Monday, January 11, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Matthew 6-10

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 6 through 10.

Chapter 6

  • Verses 1-18 - The formula "do not do X, like the hypocrites do" (or some variation) seems to pop up a few times in this chapter.  Jesus clearly wants his followers to have sincere intentions behind their actions.
  • Verses 7-13: The Lord's Prayer - Being a Presbyterian, I've always had a bias for the language of "debts," which is what the TNIV uses in the translation of Matthew's version of the Prayer (Luke's version, as we shall see later, uses a different Greek word, which is rendered "sins").  This seems to be the consensus among most (but by no means all) English translations, and Hagner notes that "(t)he concept of sin as a 'debt' owed to God has an Aramaic background."1  Yet this language is still a matter of controversy in cross-denominational conversations, as many denominations recite "trespasses" (some prefer "sins") in this part of the prayer (I was not able to find any translations on that used "trespasses" in the Lord Prayer as it appears in the Bible, although a few versions use "trespasses" in a related context in verses 14 and 15).  Some of this is no doubt a matter of tradition (even we Presbyterians still retain "King James English" when we recite the prayer, even though we've tended to abandon it elsewhere in favor of more modern language), but I do wonder why other denominations insist on using "trespasses" instead of "debts"?
  • Verses 22-23: "The eye is the lamp of the body..." - This passage caught me off-guard.  What could Jesus be talking about here?  Hagner definitely provided some help here by pointing out that the verses on either side of this bit both "refer to concern with wealth."  The "unhealthy" eye Jesus refers to here is "the 'evil eye' of Near Eastern cultures--an eye that enviously covets what belongs to another, a greedy or avaricious eye."2  Therefore, Jesus isn't talking about blindness in the physical sense, but rather about greed.
  • Verses 24-34: "Do not worry..." - Especially in these economic times, as we struggle so hard to make ends meet, being told "do not worry" about our material needs is hard to hear.  Speaking just for myself, Jesus sounds a little like he's saying that Christians shouldn't even be concerned about working hard (after all, the  birds and flowers don't, yet God takes care of them), which flies in the face of real-life experience.  Surely, some would say, this is a demonstration of a lack of faith on my part.  I don't want to defend myself too strenuously here, lest I protest too much, but I do notice that the context is, yet again, in Jesus talking about greed, and the apostle Paul certainly suggests that people need to work.  At what point does concern to exercise personal responsibility turn into worry?
Chapter 7
  • Verses 1-6 - How does one balance the need to avoid making judgment from the command not to give pearls to swine?  While Hagner does suggest that Jesus' words are not intended to command a prohibition against all judgment or discernment, and suggests an attitude of charity and humility3, it nonetheless seems to me that if God really does judge us on the same basis as we have used for others, we're all probably in trouble.
  • Verse 11: "Though you are evil" - And these are the people who follow Jesus he says this to!  Hagner suggests "sinful" rather than "evil" as the translation for the Greek word, but the tendency toward "moral degradation of all members of the human family" is still presupposed.4
  • Section ending in Verse 14 - whatever else might be said about "law" verses "grace" in Christian thought, these teachings of Jesus should make very clear that our actions matter.  (Compare with the comment on hypocrisy last chapter)
  • Verses 15-20 - About false prophets.  I wonder if it's an unfair application of these words to think about certain Christian leaders of our modern age.  People who have a lot to say about how Christians should act, or what we should believe, and yet who seem unable to produce "fruit" of love and charity in the world.  No doubt if I were to start a list, there would be a lot of disagreement about who should be on it, but I do nonetheless feel that, in keeping with the attitude of "actions matter," this is a teaching to take seriously. 
  • Verses 21-23 - The "actions matter" rubric does cause me some trouble, here, though.  When Jesus describes the words of those who will  be cast away as "evildoers," he actually has them presenting actions they claim to have done on his behalf.  Perhaps Jesus is speaking about hypocrisy again?  This is another section that I find troubling.  Who among us can possibly be found "right" under such a standard?
  • Verses 24-29 - Another strong "actions matter" teaching.
Chapter 8
  • Verses 5-13 - While I especially want to emulate the faith of those who, like the centurion, are commended by Jesus for it, I find myself wondering about those who, despite persistent prayer and petition (to say nothing of the prayers and petitions of others, since the centurion himself was asking for the healing of another person), are never healed.  Are we to suggest that their faith was less than the centurion's?  On what basis (besides their lack of having been healed)?
  • Verse 14: "Peter's mother-in-law" - Apparently Peter was married.  Blink and you'll miss it (actually, Hagner notes that this is also attested in I Cor. 9:5,5 but that's also pretty easy to miss).
  • Verse 19-22 - These responses to those who seem to wish to follow Jesus seem wedged in the middle of the narrative (both verses 18 and 23 reference Jesus looking to cross the lake).
  • There are quite a few miracles in this chapter.  Why does Matthew chose to include the ones he does? What do they demonstrate?
Chapter 9
  • Verses 1-8 - Leaving aside the matter of Jesus' authority to forgive sins, I'm struck by the connection made between the man's paralysis and his having sinned.  In this instance, Jesus seems to affirm that connection, just others of this time and culture so often did.  Contrast this with the blind man in John 9:1-3, of whom Jesus specifically says that his ailment is not caused by sin.
  • Verse 8: "God... had given such authority to human beings." -  Did the witnesses see Jesus's disciples also exercising such authority at this time (we are explicitly told that they can do such things only later)?  While my traditional understanding of this passage is that the witnesses were amazed that any human being (i.e., Jesus) could exercise such authority, the way Matthew phrases it here makes me second guess that assumption.  Hagner seems to think Matthew's use of language is odd, as well.6
  • Verse 9 - It seems a little late in the narrative for Jesus to still be calling members of the Twelve (specifically, Matthew, presumably the same Matthew who is considered responsible for this gospel), but then again, we don't get the full list until Chapter 10.  The pattern is more or less the same as seen with the other "apostolic callings" seen in Chapter 4 last week: Jesus calls, the disciples follow.  No questions asked.
  • Verse 14 - Presumably, the "John" referenced here is John the Baptizer, despite the fact that Matthew said that John was in prison at the time Jesus began his ministry.  Why are his followers asking this question, of a kind which we have come to expect from groups like the Pharisees?  Did John not teach them well enough?  Hagner notes that John himself was an aesthetic (note his eating habits described in Chapter 3)7, so perhaps it makes sense that John's disciples cared about fasting.
  • Verses 30-31 - A group of people were healed, and Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about it, yet they spread the news anyway (he'd given a similar instruction to a recipient of healing in Matthew 8:4, but we're not told whether or not that person obeyed the command).  Do these men suffer any consequences for their act of disobedience?  Should they have (if they didn't)?
Chapter 10
  • Verses 1-4 - This passage, where the Twelve are finally named, follows on the heels of the end of Chapter 9, where Jesus asks that his followers pray for workers to go "into (God's) harvest field."  Might this say something about the Twelve, setting them up as somehow distinct from Jesus' other followers in terms of their mission?  Or does such an interpretation risk sounding like only a few of Jesus' followers are asked to do the work of evangelism?  What about the Twelve's "authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness"?  Is this to be considered unique or special to the Twelve, among Jesus' followers?
  • Verse 5 - Why were the Twelve specifically told not to go to the Gentiles (or the Samaritans) at this time?
  • Verse 10 - Jesus here tells his disciples not to bring a staff.  The parallel passage in Luke agrees, yet the one in Mark includes a staff among the limited number of items the disciples were allowed to bring with them?  Does this apparent discrepancy make understanding Jesus' intention more difficult?  How might this kind of difference have arisen?  Does the fact that God apparently allowed this kind of oddity to remain in God's Word give more or less credibility to the idea that these stories depict something that actually happened in history?
  • Verse 10: "for workers are worth their keep" - as a person seeking a career of paid employment in Christian service, can I just emphasize this part? :)
  • Verses 11-15 - Hagner makes comments that suggest to me that the expectation that other towns should welcome the Twelve and provide hospitality to them may be tied to Jesus' instructions to them only to travel among the "lost sheep of Israel" (i.e., and not to the Gentiles).  Such hospitality was already expected within this culture, but might not have been possible in outside lands where the Twelve did not share "commonalities" with the people they were going to meet.8
  • Verses 16-23 - Clearly, Jesus expects trouble for his disciples (or is this still just to the Twelve?  More on that in a second), and does not want them to be unaware of these dangers.  The reference to the coming of the Son of Man (Jesus' favorite term for himself) in Verse 23 is what makes this all hard to figure.  It sounds a lot like a reference to the Second Coming, but I see no indicator in the preceding verses to indicate this shift from the immediate context to such a future one.  Indeed, Jesus hasn't even mentioned his own death and resurrection just yet!
  • Verses 29-31 - This bit about sparrows reminds me of the exhortation not to worry (at the end of Chapter 6), despite the object of the worry (or lack thereof) having shifted from financial needs to persecution.
  • Verses 32-42 - This isn't some cream puff "anything goes" Jesus speaking here.  He commands full obedience, and clearly doesn't depict such obedience as being easy.  Yet, even here, he tells his followers that even a small action, giving a cup of cold water to a disciple, will be rewarded.  How do we hold these two extremes together?

1Dr. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Word Biblical Commentary), Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993. p. 150.
2Hagner, p. 158.
3Hagner, p. 169.
4Hagner, p. 174.
5Hagner, p. 209.
6See Hagner, p. 234.
7Hagner, p. 242.
8See Hagner, p. 269.

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