How well do we tell the story?

Pentecost 16

Matthew 21:23-32

Marian Free

In the name of God Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

Recently, our grandchild came to stay overnight. When his mother dropped him off he walked into the living room and waved his arm and said: “MaMa, can you move all this?” I’d have to say that when I surveyed the room and its furnishings I was more than a little dismayed. What on earth was wrong with my living room that a three-year old thought that I should completely rearrange it? Was he having a go at my housekeeping? Did he think that he would knock himself on the sharp corners of the furniture? I just couldn’t make sense of it. Thankfully my daughter came to the rescue. Apparently, before they came, she had been discussing with him the fact that there might be things at MaMa’s house that he wasn’t allowed to touch and he, all three years of him, had responded that that was OK he would just ask MaMa to move things. (And so he did). Without the explanation I would have been completely lost.

So often a failure to understand the context of what is said can lead to misunderstanding and even conflict. We can take offense when no offense was intended or misjudge a person’s intentions because we do not have the full story. Misunderstandings arise when we do not fully understand another person’s culture or background.

This is no less true when it comes to understanding the Bible. First century Palestine was vastly different from today’s Australia. If we are to properly understand the New Testament, it is important to have some knowledge of the historical, social and cultural situation in which the various books were written. It is also important to try to understand the particular agenda of the writer. Why do the gospel writers tell the gospel in their own particular ways? Why does Paul write to a community? What is the purpose behind the Book of Revelation?

Failure to take into account the context of the New Testament has had some disastrous consequences – not least of which was the Holocaust, the destruction of six million Jews. A failure to take into account the historical, social and cultural context of the New Testament has, among other things, led us to defend slavery, to turn a blind eye to domestic violence and to condemn and exclude those who don’t fit our idea of what it is to be “good”.

Context is particularly important when it comes to understanding Matthew’s gospel, a gospel that, to our shame and embarrassment, has been a source of anti-Semitism over the course of history.

Perhaps the first and most important thing to understand is that Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels. It is for this reason that the battle is so fierce. The community behind the Gospel is struggling for ascendency over and against the Jews who do not believe in Jesus. It is like two siblings fighting for their parent’s affection or battling it out over the inheritance. An underlying question for the gospel writer is: “Who is the true Israel?” to which Matthew’s answer is: “We are.” What that means is that the gospel is very deliberately setting out to paint the continuing Jews in as bad a light as possible and to do this, he writes the contemporary conflict back into the gospel.

For this reason, we have to be very clear. Jesus was and remained a Jew and while he foresaw that the current trajectory of his people might have led to the destruction of Jerusalem, and though he came into conflict with the Jewish leaders, he did not for one minute imagine the replacement of, let alone the annihilation of his people.

This then is wider context of the today’s gospel. It’s immediate context is Jesus in the Temple as the first sentence makes clear. Jesus is no longer in Galilee, but in Jerusalem the heart of Judaism. It is here that he comes into conflict with the Jewish leaders because he threatens their authority; the people are looking to him not to them. If you remember, when he enters Jerusalem the crowds welcome him as their King. As if that were not enough to cause disquiet among the leaders of the community, his first act is to enter the Temple and overthrow the tables of the moneychangers. No wonder that, on this, his second day in Jerusalem, the legitimate leaders of the Jews want to know what authority he has to behave in the way that he does. No wonder that they want to try to discredit him and reassert their own authority. They ask four questions that they hope will trip him up: about the source of his authority, about paying taxes, about the resurrection and about the law. Jesus not only has an answer to each of these, but he answers in such a way that the leaders do not have a leg to stand on. Finally Jesus asks a question of his own, which convinces them that argument is fruitless. Their plan has backfired. It is not Jesus who has been made to look foolish, but themselves.

In the context of Matthew’s agenda as to who is the true Israel, this section firmly establishes Jesus – the leader of his community – as the legitimate leader (of Israel).

Also in this section are three parables – the parable of the two sons, the parable of the wicked tenants and the parable of the banquet. These are told in such a way that it is clear that just as Jesus is the true leader, so the Matthean community can lay claim to be the true Israel. (Those who were outsiders are the ones who prove worthy of the gospel whereas those who were insiders either reject the invitation or reject the message.) The section finishes with Jesus’ denunciation of the Jewish leaders (which is unique to Matthew) and finally Jesus’ sorrowful prediction of the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew is not alone in telling these conflict stories. All the gospel writers are clear that Jesus runs up against the Jewish leaders, but it is Matthew alone who drives a wedge between the emerging Christian community and its Jewish parent.

It is only when we understand the wider context of Matthew’s gospel that we are able to put his apparent anti-Semitism into context. It is only when we fully comprehend his agenda – to establish his community as the true Israel that we begin to understand why he tells the story of Jesus and Jesus’ stories in the way that he does.

Understanding the context of our biblical traditions ensures that we are less likely to be dogmatic, less likely to be prone to arrogant presumption, more open to the possibility that there is more than one way to understand a story, more willing to engage in discussion with those of different faiths and different points of view and better equipped to explain difficult passages to those who have questions.

If we wonder why our churches are emptying, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether it has to do with how well we understand and how well we tell the story.

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