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Where the Heart Is: From the Gospel of Matthew
I continue my rehearsals of the Gospels with the Gospel of Matthew. I began this series with John because his chronology is the most detailed and supplemented him with Mark. In treating Matthew, I have for the first time borrowed some insights from a secondary source, Gospel Light, by George M. Lamsa. Born in 1892 in an Assyrian-Christian community in Kurdistan, Lamsa grew up in a world left behind since biblical times, among people who had not yet heard of the discovery of America. A native Aramaic speaker, his special contribution to Gospel studies is his personal knowledge of language idioms and local culture. His observations have greatly helped me visualize the story while reading. I will indicate my use of this source with the letter L. Quotes are from his translation of the Syriac (i.e., Aramaic) New Testament, The Modern New Testament from the Aramaic.
After being baptized and proclaimed by the desert-saint, King Jesus declines to lead an uprising. Instead he withdraws to the desert by himself for about six weeks. He is full of the Spirit and is "tempted by the adversary"; that is, his own will of itself speaks up, and we are given a private seat at the Job-like debate within Jesus' conscience. Starving, his first impulse is to turn a stone into a pita loaf to assuage his hunger; but he tells himself no, "It is not by bread alone that man can live, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God." It is just like his later saying in Samaria, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me." Next, Jesus is tempted to do a spectacular public miracle to help lead people to the God; but no, this is not God's will. Then he is tempted to free the people at once from oppression; but no, this is not God's will either.
Having overcome these temptations once, Jesus overcame them forever. In his public life he never does a miracle for himself, never does a miracle for show, and consistently refuses to accept a crown. He will continue to seek out wild, lonely places to renew his spirit. According to John's Gospel, he recruits Five where John was baptizing at a ford (L) on the river, who accompany him on his First Mission to Judea, a sojourn in Samaria after John's imprisonment, and the First Mission to the Lake Country. Matthew and Mark agree that Jesus travels with Five in the Lake Country, but they are not the same Five he picked up from John: they are the four fishermen plus Matthew himself, a former tax farmer (though he doesn't join till a little later).
Approaching the Four at their work, Jesus offers the lovely metaphor, "I will make you to become fishers of men." It goes along with the harvest imagery he used to three of them in Samaria: "The fields . . . have turned white and have long been ready for the harvest." Leaving their professions to join him, they will now live on gifts to their master (L).1
In the Lake Country, Jesus heals the sick and mad, preaches a new, righteous Kingdom of God, and enjoins people to turn from sin. One day ascending a hill, he addresses the crowds at length. What he teaches is a new prescription for living.
The king in exile doesn't tell them that they will not have cause to mourn in these terrible times and themselves be persecuted as his followers, but he tells them that as long as they walk the walk of simplicity, mercy, and peace, that is all they need for happiness. Where their heart is, there will their treasure be. And this happiness, this treasure, of its very nature gives of itself to others. Their hearts will be like salt and light. Salt is shared as a gesture of friendship (L); but this is even better, it is like living salt that can never lose its taste. It is like a butter-lamp on a pole that brightens the darkness for many families living in one room (L).
His followers have to be better than the churchmen, who are content to be respectable. The churchmen's hearts are in material things and the outward show -- in false and perishable things -- so let them not look for any other reward. But Jesus' followers must walk the walk of simplicity, mercy, and peace and dismiss even the seeds of falseness in their hearts. They are called to a higher standard -- to shrink even from such universal bad habits as name-calling, spying on women, frivolous divorce, lawsuits, oaths in bargaining, and ostentation in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting; for if their heart is in these things, these will be their treasures. They must be courteous in speech, respect their wives and all women, avoid law-courts, tell the plain truth in bargaining, and give, pray, and fast quietly, putting their heart in God.
In response to requisitions by churchmen, officials, soldiers, or anyone else, they are neither to resist nor to be stoics. They are to give all that is asked and more, not as one complying with a demand but as one whose very nature it is to give, like the sun and the rain. They must be perfect, he says -- not immediately, of course, but eventually.
Since the Father knows what they need, let them keep their prayers simple -- an expression of submission to his will whatever it may be, contentment with simple living, and confidence that the more they show mercy to others, the more their own hearts will be healed. "Forgiveness" is not a Get Out of Jail Free card, it is the process of making perfect. Jesus' prescription for living is to live as if. Actions done in this spirit redound upon the springs of action in the heart.
Let them not accumulate perishable things as insurance or as status symbols. Let them not hoard food, grow fat, and deck their bodies in finery. The eyes are the lamp of the body, the window of the soul. A true eye is what makes a body beautiful, whereas no fatness and finery can make the body beautiful if the eye is false.2 If their heart is in these things, rather than in God, let them not look for any other treasure. If in trade they measure short to others, long to themselves (L), they have the reward their hearts sought, let them not look for any other. You don't give a string of pearls to a pig. No more does God give the most precious thing -- himself -- to blockheads who would as soon have an oyster. The door to life isn't a grand entrance. The road to life isn't a paved highway. Rather, the door is a humble hobbit door, and the road is an obscure bypath.
To walk the walk of simplicity, mercy, and peace -- to bear good fruit -- is the only thing that matters. My food is to do the will of him who sent me, he had said in Samaria. Thy will be done. To walk the walk is to build your house on a mountain, on unshakable truth. To be ostentatiously religious and talk and talk and talk is to build your house on shifting sand.
That is what Jesus said on the hilltop.
Previously, Jesus had spent two days in Samaria, where he found faith and gave the living water that would become a spring of eternal life. Now a Roman approaches him about his sick servant. Despite the taboo of uncleanness (L), Jesus promptly offers to come; but the man says this is not necessary, a word will be sufficient. The most interesting thing about this scene is the fact that the man says he understands Jesus because they are both captains: "I am also a man under the authority of superior officers [as you are under the Father], and there are soldiers under my command." It may be this claim of kinship as much as his faith in Jesus' powers that wins Jesus' praise, "Not even in Israel have I found such faith as this." He and other foreigners like him will "sit down . . . in the kingdom of heaven."
In Mark, the sequence from the Sabbath-breaking incidents and formation of a plot against Jesus through the parables from the boat precedes the sequence from the storm on the Lake through the sending out of the Twelve. In Matthew the order of these two large blocks of story is reversed. Following these sequences in both is a flashback to John's murder, followed by the feeding of the multitude. The flashback to John's murder is apropos of Herod's observation that John lives on in Jesus, which is nothing less than a death-threat. Mark reports the return of the Twelve at this time. John has Jesus speak of John in the past tense in Jerusalem, and there immediately follows the feeding of the multitude in the Lake Country (where the Twelve are present).
It is therefore difficult to say just when John was killed. Matthew says just before the feeding of the multitude that Jesus "heard it," but heard what? The news of the death or the news of Herod's threat?
Matthew and Mark both have John alive immediately preceding the Sabbath-breaking incidents and plot against Jesus (Matthew says his messengers came to Jesus). John has Jesus speak of John in the past tense immediately following a Sabbath-breaking incident and the formation of the plot against Jesus. That suggests we could place John's murder at about this time. It could then be seen as the opening salvo in a general heating-up of the campaign against these movements, which is the substance of one of the two large blocks of story.
The other large block of story culminates in the sending out of the Twelve to Jews outside Judea. Matthew doesn't report their return. Mark puts it just before the feeding of the multitude (coincident with Herod's threat), which is consistent with John's noting the presence of Twelve immediately thereafter.
So when were they sent out? Both Mark and Matthew have them chosen about the time of the formation of the plot against Jesus and, I hypothesize, John's death (Mark right after, Matthew right before). And we can accept Mark's placing of their return coincident with Herod's threat and just before the feeding of the multitude. That leaves two scenarios: (1) John was murdered, the situation heated up, the Twelve underwent a period of training, were sent out, and returned almost immediately (Mark); or (2) the disciples were tested and then Twelve were sent out, in their absence John was murdered and the situation heated up, and then they returned (Matthew). Matthew does mention "disciples" as present during the heating-up period, but I don't see why that has to mean the Twelve. If there were more than Twelve disciples, these would be the ones who were not chosen to go.
The Narrative Resumed
Since their mission was to the "lost sheep," it makes sense that their training or testing was a voyage to a heathen country, Decapolis, where, Matthew tells us, they encountered two violent madmen. George Lamsa offers an interesting interpretation of this incident and of casting out demons generally. According to him, "demon" and "cast out" are Aramaic idioms for, respectively, "madman" and "scour." Also, the Syriac text contains a phrase that could equally mean "enter into the pigs" or "attack the pigs." Putting all this together, Lamsa translates, "The lunatics kept asking him, saying, 'If you are going to heal us, permit us to attack the herd of swine'" -- as a token of their conversion to the way of life of the Jews (as they took Jesus to be). Jesus (as he often does) takes them at their belief.3
Returning to the other side of the lake, Jesus heals the paralyzed man lowered through the roof, saying, "Your sins have been forgiven," raising the opposition of churchmen, which I have already discussed at length. Matthew, who makes his living as a tax farmer, quits his dockside office in the middle of the day to become the fifth disciple. The churchmen want to know why Jesus associates with people known to be lax in their religious duties, so Jesus quotes God, "I want mercy and not sacrific[ial offerings]." Jesus' laxity is also challenged by the followers of the radical conservative, John. He answers by likening the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding party.
A wedding party is like a harvest festival. In Samaria he had called his disciples happy men gathering the harvest of eternal life. Now he says, "The harvest is great, and the laborers are few"; for he sees the people confused and helpless like sheep, not knowing which way to turn.
He chooses Twelve men -- twelve workers to gather, twelve shepherds to herd -- and sends them out with a long speech. They are to go to Jews outside Judea ("lost sheep"), put up only in Jewish homes, and not fall into heathen customs (L). They are to go as they are, not taking even an extra pair of wool shoes (L). They are to preach, "The Kingdom of heaven is near! Turn away from your sins" -- the same thing that John had preached -- and heal madness and other illnesses, accepting no pay (L). Following a new sect means forsaking one community and attaching yourself to another, a step that could mean death at the hands of your own family (L). Hence, their mission is going to stir up trouble. He curses the towns that will refuse them their right of hospitality and blesses anyone who will so much as give them a drink of water.
I think this prediction of trouble good ground for preferring Matthew's order of events over Mark's; for in Matthew's order the "heating-up" period ensues, whereas in Mark's it precedes.
While the Twelve are gone, messengers arrive from John in prison. The radical conservative was disappointed with Jesus before and is still doubtful: Mammon still rules, John is still imprisoned. After the departure of the messengers with Jesus' somewhat sharp answer, Jesus laments the violence done by church and state (L) to the new Kingdom and those who preach it and roundly curses the hostile towns again. About this time, I hypothesize, John is murdered. He could even have been killed while the messengers were en route to Jesus.
Immediately after are the Sabbath-breaking incidents and the plot against Jesus. I place the Second Mission to Judea, which involves a similar incident and mentions John in the past tense, here.
His enemies spread that he cures by Beelzebub, to which he answers that he and their sons (i.e., his disciples) cure by God's Spirit, so that "the kingdom of God has come near to you." The Spirit, the "living water that shall become in you a spring of eternal life," is stirring, the Kingdom of God is being born now.
Jesus family attempts an intervention, but he rebuffs them. Then from a boat he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven in its beginnings. The pearl, the yeast, and the seed all reflect the fascination with invisible organic processes and reveal the Kingdom of Heaven in its beginnings as an invisible process. He also enjoins the people to be democratic and spendthrift like the rain and the sun: you waste seed on the rocks to make sure you sow all the good soil; you waste water on the clinging tares in order to nourish every wheat plant; your net doesn't discriminate between good fish and bad; a mustard bush (L) holds out its branches to all birds without distinction.4 It is also implied that this effusiveness will be like light, revealing the true and the false.
In the context of the expansion of the movement through the Mission of the Twelve, Herod publicly threatens Jesus' life. Mark says the Twelve return at this point. Either it was prearranged, or else they regroup in response to the death-threat against their master. "When Jesus heard it, he departed thence by boat, alone to a desert place." There he feeds the multitude, and John tells us, "They were ready to come and seize him to make him a king." I've interpreted the walking on the water as a way of escape.
Tasked again with the question of eating-rituals, Jesus returns to his theme from the Sermon on the Mount: "It is not what enters into the mouth which defiles a man; but what goes out of the mouth. . . . What comes out of the mouth come out from the heart." He wants to influence the hidden springs of action, not just lay down laws.
In this highly charged atmosphere in which the mob wants to crown him and the government wants to kill him, he withdraws to heathen Phoenicia. In John's version he goes to Jerusalem, where it is possible to travel incognito and be just one more face in the crowd. To acclaim the pseudo king was now punishable by excommunication. To be excommunicated was to be exiled from one's community (L).
Back in the Lake Country (the Third Mission), his own disciples think his warning against the churchmens' "yeast" is something about eating-rituals. That is, they don't get the metaphor because they themselves are thinking like churchmen.
They go up north to the vicinity of Caesarea, where Jesus begins to speak of his imminent murder. He says he will be killed and raised again on the third day. He says that they, too, are going to find themselves on the wrong side the law. He will not try to save his life, nor may they try to save their own. But "whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it. . . . There are men who stand here, who will not taste death, until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." Although the king is among them, they have not really seen him yet. He takes three of them up a high mountain, and there they do see him as king, a figure of dazzling white.
They return from their travels for the Fourth (and last) Mission to the Lake Country. Asked about the church tax, Jesus establishes that a tax is a tribute and he is not obliged to pay it, then tells Peter to catch a fish equal to the tax (L) and pay it anyway. He is picking his battles.
The disciples ask how to be great. They are thinking like churchmen, but he tells them, "Whoever . . . will humble himself like this little boy, shall be great in the kingdom of heaven." Woe to those like the churchmen, who talk down to women, children, and the down-and-out and would excommunicate them for following him. He enjoins the need for a kind and open heart towards all.
According to John, December sees Jesus in the capital, where he narrowly survives an attempt on his life. He escapes to the river crossing (L) but then reenters the vicinity of the city to go to Lazarus. I previously described this as a Fourth and Fifth Mission to Judea; but if Lamsa is correct that he never leaves the province, it would all be the Fourth and last. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus is "disturbed" by people's angst, which shows lack of faith. He doesn't want them to act this way when he is killed, nor to dread dying themselves. According to John, instead of returning to Galilee after, they camp in a remote spot.
Returning to the river crossing, he resumes his talks. As just before he told them to respect the "little ones," so now he insists on respect for women: wives are holy helpmates, not chattel. When a man with many sheep and cattle (L) asks what he needs to attain eternal life (the "living" water that will become an eternally flowing spring of life), Jesus invites him to get rid of these and tramp with him, just as the four fisherman left their nets and Matthew left his office. He didn't make this offer to everyone, but the man fatally hesitates, and Jesus tells the crowd, "It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a [wooden] needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (L). Indeed. He can't tramp with his sheep and cattle, nor can have them in prison, nor can he take them with him when he dies.
So, you people, don't envy the rich; "for the kingdom of heaven is like a man, who is a householder. . . ." The ones who showed up early in the morning are those who work and worry like ants in order to be first. Those who slept in are those who are content with a sufficiency, like the birds and the wildflowers. Be content with a sufficiency, and you will be paid a hundredfold what you expected.
After the outrageous raising of Lazarus right outside the city, his enemies are more determined than ever to kill him. Nevertheless, Jesus heads for the city. Judas is not the only one getting nervous. All of them are wondering when Jesus is going to make his move. A little while before, they were asking about being "great," and his answer to the rich man took them off-guard. They are hoping for dukedoms when Jesus overthrows the usurpers and claims his kingdom. Indeed, they are already getting jealous lest one get more than another.
The way he enters the city does not bolster their confidence. A prince would enter on a horse or mule; Jesus enters on a donkey, the common cab of quadrupeds (L). He doesn't lodge in the city, though, but outside, in the same town where Lazarus lives with his sisters.
Encountering a worthless fig tree producing no fruit, he curses it and it dies. It is an object lesson: Woe to those who produce no fruit! Woe to you churchmen who didn't even belatedly listen to John and begin to walk the walk! Blessings on the riffraff who did listen! You churchmen are like the tenants of a vineyard who, rather than use the owner's estate productively, killed the owner's servant (John), and will not stop short of killing his very son (me). Your tenancy is over and will be turned over to the riffraff you despise. You are like people who aren't glad to come to a wedding-feast. That's fine, you can be uninvited, and humble people who are glad enough to set aside a clean outfit (L) can come in your place.
Jesus' apparent refusal to make his move creates a problem for the churchmen and Herod. They try to trap him into inciting people to refuse taxes. His answer, "Whose is this image and inscription?" and "Give therefore to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," is as if one were to say in a third-world country: "By using dollars, you are implicating yourself with the empire. So let the money go. Sheep and cattle and fish and fruits and wheat bear God's image and inscription. They are the fertile earth, given to man by God for his productive use. Your own bodies also bear God's image and inscription, given for productive use. If you have these, you don't need dollars, and if you don't use dollars, the empire has no rightful claim on you." But it wasn't an answer they could use.
In a lengthy diatribe against the churchmen, he says he is sending them "prophets and wise men and scribes," whom they will persecute and so show their true colors. The Kingdom of Heaven will then be like a days-long wedding party. Those who are glad to come will set aside a clean outfit and lamp-oil against the coming of the groom (with his bride, L). That means they will diligently use what is given them to bear good fruits for God; and the fruit God wants is not fat lambs on the altar but attentive kindness to others, especially those most in need. He who does not bear this fruit will perforce be left outside.
At a house, Mary empties a vial of perfume on his head. Others remonstrate, but Jesus accepts the gesture as for his burial and says it will be remembered of her. She, it will be remembered, had wept and wailed in this same town over her dead brother until Jesus raised him. That event has changed her, and now she is the first of the disciples to acknowledge and accept what the master has been saying about going to his death.
The churchmen need to get Jesus alone to arrest him. They succeed in suborning the disillusioned Judas for this purpose.
Jesus and the Twelve have their final supper at an inn.5 He had said at Capernaum after feeding the multitude that in giving them the living food and drink, he suffered. He now renews that theme, calling the pita loaf his body, the common cup (L) his blood. In John's version he says they will be excommunicated, tried, and killed and so be like a woman in labor, giving birth to the Kingdom. In Matthew's version, he says that one of them will betray him and all will deny him and scatter and that he will meet them again in the beloved Lake Country.
They had imagined that they could drink the same cup with him, but so weak are they right now that the three best of them Peter, James, and John cannot even stay awake. The arresting party of Temple guards and Roman soldiers (both church and state) surprises them in the garden. Jesus forbids resistance, and the disciples scatter. He is sent first to the Bishop, who finds him to be a blasphemer, worthy of stoning. However, the Bishop has no authority over a Galilean, and so sends Jesus to Pilate to secure his execution another way, under a charge of treason (L).
Jesus refuses to answer Pilate's questions. If he rejected even the use of Caesar's money, why would he recognize the authority of Caesar's court? I have already suggested that Pilate wanted Jesus dead as much as anyone. I interpret his defense of Jesus before the arresting party (the "crowd") as play-acting to test the loyalty of the Jews there present, that is, the temple guards and high priests. Thus intimidated, they call for the death of the pseudo king and say, "We have no king except Caesar."
George Lamsa translates Jesus' last words on the cross from the Syriac as, "My God, my God, for this I was kept!"
Because there was little time before the Sabbath, his body is placed in a temporary tomb (L). It is appropriate that he is first seen again by Mary, the only one who had given evidence she accepted his imminent death. Since he always spoke of his death and resurrection in the same breath, the sister of the raised Lazarus must have believed this, too.
I like John's ending to the story. Back in the Lake Country the fishermen have returned to their trade. A stranger on shore tells them to cast their net in a certain place, and they get a huge haul. It is he, and he has prepared breakfast. They eat, and then he asked Peter, rather humorously, I think, "Do you love me more than these [fish]?" (L). Were they only to be fishers of fish, after all? As he has just fed them, he tells Peter, "Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep." Matthew says he sends them out from there to the world.
1. A tax farmer was someone who purchased a government contract to collect taxes (L). Jesus did not tell Matthew he make him a "tax collector of men." It was not an innocent occupation and did not lend itself to poetic metaphors. He would never have returned to it as the fisherman would later return to fishing.
2. In Sierra Leone, where I was in the Peace Corps, being fat was a status symbol, a sign of wealth. "Finery" means cotton and linen, as opposed to wool (L).
3. In other passages evil spirits means "evil winds," which is an idiom for "diseases" (L).
4. This reminds me of something Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki said in an interview: "Balloonfish ride the tides and keep coming back to the coast of Japan, . . . but they don't reproduce. . . . They do it so they can reproduce when the waters around Japan have warmed up due to continental shift. . . . Some plants want to bloom and reproduce, and float down a river looking for land. Instead they wind up in the ocean and die. This is done over and over again. The cycle repeats itself. But if conditions were ever to change, they might be successful. . . . There used to be a tall paulonia tree there too, but it was cut down when the road was constructed. . . . Since then, its offspring have popped up all over the place. Why didn't they appear until that time? . . . There's a chestnut tree over there, and every day it drops chestnuts. Yet every year, there's no sign of new seedlings. Once I was asked by a child, since there are so many spores, why they don't grow. It's because plants waste a lot. . . . They wait for a chance." ("I Understand Nausicaa a Bit More," Comic Box, January 1995)
5. Only an inn would have a male water-bearer, Mark 14:13 (L).