Talking Points on the Gospel of Matthew

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So today at work I listened to the Gospel of Matthew. I’m nominating the Gospel of Matthew as my least favorite Gospel followed by John, Luke, and Mark. Here are a couple of talking points.

Over the last two years I’ve studied the Gospels rather closely. When I was younger I read the Gospels as monolithic whole mostly believing that only minor alterations existed between them. However, I realize more and more that reading the Gospels as parts of a whole is a profoundly violent hermeneutic.

Something that struck me was how busy Jesus seemed to be in the first twenty chapters or so. He went from town to town constantly healing and exorcizing demons. I’m still amazed that in the Gospel of John Jesus performs no exorcisms.

In Matthew, Jesus is not a Derridean. Jesus constantly stresses in the Sermon on the Mount that those who do their good works in public forfeit their heavenly reward. This is interesting because it conflicts with Derrida’s understanding of the gift. The gift must operate in aneconomic economy where a gift is freely given to the other with no expectations of return or compensation.

My main reason for disliking Matthew is his obsession with the fulfillment of prophecy. It gets so tiresome. Jesus’ birth story is grossly exaggerated so he can be called out of Egypt to fulfill scriptures. Also, notice that Judas’ betrayal in Matthew is incentivized. However, in Mark (the Gospel from which Matthew was borrowing much of his material), Judas is only offered a reward after he comes to the Pharisees to betray Jesus. Moreover, the compensation for the betrayal is unspecified in Mark. Again, this is another example of Matthew forcing Jesus’ narrative to fit into storyline. I feel as if Matthew’s Jesus begins to look like a puppet that has to walk this tight rope of destiny so prophecy can be fulfilled. He just doesn’t seem real.

Jesus’ birth story in Matthew’s Gospels is supposed to parallel’s the birth of Moses. Many other infants are killed (slaughter of the innocents), and calling Jesus out of Egypt to the promised land was also supposed to make Jesus’ story resemble Moses’ life. The slaughter on the innocents reminded me of Camus’ comments in The Fall,

“Say, do you know why he was crucified – the one you are perhaps thinking of at this moment?…Besides the reason that you have been very well explained to us for the past two thousand years, there was a major one for that terrible agony…The real reason is that he knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of this crime he was accused of, he had committed others – even though he didn’t know which ones. Did he really not know them? He was at the source of after all; he must have heard of a certain slaughter of the innocents. The children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place – why did they die if not because of him?…I am sure he could not forgive them. And as for that sadness that can be felt in his every act, wasn’t it the incredible melancholy of a man who heard night after the night voice of Rachel weeping for her children and refusing all comfort? (83-84).

For a chilling presentation of the slaughter of the innocents, I’d suggest Pasolini’s the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard remains a mystery to me. I used to understand that everyone is equal in heaven, an interpretation I can no longer embrace. Also in Matthew Jesus repeatedly mentions rewards in heaven, which suggests to me that not everyone will receive the same pay (if pay is understood as heavenly rewards). I began thinking that another more accurate interpretation might be that the early workers are Jews and those later welcomed into the Kingdom are Gentiles. However, I’m not entirely sure of this reading either.

I know Crossan believes the burial of Jesus to have been highly improbable, instead he argues that it’s likely wild dogs devoured the dead body of Christ. I’m not sure if that would still qualify as Good Friday? Let’s say he’s wrong, can you imagine what it would have been like for Joseph of Arimathea to handle and wrap the dead, naked body of God?

The story about the Canaanite woman and Jesus in Matthew 15 is by far the most unsettling of all the narratives in Matthew. Jesus comes off looking like prejudiced by calling Canaanites “dogs”. However, after she outwits the master of satire, he lauds her for her faith and heals her demon-possessed daughter. I wonder if perhaps historical research has shown that this story is a later addendum to transform the message of Jesus from being a specifically Jewish message into universal good news for both Jews and Gentiles alike. Then again it does not paint Jesus in the best light. Often, embarrassments and omissions are clues that a specific passage is historically accurate.

I’ll be listening to the other three Gospels over the next week and should have some reactions to those as well.

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