Who Is Jesus According to Matthew?
Read the Gospel of Matthew (especially Matthew 5–7; 13)
I am a peaceable person by nature but say the words “Marvin Gardens” and I feel the heat of a longstanding (decades-long!) feud deep in my bones. Let’s say that it’s a good thing that I wasn’t called to real estate development based on some very (justified! Ha!) hurt feelings when a brother-in-law took zero pity on this poor Thimble, making her way around the Monopoly board. So close to “Go!” and a desperately needed payday, but the landlord/brother-in-law wouldn’t let me advance further. A tipped board later and the feud galloped freely for a very long time. Yes, yes, all in fun.
Family feud. It’s not just a game show; a family feud is real. And sometimes the consequences of a feud can reverberate for years. That twist of a phrase, mistimed raised eyebrow, or the seemingly greedy snatching of the last of the snickerdoodles in March can, with a bit of creative reinterpreting during the intervening months, result in a very uncomfortable Thanksgiving meal in November—or can, perhaps in extreme cases of hurt and misunderstanding mixed with a very bad day and a big dose of embellishment, mean unoccupied chairs at the table.
Even so, a family feud is about family. Who knows your hot buttons better than a sibling? Sometimes family feuds grow up to be the stuff of legend but the everyday “feuds” are often the result of family members who interpret things differently from one another, choose to go a different way than is per usual, or have to grapple with what life throws at them and all the messiness that entails. I think that family feuds are worth thinking about as we take a look through the lens of the Gospel of Matthew.
In Who Is Jesus?, Judy Siker writes, “From Matthew’s opening lines to his closing lines, we can see that this is a Jewish Gospel for a Jewish audience. In many ways, this Gospel is our most Jewish one” (page 22, page 36 in the large print). But the writer of this Gospel shares difficult words about others in the Jewish community who are at odds with Matthew’s community over key issues. Siker writes, “Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience was in the throes of separating from the Jewish synagogue over rival interpretations of scripture and the identity of Jesus” (page 23, page 38 in the large print). Key issues, indeed! No wonder this Gospel includes angry language about family members who were tugging in another direction.
The Gospels were written during a time of great upheaval and difficulty and smashed understandings of the nature of the world. Consider our own time with our own difficulties—see how much we struggle and spar with one another. Struggling and sparring are natural responses to discernment, particularly when everything one knows or understands is at stake.
I recently purchased a copy of the Jewish Annotated New Testament (The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, Oxford University Press, 2011). On page 41, in Matthew’s Gospel, the following sidebar essay, entitled “Pharisees and Judas,” speaks to this family disagreement:
“Jesus’ enemies are more persistent in Matthew’s Gospel than in Mark’s, as the expanded role of Judas indicates (27.3–5). Judas’s acceptance of the thirty pieces of silver in exchange for his betrayal of Jesus (a Matthean addition) contributes to the stereotype of the venal and disloyal Jew. Jesus’ other opponents, such as the Pharisees, appear more devious than in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew alone contains the famous ‘woe to you scribes and Pharisees’ in ch 23. The Pharisees (sometimes accompanied by other adversaries) constantly question and harass Jesus, especially regarding observance of Torah (9.10–13; 12.1–8, 24–28; 15.1–9; 16:1–4; 19.3–9; 15–22; 34–40) Even the word ‘rabbi’ has a negative connotation in Matthew: Judas refers to Jesus by that title while betraying him (26.49). Matthew’s Pharisees may represent rival Jewish scribes competing for community loyalty following the Roman war, and thus Matthew’s Gospel may provide a look into the tensions existing between Jesus’ followers and other Jews in the late first century. . . . Adherents of a particular group or set of beliefs often polemicize most strongly against those who share similar, but not identical, beliefs; this may be responsible for some of the strong anti-Pharisaic rhetoric in Matthew.”
I especially want to lift up the first part of the last sentence: “Adherents of a particular group or set of beliefs often polemicize most strongly against those who share similar, but not identical, beliefs . . .”
That, to me, describes a family disagreement. Judy Siker writes, “It is important to keep this context in mind as we read this Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel is the story of Jesus told through the lens of Jews seeking to understand how to survive as Jews in this post-70 CE destruction. . . . This was a time of self-discovery and grappling with Jewish identity, and this ‘sibling rivalry’ at its most heated is reflected in the Gospel of Matthew” (page 22, page 34 in the large print).
The way I see it from centuries beyond, the tensions between the groups were very real and very understandable. Siblings, indeed! But there was no way for the parties involved to ever have fathomed that their dispute would continue to be of interest centuries later to outsiders. Or, more darkly, would have ever resulted in evil rationalization for oppressing or even murdering generations in the future.
A few years ago, I visited the Great Synagogue in Dohány Street in Budapest. The Jewish community who worshipped in this synagogue was mostly decimated in the Holocaust (and even before these darkest days, experienced discrimination and violence). Our volunteer tour guide, now, an older woman, was a young girl during those terrible days; she chooses to show up to tell the story, day after day, group after group. I can only imagine that she tells what she knows and experienced so what happened there is not forgotten.
As I continue to think about the Gospel of Matthew, I am heartened by the last sentence, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28-20b). I believe that God is with us, Emmanuel, with all of us, even as we disagree and struggle to discern our way toward what God asks of us.