God’s New People

More than the other Gospels, Matthew is focused in large part on the life of the Christian community. It is only in Matthew that the word “church” (ekklesia, ἐκκλησία) appears on Jesus’ lips as a term for his circle of disciples (Matt 16:18; 18:17). This has seemed unlikely to many historians, who see here the Evangelist’s own projection of later terminology back onto the earthly Jesus. Even so, the term is hardly foreign to Jesus’ message as the Matthean scribe hands it down. The Greek word was a common one, referring to any kind of civic “assembly.” But Jesus’ use in Matthew likely harks back to the use of ekklesia in Greek translations of the Old Testament. There the term was used for the nation of Israel when they assembled in God’s presence to establish a covenant or celebrate a festival. The word “church” thus hints that Jesus views his disciples as the renewed remnant of Israel, a renewed people of God reconstituted based on their allegiance to God’s Messiah. Whether or not Jesus talked in these terms (or the Aramaic equivalent), it expresses the same view of his followers that was implied by Jesus’ choice of twelve core disciples. No Jew could miss the symbolism of twelve leaders for Jesus’ movement, recalling the twelve patriarchs who established Israel’s tribes. Here again, Matthew has simply amplified the theological hint that was present already in Mark’s memory of Jesus: the disciples are God’s new people.

A New People from the Nations

In Matthew’s account, what strikes us first is that this renewed Israel seems to include a lot of people who are not Israelites at all. They are gentiles. Early on in Matthew’s account we find the the Magi, Zoroastrian priests, wandering far from their Persian home to welcome Jesus at his birth. The implication, up-front, is that this Messiah has not just come for Israel. His arrival will mean liberation for people from every nation under heaven, and they are waiting eagerly to embrace their king. Indeed, if we look carefully at Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew, we notice that key ancestors of Jesus were actually gentiles who were welcomed into Israel because of their role in God’s restorative plan: Rahab the prostitute from Jericho, Ruth the Moabite widow (Matt 1:5). Since these women would not normally have been included in a Jewish account of one’s ancestry, we have to ask why they stand here so prominently. To be sure, Matthew is making a more general point that God often passes by the obvious people and works most powerfully through the person we would least expect. He works through prostitutes and widows, through young women who get pregnant under suspicious circumstances and through young men from the remote hills of Galilee. Part of this emphasis, though, is also on God’s concern for those outside of Israel. The Matthean scribe prepares us, right from the beginning, for the possibility that gentiles may play a much larger role in God’s plan than Israel ever expected.

The Failure of Israel

The flip-side of this optimism about the place of Gentiles in Matthew’s Gospel is a dominant pessimism about the established Jewish communities of the first-century. Another moment emphasized in Jesus’ genealogy is Israel’s exile to Babylon, a moment that could not be separated in Jewish thought from the nation’s failure to keep covenant with God. This failure is then mirrored almost immediately by the Judean king, Herod the Great, whose paranoid thirst for power eclipses any interest in what God might be doing for the nation. While the magi lavish gifts on Jesus in recognition of his royal status, Herod sees Jesus only as a competitor to be eliminated. Nor is this just a matter of one rotten leader. When the magi arrive looking for Jesus, we are told that “Herod was troubled, as was all Jerusalem along with him” (Matt 2:3). The “high priests and scribes of the people” are complicit in Herod’s political maneuvering, helping the king to track down and kill this upstart. When God intervenes to save the infant Jesus, the angel does not appear in the Jewish leaders’ dreams. Instead the messenger comes to the foreign magi. The reader is left almost with the impression that no one in the Jerusalem establishment can hear God’s voice any more. Their hearts have fossilized.

Elsewhere, too, we find a similar condemnation of Israel for failing to embrace God’s offered rescue. When the centurion comes seeking healing for his dying servant, Jesus combines his praise of this Gentile with a shocking condemnation of his fellow Israelites:

I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:10-12).

God’s implicit rejection of Israel here becomes an explicit judgement on specific Jewish communities:

Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (Matt 11:20-24).

Once again, the implications of such harsh condemnation are deeply disturbing. Israel’s covenant relationship with God, and their privileged position as the site of Jesus’ own revelation of God, seems to bring with it a heightened responsibility. Far from receiving special treatment, the Jewish community seems to face total destruction because they have not responded with faith to Jesus’ message.

Elsewhere, too, we find a similar condemnation of Israel for failing to embrace God’s offered rescue. When the centurion comes seeking healing for his dying servant, Jesus combines his praise of this Gentile with a shocking condemnation of his fellow Israelites:

I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:10-12).

God’s implicit rejection of Israel here becomes an explicit judgement on specific Jewish communities in Matt 11:20:

Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (Matt 11:20-24).

Once again, the implications of such harsh condemnation are deeply disturbing. Israel’s covenant relationship with God, and their privileged position as the site of Jesus’ own revelation of God, seems to bring with it a heightened responsibility. Far from receiving special treatment, the Jewish community seems to face total destruction because they have not responded with faith to Jesus’ message.

How do we make sense of this harsh condemnation of Israel in Matthew’s Gospel? In the wake of the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Europe, we are (and should be) very sensitive to anything that smacks of racial hatred. Is Matthew anti-Semitic? Certainly these passages in his Gospel have served over the centuries as fodder for Christians who found in the Jewish minorities of Europe a convenient scapegoat and an outlet for their most violent frustrations, a target for their basest instincts. On the other hand, just a cursory reading of Jewish literature from the time of Jesus reveals a much more complex Jewish community than the Matthean scribe depicts. Of course some were self-interested, power-hungry, obsessed with trivialities and deaf to the very core of what Torah demanded. Many other Jews, though, were honestly devout. We cannot forget the popularity of a story like Tobit, whose protagonist modeled a life of heartfelt prayer, patient faith (yes, faith!) through unjust suffering, and selfless care for the poor and the vulnerable. It would be easy to think that the Matthean scribe has simply manufactured a caricature of Judaism, not unlike the vicious caricatures that adorned Nazi propaganda posters. What we must remember, though, is that the situation in AD 85 was very different from the situation in AD 1939 (or even in AD 326). When this scribe sat with his papyrus on his knees, there was no such thing as anti-Semitism. The Jews had gained some notoriety for the failed revolt of AD 66-73, and some among the Roman elite would no doubt have preferred that their troublesome nation be beaten even more soundly into submission. There was, though, no history of broad hatred toward Jews as an ethnic group. The Jewish king Agrippa I had been a close friend of the emperor Claudius, and Jewish communities scattered around the Mediterranean generally enjoyed a harmonious life alongside their pagan neighbours. Augustus granted Jews in Asia Minor and elsewhere special permission to observe their own “ancestral laws” and be exempted from some Roman decrees that their traditions forbade. More than one cultured Greek or Roman could be overheard remarking at how noble, virtuous, and “philosophical” the Jews were, with their chaste sexual mores and their insistence that God was one. At the same time, these Jewish communities were often large, comparatively wealthy, and able to exert considerable political power at the local level. The periodic reports of mob violence against Jews, or of rulers who are less respectful of their traditions, are not signs of any pervasive anti-Jewish bias. Rather, these occasional spasms of hostility were the lot of any ethnic minority in a Greco-Roman city. Racism and xenophobia were just as rampant on all sides as they are today, but the Jews were not singled out for any special hatred.

The situation was very different, though, for the small circles of Christ-believers trying to live out their strange new faith in the midst of the synagogues. The Matthean scribe, with many of his fellow believers, still considered himself very much a Jew. He may well have still taken part in the sabbath worship in the synagogue, listening to the scriptures and praying for God’s merciful help. We know, though, that in some Jewish communities these Christ-believers were soon themselves the targets of hatred. Particularly in the wake of the temple’s destruction in AD 70, many other Jews had little patience for the kind of radical approach to Torah and to gentiles being practiced in Antioch and elsewhere. In fact, the heavy emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel on the law and a righteous lifestyle probably grow out of the scribe’s concern to defend his vulnerable little community. “We are not covenant traitors!” he seems to say, with the accusations of his fellow Jews ringing in his ears. And, understandably, the Matthean scribe goes one step further in defending and defining the Christians’ identity. Not only are the Christ-followers faithful to Israel’s God, but it is their Jewish accusers who have turned their backs on God. From a strictly sociological point of view, it makes good sense that a vulnerable minority like the Christians would respond to attacks with counter-charges of their own. Matthew could also draw, though, on Israel’s a venerable prophetic tradition. The scriptures pointed out in Israel’s history a repeated cycle in which Israel’s leaders led the people at large into sin and idolatry, so that the nation had to be purged by foreign oppression. These scriptures provided a clear template for any minority group to define themselves, alongside Elijah or Jeremiah, as the righteous remnant within an idolatrous nation. Each sabbath, in every synagogue, one could hear the biblical prophets announcing to stiff-necked Israel that her destruction was at hand. It was no surprise, then, that many reform movements within Judaism took up this same understanding of their own situation. Just as the author of the Psalms of Solomon could condemn the temple authorities for their “secret sins,” so Matthew could warn that the Jewish establishment had been rejected by God. This was, in fact, to be expected. It had always been this way with Israel. The scribe was not promoting hatred toward Jews. He was, rather, arguing that the hostility he felt each sabbath in the synagogue was confirmation that the Jewish institutions of his day had got things badly wrong. In Christ God had offered them their long awaited rescue, but day after day the majority continued to treat God’s own Messiah as a dangerous deceiver. What was surprising, for the Matthean scribe, was not the apostasy of so many Jews. It was, rather, God’s generosity in welcoming in any who would come to the Messianic banquet, whether they had been part of Israel or not!

The tragedy is the way Matthew’s rhetoric, the rhetoric of an embattled and vulnerable minority within Judaism, came to be heard in later centuries. The typically start prophetic statements of judgement were taken was precise theological statements about the Jewish people’s guilt. Forgotten was the capacity of God to surprise his people with forgiveness and restoration. And somehow, after Constantine’s rise to Roman power, Matthew’s rhetoric became justification in many people’s minds for burning down Jewish houses with their children still inside. Perhaps this tragedy is what we most need to hear, as Christians, in the scribe’s denunciation of the Jewish establishment. Instead of identifying with Jesus’ disciples and patting ourselves on the back for our wisdom, we should ask whether we too might have fallen prey to the insidious distractions that so often tripped Israel up. Surely it was no less blind for European believers in Jesus to confiscate whole Jewish towns and throw their inhabitants out into the snow. Here too God must have been saying “Woe to you!” So the failure of Israel in Matthew’s Gospel should lead us, not to self-congratulation or any sense of superiority, but to a searching self-examination that asks how we have already become stiff necked and hard of heart.

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