The title of my blog comes from one of my favorite hymns, Charles Wesley's "Love divine, all loves excelling." The last verse of the hymn concludes with these words, "Changed from glory into glory, 'til in heaven we take our place, 'til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise." My blog contains occasional reflections on life, the process of being changed from glory into glory.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
every way imaginable. And,
was spared, but only
temporarily. In the
end, the civic and
religious authorities managed to kill
all the innocent children
It just took them thirty
or so years to
finish the job.
Interviewer: But was the
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.
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?”
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
Interviewer: Even the
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.