Sunday, January 05, 2014

An Interview with Matthew: the Dark Side of Christmas

The Epiphany Window in St. Simon's Chapel
Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Christmas, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York.  We read all of chapter 2 of Matthew's Gospel.

Interviewer:    We are blessed this morning with a special guest, St. Matthew the Apostle, author of the Gospel according to Matthew.  He’s agreed to answer some questions about the story he tells about the birth of Jesus.

                        Matthew, could you tell us how you came to write your Gospel?

Matthew:       Certainly.  As you know, those of us who followed the way of Jesus in the early days were all Jews.  We had no thoughts that we were establishing a new religion, just following a different path within the religion of our ancestors.

                        Actually all Jews were in the same boat at that time.  Our world had been shattered.  After decades of trying to get along with our first Greek and then Roman overlords, they finally turned against us and destroyed our Temple and the city of Jerusalem.  It was like our heart had been cut out.

                        It was chaos, but there gradually emerged three possibilities for the Jewish people to move forward.  There were some people who really thought the world was coming to an end and that a Messiah would soon come.  I had some sympathy with these folks, but I was sure the Messiah had already come, just not the kind of Messiah they were expecting.

                        Another response was to stick with what we had left.  The Temple was no more and the land God had given us was under our control.  We were increasingly scattered.  All that we had left, at least in this way of thinking, was the Torah, so the teaching and study of Torah was to become our new Temple, and rabbis, teachers, our new priests.

                        But the followers of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth knew there was yet another way.  Yes, something, had to replace the Temple, but I believed with every fiber of my being that new center was Jesus himself.  So I wrote the story of Jesus to make that claim and to show how Judaism would survive by following him.

Interviewer:    Is that why you frequently mention how Jesus was fulfilling Scripture?

Matthew:       Exactly.  But it was not easy.  Tensions were high.  Hostility developed.  I was convinced it was time for Jews to make a definitive choice.  I will admit I was also angry at the treatment of my community by the rabbis and others of their party and, of course, that anger came out in my story.

Interviewer:    Which brings us to your telling the story of Jesus’ birth.  To be perfectly honest, I find it rather dark and even violent.

Matthew:       It was a dark and violent world.  I felt I had to be honest about that.

Interviewer:    You certainly were.  Your story starts in an exotic way with those strangers from the east, but something is not quite right about that visit, especially since it includes an evil tyrant and then moves on to murdered children, and a Messiah who lives in exile.

Matthew:       As I said, that was our world.

Interviewer:    Let me ask you about some details of the story.  What is that you were trying to say with that visit of…well, who were those people?

Matthew:       They were astrologers, pagans.  They were certainly not kings, by the way.  I think I was able to make a couple important points with them.  First of all, it was backhanded criticism of the Jews who rejected Jesus.  I wanted to show that even pagans were attracted to this man, even if not for all the right reasons.  I also wanted to show that we did not need Jerusalem and the Temple any longer.  Jesus was the new center, the point from which the light now came.  In Jerusalem there was only fear and death.
Interviewer:    I must say that the murder of all those children is deeply disturbing.

Matthew:       Good, I meant it to be.

Interviewer:    But doesn’t it send all the wrong messages about God?  People have never stopped asking how God could have let that happen.  He spared his Son and let all those children die.

Matthew:       God did not kill those children, Herod did.  God gives us the
The Lament of Rachel
freedom to reject him 
and his ways and Herod did that in
 about every way imaginable.  And, 
yes, Jesus was spared, but only 
temporarily.  In the end, the civic and 
religious authorities managed to kill 
all the innocent children of Bethlehem.
It just took them thirty or so years to 
finish the job.

Interviewer:    But was the death of 
innocent children really necessary to make your point?  What was the point of it anyway?

Matthew:       The murder of people—including children—for no other reason than paranoia and the thirst for absolute power is about as evil as humankind gets.  If Jesus is going to save us, he has to save us from that, as well as all our petty little sins.

                        I do sometimes regret telling the story, because few people have seemed to learn anything from it.  It’s been almost 2,000 years since I wrote my Gospel and I am not sure there has ever been a year in all that time when an evil tyrant did not kill innocent children, and sometimes it was not even an evil tyrant.  Sometimes it has been done by people who were sure they were doing the right thing.  I believe you call it “collateral damage.”  The greatest obscenity is that people have frequently done this in Jesus’ name.

Interviewer:    Many people don’t know this story. We try not to read it in church, especially on a Sunday.  Who wants to hear that?

Matthew:       I believe you have another saying:  “How’s that working for you?”

Interviewer:    Point taken.  One last question.  Does your birth story have anything really to do with the rest of your story?  Couldn’t we have lived without it?

Matthew:       Frankly I don’t know if you could have lived without it and I don’t much care.  It has everything to do with the rest of the story.  If you read it carefully it is the rest of the story in miniature.  It foreshadows everything.

Interviewer:    Even the resurrection.

Matthew:       Absolutely.  The child comes out of Egypt.

Interviewer:    But he does not get to go home.  In a sense he and his family go into perpetual exile in Galilee.

Matthew:       But that is where we are asked to live the resurrection life—not in the comfort and safety of home, but in a world where we often feel like strangers, or at least strange.  Jesus was once said that we should call no man on earth father or rabbi.  I wish he had said that we also should call no place home, for we have one home, with him, wherever he and his people are.

                        Like those astrologers, we are always being asked to pay attention to the powers and principalities of this world, and be ready to take a different road.

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