Monday, January 18, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Matthew 11-15

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Matthew, chapters 11 through 15.  I'm still trying to find the balance between depth and brevity, so please bear with me if my comments are... well, "too shallow," especially compared to the past two weeks.

Chapter 11

  • Verses 2-3 - I find it interesting to note that, although John is in prison, he clearly has communication with his followers.  Although the same is obviously true of the Apostle Paul (or we wouldn't have some of the letters of his that we have), it makes me wonder about the nature of John's imprisonment.  What privileges is he granted?  What is he denied?  Also, having established John's belief that Jesus is... well, at least something special... earlier in Matthew, the fact that he sends people to ask if Jesus is indeed "the one who was to come" makes me wonder if John has lost some of the faith in Jesus that he had prior to his imprisonment, which itself makes me wonder about what the imprisonment is like.
  • Verse 11: "among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist." - This is a curious statement.  Is Jesus consciously leaving himself out of the "among those born of women" group (the fact of his own birth via Mary, established in the beginning of Matthew, notwithstanding), or is this perhaps some standard language that people of this time and culture used to describe all human beings?  (Hagner notes that "those born of women" is a Hebrew idiom, referencing Job 14:1 and 15:14, but he doesn't explicitly spell out the meaning of the idiom.1)
  • Verses 20-24 - Miracles are given for a particular purpose, but apparently these towns didn't follow through....
  • Verses 28-30 - I'm curious as to why this "yoke is easy... burden is light" passage follows so quickly upon the condemnation of those towns (and a bit regarding the relationship of the Father and the Son tossed in between them).  Contrast this section with Jesus' suggestion that the "easy" path "leads to destruction" in Matthew 7:13-14 (the ESV specifically uses the word "easy," although other translations use other language)
Chapter 12
  • Verse 5 - I definitely needed Hager's help on this one.  I've been reading and hearing this passage for years, thinking that Jesus was referencing some particular Old Testament passage regarding temple desecration... and not finding it, because that's not quite what Jesus is doing here.  As with the rest of this section, Jesus is talking about what's "lawful" to do on the Sabbath.  Here, Jesus is talking about the fact that priests "work" in the temple on the Sabbath (by offering sacrifices, for example), and since "work" is "unlawful" to do on Sabbath, what the priests do (and, indeed, must do by virtue of their role) could be argued to "desecrate" the temple.  But clearly, this kind of work isn't actually unlawful.  Jesus is telling the Pharisees how they have misread the law about what is appropriate to do on the Sabbath and what isn't.2
  • Verse 30: "Whoever is not with me is against me..." - I have commented elsewhere on the blog that there is another quote of Jesus that sounds very similar to this one, but which says the exact opposite.  Far from suggesting that we have to choose one version or the other, I'm struck by the fact that these two quotes (I assume the Lukan parallel to Mark is referencing the same incident as Mark), detailing two different incidents, both involve Jesus defending the right of a person (himself in Matthew, an "outsider" in Luke/Mark) to do good by casting out demons.  Clearly, the theme that doing God's work supersedes other considerations (specifically, in Matthew, the Pharisaic understanding of the law) is at play in both instances.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that this interpretation disagrees with Hagner's3, although I'm going to go out on a limb and assert my right to do so.  Indeed, in the absence of actual evidence that the Pharisees did perform exorcisms4, I'm going to take a further step and wonder if Jesus' words in verse 27 are a dig against their failure to do such works.  However, even if I'm wrong in my assumption there, I think my interpretation of verse 30 still works.)
  • Verses 46-50 - Besides Jesus' redefinition of "family" to mean those who do God's will, I'm struck by the fact that Jesus' mother is mentioned here, yet in a not entirely positive light (not that she actually does anything, good or bad, here.  I wonder what she wanted to speak to Jesus about?).
Chapter 13
  • Verses 1-23 - So far, I have generally referenced a commentary by Dr. Hagner, one of the New Testament professors I studied under at Fuller Theological Seminary. For this parable, I am instead reminded of something I picked up in a class taught by Dr. Marianne Meye Thompson (who currently holds the same chair that Hagner held before his retirement).  Dr. Thompson comments on the common evangelical sermon on this passage as asking the question "What kind of soil are you?"  This question seems to confuse the roles of "soil" and "the one who cultivates the soil."  Soil can't do anything to itself to make it more fertile!  Instead, this parable is about the fact that God spreads blessings all over, including on areas that don't seem to produce results.  It (and, indeed, many of the other parables in this chapter) seems to have more to say about the apparent realities of the world, and about the nature of who God is, than it does about anything over which we humans have control.
  • Verses 10-15 - I'm not entirely clear as to why God/Jesus would want people not to understand his teachings.  Even so, it seems clear that not only does Jesus grant his disciples the insight as to what these parables mean, but that Matthew believes his readers to be entitled to this knowledge as well, given that he records Jesus' explanations to several of the parables contained in this gospel.
  • Verses 53-58 - I'm struck by the fact that Jesus is referenced as coming to his hometown here, a full chapter after we were told of his mother and siblings looking for him.  Where were his family members in chapter 12?  Why is this story related in this way? 
Chapter 14
  • Verses 1-12 - Matthew keeps dropping bits of John's story throughout the first half of his gospel, but now we get to John's death.
  • Verses 13-21 - The first of two mass-feeding miracles described in Matthew.  Although I've heard a number of scholars argue for a more scientifically-plausible "miracle of sharing" to explain these passages, it is difficult for me to imagine that Matthew understood this event in that way.  If this miracle was performed through everyone following the disciples' example and sharing what they had, I feel sure that Matthew would have recorded it differently.  Not that sharing what we have is a bad thing, of course!
  • Verse 31: "[W]hy did you doubt?" - I'm not sure what to do with this bit.  It is good Presbyterian belief to ascribe pretty much anything of Christian benefit to God, and not to any human agency, including belief5.  Yet, Jesus seems fairly clearly here to attribute Peter's ability to walk on water to Peter's belief and, more to the point, his failure to continue to do so to Peter's moment of doubt.  While I want to affirm the Bible over tradition whenever I'm aware of a conflict created by my tradition, this nonetheless sounds a bit too much like magic for my tastes.  (Note: I also maintain that the Bible cannot be interpreted except through some lens of tradition or another.  It's not an "either/or" proposition.)
Chapter 15
  • Verses 1-6 - Another passage where Jesus criticizes people for slavish adherence to a law (or tradition, in this case, since "(t)here is no OT commandment concerning the ceremonial washing of hands before the eating of ordinary meals."6) over doing good deeds.
  • Verse 12: "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?" - What a mind-numbingly obvious question!  Having just criticized the Pharisees to their face, how would any reasonable person not know that they were offended?
  • Verses 21-28 - Another difficult passage.  Although Jesus does ultimately grant the woman's request, he seems disinclined to do so due to her Gentile heritage.  I don't want to read modern understandings of calling people "dogs" into this passage unnecessarily (it would certainly be racist to use such language today), it certain feels like a similar kind of usage (also in Matthew 7:6).  Besides Jesus' insistence that he was sent only to the people of Israel, I can't help but notice that he uses the same "lost sheep" formulation used earlier in Chapter 10.
  • Verses 29-38 - This passage is similar to the miraculous feeding in Matthew 14:13-21.  In fact, although the numbers are different, much of the language is identical in both versions.  While it seems clear that Matthew (and Mark, which shares this pair of stories) considers these two separate incidents, some scholars have wondered (especially noting that Luke and John only have one such story) if only one such feeding of the multitudes occurred7.  Personally, if one accepts that one miraculous feeding of thousands of people happened, it's not too great a stretch to allow for a second.

1Dr. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Word Biblical Commentary), Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993. p. 306.
2See Hagner, p. 329.
3See Hagner, p. 344.
4Hagner assumes (on p. 343) that the Pharisees, or more properly "those associated with (them)," are indeed performing exorcisms, but does not seem to provide any evidence of this outside of Jesus' remarks. My lack of awareness of such examples doesn't preclude the possibility, but I definitely read the passage differently.
5I'm not keen on getting into a debate on predestination, but one of the whole points of the predestination thesis is that God "chooses" us even before we "choose" belief in Christ.
6Dr. Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary), Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995. p. 430.
7For more details, see Hagner, Matthew 14-28, pp. 448-450.

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