Matthew 1:23, 28:19-20
The Rev. Tom Herbek
May 15, 2016
John Shelby Sprong has just published (at the age of 85) a new book with the provocative title Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, a book that is devoted to giving us a brand new perspective on Matthew’s gospel. He made me think about the Bible, and I would invite you to do the same. Whether you agree with much of what he wrote or little of what he wrote, he starts from a whole new point of view. I really like his description of Matthew’s gospel:
The gospel of Matthew is not about God, understood as an external being invading the world in order to rescue “fallen” human beings, lost in their sin and unable to rescue themselves. It is not about Jesus suffering and dying for the sins of that world. It is, rather, about human beings discovering the divine that is always in our midst. It is about the divine calling and empowering human life to break the boundaries that imprison us in a warped sense of what it means to be human. It is about setting aside the boundaries that we have created in our human quest for security. It is about stepping beyond those boundaries and into the meaning of God. It is about discovering the human in a boundary-free world.
Sprong believes that the early followers of Jesus were searching for ways to communicate who Jesus was. They essentially said over and over that Jesus was and is “God with us,” Emmanuel. Sprong see the way we view the Bible as either helping us to understand this or getting in our way. He says that the worst and most limiting thing we can do is to take the Bible literally. And many people of faith would agree. Catholic priest Fr. Richard Rohr writes:
To take the Scriptures seriously is not to take them literally. Literalism is invariably the lowest and last level of meaning. Most Biblical authors understood this, which is why they felt totally free to take so many obvious liberties with what we would call “facts.” In many ways, we have moved backwards in our ability to read spiritual and transformative texts, especially after the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when religious people got on the defensive and lost their own unique vantage point. Serious reading of Scripture will allow you to find an ever new spiritual meaning for the liberation of history, the liberation of the soul, and the liberation of God in every generation. Then the text is true on many levels, instead of trying to prove it is true on just the one simple, factual level. Sacred texts always maximize your possibilities for life and love, which is why we call them sacred. I am afraid we have for too long, used the Bible merely to prove various church positions, which largely narrows their range and depth. Instead of transforming people, the Biblical texts became utilitarian and handy ammunition.
He adds: “Willing people let the scriptures change them, instead of using them (Yes, And…) to change others.” And Baptist professor, Charles Kimball, in his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, writes about literalism:
Meaning is determined by what the reader takes out of the text, and this meaning the reader attributes to the author. Thus, what the reader thinks is there becomes not merely the reader’s pinion, but the will of God, with all the moral consequences and authority that that implies.
And Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about a former church where she was the rector:
What I noticed at Grace-Calvary is the same thing I notice whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbor. As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God. In the words of Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas, “People of the Book risk putting the book above people.”
- Leaving Church
And New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan says:
Sometimes people are shocked at the notion that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John might have elaborated upon actual events or even created stories and sayings about Jesus from scratch. We need to understand that the first Christians experienced Jesus as continuing to be present with them after he died. That sense of continued presence gave the transmitters of the Jesus tradition a creative freedom. They did not write so much about the Jesus who was, but the Jesus who is; not the Jesus who said, but the Jesus that says; not the Jesus who did, but the Jesus who does. So they were embarrassed to restate the words and deeds of Jesus in ways that met the particular needs of their own times and communities.
- Who is Jesus?
In a variety of different ways the disciples of Jesus tried to put into words the conviction that they had encountered this God of the Jews in Jesus. In the synagogues where they worship god, they used what was there. This was the disciples’ experience of Jesus. The problem was how were they going to talk about it? They solved the problem by searching the Hebrew scriptures for God language, and when they found it they wrapped it around Jesus – not because these words described things that actually happened, but because they were the only words big enough to make sense out of their experience.
- Jesus for the Non-Religious
Matthew was the first writer to introduce the star and Wise Men:
That is why Matthew wrapped his Jesus story inside an interpretive envelope, one designed to help us set aside the barriers that prevent us from building a deep sense of human community and oneness. On the front side of his interpretive envelope Matthew used the device of a star, visible across all national boundaries, including the boundary that separated Jew from Gentile. This star was created to draw all people, symbolized by the wise men, into the essential meaning of God, who ultimately can be seen only in a barrier-free world. The wise men were Gentiles, and they too were to be welcomed into the universal kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate. Jesus not only fulfilled the messianic expectation of the Jews, but he also opened Judaism to what Matthew believed was its universal vocation: to draw all life into the oneness of God.
- Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy
Sprong argues that the followers of Jesus were all Jews and they worshipped in the synagogue. The stories that were used about Jesus were a part of the Jewish worship and were told to show God’s presence in Jesus.
The first gospel that was written was Mark, and it was written 42 years after the crucifixion. And Matthew was written more than a decade after Mark, adding many new stories and ideas about Jesus’ life, including the story of the star. These stories about Jesus’ life were designed to help the people of the synagogue to see that Jesus was “God with us,” not just at one time during his earthly life, but even then – over 50 years later. These were people trying to put into words their experience that was beyond words, trying to help one another to express a reality for them that went beyond the literal meaning of words. As John Sprong says:
The light of God will fall not just upon the Temple, but upon Jesus, the life in whom God can be seen, the life that invites us all to “come unto him.” It is “all of you,” not some of you, to whom the invitation is given. Finally, in the crucifixion and resurrection part of Matthew’s story, the barrier that once made death seem like the ultimate human boundary is broken open, because it is in the freedom to give one’s life away in love to another that death is transformed.
Matthew, using words and stories, is attempting to show that “God with us” in Jesus is stronger even than death.
Matthew’s Christ is a barrier-breaking Christ, inviting all people into the meaning of God’s life and his love. The meaning of God is ultimately seen, says Matthew, in the love of the God filled one. When Matthew reaches his concluding episode, this, his essential message, receives its final moving image. It comes in the final paragraph of his gospel.
The disciples have climbed the mountain in Galilee. Jesus has come out of the sky transformed in order to give what in Matthew is his final word to his followers. We call this “word” the Great Commission. We have traditionally interpreted the Great Commission as a missionary charge to go convert the heathen. That interpretation flies in the face of everything that Matthew has tried to communicate throughout his gospel. So we are driven to look at these words anew.
Go to all nations, the risen Christ says. Go to those whom you have defined as beyond the boundaries of the love of God. Go to those you have decided are rejectable. Go to those you have judged as inadequate. Go to the uncircumcised, the unclean, the unsaved, the unbaptized and the different. Go beyond the level of your own security needs. Go to those who threaten you. Embrace them as part of the human family. Make them fellow disciples of Jesus with yourselves. Accept them as fellow pilgrims walking into the mystery of God. Proclaim to them the good news of God’s infinite love, a love that embraces us all. In the power of this experience, allow your fears to melt away; and with those fears gone, bid farewell also to your insecurities, your prejudices, your boundaries. The human community has room for all. Learn to practice that truth. There are no outcasts from the love of God. That is what the Great Commission means.
The Great Commission is not to change people, but to help them become who they already are.
The human community contains people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, political persuasions and economic statuses. The call of God to us to be all that we can be is
also the call to rejoice in the very being of all others. That is what forms the universal community of which the church is but a symbol; indeed, to build the universal community is the ultimate goal of the Christian church, and in the achievement of that goal the church itself will finally be dissolved.
The final promise of Matthew’s gospel from the lips of Matthew’s glorified Christ is simply a translation of the word “Emmanuel.” Matthew began his story with the angel telling Joseph that this child about to be born would be called “Emmanuel,” which, he said, means “God with us.” Matthew now ends his story with Jesus, once and for all, making the Emmanuel claim for himself: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Extending the presence of the holy in every life is finally what being the messiah means. That is what the Christ symbol is all about. That is what the life of Jesus means. Matthew has painted a portrait of Jesus, who is so at one with God that he is beyond every sectarian boundary that religious people have ever tried to impose on him; he is also beyond finitude and mortality. He is the revealer of that eternity for which all finite and mortal people yearn. That is why the Christian story must become a universal story. That was and is Matthew’s goal. My hope is that Christianity itself, in all of its forms, will also walk courageously into that God.
Mat the “God who is with us” lead us beyond all boundaries, beyond all limits of words, to an experience of God’s presence that calls us to transcend all boundaries and become who God has created us to be. May we each experience “Emmanuel,” each in our own unique way!