Monthly Archives: May 2019

Matthew 4: 18-25 Snagging the Fishers for Humanity and Spreading the Kingdom

Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311)

Matthew 4: 18-25

Parallel Mark 1: 16-20, Luke 5: 1-11; John 1: 35-51

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

The kingdom of heaven may have established a foothold in Capernaum, but now that kingdom and its representative will begin its infiltration of the surrounding region of Galilee. Jesus will go out and actively begin selecting those who will participate in fishing for people and begin to drive out the forces of sickness and demonic possession that have kept the people in the darkness. Matthew condenses the call of his first disciples and the initial acts of healing and casting out of demons into a short space to bring us to Jesus’ teaching on the mountain but this scene is necessary to set the scene for this extended teaching and the crowds that are coming to hear him.

Capernaum is on the north bank of the Sea of Galilee, so Jesus would not have to move far to find fishermen along the bank of the sea. Even though Jesus may not need to move far in seeking these first followers the action of a teacher going and seeking students is unusual in a culture where a Rabbi would set up a school and disciples would seek out the teacher. Yet, the initiative will rest with Jesus in the call, and when others seek Jesus out as potential disciples (Matthew 8: 19-22) they will learn this is a difficult, if not impossible task. We do not know how long Jesus has been in Capernaum proclaiming the kingdom of heaven or if the four fishermen knew him prior to being called but these fishermen will serve as a model of responding faithfully to Jesus’ call. There is resonance with the call that Jesus extends to the disciples and the call of Abram in Genesis 12 where God calls Abram to leave their kindred, their fathers house and go to a land that God will show them. Yet, initially, the disciples will not leave their country, but they will leave behind their vocations and family.

The fishermen are often portrayed as ‘poor fishermen’ but there is no indication that they were poor or that what they were leaving behind was not a stable and sustainable existence. Probably the closest analogy to our time would be small business owners who have enough invested in their business to have a boat and nets, food to eat and homes to live in, money to pay the taxes on the fish they catch and the ability to transport (and process) caught fish for sale. This was a family enterprise that relied upon family members upholding their part of the work of fishing, mending nets, maintaining boats, and selling their catch and the removal of sons from their positions in the family business would have presented a challenge for the remaining family members. Yet, Peter and Andrew and James and John all go when called, leaving their families, their business and their way of life behind. The boats may still be there, and they may still at times fish, but their primary fishing will be kingdom related rather than profit related.

Against the background of the use of fishing metaphors in the scriptures we see the imagery of fishing being used for the regathering of Israel.

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors.
I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. Jeremiah 16: 14-16 

How one reads this portion of Jeremiah can be tricky. It can be read, as Richard B. Hays reads it by pulling on the verses that immediately follow what I have quoted above, “the “fishermen” whom God is summoning are agents of judgment, hauling people in so that God can “repay their iniquity and their sin.”” (Hays, 2016, p. 24). Jeremiah 16 is about a new beginning, but only after judgment and exile. I read this portion of Jeremiah 16 as an ingathering of the people after the prophesied judgment. Fishing imagery can be used in terms of judgment (see for example Amos 4: 1-2) but I do believe the theme of gathering in the dispersed people is behind the scriptural resonance here.

The disciples leave their boat and follow, they respond faithfully and these ‘little faith ones’ will become models of what being a disciple of Jesus is for future generations of followers. Jesus has shown the initiative, issued the call and these four men have responded. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say in Discipleship, “Discipleship is not a human offer. The call alone justifies it.” (DBWE 4: 63) Jesus, for Matthew and the disciple, is no ordinary rabbi or teacher. Although these four disciples probably do not recognize the significance of the one calling them, Matthew has been trying to get us to hear through his various uses of scriptural quotation and resonance the that Jesus is more than just a herald of the kingdom of heaven. The disciples in Jesus’ time and of all times will have to puzzle about the identity and significance of Jesus during their following but like the ‘little faith ones’ called from their fishing boats we are also called to look for the inbreaking signs of the kingdom of heaven as we travel through the world.

Jesus moves, teaches and acts as Matthew prepares us for the first concentrated block of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Mark’s gospel will focus on what Jesus does, but Matthew wants those who are disciples to gather with the crowd to hear Jesus teach. Yet, Jesus and the kingdom of heaven are also known by what Jesus does. His fame spreads by his teaching and his healing and exorcisms. The inbreaking kingdom of heaven casts out sickness, disease, pain, the demon possessed, and those broken in mind or body. Jesus’ power overcomes all these barriers to the people realizing the wholeness and healing of the kingdom of heaven. His fame is said to spread throughout Syria, one of the reasons some interpreters believe Matthew’s gospel was written in Syria, but it may also be the shining of the light in Galilee to the nations, the Gentiles. It may also be a part of the theme of the ingathering of Israel which is already occurring from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and beyond the Jordan and this may be the early catch of God’s fishermen beginning to gather the dispersed people out of the land of the north.

Authority and power rest with Jesus: authority to heal and make whole and the authority to teach in the synagogues and soon on the mountain. The crowds are beginning to gather, the initial fishers of humanity have been called and the kingdom of heaven has been announced and embodied. Matthew has set the groundwork for us to hear the Sermon on the Mount, for Jesus to teach us what being it will mean to be a covenant to the people and a light to the nations. Perhaps we, like the fishermen have been snared. Perhaps we, like the sick, diseased, broken or possessed have been healed and seen the kingdom of heaven’s work in our lives. We are now prepared to go up with the disciples to listen as Jesus talks both to us and the rest of the crowd.

Matthew 4: 12-17 The Kingdom’s Foothold

Capernaum as see from lake Tiberius photo by Tango7174 November 13, 2012 shared under Creative Commons 4.0

Matthew 4: 12-17

Parallel Mark 1: 14-15, Luke 4: 14-15

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

When John is arrested Matthew narrates that Jesus withdrew or departed (Greek anechoreo) to Galilee, a place where Jesus’ father Joseph brought the child and his mother for safety earlier. Matthew uses this word for withdrawing or departing much more than the other gospels (Mark and Luke use is twice, Matthew uses it ten times)[1] and it is the same word that describes Joseph’s action to remove Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape the threat of Herod and Archelaus Matthew 2. The kingdom of heaven may be drawing near but it is not meeting the political threats of Herod or Rome on their own terms, Jesus will not reign in a manner consistent with the peace through military power practiced by Rome and its client states. Even though Jesus withdraws to Galilee from the wilderness of the Jordan he withdraws into the territory of Herod Antipas, who arrested John, and makes his base of operations precisely in this territory. Unlike an earlier time where Joseph’s departure with Jesus and Mary moves away from the threat of Herod, here Jesus withdrawing ironically brings him closer to the immediate threat.

Matthew quickly moves us away from Nazareth, where Jesus lived after returning from Egypt and where his family home may have remained and makes his home in Capernaum. Unlike Mark, where Jesus comes to Capernaum but never settles or has a home (Jesus being continually on the way is a Markan theme) Matthew makes Capernaum the home base for the mission of Jesus. Matthew does not portray Jesus as a homeless wanderer but instead puts him in a social class like the fishermen and tradespeople he would interact with. On the one hand this movement to Capernaum separates his home from the home of Mary and Joseph and sets him off on his own. On the other hand, the location is significant to Matthew as well and the next quotation of scripture highlights this importance.

The quotation is from Isaiah 9: 1-2, which is below in its larger context in Isaiah 9, this may be very familiar to Christians who are used to hearing this reading on Christmas Eve.

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9: 1-7 (Highlighted portion quoted in Matthew)

Isaiah 9 originally comes from a time where the Assyrian empire is expanding and Northern Israel will be conquered and absorbed by this empire, while Judah retains some measure of independence. Galilee and Samaria were associated with Israel (the tribes other than Judah and Benjamin) which no longer retain their distinctive identity after the Assyrian conquest in 721 BCE. Yet, this passage in Isaiah points to a hope for not only Judah (or Judea) but for all of Israel, even the Israel that has been lost and scattered among the nations. The great light emerges in the place where there had been darkness, where Samaria and Galilee had been isolated from the remnant of Judah. For Matthew, Jesus’ act of establishing his base of operations in Capernaum has a broader theological significance of being the long hoped for member of the Davidic line who can bring about the reconstitution of all of Israel.

The title Galilee of the gentiles (or nations-the Greek term ethnos means both, and Gentiles in general are the non-Jewish people) also points to the inclusive nature of the hope of both Isaiah and Matthew. Throughout Matthew’s gospel we will see Gentiles play significant roles as illustrating what faith looks like. Two figures (the Canaanite woman and the Centurion) will show a faith that is not seen in Israel or in the disciples. From the genealogy and the magi, we have already seen the way non-Jewish people were joined to the story of Jesus and how they often embodied a righteousness that was greater than their Jewish counterparts in the story. The choice of location not only points to the reconstitution of Israel but also to the nations also being the recipients of this light which comes in the darkness.

Ruins of 4th Century synagogue, Photo by David Shankbone shared under Creative Commons 4.0

Ruins of Housing during Roman times in Capernaum, Photo by David Shankbone shared under Creative Commons 4.0

Established with a base of operations in Capernaum, Jesus begins the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. As mentioned in the discussion of Matthew 3: 2, Jesus’ proclamation is explicitly linked to the proclamation of John the Baptist. Both are calling for repentance and announcing the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. John and Jesus share a common message but a different relationship or role within that message. John may be the herald that announces the kingdom of heaven’s approach and be the Elijah preparing the way, but Jesus will be the long-awaited Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. To use the rhythm of John’s gospel, John the Baptist’s authority and role have now decreased, but Jesus’ authority shall grow continually. Jesus not only announces the advent of the kingdom of heaven but will embody the kingdom of heaven’s encroachment on the kingdom of the world and the conquest over the one who claims dominion over these kingdoms.

While Jesus will later send his followers, “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10: 6) and not to the Gentiles, their testimony will be a testimony to governors and kings and the Gentiles (Matthew 10:18). Within the vocational understanding of Israel, they were to be a treasured possession of God, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19: 5-6) and they were called to be a light to the nations for the sake of the Lord. What happens in Galilee or Samaria or Judea is not intended to remain there but to be in the words of the servant song in Isaiah 42:

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. Isaiah 42: 6-7

Matthew want to quickly bring us to the point where Jesus is teaching his disciples and forming them into a group that can be a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. Jesus in his actions is not merely about the reconstitution of Israel, but something larger is occurring that will affect the nations as well. The advent of the kingdom of heaven will not merely bring about a return to the nostalgic idea of a united Israel under a Davidic king but will instead impact the kingdoms of the world. The people who once lived in lands of deep darkness—on them light has shined. Or to use the poetic language of John’s prologue:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 5

This light will soon instruct his followers on what it means to be ‘the light of the world’ and how they are to “let their light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-15) But for now the light for Israel and the nations has begun to emanate from Capernaum and the kingdom of heaven has established its foothold in the land of the lost tribes of Israel.

[1] Matthew 2: 14, 19-22; 4:12; 10:23; 12: 14-21; 14:13; 15:21; it is also used for the magi withdrawing in 2: 12-13. M. Eugene Boring highlights this in (NIB 8:167)

Matthew 4: 1-11 The Temptation in the Wilderness

Ivan Kramskoy, Christ in the Desert (1872)

Matthew 4: 1-11

Parallel Mark 1: 12-13, Luke 4: 1-13

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered,

“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and

‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Even though a chapter division is introduced between the baptism scene at the end of chapter three and the temptation at the beginning of chapter four these scenes are connected. Within liturgical churches the perceived separation between these scenes is heightened by the traditional reading of the baptism scene after the end of the Christmas season and the temptation scene several weeks later during the first Sunday in Lent. Matthew and Luke share a common telling of this scene (although Luke modifies the order we find in Matthew probably due to Luke’s focus on the temple as being central to the narration of Jesus’ story) both keeping the placement in the narrative with Mark but adding the content of the temptation Jesus undergoes.

Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, a softening of the language we find in Mark where Jesus is literally ‘thrown’ into the wilderness (using the same term that Mark uses for casting out of demons). Throughout this temptation we are linked to the baptism by the location, the wilderness, the action of the Spirit of God and the continuity of the title used throughout the two scenes, Son of God. Previously the wilderness provided a place of revelation where the Spirit of God and the voice from heaven pronounce Jesus’ identity now it provides a place where Jesus’ identity is challenged. The wilderness will be a place of divine guidance, care and revelation but it is also a place of deprivation, isolation and challenge. Yet, this temptation seems to be if not divinely orchestrated at least an intentionality of movement by the Spirit of God and Jesus. It is a place where danger and revelation will hold hands, to use O. Wesley Allen’s phrase. (Allen, 2013, p. 39) Yet, there is also an element of, for a time, being isolated by God and entering into the suffering of that isolation as the wilderness of temptation becomes a place where the kingdom of heaven’s advent is both prepared for and resisted.

The forty days and forty nights in the wilderness that Jesus fasts prior to the temptation is frequently noted in paralleling the forty years that the people of Israel spend in the wilderness, a time where the people transition from being the slaves of Egypt to the people of the LORD the God of Israel. While the sojourn of the people of Israel is a time of divine guidance, care (providing food and water throughout their journey) and revelation (both the giving of the law and the creation of the tabernacle) and Jesus being identified with Israel is one of the accents within the identity that Jesus will bear there is also a close tying to the story of Moses in this scene. While Moses is not tested by the devil in the manner, we hear in Jesus story he has two forty-day periods on Mount Sinai where he receives the law (see Exodus 24: 18) and intercedes for the people after the incident of the Golden Calf. The intercession for the people after the Golden Calf is like the language of this scene:

He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Exodus 34:28)

Not only is he receiving the law to bring to the people, a parallel we will soon see in the sermon on the mount, but it is also during this forty days on Mount Sinai where Moses goes to make atonement for the people. Jesus, we learned in Matthew 1: 21 is one who will save the people from their sins. I believe this scene want us to hear an echo of Moses going up Mount Sinai to intercede for the people, Moses will say,

“Alas, the people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”  Exodus 32: 31-32)

This scene in Exodus (Exodus 32-34) is a scene where God reveals God’s glory to Moses, where the covenant between God and Israel is renewed and God chooses to dwell among the people again. One of the links we may be encouraged to see here is a time where Jesus also initiates a time of fasting to restore the relationship between God and the people of God.

With all these connections and links to various images from the scriptures it can become a little overwhelming as we wonder: Who is Jesus? Is he God with us? David? Moses? Israel? Son of God? The Son of Man? The Christ? And ultimately Matthew feels we need all these titles and linkages to attempt to convey the fullness of who Jesus is and what his story means for those who hear it. Matthew is willing to use the rich language of the scriptures he inherits to attempt to paint his portrait of Jesus for the church to learn from and to follow. In the previous chapter I mentioned two great scriptural rivers that flow into the deep sea that is Matthews gospel (Isaiah specifically and the prophets in general along with the Psalms specifically and wisdom literature in general) but now I want to highlight a third river that flows through the landscape, one that has provided nourishment and hope and now as it reaches its goal in the gospel will be also be a part of the advent of the kingdom of heaven, the law (or Torah). As mentioned above, Jesus is one who becomes linked with Moses and the law in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is also worth noting here because the three quotations that Jesus makes during the temptation all come from the law, specifically the book of Deuteronomy.

Perhaps before we can begin the actual scene of temptation, we need to discuss the antagonist in the scene who is called tempter, devil and Satan. We view the world differently than our ancestors in the time of Matthew and we often don’t see our world as inhabited by devils and demons the way we find in the gospels. Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the language of the porous self in the earlier enchanted world to talk about this reality, where the porous self is vulnerable to spirits, demons and cosmic forces and these forces (both good and evil) actively inhabit the world and possess people within it. With evil forces active in the enchanted world affiliation with a power that could triumph over these forces was an important part of life, and for those within the sphere of Christianity and Judaism that force was God. In Taylor’s language:

Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to the movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson[1]. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you. (Taylor, 2007, p. 38)

That people believed in evil forces being personified in the devil and demons during the time of Matthew is not controversial, the controversy is how we as ones living in the disenchanted world we have inherited from modernity can talk about the devil and the demonic. One approach is taken creatively by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters where he ascribes the disenchanted world to the action of the devilish forces themselves. As the fictional devil Screwtape writes to a devil who is still learning how to manipulate humans:

Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe is us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. (Lewis, 2017, p. 203)

Others may attribute social, psychological, or cultural reasons to explain the belief of the devilish and demonic forces in the gospel. The rational bias of the enlightenment encourages us to live within a world separated from the spiritual world or devils and angels, but I refuse to excise from the gospels the critical forces on opposing sides of the kingdom of heaven. Personally, I am all to aware of the persistence of evil in the world in ways that go beyond rational explanations of systemic evil or other modern explanations. Even though I may have never encountered evil personified in either the devil or a demon I am inclined to walk between the two options that C.S. Lewis states at the beginning of the Screwtape Letters: I neither disbelieve their existence nor do I exercise an unhealthy interest in them. (Lewis, 2017, p. 183)

The Spirit has led Jesus to a place where he is to be tempted, and there is an intentionality to this scene as the kingdom of heaven is brought into conflict with one who claims to be able to give all the kingdoms of the world. This conflict sets the stage for everything afterwards, this is the moment when we realize that the tempter is unable to tempt the one who has come to confront him and that the devil is powerless in the presence of the Son of God. The devil’s power here may appear incredible, but ultimately it derives its strength from those he is able to tempt into allegiance to him. Jesus shows us how to read scripture in a way that resists temptation and delivers us from the evil one, Jesus perhaps is led into temptation to show us how the law (Torah) helps us resist the promises of the devil. Yet, perhaps this scene also binds the strongman (see Matthew 12: 29) for immediately after this scene Jesus will announce the kingdom of heaven is at hand, demons will recognize him for who he is (Matthew 8: 28-31) and the forces that have bound people whether demonic or illness will be overcome.

The first temptation, turning stones to bread, begins with the situation of the forty days of fasting and the hunger that Jesus experiences. Jesus’ answer pulls on Deuteronomy 8: 2-3:

Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

The fundamental issues throughout the temptation: Who is the God who Jesus will serve? Who provides what is needed? And what will Jesus’ title Son of God mean for the way he conducts himself? Jesus again takes on the role of Israel being tested not only by the devil but also demonstrating his obedience to God, being humble and keeping the commandments. The harkening back to this scene in Deuteronomy reminds the hearer with scripture tuned ears that God is the one able to provide bread in the wilderness, and while Jesus will later multiply loaves and fishes, ultimately God is the one who provides what is needed. Jesus enters this space of divine silence and devilish temptation awaiting the word that comes from the mouth of the LORD, and perhaps, to use imagery from the gospel of John, he is that word spoken to the devilish temptation.

Consistent throughout all the temptation is also the challenge of the way Jesus inhabits the title Son of God. Like the serpent in the garden of Eden he attempts to lure the one into believing that God would not deny that which is desirable to one who could be like God. Yet, unlike Eve and Adam, Jesus is not swayed by these words and will not be the Son of God by anyone else’s terms.  Much like the mocking tone of “You are the Christ” sung by King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar there is a mocking of the way Jesus chooses to embody being the Son of God in Satan’s challenge.

The second temptation introduces a movement away from the wilderness to Jerusalem at the pinnacle of the temple. The proximity to holy space or the ability to quote scripture does not guarantee that one will read scripture correctly, as later conflicts within the temple will demonstrate. Here even the devil in this space uses scripture but uses it incorrectly. The quoted verses are from Psalm 91: 11-12, and as we heard previously the Psalms is one of the major texts that Matthew will use to talk about who Jesus is, but here even the devil can use the Psalms to talk about who he believes Jesus should be. The implied challenge for Jesus is to demonstrate his trust in God and demonstrate that trust through expecting God to rescue Jesus amid trouble. The angels will wait on Jesus after the temptation, but here they are absent, here in this place of temptation (even though they are at the pinnacle of the temple) the divine voice is silenced by the tempter’s words and even scripture is used as the devil’s tool. Yet, Jesus continues to demonstrate a way of reading scripture that models for Israel and the church how to resist temptation. Again, Jesus responds from the law (Torah) and again Deuteronomy speaks:

Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. Deuteronomy 6:17

The testing at Massah refers to Exodus 17 where the people quarreled with Moses and demanded water, Massah is means test so there is a play on words within this verse in Deuteronomy. Jesus continues to embody what Israel was meant to be by refusing to test God even amid temptation. This temptation also echoes at the cross when Jesus is taunted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Matthew 27: 40)

The final temptation takes place on a high mountain, typically a location of revelation for Matthew, but now the revealer is the tempter claiming dominion over all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to Jesus if he will worship him. Jesus is invited to claim power but at the cost of his identity, no longer is the title, “If you are the Son of God” used because to worship the devil would be abandon that identity. Perhaps within this temptation is the close association of earthly power with those anointed to be kings, which also is the context of Psalm 2 which echoes in the baptismal scene in the previous chapter.

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Psalm 2: 7-9

Jesus is offered here the ends of the earth as a possession and the nations as a heritage, but the one offering is not the LORD, but instead the tempter. Many people will expect Jesus to model his life on those who claim worldly power, but the kingdom of heaven will be different, just like the nation of Israel was to be different than Egypt of Babylon or Rome. Even Peter will later rebuke Jesus when he talks about undergoing suffering and being killed and receive similar words, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” Matthew 16: 23.

Jesus answers the devils by referencing Deuteronomy 10: 20,

You shall fear the LORD you God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.

This also refers to the first commandment (Exodus 20: 1-6, Deuteronomy 6: 6-10) where the people are to have no other gods and to worship on the LORD their God. In combination with this quotation Jesus also dismisses the devil. Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan” and the devil leaves. Jesus casts him out like he will later do with the demons. When the devil departs the angels arrive and wait on him. Somehow the devil’s presence made the angelic presence unavailable. Jesus had to enter this space to cast Satan out of it. The tempter has been thwarted, the strong man who claims power over the nations has been bound and the angels minister to Jesus as we approach the announcement of the kingdom of heaven’s arrival.

[1] A frisson is a sudden feeling of excitement or thrill


Perspectives from the Past-Reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Writings in 1932-33

One of the gifts of reading more deeply into the lives and experiences of people in the past is the perspectives they can give us into our own time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor during the critical time leading up to and including the Second World War in Germany. In his collected works we can see not only the evolution of a thinker but we can also read in his letter, preaching and teaching the impact of the events on his teaching and thought. For example, in the critical time of 1932-33 (represented by DBWE 12) we see Bonhoeffer struggling with the Aryan paragraph and how the church can respond (especially in the context of a state church). While Bonhoeffer would consider this statu confessionis (an item that if adopted the church ceases to be the church) many of his colleagues, even in the Confessing Church, would not agree. Perhaps two of his most telling quotes come out of this time. First from his Christology lectures:

There are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis-à-vis the state: first (as we have said), questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any social order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community…The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. (DBWE 12:365)

And the second from immediately before the Reichstag elections where the Nazi party would emerge as the strongest party preaching on the letters to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2:

The church is doing a tremendous amount, very seriously and even sacrificially. But we are all doing so many things that come second, third, and fourth; the church is not doing the works it did at first. And that is precisely why it is not doing what is crucial. We celebrate; we attend the events where we should be seen; we try to be influential; we set up a so-called Protestant movement; we do Protestant youth work; we provide social services and care for people; and we have anti-godless propaganda—but are we doing the very first works, the one that epitomized what we are all about? Do we love God and our neighbor with that first, passionate, burning love that is willing to risk everything except God? (DBWE 12:444-445)

Matthew 3: 13-17 The Baptism and Revelation of Jesus

Francesco Albani, Baptism of Christ (1600s)

Matthew 3: 13-17

Parallel Mark 1: 9-11, Luke 3: 21-22

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew’s careful narration of the ministry of John the Baptist reaches its climax with the baptism of Jesus, and just as the identity of John the Baptist and the content of his ministry pulls on the prophetic imagination, particularly from Isaiah in this short narrative of the baptism the hope of Isaiah mingles in with the poetic waters of the Psalms as we continue to wonder who this Jesus who meets us in the midst of the waters is. In the previous section I highlighted Isaiah 43: 1-7 where the people are reminded by the prophet Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you. Isaiah 43:2

We heard John proclaim that one who was more powerful was coming after him, one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and as we are introduced to Jesus, Matthew invites us into the water to wonder about this one who is coming after John. The day that comes after the announcement of Elijah in Malachi 4: 5-6 is the day of the LORD, could the coming kingdom of heaven and the day of the LORD truly be at hand in this moment Matthew narrates to us? In Matthew 1 we were introduced to a title for Jesus, Emmanuel: God with us, could this Jesus who stands amid the waters with the reconstituted people of Israel in some way be the God of Israel? Mark’s gospel may have made continual allusions and hints that in Jesus we were encountering more than just a Messiah but Matthew continues to link suggestively in ways that would be shocking to those attuned to hear the imagery of scripture referenced in this way that in Jesus we are somehow meeting ‘God with us.’

Jesus reenters the gospel by approaching John at the Jordan and journeying away from his home in Galilee and approaches John to be baptized with the people. Matthew’s short narrative spends longer on this scene than either Mark or Luke wanting us to hear John’s protest and identify Jesus as one who is greater than him, as one who should be baptizing him.  Jesus’ response places him with the people of Israel, those who have come to the waters, those who have turned their hearts to God, those who are repenting and he enters into this space where they have come seeking God’s promised kingdom and is joined to their story. Jesus is not only linked to the story of Israel in the birth narratives, his narrative begins to take on the shape of their story and his identity is typologically joined to the identity and vocation of Israel. As Richard B. Hays proposes:

I would propose that Jesus’ acceptance of a baptism of repentance, performed at the Jordan River, is meant to signify his symbolic identification with sinful Israel (the people whom he will “save from their sins”), and the figurative beginning of that new Israel’s entry into the land of promise. (Hays, 2016, p. 116)

I think it is also important to realize that a continual theme throughout the scriptures is God’s desire to dwell among the people. The kingdom of heaven is being brought to earth rather than the citizens of earth being transported to heaven. God’s desire in the Exodus was to dwell among God’s people in the tabernacle at the center of the community and the sin of the Golden Calf threatened this because God’s anger at their betrayal posed a threat to the people, and yet God forgave and did dwell and go forward with he people. The entire birth narrative of Matthew suggests that this incarnation, to use the language Christians would assign to the birth of Jesus, is God in a new and unexpected ways coming to dwell among God’s people for the sake of the world.

Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist reintroduces us to the concept of righteousness. We first encountered Joseph as a righteous man and righteousness is far more important word to Matthew than to either Mark or Luke who rarely use this term. One the one hand, righteousness in the gospel is held as a contrast to sinners, sometimes in surprising ways, as Jesus will later say, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9: 13) and yet the followers of Jesus are to, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6: 33) Jesus becomes the fulfiller of what righteousness will look like and the one who can interpret how one is to live a righteous life. Here Jesus models righteousness in standing with the people who are striving for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, later in the Sermon on the Mount he will interpret how to approach the Torah (Law) and what the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven will look like. While Jesus has come to ‘save the people from their sins’ he is not leaving them alone in this, but instead he will walk with these new disciples and model and teach them what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness, how they can embody a righteousness greater than the scribes and the Pharisees, and how they can seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Matthew in his unique way wants to highlight this story in a way that accents it differently than Mark and Luke. One of the differences between Matthew and Mark is what happens to the heavens. In Mark’s gospel the heavens are ripped open (the word in Greek is schizomenos, the schizo root is where we get schizophrenia-a ripped open mind) but for Matthew they were opened a far less violent act. This may relate to Matthew’s belief that the creation itself cooperates in bearing witness to who Jesus is and what Jesus means, like the star at the birth and the convulsions in the heaven and earth at the crucifixion. This is a significant change because the schizomenos word forms a bookend for the beginning and end of Mark’s gospel and Matthew chooses to narrate the story without using this rare and noticeable word. There is an intentionality in Matthew’s narration of this scene and the way he carefully chooses vocabulary to fit his vision of what is occurring.

Additionally, in Matthew’s narration of this scene, we see the only gospel where the declaration of the voice from heaven being for everyone present and not only for Jesus. In both Mark and Luke, the voice declares, “You are my son”, but in Matthew the declaration is, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus may be the only one who sees the heavens open and the Spirit descend but the voice declares for those who have ears to hear that Jesus is given the titles of Son, Beloved and one with whom God is pleased. The proclamation in this form will be echoed at the Transfiguration in Matthew 17 and we are meant to hear the connection between these event that allow reveal who Jesus is. It also links us to the centurion’s declaration at the crucifixion that “This man was God’s Son.”

In this declaration of the voice we also hear the echo of another major scriptural current that will flow throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the poetic flow of the Psalms. Here the words go back to the words of Psalm 2 and its words lifting up God’s chosen leader and the close identification between God and that leader:

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.  You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”  Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Psalm 2: 7-10

Just as Isaiah was one of the major rivers flowing into the deep sea of Matthew’s Gospel, so the Psalms will be one of the other major bodies of water contributing its language and rhythms to the gospel and helping the evangelist to find language to describe who Jesus is and what he means. For the identity of Jesus is critical to those who will pass through the waters with him.

I continued the quotation of Psalm 2 longer than most writers, though most catch the allusion to this Psalm, because there is in this public declaration a challenge to the existing powers. The gospel is a political statement and the kingdom of heaven does challenge the underlying assumptions of any empire: whether Egypt, Babylon, Rome or even a modern world power like the United States. In Jesus’ day it was well known that Caesar Augustus, who reigned during Jesus’ birth, and Emperor Tiberius, who reigned during Jesus ministry, both made claims to be the son of a god. Later in the gospel when Jesus asks for a denarius (Matthew 22:19) it likely bore an inscription stating Caesar Augustus Tiberius son of the divine Augustus. Yet, Jesus being declared Son of God by God’s voice occupies this role in a way that Caesar cannot, Caesar’s divine right may be defended by the might of the empire but for Matthew’s gospel the voice of the God of Israel’s declaration is the only one that matters.  A challenge to this vision of what God’s reign through the Beloved will look like will be encountered next in the temptation narratives of the following chapter.

Matthew also slightly modifies the language around the Spirit of God from Mark in a subtle but important way. In Mark’s gospel the Spirit of God comes down ‘into’ Jesus and the will ‘throw or cast out’ Jesus into the wilderness, but in Matthew the Spirit of God comes down and appears to Jesus and will later ‘lead’ Jesus into the wilderness. For Matthew it is important that Jesus remains in control and that the Spirit of God partners with Jesus rather than controlling or possessing Jesus (which you could argue for in Mark’s gospel).

This critical piece of the story once again points to who this Jesus is. It has been a topic introduced throughout the opening chapters and there have been multiple answers that continue to give richness to the answer Matthew wants us to hear. Yet, Matthew wants us to hear this close identification between Jesus and the God of Israel in an emphatic way that is reinforced throughout these chapters. As O. Wesley Allen can state:

What the angel declared to Joseph, what the magi understood the star to mean, what the prophetic texts confirm, and what John himself proclaimed is now summed up in God’s own voice. (Allen, 2013, p. 38)

Jesus’ identity will present a challenge to both the ruling authorities who desire to claim divine authorization for their own rule and it also reframes the Jewish expectation of the ruler who God reigns on God’s behalf. Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures stretches their imagination of how God comes to dwell with the people farther than the Psalms or the prophets would have dared, and yet it is the language of the prophets and psalms that underlies the proclamation of the evangelist. Matthew is making bold claims about who Jesus is and how he is related to God. Matthew’s carefully chosen words, along with the words of the other gospel writers, Paul and the other authors of the New Testament would give birth to the Trinitarian way in which Christians would talk about God. Yet, Matthew nor any other writer of the New Testament, would have developed the vast Trinitarian language that forms the creeds of the early Catholic and Orthodox church, that language evolved around the explanation of who Jesus is to a Greek philosophical mindset rather than the mindset immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew is far more interested in letting the disciples of Jesus know that in Jesus they are somehow meeting God with them than attempting to describe how Jesus can be fully divine and fully human, or how Jesus, God and Spirit can be one being. Matthew would probably be ambivalent to these philosophical questions but instead would want us to know how the scriptures bear witness to the hope, promise and identity of Jesus and what it means for Israel and the rest of the world.


Matthew 3: 1-12 The Herald of the Kingdom of Heaven

Cristofano Allori, John the Baptist in the Desert, 17th Century

Matthew 3: 1-12

Parallel Mark 1: 2-8, Luke 3: 1-17

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Some time later we arrive at the beginning of story of Jesus as an adult and to set the stage for that story we are introduced to John the Baptist who will share a common message with Jesus but a different role within that message. John will be the Elijah character who proceeds the promised messiah, but there is much more to the story than just preparing the way for the messiah’s coming. Here the story builds on what was revealed to us in the first two chapters to prepare us for the advent of the kingdom of heaven.

Place matters in the gospels and the wilderness of Judea along the Jordan river is a place that is rich in meaning. Wilderness indicates a place away from Jerusalem, Judea and all the inhabited region along the Jordan. It is unsettled and because of that it has the connotation of being a place where one may encounter danger or the divine. The wilderness is the place of baptism, of being joined to the community of the faithful and it is the place of devilish temptation where one’s identity is continually questioned. It can be a place where the voice of God may speak to the one who is listening, and it can also be a place where the demonic voices drive a person to madness. Israel had to pass through the wilderness to become the people of God, they would pass through the Red Sea on leaving Egypt and the Jordan on entering the promised land. The wilderness can also be the place where God’s creative power does new things, particularly the rich language of Isaiah is relevant here:

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43: 19, see also Isaiah 35 and Jeremiah 31: 2)

The beautiful and hopeful language of Isaiah 43 along with Isaiah 35 and Jeremiah 31 add resonance to this theme, these hopeful passages spoken to an exiled people about God making a way in the wilderness and creating a new people enrich our hearing of the hope embodied in this strange prophet in a wilderness space.

The message that John the Baptist is summarized with the exact words that Jesus will use later in the gospel (Matthew 4: 17; 10:7). Both Mark and Luke include the ministry of John the Baptist to introduce the ministry of Jesus, but Matthew links the proclamation of John the Baptist explicitly to the later proclamation the good news that Jesus will proclaim. Both will run into challenges with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herod and the other political powers, yet according to Matthew they are both sharing a common proclamation. As O. Wesley Allen Jr. state, “the difference between John and Jesus is not their message but the role they play in relation to that message.” (Allen, 2013, p. 35)

Scripture now speaks to give its direct voice to the role that John the Baptist will play in this story. Matthew instead of adopting the mashup of multiple verses used in Mark uses Isaiah 40:3 to identify John as “the voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight.’” Isaiah 40 is a message of comfort and hope to a people who have been exiled and may have felt forgotten by their God, but now Isaiah announces that God is indeed coming and that the people shall see the glory of the LORD together.

John is linked visually with Elijah by wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” As mentioned above there was an expectation that Elijah would proceed the coming of the messiah, this hope comes both from the manner that Elijah’s death is recorded in 2 Kings 2 and in Malachi (the book that immediately proceeds Matthew in the way many bibles are organized) in the final chapter we hear of a time when God will judge the unrighteous and will lift up the righteous and in this judgment and exaltation:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4: 5-6)

The God of Israel is a God who desires repentance. As the prophet Joel can remind the people, “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Joel 2: 13, see also Deuteronomy 30:2, this portion of Joel picks up the language of the thirteen attributes of God from Exodus 34: 6-7) and we hear in Malachi that the expected Elijah was to go before the advent of the Lord to turn families back to the way they were intended to embody so that they would be among the righteous and not the unrighteous ones. They would be those who were greeting the advent of the kingdom of heaven with joy instead of with lamentation.

This first herald of the advancing kingdom of heaven is not the lavishly dressed and well fed ambassador we might see attempting to negotiate a peace treaty between two nations but is instead a strangely dressed (but typologically familiar) prophet who eats the diet of the poorest in the desert (but which was ritually clean). In a kingdom where the poor in spirit are blessed and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, where the merciful and peacemakers are those who embody what this kingdom is about, the kingdoms of this world will look more like the kingdom of Egypt that the Israelites escaped from than their hoped for reign where God was their king in the promised land. This heavenly kingdom will be different than the kingdom of Judea or the empire of Rome, but that doesn’t mean that Rome and Herod Antipas wouldn’t hear this proclamation as a challenge to their own kingdoms and wouldn’t oppose it with every tool at their possession.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees arrive in the wilderness to investigate what is occurring with the movement around John the Baptist, we may be surprised by the confrontational language that John uses towards them. For most people who have been trained in reading scripture recently there has been a reappraisal of the Pharisees and Sadducees viewing both movements in a more positive light than the previous generations of scholarship. Often the Pharisees and the Sadducees became embodiments of a legalistic and rigid worldview in Christian writing and like Judaism in general most writing about these two movements was polemical in nature. Hopefully I can provide a more nuanced approach to the topic as we move through the gospel, but it is worth noting that in general both the Pharisees and the Sadducees will find themselves aligned on with the forces opposed initially to John and later to Jesus. Neither group is completely aligned with the goals of the political powers of Herod Antipas in Galilee or Pontus Pilate in Judea, but they have negotiated a way of working with these powers and maintaining their position. There is no separation of church and state in the ancient world, and any close look at the political world of the time of Jesus will quickly illuminate a connection between the religious authorities and the political.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are both movements within second temple Judaism that are connected with both local and national power, and they have struggled with each other for influence for generations, but they are still tied to the existing networks of power. I believe this alliance with the existing networks of power is behind the criticism of John the Baptist when he calls them a brood of vipers fleeing wrath and challenges them to bear fruits worthy of repentance. In John’s view their reforms are not enough, God is doing something new. This symbolically rich baptism of repentance is reconstituting Israel to begin again in a new and forgiven state. The Pharisees were a reform movement attempting to be faithful to the law by reclaiming practices of holiness and the Sadducees were focused on maintaining proper worship at the temple by the priesthood, but John stands within a long line of prophets who continually call the people of Israel to see that repentance is more than ritual or religious practice. As Anna Case-Winters can state, “If they “change their minds” it will change their lives. Where is the evidence of this? Ritual purity without righteousness counts for nothing. This message is strong in the ethical tradition of Judaism.” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 46) [1]

Matthew wants us to hear John the Baptist in concert with Jesus and just like John using the language of the kingdom of heaven to introduce what his proclamation is about we will also hear almost identical words come from Jesus’ mouth towards the Pharisees about being a brood of vipers and bearing fruit worthy of repentance.

Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12: 33-37)

Jesus, in Matthew, can be both gracious and direct. He will embody both the prophetic hope and the prophetic critique. John foreshadows this by letting us know that Christ’s coming and the advent of the kingdom of heaven will not be a painless process for everyone. Forgiveness often means that something must die, repentance means that one must turn one’s back on something to turn towards that which you are returning to and grace while it is given freely may indeed cost the recipient much in terms of their relationship with family and the existing power structures of the world. The coming of Jesus means that some trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire so that those with good fruit have the space to flourish providing their fruit in each season for the healing of the nations.

Even though Matthew begins his telling of Jesus’ story with a genealogy he lets us know early that genealogy is not enough. Here in John’s accusation taps again into language from the prophet Isaiah:

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. (Isaiah 53: 1-2)

In Isaiah’s time he is speaking to an Israel that has already drained the cup of the Lord’s wrath (Is. 53:17) but now John is speaking to a people who are being offered a cup at the banquet of the Lord, but like those who will later refuse their place at the wedding banquet (see Matthew 22: 1-14) they will find themselves receiving the king’s judgment because they refused the invitation to turn away from the things that concerned them, their own negotiated settlements with the powers of the day and instead would mistreat and abuse the messengers of the banquet.

J.Ross Wagner in 2000 published a work called Heralds of the Good News: Paul and Isaiah in Concert in the Letter of Romans and if you haven’t guessed by the string of quotations from Isaiah referenced in these initial chapters I believe that Matthew as a herald of the kingdom is placing John the Baptist and later Jesus’ ministry in a key that would be in harmony with the prophetic hope and challenge of Isaiah in particular and other prophets as well. For years Christians have mined the prophet Isaiah for prooftexts that, cut off from their context, could be used as predictors for Jesus’ life and ministry but what if, instead, we actually allowed Isaiah’s words and hope to provide language and richness to the experience of Jesus narrated by Matthew. As I have argued from the beginning of these reflections, Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ story is a uniquely Hebrew way of reading the story of Jesus and as we immerse ourselves in Matthew’s gospel we should expect to be swimming in waters deeply infused with the words of the law, the prophets, the narrative and the poetry of the Hebrew people. Yet one of the major rivers flowing into the deep sea of Matthew’s gospel is the prophet Isaiah with his vision of hope and reinterpretation of what Israel’s identity is to be.

We are introduced here with the actions of John the Baptist baptizing those coming into wilderness a key piece of what Matthew will continue to reinforce: the identity of the chosen people. In a context where the people of Jerusalem and all Judea is now attached to the Roman empire and its emissaries (including the religious authorities in Jerusalem) John is making a prophetic break from the temple and its leaders. What will define the reconstituted Israel will be the God of Israel rather than the newly rebuilt temple but instead an orientation towards the approaching kingdom of heaven. They stand at the Jordan river awaiting a new Joshua to bring them into the kingdom that their Lord has promised them. And to use one final image from the prophet Isaiah they are reminded:

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear for I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you, Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43: 1-7

Yet John the Baptist is merely a herald of the good news, but the gospel (and the play on words here is that gospel and good news are the same Greek work euangellion) is not merely about the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven but its advent. One greater than John is coming, John can stand in the waters of the Jordan and reorient the people of God, but he cannot bring in the kingdom. Ultimately, for Matthew, he wants us to see that God will be with the people calling them by name, passing through the waters with them and gathering them from the ends of the earth. John sees God’s harvest approaching where the faithful will be gathered together and not consumed by the flames that are to come.

I’ve hinted that this will be a gracious reading of Matthew’s gospel and if John the Baptist and Jesus both can advocate this type of division between chaff and wheat some might ask from our context where the grace can be in the judgment. Working through Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms,  Jeremiah and Revelation you have to come to terms with the judgment of God against those forces either within or beyond the boundaries of the community which have set their will against their creator: Egypt, the people of Israel and Judah, Babylon and Rome all come under God’s judgment for the sake of the life and witness of God’s people and the prosperity of the world. Yet, God’s judgment is always preceded with an opportunity for repentance, with a chance for those who will be sorted to return to the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is not content to allows things to remain the way things are, to allow the ways of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Rome to be the truth. As Miroslav Volf can state insightfully, “In Pilate’s world, truth and justice were fruits of Caesar’s sword. In Jesus’ kingdom, truth and justice are alternatives to Caesar’s sword.” (Volf, 1996, p. 275) John in heralding the advent of the kingdom of heaven is offering the people to turn to an alternative to Rome or Herod Antipas’ reign, the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the empire of Rome. A God who changes the world without judgment is, in Volf’s words, a pleasant captivity of the liberal mind[2]. (Volf, 1996, p. 304)

The challenge of John to the religious authorities of his day should also give pause to those with ears to hear when they are tempted to closely align with the political powers of their own day. As one of my readings outside of the work I’ve done on Matthew I’ve been going through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings in the critical years of 1932-33 where the National Socialist Party rose to power and successfully asserted influence on the state churches (Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed) in Germany and effectively coopted the majority of practicing Christians into the rise of the policies that would unfold while the Nazis remained in power until the end of World War II and the destruction of much of Germany. Even though in the United States there is a separation between church and state there is still a great lure to being closely situated to those in political power. Like the people of Israel being reconstituted here in the wilderness of the Jordan, there are times where we will need to return to our own baptism and be reminded that our trust is in the Lord our God who created us and who passed through the waters with us and that we as people of God are called to an alternative to the empires of this world.

[1] See for example Isaiah 29: 13 or Amos 5: 21-24 as two examples of times where God speaks to a people who may be worshipping correctly and yet are not living reformed lives, I also believe that this is behind much of the critique of the prophet Jeremiah during the reforms in reign of Josiah: the people may be worshipping correctly but their lives are still oriented around a way of life that does not reflect the values God desired for Judah (and Israel as a whole).

[2] The liberal mind has little to do with liberal verses conservative politics and instead references the liberalism that arose with the age of Enlightenment upon which both conservative and liberal political groups find their reference. Key to this disenchanted view of the world is a God who is no longer active in the secular sphere but is concerned only with the spiritual realities. This is a very different God than we encounter in the Bible.