An Introduction To Matthew
I read a poem on Easter Sunday from Wendell Berry, the famous farmer philosopher, author and activist that says in-part,
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns…
…Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
“Friends, every day do something that won’t compute.” That’s how we practice resurrection, live a new life. Yet we must ask, “Something that won’t compute with what?” The common and cultural sense of: our day and age, our personality and aspirations, our identity and purpose? That seems to be the exhortation of Berry, and I think the nature of Jesus, especially in the book of Matthew. Almost every story and interaction a practice in doing or saying something that won’t compute.
When I am honest, with myself and others, following Jesus in the ways of Jesus is intimidating; precisely because he confounds what sense is common to me. The commonsense I was raised with in family and faith, is that the best life is a righteous life, a life lived rightly. That my calling depended upon my living. Yet, Jesus says that,
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt. 9:12-13)
I don’t think Jesus means that I am not intended to live rightly in relationship to the Father and others, but I think he may be saying that what he expects of me and what I expect of such a life might just be different. Here is another, perhaps more confounding example. Most of us would agree that a key component of Jesus’ gospel message is the restoration of peace, shalom, the reconciling of God, human kind and all the earth to a good relationship; right? After all, doesn't the angels declare on the night of his arrival, “Peace on earth, good will among men” (Lk. 2:14)? Yet, Jesus says this in Matthew 10,
Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Confusing, right?! Did he or did he not come into the world to make all things new, to make all things better? Swords, family breakups, criminal condemnation do not sound like a better life; much less a life or worth, of value. So what is Jesus saying and doing? Why is he not computing?
We often travel through the stories of Jesus carrying with us all sorts of baggage—some of which are the normal and necessary travel accompaniments like underwear and toiletries, while some are less than necessary like two pairs of shoes per potential outfit. Now you may be one that thinks the unnecessary is nonnegotiable, like my always beautifully and appropriately dressed wife, no matter the extra cost for overweight luggage. Regardless, we all read the stories of Jesus taking something into them. And, for the most part we know that; we recognize that we live in a different time and place than the first hearers of the word. Yet, what we often miss in our travel is that each character in the stories had their own baggage as well. They too are no less influenced by their own histories, struggles, upbringings, aspirations, personalities, and most of all their cultural setting.
Probably the most influential thinker on the culture of a Hellenistic context – that is a Jewish culture enmeshed in a Greek thinking, Roman ruling world—was Aristotle. The guy most of us have heard of but never actually read! Anyway, Aristotle argued that the “great-souled man”, the one whose life we all desire to imitate, who lives a life of worth, is he who attains the highest external good. Aristotle said,
"If then the great-souled man claims and is worthy of great things and most of all the greatest of things, Greatness of Soul must be concerned with some one object especially. ‘Worthy’ is a term of relation: it denotes having claim to goods external to oneself. Now the greatest external good we should assume to be the thing which we offer as a tribute to the gods, and which is most coveted by men of high station, and is the prize awarded for the noblest deeds; and such a thing is honor, for honor is clearly the greatest of external goods. Therefore the great-souled man is he who has the right disposition in relation to honors and disgraces…since it is honor above all else which great men claim and deserve."
Jesus’ world, the world in which the gospel of Matthew was written, was a world in which the pursuit of honor was the highest pursuit. What was true of the Greeks was true of the Jews, even if what they deemed “honorable” differed slightly. “Honor above all else” was the pursuit of all, especially of those who wanted to make anything out of their life, for honor was achievable by all--to various degrees. There was honorable living among peasants, honor among craftsmen, honor among the noble and even honor among thieves, or so they say. Codes ascribing value and worth to the way one lived.
Now, “'Honor' is the generalized term which refers to the worth or value of persons both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their village or neighborhood…” or social communities. You are not what you think, primarily, but what others think of you and how you live up to the accepted and expected expectations of “good” or what the community “honors.” “…Honor basically has to do with evaluation and social perception: What do people think of this person? How is he [or she] evaluated, positively or negatively?” As one author comments honor “…also means reputation, renown, and fame, which might just as well be rendered by a synonym such as a person’s ‘glory’...’”
I would argue that our world is not all that dissimilar from the world of Jesus. We too pursue lives based on the worth ascribed to certain ways of living. The social constructs are different of course. Family lineage has less to do with expectations and aspirations than it did a few millennia ago, as has the influence of nationalism to some degree lessoned. Yet, we are no less socially constructed individuals. As Berry's poem suggests, there is a way that makes sense in to live in our world and a way that does not compute. Our social communities of home, work, friends, faith and media; influence (often subconsciously) the values we live by, the things we strive for, the way we evaluate a good life, a worthy life.
Such was the case in Matthew 10. Family was of utmost importance. Your worth in the community was connected to the honorableness or dis-honorableness of your family. So, family division, especially public division, was to bring down shame on yourself, your family and entire community. In some cases, such shameful behavior was illegal and a condemnation upon the instigator.
Whether reading Matthew’s gospel in the first century or the twenty-first, we read a story written to demonstrate the honor of Jesus. Yet the life, and especially death, of Jesus by all cultural accounts was lacking honor. How then does one honor the un-honorable? Well, he shows us a Jesus who confuses our commonsense in order that we might practice resurrection, do something that won’t compute.
Professor of New Testament Studies at Notre Dame, Jerome Neyrey argues “…how radical Jesus appears in challenging the prevailing code of worth and value [of his day]. Yet, for all his reform and challenge of the general code, he does not appear to be overthrowing the system itself, but rather to be articulating a new set of value expectations, on the basis of which he awards praise.”
Did you hear that? Jesus is not overthrowing the system of his day—like the Zealots who wanted to physically take back their heritage and self-governance. Nor was Jesus operating within the system to his advantage—like the Sadducees and many wealthy and elite who compromised historical values for modern lifestyle. Rather, Jesus was subverting system by reframing the greatest, the highest, the most sought after good (a good accessible to all in various degrees), that is, honor.
How do we know Matthew is writing for this purpose? Good question! I am always amazed at my own assumptions. As Flannery O’Connor once noted, “It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are, but the little it takes is long in coming. I see my ridiculous self by degrees.” Now, I doubt that anyone actually told me this, but I always assumed that the authors of much of the New Testament, like Matthew, where unlearned, simple people. Perhaps it is all the fishing stories and the self-admitted dumb-founded expressions that fill their writings that have me thinking that the barely educated wrote such powerful works. Perhaps it is my hyper-spirituality, recognizing the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and assuming little-to-no humanity necessary in the process of revelation. Whatever the cause, the realization of my foolishness has been long in coming.
Matthew is a tax-collector. He lets us know that himself in chapter 9. He is one of the dishonorable but not uneducated. Indeed he had to be educated enough to keep good records, if not doctored ones for his own benefit. Tax-collectors may not have been worth much in relational circles but they were ones who knew how to write in both Hebrew and Greek. In fact, the way in which Matthew writes his gospel tells us he was educated in conventional manner of Greek rhetoric. In other words, he was trained in how to write in different styles depending on the purpose. One such purpose was that of praising the honorable of antiquity by telling their life story in a particular fashion called the “ecomium”. Essentially, and to spare you the tediousness of first century Greek(!), “Students taught to write encomia employed the conventional topics…” of the honorable one’s origins or lineage, the specular events of their birth (all the great ones enter the story in spectacular ways!), how they were nurtured and trained, and then their accomplishments and deeds that solidified their honor and ultimately their noble death.
Sound like the book of Matthew?! Let’s look at how Matthew writes his ecomium quickly.
- Chapters 1 recounts the origin or lineage of Jesus. You know that first “begat” section we often avoid!
- Chapters 1-2 the spectacular nature of his birth full of angels and dreams, murderous kings and foreign sages.
- Chapters 3-4, while sparse in detail, give us all we need to recognize the nurture and training Jesus received prior to his ministry. Especially in his initial testing in the wilderness.
- Then, chapters 5 through the first two thirds of chapter 16 outline the accomplishments and deeds that demonstrate Jesus’ worthiness to be honored: his healings, miracles, words, works, acclaim from the crowds, etc.
- The end of chapter 16 marks a turn towards his noble death, giving us access to not just the death but the final testing that would finally ennoble Jesus in the hearts and minds of billions over the millennia.
So, Matthew in his Holy Spirit breathed brilliance, tells us the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in a way that compels us to recognize Jesus’ way as the greatest, the highest, the most sought after good. Or not. There will be more than a few in the story who encounter Jesus and are compelled to dismiss him—out of envy for what he receives or out of the ease which a counter cultural life with him will surely cost them.
There is something else about honor that we need to note, and come back to throughout our journey in Matthew. In the culture of the day (and many still today), people perceived “all of the world’s goods (i.e. wealth, land, happiness, honor, and the like) as absolutely limited in supply.” This idea is called “the image of limited good”. In this perspective, all the good of the world is like a giant pie. With every slice taken by others the pie shrinks for you. I can be happy for you when you receive your inheritance of a great land, but I also know that such land, because you possess it will never be mine. There is a limited good and you took a large chunk of it. The same is true for honor and what is honorable. Honor was not easily given, the greatest good, so to give honor to another is to recognize they have something that you will not have. Thus John the Baptist says, “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:29-30).
Thus, we can see why Jesus was envied so, especially by those whose righteousness or worth needed no physician’s care. And ignored, after all, who wants to decrease? Wouldn’t we rather have it all?
We do not live in a day and time that sees the world through the “image of limited good”. If anything we see the world as limitless and all good things in it for our possessing. Yet intrinsically we know, if only through trail and error, that we cannot have everything, do everything, believe everything, honor everything. Life to be lived with any depth, any “greatness of soul”, requires differentiation. A naming of what is worthy to live for, what is the greatest good to claim.
Jesus will take the very things used to demonstrate honor and value (land, wealth, titles, family, place in society, gender, heritage, a warrior’s mentality, power, influence, reputation, religion) and place them under the things used to shame while giving honor to people and things that are invaluable, dishonorable. Taking the pie away from that which held it dear. And…naming something else as good and sharing with all his glory, his honor!
If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also, if anyone serves me, the Father will honor [glorify] him. (Jn. 12:26)
In the weeks to come we are going to journey through Matthew together letting Jesus rename good for you and I. Allowing Jesus to subvert what is of worth and value, including our evaluations of ourselves and our neighbors and what we are giving our life to in following him. The story of Jesus through Matthew will confound us, but only because like the participants in the story and those first readers of the word, Jesus is reforming the value expectations of our culture as well. He is doing things that do not compute so that we can do the same.
As we begin our journey I wonder if a few orienting questions might be helpful for you and I. Especially to assess the baggage we will carry across teh stories.
- What CULTURALLY is our assumed greatest good?
- What do we see celebrated most often in news, media feeds, social/religious groups you belong etc.? What accomplishments? What objects? What actions?
- What do you see regularly encouraged to pursue?
- What is degraded the most? What values, beliefs, actions, attitudes, objects, etc.?
- What are your PERSONAL highest values?
- What do you celebrate most often? What do you spend the most of your time pursuing—whether in day dreams or in actual pursuit.
- What do you avoid at all costs?
- What IMAGE are we EXPECTED to conform to as men, as women, as parents as employees?
- How would you answer someone who asked what it means to be a “man” or a “women”? How would your neighbor answer?
- How would you answer your boss if he or she asked what it meant to be a good employee in your work place? How would your co-workers answer?
- How would you answer someone expecting a child who asked what is the key to parenting? How would your friends answer?
- What must you avoid (doing, saying, ect.) if you are man? A women? A parent? An employee?
As we assess what is honorable, good, worthy in our culture and context, let us allow the stories of Jesus to subvert our commonsense a bit. Begin to reframe the values we and our neighbors hold so that we and our neighbors might share in the good life of Jesus. This is where learning to speak the truth, living truthfully beings.
In order to do so though, Matthew will need to be more than just a story you interact with a couple Sunday afternoons; rather, a story you engage a few times a week. My hope is to produce for you a slightly more robust “DNA” guide that will aid us on our journey; whether you use it with your DNA group or simply for your own personal time. If we want to practice resurrection, to participate in a life that we did not originate and cannot anticipate, then we must be immersed (totally consumed) with the person and work of Jesus, doing something that does not compute—eat his flesh and drink his blood (Jn. 6:22-59).
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 4.3, 9-12.
 Jerome H. Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, 5.
 Ibid, 68.
 Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal, 20.
 See Neyrey’s introduction.
 Neyrey, 17.