Not Native—A Meditation on Matthew 1:1-17

This week, I was thinking about how the book of Matthew starts, and meditating on what it means for me and my neighbors to read that text. I’ve talked and written about the passage before, but it became clear to me that I’ve often glossed over what may be the most significant feature of the text for me, and for many readers like me, a feature which seriously affects our experience of reading the text: the names are weird.

Of course, “weird” isn’t an objective term, but names something important, even if subjective, that we experience in reading the Bible, particularly in texts like the genealogies. These texts are just chock full of names that are weird to me, that would be weird in our culture. By my count, of the 48 names in the genealogy, only about 10, a fifth, are regularly used by people in our culture. For every Jacob in the list that sounds familiar, there is a Zadok, a Jotham, an Abiud, a Nashon, and a Salathiel. My wife are in the process of picking baby names, and there is no way on God’s green earth she would let me use about eighty percent of these.

The fact of this unfamiliarity becomes abundantly clear in any type of group reading setting. Almost any reader will struggle through pronouncing all the names on the list, which makes sense given that nobody in our churches knows anybody named Jeconiah or Zerubbabel.

So what does that unfamiliarity do to us? I think it reinforces to us that we are non-natives when it comes to the world of the Bible. Even those of us who grew up hearing the names in Sunday School have to admit that for all our time as visitors to the Bible, or even as immigrants who have lived in its world, we are still a bit out of our own water.

It strikes me that this has long been true of Christian readers of the Bible, at least since Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert. After all, I suppose many of these Semitic names would have sounded strange to the Gentile Christians of Rome, Ephesus, and Athens, just as they do to me. Even in those cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean world, the gospel message was cross-cultural, wrapped in strange and foreign garb. Quickly translated into greek, these Hebrew names signaled to our early brothers and sisters that they were joining a story that arose in another people, with another language and another culture. And yet, somehow, they found a home in that foreign text. They willingly immigrated to the narrative world of the Bible, learned to speak its language of faith, and made some version of it their own.

Even though we often ignore it, it’s a good thing to be reminded of the foreign weirdness of the scriptures from time to time. First, it reminds us that we have some translation work to do if the gospel is going to be intelligible to our neighbors—they may not be as used to moving through the Biblical weirdness as we are, glossing over the odd names and applying the bits and pieces of cultural information we’ve picked up along the way.

Second, it keeps us from pretending that we own the book. We take a little too much ownership of the Bible sometimes; it can be our way of domesticating it, pretending that we are fully aligned with it. In reality, we are always learning what it means to live in its world. Hearing and recognizing the weirdness of the names may also prepare me to read with humility and a little healthy caution about my ability to easily and naturally understand what is happening in these texts that come to me from another culture.

Finally, recognizing the foreign character of the scriptures prepares me to have a more cosmopolitan faith, one that can be conversant with other cultures besides my own. Recognizing that my faith is really an ancient Hebrew-Greek faith spoken in a Southern American accent prepares me to hear that faith spoken in other accents as well. The faith of the Bible is not an American faith, at least not in origin. So, when I hear other accents struggling to pronounce the genealogies, I can lay down any presupposition of superiority, knowing that I too had to learn how to say names like Hezron and Abijah, and that I too am a non-native to the language and faith of the Bible.

I have much to learn.

The Strange and Formative Word

The Bible is a strange book.

Written over hundreds of years by a collection of named and anonymous authors, it spans genres and themes as diverse as power and money, family and sexuality. It alternates between genealogical lists and colorful histories, ritual law and love poetry, all managing to say something important about what it means to be human, the nature of the world, and God.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how the Bible is both a product and a means of God’s mission in the world. It is a witness to the things God has done in the past to shape and recreate people, and it is itself a part of the process of shaping those who read and receive it.

For instance, take the story of Nathan confronting King David (1 Samuel 12). It’s both a witness of how God was confronting and shaping David to be the king he was supposed to be. But at the same time, as we read the story and allow ourselves to live in it, the story shapes us as well, challenging us to think about how we use power, or our own tendency to cover up our sin with even more sin.

As we read stories like that, or meditate on the poetry of the prophets, or read along with the first century churches in their letters from Paul, we’re pulled into the story of God through time, and are shaped to be more like God, and less like the world.  We become gracious where the world is judgmental. We become joyful where the world is bitter, and mourn in the places where the world wants to celebrate. We become peaceful in the middle of a world at war, or we become generous in a world of selfishness.

The Bible is a strange book.

But, that’s okay.  We’re a strange people.

By God’s grace, and through God’s word, we’re becoming stranger every day.

Are You the One?—A Sermon from Matthew 11

We humans invest. We invest our time, energy, and money in projects, people, and plans for profit. We’re looking to get all kinds of things back from those investments, but most of us end up making a mix of good and bad investments along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how they’re going to turn out.

Lots of people invested in Jesus while he was on earth. For some of them, it was the investment of time in trying to go hear him, or just see him pass by—Zaccheus started out like that, even though he ended up much more heavily invested by the time the story was over. Some were invested in things Jesus was opposing—the religious and political elites of Jerusalem were heavily invested in the temple, and no doubt felt that investment was threatened by the way Jesus talked about the temple and acted when he came to visit it. Others were invested in different ways: Peter talked about having left everything behind to follow Jesus, and one time Jesus told him he was going to end up with a pretty good return on that investment.

But I don’t know if anybody was more invested in Jesus than John the Baptist. It seems like John could have had pretty good life following the priestly calling that he was in line for. But instead he spent most of his life in the wilderness—Luke tells us that he was living there even before he started preaching (1:80), and if anything the Bible says about John is to be believed, it was anything but a plush, cushy lifestyle. Jesus says as much here in Matthew 11—John lived the prophet’s lifestyle in the desert, far from the fine robes people would have found if they had gone looking in the palaces. He was out in the wilderness, living a life of denial, decked out in rough looking clothes, eating locusts and wild honey, and all of it was investment in the kingdom of God.

Continue reading “Are You the One?—A Sermon from Matthew 11”

The Sending—A Sermon from Matthew 10

As we’ve been walking through Matthew’s story, we’ve walked with Jesus through several episodes that reveal his authority. Jesus teaches with authority and orders around demons with authority. He claims the authority to forgive sins, and  points his finger at the sky and demands that the storm obey him. The people in the story who get it are the ones who understand his authority, and either come to him humbly, needing his authoritative action, or who obey his call to follow. The ones who get it are the lepers and tax collectors, the blind and the lame.  They are the ones who, apparently conscious of their own brokenness, recognize the authority of Jesus to do something about it. We’ve been seeing the story through their eyes, and our attention and focus have been centered on Jesus.

And then, here in chapter ten, there is a startling turning point in the gospel. Like a skilled filmmaker who suddenly changes the focus of a lens, bringing what was blurred in the background of the shot into clear focus, Matthew reveals that he is not simply telling the story about Jesus, but about his disciples. They’ve been there the whole time—following Jesus from synagogue to synagogue, town to town, house to house. They’ve been watching him teach, hearing him proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and then they’ve watched him act out that sermon by healing the sick, casting out demons, and offering forgiveness. They’ve been here the whole time, but always in the background. But now, Matthew twists the lens, and they suddenly jump from the background to the front of the story.

Continue reading “The Sending—A Sermon from Matthew 10”

Kingdom Come: A Sermon about Matthew's Genealogy

He was the “Son of God”, the “bringer of Good News”, the Lord, the Savior, the one who would restore order and justice to the earth—at least that was Rome’s official story about Caesar.  History also seems to look favorably on the Pax Romana, and in many ways, that version of reality isn’t that far off. The Roman Empire brought relative peace, wealth, and stability to many in the mediterranean world.

However, there was another side to life in Caesar’s world. Beneath the heel of the empire were whole peoples, exploited for the empire’s sake, hopeless to fight back against the efficient military machine of Rome’s storied army. In Palestine, a particularly dark cloud hung over the recipients of Caesar’s “good news”. The Jewish people living in Judea and Galilee lived in a world in which power was king—and they had none of it. They had always been a proud people, and once a powerful nation, but now lived under another flag. Over and over again they rose up to resist the Empire, trying to beat the empire at its own game by asserting their own power—and they failed miserably. Rome brutally asserted its power over what was, to them, a strategic territory filled with a stubborn, irritating, and irrational people. Religious leaders based in the temple used divine distinction to stoke the fires of resentment that justified bouts of armed revolution. Many a would-be leader rose to fame by resisting the Romans, claiming divine consent for their revolutionary attempts to throw the pagans out. Certainly not everyone joined in the violence, but everyone felt the force of Rome’s response to it. To some it was an empire of peace, but to others, it was an empire of violence.

Also, while it was an empire of wealth, it was also an empire of poverty, built on the backs of slaves and enslaved nations. Wealth drifted upward, and the few who controlled land or other means increased their assets while the poor became poorer with each generation. Some of the most recent historical work is trying to move beyond simple binary descriptions as elite/nonelite or haves/have-nots, but even still, the best estimate show that between 75-97 percent of the population in the roman world lived in poverty, if that is defined by living at or near subsistence level.

Beyond that violence and turbulence, the economic conditions were tough as well. Under  the empire and its elite accomplices, a small minority controlled land, food, and wealth. Although historians are working to get beyond simple distinctions like elite/poor, the best estimates now are that somewhere between 75% to 97% of the population across the empire lived in poverty—meaning at or below subsistence levels, with very few resources. Palestine, having been rocked by violence and dependent on agriculture, was worse off than most areas.  For many of the Jews of Palestine, life under the Roman empire was anything but a life of wealth—it was a life of poverty.

As far as stability goes, Rome knew that it needed local leaders who sought to keep the people in check, and found more than enough who were willing to become accomplices to the empire’s power in exchange for a few of the empire’s coins. These imperial elite played a dangerous game, negotiating the terms of the relationship between the people and the empire. When the people were pushed too far, revolution erupted. When the empire’s power was too openly challenged, the military convincingly crushed the opposition. The imperial elites danced between these two, trying to keep both parties reasonably content in the effort to maintain their own power, and often failing. Thus the people of Judea and Galilee faced a cycle of would-be revolution, followed by crackdowns, growing dissatisfaction, and new uprisings.

Caesar promised a world of peace, wealth, and stability. For many of the people living in Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee in the first century, the reality was a life of violence, poverty, and turbulence. Is it any wonder that many of the people were anxious for a change? Caesar’s world was a world where power stood in the place of justice, where influence held more sway than righteousness, and where rich and the poor were nearly destined to become richer and poorer. Depending on who you were, you either hoped it would go on forever, or hoped and prayed that God would intervene, and remake the world into something else.

The book of Matthew grows out of the latter perspective, and is thoroughly subversive to the empire. It begins with the assumption that this is not Caesar’s world. It is God’s world, and God has been active in it a lot longer than Caesar could imagine. The book’s opening line, “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ” calls us back to Genesis, to the story of God creating the world and of God’s relationships and promises to the patriarchs. It points toward the language Genesis uses to introduce its own narrative (“The book of the generations of the heavens and the earth” Gen 2:4), and to move to new phases of the story. (5:1, 10:1, etc.). Matthew uses it here to let the reader know that he is about to tell about a new phase in that same story. He does all this because he wants us to know, from the very beginning, that this is not a narrative set in Caesar’s world—it is God’s world, and Caesar is just living in it. Beyond that, the genealogy is a substitute for a formula such as “in the days of Caesar Augustus…”, and gives the story of Jesus it’s primary context, which is not in the history of the Roman empire, but in the narrative of God’s covenant people. He is the son of Abraham and the son of David, being born in this moment of the story of God’s people.

Matthew marks the significance of the moment by structuring his genealogical list into three periods. There is the period from Abraham to David, one from David to the Exile, and from the exile to the moment of Jesus. Abraham, David, the Exile, represent critical moments in the story, and by noting the time, Matthew is underlining the importance of Jesus. Matthew 1:17 points out the symmetry of this for the reader, “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” The only problem is, Matthew’s math is wrong. 

Most of the time, we don’t notice stuff like this because we read the Bible too quickly, but if you count up the named generations Matthew lists, the numbers should be fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that’s a mistake—ancient authors loved to play with numbers in settings like this, and I feel certain that Matthew is doing this on purpose, somewhat playfully. I think he is setting us up to look at the story and ask, “Who comes after Jesus?” It’s a great way to open his book, because the rest of the gospel really teases out this question, as Jesus recruits disciples, teaches them about a new way of life, and then eventually charges them to do the exact same thing, replicating their experience of discipleship throughout the world. The genealogy is therefore connected with the rest of Matthew’s story, right up to the end, where Jesus gives the great commission, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew’s gospel, from the genealogy to the commission, points to the question, “Who comes after Jesus?” and, I think, to an answer.

The answer is “us.” We are the descendants of Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus’s work is producing a sustained community that lives consciously under the reign of God—a community of which we are now a part. In our living as disciples of Jesus we find ourselves in Jesus’s story, and the mission of his life become our mission. We continue his story. We are the fourteenth generation.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Some folks worry about who their ancestors were. I am more concerned with who my descendants will be.” Matthew’s story shares that concern, and even the genealogy, which seems to look back, looks forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’s mission. As we take our part in that mission, may we look forward to its fulfillment as well, and trust that to that end  we will be used by God, for God’s own glory.  Amen.

The Story (As Told by Steven, at This Moment, in This Place)

I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about the nature of scripture, and particularly the grand narrative of the biblical text. There are a lot of synopses of the story,  but I’ve been tinkering with my own, a task that might not be a bad idea for most believers to work on every now and then. Recognizing that such a synopsis necessarily leaves things out and focuses on some elements at the expense of others, I’d love a little feedback on where I’m at with this version. I mean “Version” pretty intentionally, recognizing that it reads a little differently than it would have a year ago, or likely will a year from now. What’s here is a reflection of the story I see myself in right now. What do you see as missing or distorted here?

The world and humanity were created by God, but became estranged from God because of human sin, and thus the world became broken. As a result, God set about revealing Himself to Abraham and his descendants, forming them into a people whose destiny was the blessing of the world—God would reconcile himself to humanity through Israel, and thereby heal what was broken.

Although it appeared God’s plan would at times be thwarted by Israel’s unfaithfulness and resulting exile, God continued to pursue his plan through Israel, and eventually was victorious in creating the possibility of true reconciliation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. After his resurrection, God began using Jesus’s followers to proclaim the message of his reign, and to exemplify that reign within a new form of human community which we know as church. The church carries out that mission today, while trusting the promise that at some point God will assert his ruling authority over the whole earth, and thus bring the world back into its proper state. At that time there will be a resurrection of those faithful to Jesus, what was broken will be made right, and God’s reign will be fully realized.

I’d love to hear your feedback on this!