Epiphany 3 26th January 2014 Year A
The Gospel of Matthew has begun as a piece of theatre slowly moving forward, building anticipation for the main actor to enter the scene. We have been given that actor’s genealogy, the nativity story and Herodian threat, the journey or exodus into Egypt, the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism by him of Jesus, of which Matthew feels so embarrassed, and finally the withdrawal of Jesus to the wilderness in order to prepare himself for the task at hand. Now the main actor, Jesus enters the scene.
Matthew has an interest in drawing the conflict so sharply. By the time he was writing his gospel circa 85 CE the church had experienced conflict with Rome itself with the empire, especially during the time of Nero, engaged in purges against this infant religion, with its refusal to pay homage to Caesar as divine. Conflict had also grown between the infant Christian church and the Jewish community. It is good to remember that at that stage the majority of the followers of Jesus were Jewish, though after great debate within the early church increasing numbers of Gentiles were being admitted. Both groups, the infant church, and the developing rabbinic Jewish community, saw themselves as the true fulfillment of the Hebraic tradition, recorded both in the Scriptures and the tradition. The gap between the two groups had only grown wider given the events of a few years previous. Those events had seen the sacking and pillage of Jerusalem by the Romans including the total destruction of their temple. Many of the Christians, Jews who had deserted the city, were viewed as traitors. The response of the Jewish community was to reorganize itself and exclude those considered heterodox. Increasingly both groups hurled invective at each other with our gospels, especially those of Matthew and John, being full of that invective hurled by the infant church at its mother faith. Thus so is conflict normative for Matthew’s church with the result he makes that conflict, as something present from the very beginning, clear in his writing of this gospel.
Thus Matthew’s gospel is on one hand the most Jewish of the gospels in seeking to establish that the followers of this Jesus, who in this gospel strongly stands as the fulfillment of the Jewish tradition, are the true inheritors of the ancient faith tradition, while it at the same time is the most anti-Jewish in attempting to show that those who continue in more orthodox forms of Judaism, are actually stumbling in darkness as the descendants of those who killed Jesus. For Matthew the old Israel fallen into darkness has been replaced by a new Israel, the church (his is the only gospel to place the word ‘church’ on Jesus’ lips Matthew 16:18 and 18:17).
Matthew now takes up a quote from Isaiah to show that this new Israel now has a new king. The passage he quotes from Isaiah 9 (the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures set as one of the lectionary readings for today) was one which anticipated a new king or messiah who would come to rule in a manner which would bring forth long held hopes for justice and peace. By speaking in that passage of Zebulun and Naphali, two of the old 12 tribes of Israel, Matthew is claiming that this king messiah has come in Jesus. ‘The people who walk in great darkness have seen a great light.’ The kingdom has come. It is only natural then that Jesus next announces in his first public words, the arrival of this kingdom, this reign of God. ‘Turn away from your sins; the Kingdom of God has come.’ These initial words proclaimed by Jesus repeat those said by John the Baptist as his initial words in this gospel (Matthew 3:2). Both John and Jesus stand in this tradition that the reign of God has come and its coming demands a radical response. One must respond either for or against the reign of God but one can’t stand neutral.
Now of course any Kingdom must contain subjects and with this in mind Matthew’s Gospel now has Jesus begin to call those subjects. Thus Jesus now calls the first four of the twelve disciples he will call to him. This number is clearly symbolic as more than twelve are named across the gospels and there were certainly women, of course not counted, who follow him. The twelve is meant to symbolise the equivalence of this new Israel with that of old with its twelve tribes.
Those that are called are not of course to rest content in the Kingdom. Rather Jesus, using the imagery of being a ‘fisher of people’ calls them to the task of expanding that reign of God. We may have problems with the sudden nature of the response of those called. It seems that they just meet Jesus and suddenly he overwhelms them with some sort of charisma which forces them to follow. Though such happens with gurus and ‘spiritual leaders’ it would hardly seem to be fair, and would diminish Jesus somewhat if he was to operate in this manner. The immediacy of the call and response I am sure is a theological construct rather than an historical fact. It is meant to show the immediacy and urgency of one’s response to the call of Jesus. Matthew heightens and compresses the episode in order to make that point to his readers. This emphasis on the urgency and immediacy of the call of Jesus is strongly evident through Matthew’s gospel. As we see in the case of James and John who leave their father Zebedee in the boat, not even fathers and mothers are to get in the way (Matthew 10:17) while Peter proclaims that the disciples charge that they have left everything to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:27).
What is the decision with which both the disciples then and we now are faced? It is much more than a mere credal confession, to which it has so often been reduced throughout the history of church. The call is far more radical than that. It calls those initial disciples to leave and follow. It still calls us to leave and follow; to leave old ways behind and to live in a radically different way. The way we are to live is to live as subjects of the reign of God, which Jesus comes to announce. This reign of God is clearly at the heart of Jesus’ message. That reign represents a radical challenge to the kingdoms of our world. That is why Matthew after telling us John had been arrested, draws so immediately the conflict brought about by the advent of God’s reign announced by Jesus with those already established kingdoms. We seriously diminish Jesus’ message when we spiritualise it so that it no longer presents that challenge to the values and ways of the world. Of course the conflict it brings tells us that following Jesus entails a cost.
We of course know that the reign of God, the reign of justice, peace, love and compassion, as anticipated by Jesus to come soon after or even during his lifetime, never came about. The early followers of Jesus in response to this delay in the coming of the reign turned to establishing alternative communities which would carry the values encapsulated in Jesus’ message. That community, the church is always challenged with bearing those ‘Jesus values.’ Thus Paul challenges that church with its divisions in Corinth. How can this body supposedly representing Christ be rent asunder by so many conflicts and divisions? There is no place, charges Paul for the egotism which causes such division. Certainly not in a body which claims to follow the one who humbly went to death on a cross. The divisions of the Corinthian church tearing the body of Christ apart to Paul are nothing less than ultimate wrong for they are indicating the body of Christ torn once apart was not enough! This is why division in the church, and I wonder is any institution more marked by gossip and the tearing of each other down than the church, is always unacceptable. The community of Jesus is called instead to a radically different way, that way of Jesus, that way which presents still such a radical challenge to our way of doing and being. This is the call to discipleship issued to Simon Peter, to Andrew, and still issued to us.