Friday, June 20, 2008
It isn't fly fishing unless you're looking for the answers to questions. --Norman Maclean --
I appreciate the e-mails I receive when I skip a weekly post for one reason or another. Thank you! I want those who may be interested to know that I will be "looking for the answers to questions" in Colorado and New Mexico until July 1 and, thankfully, will be nowhere near a computer. I look forward to writing a lectionary reflection when I return.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Every year around the middle of May I attend to a stack of books that has been waiting in the wings for all of the papers and tests to be evaluated, all the grades to be recorded, and all the students to be shuttled away from campus for their summer break. At the top of my list this year was a book by an author named Shalom Auslander, entitled Foreskin's Lament. From what I had read and heard of this young man I thought I was going to be in for a treat. Just based on a brief interview and a few short stories, he struck me as a cross between Philip Roth and Woody Allen, two of my favorites. Now, however, after having finished the book, I'm not sure exactly how I feel about it. I laughed, I cried, I nearly renounced my faith.
Auslander recounts his early years growing up as an Orthodox Jew – his struggle to remain kosher, for example, in a world where Slim Jims screamed for his gastronomic attention; the allure of the local mall teeming with teenaged girls and consumer sacraments, forbidden to a faithful Jew on the Sabbath; his obsession with pornography, with the burning in his loins countered by his ritual burnings of Penthouse and Oui magazines. He very adeptly demonstrates just how oppressive and confusing the strict observance of Torah can be for a child who is only given rules and regulations with no coherent explanations as to their meaning or practicability. His home life is a study in dysfunction. Most disturbing perhaps is Auslander's gradual realization that the God he is required to worship looks and acts a lot like his alcoholic father whose Sabbath indulgence in Manischewitz wine usually culminated in the physical and verbal abuse of his two sons. This, Auslander comes to believe, must be how the God above enjoys his Sabbath as well, dreaming up threats and collecting lightning bolts to hurl down on his children for every minor infraction imaginable.
By the end of the book, the author has pretty much abandoned his faith, though he still remains God-haunted. "I believe in God," he says, setting the tone of his memoir in his introduction. "It's been a real problem for me." Elsewhere he establishes his resolute disgust at the kind of God who upbraids a woman for laughing just once, or prevents Moses from entering the Promised Land, or commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son. (Psych!) His personal theology can be summarized – though I will admit to editing his more florid language here – in a few simple words: "The God of my father? That guy's a [jerk]."
I know Shalom Auslander – not personally, of course, but I am familiar with so many young men and women like him who occupy my classrooms on a regular basis. In many ways they are a lot of fun to have around, but they are not ones simply to buy into the familiar affirmations of the church, the explanations that are so eminently reasonable to most of the faithful in the pews. Only occasionally will a professor have the luxury of preaching to the choir, of proclaiming the word to a congregation of believers who affirm wholeheartedly – and often uncritically – that that they have been "reconciled to God through the death of his Son" (Rom. 5:10), or "justified by his blood' (Rom. 5:9). The young men and women of Auslander's generation, for better or for worse, are theologians who are able and willing to do the math. They want to ask all the difficult questions that could so easily be dismissed or shouted down in the religious settings of their childhood. They hunger for the truth. The old trump card of ages past, the threat of eternal damnation in the fires of hell, just doesn't seem to have the umph it used to. These young people know that if their spiritual equations don't balance at the end of the day, there's always the possibility of finding a new faith at the mall just down the street. It's always open, especially on the Sabbath.
Last week I suggested in my essay, "Blood and Money," that the community tradition from which the author of Matthew was drawing tended to see Jesus not so much as the founder of an entirely new religious movement but as a radical reformer working creatively within his Jewish tradition. Indeed, if we read the "M" material in this Gospel we get the distinct impression that in the early years of the church there was at least one community of believers in Palestine and Syria who interpreted Jesus' teachings along the lines of a prophetic tradition that had been developing since at least the seventh century BCE. It is significant that in Matthew's Gospel Jesus insists on a new understanding of God: "Go and learn what this means," he tells a group of Pharisees, "'I require mercy, not sacrifice'" (Matt. 9:13). What I did not make entirely clear in my reflections on this text is something I want to touch on here: we often give Paul credit for the transformational insight that believers are justified not by their works but by faith in Christ. Having acknowledged this, the law becomes the guide by which we perform our sanctifying acts, a way of saying "thank you," as it were, for God's unmerited gift. As Matthew's Jesus sees it, we are called to be merciful, as God is merciful, on account of God's grace. The assumption that our observance of the law will somehow justify us leaves us ultimately to contend with a God whose wrath cannot possibly be appeased. It leaves us, in other words, with a God who is a jerk.
But what I want to know – and the question that many of my brighter students will inevitably raise in class – is why we insist on attributing this insight to Paul? Could this truth – we are justified by God's grace – be what Jesus was trying to get across in his teachings with the scribes and the Pharisees, though in a much less systematic fashion? Wasn't this the perspective that the prophets, and those who were writing in the Wisdom tradition, were arriving at gradually through their experience of God's acts in history, that God was doing a "new thing" (Isa. 47:11)? That God was making a "new covenant" (Jer. 31:31-34)? That the law on Sinai is actually prefaced with an act of God's grace: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt (justification); you shall have no other gods before me (sanctification)"? If we read Jesus carefully, and as a rabbi working within the prophetic tradition of the likes of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, do we really need Paul to expound for us what was already present in the teachings of the Messiah?
The reason I ask this is because the means by which God's grace is effected in the world presents a host of problems for the skeptical students who often sit in the back of my classroom with a thinly veiled smirk on their face. What appears as eminently reasonable to the faithful in the pews – perhaps because it is "folly to the Greeks," or perhaps because they haven't thought much about it – is perceived as little more than outdated, prehistoric, mumbo-jumbo to those among the "Millennial Generation" who see their faith as a consumer choice, to the young man or woman whose final commitment will go to the highest bidder. Under the present circumstances, this means to the tradition that seems most likely to end the violence and disintegration (both social and ecological) that they see happening in every corner of the world, usually in the name of religion.
So, imagine that some of my brightest Shalom Auslanders are sitting in your congregation this Sunday morning, reflecting on what you might have to say about Paul's Epistle to the Romans. This is could be what is going through their minds:
OK, so last Sunday you were telling us that, according to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, God demands mercy and not sacrifice, that God's grace is abundant enough to accept those who not only keep the law but also those who are victimized by it, like the tax collector and the woman with the issue of blood.
Now, this week you’re telling us that, as Paul makes clear, Jesus died for our sins. Back in the eleventh century St. Anselm explained this as a sacrifice that at once appeased God's anger and demonstrated God's mercy. So what happened to "I require mercy, not sacrifice"? If God's grace is so abundant, then why is a death on a cross required? Why do we need to be justified in blood? And what kind of God is going to put his son through an excruciating death on the cross? If we, as sinners, are supposed to forgive our neighbors – not just seven times, but seventy times seven times – then why can't your God do that too? That guy's a jerk.
Oh! And please don’t waste my time with "the divine mystery" of it all. That's a cop out!
And from the woman in the back wearing the "Save Darfur" t-shirt:
Yeah, I'll tell you why this sucks – because if that's how God redeems the whole world, through violence, then that just tells every man, woman, and child out there that good can actually come from evil. If God saves humanity through the heinous death of his very own son on the cross, then we can just as easily justify every religiously sanctioned war, and every other form of abuse, that has been carried out in God's name over the last two millennia. If God can redeem creation through violence, then so can we, the ones who are called to imitate the "goodness" of God in all things. Like father, like sons. Take Iraq – it looks pretty bad now, with innocent people being murdered on a daily basis, but it's all for a greater good. It will all be better in the end, after the dust has settled. Is that what your theology is telling me? If so, then I agree: that God's a jerk.
And from a young man who has never uttered a word in class (or, in this case, in response to a sermon):
You know what? I think Paul got it wrong. I can believe in Jesus' God, the one who is merciful apart from sacrifice and requires the same of us. It doesn't seem like this God would insist on the death of a single human being, let alone his son, to appease his wrath. But Paul's God – the one who demands blood and justice – that just doesn’t cut it. I can't love a God who redeems the world through violence in that way.
Needless to say, this is a group of students familiar with Rene Girard, filtered so elegantly through the insights of Walter Wink in The Powers That Be. Very simply stated, Girard understands Jesus' death on the cross not as a sacrifice to a vengeful God but as an extraordinary means of exposing the fallacy of the myth of redemptive violence – the belief that a scapegoat sacrificed at the hands of "the powers that be" will somehow set the world aright again. For Girard, the ultimate truth revealed in Jesus' murder is that, in the end, violence only perpetuates violence, and usually the first to feel its cruel sting are its most innocent victims. This new perspective, and not the tradition of substitutionary atonement that has soothed the souls of the masses for over nine centuries, is what seems to appeal most to the brightest and best these days who are reading the Bible and Christian theology through twenty-first-century eyes. These are the young men and women who will be occupying the pews of our churches in the years ahead… if we are lucky.
I guess the easy way out of this predicament is to blame me: "Damn you, Deffenbaugh! Why are you teaching Girard and Wink in the first place?" To this I can only offer a simple response: I teach these authors because their words are like an invigorating breath filling the empty spaces of so many lifeless bodies in my classroom, especially the ones who can recite the old mantra about being justified by Jesus' blood. To those whose earliest childhood memories include the infernal destruction of the World Trade Centers at the hands of religious fanatics, and the equally zealous response fueled by the religious rhetoric of the White House, exposing the myth of redemptive violence – founded on the assumption of a God who can spin gold out of the straw of a crucified Son – offers new hope to a generation whose search for truth is perhaps more earnest than any in the last one hundred years.
The easy answers and quick doctrinal responses of ages past do not appease these men and women – this is painfully evident as their numbers in our congregations dwindle year after year. Some observers choose to be glib in the face of the decline, suggesting that this age group has always been a hard sell for the church and that we shouldn't waste too much energy on the problem. Others, however – and I would include myself here – are sensing something unique in this emerging cohort of young people: a willingness – indeed, a preference – for not wasting time on traditions that are perceived as ineffectual and destructive. To many of them, a God who requires the excruciating death of a son in order to redeem an ungodly world sounds pretty ungodly himself. They yearn for something new, something real, for the faith of their founders is in fact foundering.
And this brings us to perhaps the most pressing questions to be addressed by those who are witnessing the advent of a new way of being church in the twenty-first century. What response will we have for the Shalom Auslanders who can't find the rhythm or feel the beat in the tried and true atonement hymns of our past? How much of the established, orthodox tradition will we be willing faithfully to reconstruct in order to meet the spiritual needs of this emerging group of seekers? And finally, will we listen when we eventually hear proclaimed the principal creed of a new generation? "The God of my father – yeah, that guy's a jerk."
Monday, June 2, 2008
Matthew 9:9-13; 18-26
Matthew: A Teacher's Perspective
One of the great joys of having taught an introductory course in the New Testament at least once a year for the last decade has been the opportunity to read these texts from varying perspectives, depending on my personal faith journey at the time, and on the unique questions that each group of students brings to the scriptures. I know it sounds cliché, but no two classes are ever alike – not even close. This past semester, for example, I was in constant dialogue with one student about the so-called Two-Source Hypothesis, a scholarly proposal on how the Gospels were originally composed. His problem with the theory – and it is a perspective that is shared by some literary critics, including my friend and mentor, David L. Dungan – is that if Mark were actually written first, then why did the early founders of the church choose to place it after Matthew when esablishing the canon? The point I tried to make – and I'm not sure if I was entirely successful – is that there is a difference between chronological and theological priority. Though Mark may have been written first (assuming that we can leave the Griesbach theory aside for the time being), Matthew nevertheless forms an important theological bridge between the Hebrew Bible and the books of the New Testament. It is profoundly Jewish in its outlook on the person and work of Jesus as Messiah, and as such offers us valuable insights into the way that Jesus was understood among many first-century Jewish Christians in the regions of Palestine and Syria. These were perhaps the earliest followers of the Nazarene.
When I discuss the Synoptic Gospels in the classroom, I try to make a point of isolating strands of literature in each text so that students can get a better sense of the community concerns of those who had a hand in producing the documents. We look first at the Markan core, then at "Q" (the so-called "sayings source"), and then at those unique portions of Matthew and Luke that give us special insights into the kinds of questions that were being asked among those responsible for these traditions ("M" and "L," respectively). This is literature that appears in no other text, so its inclusion can tell us much about the author and his audience. The birth story in Luke, for example, is entirely unique to this Gospel and helps us to know what features of Jesus' early life were considered essential to include in the "L" community's narrative. Matthew's birth story, by contrast, reflective of the "M" tradition, records events that seem incongruous with those found in Luke. Whereas one features angels and animals, the other offers a tale of Magi and a mysterious star. During Advent, we tend to throw these two traditions together in a single holiday pageant and thereby render many of our children incapable of ever relearning the stories as they were originally written. The "L" community wanted to convey something specific about a savior who was born among the Am ha Aretz, "the people of the land." Similarly, the "M" source had specific reasons for presenting Jesus as a Messiah to whom wise men felt compelled to come. Here was one like Moses who fulfilled all that the law and the prophets had spoken.
Looking more closely at the "M" material we can see very clearly that the community responsible for this tradition would have had grave misgivings about Paul's perspective on the limited role of the law in the lives of those who professed Jesus as Lord. In contrast to Luke, there is little in this text to suggest that Jesus' mission was conceived as universal and inclusive of the Gentiles. Indeed, Jesus offers a strict prohibition against spreading the good news outside the fold of the Hebrew faithful: "Do not go on a road to Gentiles and do not enter a city of Samaritans. Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…" (10:5-6). In "M," Jesus often has harsh words for the other nations, referring to their moral laxity as something to be avoided by the children of Abraham and Moses: "And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (5:47).
The "M" community had no reason to question their continued observance of such Jewish rites as sacrificing in the Temple (5:23-24), or to desist in their practices of alms-giving, prayer, and fasting (6:1-18). Central to their understanding of the Messiah – not as a religious revolutionary who came to start an entirely new movement, but as a radical who wanted to return to the roots of the tradition – are Jesus' familiar, though often misunderstood, words of hope: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (5:17). And fulfilling the law and the prophets – for the "M" community, at least, and thus for those whose perspective gives Matthew its distinctive flavor – can best be summarized by a reference that Jesus makes more than once in this Gospel: "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'" (9:13; 12:7; cf. Hosea 6:6).
As we turn to consider this Gospel in our reflections over the next several weeks, it will be important to remember a few key insights about what the Matthean community intended in their profession of Jesus as the Christ. Here was a rabbi whose interpretation of the law and the prophets offered a fresh perspective on the nature of the God of Israel. Here was a teacher who knew that the heart of the Torah was the spirit of love in which it was meant to be practiced – not as sacrifice, not as a begrudging relinquishment of one's will to the letter of the law, but as a grace-filled initiative that allows one to carry out what would otherwise be next to impossible. Do unto others, Jesus says. Love those who are all but unlovable. While some religious authorities may have been content simply to live passively through so many "thou shalt nots," Jesus fulfills the true meaning of the law and the prophets by demonstrating in his life and teachings that we must not shrink away from the oftentimes disagreeable "thou shalts." It's about trusting God's grace to help us touch the untouchables and thus achieve a perfection that exceeds even that of the scribes and the Pharisees (5:20). In short, it’s about mercy and not sacrifice.
And one last point not to be overlooked, for it is directly related to this last statement: Matthew's is the only Gospel in which the believing community is referred to specifically as "church" (ekklesia), those who are "called out," set aside for demonstrating in their words and deeds the fact that, as Isaiah prophesied (43:19), and as Jesus made abundantly clear, God is doing "a new thing."
Blood and Money
One of the advantages of approaching the law passively, as some authorities in Jesus' day chose to do, is the justification that this can easily provide for avoiding some of life's seedier elements. A good Jew was to remain pure, after all, lest God be dishonored in God's Temple. In our text for this week, a very important teaching opportunity for Matthew's Judaic-Christian community accompanies the introduction of two less-than-desirable characters – a tax collector and a woman whose illness rendered her ritually unclean. Both were outcasts, "things" to be avoided by those whose emphasis on the sacrifice of one's will to the law had the added advantage of mitigating their falsely pious detachment from the world. The status of each could not have been lower: one on account of her "issue of blood," the other on account of his association with money. Blood and money – it doesn't get any dirtier than this. Both, therefore, offered the perfect occasion for Jesus to demonstrate the extent of God's grace and mercy, and, by contrast, to reveal the constricting reality that accompanies the mechanical observance of every jot and tittle of the law.
The summons of Matthew was no doubt important to those for whom this text was written because it ostensibly offers a first-hand account of the "calling out" of the one who founded their community. Ironically, though, this pericope is not as elaborate as other versions of the story – for example, whereas Mark tells us that it is in fact Matthew's house where the subsequent meal takes place, Matthew chooses to exclude this intriguing detail from his narrative. The emphasis, it seems, is less on the context than on Jesus' teaching. There is no need to be distracted by particulars. And the essence of the teaching is this: God's mercy, God's grace, is so amazing that it could actually "save a wretch like me."
Tax collectors, as is well-known, were perhaps the most reviled public servants among the Jews of Jesus' day. They had so obviously sold out to the powers-that-be. First, when they weren't serving their own interests by lining their pockets through extortion or deception, they were serving the ambitions of the empire, exacting exorbitant taxes on poor peasants who often had to sell a child or even themselves into servitude in order to cover their debt. Second, the lives of these men revolved entirely around their involvement with Roman currency – that is, coins featuring the image of Caesar, a clear violation of the second, if not the first, commandment. So for Matthew to drop everything at Jesus' insistence meant a complete metanoia on this sinner's part. This was more than a lifestyle change – it was a total change of heart. The one who had been so devoted to the self-seeking values of empire now became a selfless servant of the Kingdom. Similarly, for Jesus to sit down at table with one whose erstwhile exclusion from the Jewish community had been so complete required a comparable metanoia with respect to "the way things are." Inclusiveness required a conversion away from accepted values and attitudes, which is always a hard sell. But Jesus' response to the nay-sayers was torn from the very pages of tradition: "Go and learn what this means, 'I require mercy, not sacrifice'" (9:13).
The more intriguing of these two outcasts, however, is the one whose unfortunate station in life offered her little in the way of confidence for approaching Jesus with her plea for mercy. Because of her physical condition, this woman should not even have been in the company of Jews, let alone a rabbi like Jesus. Her presence in the crowd was in fact a strict violation of the Levitical Code in which a woman experiencing a "discharge of blood" was to be excluded from the community for a time, until she could be purified. The problem here, however, was that the one coming to Jesus had been in a state of defilement, and thus excommunication, for over twelve years. Imagine the devastating blow to her self-esteem, to her very identity, when the strict letter of the law condemned her to a life of loneliness and poverty. She was destined to be a pariah:
Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening, whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening (Lev. 15:20-23).
Pretty unrelenting stuff, especially if you've been persecuted by it for over a decade. Her sacrifice – of family, of community, of worship, of identity, of everything – left her nothing to hope for in the way of mercy. If only the law could be read, could be experienced, from her vantage point, from the victim's perspective.
It is here, I think, that it becomes so important to acknowledge the specific concerns of the Judaic-Christian community to which the Matthean text was written. Whereas Mark and Luke record this story with little variance in detail, Matthew wants to make it clear that the garment worn by Jesus – the object of this woman's hopeful attention – is distinctively Jewish, and that it sets Jesus apart not so much as a radical teacher, but as an observant rabbi. In first-century Palestine, it was a custom for most Jewish men to wear fringe on each corner of their garment, in accordance with the prescription found in Numbers 15:
And the Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments, and to put a blue chord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own hearts and your own eyes (Numbers 15:37-39; cf. Deut. 22:12).
Matthew is very explicit here in his use of the phrase "the fringe of his garment" (tou kraspedou tou himatiou), implying to those who heard this story in context that what this woman was reaching for, and what she ultimately grasped, was in fact a symbolic reminder of the very law that had in its application abused and excluded her for the last twelve years. Despite being reviled by members of her own religious community, however, she still held out hope that God would do "a new thing," and it was to this bold teacher that her expectations were now directed. She chose not to look outside her tradition for the comfort she so needed, but to remain committed to the covenant that God had made with her ancestors so many generations ago, and it was Jesus who offered her the hope of new possibilities. She was reaching for a new understanding of the law, and Jesus' response to this extraordinary act of courage – "Take heart, sister, your faith has made you well" – invites us to ponder two important questions.
First, though we might simply assume that the object of this woman's faith is Jesus himself, we cannot satisfactorily conclude this from the text. While it seems obvious that the words and deeds of this radical rabbi are what attract her, we might also consider whether it is the manner in which Jesus clothes himself, as it were, that offers this woman a different kind of hope. Perhaps what drew her was a novel interpretation of the covenant that she had always known intuitively as sound, given her peculiar insight into the nature of God's grace and her experience as a victim of those who had forsaken the law to follow "the lust (and fears) of their own hearts and their own eyes." Jesus' proclamation of God's mercy over sacrifice was indeed a covenant that she could hold on to, a law that could make her well, and she sacrificed all she had to make it her own.
But what is the nature of this wholeness? This is the second question the text raises for us. Are we to assume that the healing that takes place in this instance is in fact a restoration of a woman's physical health, that the "issue of blood" suddenly ceased so that she could enjoy a renewed vitality in her body, or is there more to it than this? In our individualistic society, we have a tendency to look upon this incident as simply one woman's good fortune that well-being and wholeness were granted to her once again, and we may wax Pauline by reflecting on the importance of her personal faith in the face of enormous uncertainty and hardship. But in doing so we run the risk of obscuring perhaps a more important insight offered in this narrative. It is not entirely clear if the "issue of blood" stopped flowing after her encounter with Jesus – the text is actually silent on this score. What is evident, however, is that this woman was made well, was able to enjoy a new sense of wholeness, by the very fact of Jesus' affirmation of her person as worthy of God's covenant community. She was, in effect, reintegrated into the body of believers, renewed in her identity by her inclusion once again in the fold, cleansed by a new ritual of grace, and all on account of Jesus' "radically new" approach to the law: God desires mercy. While her faith and hope had kept her alive for twelve years, it was God's love – communicated in the words and deeds of the Messiah and perpetuated by the body of believers who had been "called out" for such a task – that made her whole.
"I have come not to abolish [the law]," Jesus said, "but to fulfill [it]." These were the words of hope that energized the Matthean community, who probably had little use for what seemed like the pure antinomianism of the Apostle (if you could truly call him that!): "where there is no law, neither is there violation" (Rom. 4:15). My Reformed heritage has taught me to trust the insights of Paul, that grace abounds on account of the atoning death of Christ on the cross (accomplished, incidentally, by the shedding of blood and the acquisition of a few pieces of silver, a perennial theme). By the end of the first century, the legalistic attitudes of a few religious authorities came to represent the perspective of an entire nation – "the Jews," as John refers to them – and the split between two faith traditions was complete. But the Gospel of Matthew offers us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Jewish heritage of the one whom we profess as Messiah, and in so doing reflect on what was lost in the break from the children of Israel so many years ago. While Jesus came to fulfill the law, the effect of Paul's teaching – and I know this approaches heresy – has been nearly to abolish it, or at best to relegate it to second-class status. And this leaves us with a troubling question: in our pursuit of the Apostle's rather systematic understanding of grace, have we lost sight of the Messiah's more human message of mercy?