THIRD SUNDAY of LENT: March 4, 2018
A bit longer reflection today, with two opening thoughts:
(1) Each of the four gospels is carefully crafted to present the message and person of Jesus — the Messiah, the Human One and Son of God, the Christ — to a specific audience. Depending upon the “audience” and its specific needs, elements mentioned or stressed in one gospel are minimized or even ignored in another. Last week we saw that the Gospel According to Mark makes no mention of a virgin birth or of Jesus’ infancy. The gospels of Matthew and Luke do indeed mention a virgin birth; but their accounts of Jesus’ infancy are imaginative and quite different in some details. The gospels, again, are about the meaning of the Christ-event and are not strictly-speaking historical accounts.
(2) Translations of the scriptures are necessary, of course, because people in different places and times speak a variety of languages. Most contemporary scripture readers are not fluent in biblical Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. (As a friend said, I am a bit unconventional. When it comes to languages, I can squeak by in Hebrew; but my Greek and Latin are really quite good.) Ideally, people who want a more comprehensive understanding of biblical texts should use a good biblical commentary, because all translations are filtered through the vision and vocabulary of the translator. Sometimes this creates problems in correctly understanding a passage.
An example of what I mean: In recent years, scholars and translators of the New Testament have suggested that we seriously reconsider how one translates the Greek term ioudaios, originally translated in English as “Jews.” Ioudaios is more accurately translated as “Judean,” not “Jew.” The Greek ioudaios and the Latiniudaeus come from the Biblical Hebrew word Yehudi meaning “from the Tribe of Judah.”
Bear with me. The word “Jew” did not appear in the first English translations of the New Testament. The best known early editions of the New Testament in English are the Douai Rheims edition and the King James Authorized Edition. The Douai Rheims translation was first printed in 1582; but the word “Jew” did not appear in it. The King James Authorized translation was first published in 1611. The word “Jew” did not appear in it either. For the first time the word “Jew” appeared in both these well-known editions in their 18th century revised versions.
“So, what?” a friend asked. Well, since the late 19th and early 20th centuries the word “Jew” has been used increasingly in a pejorative way and has greatly contributed to antisemitism. Expressions like “Jew someone” or “Jew lawyer” or “Jew down” have been common negative terms. Over the years, a mythology grew up around Jews, linking them with greed and avarice. One can recall Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta” and its demonic image of Jews; but even earlier in Shakespeare we found the “Jew” moneylender Shylock and his bloodthirsty desire to claim his “pound of flesh.”
Today, some people try to avoid using the word “Jew” and use “Jewish” instead. Nevertheless, one needs to stress (especially today when antisemitism is growing so strongly) that “the Jews” did not condemn Jesus. Judean religious leaders in Jerusalem condemned him. Jews did not kill Jesus. Judean religious leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea; and the Romans crucified Jesus.
Now some reflections about Matthew. Brief, but I think to the point.
Last week I stressed that the Gospel According to Mark was designed for Gentile Christians in Rome, and composed by an anonymous author, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Mark’s Gentile Christians in Rome faced and feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities; but they also had to live with negativity and discrimination from Judeo-Christians living in Rome.
The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by an anonymous Judeo-Christian scribe in the mid-80s CE. The most probable location for the Matthean community was Antioch, whose ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. The community was strongly Judeo-Christian. There were Gentile Christian members, but they were expected to obey Torah norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. The Matthean Jesus came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17).
One can say that Matthew was organized for Judeo-Christian instructional purposes; and the stress is on the “Judeo” element. It contains five sermons of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46) which, for the evangelist’s audience symbolized the five books of the Torah. In the first of these, the “Sermon on Mount,” the rabbi Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about the Torah. Notice how he so often says “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:21-22) Rabbi Jesus takes a teaching found in the Torah and then intensifies and expands on it.
For Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history. He constructs an infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of “fulfillment” passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. Note for instance that Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s creative narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.
What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. And I conclude this Sunday’s reflection with my own translation and contemporary reflection on Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” It is truly a charter for Christian life today.
The Christian Charter Based on the Sermon on the Mount
1.How fortunate are those people, who are humble in spirit.
The humble in spirit realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. Power and control over people have no place in the community of faith. The humble in spirit realize they are not masters of the universe. They understand they cannot survive on their own.
2.How fortunate are the gentle.
The gentle are the meek: those people who can make room for someone else, even for the “losers.” They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. Arrogant and crude belittling of other people has no place in the words and behavior of those who claim to be followers of Christ – even when they sit in high political office or wear colourful clerical uniforms. “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them; and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.” (Matthew 20:25-26)
3.How fortunate are those with compassion.
They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They do not simply send their “thoughts and prayers,” and then head out to play golf. They lift oppressive burdens from the shoulders of the old, the infirmed, and the impoverished. They do not cut their food stamps and health care benefits
4. How fortunate are those whose greatest desire is to do what genuine Christianity requires.
We are fortunate if we have high ideals, strong values, noble goals, and the motivation to build up what is best in others and in ourselves….. But the temptations are strong: to conform, to do what everyone else does, to simply read the news and then not rock the boat.
5. How fortunate are those who show mercy to others.
Merciful love is assistance without conditions. Genuine Christians are not fear mongers who scapegoat Hispanics, feminists, blacks, gays, or immigrants from “shithole countries”
6. How fortunate are the pure of heart.
The pure of heart are honest-hearted. They are not two-faced, with hidden agendas or secret desires to advance themselves by using and abusing other people. They do not brag and joke about grabbing genitalia. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not fabricate “facts.”
7. How fortunate are those who work for peace.
Those who work for peace do not erect walls. They do not launch oppressive trade wars. They are bridge builders. They cooperate rather than compete. They struggle to resolve political, social, and religious polarization through tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect. To paraphrase Matthew 25:52, “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”
8. How fortunate are those who suffer persecution because they truly live the Gospel.
There are a lot of phony Christians in high places these days, who love to denigrate and oppress their critics. They profess love of Christ. In reality they love only themselves. Matthew’s Jesus is adamant about this. He spoke of religious leaders who wore impressive religious garments and talked God’s values but never lived God’s values. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus said “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see. (Matthew 23:3-5)
It is still winter, but spring is on the horizon.
Jack – firstname.lastname@example.org