Reading Matthew for the Effect

I laid out in another article an approach to reading the New Testament that places the focus where it lay for the authors of the texts–on the transformation of human lives (see “Interpreting a Gospel Passage: Part I“). Whether we engage the documents as believers or skeptics, I suggested that we have not really heard their message until we catch an echo of the holistic effect the writers wanted their work to provoke.

We began by looking at Jesus’ attempt to influence his audience within the narrative world of the Gospel. We began with an initial phase of observation in which we (1) drew an initial sketch of the audience, (2) looked closely at what the speaker says or does, (3) thought about the context of the passage, and then (4) asked what affects the passage would have had on its original audience. This was all preparation for forming our actual interpretation of the passage in which we outlined:

  1. The starting state of the primary audience
  2. The strategies the speaker uses to provoke that change in his hearers
  3. The new state the author wants to bring about in that audience

In all of this we tried to pay attention, not only to the ideas and thoughts of the members of the audience, but also to the change brought about in their emotions and in their behaviour.

Interpreting on Two Levels

Now, we also observed that there are two levels to an episode in the Gospels. At the level of the narrative world, we can analyze the transformation Jesus is bringing about in his Galilean or Judean audience. There is also, though, the level of the Gospel writer and his own immediate audience, the people whom he has in mind as he writes the account. The same interpretive process can be brought to bear on each of these levels. Just as we asked about Jesus’ strategies to provoke transformation, and about the change that takes place in his audience, so too we can ask how the scribe behind Matthew is trying to provoke transformation among his own people in Antioch.

It is usually best to think, at first, of performing two separate interpretations. We go through all of the steps outlined above with an eye to Jesus’ influence on his audience, and we then go through the same process over again asking about the Gospel writer’s influence on the hearers of his text. This is not to say that the two levels of transformation are unrelated to one another. After all, the Matthean scribe is using the story about Jesus in order to influence his later audience. We need to recognize, though, that some of our observations about the text and its history will only be relevant at one of these levels. Matthew may, for example, offer an aside to the hearers, letting them in on information that Jesus’ original audience did not have. This conspiratorial “wink” to the scribe’s hearers will be very important when we think about his relationship with his hearers in Antioch, but it will tell us little about Jesus’ impact on his first audience. On the other hand, the Matthean audience may not have known about some nuances of the historical and cultural situation in Roman Palestine. So while we might draw on these realities in thinking about Jesus’ impact on his first hearers, we may decide that we should leave them out of consideration when we think about the circle listening to the scribe read his text in Antioch. This is why we need to make “two passes” through an episode in Matthew’s Gospel, each time moving through the same interpretive steps, but paying attention to the different levels in the text.

As we move toward a complete interpretation of the episode, then, we need to frame two summaries of how a speaker/writer is trying to transform an audience: the first considering the narrative world within the text, and the second focused on the writer’s impact on his later hearers.

Finding the Analogy

This is not to say, though, that the two levels of transformation at work in an episode are completely unrelated. The Gospel writer is using the episode in Jesus’ life to bring about change in that later audience. So, presumably, the change that is supposed to emerge in the hearers of the Gospel is somehow like the change that takes place within the world of the narrative. In other words, there will usually be some analogy between the transformation Jesus provokes and the transformation the Matthean scribe wants to spark in the Antiochian believers.

A Believer’s Life in Antioch: Demetrius

Demetrius has grown up in this radiant, cosmopolitan city. He is also a Jew. Some of his earliest memories are of walking over the paved sidewalks from his family’s apartment down the hill to the broad main street that runs parallel to the river. On the way his family would be joined by more and more others: single men, young couples, families with children. Demetrius remembers how his friends would join their group and they would all weave in and out between the adults’ legs, playing tag. When they arrived at the synagogue building, the young Demetrius always felt like he had come to his second home. He felt his parents pride as they entered the majestic, high double doors and moved into the open courtyard with its elegant pillars and shaded colonnades. As they moved through the courtyard’s flourishing garden they would pass another intricately carved doorway and take their places on the benches that lined the building’s long main room. There they would stand in quiet prayer, arms and faces raised upward toward heaven. When Demetrius was too young to make much of the prayers, he would gaze around at the frescoes that decorated the inner walls of the gathering place. From floor to ceiling they depicted in vivid color the whole history of their people, from exodus to exile and on to the promised future blessings. There were all of his people’s great heroes: Abraham and Joseph, Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, Isaiah the prophet and Ezra who restored the law. Within these walls Demetrius absorbed his people’s identity. Gazing on the faces of those ancient men, ranging above the praying faces of their descendants, Demetrius knew exactly who he was. He was an Israelite, a member of God’s chosen people. They may be scattered now throughout the world, but God has not forgotten them. They remain his holy nation, his treasured possession, and his hand will guide their steps until Messiah finally comes.

It was not in those Sabbath gatherings, though, that Demetrius learned what it meant to live a faithful life. Those lessons he learned first at home. His parents’ deep pride in the Synagogue building rose in part from the poverty of their tiny apartment, perched on the fourth story of a densely packed tenement block. When the wind blew just right it filled their main room with the stench of the fuller’s quarter, where hides were soaked in fermenting vats of urine. There he watched his mother carefully prepare their meals in keeping with God’s covenant decrees. Usually this was no trouble, since Demetrius’ family ate little but bread with some olives, wine, and cheese. When they occasionally could afford a piece of meat, perhaps for a festival meal, his mother would not buy it from the regular vendors in the market stalls. She would seek out the one Jewish butcher whose shop was on the far side of the market, under the shade of the column-lined porches. When they brought the meat back to their rooms, she would be careful to keep the milk separate from the meat. On the Sabbath the whole family would be home. After they walked slowly back from the Synagogue, they would light the Sabbath candles and sit down to enjoy the food Demetrius’ mother had prepared the day before. His grandmother would emerge from her room, led by the hand to the table, and her cataract clouded eyes would smile as she laughed and talked with Demetrius’ father. When another baby boy came along, Demetrius’ parents took him on the eighth day of his little life down to the cohen, the local priest, to be circumcized. Now everyone at the bath house and the gymnasium would know that little Ioses was a Jew, a member of Israel.

As Demetrius grew taller and bolder he joined his father in the workshop of the stonemasons. With all of the new temples and markets and public buildings being erected around Antioch, there was no shortage of work. At thirteen he took his place in the Synagogue, joining in his people’s prayers and reading out the day’s passage from the Law or the Prophets. In the heat of the day, when the workshop was too stifling, Demetrius would join the other Jewish men from the district under the shade of the overhang that shaded the sidewalk. They would doze, propped up against the painted plaster wall, but they would also talk. They would talk about their sore shoulders, joints worn rough from years of labour. They would talk with joy about their families and their wives. They would talk about city politics and the rumblings by some that the Jews had too much influence on the city council. They would grow quiet for a moment then. Sometimes they would share tears over a daughter’s sudden death from pneumonia, or a wife’s consumption. And sometimes an empty place would be left on the sidewalk when one of the stone workers had been killed, his tenement collapsed or burned up in a flash fire.

On those days the men usually began talking about Messiah, about how good things would be when their king came and put things right. They would argue sometimes about how he would do it, but a light of fierce hope would burn in their eyes. They would not be stone workers forever. They were more than this. They were men of Israel, God’s chosen, and one way or another they would see a day when they were in charge! What a shock, then, when another one of the younger workers – Jacob – said he thought Messiah had already come. His name had been Jesus bar-Joseph, from Nazareth. Most of the other men just laughed. “Him!” They said, “The Romans stuck him up on a pole like a common slave! How could he be our king!” Jacob tried to say something about the man coming back to life again, but the other workers just waved their hands at him and got up to go back to their chisels and saws. Demetrius, though, was intrigued. He and Jacob were about the same age and they had gone through the stage of blisters and aching muscles together when they first entered the workshop. Why would he think this Jesus was actually Messiah?

At Sabbath prayers that week Demetrius found Jacob in the synagogue courtyard and they talked about this idea again. Demetrius was not convinced, and it took several more weeks before he would take Jacob’s invitation to come along to a meeting of “The Way,” as he called it. What Demetrius found was worlds apart from his idea of the Messiah’s people. They wound their way, an hour before dawn, to another tenement building even closer to the fuller’s district. They climbed the stairs into a surprisingly spacious apartment, no doubt cheaper because of the smell. Within the main room was packed with people, most sitting cross-legged on the floor. They stood and sang hymns to God that Demetrius knew from the synagogue, and many of the faces he knew. Others, though, were strange to him. He had never seen them on the Sabbath or at Yom Kippur or Pesach. As they began to pray, Demetrius realized that they were not Jews at all. At least half of the people must have been Greeks or Syrians. One even looked like an Italian that served with the cohort stationed nearby. Had all of these decided to become God-fearers? Even this realization did not prepare him, though, for what was to come. After the hymns were sung and the prayers were said they sat and began to pass around a meal of bread with some olive oil, wine, and a little cheese. But it was a Gentile who had brought the food! Here the Jews were taking food that the Gentiles passed around, eating side by side on the floor, giving thanks to God and this Messiah. Before long it was hard to tell who was an Israelite and who was not. How could these be followers of the Messiah? They seemed more like they had abandoned Israel and were losing themselves among these outsiders. How could Jacob believe that the Messiah had been recognized by this motley handful in a dingy apartment, when the glorious synagogue had heard hardly a whisper of him? How could Messiah ask his people to mix themselves with the unclean Gentiles and call them “brother” and “sister”?

Yet Demetrius still felt a deep longing rise in his chest as the teacher began talking about how Jesus bar-Joseph had been executed. Could it be true, that this man had been a Passover offering for Israel’s freedom? Were they this close to the king’s return from heaven? Would it be Jesus who finally put things right? Yet these thoughts were not what finally drew Demetrius back the next week, and the next, and the next after that. What drew him was the voice of a small, wrinkled woman who described how she met Jesus four days after he had died. It was not just a story, then. She had seen him alive again after the Romans had done their worst. From that moment Demetrius began to believe. He could not make sense of it. He still felt depressed by the dim apartment where they met. When he stood praying on the Sabbath, looking at the paintings on the synagogue walls, it often seemed impossible. He did not want it to be true. He wanted Messiah to come here and show his grandeur. Then he would notice the face of another believer, and another, scattered among the praying crowd. Maybe, he thought, Messiah has come to the synagogue too.

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