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What is St. Matthew’s Message?

What is St. Matthew’s Message?

 

Today is the Feast of Saint Matthew, another one of the Twelve, another one about whom we know so little. We have the Eucharistic Gospel for today, where Jesus calls him from his tax collector’s office and Matthew gives a dinner party for all his friends to announce and celebrate his new vocational call (Mt 9:9-13). That is about it. We don’t know who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, but probably not Matthew. Mark’s might be older, and there is that proposed Quelle, or Q Source document, which has never been found. Matthew’s Gospel is all about the Jewish people, a carefully constructed apologia to proclaim that this new Messianic Judaism was the fulfillment of the Scriptures, and Jesus was the true Messiah of the Jews. And this Gospel stresses forgiveness and reconciliation.

 

Many read the Matthean Beatitudes in terms of uplifting the oppressed. A deeper reading is a charge to seek God over the world. Jesus was not a Berkeley liberal, and he didn’t hate the rich or learned. He upheld the Law, but not the embroidered law used to suck the people dry. He had rich and middle class friends. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany, for example. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, wasn’t told to give up everything and follow him. Jesus taught Nicodemus some of the most difficult and advanced lessons just because he was learned, a man of authority, and a good Jew. But Jesus didn’t like hypocrites, because being false to oneself prevents us from seeing God, and of seeing ourselves as God sees us. That is the key to confession and reconciliation. And to salvation. Abiding in Jesus is the door.

 

In today’s appointed Daily Office readings, Isaiah 8:11-20 reminds that only the Lord of Hosts is holy, worth more than any pearl of great price, and to be feared. Ignore the conspiracies. Don’t listen to the muttering of the dead ghosts and lesser gods. Wait on the Lord. Or you will stumble. In Job 28:12-28, Job speaks, asking, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.” Even the depth of the sea says it is not I. Gold, jewels, marvels of beauty and luxury, none of these speak of wisdom. Only God is wisdom. God created all those powers of the earth – wind, water, rain, lightening, and thunder.” He concludes, “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” Today’s reading in Matthew teaches the value of the Kingdom, above all other things, and how easy it is to be distracted (Mt 13:44-52).

 

So what do we know about Matthew, or whoever collected these teachings and put them into some sort of narrative form? He was a faithful Jew, as was Jesus. He knew the Law and the Prophets. He used that knowledge to argue for the truth of Jesus as Messiah. He lifted up Jewish social ethics, long embodied in the Law and extolled by the Prophets. Feeding and clothing the poor, widows, orphans wasn’t new but commanded, at least for the people of God. But his greater goal was to overarch the social doctrine in favor of the higher one, the one pointing to the Holy One of Israel. No matter how rough life gets in this vale of tears, and it will for rich and poor alike, Jesus will provide love and healing to the ones his Father has chosen. And we are all broken, sinners. It is human nature. And that makes forgiveness, even of our enemies, all the more critical. Because we could all become each other’s enemies, scrambling to win, endlessly plotting to vote somebody else off the island before we are the victims.

 

We are facing a time of reform and change, and a time of destruction and oppression. They often go together. The hate level is over the top. The intolerance, the encircling oneself only with those who agree, be it polite smiles and nods or screams and flames. A Black trans female who shouts or tweets or posts that all patriarchs should be killed is just as sinful as the Proud Boy who shouts or tweets or posts that she should be killed as an abomination. Jesus didn’t come for this. Jesus didn’t take sides. Jesus sought reconciliation, compassion. We say “justice” and “equality”, but how often does this slip into a power game? If I win, you must lose. Is our goal to overturn the powerful and insert a new class of powerful? If we allow sins of vengeance, pride, power to prevail against the Holy Spirit and the righteousness of our Church, our call to righteousness will become trivialized, shallow, measured in “trending” likes, and even hate and violence, and we will have turned from Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to divide. He came to lead us forward. To learn from, and forgive, the errors of the past. To open our hearts. To build the Kingdom.

 

And so what is the answer? Matthew 14:51-52 says, “‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” The Church is old. And if you include the wisdom from the Hebrew Testament, not to mention the Greek philosophies, even older. We have a storehouse of wisdom. The (mostly) patriarchal writers of the first centuries. And an unbroken line of prophets, mystics, pastors, stretching to at least the modern era. We have tested tools in the rules governing religious orders. Augustinian, Benedictine, Franciscan, others. They teach that poverty is a way of not needing goods, or needing to be right or powerful. They teach humility through some form of obedience or stability, knowing that we only vow to God and are called in Christ to respect and honor all. They teach chastity, not only, or mostly, about sex, but a way to respect one another, and even the other creatures with whom we share this world. We have Scripture, all of it. And we have Baptism and the Eucharist. These are the old things. We can be too quick to ignore them, put them back on the shelf, or change them to prove our preconceived ideas. Or to tailor them for our decreasing ability to absorb information for more than one minute, or an almost total lack of capacity to follow complex and nuanced notions. 

 

Not everything new and shiny is worth keeping, and what is, might be better utilized when informed by the experience of the past. Ordination of women, LGBTQ+, people of color are a good thing. They fulfil the Gospel teachings and enrich the body. Inclusive language is good and we still need familial language to help us understand nuance and relationships. Without that blending of old and new, this week’s ten latest bestselling books on the newest exciting crisis (is everything breaking news?) become no more than a sales job on social media. And Jesus didn’t come for that. Jesus came to bring us together, we disparate people, some with overexcited brains and overreacting emotions. The Gospel of Matthew shines a light on forgiveness and love. Go thou and have a dinner party. With sinners. Show forth the light of Christ with love and patience. Just keep social distance and wear a mask. But no distance of the heart, and no mask of the soul.

 

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order, The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.

 

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