Sister Sickness still has me laid up. And Mother Rain waters the earth outside my windows.
What Is the First Teaching-Section of Matthew About?
Yesterday I reflected on Matthew 1—2 and concluded that Matthew has in mind a divine Being who works for our salvation (and glorification) by impoverishing herself. Of course, this is scandalous if one conceives of “God” as all-powerful, practically by definition. What would a divine Being be doing who intentionally humbles herself, impoverishes herself, makes herself poor? This is hardly the “sovereign God” fantasized by many Calvinists, and not by them alone. Those who are fond of hierarchies of power like to envision the Divine being the same way. In Matthew’s experience, there were those who imagined a god making relentless demands of purity, who demanded conformity and judged the nonconformists, and demanded that this god’s purified ones separate themselves from the impure. Matthew, however, learned to envision the Divine differently.
Following this introduction, Matthew moves into another “section,” which is what I would call chapters 3—7. People who are familiar with Matthew’s gospel are familiar with the five speeches: chapters 5—7, 10, 13, 18, and 24-25. I contend that each speech is preceded by a story collection that correspond to the speech. A glitch comes with chapters 19—20; they do not seem to fit in to this schema. The story collection that precedes chapters 24—25 is 21—23. My solution is to see 19—20 as an additional teaching section appended to chapter 18. The teaching section is 18—20 preceded by the story collection in 14—17. This teaching section is divided in two: the speech in 18 and a series of pericopes in 19—20. We can get to that later.
Now my concern is chapters 3—7, and for the moment with what is the limit of the story collection in 3—4. I remember getting the impression from commentaries that Jesus’ baptism and temptation belong to Jesus’ pre-ministry beginning, namely, with chapters 1—2. The official story would then begin somewhere in 4:12-17. Formally, it looks like verses 12-16 parallel verses 2:19-23. Verse 17 of chapter 4 then would be the thesis sentence that opens the first section which includes the calling of the disciples and the Sermon on the Mount. I liked that way of seeing it for a long time. The parallelism was convincing.
If the thesis is, “Jesus began to proclaim and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near,” then the calling of the first disciples as the model response and the Sermon on the Mount as instructions for his disciples—well, this made very good sense. I was mostly bothered by the fact that the story-collection was so short compared to the other four collections. I satisfied myself that this conciseness was meant to get straight to the point; not much more needed to be said.
However, as I preached each year on the Lord’s baptism and pondered on the temptation story, I began to see it differently. I began to realize that Jesus was the model disciple, and the calling of the four fishermen was the cap that transitioned to the Sermon. Of course, Jesus was more than a model disciple. He modeled what discipleship was and then called people into relationship with himself to become disciples according to this model. That still does not capture it, so let me explain.
The section opens with John the Baptist. He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” Jesus repeats verbatim what John says (3:2; 4:17); that should be a clue. In order to understand what Jesus is doing, we first need to understand what John is doing. And what John is doing is calling people to become penitents, people who take up repenting as a mode of being. Repentance here is not just repenting of particular acts, regretting past behavior and determining to change. Nor is it about making an about-face once, changing the direction of your life in an act of conversion and then living a better life from then on. The word in the gospels, metanoia, means a change of mind, of outlook or perspective, seeing things in a completely new way, abandoning one worldview and adopting another. The word behind it in Hebrew means to turn around, to convert by making an about-face. So one gets the impression that it refers to a turning point, and certainly it does. Only the “point” is really an axis, rather like a horizontal hinge, rather than an instance in time. One must always be turning on this point; we do not get to graduate. We become a penitent, ones who are repenting, when we adopt repentance as our mode of being.
This might not be clear without considering what exactly we mean by repentance. If we return to the text with our usual ideas, it might trouble us that Jesus comes to be baptized. After all, the only thing that we are given to know about baptism is that it signifies repentance for those who want to repent and are willing to confess their sins. Is this so for Jesus as well? Does he come to John to confess his sins with a determination to repent? If not, on what grounds can we say that Jesus has another purpose in mind? Of course, for us who know the story, the problem with what Jesus does is that he is without sin. He has nothing of which to repent.
Perhaps, then, we do not understand what is meant by repentance. We are still thinking in terms of individual behavior and reform. We might also be avoiding the obvious. For some of us John seems like a rather unpleasant figure because he puts so much emphasis on “the coming wrath.” In our age, many of us are uncomfortable thinking about the Divine as one who lays the ax to the root of the trees, cuts them down and throws them into the fire. Or who sifts his threshing floor with a winnowing fan and burns the chaff up with an unquenchable fire. Perhaps we think this is a primitive notion and that we have evolved past this. We might even say that “God” does not judge anyone but forgives us all and loves us all unconditionally.
If the Divine forgives us, there must be something the matter. If forgiveness means that the Divine does not react to what is the matter with me, I have to assume that the Divine does not care. That lack of interest or care seems to contradict whatever we mean by love. If I say there is nothing the matter with me, which is why “God” loves me unconditionally, I must be in a great deal of denial. Yes, I can accept myself as I am, and I can accept everyone else as they are, but am I going to also say that we are all the way we are supposed to be, that nothing is wrong with the world? That there is no evil? We can get very dualistic and speak of the balance of good and evil, and then become non-dualistic and speak of how, since it all balances out, it is all the same. But in the Christian tradition, that denies the reality of moral evil. Evil makes itself a necessity (thus violence begets violence), but evil is not complementary to the creation. It has no necessary existence. It is begotten of a noetic lie. It is a denial of creation.
No, when I look at the history of humanity, at the enormity of the injustice that has been committed and that is being committed today, I have to say that something is very wrong with us. When I look at the destruction of the environment and the disregard of the poor—when I know that this is not necessary, that we can do better but are unwilling to do so, then I think a god who only sees what is good and does not react to what is evil and bad is not a god at all, and certainly not the Creator.
In order to understand what repentance is, and therefore why Jesus chose to be baptized and become a penitent, we need to realize that the Divine judges human sin. I say sin rather than sins to get our minds off of rules and the infractions of them. Sin is not about rules but about relationship, about the disruption of relationship, about the rupture of a relationship. As creatures of the Divine, who is the Source of our being and life and of each moment, we are completely dependent on the Divine for our very existence. What sin is is the illusion that we can live independently of this Source, of this Basis. It is the illusion that we can live in a sort of hermetically sealed bubble insulated from the Divine, that we can somehow be the source of our own lives. This illusion is in our heads; nothing in the created reality upon which we depend corresponds to it. It requires that we see ourselves in a completely false way, and that we see others in this false way. We no longer see things as they are, what they are in themselves, or who they are, but we see our own concepts of them. The entire world we live in—in our heads—is a construct and not the reality that we in fact are. This is our sin; or rather, what gets us to this place is our sin. We are socialized into it by virtue of our birth and our learning a language. The delusion in which we live, the construction of our (false) self with which we identify, is not only a resistance to the Divine but a rejection of the Divine and a rebellion against it. It is the source of our greed and horrible treatment of each other. There is nothing innocent about our sin. Nor does the Creator who loves us capable of ignoring its destructive effect on us.
Because of our sin, we are under the Divine judgment, awaiting the “coming wrath.” Is this because the Divine hates us, or loves us? The coming wrath is simply what happens when things play out. If we set ourselves at war with the creation, the creation will destroy us, because we are dependent on the creation for our very being. We cannot get away from that. I say that creation will destroy us instead of that the Divine will destroy us because that is how the Divine destroys us. It is not that the Divine wants to; it is simply the fact that creation exists and what exists is not random chaos. That “order” which is creation has consequences. This considers the matter very objectively, seemingly in terms of material creation. However, the reality of creation is not simply material. Creation is matter and spirit; it is alive with consciousness. No matter exists without spirit. And in living creatures that infusion of matter and spirit produces a recognizable soul: an interior field of consciousness. Nor is the spirit in each thing separate from the spirit in others. The entire creation is pregnant with life, and all that life is interconnected. We see connections as the material connections of cause and effect, but there are other connections. For example, morphic-field connections, or quantum connections that run backwards in time. The creation, in other words, is moral and not merely causal the way we are used to thinking of it. We live in our “bubble” without any awareness of it, and instead make decisions on the basis of a false sense of self and a false sense of others; thus consequences will play out.
The Pharisees and Sadducees come to John wanting to “flee” the coming wrath. This is a problem. “Who prompted you to flee?” Repentance is not a way to flee from the coming wrath. It is not a way to escape the Divine judgment that subjects us to the coming wrath. Rather, repentance means accepting and embracing the Divine judgment. This is precisely what one does when they confess their sins to the Divine. You are placing yourself into the Divine judgment, absolutely accepting it, acknowledging it as right. In light of Jesus I would go even further and say that not only are you acknowledging that the Divine is right to judge you and you are embracing that judgment, but you are loving the One who is judging you, loving that One in her very judgment of you. In loving that One, you want to please her without fleeing from the glory of her holiness, but rather embracing that which judges you and in judging you would overcome you.
The judgment of the Divine is actually the Divine holiness, that which sets the Divine apart, her uniqueness. Who, and what, the Divine is necessarily judges us, and therefore condemns us. If the Divine is love and we are full of hate, our hatred, that is, we who hate, are judged by that love. Our hate is exposed for what it is; it is in opposition to the divine love. I think of that holiness as light: it exposes all things, and that which is dark cannot remain in darkness, it is undone. Because this judgment is not something that the Divine intends but is simply the consequence of her holiness, and the wrath that follows is simply the effect of being created and part of the creation, I say that this reflects an impersonal side of the Divine. It is not the love that is the expression of the Divine Persons to one another and in which the creation is caught up, although it is that love which makes the Divine holy. Of course, the two are inseparable. The Divine is always holy, always therefore judging us, and also always loving us.
Do we see yet what repentance is? It is to embrace the insufferable Divine holiness that judges us, to embrace that judgment, and to love the One whose holiness and judgment it is, to love and want to please her. Jesus comes to John, not confessing his individual sins but confessing our sins, placing himself under the Divine judgment that hangs over us, that condemns us. Identifying with us, he enters into solidarity with us. And he does so in love and in obedience to the Divine will.
Why would one do this, that is, “repent”? Why not flee from the coming wrath instead? Fleeing seems like the more reasonable course, if it were only possible. What the Torah and Prophets teach us is that it is when we repent in this way that we are met by Divine mercy. It opens the way for the Divine to turn to us in mercy and express her love and favor to us. It is only when we acknowledge the rightness of the Divine judgment and place ourselves into the Divine hands that we find those same hands full not only of acceptance and mercy but of compassion and love. To continue in that knowledge, we need, however, to stay in that place.
The moment Jesus enacts this obedience—out of tremendous love for the Divine—and is baptized, and thus becomes a penitent who from then on will wholly embrace the Divine judgment, the heavens open and he is recognized. Until that moment the heavens and earth were separated by a veil of invisibility. From then on, the heavens remain open—until the cross, that is. The utterly transcendent Divine reveals the truth within him: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found my delight.” It was perhaps at this moment that he understood his Person to be the Divine Son.
By accepting baptism, he empties himself of all claims and any power to which his true identity may entitle him. He renounces it all as a penitent, placing himself in solidarity with us under the Divine judgment. The Spirit, who dwells in him, and has ever (indeed eternally) dwelt in him, comes upon him as a capability or power by which he will now do everything. Rather than depending on himself, in everything he will do from now on he will depend upon the Divine, and the power of the Spirit that is upon him.
Jesus is now a penitent, one who is living in repentance, and in that state is now fully aware of the Divine approval (nay, recognition!). What does he do? Not relying on his own wisdom, the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to test him. Matthew tells us he fasted for forty days. Why was he doing this? The test actually came afterwards. We think of fasting as difficult, so we think of the fasting as the test. He must have really wanted to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. But I think something else is going on. He went into the wilderness to fast, and he fasted for forty days. Only afterwards was he tested, and he was tested with respect to the new sense of identity that was revealed to him. What was he doing, however, by fasting in the first place?
Fasting in the Old Scriptures and in the understanding of the Jews is related to mourning, mourning a loss. Thus we repeated read how people fasted when they were repenting of their sins, for they were mourning the loss of their good relationship to the Divine. Fasting was often a response to sin; but also to the loss of a loved one or the loss of a battle. Jesus was in the wilderness mourning, mourning over the reality of sin, the human situation and all the suffering that has been and will be consequent on our sin. He mourned for forty days. That is what he was doing. He was being a penitent.
The temptations by the devil (of his own ego, apparently) in the first two cases are testing this Divine recognition (the revelation of it to him): “If you are the Son of God.” The first temptation is to turn stone to bread. Jesus can do this (he fed the five and the four thousand). However, he refused to act on his own. Emptying himself of his own will, there is only the will of the Divine. The second is to perform a public miracle demonstrating the protection of the Divine. Jesus later performed miracles not by his own power but by the power of the Spirit upon him, and he was frequently protected from being harmed by his enemies. However, he refused to act of his own will. He would not test the Divine. Third, the devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. This too Jesus would have when all authority was given to him in heaven and on earth. But he would not grasp this; it was entirely in the Divine hand: to attempt to do so, as the zealots were, would be to worship the god of this world. In each case Jesus denied his soul. He refused to act independently, on his own. As Son of God he would empty himself, and thus remain in this place of penitence. The sins that he was mourning, he owned in solidarity with all people.
He was victorious over the devil. He still stood in this place of Divine favor and love. I believe he came out of the wilderness and onto the public stage as a joyful human being, for though he continued to mourn in his heart, he also knew in his heart the mercy and the fathomless love of the Divine. He thus began his ministry proper. He went to Galilee and began to preach, “Repent, for the dominion of the heavens is drawn near.” It is indeed drawn near—in his own Person. By placing himself completely under the dominion of the heavens, the dominion of the heavens was, in fact, wherever he was. He was where it was. (The miracles of healing and exorcism that he performed attested to this.) He called people to repent, to enter into that which he had, to enter into the place where he was.
And thus he called people to himself: the fishermen at first. By letting them place themselves into relationship to him as disciples, by pledging him their allegiance, by giving him their fidelity as their master and teacher, by committing to him their fealty, he was taking him under his wing, bringing them into the relationship with the Divine that he had. He was, of course (he preached to them to repent), making them penitents, but penitents who were drawn into his own relationship with the Divine. They were to be toward God, toward the world, and toward themselves, as he was. He was letting his own relationship to the Divine become a land, a territory, into which he invited others by calling them into the relationship of disciple. He was, in effect, the Promised Land to them.
He would gather his little band of disciples into a semicircle around him as he sat on the ground on a hillside or hilltop, and crowds of admirers, or the curious, or the needy would gather around them and listen. And Jesus would speak to his disciples in the hearing of all these others.
He would begin, “Blessed are …” and so he would go on for eight beatitudes (the ninth beatitude is different). There was an allusion Jesus was making when he said, “Blessed.” The allusion was to the blessings in Deuteronomy. When the people came into the land and they were faithful to the Divine, there would come upon them one blessing after another. The blessings were thus associated with the Promised Land. If they were unfaithful, they would be cursed and driven from the land. The Deuteronomic blessings and curses actually looked back at the exile and understood that their being driven from the Land was the result of their sin. They were now in the Land, but they did not have the blessing. The Persians occupied it, then the Greeks and now the Romans. When the Messiah comes, they would be faithful and the blessing would finally come to them. Now Jesus was saying that those who came to him as disciples were “blessed.” He described himself, and his own faithfulness to the Divine, but he was inviting them into this place. More than inviting them into this place, he was offering himself, his presence to them in this relationship, as the way into this place of blessing.
Let me stop here, since I have gone on now at length. Perhaps next I will consider the Sermon on the Mount, and then I want to reconsider this whole section, chapters 3—7.