Home » Posts tagged 'Matthew' (Page 3)
Tag Archives: Matthew
The last king of Judah was Zedekiah, a son of Josiah, whom the Babylonians defeated in 587 BC. Ten years previously, Zedekiah’s predecessor and nephew Jehoiachin (Matthew’s “Jeconiah”) was carried into Babylonian exile. In Babylon, his descendants (mainly in the line of Hananiah son of Zerubbabel) were prominent leaders of the exiled community. At some point, they began to be called by title “exilarch,” a Greek rendition of the Aramaic title resh galuta’, “head of the exiled community.” The Exilarchs enjoyed a life of ease and much of the pomp and pageantry associated with royalty, but their actual authority was restricted to internal Jewish matters. In the land of Israel, the post-exilic fortunes of the house of David are a bit more murky.
The Lay Nobility
In Eretz Israel, those who reorganized the nation following the Exile made the ancient ruling families the basis of order. Originally, the heads of these prominent families were the rulers of the various tribes. These dominant families had probably already assumed leadership of the people during the exile, when they may have served as rulers and judges (Ezek 8:1; 20:1). Later, many Jews returned to their homeland, at which point these family patriarchs functioned as representatives of the people. It was they who negotiated with the Persian provincial governor (Ezr 5:9ff) and, in association with the “governor of the Jews,” directed the reconstruction of the Temple (Ezr 5:5, 9; 6:7-8, 14).
This lay nobility is often described in rabbinic literature as “the eminent men of the generation,” “the eminent men of Jerusalem,” or “the leading men of Jerusalem” (Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus [Fortress, 1969] 225). We read of them in the New Testament, where Luke speaks of “the principle men of the people” (Lk 19:47). Jeremias argues that the many references to “the elders” of Israel, who with the chief priests and scribes constituted the Sanhedrin, in fact describe this lay nobility. For the most part, they would have held to Sadducean values and beliefs (Jeremias, 228-229). Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43; Mt 27:57; Lk 23:50-51; Jn 19:38-42), a rich landownder, was probably a representative member of this group.
Who were the members of the lay nobility? A passage from the Mishnah (m.Taan 4:5) provides a list of the privileged families who were entitled to supply wood for the altar. These families are:
- “on the 1st of Nisan, by the family of Arah of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 2:5; Neh 7:10];
- on the 20th of Tammuz, by the family of David of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 8:2];
- on the 5th of Ab, by the family of Parosh of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 2:3; 8:3; 10:25; Neh 3:25; 7:8; 10:15];
- on the 7th of the self-same month, by the family of Jonadab the son of Rechab [cf. 2 Ki 10:15, 23; Jer 35:8; 1 Ch 2:55];
- on the 10th by the family of Senaa of the tribe of Benjamin [cf. Ezr 2:35; Neh 3:3; 7:38; 11:9];
- on the 15th by the family of Zattuel of the tribe of Judah [cf. Zattu: Ezr 2:9; 10:27; Neh 7:13; 10:15] together with the priests and Levites and all whose tribal descent was in doubt and [or “namely”] the family of the Pestle-smugglers [or Mortar-smugglers: b.Taan 28a] and the family of Fig-pressers;
- on the 20th of the same month [it was brought] by the family of Pahath Moab of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 2:6; 8:4; 10:30; Neh 3:11; 7:11; 10:15];
- on the 20th of Elul, by the family of Adin of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 2:15; 8:6; Neh 7:20; 10:17];
- on the 1st of Tebet…an additional offering, and a wood offering [by the family of Parosh].” (Jeremias, 226-227).
This list is most likely from the early post-exilic period, probably deriving directly from the casting of lots to provide wood recorded in Neh 10:35-37 and 13:31 (Jeremias, 227). Their ability to provide wood needed for the sacrificial cultus indicates that they were people of some means, and that their position could involve financial sacrifice.
The family of David is included among the patrician families of post-exilic Israel, as would be expected. The entire patrician class, however, comprised a very small group. Elishah ben Abuyah (born before AD 70) stated: “My father Abuyah was one of the notable men of Jerusalem. At my circumcision he invited all the notables of Jerusalem” (Jeremias, 225). This suggests that the “notables of Jerusalem” could all gather in one room and formed a close social circle. The Bible recognizes three distinct Davidic lines that issued from Zerubbabel. If he had a foreign wife whom he divorced in compliance with Ezra’s reforms (Ezr 10:16ff), there were likely other lines as well (and later Jewish tradition in fact claims he had two foreign wives). It is likely that the full prestige of Davidic ancestry—and the full burden of civic responsibilities—would fall only on the line of Meshullam, Zerubbabel’s eldest son (from a Jewish mother).
Social Function of the House of David
In practical terms, what did membership in the house of David mean in the time of Jesus? Senior members of the family would have been members of the Sanhedrin, as noted above. With the rest of the Sanhedrin, they had a ceremonial duty on the Day of Atonement in accompanying the man who led the “goat for Azazel” into the wilderness (m.Yom 1:5). They would also have been responsible for their family’s offering of wood for the altar on the 20th of Tammuz every year.
Overall, however, the importance of the lay nobility in general was not very great in the time of Jesus, as is demonstrated by the meagerness of the evidence (Jeremias, 222). The Talmud relates that the custom during the Second Temple period was that the kingship belonged to the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties, which wielded political power. On religious matters, however, the people were led by a “Prince” or “Patriarch” (nasi’). The nesi’im were either of Davidic descent or, if not, were appointed by an assembly of judges or by the Sanhedrin.
At this point, we need to consider another prominent line in the Davidic genealogy: that of Hillel the Great. By the end of the first century and especially after the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 AD, the Palestinian nesi’im were usually chosen from among Hillel’s descendants, apparently beginning as early as Gamaliel II (90-110). By rabbinic tradition, Hillel was a descendant of Elnathan, governor of Judea in the post-Exilic period, who was in turn a descendant of David through his son Shephatiah. He thus belonged to a non-royal Davidic line in his patrilineal descent. Elnathan, however, married Shelomith, the daughter of Zerubbabel and thus of the Solomonic line. This makes Hillel a descendant of David through two different ancestral lines, that of Solomon and that of Shephatiah, comparable to the way Jesus’ genealogy is traced through both Solomon (Mt) and Nathan (Lk).
Hillel was the spiritual leader in Israel circa 30 BC–AD 10. He rose to that position when Shemaiah and Abtalion, the non-Davidic leaders who preceded him, conceded his prowess at halachic interpretation(see t.Pes 4; b.Pes 66a; y.Pes 33a). He thus became nasi’ because of his scholarship, not his bloodline. Even so, Hillel’s pedigree did not escape notice, especially as his descendants continued to serve as religious authorities. Not only did the Jews of late antiquity accept the Davidic heritage of the Hillelite nesi’im, some held messianic expectations concerning them. According to Hayes,
A tradition attributing Davidic lineage to the patriarchs led to messianic speculation regarding them. Some rabbinic figures attacked this position, as did the church fathers in the Byzantine period. The office, which was held by descendants of Hillel, was abolished by the authorities in Palestine in 425 BCE (Christine E. Hayes, “Nasi’,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder [Oxford, 1997], 494).
The social role of the Davidic dynasty was thus much different in the time of Jesus than it was 600 years previously. Rather than being kings and warriors, the most prominent heirs of David were halachic interpreters. This shift no doubt served to enhance the general expectation of a Davidic messiah, both by highlighting the religious significance of the dynasty and by simultaneously denying it the trappings—and the accompanying power—of royalty.
What might life have been like for members of the house of David who did not occupy the most senior positions in the family? Here there are numerous traditions, both Jewish and Christian, that point to the possibility that many Davidides lived quite modestly.
To continue with Hillel: the great halachic scholar was born to a wealthy family of merchants in Babylonia (b.Sotah 21a). He wanted to study the Torah, however, and his parents did not approve of this decision. Therefore he traveled to Jerusalem without their financial support and worked as a woodcutter. It is said that he lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the admission fee to study Torah, and because of him that fee was abolished.
According to Christian tradition, Mary’s father Joachim was a shepherd with a sizeable flock, but he consistently donated most of it for sacrifice in the temple or for the poor, resulting in a very modest lifestyle for him and his wife.
The common thread in both of these stories is the theme of voluntary poverty in the service of God. Hillel turned his back on a life of ease in order to study the Torah; Joachim gave away much of his wealth in the service of God.
It is beyond dispute that Joseph and Mary were poor. According to Luke 2:24, they did not offer the customary offering of a pigeon or turtledove and a lamb when presenting Jesus in the Temple (Lev 12:6-8). Rather, they took advantage of a provision in the Mosaic law that allowed those of modest means to offer a less costly sacrifice: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24). This was actual poverty—more like Hillel who legitimately could not pay for his classes than like Joachim who gave freely out of his abundance. Everything the Bible tells us Joseph and Mary’s character indicate that if they had the means to provide a lamb, they would have done so.
But how did they arrive at this state of poverty? Was it by choice like Hillel? Hillel became poor because he separated himself from his father’s financial support in order to study Torah. Was there some motivation for Joseph to cut himself off from a ready source of wealth for some religious goal? It may well be that Joseph, “a righteous man,” customarily gave as much to charity as possible. In other words, he had wealth enough but chose to spend almost all of it on others. Perhaps this is what he did with the gifts of the Magi (Mt 2:12). But again, this theory does not jibe with his inability to offer a lamb for Jesus—which was also a religious obligation a righteous man would be duty-bound to honor if at all possible.
Other factors were almost certainly involved. One possibility has to do with Herod’s rise to power in 37 BC. At this time, Josephus reports, Herod put to death “all the members” of the Sanhedrin (Ant. 14:175). According to Antiquities 15:6, he also put to death “forty-five of the principal men of the party of [the Hasmonean priest-king] Antigonus.” In short, Herod would not tolerate any threats to his power and dealt with any potential rivals with swift brutality. Throughout his long reign not even his own wives and sons were safe from his jealousy. Matthews account of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Mt 2:16) is not at all out of character with what we know of Herod from extrabiblical sources.
Furthermore, we should note that Herod’s own precarious claim to the throne rested more in his alliance with Rome than with his own pedigree. Herod was an ethnic Idumean, and even though this people had previously converted en masse to Judaism, the fact remains that he was a descendant of Edomites (cf. Obad). This fact helps to explain his agitation at news of one “born king of the Jews” in Matthew 2:2.
It is thus entirely possible that any Davidic claimant might have become a victim of Herod’s thirst for power. Clearly, some Davidides (those who were members of the Sanhedrin when Herod came to power, as well as any partisans of Antigonus) were killed outright. It does not require much imagination to envision others fleeing houses and lands to protect themselves and their families.
Might Joseph’s own father have lost his life or livelihood in Herod’s rampage? In such a situation, Joseph (or his father) may well have been reduced to poverty and chosen to “lay low” in Nazareth, far from Jerusalem, supporting himself by working as a simple carpenter.
Bauckham in fact raises the intriguing possibility that there may in fact be documentary evidence about Joseph’s net worth (“The Relatives of Jesus,” Themelios 21/2 (1996) 18-21). He draws attention to the tradition, preserved by Hegesippus, that Zoker and James, the grandsons of Jude, “the Lord’s brother,” were poor farmers. When asked about their possessions by the emperor Domitian,
they said that between the two of them they had only nine thousand denarii, half belonging to each of them; and this they asserted they had not as money, but only in thirty-nine plethra of land, so valued, from which by their own labor they both paid the taxes and supported themselves.
Some of the details of this story are historically improbable, as Bauckham admits. Even so, the size and value given for the land the two brothers held in common is so specific that it is hard not to believe it rests on some kernel of accurate tradition. The size of the family’s smallholding in Nazareth may have been well known in the circle of Jesus’ followers. Bauckham raises the possibility that this parcel of land belonged to the family of Jesus for several generations. He writes,
The farm was not divided between the brothers, but owned jointly, no doubt because this family continued the old Jewish tradition of keeping a smallholding undivided as the joint property of the ‘father’s house,’ rather than dividing it between heirs. So, two [sic] generations back, this farm would have belonged to Joseph and his brother Clopas. Unfortunately, because there are two possible sizes of the plethron, it seems impossible to be sure of the size of the farm: it may be either about 24 acres or about 12 acres. In either case, this is not much land to support two families…
Especially two families among which there were at least seven children. Therefore it would not be surprising for Joseph—and Jesus—to supplement the family income by working as a carpenter. Bauckham continues,
As in the case of many village artisans, Joseph’s trade was not an alternative to working the land, but a way of surviving when the family smallholding could no longer fully support the family. It did not necessarily put Jesus’ family any higher on the social ladder than most of the peasant farmers of Nazareth.
Next: The Texts
Biblical genealogies have come up recently at JesusCreed and Exploring our Matrix. At both blogs, the focus is on Bible-and-science type questions. Namely, what (if anything) does the presence of Adam or Noah in the genealogies of Jesus imply about the historicity of those biblical characters? (Some would no doubt ask the same question about Abraham or David. That’s the point: is there some kind of line after which we’re in reasonably solid history and before which we’re in the realm of myth and legend?)
That is certainly a valid discussion, but what I’d like to do over the next several days is look a bit more closely at the later parts of Jesus’ genealogy (Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38). In the section between David and Jesus himself there are a number of interesting interpretive issues. For example, Matthew has Zerubbabel as a descendant of Jeconiah and the line of Solomon; Luke has his lineage through Neri and the line of Nathan. Similarly, at the end of the list Joseph’s own father is stated as either Jacob (in Mt) or Heli (in Lk).
I’d also like to dig around a little bit into the importance of genealogies in Judaism generally, especially that of key figures such as priests and members of the “house of David.” I’ll also have a little bit to say about what membership in the Davidic family may have meant in the Second Temple period.
The Importance of a Davidic Pedigree
Genealogy was serious business to the ancient Hebrews. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah there were even certain priests who lost their office because they could not produce proof of their priestly lineage (Ezr 2:61-63; Neh 7:63-65). Long before this, the Promised Land was allotted according to tribes and inheritance demanded knowledge of one’s ancestry. It was generally forbidden for Israelites to marry outside their tribe.
For ordinary Jews, failure to comply with these standards was generally tolerated. There are instances of Jewish intermarriage even with Gentiles recorded in the Bible itself (Acts 16:1). Purity of the priestly lineage was serious business, however. During the reign of the Hasmonean priest-king John Hyrcanus, a certain Pharisee named Eleazar said Hyrcanus should give up the high priesthood because his mother had been captured in war (in accordance with Lev 21:14), thus insinuating that he was illegitimate (see Josephus, War 1:67-68; Ant. 13:288-299; b.Qidd 66a; b. Ber 29a). This obviously infuriated Hyrcanus, who thereafter switched his allegiance from the Pharisees to the Sadducees. It isn’t hard to imagine the same sort of challenge to a claim about Davidic ancestry.
In the Gospels, Jesus never explicitly claims to be a descendant of David, but the Evangelists do. Jesus was hailed as the “son of David” throughout the New Testament, and not just in the genealogies. For example, he was recognized as such in the Song of Zechariah (Lk 1:69), by the blind man of Jericho (Mt 9:27; Mk 10:47), and by the massive crowd who greeted his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21:15; cf. Mt 12:23). Matthew can even place the Davidic claim on the lips of a foreigner (the Canaanite woman, Mt 15:22). Jesus’ Davidic lineage was an integral part of the early apostolic preaching not only in the Synoptic tradition but in Acts (Acts 2:25-30; 13:22-23), Pauline Christianity (Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8), and the book of Revelation (Rev 5:5; 22:16).
Thus, whenever the New Testament writers mention Jesus’ pedigree, they trace it back to David. One can probably make a case that language like “son of David” can be figurative as well as literal, that the important thing (for Jesus’ earliest followers) is that he is the Messiah, and that “son of David” is merely an honorific that comes with the job regardless of what any ancient DNA test might confirm. It is worth nothing, however, that a claim to Davidic pedigree does not seem to have been absolutely necessary in making messianic claims.
Jews in this period were not unanimous in expecting a specifically Davidic Messiah:
- The Dead Sea Scrolls describe two messiahs, both a kingly “Messiah of Israel” and a priestly “Messiah of Aaron,” who seem to reign concurrently (CD 12:12–13:1; 14:18-19; 19:9-11; 1Q28a 2:1-21). The idea of both a kingly and a priestly ruler was not unique to Qumran; is also attested from second-century BC sources such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. The Qumranians, however, seem to have been the first to apply the title “Messiah” to both these figures.
- Many ancient rabbis saw in the biblical figure of Joseph a foreshadowing of the Messiah. In some theories, a “Messiah son of Joseph” would first come as a suffering messiah, and only later “Messiah son of David” would come to reign as king. A marginal reading in the Codex Reuchlinianus Targum of Zechariah 12:10 states: “And I shall cause to rest upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of prophecy and true prayer. And afterward the Messiah son of Ephraim [i.e., Joseph] will go out to do battle with Gog, and Gog will slay him in front of the gate of Jerusalem. And they shall look to me and shall inquire of me why the nations pierced the Messiah son of Ephraim.” (See also b. Sukkah 52a; Rashi commentary in loc.; Ibn Ezra; Abrabanel; Moses Alshekh).
- There was some speculation about whether John the Baptist was making messianic claims about himself (Jn 1:19-24). Given that the only genealogical data we have on John traces his priestly lineage (Lk 1:5), on what basis might such a claim even be taken seriously?
- Many Jews—most notably the highly respected Rabbi Akiba—accepted the messiahship of Simon bar Kosiba in the early second century. It is possible, but not proven, that Simon was recognized as the kingly “Messiah of Israel” and his collaborator Eleazar of Modein as the priestly “Messiah of Aaron” as in the Qumranian scheme. There is no evidence, however, that Simon was or even claimed to be of Davidic lineage.
At any rate, God’s covenant with David and his royal dynasty might be seen as conditional. Note the conditional nature of the promise in Psalm 132:11-12: “If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.” It might well be argued that the kings of the Davidic dynasty failed to keep God’s covenant and decrees (see, for example, 1 Kgs 2:4; 1 Chr 28:5-7, 9; Jer 22:24-30; 36:30; Ezek 21:25-27). In such circumstances, might not God look elsewhere for a viable messianic candidate—either to a secondary Davidic line or outside that line entirely?
Jesus as “Son of David”
Messianic thinking in Second Temple Judaism gave the early followers of Jesus a number of workarounds if there were insufficient evidence of Jesus’ Davidic lineage. They might instead have contended he was the “Messiah of Joseph” or some such, but they didn’t. And apparently nobody in the first several centuries of Christian history ever bothered to dispute Jesus’ messiahship on the grounds of invalid lineage. With so many of his followers claiming Jesus was the son of David, one would think a formal legal refutation of the claim (by the Sanhedrin, or perhaps later by the rabbis of the Tannaitic era) would have been in order. We may assume that, at least when it became clear the early Jesus-movement wasn’t going away, someone would have challenged the Davidic claim just as Eleazar the Pharisee challenged John Hyrcanus. In fact, there is little in the New Testament or the earliest rabbinic writings to suggest that anyone ever demanded documentation of Jesus’ pedigree. The Jewish charges against Jesus were limited to blasphemy and possibly idolatry and/or sorcery (depending on the interpretation of certain passages in the Talmud). The issue of being genealogically disqualified seems never to have come up. (On one occasion Jesus’ opponents possibly make an oblique accusation of illegitimacy [Jn 8:41], but is this disputing a Davidic claim or mere calling Jesus a bastard?)
Of course, it’s possible detractors of the early Jesus-movement knew these workarounds existed and therefore didn’t bother, since even a successful challenge to Jesus’ Davidic ancestry would be only a minor victory. The more leeway one assumes existed with respect to messianic claims in the first century, the less convincing it is to argue that Jesus’ opponents should have challenged his Davidic credentials. Conversely, if such leeway existed, we are forced to ask why Jesus’ followers made Davidic claims on his behalf when they didn’t technically have to.
Next: The House of David
[The following is a gently edited and somewhat embellished rendition of the sermon I gave last night at my church’s Vespers service.]
School is back in session. The public school kids have already started; in another week or two the colleges will begin their fall classes as well. Rebecca is no longer bouncing up and down with anticipation of the start of a new school year. Her parents have started bouncing up and down in anticipation of a child who will once again sleep through the night. Teachers have already begun slumping their shoulders. It’s back to work for them!
We may not all be going back to school, but we’re all learners—because that’s what it means to be a disciple. A disciple is a student, a learner, an apprentice. A disciple is someone in training, and therefore we could all stand to take stock of what it means to learn well.
According to the rabbis,
There are four types among them that sit in the presence of sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sifter. The sponge—which soaks up everything; the funnel—which takes in at this end and lets it out at the other; the strainer—which lets out the wine and collects the lees; the sifter—which extracts the coarsely ground grain and collects the fine flour. (m. Abot 5:15)
We see these different kinds of students all around us.
You might think it’s good to be a sponge who soaks up everything, but think about what your bucket looks like after you’ve been mopping the floor. The water gets filled with dust and grime—and all of that gunk gets soaked up when you dip the mop into it. That’s what the rabbis were describing as “the sponge.”
The sponge lacks discernment. He soaks up everything indiscriminately. Once people came to Jesus and asked him, “What is the greatest commandment?” The sponge doesn’t know how to answer that question. The sponge may not even understand that question! Rather, the sponge collects everything but doesn’t know what to do with it or how to sort it out. You can tell if you’ve got a sponge in your Bible study group: he is the person who cites the marginal notes in his Bible as if they were Scripture. She is the person who doesn’t seem to make a clear distinction between what the Bible says and the various interpretations she has learned.
We see these types of learners in church, but we also see them wherever learning takes place. I’ve recently decided they’re all on display at one school in particular: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizarding, where of course the most famous student of all is the illustrious Harry Potter. (Connie tells me I don’t read enough normal books, so I’ve finally gotten around to reading Harry Potter—and now I’m using it as a sermon illustration. 🙂 )
If there’s a sponge at Hogwarts, it’s Hermione Granger. She is the consummate student who reads all her textbooks before the term even starts and has more book-knowledge than any of her peers. Once she even found a magical way to be in two places at the same time so she could take an even fuller class load! There’s no doubting that Hermione soaks everything in. Unfortunately, it often leaves her frazzled, and her perfectionism can get the best of her.
To be sure, it’s not wrong to be such a wealth of information, but the danger exists that more crucial things get crowded to the corners.
The opposite of the sponge is the funnel. With the funnel, it’s in one ear and out the other. The funnel lacks retention. He’s like the part in Jesus’ parable of the sower where the sower sows some of his seed on the stony ground, but before it can take root the birds come along and snatch it up.
Although Ron Weasley gets an honorable mention, Hogwarts’s consummate funnel is the ever-forgetful Neville Longbottom, who always arrives at school having forgotten to pack something and waiting for it to arrive in the mail from his grandmother. He can’t quite manage to remember the password to get into his dormitory, and he struggles mightily in almost all his classes.
The church’s resident funnels probably show up more faithfully than most, but it doesn’t seem to result in any real transformation of their lives. They’re the people James described in the first chapter of his letter, when he challenges his readers to be doers of the word and not hearers only (Jas 1:22). I like the way the NIV conveys this thought: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” James goes on to describe what a forgetful learner is like:
For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themseves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. (Jas 1:23-24)
We look into a mirror when we’re getting ready for our day in order to make sure everything is in order: our hair is parted evenly, there’s no spinach stuck in our teeth. To look and then fail to act on what we see is the height of forgetfulness. So it is with the word of God.
No matter how many Bible lessons or sermons a funnel hears, it doesn’t seem to matter. They’re like the man who always comes to pray at the altar, crying out “Lord, fill me!” And then somebody who knows him pipes up, “Don’t do it, Lord! He leaks!”
An then there’s the strainer. The strainer lacks perspective. His or her values are inverted in such a way that, no matter how much they learn, it doesn’t quite look like the gospel. They collect the dregs at the bottom of the barrel and let the good wine slip away.
Jesus confronted the mentality of the strainer in Matthew 23 when he railed against the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy:
For you tithe mind, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. (Mt 23:23)
Paul also had his dealings with strainers, and warned them that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17).
At their worst, a strainer begins to look like a Fred Phelps, who will go to the streets with signs explaining precisely who it is that God hates. At their worst, a strainer begins to look like a Draco Malfoy, Hogwarts’s resident bully, who is only interested in learning the magic that will help him further his own selfish ambitions. But strainers do not have to be evil, it’s just that somehow they’ve not managed to let the main things be the main things.
Whenever the grid we use to interpret the Scriptures keeps us from confronting questions like “What would Jesus do?” we slip into strainer territory. Everybody reads the Bible through an interpretive grid—everybody. But we need a grid that confronts us with the gospel, a grid that demands we struggle with what it means to love God with heart, soul, and strength and what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. These are the “weightier matters” that need to be at the hub of our discipleship.
We probably see ourselves in at least one of those three categories. We’ve all been there from time to time, but we also understand that there is a better way. For the rabbis, that was the way of the sifter.
The sifter has what the others lack: discernment, retention, and perspective. At Hogwarts, of course, the sifter is the hero of the stories, Harry Potter himself. If you’re familiar with the books, you know that he learned these skills through a good bit of personal tragedy—but also with the love and support of friends who were loyal to the end. Discipleship is often that way.
But there are other sifters for us to imitate. One is the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 13:52, Jesus says, “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.” Many scholars believe that Matthew saw himself in this saying—that he was just such a “scribe” transformed by Jesus’ message of the kingdom of heaven.
It’s certain that Matthew knew how to sift. He was a great collector and sorter, as can be seen when you compare his presentation of Jesus’ message to that of Mark (and possibly Q, but that’s a different lesson entirely!). Sayings that are spread far and wide in Mark and Luke are conveniently collected into five major discourses in Matthew, as if he sensed the need to arrange his materials in a topical fashion for easy reference. He understood what was important and placed it before the eyes of his readers with clarity.
Matthew fits into the scribal tradition of Judaism which began in Babylonian exile. In those days Israel’s experience was much like that of college freshmen: they were far away from home, and everything they had ever learned growing up was being challenged! In Babylon, the Jews held on to their Scriptures as the only thing they had left. They began to set their biblical traditions in order and raised biblical interpretation to an art form.
It’s clear that Matthew lived within this tradition. It’s why he is so eager to tell us how Jesus is the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy and how he comes not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. At the same time, however, Matthew understood that the old stories of Abraham and Moses and Elijah needed to be read in light of the new thing that Jesus preached: the message of the kingdom of heaven, which makes all things new. Matthew was a scribe who drew out the old treasures of the Torah and the new treasures of the kingdom of heaven and set them both before us.
All students carry backpacks, and disciples of Jesus are no exception. In our mental backpacks we carry around with us all the values, beliefs, stories, and traditions we’ve learned growing up. Then we go off to school, or we get a piece of unsettling news from the doctor, or we lose a relationship we thought we could count on, and something happens to challenge all those things we thought we knew.
There are a few ways we can deal with the stuff in our backpacks in a time of crisis. One thing we can do is empty it out—just chuck everything we used to value in the garbage and replace it with something new. We may even pat ourselves on the back that we’ve “outgrown” such an immature approach to faith.
At the other extreme, when our faith is put to the test, we may decide to hold on tight to our backpacks, keep them zipped tight, and never let anything in or out of them. (I went to seminary with some folks like this who bragged after three years that going to seminary “didn’t change them.” What an amazing waste of time and money!)
But there is another option, and it’s one the sifter has come to master. It is possible to open up our backpacks, spread the contents out, and compare the old treasures with the new learnings that life has handed us. Then we can discard whatever doesn’t fit, and through careful discernment fill our backpacks with the treasures old and new: with values, beliefs, and insights that will stand the test of time.
What kind of learner are you? What kind of learner do you want to be? Through Christ, may we be transformed into wise, diligent, and clear-sighted disciples, trained for the kingdom of heaven.
School is back in session—for all of us.
The Eighth Lesson:
The wise men are led by the star to Jesus.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12)
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Bilingual Bonus: In Greek, the words of the wise men to King Herod can be sung to the tune ADESTE FIDELES if you add an “Amen” or an “Alleluia” at the end:
ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς
βασιλεὺς τῶν ἰουδαίων;
εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα
ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν
προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ. (3x)
poo ehss-teen oh tekh-thees
vah-see-levs tohn yoo-dheh-ohn
ee-dhoh-men gar ahf-too tohn ah-steh-rah
en tee ah-nah-toh-lee keh eel-thoh-men
prohs-kee-nee-seh ahf-toh (3x)
This just in: Michael F. Bird at Euangelion has uncovered amazing evidence that Matthew 1:1-16 is actually a catchy piece of folk music:
Wei Hsien of Torn Notebook notes the presence of women in a biblical genealogy—and it isn’t the one in Matthew. He notes there are actually more women in the genealogy of Jacob’s descendants in Genesis 46:8-27, even some Gentile women. I would also mention that women are found in the genealogy of Esau’s descendants in Genesis 36:9-30.
So, perhaps Matthew’s inclusion of Tamar, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” is not quite so anomalous as it is sometimes presented to be. Why are they there? To point to the idea of Gentile inclusion? To prepare the readers for the “unorthodox” details of Jesus’ birth? Wei Hsien is unconvinced, for good reasons.
Maybe Matthew simply believed that women matter, and that their stories were part of the history Jesus came to redeem.