Monday, January 25, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Matthew 16-20

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 16 through 20.  I'm especially aware this week that I'm going to skip over some very well-known sections of Scripture in my comments.  This is not because I think that such passages (Peter's recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, for example) aren't important, but simply that I'm not sure I have anything new to add that isn't already well-known quite readily.

Chapter 16

  • Verses 2-3: red skies - I'm not at all sure whether Jesus is being serious or ironic here, but "red" skies aren't at all common to my understanding.  At sunset, yes, but I'm not sure I would associate it with fair weather.
  • Verses 5-12 - I've commented in the past about the audio version I'm using to work through these readings.  Like in that passage from Chapter 3, the audio really brings out the speakers (in this case, Jesus) annoyance at those to whom he's speaking.  I really do think it's important that we recognize that the Bible reveals Jesus to have these expressions of anger and annoyance, as opposed to just his love and kindness all the time.  Still, I can't help by wonder, if Jesus is going to get so annoyed at his disciples for not realizing that he's "not talking... about bread," why does he use language (such as "yeast") that is less than clear in the first place?  Why not just say "beware the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees"?
  • Verse 28 - The verse, on its surface, looks eschatological.  That is to say, it sounds like Jesus is saying that the end times will arrive before (at least some of) the disciples have died.  Since we're reading this from the standpoint of nearly 2000 years later, we can safely say that the end has not come.  There have been several explanations for this.  One common one is that Jesus is, in fact, referring to his transfiguration (which happens in the very next chapter, and immediately follows the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, as well).  Another interpretation is that Jesus is predicting the fall of Jerusalem (which happened in the year 70).  Besides wondering what Jesus thought when he said these words, I wonder what Matthew thought about them when he was writing the gospel (presumably before the end of the first century, but after the fall of Jerusalem).1
Chapter 17
  • Verse 5 - The words from heaven sound remarkably similar to those heard at Jesus' baptism in Matthew 3:17.
  • Verse 10-13 - The tradition the disciples are remembering originates in Malachi 4:5Once again, John the Baptizer is identified with Elijah.
  • Verse 17 -  Jesus is annoyed again.  But why is he reacting this way to a request for help?  This isn't how he usually responds to such requests.  I considered the possibility that he might (again?) be upset with his disciples, since they were unable to drive the demon out (more on that in a bit), but Hagner suggests that Jesus is not annoyed with the man asking for help nor the disciples, but rather the crowd.2
  • Verses 19-21 - Again, Jesus seems to be saying that if you don't believe something strongly enough, it won't happen.  I've already commented about my difficulty with this kind of teaching.  Perhaps as much to the point, what does Jesus mean?  In one breath, he complains about the disciples faith being too "little" to drive out the demon, and in the next, says that faith "as small as a mustard seed" is enough to do amazing things.  Aren't these statements contradictory?  Surely, to talk about faith so small as a mustard seed is to talk about any real faith at all, yet since Jesus had given the power to drive out demons to the disciples in Chapter 10, it seems unlikely 1) that they've never actually driven out any before now, and 2) that the disciples have had a complete lack of faith up to now.  And if the disciples have had faith up to now, how is it that it should gone at this point?
Chapter 18
  • Verses 8-9 - Hagner suggests that these verses are "hyperbolic and not to be taken literally."3  I expect that other scholars might disagree.  Even so, it seems to me that, even among conservative, "literal" interpretive traditions, one would have to search awfully hard to find anyone who has actually maimed themselves in this way and for these reasons (and that, again even within such traditions, those few who have tend to be regarded as not-entirely-sane).
  • Verses 23-35 - In this season of economic hardship, I thought of this passage in a somewhat different light than I had before.  I wonder how many of us, feeling such pressure to pay our bills and meet our financial obligations, we treat those who owe anything to us (no matter how much less significant) more harshly.  None of this is to suggest that what the "wicked servant" did was any less wrong, but perhaps can help us understand how we often behave in ungrateful ways.
Chapter 19
  • Verses 10-12 - I feel that there must be some cultural context that I'm missing here.  Why should the disciples respond to Jesus' words on divorce, remarriage and adultery by suggestion that "it is better not to marry"?  Is it that hard to be faithful to one's spouse?   Jesus's response, immediately talking about eunuchs (by which I take him to be referring to anyone who is sexually inactive), doesn't help matters.
  • Verses 16-26 - I've written on this story (at least, as told in Mark) before.  I'll let that stand for now.
Chapter 20
  • Verses 1-16 - This is one of those times when I wonder about why the chapter breaks are placed where they are, given the clear connection to Chapter 19: 30.
  • Verses 22-23 - If Jesus doesn't even have the authority to grant James and John's (or their mother's) request, why does he even ask them if they are able to share in his sufferings ("drink from [his] cup")?

1See Dr. Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary), Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995. pp. 485-487, for more details.
2Hagner, p. 504.
3Hagner, p. 523.

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