affect the reading of Mathew’s birth-narrative would have if we applied this story not only to Egypt (Moses) and Rome (Jesus and his followers), but to America today (us) and the liberation of those groups who are the subjugated in our contemporary domination system.

3) Together, begin reading Luke 1-2 as preparation for next week.

Happy holidays to each of you.  I know this week’s eSight is long.  If you made it all the way through you are amazing!

Remember, Matthew’s Jesus is a new liberator from all things that keep us from being fully human. (I feel like we should all go listen to Maddy Prior and The Carnival band’s Coventry Carol now.)

I love each of you, dearly.  I’m grateful that you are here, participating in this series.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I’ll see you next week.